This visit was even more difficult than the one to Harm had been. At least he could bluff his way past Harm. This one - this was different. He'd been willing to leave her to her fate down in Paraguay and not lift a finger.
How the hell could he hope to explain that and have her understand the reasons without admitting that he'd become what he'd feared becoming the most: a burned out bureaucrat so afraid of making a wrong move that would affect him personally that he was willing to let those closest to him suffer - and almost be killed. None of his decisions during that last year made sense - even now with the added luxury of hindsight, he still couldn't completely explain or justify what he'd said and done.
But he knew he had to do this. He had to make sure Mac was really okay with Harm's choice of Jen Coates over her.
The drive to her apartment wasn't long - but it wasn't nearly long enough for AJ. He'd never been here - probably because he had always made sure that he hadn't had reason. He had always forced himself to put whatever he might feel for Sarah Mackenzie out of his mind, to lock it away so that it wouldn't affect his career or hers - or any chance of a future with someone else. Harm, most likely.
Now, the possibility that Harm was fixated on someone else, leaving the field open, caused AJ to carefully pull his old dreams and thoughts about the attractive Marine Lt. Colonel out of the dark recesses of his mind. He'd given up on them ever becoming reality - mostly because he had believed along with everyone else that Mac and Harm were somehow - 'fated' to end up together.
Standing before her apartment door, he smoothed his mustache and cleared his throat before knocking. "Hello, Mac," he said when she opened the door.
"A-Admiral." She was wearing a pair of running shorts and a US Marines tee-shirt. Her long, dark hair was wet, revealing that she had probably just finished a shower.
"May I come in?" AJ asked when she didn't say anything else.
"Of -of course," she said, backing up. "I'm just a little surprised to see you, sir. Is something wrong?"
"No," he said. "And drop the 'sir'. It's AJ."
"Can I get you something to drink? I have some coffee ready -"
"No, thanks," AJ said to her, looking around the room. "You have a nice place."
"Thank you." She indicated the sofa. "Please. Sit down. I'll just go change -"
"You don't have to do that," AJ said quietly. "Why don't you sit down instead? I need to talk to you."
She sat down on the far end of the sofa. "Talk?"
"I came here hoping to explain why I - why I was willing to let you die down in Paraguay, but -"
"You don't owe me any explanations, sir - AJ," she amended as she spoke softly. "You'd been through a lot in the weeks before that. Teddy Lindsey's report, Harm being arrested for Singer's murder - becoming engaged to Meredith. And I know that in spite of what we talked about, you were *still* thinking about retiring even then."
"I'd lost the edge," AJ admitted, running a hand over his head as he sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I know it's a piss-poor excuse, but it's the best one I have."
"I don't blame you, AJ. I made the choice to help Webb. I knew the risks going in. Everyone made bad decisions. You're not the only one."
AJ exhaled and gave her a crooked smile. "Thank you."
"Making that a hell of a lot easier than I was afraid it would be," he answered.
"My pleasure. I think there was more than enough guilt to go around."
"What happened, Mac?" AJ wanted to know. "I don't mean the mission. I've read the reports. I mean between you and Harm."
Mac sighed and shook her head. "I wish I knew. He came down there and saved my life - but he still couldn't tell me why."
"I would think you'd have gotten the message by his tearing down there after resigning."
"I didn't know he'd resigned until everything was almost over. By then -" she sighed again. "Harm was jealous of Webb, I was a mess of guilt and anger and frustration -"
"I just talked to Harm," AJ said. "He told me that you and he -"
"We're friends. Every time we've tried to cross that line, it just hasn't worked. So we've both agreed to keep our relationship on that level. Friends."
"No. He has - someone else on his mind at the moment."
"Jennifer Coates," AJ nodded, smiling at Mac's surprised look. "I know where she is."
"Did you tell Harm?"
"No. I don't want to do that until I've talked to her about everything. And I wanted to come by and make sure that *you* were okay with all of this. I know you've been through a lot over the last few years -"
"You don't know the half of it," Mac said. "I can't give Harm what he really needs and wants anyway. He needs a family. It's what he's always wanted."
"Surely you and he -"
Mac shook her head, causing him to pause. "I have less than a 5 percent chance of having a child of my own, AJ."
"I'm sorry, Mac."
