Operation: Road Not Taken 2
Part 5
Nancy Eddy

Disclaimers in Part 1

Harm stood outside of Clayton Webb's apartment, listening. He thought that he heard the faint strains of classical music coming from inside, which meant that the occupant was most likely in residence. Lifting his hand, Harm knocked on the door, waiting.

He knocked again, this time with more firmness.

Still no response.

Harm glanced down the hallway in each direction before picking the lock and opening the door. Sticking his head inside, he called, "Clay?"

Entering the apartment, he closed the door behind him, remaining where he was, listening for any sound other than the music coming from the stereo system that sat against one of the walls. He found an empty bottle of conya beside a chair and frowned. Over the music, Harm thought he heard the sound of glass clinking against glass coming from the direction of the bedroom.

Moving in that direction, Harm came face to face with Clay.

He was wearing a t-shirt and pair of jeans, and was carrying a glass of conya in one hand and a bottle in the other. "Rabb! What the hell are *you* doing here? And how did you get into my apartment?"

"You don't return phone messages, Webb?" Harm questioned.

Clay snorted in disbelief as he dropped into a chair and put the bottle on a nearby table. "That's rich, Rabb, coming from a man who didn't bother to return any of his friends' messages last year."

"I was out of town," Harm reminded him. "I probably spent a grand total of an hour at home during those six months. What's your excuse?"

"Didn't think I needed one," Clay said, taking a drink from the glass in his hand.

"Your cell phone is turned off."

"Got tired of it ringing," he said. "Say what you came to say and go."

"Your secretary is worried that you haven't called this morning."

"I'll call her. She's probably gotten the word by now, though."

"What word?"

Clay lifted his glass in Harm's direction. "That I've been suspended."

"Suspended?" Harm frowned. "For how long?"

"How should I know? I barely know what day it is now. Last two weeks I've spent mostly out of the country. Came in last Tuesday, left again on Wednesday."

"You could say no," Harm suggested. "Tell them that you need some down time."

Clay drained the glass and shook his head, looking up at him. "Could you say no, Harm?"

"This isn't about me, Clay. Your friends are worried -"

"My *friends*?" Clay repeated in disbelief, reaching for the bottle to refill his glass as he spoke. "I don't have any friends. Burned all those bridges in Paraguay."

"Bridges can be rebuilt," Harm said, taking the bottle from him.

"Give that back."

Shaking his head, Harm kept hold of the bottle. "You don't need this, Clay." He looked around. "Where's the kitchen?" he asked, moving toward another door across the room from the bedroom.

"Why?" Clay wanted to know, following him into the kitchen.

Harm put the bottle on the counter as he spied the coffee maker. "Because what you *need* at the moment is coffee. *Not* conya."

"You have no right to tell me what I do or don't need, Harm," Clay said, grabbing for the bottle. But Harm was quicker, his sober reflexes allowing him to pick the bottle up first. Pulling the cork out of the bottle, he held it over the sink and tipped it over.

"No!" Clay yelled, lunging forward in an attempt to stop him from pouring what was left in the bottle down the sink. "Damn you, Harmon Rabb! Damn you and your meddling in things you have no business meddling in. It's *my* life. If I want to spend it in a bottle what does it matter to you?"

Calmly, Harm returned to making the coffee, finishing that task before turning to face the smaller man. "It matters because the woman I love is worried about you. It matters because we were friends - and I'd like to hope that we could be again."

Clay sank down into a chair at the table, burying his head in his hands. "I screwed it all up. I'm no good to me or to anyone now. I'll be lucky if the company doesn't send a sweeper out after me."

Harm turned again to look at the other man. "Clay, what happened?"

"Oh, nothing much. Unless you consider the fact that an informant we've used for years and a promising young field agent are both dead because of me. Because I hesitated when I should have taken a shot and killed the bastard who was holding them."

Taking two cups from the counter, Harm filled them with the freshly brewed coffee and moved to sit down at the table with Clay, sliding one of the cups over to him. "Drink." Clay didn't move. "*Did* you hesitate?"

"I had a - flashback to Paraguay." Clay took a deep breath and released it loudly as he sat back, closing his eyes. "I wasn't supposed to survive Paraguay," he said. "I knew you'd be there to get Sarah out." He opened his eyes and looked at Harm. "That's why I hung on for so long. To keep them from going after her before you could get there."

"*I* was your insurance?"

