Disclaimer: We don’t own JAG. Never did, probably never will, unless DPB, Belisarius Productions, Paramount Pictures, and CBS Television feels like selling them to us at a good price. But that probably won’t happen.
Spoilers: Everything up through “A Merry Little Christmas,” and a little bit of “A Girl’s Best Friend,” except the Admiral and Meredith are still together in this.
AN1: When we wrote this fic, we each took on a role and wrote it as that character, like a real conversation. Nikki took on the part of Harm and Carrie took on the part of the Admiral. The role playing approach to writing this story has been a whole lot of fun. It's different than writing a regular story or even a regular two-author work. You just never quite know what the other character's reply will be or where it will take the story. Hope you enjoy the result.
AN2: A big thanks from both of us goes to Carrie Rene for beta-reading this for us.
Feedback: Always welcome and appreciated. Can be sent to email@example.com.
It had been a long day, the last in a long week. Harm sighed as he put the menu down on the table just as the waitress stepped up. "Haven't seen you here in a while." She smiled flirtatiously.
Harm responded with his natural flyboy charm and smiled back. "Been busy," he shrugged.
"Another woman?" she queried. "I've seen that Marine of yours with some dark haired fella. She looks a lot better with you if you ask me."
Harm cringed. Why did people insist on calling Mac "his Marine" when she was obviously anything but? And bringing up Webb - talk about pouring salt on a wound! He really wanted a drink, but he was picking up Mattie later from a school dance and he had made a personal pledge to never even have one drink before driving with her.
"Diet Coke and Arugula Salad." He ignored the painful subject by ordering.
The waitress took the hint and dropped the subject. "All right," she said as she turned around.
Harm leaned back in the booth, grateful for a little solitude to clear his head before he picked up Mattie. He didn't like bringing the stress of the day home to her and the mention of Mac had increased his stress level dramatically.
No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't get over this "thing" with Mac. She may have said "never", but it was "always" for him.
His eyes wandered to the door as it opened.
Stepping into the restaurant, A.J. took a cursory look around the bar for an empty table. Most were occupied, a few with couples, but many with larger groups of people, a pitcher or two of beer on the table. As he glanced past one booth, his eyes were drawn back to the sole occupant. Recognizing the younger man instantly, A.J. began moving towards him.
Harm recognized the Admiral as soon as the door opened. Months ago, before the whole Singer and Paraguay fiascos, he would have risen and called his friend over to sit with him. Now, however, he didn't even feel like the word friend applied. The man had humiliated him in front of Mac and then insulted him again at the bar by the airfield when he had given Harm the opening to come back. Harm still didn't understand why he had asked him back, other than to lessen the workload around JAG and to paint a target on his back.
He shifted his eyes quickly to the table, focusing intently on un-shelling a peanut.
Judging from Harm's face, it had been a long and trying week. The man clearly looked exhausted and A.J. didn't know if it was the load at work, Mattie, or someone else. If he had to guess, he'd go for all three. They had all been busy in recent weeks, and having a teenager living with him had to have been a major adjustment. As for someone else, his money was on Mac. Despite the easy relationship they seemed to have re-established, there was still tension between them and a sadness in Harm that hadn't been there before. Pausing at the table by the seat opposite Harm, A.J. said, "Evening, Commander. Mind if I have a seat?"
Having little choice now, Harm popped the peanut in his mouth and looked up, shrugging. "Don't mind at all." It was pretty much a bold-faced lie, but Harm covered it well. "Have a seat."
Taking his seat quickly before Harm could change his mind, A.J. sat in the seat opposite the junior officer. Harm's eyes weren't hiding the truth and A.J. knew he wasn't really wanted at the table.
Harm cast a quick glance at A.J., wishing he could somehow turn back the clock and return to the days of mutual respect between the two very different men. Then again, he thought, it was apparently just his imagination that led him to believe that the respect was mutual. A.J. had made that very clear a number of times over the past months. It seemed the past eight years of his life had been mostly a fool's illusion.
He turned away and waved the waitress over.
"You didn't tell me you had a friend coming," she said to Harm.
"Admiral Chegwidden. He's my C.O." Harm avoided the friend line with the same finesse as the Mac comment earlier.
"What can I get for you, Admiral?" she asked A.J.
Glancing at Harm, A.J. answered, "Whatever he's having."
Harm returned the glance with a look of surprise. Was A.J. toying with him? Harm's eating habits were a constant source for jokes, in the past well-taken by the Commander, but now he didn't want to hear them anymore. He scoffed lightly and shook his head as he looked away, the booth feeling smaller by the minute.