"Again, it was my fault. I ignored signs, put things off when I shouldn't have. And for the record, Harm was willing to take me even knowing about it. I'm the one who couldn't get past it and kept pushing him away. I hope Harm's happy with whatever he decides to do."
"He's too old for her," AJ growled, aware that he sounded on the over-protective side.
"There's only about fifteen years difference, AJ," Mac pointed out. "That's not too bad. Some women prefer older men." Her eyes met his, and AJ wondered if he was seeing what he *thought* he saw, or if it was just wishful thinking.
He was tired of second guessing himself. There was no reason for him to hold back anymore. He wasn't in the Navy. Mac was free of any romantic entanglements. So was AJ. The timing was never going to be any better.
"AJ, have you had dinner?"
The question startled him. "No. I've been busy tracking this down all afternoon. Why?"
"I was thinking about ordering in -"
"Why don't we go out instead?" he suggested. "If you don't mind being seen with a washed up old man, that is."
"You're neither washed up nor old, AJ," Mac told him, rising from the sofa. "I'll go change and do something with my hair."
"Leave it down," AJ suggested, and she stopped in the doorway and turned to look at him with narrowed eyes, probably because of his proprietary tone. "If you want to," he amended.
She smiled and continued into the bedroom, leaving AJ to stand up and pace nervously around the room, ending up at the window that overlooked the street. What the hell did he think he was doing, he wondered. He was too old for Mac, no matter what she might think. This was crazy. He was an old fool for even considering ---
Her voice brought him out of his thoughts and he turned around to see her standing there in a dark skirt and sweater that made him forget whatever he'd been thinking. Her dark hair curled softly around her shoulders, held up on the sides by pins.
"Everything okay?" she asked.
"Everything is - wonderful," he assured her, going toward the door. "Any ideas about where we're going?"
Her eyes lifted to meet his. "Wherever you want to go, AJ," she told him before sauntering ahead of him into the corridor.
Damn. She might just be the death of him.
Jen entered the office the next morning, going to the coffee maker first thing, only to find that it was already turned on. At that moment, AJ came into the small room.
"Good morning, Jen," he said in a tone Jen hadn't heard him use in quite some time.
"You look chipper this morning, sir," she said, and saw his expression change slightly. "I mean AJ. I guess you had a good night."
"I'd say it was a good night," AJ agreed, refilling his coffee cup.
"Did you have a date?" she questioned.
"More like dinner with an old friend," he answered, noticing the donuts that she'd brought in with her. "Any of these double glazed?"
"They all are."
"You're remarkable, Jen," he told her, picking up one of the half -dozen in the box. "I bet Cresswell is totally lost without you there."
"I heard him making arrangements for a Marine to replace me," Jen said. "I don't think I was very by the book as far as he was concerned."
AJ shook his head. "Better him than me." He watched as she picked out a donut. "Jen, why did you decide to leave the Navy?"
She paused with the donut halfway to her mouth. "What?"
"It's a simple question."
"I told you. I needed a change in my life."
"I don't buy it. You liked being the Navy. You'd made friends, had a bright future ahead of you. To just toss it all aside and run away -"
"That's what I do best, sir," Jen noted, her eyes now on the carpet at her feet. "Run away."
"Until you met Rabb and decided to stay in the Navy," AJ said. "I can't see you deciding to leave unless something had happened. Something unexpected, maybe."
"AJ, I thought you said that you wouldn't -"
"Jen, I think of you like my own daughter. You know that, don't you?"
"I suspected it," she said.
"Then talk to me. Just spending Saturday evening with you, I could see that you're not acting like yourself." He reached out and placed a hand under her chin to lift it. "The sparkle's gone from your eyes. I want to see it back there again."
"I'd really rather not, AJ," she insisted. "I don't want you to think less of me. It might make you decide you'd rather I not work for you -"
"That won't happen, Jen," AJ promised. "Come on. Let's go into my office since there's not much going on."
"I need to get to work on -"
"It'll wait," he said in a firm tone, ushering her toward the other door that led out of her office.
Jen took a deep breath and went into the room, sinking into one of the leather chairs before his desk. "It's really silly," she said. "I think I made more out of it than there was."
Instead of sitting behind the desk, AJ took the other chair. "Why don't you tell me about it?" he suggested.
"I'm not sure where to start," Jen said, her voice quiet. She really didn't want to have to admit that she'd been stupid enough to fall in love with Harmon Rabb, not when he was an officer and was in love with someone else.