"Why do you think I decided to just ask her to go with me? I could have asked the Admiral for both of you - it would have been easy for me to pass you off as a business partner - just have you nearby. But I wanted someone outside - someone I knew I could trust to come in if things went badly." His hands closed around the cup in front of him, gripping it tightly. "I told Sarah that I'd taken too many chances that I didn't usually take - deciding to leave you here was one of them."

"Have you talked to a company shrink about this last mission?"

"Yesterday," he nodded. "For about - twenty minutes. Didn't tell her about the flashback, just said that I was late getting the shot because I'm burned out."

"Clay -"

"I told her I missed the shot. Forget what I said about a sweeper. I'm sure that the investigation will clear me of all wrongdoing and Kershaw will reinstate me - just like always. He thinks he owes it to my dad to keep me around."

"Kershaw knew your father?"

"They were partners. I have no idea how Kershaw managed to survive and my father didn't." He took a drink of the coffee, closing his eyes as he felt the caffeine kick in. Opening his eyes again, he fastened them on the cup. "The agent who died left behind a wife and young son. They'll never know what happened - just that he 'died in the service of his country'. Another damn star will go up on that wall - I'm tired, Harm. I'm so damn tired."

"What are you going to do while you're off?"

"Sleep. If I can. Maybe spend some time with Mother -"

"I think you need to go to Great Falls today," Harm told him.

"I don't need a babysitter. Besides, Mother doesn't know anything about this. And I don't want her to."

"Clay, you need to let the people who care about you in so they can help."

"You're a fine one to talk about letting people in," Clay grunted, picking up his cup again.

"Listen, Clay, we've all been through hell this last year. Everything seemed to fall apart after the Angel Shark case. You got sent to the ends of the earth, I wound up in jail and on trial for a murder I didn't commit - the list is endless. Everyone needs help occasionally. There's no shame in asking for that help, Clay. It took me a long time to realize that for myself. And because of that I know that until you're ready to ask, there's nothing more I or anyone else can do for you." He pushed away from the table. "When you're ready to talk, to let someone else in, give me a call."

He was halfway to the kitchen door when Clay spoke. "Harm -"



Harm hesitated before speaking again. "If you change your mind and want some company, several of us are moving the rest of Mac's things from her apartment to the house in Falls Church. We could use some help." Harm hated himself for saying the words the moment they were out of his mouth. But he wanted the other man to know where he stood.

"Guess it's serious then if she's moving in with you."

"Serious enough that she's agreed to marry me," Harm confirmed, watching his reaction. There was only a slight increase in the tension of Clay's shoulders.

"Don't forget what I said the other day."

"I won't. But right now, I'm not the one who's causing her pain. She's going to blame herself for this -"

"It's not her fault. It started before -"

"I know. But she doesn't. If you feel up to it, she'd like to see you this evening. We should be there around eighteen hundred."

Clay nodded, but didn't say anything, so Harm turned and left the apartment.

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

Back at JAG, Harm reported back to AJ about Clay's condition. "Do you think he's right?" AJ asked. "Is he burned out?"

"I think it's more that he's still hasn't dealt with what happened last year, sir. Helping us get the information about the Angel Shark, being banished to South America because of it; and then nearly dying. I think he's been working every case that comes along in an attempt to prove that he can still do the job."

"But he can't."

"Not like this," Harm agreed.

AJ took a deep breath as he considered Harm's report. "Is there anything we can do?"

"The next move is his, Admiral."

"Keep me informed."

"Yes, sir," Harm agreed, standing at attention. "Permission to go upstairs and inform Col. Mackenzie about the situation, sir?"

"You have ten minutes. We have a meeting with General Dawes at eleven hundred. Don't be late."

"I won't be, sir," Harm assured him. Turning sharply, he left the office and made his way to the stairs, taking them up one floor. Mac wasn't in her office, and he recalled belatedly that she was probably in court hearing Seaman Davenport's Article 32 arguments. Finding a slip of paper, he left a note on her desk, telling her that Clay was all right and that he would talk to her about it at lunch.

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

As Harm was leaving the Admiral's office after the meeting with General Dawes, Jen got his attention. "Commander, you had a call while you were in the meeting." She held out a message slip for him to take.

Seeing Jack Keeter's name, Harm smiled. "Thanks, Jen." Returning to his office, Harm dialed the number that his old friend had left. His smile widened upon hearing the familiar voice. "Keeter, should I ask what you're up to these days or is it classified?"

"Classified, pal," Keeter said. "I got a message that you're looking for me. If it's about that money I owe you from that poker game -"

"Now that you mention it -" Harm said, laughing. "Actually, I called to tell you that I'm getting married."

