Operation: Road Not Taken 2
Part 2
Nancy Eddy

Disclaimers in Part 1

Mattie was sound asleep when they crept into her room and Harm stood aside as Mac unnecessarily adjusted the blanket. "You think we should try to wake her?" Harm whispered. "The concussion -"

Mac touched a hand to Mattie's wrist, checking her pulse. "She's asleep. If she was going to have a reaction to the concussion, it would have been apparent before now. Of course, if she starts seeing things -" she smiled up at him and nodded toward the door.

Harm paused and reached down to smooth the girl's hair from her face before following. In the hall, he looked at her. "What was that about seeing things?" he asked.

"A few years ago? When you were taking the Admiral's place? You had a slight 'accident' with his chair and -"

"And hit my head," Harm nodded, opening the door into their room. "How did you know I was seeing things?"

"Bud mentioned something about it," she said. "Of course, he didn't know *what* you were seeing."

"Because I wasn't about to tell him or anyone else," Harm replied, stripping off his uniform blouse as he sat on the edge of the bed to remove his shoes.

"Was it so terrible?" Mac questioned, getting undressed herself.

Harm went still, watching her move. "I kept seeing you."

"Me?" she asked, stepping out of her skirt.

"First time, you were wearing a skin-tight, sexy as hell evening gown and you stood there in the doorway and told me that it was going to rain and that it was perfect weather for making love."

A light came on in Mac's eyes. "Well you should know, sweet thing," she recalled. "So *that's* what you were talking about. I always wondered -"

Harm looked a little embarrassed. "I wasn't about to tell you the truth. I already had a concussion. I didn't want a broken arm to go with it."

"You said the first time -" Mac prompted, "What else?" she asked, moving into the bathroom.

Harm stood up, removing his trousers before sliding beneath the covers, resting his back against the wall. "Um, it was later that day - I was at home, laying in bed when I saw - or *thought* I saw you come out of the bathroom -" he looked up, wondering for a moment if he was seeing things again.

"Go on," Mac said, watching him. "I came out of the bathroom -"

He cleared his throat. "Wearing a towel and nothing else," he finished. "Just like you are now."

"Really?" she said, moving toward him. All he could do was nod in confirmation. "And what happened then?" she wanted to know, sitting beside him.

"You mentioned something about picking up where we'd left off the night before. I said your name - and suddenly it wasn't you - but Renee."

Mac stifled a laugh. "You called Renee *Mac*?" she said.

"Yeah. I denied it when she questioned me about it, but - I think she knew I was lying."

"Where there anymore of these - visions?" Mac wondered, leaning toward him.

"One," he admitted, lifting his hand to tangle his fingers in her hair. "When you were leaving the office later. You had on another evening gown and you stopped and - waved."

"I guess that explains the way you acted when I came in later wearing civvies," she told him, smiling.

"I wasn't sure if it was really happening or if it was another vision," he nodded.

"Believe me," Mac told him, her lips almost on his. "*This* is the real thing."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Mac woke up the next morning to the smell of bacon frying and fresh coffee, grabbing a pair of sweats and t-shirt, she went down the hall, looking in to check on Mattie, who appeared to still be asleep - before heading downstairs into the kitchen.

"Is that bacon I smell?" she asked upon seeing Harm standing at the stove.

"It is."

"I know it's not for me," she said, grabbing a slice from the plate nearby.

"Mattie's a meat eater like you," he told her. "I thought it might be a good idea -"

"A very thoughtful idea," she agreed, resting her head against his shoulder for a moment before going to get a cup of coffee. "Do you want me to go wake her up?"

"No, let her sleep a little longer. I checked on her a couple of times during the night," he admitted.

"I know."

He looked at her with a sheepish expression, coming over to give her a kiss. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't, really. But I've discovered that I don't sleep very well unless you're with me."

Harm held her close. "I know the feeling."

"Is that coffee I smell?" Mattie asked, entering the room wearing a robe over her nightclothes. "And bacon?"

"It is," he answered, looking at her before moving to give her a hug. "Morning."

"Umm," was her reply.

Harm gave Mac a wink. "She's a bear in the mornings, usually."