"Why not at the beginning?" AJ suggested.
"That would be almost three years ago, sir. Just before Christmas."
"I'd never really met anyone like Harmon Rabb. He was tall and handsome, and even though he tried to get rid of me at first, I finally realized that he did it because it wouldn't have looked right for me to stay with him, being enlisted and a female. He *cared*. More than anyone else I'd ever known. After meeting him, and seeing the way he cared not just about me, but about those around him, I decided that I would stay in the Navy. That for the first time in my life, I wouldn't run away. I'd stay and fight to become a better person - and make him proud of me."
"If I remember correctly, you kissed his cheek that night," AJ recalled, and Jen grinned, embarrassed.
"Yes. Even though he told me that I could be court martialed for having done it, I'd have done it again."
"Rabb made quite an impression on you. I knew that. He tends to have that effect on most people. Is that why you stayed in the Navy and became a legal aide?"
"Yes. I think I hoped that - one day - I might actually be able to help him with his cases if I did a good enough job and got assigned to JAG headquarters." She closed her eyes at the next set of memories. "It was because I knew how important Lt. Roberts was to him that I insisted he get the help he needed and stayed with him. I was terrified by the idea of having to tell him that - that his friend was dead."
"You were very brave, Jen," AJ said, leaning across to touch her hands as they lay clasped in her lap. "Everyone involved said that you took charge and made sure Bud got what he needed. That you probably saved his life."
"I was terrified," she said. "But I asked myself what Cmdr. Rabb would have done, and did what was necessary."
"And ended up being assigned to JAG in Falls Church."
"What I'd always wanted," Jen nodded. "Only to discover that everyone there was certain that he and Col. Mackenzie were meant for each other. I saw it too, during those first months. I even got in on the office pool," she confessed.
"You too?" he said, smiling. "What changed your mind?"
"The last year or so. When they got back from Paraguay, they barely spoke to each other," Jen recalled. "Even after he returned to the Navy," she blushed as she recalled her staunch support of Harm with AJ during those months, "I heard Harm invite her out to dinner on more than one occasion only to have her say that she had plans with Mr. Webb. The look on his face was so sad - then Mattie came into the picture, and he seemed happier. When he asked me if I would consider sharing an apartment with Mattie, I held back, tried not to be too eager, when all the time I was delighted that he was there for me again. I'd been trying to find a way out of the situation I was in, and there he was, handing it to me on a silver platter."
"Sounds like gratitude to me, Jen."
"No. Over the last ten months, I spent a *lot* of time with Mattie and Harm. It was like we were a family, in a way. Oh, I know he thought of me as another daughter - or a little sister, but that didn't stop me from deciding that I was in love with him. Even though I knew nothing could ever come of it."
"What changed?" AJ asked, and Jen frowned. "Something must have changed, if you decided to leave the Navy after telling him you were going to reenlist only a few weeks ago."
Hearing that, Jen realized that he'd spoken to Harm. "You must know s-sir. I'm sure he told you how he embarrassed he was when I - threw myself at him on his birthday."
"I think he was more surprised than embarrassed, Jen," AJ said. "He wants to see you."
"I can't. It's over. I have to accept that and - and go on."
"What makes you so sure that it's over? You never talked to him -"
"He's in love with Mac. Everyone knows that. I don't need him to tell me that he's 'flattered' but that he doesn't feel that way about me."
"Oh, I'm sure he's flattered by the idea of such a young and attractive young woman being infatuated with him," AJ confirmed.
"It's not - infatuation," Jen insisted, standing up and moving over to the window that overlooked the parking lot. She turned around to look at him. "I love him."
"So why not give it a chance? You don't have the regs standing in the way now. You're not in the Navy, not enlisted."
"There's still Col. Mackenzie," Jen reminded him. "He told Mattie that -"
"Things change, Jen," AJ said. "Just - think about agreeing to talk to him. I can set it up so that he won't know you're working here - or where you're living. But I think you owe him that much, don't you?"
"I'll - think about it," Jen said at last.
"That's all I ask," he said. "Now. We have work to do."
Jen managed a tight smile as she turned toward her office, only to stop when he spoke again.
"Oh. I need you to order a dozen long-stemmed roses."
"Roses, sir?" She'd known that his 'dinner with an old friend' was more than that.
"Where are they to be sent?" she asked.