"Hot damn! It's about time you made an honest woman of Mac."

"Who says I'm marrying Mac?" Harm questioned, sitting back in his chair.

"Harm, you forget, I spent almost a week in the desert with that woman. I saw the look in your eyes before you left and when you found out she was safe. Who *else* would you be marrying?"

"Okay, okay. So happens you're right." Harm laughed again. "I'm looking for groomsmen. Where are you?"

"Right now? - Middle of nowhere. When do I need to be in DC?"

"Probably two weeks from last weekend."

"Not wasting any time, are you, pal?" Keeter teased. "I doubt I'll make it - but I'll try. Seeing you married off means that I don't have any competition for the ladies."

"Speaking of ladies, Keeter," Harm said. "How do you know Catherine Gale?"

"Cathy? We dated a few times. See each other whenever I'm in DC. Why?"

"When was the last time you saw her?"

"It's been awhile. We talk every now and then when I have a question for legal. But I try to stay as far away from Langley as possible. It's enough I have to fly for them. Rubbing elbows -, no thanks."

"Yeah. I know what you mean."

"I - heard you took a walk on the dark side," Keeter told him. "I asked Blaisdell to pair us up on a mission, but he said he didn't think it would be a good idea."

"Knowing us, he was probably right," Harm pointed out.

"Harm, is there a reason you asked about Cathy?"

"Not really. I just wasn't aware that you two knew each other, that's all."

"How do *you* know her?" Keeter asked, and Harm smiled as he thought he heard a hint of jealousy in the other man's voice.

"You come for the wedding, and I'll tell you the story."

"You know, that might just be enough to get me there. That - and having a chance to convince Mac she's making a mistake."

Harm laughed. "Keep in touch."

"Will do. Tell Mac I said hello and that if she changes her mind I'm available."

"I'll do that," Harm nodded, looking up to find Mac standing in the door. "In fact, she just walked into my office."

"Well, in that case, give her a kiss for me, too. Later, Harm."

"Who was that?" Mac asked as he hung up. "Keeter. He's going to *try* to make it back for the wedding, but he's not sure he can."

"He said to say hello."

"What's going on with Clay?"

"Why don't I tell you about it over lunch?" he suggested.

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

"They *suspended* him?" Mac questioned in a voice loud enough to cause a few other diners nearby to look in their direction. Realizing it, she lowered her voice. "Harm -"

"Apparently he had some problems on this last mission," Harm said. "An informant and another agent were killed because of it. Clay said that he thinks they'll probably reinstate him after the inquiry."

"That's the point. He's not *ready* to be working at all. He needs to get help, Harm," she said.

"I know, Mac. I poured out the bottle of conya he was drinking from - but he's probably got more."

"It's my fault," Mac sighed.

Harm took her hand in his. "No. Even Clay said that it wasn't. This has been coming for a long time, Mac. Well before you and he went to Paraguay. Don't blame yourself for Clay's problems." He released her hand to pick up his fork. "Did he ever tell you that he *expected* me to show up in Paraguay if things went sour?"

"He what?"

Harm nodded. "Apparently I was his back up. He knew that I'd find a way to save you even if I was too late to save him. That's why he withstood what Sadik did to him for so long. He was hoping I'd show up before Sadik got to you."

"You did," she said, smiling at him. "You and Gunny saved both of us."

"I don't think he expected to get out of there, Mac. Now, he feels guilty for causing the situation, for not thinking it through, and it's affecting his ability to do his job. How many missions did he go on as soon as he was released to full duty until, say - Christmas?"

"I lost track," she sighed. "He'd go on one, and sometimes leave just twenty-four hours later on another."

"That's not common, Mac. I did it, but I did it because the busier I was, the less time I had to think about how I'd screwed things up and lost you." He gave her a tight smile. "But usually the Company prefers their agents to have a few days of down time between missions. Keeps them from -"

"Burning out," Mac finished.

"He has to ask for the help, Mac. You know that. All we can do is be there for him." He pushed a piece of chicken around the plate. "I - suggested that he stop by and help this evening if he's feeling like being with other people."

"You think he'll show up?"

"If he does, then he's making progress," Harm told her, lifting his water glass to take a drink. Seeing that she still wasn't totally convinced, he put down the glass and picked up her hand. "Honey, it'll be okay. Trust me."

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

"Should I put these into the truck, Mac?" Mattie asked, holding two table lamps.

"No, have Bud put them in his van, please," Mac told her.