"Then we have something else in common," Mac pointed out, grabbing another cup and filling it with the hot liquid before handing it over. She watched as the girl added six spoons of sugar and a *lot* of creamer to the cup before taking a drink.

"How many pancakes do you want?" Harm asked.

"Four," each of them answered at the same time, and he laughed.

"At least you have your appetite back," he noted, and could have bit his tongue the moment the words were out when he saw the shadow that crossed Mattie's face.

But it was quickly masked with a smile. "I would *never* turn down your pancakes, Harm," she told him. "Especially not when you've got bacon to go with them."

"Girl after my own heart," Mac sighed, lifting her hand to share a "high five" with Mattie.

Harm shook his head, looking toward the ceiling. "What did I do?" he asked, giving a mock sigh of long-suffering.

"You got lucky, Squid," Mac informed him. "Now feed us!"

"Yeah!" Mattie agreed.

Harm's eyebrow lifted, and he turned back to the stove to finish his task, telling them, "You both realize, I hope, that you'll have to pay for the bacon."

"Look out," Mattie warned Mac. "He's talking meatless meatloaf," she groaned.

"Harm, you *didn't* expose this poor child to *that*, did you?" Mac teased.

Harm hid the grin as he turned around. "I was thinking of something more along the lines of tofu," he said, returning to what he'd been doing as both of them groaned in unison.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

After breakfast, Mattie offered to clean up the kitchen. "Don't you two have to go to work?" she asked.

"We took a day off to be with you and take care of -things," Harm explained.

"Oh. Funeral arrangements," she said.

"If you'd rather handle them -" Harm began, but Mattie shook her head.

"No. I'll let you do that," she said quickly.

The phone rang, and Mac answered. "Hello? . . . Yes, she is. Just a minute." Holding the phone out, she told Mattie, "It's Jen."

Harm saw the girl hesitate, glancing at the dishes waiting to the rinsed and put into the dishwasher. "Go ahead. Mac and I will pull KP this morning."

"I'll get it in the living room," Mattie told them.

Mac waited until she heard Mattie pick up the extension before hanging up. Picking up a towel, she said, "You wash, I'll dry."

"I need to find someone to stay with Mattie this afternoon while we go to see Dr. McCool," Harm told her. "Maybe Harriet -"

"I can reschedule the appointment, Harm," Mac told him. "I'm sure she would understand -"

"Mac -"

"Seriously. We're going to have to drive out to Blacksburg today, and probably spend most of the day there as well as tomorrow. I was even thinking that we might be better off spending the night in the house there instead of driving back here. I'll call after Mattie finishes with Jen."

"You're sure that you won't mind? I know I promised -"

"And you'll keep the promise," Mac said. "Just not today. Right now, Mattie's the one we need to concentrate on helping."

He smiled at her, reaching out to pull her close, resting his head against hers. "You were right. I am a lucky guy."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

After Mattie finished talking to Jen, she told them that she was going upstairs to take a shower and get dressed.

"Everything okay?" Harm asked.

"Yeah. Jen said she'd be there for the funeral - if we let her know when and where."

"We will," Mac nodded. "Don't use all the hot water," she called as Mattie left.

"Yes, ma'am," Mattie called back.

"Sounds like her talk with Jen helped," Mac told Harm.

"They're pretty close," he confirmed.

"Well, they would be, sharing an apartment the way they did. I think Mattie's going to need all of her friends to get through this."

"You didn't," Harm pointed out, remembering when her father had died. "I should have caught a flight out there - been with you -"

"I didn't expect you to do that, Harm," she told him.

"I know. But I should have done it anyway. I was so caught up in my own problems -"

"You were trying to get your night vision restored. That was important. I understand."

"You didn't then."

"Only because you didn't tell me about it until *after* you did it and were considering going back to flying," she pointed out.

He could tell that she still had problems with his having made that decision. "Mac, do you know what I regret most about deciding to go back to carrier duty?" he asked, turning to take her into his arms.

"All the trouble you had when you came back to JAG?" she asked.

"No. Giving Brumby the time to worm his way into your affections."

"You think things would have changed if you'd stayed?" Mac wondered. "After all, you were involved with Jordan back then."