"Falls Church. JAG Headquarters. The recipient is Col. Sarah Mackenzie."
Jen's jaw dropped. "Col. Mackenzie?"
AJ sank down into the chair behind his desk, picking up his glasses as he did so. "Yes."
"But - She and Harm -"
"Don't believe everything you hear, Jen," AJ warned sagely.
The telephone began to ring, bringing Jen out of her state of shock. She turned and went to answer it at her desk. "AJ Chegwidden, Attorney at Law. May I help you?"
Harm saw the delivery boy carrying a vase containing roses enter the bullpen, saw the Master at Arms stop him to question him and inspect his visitor's pass. Curiosity drew him out of his office in time to hear the Chief say, "That's Col. Mackenzie's office there."
"Thank you," the courier said, and turned toward Mac's doorway, pausing to knock on the door frame. "Excuse me, Col. Mackenzie?"
Harm saw Mac look up and her eyes fell on the roses. "Yes. Can I help you?"
"These are for you, ma'am," the young man said. Mac came around the desk and took the roses from him, freeing him to nod and leave the office, passing Harm, who had stepped toward the open door. "Excuse me, sir."
Mac put the vase onto the corner of her desk, touching the red blooms and buds. "Are you going to read the card?" Harm questioned, leaning in the doorway, aware that others behind him were listening to the conversation, and probably thought he'd sent them.
Pulling the card out of the small envelope, Mac smiled. "They're from AJ," she told him.
Harm's eyes widened. "AJ?" he repeated, moving farther into the room.
Her smile grew as she returned the card to the envelope. "We went to dinner last night," she explained. "He came over to talk about some things -" she lowered her voice. "Including Jen. He said he'd talked to you."
Harm nodded. "I think he knows where she is, Mac."
"I'm sure he does. But he wants to talk to her first -"
"I hope he can convince her to call me at least -" Bud entered the office after tapping on the door frame.
"Nice roses, ma'am," he said, giving Harm a knowing glance.
"Don't look at me, Bud," Harm said, lifting his hands. "I didn't send them."
Bud looked crestfallen. "You didn't?"
"No," Mac confirmed. "He didn't. The Admiral sent them, Bud."
Bud's eyes widened into saucers. "The - Admiral?!" he said. A frown appeared as he turned his eyes toward Harm again. "And you're okay with this?"
"It's Mac's life. She can see who she wants to, Bud. I can't stop her."
"But - the *Admiral*," Bud said again.
"Why don't the three of us have lunch," Harm suggested, putting a hand on Bud's shoulder as he looked at Mac. "And we'll try to make things a little clearer."
Jen smiled as AJ saw the couple out of the office. "They seemed nice," she told him once they were gone.
"Mr. Grimes is an ass," AJ muttered.
"Then why did you agree to take the case?" she asked.
"Because I feel sorry for his wife, having to put up with him," he explained. "Hopefully, whatever we get out of this will give her a way to get out from under his thumb."
"Oh," she said as the telephone rang. "AJ Chegwidden's office."
"Is he in?" a familiar voice asked, and Jen felt as though someone had punched her in the stomach. "Hello?"
"Just a moment," Jen said quickly, and reached for the 'hold' button, but the other woman spoke again.
"Jen? Is that you?"
"I'll get Mr. Chegwidden for you, ma'am." She pressed the button, glaring at AJ. "It's Col. Mackenzie."
"I thought she might call," he said, reaching for the phone, but Jen kept it away from him.
"If she tells Harm that I'm here -"
"She won't," AJ assured her, turning toward his office. "You stay there," he said, leaving the office door open so he'd be able to see if she tried to leave.
In his office, AJ picked up the phone and pushed the button. "Mac. This is a surprise."
"I wanted to thank you for the lovely roses, AJ."
"I'm glad you liked them. I hope you're also calling to say yes to my invitation for dinner on Friday night."
"How could I possibly say no?" she replied, and he could hear her smiling through the line. "The roses created quite a stir when they were delivered - even the General got wind of them and made a point to ask about them."
"What did he say when you told them who had sent them?"
"Mac, there's no reason for you to keep seeing me a secret, you know. I'm not your CO anymore. And I dare *anyone* to accuse either of us of anything improper while I was."
"Cresswell's a special case, AJ," she said.
"Because he was SJA at Okinawa when you and Col. Farrow were involved?"
"You knew -?"