"Okay," Mattie nodded, turning toward the door, only to run directly into a man she'd never seen before. "Excuse me," she told him, smiling shyly up into his hazel eyes. He wasn't much taller than she was, Mattie noticed, and was probably around Harm's age.

He lifted his hands from her shoulders, looking past her into the apartment. "Is Harm around?" he asked.

"Sure. He's in the bedroom -," Mattie answered, turning to call out, "Harm! There's someone asking for you!" Sliding past the man, Mattie carried the lamps into the hall. "He'll be right here," she said, lingering as long as she could on the way to the stairs.

"Clay! You made it!"" Harm said, and Mattie's eyes widened. So *that* was Clayton Webb.

Not too bad for an older guy, she decided, continuing down the stairs to give Bud the lamps to put into the van.


"Come on in," Harm told Clay as Mac came from the bedroom as well.

"Hi, Clay," she said. "How are you doing?"

"I'm here," he said. "What can I do to help?"


Downstairs, Mattie found Bud standing on the sidewalk, shaking his head at the building. "Something wrong, Bud?" she asked.

"Just - didn't you see him?"

"Who? Clayton Webb?" When he nodded, she said, "Yeah. He was just coming into the apartment when I came out."

"I guess he didn't see me when he came up," Bud said. "What's he doing here?"

"Harm asked him to come, I think. He seemed to be expecting him. Where should we put these?" she asked. "Mac said they needed to go into your van."

"Huh?" Bud said, still thinking about Clay.

"The lamps?"

"Oh. How about right in there?" he suggested, taking one and putting it into the van.

They looked around as voices came from the building, seeing Harm and Sturgis carrying a mattress. Mattie ran over to hold the door open for them.

"Thanks," Harm said, backing toward the rental truck. Bud moved closer in case they needed him.

"I wish I could be of more help, sir," Bud told Harm

"Just having that van is a help, Bud," Harm told him once the mattress was in the truck. "I never realized how much stuff Mac had in that place," he said with a laugh.

"I saw Mr. Webb a few minutes ago," Bud noted.

Harm's laughter faded. "Clay's going through a rough time, Bud. He needs people around him who care. Friends."

Bud looked confused. "You, sir?"

"Yes, Bud. Me. And Mac. And everyone he knows at JAG."

"If you say so, sir," Bud sighed. "I guess if you can forgive him -"

"It's forgotten, Bud," Harm assured his friend.

"That's a very Christian attitude, Harm," Sturgis pointed out. "Dad would be proud of you."

"I figure I can afford to be generous, Sturgis," Harm replied with a grin. "After all, I'm the one who got the girl." He looked up to see Mac and Clay carrying the box springs down the stairs and toward the doors. "Mattie -"

"On it," she said, sprinting over to open the door for them as Harm, Sturgis, and Bud joined her.

"Mac, I thought you were going to wait -"

"It's not heavy, Harm," she told him. "Besides, I'm a Marine, remember?"

"Well I'm not too proud to ask for help," Clay said, trying to walk backward.

Harm grabbed the mattress. "I've got it, Clay. Why don't you and Sturgis go up start bringing the bed itself down?"


"I'll help," Mattie offered, following the two men. She gave Clay a smile when he held the door open for her. "Thanks. By the way, I'm Mattie."

"Figured that might be the case," Clay replied as the door closed behind them.

"Are you really a spy?" she asked. "Like James Bond?"

Clay gave her a half grin. "Not *quite* like James Bond."

"Oh. But I bet's it's still interesting anyway."

"Sometimes," he acknowledged, letting her enter the apartment ahead of him. Sturgis had grabbed the rails, and nodded to them. "See if each of you can grab a head board or foot board."

Mattie waited until Clay picked up the headboard. "You got it?" she asked.

"Yeah. It's light. Can you handle the footboard?"

"No problem," she assured him, lifting it easily.

"I seem to remember Mac mentioning something about you planning to go to the Academy?" he asked, not having heard Harm and Mac return to the apartment while they were in the bedroom.

Mac pulled Harm into the kitchen when she heard them coming out, causing Harm to give her a surprised look. She kept him there until they were in the hall. "What was that about?"

"He's talking to her, Harm," she said.

"Did you really tell him about Mattie?"

"Christmas Eve," she nodded, going back out to stack two of the dining room chairs. "He wanted to know why I was late meeting him, and I told him the reason."

"How did you know that she wanted to go to the Academy?"

"We talked while I was driving her over to the Wall to meet you," she said with a sad smile.

Harm reached out to touch her cheek. "I wish you'd stayed that night. It would have made everything perfect."

"I wanted to," she admitted.

