"Tell Rabb and Mackenzie that I want to see them in my office, Coates," General Gordon Cresswell barked as he entered his office after a meeting with the SecNav. "Now," he added.
"Yes, sir," Petty Officer Jen Coates said, barely waiting for the door to close behind her new CO before moving out of her own office. Since she was still getting used to the General, she didn't want to make him wait any longer than she had to.
As she entered the bullpen, Jen saw Cmdr. Rabb entering Col. Mackenzie's office. Realizing that it would make her job easier, Jen approached the office, trying not to eavesdrop on the conversation between the two officers.
Everyone in the office knew that the tall, handsome Commander and beautiful Lt. Colonel were close; in fact there was a pool as to when they would end up getting married. Jen had bought in on the pool, having noticed the closeness even during that first Christmas.
But lately she'd been noticing that the two officers weren't speaking much. She knew that something had happened involving Clayton Webb, but wasn't sure what it involved. Now, as she approached the Colonel's office, Jen heard Cmdr. Rabb's voice asking, "Do you have any plans this evening?"
"I have to finish studying the Gregg appeal since I have to be in court tomorrow morning."
From where she stood, Jen could hear the disappointment in Harm's voice at the woman's words, and wondered why the Colonel didn't seem to notice it. Maybe it came from having lived just down the hallway from him over the last few months, from spending so much time with him.
"Why? Did you have something in mind?" Mac asked.
"Well, I thought about inviting you over for dinner this evening -"
"You could even bring the Gregg paperwork over and we could go over it together," he suggested.
"What time?" Mac asked, and then noticed Jen standing in the doorway. "Yes, Petty Officer?"
Jen gave them both an apologetic smile as Harm turned around to look at her. "I'm sorry for interrupting you, ma'am, sir, but the General would like to see both of you in his office right now."
"Thank you, Coates," Mac said, her concern visible on her face as she looked in Harm's direction.
Jen stepped aside to let them go ahead of her, moving to her desk when they entered General Cresswell's office.
Ten minutes later, they were coming out of the office and she heard Mac saying, "I'll get the Gregg paperwork to you before I leave, Harm."
Harm nodded as she continued to speak. "Coates, I need a flight out to Naples ASAP."
"Yes, ma'am," Jen agreed, hiding her sympathy for Harm when she realized that the General was sending Mac to Naples to take care of a problem there. Picking up the phone, she quickly arranged for a flight, then carried the information to Col. Mackenzie's office, handing it to her. "Your flight leaves National in two hours, Colonel."
"Damn," Mac sighed. "Barely enough time to get home, throw some things into a bag and get there. Thanks, Jen."
"Will you be gone long, ma'am?" Jen asked hesitantly.
"No way of telling, Jen," Mac said, putting the ticket into her briefcase. "It depends on how long it takes to get the investigation done."
Jen nodded, going to the coffee machine. Col. Mackenzie made a brief stop by Harm's office to speak to him. From her vantage point, Jen could see the flash of disappointment on the Commander's handsome face as Mac turned and left.
"Is Col. Mackenzie going somewhere, sir?" Jen overheard Lt. Cmdr. Roberts ask Harm.
"Naples," Harm said.
Jen couldn't help but see the look on Harm's face as she picked up a cup of coffee that she'd just poured. It was - hopeful. "Congratulations, Bud?"
"You get to argue the Gregg appeal tomorrow."
"Oh." The look of disappointment flashed across his face again. "Yeah. It's just a simple appeal," Harm said. "At least I'll have something to keep me busy this evening."
Jen returned to her office, her expression thoughtful. The look on Harm's face made her think there was more going on than anyone knew, and she turned to her computer, turning it on to access the personnel database.
Five minutes later, she had her answer. No wonder he seemed a little down today - it was his birthday, and no one seemed to have remembered that fact. Not even Col. Mackenzie.
Mattie had recently gone back to her father, leaving Harm alone. Jen was even considering leaving the building, since she didn't really feel safe after everything that had happened with Pia. She was deserting him, too. Now, Col. Mackenzie was out of town on a case, Lt. Cmdr. Roberts apparently didn't remember the significance of the date, and Mattie had probably been too caught up in settling back in Blacksburg to think about her former guardian to remember his birthday.