"We'll discuss it on Friday," he said, glancing up to see Jen still sitting at her desk, her jaw set. "Uh, Mac, I hope I can count on you not to mention anything to Harm about -"
"My lips are sealed, AJ. Have you talked to her?"
"I did. And she's agreed to *think* about talking to him."
"That's something, anyway."
"I believe the knowledge that you and I are seeing each other might turn the tide." He heard another voice, telling her that she was needed in the General's office.
"Thank you, Sergeant," Mac said. "I'll be right there." Into the phone, she said, "I have to go."
"Okay. I'll talk to you later."
"Count on it."
AJ hung up with a smile. Being on the end of Mac's flirtation was a new experience, and he relished the idea. Seeing Jen still sitting at her desk, he rose from his and approached her. "Are you okay?"
"Should I make plans to find another job and a new place to live?" she asked.
"That's up to you, Jen. But I hope you won't. Mac's not going to say anything to Harm until you've made a decision."
"She's his friend. She won't keep it from him forever."
"I hope she won't have to."
Jen sighed deeply. "I need to think about all this," she said. "I don't know that I could handle it if he were to say I'm just a friend or -"
AJ placed his palms flat on her desk and leaned forward, "Trust me, Jen. I don't think that's going to happen. Let me set something up. Maybe you could meet him at my place - that's more or less neutral ground, and I'd make sure he didn't follow you if you decided to leave afterward."
Jen chewed on her lower lip. "I don't know, AJ."
"Jen, you have to take a chance, or you'll find yourself alone and bitter."
Jen's eyes met his, knowing that he was talking about his own choices in life, and that he was trying to keep her from repeating them. "Okay," she said at last. "Set up a meeting at your house and I'll listen to what he has to say."
"Good," AJ praised her, giving her a reassuring smile. "I always knew you were a smart young woman."
Harriet's eyes were wide with excitement as Bud told her about the roses that Mac had gotten that day. "Harm sent them?" she questioned hopefully. "I can't believe he would do that. Not to the office, anyway -"
"He didn't, Harriet," Bud said, interrupting her.
The excitement changed to concern. "What? Don't tell me that Clayton Webb-" she began, recalling the little "gifts" that the spook had sent to Mac a year ago.
"No. I don't think she's talked to him in a long time."
"Then who sent them? If it wasn't Harm - oh, poor Harm. Having to stand by while she spends time with someone else - of course he could put an end to it if he'd just get off the dime -"
"Harm's okay with it," Bud said.
"Okay, Bud Roberts," Harriet said, starting to really worry. "What's going on?"
Bud took a deep breath. "The Admiral sent the roses to Mac."
"What?! Admiral *Chegwidden*?"
"He's not an Admiral anymore," Bud pointed out, grinning as she reacted much like he had done. "There's no reason why he shouldn't let Mac know he wants to spend time with her."
"But what about Harm? I can't really believe that he's 'okay' with this. He and Mac -"
"Harm has - found someone else," Bud told her.
At that, Harriet sat heavily on the sofa. "What? Who?"
"You won't believe it. I didn't either when they first told me."
"Bud!" Harriet insisted, leaping up to grab his arm. "Tell me!"
She sat down again. "Jennifer Coates? But - but she's so much younger than he is! And she's enlisted -"
"Not anymore. She left the Navy. And Harm knows he's too old for Jen, but he can't help the way he feels."
"And Mac- doesn't mind?"
"She seemed okay with it."
"Does *Jen* know about how Harm feels?" Harriet asked, and then gasped as a thought occurred. "Or is *that* why she left the Navy? Because she didn't feel the same way and knew that he -"
"Slow down, Harriet. Have you ever known Harm to force his attentions on someone?" Bud asked.
"No," she sighed. "I'm just - a little overwhelmed here. It's such a surprise."
Bud nodded. "Imagine how I felt when they told me that AJ had sent the roses to Mac," he told her. "But you know what? I don't think I've ever seen Mac look happier than she did today. Especially after she talked to AJ this afternoon. She was almost glowing."
"What about Harm? Mac's happy, and he doesn't know where Jen is now. It's not fair! He's such a good guy. A little clueless, sometimes, but - he deserves to be happy, too."
"They seem to think that AJ might know where Jen is," Bud told her.
Harriet remembered AJ's questions during his visit. "You know, I think they're right. The way he talked when he was here - it was like he was - feeling things out. Trying to get both sides of a story, you know?"