"Then why didn't you?"

"I didn't want to intrude - and I wasn't sure you wanted me to."

"If I had asked you to stay -" Harm began, leaning toward her.

"I probably would have stayed," she told him, leaning in toward him.

The sound of a throat being cleared made them realize that they were no longer alone, and they turned to find Sturgis, Clay, and Mattie standing in the doorway.

"Okay, you two. We've got work to do. And unlike the two of you, *some* of us have someone else to get home to," Sturgis told them.

"Come on, Clay," Mattie said, ending the awkward moment. "Grab a couple of those chairs." She picked a couple of them up and turned toward the door while Sturgis turned toward the bedroom to find something else to get from there.

Clay followed Mattie's lead, picking up some chairs. Halfway to the door, he stopped and turned to look at the couple. "I've made my peace with this," he told them. "You two belong together, and I should never have tried to get in the middle of that. I'm just happy Harm finally got his head out of his six and did the right thing," he said with a half grin. "Look, I just don't want either of you to feel uncomfortable just because I'm around. You're in love with each other. That's not something that happens every day. Don't try to hide it." He looked as if he might have said more, but he stopped, took a firmer grip on the chairs and left the room.

"Well, that was -" Mac sighed.

"Unexpected?" Harm suggested.

"A little." She looked around for a moment before finding a screwdriver. Holding it out to him, she said, "Here. Why don't you break down the dining room table while I take these last two chairs down to the truck?"

"Yes, ma'am," Harm replied, his blue eyes twinkling, as he snapped to attention before taking the tool from her hand.

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

Once the apartment was cleared out and everything was in the truck or Bud's van, Mac suggested that Mattie ride back to the house with her in the Vette, while Sturgis, who had driven out with Bud anyway, would go with Bud - which left Clay no real choice but to accompany Harm in the rented truck.

"I can see why you went out with him," Mattie told Mac as they led the small convoy out of Georgetown. "He's kinda cute for an older guy. Got a nice smile."

"Yes, he does."

"After everything I've heard about him, I figured he'd be some kind of monster or something, you know? But he seems like a nice enough guy. Looks lonely, though."

"One of the hazards of his job, Mattie," Mac pointed out.


"I'm glad you decided to come and help, Clay," Harm said, watching the red Corvette ahead of Bud's van.

"So am I. Mattie seems like a good kid."

Harm smiled. "She is. She's been through a lot for someone so young. Her mother dying - now her father."

"Her father died?" Clay questioned, frowning.

"Last Thursday. Car accident. He was drunk and she was trying to leave to get back to me - he didn't make it."

"I'm sorry to hear that. So I guess that means she's back with you permanently."

Harm nodded. "Her father asked me to take care of her just before he died."

"I guess she and Mac get along pretty well?"

"They're a lot alike in some ways. But Mattie's managed to avoid the traps that Mac fell into at her age."

"Probably because she had you. You're good at saving people. Even from themselves."

Harm glanced at the other man, searching for some sign of bitterness or anger in those words. "Clay -"

"It was a compliment, Harm," Clay assured him. "I guess your mother was pleased when you told her the news," he commented.

"I haven't called her yet," Harm said. "I'm going to do it this evening."

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

After everyone had gone, Harm turned to Mac and Mattie. "Guess we need to get things in order."

"Mattie and I will get started on that," Mac told him. "*You* are going to call your mother and make sure they can be here for the wedding."

"You haven't called Chloe," he said.

"I called her this afternoon from work," she told him with a smile. "After she finished screaming with delight that we were finally getting married, she promised that *nothing* was going to stop her being here and being in the wedding. Now call your mother, Harm. Come on, Mattie."

"You are *so* whipped, Harm," Mattie teased as she followed Mac into the house.

Taking out his cell phone, Harm glanced at his watch, mentally adjusting for the time difference. It was almost 2100, which meant that it was just after 1800 in La Jolla. His mother and Frank would be having dinner. Dialing the number, he waited for it to be answered. "Hi, Mom."

"Harm! This is a surprise. How are you, dear?"

"I'm fine, Mom," he assured her.

"And Mattie? How is she?" He had called her on Friday to let her know about Tom's death. Frank had been out of town on business - not due back until Saturday morning, so they hadn't been able to be there for the funeral. But they'd sent flowers, and had promised to come for a visit as soon as their schedules would allow the time.

"She's doing okay."

"And Mac?"

"More than okay," Harm answered, smiling. "Mom, I need you and Frank to clear your schedules for a week from Saturday."