"Let me ask you a question: if things had gone differently say - on that ferry in Sydney Harbor - do you think we'd have been happy?"

She pulled back to look at him, her expression curious. "I don't know. We were different people then. Why do you ask?"

"The road not taken," he told her, and saw the understanding in her eyes.

"Ah. My starting point was a little later than that," she confessed. "Something about - what if Renee hadn't been there when I arrived at your apartment that night."

"We weren't ready then," he told her.


"But I'm ready now. I hope you are."

She smiled again, sliding her arms around his neck and linking them there. "Oh, I am, Flyboy. I am."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Mac was coming downstairs after getting dressed when the front doorbell rang. Opening the door, she was surprised to find Harriet Sims and her two sons on the porch. "Good morning, ma'am," she said, juggling a package, Jimmy, and trying to hold onto AJ.

"Harriet! This is a surprise. Come in. Let me take this," she said, pulling what she recognized now as a casserole carrier from her hands.

"Hi, Aunt Mac," Little AJ said.

"Hello, AJ," she replied, bending to give her godson a hug.

"I hope you don't mind my dropping by, Colonel," Harriet said. "Bud told me what happened, and I thought you might appreciate a casserole. I know it's not much, but -"

"Thank you, Harriet," Mac said.

Harriet looked around. "How's Mattie doing?"

"Better today. She's out in the back yard waiting until we're ready to leave for Blacksburg. We're spending the night there -" She stopped, remembering. "Harriet, about tonight -"

"It's okay, ma'am. Bud and I figured we'd just reschedule." She looked up as Harm came downstairs. "Commander."

"Harriet," he said, smiling. He said hello to Jimmy, only to have AJ tug at his slacks.

"Uncle Harm."

Harm scooped him up. "Hello, there, AJ. You being a good boy?"

"Good as gold, sir," Harriet assured him. "This is a lovely place -"

"It still needs some work," Harm told her. "Why don't you give Harriet the dime tour, Mac, while I make some coffee and show AJ the back yard?"

"Okay," Mac agreed. "Oh, here," she said, giving him the casserole. "Harriet brought it."

Harm took the container, giving Harriet a smile. "Thanks. Let's go find Mattie, champ," Harm told AJ as they moved toward the back of the house.

Mac turned to Harriet, only to find the other woman smiling at her. "What?"

"It's just - I'm so happy for the two of you," Harriet said.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

It was after noon by the time they arrived at the house in Blacksburg. Mac suggested that she and Mattie stay there and make the three of them something for lunch while Harm took the suit Mattie thought that her father would want to be buried in to the funeral home and finalized the arrangements for the funeral.

Not five minutes after Harm drove away, Mrs. Simkins knocked on the back door. The gray haired, grandmotherly woman introduced herself to Mac, and then gave Mattie a sympathetic hug.

"You poor dear. Losing both of them like that. You must be devastated."

"I'll be okay, Mrs. Simkins," Mattie said, glancing at Mac, her blue eyes begging for some reason to escape.

"Mattie, why don't you go and start deciding what you're going to take back with you? Mrs. Simkins and I will have a cup of coffee and talk."

"Okay," Mattie agree eagerly, pausing for a moment to say, "Thank you for your sympathy, Mrs. Simkins. I appreciate it."

"She's such a sweet child," Mrs. Simkins told Mac, sitting down at the kitchen table as if she'd done it every day for years while Mac made the coffee. "And to have had so much sadness in her life - I can tell you, it was really getting to her before she met the Commander."

Mac poured two cups of coffee and sat down across from the woman. "Getting to her?"

"She was working herself to death. Of course, I thought that Tom was here, just drunk. I know it's wrong to speak ill of the dead, but that man -"

"You knew them well?" Mac questioned.

"Mattie's mother grew up in this house," Mrs. Simkins informed her. "I knew her all of her life. Watched Mattie grow up as well. I never understood why Tina married Tom Johnson. Especially since most people assumed that he was responsible for her father's death."


"Tom worked on the crop dusters. Matthew Grace's airplane crashed, and it was discovered that Tom had been negligent. He wasn't arrested for it, but he was banned from working on aircraft again after that. Next thing anyone knew, he was marrying Tina and Mattie was born."