"I hope he does and can get them together. You're right. Harm's a good guy. He deserves to find someone and be as happy as we are. That's not to say that Mac doesn't deserve that, too," he added quickly. "Both of them are the best. And I hope they each find someone as wonderful as you."
Harriet smiled at him and took his hand. "You say the sweetest things, Bud."
Mac was surprised - and pleased - to see AJ standing against his SUV when she pulled into a parking spot. He straightened as she got out of the car, and took the roses from her. "I'm surprised that you brought them home. Although - let me guess: You didn't want to risk more questions from General Cresswell."
Mac gave him a slightly embarrassed look. "It's not that I'm ashamed of anyone knowing, AJ - it's just - like I said on the phone -"
Very deliberately, AJ placed the vase on the roof of the Corvette and pulled Mac into his arms to give her a long, thorough kiss. Mac recovered quickly and slid her arms around his neck, responding as she nearly had that day in his bedroom so many years ago.
When AJ finally lifted his head, his dark eyes bored into hers before deliberately looking to the left and right. "See? The world didn't end. And the MPs aren't coming after you. There's no reason why you and I shouldn't see each other, Mac. I'm not going hide whatever this is - not even from Cresswell. Agreed?"
All Mac could do was nod. For the life of her, she couldn't manage to speak.
"Good." He picked up the vase. "Let's go upstairs, shall we?"
She nodded again, and led the way into the building and up the stairs, taking out her keys as she went. All things considered, it was probably a good thing that AJ had stopped her from kissing him that evening in his room if this was the way she reacted. Mac had *never* felt this way with anyone. Not even Harm's kiss on the porch at AJ's had moved her this much.
She felt light headed and all she could think about was kissing him again. And again. *Get a grip, Mackenzie*, she thought. *He's just a man. Okay, a damn good looking man who can kiss like there's no tomorrow. But still 'just' a man.*
Gen. Cresswell's possible reaction was forgotten. If he didn't approve, she would ask for a transfer to the Pentagon or somewhere else close by. She had choices she could make.
She put the key into the lock and opened the door, going inside and pointing to the dinner table. "You can put the roses there," she said, turning toward the bedroom. "I'm going to change out of my uniform - help yourself to something to drink."
AJ put the vase down on the table, then went into the kitchen to get a bottle of water from the fridge. Going back into the living room, he sank down onto the sofa, the bottle clasped in his hands between his knees. The kiss hadn't been planned. But seeing Mac again - and then hearing her worrying about Cresswell's reaction to their seeing each other - he'd decided to take the damn bull by the horns. Sitting back, he sighed and put his head against he sofa, trying to remember the last time he'd felt so *right* with a woman. He wasn't sure he had ever felt this way.
And it scared the hell out of him. The idea that he might finally have a chance at *real* happiness was something he'd given up on after Meredith and that whole fiasco.
He looked up and saw that Mac had changed into the warm ups and tee-shirt she'd been wearing the previous evening.
"Are you okay?" she asked, and he saw the uncertainty on her face.
Holding out his hand to her, he said, "Come here." Mac slowly came forward and placed her hand in his. He pulled her onto the sofa at his side, putting his drink onto the coffee table. "I'm sorry if I surprised you out there, Mac -"
"Because you're here?" Mac questioned.
"No. I mean when I kissed you."
"Oh. You didn't surprise me, AJ. In fact, I'd like it if you'd kiss me again-"
AJ felt his lips curve into a smile before turning toward her and doing as she requested. Within moments, he pulled her into his lap, holding her even closer than before. He felt her fingers slip the buttons on his shirt and slide across his chest, causing his heart to skip a beat. "Oh, Mac," he sighed, letting his own fingers explore the feel of her skin as her shirt crept up. "I've never felt like this before."
She pulled back. "Never?" she asked.
"Not even with Marcella. Or Meredith. I was settling because I thought the person I wanted was never going to be available."
"I've never felt this way either, AJ," Mac informed him, and AJ felt is heart-beat return to normal. Or as normal as it was going to get around this woman. "It's a good thing you came to your senses that night, or else we would have both destroyed our careers. Because I don't think I would have been able to stop."
"I know I wouldn't have, darlin'," he drawled, pulling her close again as she wriggled in his arms, causing him to react even more than he already was if that was possible. "Uh, Mac, darlin', -"
She giggled, and he realized she knew *exactly* what she was doing. "What, AJ?" she asked, her sloe-eyes filled with a curious mix of mischief and faux innocence.