Harm entered his apartment, removing his jacket and putting his cover and briefcase onto the bar before going to the fridge to retrieve a bottle of beer as he operated on auto-pilot. Picking up the mail he'd put beside his cover, he found a birthday card from his mother - sent from Europe, where she and Frank were traveling.
At least she'd remembered. After nine years, you'd have thought Mac or Bud would have remembered what the date was. Not even Mattie had remembered. Oh, well, it was just another day, after all. Just his forty-first birthday.
Loosening his tie, he turned toward the bedroom to take a shower before looking for something to eat.
Later, wearing a pair of sweats, he sat at his desk, having forgone dinner in favor of studying the notes on the Gregg appeal that Mac had left for him. He knew how Mac planned to handle the argument, but he had another tack he wanted to try - A knock on the door surprised him, and he frowned as he rose to go to the door.
Peering through the peephole, he saw Jen Coates and opened the door. "Everything okay, Jen?" he asked, worried about her after the hell she'd gone through because of her friend not too long ago. She was carrying something in a box, and she was smiling.
"I'm fine, sir," she told him. "May I come inside?" she asked, and Harm realized she was having trouble juggling the box in her hands with a second smaller one.
"Sure. Here. Let me take one of those," he offered, grabbing the larger of the two.
"Be careful, sir," she told him. "I had trouble finding just the right one."
"Right one- what?" Harm asked, putting the box onto the table carefully, as if just by holding it might cause a problem.
"You can open it, sir. It's not dangerous."
"Jen, what -"
She held out the second box. "Happy Birthday, Commander," she said.
Harm blinked, surprised, taking the box from her. "How did you -?"
"I noticed you seemed a little down today, sir," she explained. "So I did some research and found out that it was your birthday. Then after work, I went to get that and a cake." She opened the box on the counter, revealing a small square cake with white icing and blue writing that said, "Happy Birthday, Harm" along a black licorice runway on which sat a small plastic airplane.
"Jen, I don't know what to say," he said.
"Thank you would be nice, sir," she replied, tapping the present in his hand before she went to get a couple of plates, forks, and a knife to cut the cake with.
Harm unwrapped the package to find a CD that he had mentioned once that he wanted. Attached to it was a small card. "Happy birthday, Harm. Thank you for everything, Jen."
"Thank *you*," he said to the young woman, looking up to find her holding a knife out to him.
"My pleasure, sir. Would you like to cut the cake?"
"Sure. While I'm doing that, why don't you put this into the stereo and we'll listen to it while we have our cake?"
"Sounds like a plan, sir," she told him, taking the disk and removing the plastic over wrap. "I remember you mentioning wanting this one night when Mattie and I were here for dinner," she explained, and Harm finally heard the nervousness in her voice.
"Are you okay, Jen?" he asked, watching as she put the disc into the machine and turned the volume down a little when the music started.
Her eyes were huge when she turned around to look at him. "Yes - yes sir," she said. "I guess - Mattie called already?"
Harm sighed, turning his attention back to putting two pieces of the cake onto the plates he'd gotten out. "No. I didn't really expect her to. She's trying to sort things out in her own life."
"You're still important to her," Jen said, moving toward the bar. "I know if I'd had someone like you in my life when I was her age, I wouldn't have made near as many mistakes as I did."
"But all that's behind you," Harm pointed out, moving around to sit on one of the stools before picking up his fork. "You've turned your life around. It's hard to believe you're the same angry young woman that I first met a few days before Christmas nearly three years ago."
"It's hard for me to believe that it's been that long," Jen said, picking at the white frosting. "You're the reason that I turned my life around, sir," she said. "I hope you know that."
"I think you had more to do with that than I did," Harm insisted gently.
"No," she replied, shaking her head so that her long, dark hair swung against her shoulders. "If I hadn't had the good luck to meet you, then I wouldn't have had any reason to change. I'd have probably ended up in the brig - and out of the Navy. You made me realize that I had a future if I wanted it. Made me realize that there was more to life than scamming people and stealing from them."
Embarrassed, Harm hid his reaction by chuckling. "I don't know how I did that. All I did was try to find someplace to dump you, remember?"
"Only because you knew that letting me stay here with you wouldn't have been right. You needed a secure, safe place where you knew I'd still be there the next day."
