"After finding your fiancée practically in bed with another man," he muttered, picking up the glass and taking draining it at once. Putting it back on the bar, he nodded at Pete, the bartender, for another.
But he hadn't wanted to go home. He had a feeling that Meredith would have left several messages. He'd turned his cell phone off to keep from being bothered by it. He wasn't sure he could trust himself to listen to any excuses she might come up with for what he'd seen at her apartment.
He'd gone there, intending to spend some time with her, to give her the new engagement ring that he'd purchased, only to find -
"You okay, Admiral?" Pete asked, placing the glass in front of him.
"Hell, no," AJ said, and knew immediately that he'd had too much to drink. "Would you be if you found your fiancée with another man?"
"Ouch. That don't sound good."
"Tell me about it," AJ said with a mirthless chuckle. "Thing is, I was taking her another engagement ring to replace the one she'd accidentally damaged -" he stopped, shaking his head and downing the drink.
"You want me to call you a cab, Admiral?" Pete asked.
AJ considered the offer, feeling himself out mentally as to whether or not he should try to drive the rest of the way home. He'd chosen a local bar in McLean, not ten miles away from home, but all things considered - He nodded at the bartender. "Thanks. It's not far. But I probably shouldn't drive."
"Glad you agree," the man said with a smile. "Didn't like the idea of having to wrestle an ex-SEAL, Admiral."
AJ gave him a half-smile. "Don't tell anyone, but you'd probably have been able to do it tonight, Pete."
"Looks like missed my chance, then," Pete replied, already dialing the phone. When he hung up, he said, "They'll be here in a couple of minutes. You sure you're okay, Admiral? Is there anyone I can call?"
"Don't worry, Pete," AJ assured him. "I'm not going to do anything stupid. Too old for that," he said, groaning as he got off of the barstool and was reminded of the sore muscles that were a result of his search for the truth about Meredith's ring. "I'll wait outside."
"You won't try to drive home, will you?"
AJ held up his hand. "Give you my word," he promised, moving unsteadily toward the front door.
Outside, the cool night air, with more than a hint of snow, sobered him a little, and for a moment, AJ considered breaking that promise; even went so far as to take a few steps toward the Cadillac Escalade parked at the curb. But the taxi came to a stop at that moment, and the driver called out to him.
"You need a lift, pal?"
Glancing at the SUV, AJ nodded and opened the back door of the taxi, giving the driver his address. Leaning against the door, AJ found himself lulled into a light sleep by the movement of the taxi over the snow-covered roads, the 'thump-thump' of the chains a lullaby that he wasn't sure that he wanted to ignore.
"Here we go, pal," the driver said, and AJ opened his eyes, realizing that the car had stopped.
He was home. "How much do I owe you?" he asked the driver.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "Pete at the bar said it was on him. Can you get inside okay?"
"I think so," AJ said, the few minutes sleep having cleared his head even more. "Thanks."
"No problem. Keeping people from drinking and driving's all part of the job, I figure. Night."
"Night," AJ said, taking a ten-dollar bill out anyway and handing it to him. "Consider it a tip."
"Thanks," the man said, smiling, and pulled back out of the circular drive.
AJ turned and immediately recognized Meredith's car sitting there. Taking a deep breath of the cold air, he moved toward the porch, bracing himself as she came out of the shadows.
"AJ, I -"
"Go home, Meredith," he said, not even looking at her.
"AJ, please. We have to talk."
He stopped, his key already in the lock of the door, and turned to look at her. "I don't think we have anything to talk about, Meredith. It's over."
"Oh, AJ, I don't love him -"
AJ struggled to control his anger, turning the key in the lock and opening the door. "Then why did you sleep with him?" he asked, going inside, closing the door firmly behind him, hoping that she would take the hint.
Dammit barked at his entrance, her tail wagging. "Hello, girl," he said, rubbing her ears in greeting. "Come on. I'll let you out the back door." Tossing his keys onto the table, he moved to the back door, letting the dog out.
He knew that she was in the kitchen doorway without turning. "I was weak, AJ," she said. "Lonely."