"I planned to take this slowly," he told her. "To not rush into anything."
"We're both adults, AJ," she pointed out. "And *neither* of us is getting any younger," she added with a sly grin that caused AJ's eyes to narrow dangerously.
"That sounded like a challenge." Mac's fingers were moving across his chest again, having full unbuttoned his shirt.
"And a SEAL never backs away from a challenge, right?"
"*Too* right, darlin'," AJ growled again, moving in for another kiss, only to have Mac slip out of his arms and stand before him.
With graceful moves, she shimmied out of the warm ups, leaving her long legs bare, and causing AJ's eyes to speculate about the dark triangle of hair that he could just see beneath the bottom of the tee shirt. Smiling, Mac crossed her arms and lifted the shirt over her head, dropping it onto the sofa, revealing herself to him.
"Oh, God, Mac," he whispered, sitting forward. She grabbed his hands and moved back, pulling him to his feet and toward the bedroom . . .
It was later that night before they came up for air again, with Mac resting her dark head against AJ's shoulder, running her fingers through the hair that covered his chest. "Happy?" AJ asked upon hearing her contented sigh.
"Delirious," she confirmed, snuggling even closer to him, her leg moving over his hip to brush against him.
"Give it some time, Mac darlin. I'm not a spring chicken anymore." Privately he told himself that he needed to check into some Viagra or something similar. Especially if he wanted to keep up with this woman.
"I don't mind," Mac said in a quiet voice. "Not if you don't."
Hearing the regret in her voice, AJ frowned as he placed a hand under her chin to lift her head. "If I don't - what?"
"Mind that I can't have children -"
AJ chuckled, lifting his head to touch his lips to hers. "No. I don't mind. Hell, I'm too old to be a father again. I wasn't that good at it the first time. As long as I have you, that's all I need." He sensed that she might need more, though. "If it happens, Mac, then it happens. I'm not going to stress over it. And I don't think you should, either. Just relax, okay?"
She smiled and put her head back onto his shoulder. "Why did you come over tonight?" she asked, her fingers circling the flat nipples on his chest.
"You don't think it was just to see you?" he questioned, grabbing her hand and bringing it to his lips.
"You said that you didn't want to rush things, so I don't think that was your only reason."
"You're right," he admitted. "I did have an ulterior motive. Jen's agreed to meet with Harm to talk to him."
Mac looked at him again. "She has?"
"Yes. I told her that they could meet at my place - so that he wouldn't have to know where she was working or living until after they talk. Just in case -"
"I don't think it will go badly, AJ," Mac said. "I've never seen Harm so - I've never seen him like this before. He barely eats, and I know he hasn't slept much since he found out Jen had gone without word. Bud and I had to force him to eat lunch. I'm pretty sure he won't eat anything tonight -"
"Hmm." He drew little circles on Mac's back as he considered his options. "Think you're up to having dinner with the both of us?" he suggested.
"I think the better question," she countered, turning to rest her lightly clenched hand on his chest and then put her chin on it as she looked at him, "is are *you* up to it?"
AJ's hand moved down to cup her bare bottom. "As long as I know you'll be leaving with me, darlin', I'm up to just abut anything."
Mac's leg moved again, and she smiled. "I think Harm can wait for supper, don't you?"
"Whatever you say," AJ agreed, rolling over so that Mac was under him.
Harm sat in the dark apartment, his thoughts still filled with questions to which he had no real answers. AJ probably knew where Jen was, but he wasn't going to break his confidence to the young woman without her permission.
Surely she'd give her permission, he thought. She had to know how he felt - how much that brief kiss on his birthday had affected him. But what if she didn't? What if she was too embarrassed to face him because she thought he would turn her away? Harm seriously considered going out to McLean and parking outside of AJ's to monitor his movements in the vague hope that his former CO might lead him to Jen's location.
But then he realized that he couldn't do that - besides, AJ, if he was as smart as Harm thought he was, had probably come into town to see Mac again. The idea of Mac and AJ was still a new one, but it felt *right* to Harm. More right than the idea of any of Mac's other men had felt. He had never believed that Dalton or Mic or Webb could make Mac really happy for the long-term. But with AJ, things were different.