"I thought you might want to come to a wedding."

"A - Harm, you finally asked Mac to marry you?"

"And she said yes."

"Frank! Harm and Mac are getting married!" Harm listened as she told his stepfather the news, and heard the man's reaction.

"It's about time! When?"

"Weekend after next. We'll be there," she promised. "But why so soon?"

Harm quickly explained about Sturgis and the Admiral's decisions to retire, and that he was probably going to be the temporary JAG for a few months. "So Mac transferred to the Judiciary. Once there's a new JAG in place, she'll be assigned TAD back to JAG."

"I knew things could be worked out, Harm," Trish told him. "Have you called Sergei?"

"I'm going to try and call him later tonight, but I doubt he'll be able to get away. Last time I talked to him, he was talking about how his schedule barely allowed for he and Galina to see each other." Sergei was working as a pilot for a commuter airline, flying around Europe, while also going back to school. He was studying law.

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

"Are we going to be able to pull this together by a week from Saturday, Mac?" Harm asked later, sitting in the living room, his arms around his fiancée.

"Well, we lucked out that there was a cancellation at the Chapel," she pointed out. "Chaplin Turner is available. Sturgis and Varise have made arrangements to make a quick trip back from France. We'll do it."

"You're sure you want a formal ceremony? I remember you weren't happy with all the pomp and circumstance that Brumby planned -"

Mac turned her head to look at him. "And miss a chance to see you in dress whites? No way, Flyboy."

Harm gave her a killer smile. "I guess the gold wings and dress whites finally got to you, huh?"

She slid over and into his lap. "You want to know a secret? They always have. I just wasn't about to stroke your already oversize aviator's ego by letting you know it."


"Hmm. Everytime you wore them, I had to fight a major battle to keep from jumping your bones."

"Well, there's no reason to fight a battle now."

"You're not wearing your dress whites," she pointed out.

"That can be remedied," he said, moving as if to get up.

"Never mind," Mac said, putting her arms around his neck. "You'll just have to take them off again . . ."

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

AJ glared at Harm over his reading glasses. "You realize that, at this rate, I'm never going to make it to Italy."

"It's just one more week, sir," Harm said. When he'd first broached the subject of who was going to cover the office while he and Mac were away on a honeymoon, he hadn't expected that the Admiral would extend his leaving by yet another week.

"Since Bud and Harriet are taking care of the engagement/rehearsal dinner, consider it a wedding present."

"Thank you, sir."

"Where is Mattie going to stay while you and Mac are gone?"

"With Bud and Harriet. That will make it possible for Harriet to spend most of the day here for the entire week."

AJ smiled. "She's good with those boys. I can imagine how much help she'll be when you and Mac have a child -" he was looking at Harm over his glasses again, his gaze speculative.

"We're still discussing that, sir," Harm told him.

"Don't put it off for long. Neither of you are getting any younger."

"Believe me, sir. I'm well aware of that fact."

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

That Friday evening, Mac and Harm hosted a farewell party for AJ and Sturgis.

"I can't believe you got so much done with the place in such a short time," Harriet told Mac. "You're really amazing. Working full time, and then this -" she said, waving her hand toward the house.

"Well, I had Harm and Mattie to help," Mac pointed out.

"I wouldn't have considered having a party so soon after moving into our new place," Harriet still insisted.

"One of us needed to do it," Mac said. "We couldn't just let the Admiral and Sturgis leave without a send off. And since you and Bud are having everyone over there next week, it only seemed fair."

Harriet watched Harm standing across the room, laughing as he talked to Bud and Sturgis. "Harm seems so much happier now." She glanced at Mac. "So do you."

"I think we are."

"No arguments yet?"

"Not yet," Mac told her, laughing softly. "But I'm sure that we'll have them."

"Just remember that old saying about not going to bed angry," Harriet suggested.

"I will," Mac promised, noticing the Admiral and Clay standing near the window.



"AJ." It was the first time the two men had seen each other since Clay's visit to ask for Mac's help in Paraguay. During the time that Clay had been seeing Mac, he'd made sure to steer clear of JAG HQ other than to pick Mac up outside on the all-to-few occasions when he'd been in town to keep a date.

"How are you doing?"

"I'm better. Still not back at work, but - as Harm keeps pointing out - that might be a blessing."

"Ever thought about changing careers?" AJ questioned.

Clay smirked. "More and more lately. Guess Harm's not the only one who can decide to change his life." He smiled as he saw Mattie and Jennifer Coates return from the kitchen. "I've been thinking about a change. I'm getting too old to keep running all over the globe." He looked at the glass of tonic water with lime that he was holding. "How about you, AJ? Looking forward to spending time in Italy?"