"Lonely?!" AJ repeated, turning at last to face her. "*I'm* the one who spent Christmas alone," he reminded her, "while you were in Italy sleeping with -"
"I wasn't," she insisted. "Tonight was the first - and only time - that happened. I swear to you, AJ. I'm *so* sorry -"
He closed his eyes. "Get out of here, Meredith. I'll cancel the arrangements, tell everyone that we just decided it was a mistake and go on from there."
He felt her touch his arm, and pulled away. "But I don't want to -"
"I can't forget what I saw, Meredith," AJ said. "Maybe this was a mistake all along. Maybe I just liked the idea of being married - I don't know. But I *do* know that I can't pretend it never happened."
AJ's fingers curled into fists. "Go, Meredith. Now." He was holding onto his temper by only the thinnest of threads. Another word from her might send him over the edge.
When he heard the front door close behind her, AJ took a deep breath, counting to ten. Out of habit, he found Dammit's food and poured some into her dish before opening the back door. "Dammit!"
The dog raced into the warmth of the house, trailing snow behind her. But instead of going to her waiting dish, she jumped up, placing her paws on his chest, as if sensing that something was wrong. "It's okay, girl," he assured her, stroking the German Shepard's fur and looking into her dark eyes. "Go eat, Dammit." As if she understood, she dropped back to the floor and padded over to the dish.
AJ absently gave her another pat before going into the living room, where he locked the front door. The light on his answering machine was blinking, but he ignored it. If someone needed him for an emergency, they knew where to find him. Telling Dammit goodnight, AJ's tired steps turned toward the bedroom.
Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
Jennifer Coates was already at her desk when he arrived the next morning. Her hair was dry and there was no sign of the personal items that he littered her office for the last week. "Good morning, sir," she said. "I have some suggestions for table settings when you have moment."
AJ stopped. "Table settings?" he questioned.
"For the reception, sir? I thought I'd see how you liked them before talking to Prof. Cavanaugh -"
"Uh - my office," he told her, opening the door and standing back to let her enter first.
Once inside, AJ faced the Petty Officer. "I appreciate everything you've done, Coates, but - there's no longer any need for your assistance in this matter."
Her face fell. "Did I do something else wrong, Admiral?" she asked. "I've been trying to stick to just what you and -"
AJ placed a hand on the young woman's shoulder, and then pulled it back. "No, it's not that. You've done an excellent job since we got things straightened out, but -we've called off the wedding," he said quickly.
"Called it - off, sir?" she questioned her eyes huge.
"I don't want any questions about this, Jen," he said. "And I'm sure that I can trust your discretion in the matter."
"Of course, Admiral. I'm sorry. You seemed so happy."
"Goes to show how wrong a person can be," he said. "There's no further reason for you to contact Meredith."
"If you say so, sir."
"That will be all."
Coates went to attention and turned toward the door, then stopped and looked at him. "There's no chance, sir?"
"None," AJ answered firmly, already seated behind his desk, his reading glasses in hand.
She gave him a sad smile and then left the office.
AJ sat there, under no misconception that the news would be all over JAG within the hour. Pressing the intercom, he said, "I'd like to see my senior staff in the conference room at 0900, Coates."
"Aye aye, Admiral," was the response.
AJ took a deep breath and put on his glasses to read over the messages that Coates had left on his desk.
AJ looked at the gathered staff - noting that Rabb was in attendance. "Glad you were able to make it on time for a chance, Commander," he noted.
"I'm sorry for the last few weeks, Admiral," Harm apologized. "It shouldn't' happen again."
"Don't count on it. I'm sure that Lt. Roberts can tell you that being a parent can be pretty unpredictable even at best of times."
"Yes, sir," Harm replied, smiling at Bud.
"Before we begin the morning briefing," AJ began, "I have an announcement to make." Aware that he had the attention of all eyes in the room, AJ cleared his throat. "Meredith and I have decided not to get married, and we're no longer seeing each other. This not a topic for questions, and I would appreciate it if you would all respect my right to privacy on this matter. Is that understood?" He glanced at his two senior attorneys, and then at Bud, seeing sympathetic and worried looks on their faces. "I said is that understood?" he repeated in a firm tone.