"Unlike with your friend Tiny or your dad," Harm recalled, and Jen's smile faltered slightly at the mention of her father. "You and he still aren't talking?"
"No," she sighed. "He's as closed off as ever. So I've decided to give up on it. If he wants to talk, he knows how to find me. It's in his court now."
"I hope you and he do manage to get things settled before it's too late, Jen," Harm said, reaching out to squeeze her hand in his larger one. "Mattie's managed to forgive her father. Even Mac overcame her anger at her dad to forgive him."
"But their father's weren't hypocritical jerks, either," Jen said, swallowing heavily as she slowly withdrew her hand from his. "He's never had room in his life for me, sir. It's too crowded with the people in his church. Mom and I always got hand outs. Whatever was left over after he dealt with everyone else."
"I guess that wasn't much, was it?"
"Not enough," Jen nodded. She took a deep breath. "How did we get around to talking about me? This is *your* birthday. We're supposed to be celebrating."
"So we are," Harm agreed, reaching over to take the small, generic plastic plane from the cake. "This reminds me of a cake my mom got for my sixth birthday," he told her. "It was a little bigger," he confided, "but it had a runway and plane on it, too."
"That was just before your father went down, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. The next Christmas."
"Guess Christmas wasn't something really big around your house after that."
"Mom tried to make it special, but she'd get depressed remembering, and then I'd try to make her not so depressed -"
"I bet you were the perfect son," Jen guessed, her quiet tones revealing no accusation in her words. "Never did anything wrong or got into trouble."
"I tried. Until she remarried."
"Guess that was tough."
"Especially since I was convinced that my dad was still alive somewhere. For weeks after the court declared him dead, I refused to do more than say 'yes' or 'no' to her. Even then, I didn't really get into trouble, just - kept to myself. But all that went out the window the summer I turned sixteen."
"What did you do?" Jen asked.
"Ran away from home."
Her eyes widened in shocked surprise. "Where did you go?"
"Southeast Asia. I'd gotten in touch with a bone collector who I thought could help me find my dad."
"I bet your mom was worried sick."
"Yeah. But you know, she was so glad when I got home that she never questioned me about the trip. About what I'd found. Or hadn't found."
"But you did find out - eventually," Jen pointed out, and this time it was she who placed a hand over his.
"Yes," he replied, covering her hand. He hadn't been sure earlier, when he'd squeezed her fingers, but this time there was no mistaking the electricity that flowed between them. "Jen -"
She pulled her hand away and pretended a sudden interest in the cake. "This is really good, isn't it?" she asked. "I'm surprised. Most of the time store bought cakes seem to - lack - something -" her voice faltered when Harm placed a finger under her chin and lifted it so that he could look into her eyes.
"You're nervous, Jen."
"No," she began, but Harm lifted an eyebrow in silent question of her lie. "A little, maybe."
"Because I - I wasn't sure you'd approve of my doing this. I mean, you're an officer, and I'm enlisted -"
"That's never made any difference, Jen. We're also next door neighbors. You were my ward's room mate -"
"I know. But - well, I saw how sad you looked today when you realized no one had remembered the date and what it meant - and didn't want you to be alone. And, well -" she leaned forward. "What the hell," she muttered before throwing her arms around Harm's neck and pulling him down for a kiss.
This wasn't the innocent peck on the cheek she'd given him in front of the church on Christmas Eve three years ago. This was a kiss from a woman to a man she was attracted to.
At first Harm was stunned, and started to respond to the woman pressing herself against his body. He wrapped his long arms around Jen and pulled her closer, deepening the kiss, reveling in the feel of being close - physically close - to someone for the first time in a long time.
But sanity finally reared its head and Harm's hands moved to Jen's upper arms, gently prying her away from him. "Jen, we can't -"
"I know," she said. "I'm sorry. I just -" she was backing away, her breath still coming in short gasps. "I just wanted you to know that someone loves you -"
Harm was stunned again - and stood there in silence as Jen left the apartment, closing the door behind her. "Jen, wait -" he finally said, and followed her into the hallway in time to hear the door to her apartment close with a 'thud' that echoed through the corridor.