"Was Tom drinking back then?"

"Not as much as he did later on. I never noticed it until Mattie was a little older and I saw her playing in the back yard with a little toy airplane - she didn't play with dolls like most little girls," the woman confided. "All her life, she's talked about learning how to fly like her mother and taking over the business," she sighed. "While we were talking, Tom came staggering out onto the porch, and I could tell that he had been drinking. When I suggested that Mattie come over to my place to spend the rest of the day, Tom said no, and ordered Mattie back into the house with him. She didn't want to go, but he stumbled down the steps and grabbed her arm, dragging her back into the house."

"Did you tell her mother about it?"

"Oh, of course I did. What kind of neighbor would I have been if I hadn't? For a while, Tina took Mattie to the airport with her. And Tom seemed to stop drinking. But it didn't last - it never did."

"Was he ever - abusive?"

"Not that I could see. I don't think Tina would have put up with that. Oh, they argued, of course. Usually when he was drunk. And then that awful night when Tina died."

"They argued that night?"

"It was their anniversary, and Tom had already been drinking when they left, I believe. Tina wanted to drive, but he refused to give her the keys and got into the car - I remember hearing Mattie tell her mother that she shouldn't go with him, but Tina assured her that they would be okay and got into the car." Mrs. Simkin's face reflected her sadness. "It was the last time I saw her alive."

"Why didn't the police arrest him for DUI after the accident, Mrs. Simkins?"

"He told the cops that it would leave me without *any* parent," Mattie said, coming into the room. "And promised to change." She took a bottle of water out of the refrigerator. "Huh. Like that was ever gonna happen."

Mrs. Simkins gave Mac an apologetic smile. "I suppose I'd best go. I'll bring some of my brownies over for you, Mattie. Would you like that?"

"Yeah. Sure. Whatever," Mattie tossed back in reply as she left the kitchen again.

"I'm sorry, Colonel," Mrs. Simkins told Mac. "I should have known better -"

"It's my fault, too, Mrs. Simkins," Mac said, seeing her to the back door before going to find Mattie.

She was in the living room, staring out of the front window. "I guess you got the whole story, huh? All about poor little Mattie, growing up with a boozer dad and a mom who didn't seem to care enough about herself or her daughter to dump him."

"Mattie, I'm only trying to understand -"

"Understand? I thought you *did* understand, Mac," she said. "You and Jen. You've both been there. Grew up with fathers who didn't care -"

"I can't speak for Jen's father, Mattie," Mac said. "But I know that my father - for all his faults and his drinking and verbal abuse *did* care about me. He cared enough to be there for me after my mom deserted us. He cooked the meals, cleaned the house, looked at my homework. It wasn't perfect, by any means. But he was there. He *tried* to take care of me. Trouble was, he couldn't even take care of himself. And being fifeen, with no mother to turn to, and a father that I blamed for her being gone, I took the only way out that I knew: the bottle."

"I guess having Harm in my life prevented that from happening to me," Mattie said, playing with the lace curtain on the window. "It wasn't all bad," she said softly. "All that stuff that my dad said at that hearing before Christmas? About cooking and taking care of me when my mom was working? It was all true. When he wasn't drinking, he was okay. He cooked, and cleaned, made sure I did my homework - and -" she turned, and Mac saw the tears in her blue eyes.

Opening her arms, Mac said, "Come here," and enfolded the girl into her embrace as they both cried for their lost fathers and the opportunities missed.

Finally, as their tears subsided, Mac laughed. "You know, Harm's going to be back soon, and we haven't even *started* lunch," she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. "You *do* have something in the kitchen that he'll eat, I hope?"

"Lettuce and other stuff for a salad," Mattie told her.

"Then let's go cut some lettuce," Mac said.

"Harm always tears it," Mattie said as she led the way to the kitchen. "He says that cutting it turns the edges brown or something."

"That sounds like Harm. Then we'll tear lettuce," Mac corrected, opening the outdated refrigerator to retrieve the lettuce and whatever else she could find.