"Yes, sir," they all said.
"Good." AJ opened the folder in front of him, detailing the case that it contained.
"Dismissed," AJ announced, standing up to gather the paperwork in front of him as the others began to file out of the room. Without looking up, he knew that not everyone had followed and looked up to find Rabb, Mackenzie, and Roberts near the doorway. "Something else?"
Mac seemed to have been appointed as spokesperson, and stepped forward. "Is there anything we can do, sir?"
For a moment, AJ almost let down his guard. He probably could with these three - they'd all been to hell and back together at various times. But he also knew that if he gave in, he'd never regain the military decorum required for him to effectively do his job.
So AJ sucked it up and remained impassive. "What part of 'respect my privacy' did you not understand?" he asked.
"Admiral -" Harm began, holding out a hand in supplication.
"We're just concerned, sir," Bud told him.
"Dismissed," AJ barked, and saw all three officers snap to attention before turning to open the door again. Once they were gone, AJ closed his eyes to gather his strength that was nearly in tatters before following them, moving through the bullpen, ignoring the looks of sympathy and pity as he crossed to enter his office. To Coates, he said, "Don't disturb me unless absolutely necessary, Petty Officer."
"Aye, sir," she replied crisply.
Two hours later, AJ looked up from the file he'd been attempting to read without much success when there was a tap at the door. "Enter."
Coates was there, looking uncertain. "Excuse me, Admiral, but Col. Mackenzie would like to see you."
"Send her in," he said, turning his attention back to the file for a moment to school his expression before glancing up at his Chief of Staff. "At ease, Colonel. You needed to see me about something?"
"Yes, sir," Mac said, and then seemed to hesitate.
"I - spoke with Meredith, sir. She -"
AJ removed his reading glasses, bracing his hands on his desk as he rose to his feet. "Colonel, I thought I made it clear -"
"Yes, sir. You did. But Meredith's a friend, too, and, well - I just feel responsible for all of this since I was partially responsible for you meeting her."
AJ took a deep breath before the turned around to the window, his hands clasped behind his back. "What did she tell you?"
"That she'd made a terrible mistake and that she hopes you'll be able to forgive her some day."
"Will that be all, Colonel?"
"No, sir. Permission to speak freely?"
AJ turned slightly, looking at her. "If I said no, would you leave this alone?"
"Probably not, sir. If you won't listen to me, then there will be someone else in here shortly."
"Ganging up on me?" he questioned, starting to relax slightly. "Permission granted, Mac," he said, indicating one of the chairs before his desk.
"As Bud said, sir. We consider you to be a friend as well as our CO. We don't like to see you hurting."
"I'll get through this, Mac," he told her. "It'll just take some time."
"I think I should apologize for giving you bad advice, telling you to trust Meredith and not worry - Heaven knows that my own love-life isn't all it's cracked up to be at the moment."
AJ gave her a look, recalling that she'd as much as told him that she was seeing Webb - not something that he liked the idea of, but it was her life, after all. He wasn't her father, he was her CO.
"Meredith said that you refused to talk to her -" Mac said, pulling his thoughts away from Webb and any problems the two of them might be having.
"There's nothing to talk about," AJ said. "It's over, and I think it's best to just let it go, get on with my life." He smiled at her. "I appreciate your concern, Mac, and that of Bud and Harm and everyone else, but I'll survive."
"I know, sir. We just - wanted you to know that if you need someone to talk to, we're available."
"Thank you." He sat down at the desk again. "Will there be anything else?"
Mac rose from the chair. "No, sir."
AJ found himself feeling a little better than he had before Mac's visit. Maybe he just needed to give up on finding someone. He had a family here - a family that had practically imploded earlier this year due to mistakes made on all sides, a family that was slowly and carefully beginning to rebuild itself.
And while he'd never admit it aloud, he was proud of them all - even Rabb, he thought, chuckling for the first time since the previous evening as he put on his reading glasses and buried himself in the report he'd been unable to concentrate on before Mac's visit.
Things were going to be okay after all.