Following, Harm went to the door and knocked. "Jen?" he called, knowing that they needed to talk. But there was no answer from inside, and short of breaking down the door, Harm knew that he'd have to wait. "Okay, Jen," he said through the door. "I'll talk to you later. Thanks for the birthday cake and the CD."
Harm returned to his apartment and dropped onto the sofa, leaning back and covering his eyes with his hand. This was one birthday that he wouldn't mind being forgotten about.
He was surprised to see Petty Officer Barnes sitting in Jen's office the next morning, and asked the young man where Coates was.
"I believe that she took a day of personal leave, sir," Barnes explained. "Is there something you needed, Commander?"
"No," Harm said, "Just curious." He left Jen's office and returned to his own, where he picked up the phone and dialed Jen's number. The answering machine picked up, but Harm decided not to leave a message, since he wasn't sure what he should say that Jen didn't already know.
But they did need to settle this. He needed to try and explain to Jen that he was flattered by her attention, but he was too old for her. And there was the difference in rank - and last but not least, there was Mac.
Harm had spent too many years waiting for Mac to let himself be sidetracked by a pair of willing lips and laughing eyes. Once she settled things within herself, she'd come to him. Mac knew he would be there. He'd promised.
So why couldn't he put that all-too-brief kiss last night out of his mind?
By noon, after he'd argued the Gregg appeal, General Cresswell called Harm in to tell him that he was being sent TAD to the Seahawk. The current JAG for the battle group had a family emergency that needed to be taken care of, and Cresswell picked Harm to take his place for the duration.
He called Mattie and let her know that he was leaving town, and then left a note under Jen's door as he left for the airport, explaining that he was sorry to run out, but that they would talk when he got back.
Jen read the letter countless times, knowing that she was being silly. Harmon Rabb, Jr. was so out of her league and she knew it. He was for someone like Col. Mackenzie. Not her.
Jen returned to duty the next day, hoping that no one would notice her subdued air. She went on a couple of dates with someone that one of her friends set her up with, but he wasn't the Commander - wasn't Harm, and she shook their hands and went to her silent, dark apartment at the end of the evening - alone.
Two days later, Mac returned to JAG HQ, surprised to find that Harm wasn't there. Seeing the older woman's obvious disappointment, Jen risked questioning her about it. Mac smiled, looking much younger than she had looked before her TAD assignment. "I guess I can tell you, Coates, since you're Harm's neighbor." She indicated one of the chairs in front of her desk. "Sit down."
Jen was grateful for the invitation, since her legs were beginning to shake. Something about Col. Mackenzie's attitude made Jen worry. "What's going on, ma'am?"
"I know I shouldn't do this, but I have to tell someone - I can trust you not to tell anyone else about this, can't I?"
"Of course, ma'am. I would never -"
"I know," Mac said. She took a deep breath. "When is Commander Rabb due back, Coates?"
"In a week, ma'am."
Mac came to lean back against the front of her desk. "Since you spent so much time with him while Mattie was around, I'm sure that you know that Harm and I have been trying to - connect -?"
"I believe I've heard something about it, ma'am," Jen confirmed slowly.
"The case I was on made me realize that I can't keep putting things off. Can't risk something happening to one of us before we finally get things right. Harm's been waiting for me to - be ready. Well, I am. When he gets back, I'm going to tell him."
Jen forced her lips to curve up into a smile, to pretend to be happy for the older woman. She'd known this would happen someday, hadn't she? Everyone at JAG knew that Col. Mackenzie and Cmdr. Rabb were fated to be together. "I'm happy for you, ma'am." Jen rose to her feet. "Excuse me. I have to get back to my desk before the General starts wondering where I am. I'm glad you're back, ma'am."
Mac nodded. "Uh, I don't have to remind you -"
"Don't worry, Colonel. I won't tell a soul." Jen couldn't open the door and escape quickly enough. If she hadn't known that Col. Mackenzie was watching, she would have probably gone to the ladies room and emptied the contents of her stomach. Instead, she returned to her office and sat behind her desk, taking deep, cleansing breaths.
The idea of having to sit here every day now was unconscionable. There was only one thing Jen could do now. Finding her personal file, she took the paper from it and studied it. She was *just* in the zone. She'd been holding back from doing this, waiting as long as she could before making a final decision. Now, her hand had been forced, and she felt there was no other choice to make.
If she played this right, things would be resolved by the end of the week.