Mac had been openly delighted with the roses AJ sent - and he had been pleasantly surprised to see the light in her eyes when she talked about the other man. She seemed more relaxed, younger even. And he was happy *for* her. Happy that she'd finally found what she needed.
Now, if only he could manage to do the same thing --- a knock on his door caused him to sigh heavily and consider ignoring it. But AJ's booming voice came through a moment later, making him realize that it wouldn't do any good.
"We know you're in there, Rabb! Open up!"
Sighing again, Harm rose from the sofa and turned on the light as he opened the door to find AJ and Mac standing in the hallway, carrying sacks from Harm and Mac's favorite Chinese restaurant. "We come bearing gifts," Mac said, moving past him to carry her load to the table before moving to get some plates from the kitchen.
"What's going on?" Harm asked, closing the door as AJ followed Mac to the table.
"I was going to invite you out to have dinner with us," AJ explained, taking the plates from Mac and putting them on the table. "But Mac figured you'd come up with an excuse to say no -"
Harm looked at Mac, who was retrieving some bottles of water from the refrigerator. She looked at him and shrugged. "I know what you're like when you get like this. So I decided that if you wouldn't go to the meal, we'd bring the meal to you."
"I see," Harm said, folding his arms across his chest, trying to hide the smile that was threatening to break loose. "And what if I'd already eaten?" he asked.
"After the way Bud and I had to practically force-feed you at lunch?" Mac reminded him, handing him a bottle of water and taking his other hand to drag him over to the table. "Not likely. You're in a brooding mood."
"I'm not -" Harm began, but AJ stopped him.
"Never argue with the lady, Harm," he said, pulling out the chair at the head of the table. "Now sit. And while we're eating, I'll tell you what Jen said when I talked to her."
Harm froze. "You talked to her? Is she okay?"
"She's fine," AJ assured him. "A little withdrawn, but I think that will be resolved by the end of the week." He lifted the chair and let it drop. "Now sit. Don't make me have to make that an order."
"You're not an Admiral anymore, remember?" Harm said, but he took the seat anyway.
"Doesn't make me any less authoritarian," AJ replied, holding Mac's chair for her before sitting down beside her.
"What did Jen say?" Harm asked, automatically putting some of the food they'd brought onto his plate.
"She's agreed to meet with you," AJ said, and forestalled Harm's response by adding, "on her terms."
"Her terms? What does that mean?"
"If you come to my house on Friday evening, she'll arrive after you do and talk to you. It'll be up to you then."
"Friday," Harm mused. Almost three days away. But he'd manage, as long as he knew he'd be seeing her at the end of that time. As long as he knew he had a chance. "What time?"
"Say, around 1900?" AJ suggested.
"I thought you and Mac were having dinner -"
"We are. It'll just a little later than I originally planned," AJ said, giving Mac a smile that Harm saw her return. She was positively glowing - and Harm was again amazed at the change that being with AJ made in his friend. He doubted he'd ever seen her looking so happy and content.
"Did she give you any hints as to how she feels, AJ?"
"I think that's something you need to discuss with Jen, Harm. My only part in this is to get you two into the same general area so that you can work it out." He smiled again and lifted Mac's hand to his lips. "Of course, I do have my own reasons for hoping that it does."
Mac gasped at his words, and touched his cheek. "AJ."
"You don't have to worry, AJ," Harm said. "If Jen isn't willing to give it a chance, I'm not going to suddenly decide that I want to try again with Mac."
"And I wouldn't let him," Mac confirmed, tossing a quick smile in Harm's direction before speaking. "You're the one that I want to be with, AJ."
Harm noticed that AJ had released her hand, and that it was now under the table. As Mac spoke, he saw AJ tense for a moment and realized what Mac was probably doing. The fact that she felt comfortable enough to act this way in front of him was simply further proof of how she felt about the older man.
He searched his mind, looking for traces of the jealousy he'd felt at other times: seeing Mac kissing Mic at the airport, her kissing Webb in Paraguay or in the hospital once they had returned to Washington.
There was none. He was truly over Mac, mostly because he was able to finally *approve* of one of the men she had picked. Mac giggled - *giggled?* and Harm smiled at the sound.
Not wanting to embarrass them, Harm grabbed his chopsticks and tackled the pile of food on his plate. Knowing that he was finally going to have a chance to talk to Jen, to let her know how he felt, to ask her to give them a try, Harm was hungry again.