She turned to look at the girl.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harm heard them laughing when he entered the house, and stopped in the doorway of the kitchen, watching as they put the finishing touches on lunch. "Having fun?" he asked, lounging there, arms folded across his chest.

"Hi, Harm!" Mattie said, her blue eyes shining. "We didn't hear you drive up."

"Apparently not," he said.

"Did you get everything taken care of?" Mac asked, placing the plates around the table while Mattie followed with the forks and napkins.

He nodded, moving further into the room, hesitant to say more for fear of upsetting Mattie. "What's for lunch?"

"When is the funeral, Harm?" Mattie asked in a calm voice.

"Tomorrow at fourteen hundred. He'll be buried beside your mother."


"They expect us at the funeral home this evening for awhile - but if you'd rather not -"

Mattie glanced at Mac. "No. I think we should go."

Harm noticed the look and sat down at the table. "Now, what's for lunch?"

"Don't worry, we found something safe for you," Mac assured him, taking a bowl from the refrigerator and setting it down on the table.


"Chicken salad," Mattie told him. "I broiled some chicken breasts the other night, we didn't eat all of them, so Mac decided we might as well cut them up for the salad."

Mac put some of the salad on each of their plates. Harm took a bite and smiled in approval. "Your cooking skills have improved, Mac."

"There wasn't any cooking to it," she told him. "You want some coffee? Or water?"

"Water's fine," Harm said. "I'll get -"

"Let me," Mattie offered, getting up from her chair.

Harm put down his fork, looking from Mac, to Mattie, and then back again. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm being 'set up' here?"

"Not 'set up' - exactly," Mac said.

"Then what - *exactly*?" he asked.

"Mattie was telling me how much she was going to miss not being able to come to this place," Mac said. "It's been in her mother's family for three generations," she told him.

"Mattie grew up here; her mother grew up here -"

"I know all that," Harm nodded, waiting.

"I know we talked - before - about selling it," Mattie said, taking up the thread. "But - can't we find *some* way to keep it?"

"Mattie, I -"


"I think you should at least *consider* it, Harm," Mac added.

"If we rent it out, I could put the money into an account - kind of a nest egg," Mattie suggested.

"Yeah, what we don't have to put back *into* the place," Harm acknowledged. "A house this old needs a lot of upkeep - Even now, it could use a fresh coat of paint - the floors need to be redone -" He stopped as he saw two sets of eyes on him. "Okay. Okay, I'll *think* about it. Not making any promises, but I'll think -"

"Thank you!" Mattie exclaimed, standing up to throw her arms around his neck.

"Where did I lose control of this situation?" Harm wondered, but he was smiling. "Sit down and finish your lunch."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

After lunch was finished, Mattie received a telephone call from an old friend. Harm and Mac went out to the front porch to give her some privacy. "I called Jen when I left the funeral home and told her when the funeral was. She said she would let Bud and Harriet and the others know."

"You think they'll be here?" Mac wondered, sitting on the porch swing.

"Those three, anyway. Sturgis was going out of town with Varise this weekend - she had a concert in Boston, I think."

"What about the Admiral and Meredith?"

"I gave up trying to figure out what the Admiral might or might not do when he refused to let me go after you last year," he said, looking into the distance. He could feel Mac's eyes on him.

"I thought you and he were past that?"

"We've never discussed it," Harm told her. "We've moved on, but -"

"You're still bitter about it."

"Guess so," he admitted, joining her on the swing. "I guess you and Mattie bonded while I was gone."

"You're changing the subject."

"I shouldn't have said anything. The Admiral seems to trust me again -"

"He does. He asked you to be his Chief of Staff. He wouldn't have asked if he didn't trust you. And for him to suggest that you become temporary JAG when he retires -"

"I know all that," Harm said. "I just wish -"

"Maybe you should talk to him about it?"

"I think it might be best to - what's the term - 'Let sleeping dogs lie'?" he questioned. "Now, about this 'bonding' while I was gone -"

Mac allowed him to change the subject as she told him a little of what had happened.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Jennifer Coates looked up from her desk as the Admiral came out of his office, noting that he had his cover and briefcase in hand. "Leaving for the day, sir?"

"Yes. Thought I'd get home a little earlier this evening."