Standing up, she knocked on the door into the General's office and waited for him to acknowledge her before opening the door and entering. He looked up at her over his reading glasses, reminding her vaguely of Admiral Chegwidden as he did so.
"What can I do for you, Petty Officer Coates?" he asked, clearly put out that she was interrupting whatever he was doing.
"I wanted to make the General aware that I've decided not to renew my contract, sir," Jen said, remaining at attention and keeping her eyes focused on a point over his head through the windows behind him.
Cresswell frowned and removed his glasses. "I was under the impression that you were going to re-enlist, Coates," he said.
"I considered it, sir," she told him.
"May I ask the reason for your decision?"
"Personal reasons, General," Jen answered. "I'd like to finish college, but at the rate I'm going, it will be another two years before I can manage that with having to work full time in this office."
"Sit down, Coates," he said, indicating the chairs before his desk. Jen did so, perching on the edge, ready to make her exit at the first possible moment. Gordon Cresswell rose from his chair and came around to sit in the other chair. "Is this because you're having trouble adjusting to my command, Petty Officer?" he asked.
"No, sir. I just -" she looked down at her hands. "As I said, sir, my reasons are personal."
"You realize that your contract is up -"
"At the end of the week," Jen finished for him, knowing that he hated for her to do that but unable to stop herself. "I know, sir. And I know that means this is very short notice -"
"*Extremely* short notice," Cresswell agreed, clearly not happy with her decision to leave. "There's nothing I can do to change your mind?" he asked.
"No, sir. My decision is made."
He sat there for a long moment, looking at her, and Jen felt her nerves stretching to their limit before he finally took a deep breath. "Very well. I'll arrange for a replacement starting next week."
"Thank you, General. I would appreciate it if we could keep this between us, sir?" she requested, uncertain of his reaction. "I haven't told some people about this, and I think it should come from me."
"As you wish. Dismissed, Petty Officer."
With the meeting official over, Jen returned to her office and sank in the chair, letting herself breathe. It had gone better than she'd expected it would. And now that it was settled, she needed to find another place to live - and another job - ASAP.
Late Friday evening, Harm returned to his apartment and unlocked the door, depositing his duffle bag inside before moving toward Jen's door. He knocked, but there was no answer. "Jen?" he called. "Are you home?"
When there was still no response to his question, Harm sighed and went back to his apartment, where he found three messages waiting on the answering machine. One was from Mattie, asking him to call her when he got home.
The next two were from Mac, both asking him to let her know when he got in. "We need to talk," she said, causing Harm to freeze with the bottle of beer halfway to his mouth.
Harm sank onto a bar stool, wondering what the hell he was going to do. He'd spent the last week trying to put Jen's kiss and admission out of his mind, only to end up spending most nights tossing and turning as he remembered his reaction to her being so close, remembered the way she'd felt so damned *right* in his arms. Trying to find some way that they could explore whatever was between them without endangering both of their careers in the Navy.
And then there was Mac. He'd made a promise to always be there - but could he keep that promise without knowing exactly what he felt for Jennifer Coates? Would it be fair to Mac to go into a relationship with her with the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over his head?
No, he realized. He couldn't do that to Mac - or to Jen. Before he talked to Mac, Harm needed to talk to Jen. Since she wouldn't open her door, he decided to try and call - at least to leave a message that would let her know how important it was for them to talk. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number for the next apartment - only to frown into the phone when he was informed by a recording that the number had been disconnected.
Thinking that he'd dialed the wrong number, Harm tried again - with the same result. The frown deepened, and Harm left his apartment, going back to Jen's. He knocked - nearly banged - on the door. Frustrated, he reached for the doorknob, and was surprised when it moved in his hand. Pushing the door open, Harm paused as he saw the empty room inside.
"Jen?" he called again, not liking the way his voice echoed back at him. Stepping over to the bedroom door, he peered inside and discovered that it was empty as well. What little furniture Jen and Mattie had collected was gone.
Harm stood in the cold, empty apartment for several minutes before turning and leaving to return to his own just as the phone began to ring. Hoping that it might be Jen, Harm dove for the cordless unit, not bothering to glance at the caller ID first. "Hello?" he said.
"You're home. Did you get my messages?"