"Yes. I am. It's past time I got to know my daughter."

Mattie approached the two men. "Excuse me, Admiral, mind if I steal Clay away?"

"I don't mind if he doesn't," AJ assured her.

"I need to talk to you about something," she told Clay, grabbing his arm and pulling him back to where Jen was standing.

"Mattie -" Jen said in a warning tone. "Don't do it."

"Come on Jen," the girl sighed.

Clay noticed the pink tinge on the Petty Officer's elfin face. "Don't do what?" he asked.

"It's nothing, Mr. Webb," Jen said. "Just Mattie's school-girl imagination." Glaring at her former roommate, Jen nodded in Clay's direction. "If you'll excuse me, Mr. Webb, I need to talk to Col. Mackenzie about something."

Watching Jen cross the room, Clay gave Mattie an inquisitive smile. "What are you up to, Mattie?"

"Me?" she said, giving him an innocent look. Clay met that look evenly as he took a sip of his drink. Finally Mattie leaned closer to him and said, "Jen thinks you're cute."

Clay nearly choked on his drink, looking around to see if anyone had noticed. The only pair of eyes he saw looking at him were dark brown and set in an elfin face. Seeing him looking at her, Jen quickly turned and headed into the kitchen. "Mattie -"

"I know you're a little older than she is, but - well -"

Clay looked at the girl. "A *little* older?"

"Jen's mature for her age," Mattie insisted.

"Are you bothering Clay, Mattie?" Harm asked as he joined them.

"No," Clay said. "She's not bothering me, Harm. We were just discussing the weather." Glancing at his almost empty glass, he said, "I think I need a refill. Excuse me."

"Did I miss something?" he heard Harm asking as he moved toward the kitchen, telling himself that he wasn't following Jennifer Coates. But when he didn't see her in the room, Clay began to worry that she might be too embarrassed to return to the party. Refilling his glass, he stood in the doorway that led into the dining room, but she wasn't there, either.

Finally, he went to the back door and looked outside. Seeing the patio lights flash on something just outside of their warm glow, Clay opened the door and slipped out. After a few moments, his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he saw her sitting on a chaise lounge beside the now-filled swimming pool.

Going as far as the three foot high chain link fence that surrounded the pool, Clay stood there watching her, realizing that she didn't know he was there. The gate was open - and he moved closer. "Are you planning on staying out here all evening?" he asked in a quiet voice.

Jen jumped when she heard him, glancing up at him and then back at the water. "I might. I'm - sorry, Mr. Webb. I had no idea that Mattie would do that -"

"Was she telling the truth?" he wanted to know.

"What - exactly did she say?"

Clay grinned. "That you think I'm - 'cute', I believe was the word she used."

"That's not what I said," Jen sighed.

"What *did* you say?"

He saw the flash of her white teeth as she smiled. "That I thought you were hot."

"I guess there *is* a difference," Clay said. "I think I'd rather be considered 'hot' than 'cute'," he told her with a soft laugh. "I'm sorry that Mattie embarrassed you."

"I should have known better than to mention it to her. She's been worried about me not having a boyfriend. Just because the Commander and the Colonel are together she seems to think that *everyone* needs to be paired off." She sighed. "And once she gets an idea in her head, there's no stopping her."

"I guess I should be flattered," Clay said, sitting on another lounge, facing her. "It's not every day that an attractive young woman like you thinks a man so much older than she is as being - 'hot'."

"You don't seem that much older," Jen told him. "That's part of the problem. I don't date guys my own age. They're usually just interested in one thing - not that there's anything wrong with that, but - well -"

Clay reached over to touch her hand. "I understand, Jennifer. You don't have to explain."

"It's just - well, you've been through a lot. And I wouldn't want to be the cause of anymore - discomfort."

"Hey, my ego's taken a pretty bad beating as well," he told her, retaining his hold on her hand as he rose to his feet. "Let's go back inside."

Jen stood as well, her eyes on their joined hands. "Mr. Webb -"

"Call me Clay, Jennifer. Everyone else does - well, except for AJ. And he still blames me for putting Sarah in danger and costing him the use of one of his best attorneys for six months. And he has every right to feel that way. Hell, *I* agree with him."

"You were only doing your job," Jen said.

"A job I probably won't be doing much longer," he informed her.

"You're thinking about leaving the CIA?"

He smiled as he looked at her again. "More and more all the time. Come on."