"Will you and Prof. Cavanaugh be at the funeral tomorrow, sir?" she asked.

"Fourteen hundred hours, wasn't it?"

"That's right, sir at the Blacksburg Cemetery."

"We'll be there."

"Have a nice evening, sir."

AJ smiled. "I intend to."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

AJ frowned when he saw the strange car parked in the driveway of the house. Thinking that Meredith had invited one of her fellow professors over, he smiled, wondering how he could get rid of whoever it was. He planned to surprise Meredith by coming home early, knowing that she would be here waiting for him after her last class.

Entering the house, he put his cover on the dining table, frowning when he didn't see anyone in the living room. Dammit came from the kitchen, her tail wagging slowly, to nuzzle his hand, a silent request for attention. "Hello, girl," he said, stroking her head absently, listening for some clue as to where Meredith and her guest might be.

"I'll get something to drink -" he turned as he heard her voice coming from the bedroom and saw her pulling on a housecoat.

She blinked, lifting a hand to her throat when she saw him. "AJ."

"What the hell's going on here, Meredith?" he asked, his gaze moving behind Meredith as a younger man appeared behind her, obviously wearing very little.

"AJ, I -"

With an odd sense of déjà vu, he said, "Get out. If you're not gone by the time I return, I'll remove you myself."

He called Dammit and left the house, walking toward the trail that lead through the woods, struggling to regain his temper, to calm down so that he could think without seeing everything through a haze of red.

She'd done it again. And *this* time, there was no excuse. He'd bent over backwards to arrange his schedule so that he could spend time with her. And she'd done it in *his* house. In the bed that the two of them shared. Grabbing a stick, he threw it as far and hard as he could, barely noticing when Dammit ran after it to bring it back to him, brushing it against his hand to repeat the game.

He threw the stick again. And again. And kept throwing it until Dammit tired of the game and dropped down beside him, panting heavily. Ignoring the fact that he would ruin his uniform, AJ sank to the ground as well, resting his back against a tree. "I'm tired too, girl," he sighed. "Damn tired."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

It was almost dark by the time he and Dammit returned to the house. Entering through the back door, he moved cautiously into the living room, sensing that she was still there. Forcing his anger back down, AJ stood there, waiting.

"I'm not going to apologize, AJ," she said.


"I just - I can't help myself. It's - it's an illness. Some kind of pathology -"

"Then find a therapist and stop trying to work it out on the unsuspecting."

"This isn't the first time," she told him. "Four other relationships - twice I was unfaithful, the other times, I just - disappeared. It's the reason I've never married. I'm sure you wondered why -"

"Maybe I was so in love with you that I just thought I'd gotten incredibly lucky," he said, stressing the past tense.

"Maybe -"

"Just go."

He remained there, listening to the sound of the door closing behind her, to the sound of her feet on the porch, and then waited to hear her car pull out of the driveway.

Dammit came to him again, whining, licking his hand as if she sensed that he was in pain. Slowly he approached the door to the bedroom, feeling his stomach protest at the sight of the still tangled sheets.

The feeling sent him to the front door, gasping for air; air that wasn't tainted by the smell of Meredith's perfume or the stench of the cheap aftershave that the man she'd been with used. He couldn't stay here. Not tonight, anyway. Taking a deep breath, he returned to the house to grab his cover and to call Dammit before moving toward the SUV.

He had to get out, to get away.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"I'm going to bed," Mattie told Harm and Mac when they returned to the house, giving each of them a hug. "Night."

"Night, Mattie."

"Night," Harm said, watching her go up the stairs.

"I'm going to get some water," Mac told Harm. "You want some?"

"Yeah. I'll be out on the front porch." He was on the swing when she came out and held the bottle of water out to him. "Thanks." Putting his head back, he said, "I'm glad that part's over. If I had had to listen to anyone else tell me how sad they were that he was dead -" he said, taking a long drink of water.

"It *is* sad in a way. A wasted life. He'll never have another chance to turn things around."

"Mattie handled it pretty well, don't you think?"

"She was nothing short of amazing," Mac agreed. "Greeting people, talking to them, listening to them talk about Tom and about her mother - She even managed to calm her aunt when none of the rest of the family could."