The sound of Mac's voice caused Harm to put aside his worry about Jen for a moment as he faced the matter at hand. "Yeah. But I just walked in the door a few minutes ago. I was going to shower and then call to see if I could come over." Before Mac could respond, he said, "Mac, do you know what's going on with Jen?"
"She didn't tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"She decided not to re-enlist. Today was her last day on duty. Why do you ask?"
"Leaving the Navy?!" he repeated. Only two weeks ago, the two of them had talked about how Jen *wanted* to reenlist and stay in. "Did she mention where she was going or what she was going to do?"
"No. Not even to Bud. She told us that she'd be in touch once she got settled, and that's it."
"Did she say why she made this decision?" Harm wanted to know.
"No. Just that it was for personal reasons."
Harm knew the reason. Jen had decided not to stay at JAG or in the Navy because of what had happened in this room ten days ago. She hadn't wanted to face him after the kiss they had shared.
"Harm?" Mac said, and he realized that he had stopped talking. "Are you still there?"
"Yeah. I'm just tired," he explained. "It's been a busy week."
"I'd like to hear about it," Mac said. "Why don't you have that shower and then come over? I might even make dinner for us if you haven't eaten."
"Can I have a rain-check tonight, Mac?" he asked, suddenly anxious to put off any discussion with Mac about the future. "I'm really ragged out tonight."
"I'll call you," he said, hating that he was putting her off this way. It wasn't fair to her.
"Is everything okay, Harm?" she asked at last. "You don't sound like yourself."
"I just need a little rack time," he replied. "Why don't I make dinner for us tomorrow?" he suggested. "Say, 1800?"
"Okay. I'll see you then. Get some sleep."
"I will," Harm said, knowing he was lying. He doubted he would sleep a wink all night. Hanging up, Harm sat trying to figure out where Jen might have gone. She hadn't told Mac or Bud, so it was a good bet that she hadn't told Mattie anything either for fear of her telling him.
Feeling even more tired than before, Harm went to the bedroom, where he got undressed and hit the shower, hoping that it would help him to focus on the matter at hand.
It did. When he'd first met Jen, she had run away after Loren Singer accused her of stealing the bracelet Singer had gotten for Christmas. Instead of getting dressed for bed, Harm pulled on a faded pair of jeans and a long sleeved tee-shirt and dug out his tennis shoes. Grabbing his keys and jacket, he went downstairs to the garage and pulled out the motorcycle.
Maybe it would be his ticket to getting an 'in' with Jen's old friends and picking up some intel. He knew it was a long shot that Jen would have gotten back in touch with any of them after all this time, but Harm knew that people usually tended to go back to someplace they knew. Someplace where they felt safe.
Although he couldn't quite picture Jen's friend Tiny as "safe", he knew that the big man cared about Jen. Enough that he'd sent Harm in the right direction to find Jen three years ago, anyway.
The garage wasn't much different from what Harm remembered. As he killed the engine, he could hear laughter from inside the building. The doors were open, spilling yellow light out into the evening darkness.
Several faces turned toward him, watching as he removed his helmet and gloves. It was Tiny who recognized him. "Commander Rabb, right?" he asked, moving his huge bulk across the small expanse between them.
"Yeah. I'm surprised you remember me. It's been a few years."
"Hey, I remember Jen's friends. And she thinks of you as a friend, you know? Nice bike," he commented.
"Thanks," Harm said.
"I hadn't pictured you as a bike kind of person, Commander."
"Harm. And I guess you could say it was a contribution to my mid-life crisis."
"Cool," Tiny nodded. "Want a beer?" he asked.
"No, thanks. I have some things I need to do tonight. I was wondering, Tiny - when was the last time you spoke to Jen?"
"When all that crap with Pia was going on, I guess. Jen called to see if I'd seen her."
"Nothing since then?"
"Jen doesn't keep in touch with the old gang much these days. Guess she thinks it wouldn't look too good with her being in the Navy and all."
"She's not in the Navy anymore, Tiny," Harm said, and read what looked to be genuine surprise on the big man's round face.
"You're shittin' me. She quit?"
"She decided not to re-enlist this time," Harm clarified. "You have any idea where she might go if she was trying to disappear?"
"Why would she want to do that?" Tiny questioned. "Everything's okay with her, isn't it? She didn't do something stupid-?"