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

"*Yes*!" Harm heard Mattie say quietly, noticing her gaze was fixed on the door behind him. Seeing Jen and Clay enter the room together. Looking at his ward, Harm asked, "Mattie, what are you up to?"

"Who, me? Up to something? I'm not up to anything, Harm," she insisted, talking quickly, a sure sign that she wasn't being entirely truthful. So Harm pinned her with a look that normally caused witnesses to quake in fear. "I think I heard Mac calling -"

"Mac's over there talking to the Admiral," Harm informed her, crossing his arms over his chest. "Now spill."

"Jen's not seeing anyone, and, well, Clay just seems so lonely -"

"Mattie, Clay's almost old enough to be Jen's father," he sighed.

"He's *your* age," Mattie pointed out. "Which means there's only fifteen years difference in their ages. And Jen's mature for her age," Mattie finished. "Besides, it's too late now. They've connected. It's up to them."

"It *should* have been up to them before you started meddling in their lives," Harm said, turning to watch as Clay and Jen joined Bud and Harriet. "This wouldn't by any chance be an attempt to make sure Jen's focused elsewhere once Mike Roberts arrives next weekend, would it?" Harm finally asked the girl at his side.

Mattie shrugged, smiling. "At least Mike's closer to my age. I mean, I *could* have chased after Clay."

Harm rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, beginning to wonder if he was going to survive having a teenage girl in the house after all . . .


"We're going to have to be going, Bud," Harriet said to her husband. "The babysitter -"

"Yeah. You ready, Jen?" Bud asked. He and Harriet had picked her up since Jen's car wasn't running very well and neither of them wanted to risk her breaking down on the way home by herself.

Clay watched the look that crossed Jen's face and said, "I have an idea. Why don't I take Jennifer home when she's ready to go?"

"It's out of your way," Bud pointed out.

"It's out of *your* way as well," Clay returned easily.

"Do you want to stay, Jen?" Bud asked the younger woman, and Clay sensed that he was in full 'big brother' mode when it came to Jen Coates.

"Actually, yes, I do, sir," she said.

Harriet grabbed Bud's arm. "Come on, Bud. Jen's in good hands. We'll see you on Monday, Jen. Nice to see you again, Mr. Webb."

"Make it Clay, Harriet," he said, aware that Bud wasn't happy with the idea of leaving Jen in his company. "And it was nice to see you again. Bud."

"Come on, honey," Harriet said, pulling Bud's arm and leading him away.

"He's pretty protective of you," Clay noted.

"Lt. Roberts is a good man," Jen said. "You didn't have to offer to take me home, you know. I can always get a cab -"

"I can't very well back out now, can I?" he told her with a smile. "Unless you'd rather I not -"

"No -" she said quickly. "I mean, it's okay. I just don't want to put you to any trouble."

"If I don't want to do it, I wouldn't have offered," he said. "You need a refill?" he asked, nodding toward her empty glass.


He took the glass. "What would you like?"

"Whatever you're having is fine," she told him.

"Tonic with lime?"

"That's fine," she nodded.

As he was refilling his own glass, Clay sensed Harm's presence. Carefully preparing a second glass for Jen, he waited, knowing what was coming. With a glass in each hand, he took a deep breath and turned around, smiling. "Harm."

"What's going on, Clay?"

"I'm just getting Jennifer something to drink, Harm," he explained, holding up one of the glasses.

"Bud and Harriet said that you offered to take Jen home."

"She wasn't ready to leave, so I said I'd take her home when she was. Something wrong with that?" Clay sighed. "If it's any of your business, Harm -"

"It *is* my business. Jen's a friend of mine. She's a good kid and I don't want to see her hurt."

"Number one, she's not a 'kid', Harm. She's an attractive young woman."

"*Young* being the operative word," Harm pointed out, folding his arms across his chest.

"Really? I hadn't noticed," Clay said with a grin. Noticing that Harm wasn't returning the smile, he sighed. "Look, Harm. She's good company. I'm sure you know that yourself. And I'm not looking to hurt her. I'd like to be her friend. Is there something wrong with that?"

Harm relaxed slightly. "It's not just Jen I'm worried about, Clay. I hope you know that."

"I know. And I appreciate the concern. Now, I'd better get this back to Jen before she thinks I got lost."

Harm nodded and stepped aside, turning and following Clay back into the living room, watching as he held the glass out to Jen.

"Did you talk to him?" Mac asked.

"I don't think there's anything to worry about," he told her.

"You'd better hope not, Harm," AJ added as he joined them.


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