"She's a strong kid. Reminds me a lot of you in a lot of ways."

"I'm glad she found you in time to avoid a lot of my *mistakes*," Mac pointed out, pulling his arm over her head and around her shoulders. Harm turned to look at her, one brow lifted. "Well, you wouldn't do it yourself -"

"Maybe I was moving in that direction," he suggested, grinning.

"I didn't have all night," she countered. "And as slow you move, that's how long it would have taken."

"Slow, huh?" he asked, leaning closer, capturing her lips with his. When he finally lifted his head, he asked, "Still want to complain about how *slow* I am?"

"No complaints from me," Mac told him as he stood up, pulling her with him.

"Why don't we take this inside?" he suggested, drawing her toward the house . . .

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The weather on Saturday morning was dark, with clouds filling the sky, threatening the promised rain later in the day. Harm had decided on just a simple graveside ceremony instead of a full-out funeral. He had thought it would make things easier for Mattie. When the mourners began to gather, Mattie was surprised to see the Roberts arrive with Jennifer Coates. Sturgis and Varise had sent a flower arrangement, along with their apologies for being unable to attend the service.

As time for them to begin neared, Harm and Mac stood with their friends watching the line of cars on the street. "Anyone seen the Admiral?" Harm asked.

"He said that he and Prof. Cavanaugh would be here," Jen told them. "He knew what time -"

"Isn't that him?" Harriet questioned, pointing toward a Cadillac Escalade that had just pulled in behind the others. As they watched, AJ Chegwidden got out of the vehicle and moved toward them - alone.

Harm thought he saw the older man hesitated for the briefest of moments upon seeing them all standing there before he continued forward. "Afternoon, Admiral. Thank you for coming."

"Mattie's a part of this - strange family we seem to have formed," AJ pointed out. "Of course I came."

Jen's voice was hesitant as she asked, "Where's Prof. Cavanaugh, sir?"

AJ's voice never wavered as his dark eyes hardened. "I have no idea, Coates. And for the record, that's a closed subject from this point forward." He glanced toward the graveside. "I believe the minister is ready to begin -" he noted, moving past them.

His officers and Coates stood there, looking at each other for a moment before moving to follow him.

Once the brief service was ended, AJ approached Mattie, taking her hand and saying a few words of sympathy, telling her that she was lucky to have people like Harm and Mac who cared about her, and that she should never forget that.

Nodding at both Harm and Mac, he moved off, heading toward where he had parked his car. "Stay with Mattie," Harm told Mac, slipping out of line to follow his CO. "Admiral, a moment please?" he called, and saw AJ stop without turning.

"Yes, Commander?"

Harm moved around so that he could see the other man's face, unable to miss the tension of his jaws and the obsidian hardness in his eyes. "Is something wrong, sir?"

"Rabb -"

"You said yourself, sir, that we're a - family. Sometimes it's a little dysfunctional, but we all care about each other - and when one of us is hurting, we all hurt."

"Good God, Rabb," AJ groaned. "Let's not go all new age here, okay?" He started to turn away, and then stopped, sucking his lower lip between his teeth before speaking again. "Meredith and I are - finished, Harm. She - has a problem making commitments." Harm frowned at that news. "I'd rather not go into what happened, but I would appreciate it if you would let the others know - especially Coates. The last thing I need is her trying to 'help' the way she did the last time."

"Very well, sir. If you need to talk -"

AJ finally looked at him. "Thank you, Harm. Right now, I just need to figure out where I need to go from here." He glanced back toward where Mattie and Mac were standing, talking to Bud and Harriet. "I know I said it before, but it bears repeating. Don't wait too long, Harm. You never know what's going to happen from one day to the next."

"Yes, sir."

"I'll see you on Monday morning."

Harm watched AJ move to his vehicle and drive away, trying to ignore the tightness in his own chest. Whatever Meredith Cavanaugh had done, it was something that AJ couldn't forgive - and Harm felt uneasy because of it. He reminded himself that the things that he'd thought about a few weeks ago weren't reality - and that brought his thoughts back to himself and Mac.