"No, Jen didn't do anything stupid," Harm said as he thought that if anyone had, it was him. "I was out of town when she left, and I need to talk to her, but she didn't leave a forwarding address, that's all."
"Well, you might try down at the bar. If she went back to any of her old haunts it would be that one, I guess."
"Thanks." Harm pulled a business card out of his pocket. "If you see her or if she contacts you, let me know. And it might be a good idea if you didn't tell her I'd been here looking for her."
Now Tiny looked suspicious. "Why? Are you the reason she's run off?"
Harm heard the sound of protectiveness in Tiny's voice and sighed. "That's what I'm trying to find out, Tiny. Believe me, the last thing I'd ever do is hurt Jen."
Apparently Tiny saw the sincerity in Harm's eyes, because he backed off, taking the card. "If she gets in touch, I'll call."
"Thanks." Harm put his helmet on and mounted the bike again, waving as he drove off into the darkness toward Charlie's Bar.
Charlie's was as bad as Harm remembered it. Dark and smoky with the smell of stale beer assailing his nostrils, Harm slipped onto a stool at the bar and looked around the dimly lit room. In the back corner, some guys were playing pool - and it sounded like they'd had one too many beers to attempt it.
"Hi," the bartender, a bleach blonde with too much make up said. "What can I get you?"
"I just need some information at the moment."
"Information will cost you the price of a drink," she told him. "Or whatever else you think it might be worth," she continued, leaning over the bar to reveal the deep cleavage he could see above the low-cut, tight blouse she was wearing.
Grimacing, Harm pulled out his wallet and put a ten dollar bill on the table. "I'm looking for a girl."
"We get a lot of 'em in here. Daughter?" she asked, making Harm feel even older than he already felt.
"No. A friend." Harm pulled a photo of Jen and Mattie out of his wallet and showed it to her. "She's the one with the long, dark hair."
The bartender shook her head. "Sorry. Haven't seen her. Is she a regular?"
"She used to be."
"You might talk to Mike. He knows just about all the regulars. I just work weekends." She nodded to a man sitting alone at the end of the bar, nursing a beer.
"Thanks." Harm rose from the stool and moved down to the man. "Excuse me. I was hoping you could help me -"
Mike frowned as he emptied his glass. "I can't even help myself these days, pal."
"Do you know this woman?" Harm asked, putting the photo of Jen and Mattie on the bar. "The brunette?"
Mike focused his alcohol-blurred gaze on the photograph. "Looks familiar. She used to come in here a lot. Joined the Navy, I think."
"Yeah. She did. But she's disappeared and I need to find her."
"Why?" Mike asked, lifting the blood-shot eyes to look at Harm. "You a cop?"
"No. She's my next door neighbor. She was my ward's roommate. I need to talk to her."
"It is," Harm confirmed.
"Haven't seen her in a long time," Mike finally said.
"If you do," Harm said, taking out a business card that he replaced the photo with, "give me a call, okay? It's important that I find her."
"She's important to you, isn't she?"
"Very important," Harm admitted. "I hope it's not too late for me to let her know."
Mike put the card into his pocket. "I'll call."
"Thanks." He put some cash on the bar. "Have one on me."
"No problem there, Commander."
Even though he wasn't any farther toward finding Jen, Harm felt better about having made the effort to look for her. She hadn't gone back to her old haunts, and that made him feel that maybe she was moving in another direction.
He hoped he was right. The question still remained as to what he was going to tell Mac. She'd want a reason for his needing more time after he'd told her to come to him when she was ready to talk. She deserved the truth - but telling her the truth might destroy whatever future they might have if he was wrong about himself and Jen.
Maybe it was time that he took that chance, though. And maybe- just maybe Mac would understand his need to explore whatever this was. After all, hadn't he stood by while she explored the possibility of a future with Mic - and with Webb? It hadn't been easy to remain her friend during those times, but he thought he'd succeeded.
Now he'd see if Mac could do the same.
Harm managed to wait until the next morning to call Mattie, ostensibly to see how she was doing with her dad. Mattie started the conversation with an apology.
"I forgot your birthday, didn't I?"
"It didn't matter," he said. "I didn't really expect you to -"
"I should have. When Jen called last week and reminded me, I felt terrible. I was hoping you'd call and let me know when you got home from the Seahawk so I could at least wish you a belated happy birthday."
It was the opening Harm needed. "Speaking of Jen, when was the last time you talked to her?"
"Oh, on Wednesday, I guess. She said she was taking some time off and would be in touch when she got back. Why?"
So she hadn't told Mattie about her decision to leave the Navy. Probably because she knew that Mattie would have contacted Harm on the Seahawk and alerted him.
"Harm? You there?"
"Yeah. I'm here."
"Is something going on with Jen that I don't know about, Harm? You sound a little - strange."
"Tell you what, why don't I drive out there tomorrow?" he suggested, wanting to talk to her face to face. "We can go flying."
"Cool!" she declared, and Harm couldn't resist smiling at her enthusiasm. "I'll let Dad know. We can have lunch here."
"Sounds good. See you tomorrow."
"'kay," she answered.
Harm moved to the shelf and picked up a photo of Mattie and Jen, a larger copy of the one in his wallet. "Where the hell are you, Jen?" he asked aloud.
Jen looked around the small apartment, wondering if she would ever really think of it as 'home'. The best part about this place was that it was cheap - and close to her new job. She'd been surprised to get this particular job, since she'd only called to find out if her new employer knew of anyone that needed some office help, preferably in the legal field.
When he'd asked why she wanted to know, Jen had tried to say it was for a friend, but he'd been too sharp. He'd always been that way. After her admission that she had decided to leave the Navy, he had insisted on her paying him a visit and talking to her.
He hadn't changed her mind - but then she hadn't told him the real reason for her decision. If she had, then he would probably have gone after Harm - and Jen hadn't wanted that to happen. There was enough bad blood there, she didn't want to be the reason for more of it.
His offer of a job as his legal aide/office manager/secretary had surprised Jen, but she'd jumped at the chance - on the condition that he not tell anyone that she was working for him. While he hadn't been happy with the condition, he agreed to it.
But Jen knew that he was curious. And curiosity was a dangerous thing.
Her eyes fell on the cell phone across the room, and she found herself wondering about calling, just to hear his voice. But she knew that it would be dangerous, since he had caller ID and would be able to trace it back to her.
She sighed, wishing there was someone she could call - someone she could talk to about all this. None of her old friends would understand - especially Mattie, who Jen had simply told that she was taking some time off and getting away for awhile. She hadn't had the nerve to confide even a portion of the truth to the girl she thought of as a little sister.
When the telephone rang, Jen jumped in surprise and moved cautiously to look at the caller ID screen before answering it. "Hello," she said, relaxing when she saw who it was.
"I thought you were coming over here for dinner?" his gruff voice asked.
Glancing at her watch, she grimaced. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize that it was so late."
"You'd better get a grip on things, Jen or your new boss is going to be pulling out his hair."
At that picture, Jen grinned and giggled. "Too late," she replied, and heard his answering chuckle over the line. "I'll be right there, sir."
"Ten minutes," he growled. "If you're not here, I'll start without you."
"Smells good," Mac noted as she entered the apartment and removed her jacket. "What are you fixing?"
"Veggie lasagna," he told her. "Want something to drink?"
"Yeah," she nodded, and Harm went to take a bottle of water out of the refrigerator before presenting it to her with a flourish. "Thank you."
She sat down at the bar, watching as he worked in the kitchen. "How is Mattie doing?" she asked.
"She and her dad are doing okay. I'm going out there tomorrow to see her," he continued as he checked on the lasagna. "We're going flying."
"Sounds like fun. Should be a good day for it."
The silence began to stretch out, and Harm finally said, "Mac, I think -"
"Harm," Mac said at the same time, "You said that when I was -"
They both fell silent again, laughing at what had happened before Harm said, "You go first."
"No. You go first. It's your house, after all."
"I know you said that we need to talk, but - can we wait til after dinner?"
He thought he saw a shadow of disappointment cross her face before she nodded. "Sure. We've waited this long, I guess an hour or so won't hurt. How were things on the Seahawk?" she asked. "Did you get a chance to fly?"
"Not this time," he said with a grin, forcing his
fears about later in the evening aside to simply enjoy spending
time with his friend. He only hoped that she would still *be*
his friend by the end of the evening.