"Everything okay?" Mac asked, and he turned to find her at his side, giving him concerned look.

"Not sure. Where's Mattie?" he wanted to know, looking around. "She's with Jen. What did the Admiral say?"

"I'll tell you later," he said, taking her hand in his. "I'd rather only have to go into it once. We about ready to leave?"

"I think so."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Most of Mattie's neighbors had brought dishes of food over before the funeral, saying that they understood that the family would prefer to spend the time after with each other. Since Tom's family and Mattie weren't close, it had been a given that Mattie wouldn't join them, but return to her own home with Harm, Mac, and the rest of her new family from JAG.

Back at the house, everyone gathered in the living room, curious about what was going on with the Admiral.

"The wedding's off again, isn't it, sir?" Jen asked before Harm could begin.

"This time for good, I think," he nodded.

"Did he say why?" Harriet wondered.

"Nothing specific. He mentioned something about Meredith having a problem with making a commitment." Harm ignored the look that Mac gave him to continue. "Basically he said that it was over and requested that we all respect his privacy."

"Meaning me," Jen sighed. "I should have known something was going on," she told them.

"Why?" Bud wondered.

"She was supposed to call me about wedding plans - but she never did. And I left a couple of messages for her, letting her know when the best time to discuss it would be."

"You knew her better than the rest of us, ma'am," Harriet said to Mac. "Do you have any idea?"

"I didn't really know her that well," Mac said.

"But - you introduced them, didn't you?" Bud asked.

"In a way. I asked her to come to JAG to discuss her summer Shakespeare program with a view to sending Chloe. The Admiral saw her, and assumed that I'd invited her to meet him - since others *were* trying to set him up," she added with a grin in Harm's direction. "He saw her again and apologized for the way he acted."

"You didn't set that up?" Harm asked.

"No. It never crossed my mind that the two of them would have anything in common," she said.

"I still wish I knew what happened," Jen said. "The Admiral just looked so unhappy today. Even more than the last time."

"He'll talk about it when he's ready," Harm said. "He just needs some space right now."

The sound of thunder rolled through the old house, causing Bud and Harriet to look up. "Sounds like the rain's finally going to move in," Bud noted. "Guess that means we need to start back. Jen, you ready?"

"Yeah." She looked at Mattie. "I'll call you tomorrow. Will you be going back to Falls Church tonight, sir, ma'am?" she asked Harm and Mac.

"Yet to be decided, Jen," answered after looking at Harm.

"Why don't I call you, Jen?" Mattie suggested.

"Sounds good to me," Jen agreed.

Once their guests were gone, the rain began to fall in earnest, and Harm agreed that they would stay there for the night. "It's supposed to clear by tomorrow afternoon," he told them. "Maybe we can stop by Leesburg and take Sarah up for an hour or so."

"Cool," Mattie nodded. "I could use some time in the air."

Harm gave her a hug. "You doing okay?"

"I'll be okay," she said, resting her head against his chest for a moment.

"We need to figure out what we're going to take back with us tomorrow," he pointed out.

"There's not much," she told him. "But you're right. We need to figure it out."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Dammit barked and came to greet him when AJ returned to the house that afternoon. How had he missed it? Had he been that stupid and that he hadn't seen what she was like? Earlier, when he'd come back to leave Dammit and dress for Tom Johnson's funeral, he had pulled the sheets and other bedding from the bed and taken them outside. Opening every window and door that he could, he let the house air out, trying to rid it of the smell of Meredith's perfume.

Too bad that he couldn't air out his memories the same way. AJ poured a glass of scotch, picked up the mail from the dining room table, taking both out onto the back porch. Tossing the junk mail aside, he went placed the bills into a separate, neatly stacked pile. There was only one personal item - one that surprised him.

It was a letter from Francesca. She hadn't been home when he'd tried to call her last week about the impending wedding - so he'd left a message on her machine. It wasn't unusual for Francesca to be away; her job required that she do a lot of traveling. He'd need to leave another message, he supposed, letting her know about the latest news.

He would also have to tell her that he'd decided to remain in the Navy for a few more years at least. There was no pressing reason to do otherwise now, he thought as he opened the envelope . . .


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