Raising her eyebrows, the waitress questioned the order, asking, "A Diet Coke and an Arugula Salad?"
"If it's good enough for Harm, it's good enough for me," A.J. responded, choosing to step outside the chain-of-command and call the Commander by his name. Turning his attention back to the man seated across from him as the waitress departed, A.J. asked, "What brings you out here tonight?"
"Mattie had a school dance," Harm answered simply. "No K.P. duty tonight," he added with a soft chuckle, allowing a little of his easy going charm to show through, while he watched the crowd at the bar. He had cooked dinner every night since he gained custody of Mattie, usually for Coates as well. As much as he enjoyed cooking, tonight was a welcome reprieve.
A.J nodded. Although Marcella had raised Francesca, A.J. could understand how a night out when the opportunity arose would be hard to turn away. Lord knows the Roberts certainly looked forward to it when they found a sitter for their boys.
Harm looked up at the man on the other side of the booth. He was often alone, but A.J.? He was getting married in a few months. Why was he alone on a Friday night? "You?" He allowed his eyes to remain connected with the Admiral's for the first time that evening.
“Meredith had a meeting with a few students tonight about working this summer at the Shakespeare camp and I thought I’d go out for a drink.” A.J. wouldn’t admit this to Harm, but the house seemed too empty without her now, and he honestly wondered how he had survived so many years with so few relationships. Leaning back in his seat, A.J. reached for a peanut from the bowl between them. “How’s everything working out with Mattie and Coates?” he asked.
A true smile suddenly graced Harm’s face. Mattie was such a joy in his life and the way things had worked out with Coates was an added blessing. “Excellent! Jen has given her the woman’s influence that she’s been longing for while still maintaining a sense of independence.” He spoke with a father’s pride. “They get along great and Jen usually comes over with Mattie every night for dinner, for breakfast too on the weekends,” he laughed.
A.J. couldn’t help but to smile at the younger man’s excitement. Having Mattie in his life definitely seemed to suit him. And it made him happy.
“Always surprises me how much women can eat and still stay so fit. They’re just like Mac.” At his mention of Mac’s name, Harm averted his eyes. As much as he had straightened things out with her on friendly terms, he still hurt from her outright rejection of any deeper kind of relationship. He didn’t want A.J. to see that, so he reached for another peanut.
Picking up on the change in Harm’s body language, A.J. decided to not question Harm on his comment about Mac. Nodding as he spoke, he said, “Well, it sounds like everybody has adjusted to the change very well.”
“Yes, we have,” Harm replied, the smile returning to his face. It almost seemed like old times with the Admiral, like the times when they would be alone and simply speak as friends, outside of the chain of command.
At that moment, the waitress showed up bearing drinks. “Two Diet Cokes,” she said as she set the drinks down on the table. Seeing that the bowl of peanuts was still more than half full, she said, “Your food will be up shortly,” as she turned and walked away.
Shelling another peanut, A.J. popped the nut into his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully. Might as well get down to business. He had not intentionally run into Harm tonight, but he was going to speak to him on a personal subject at some point in the near future. Right now, in the bar, seemed like a better place than at the office. “Can I ask you a personal question, Harm?”
Thinking that the Admiral was going to pursue the Mac issue further, Harm’s smile faded as he shook his head and sighed, grabbing another peanut in self-defense. “Not if it’s about Mac.”
Momentarily thrown by Harm’s reaction, it took a moment for A.J. to answer. Giving Harm a perplexed expression, he said, “Uh… no, it doesn’t concern Mac.” Straightening in his seat, A.J. added, “It’s about my wedding to Meredith in May.”
Harm couldn’t stifle a self-deprecating laugh. “Not sure how I can help you with that, but I’ll do my best.” He took a sip of his Diet Coke, feeling more comfortable with the Admiral than he had in a long time. Maybe they had finally moved past things.
Smiling, sensing that Harm was more at ease now than he had been a moment ago, A.J. plowed ahead. “I think you can.” Taking a sip of his own Diet Coke, A.J. posed the question to Harm. “I’d like for you to be my best man. Do you think you could handle that?”
Harm chuckled lightly. “I can handle anything, sir, but I have to admit I’m rather confused.”
“Confused?” A.J. questioned, offering Harm a puzzled expression. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Harm shelled another peanut, taking a moment to gather his thoughts, wanting to be sure he said this correctly. His voice was tense, but even and controlled. “I just don’t understand why you would want someone who is irresponsible, over-emotional, not a team player and better suited to wrestle alligators than to be a Naval Officer as your best man.” Okay, so maybe he wasn’t really past it, but he had at least subdued the urge to throw in a shot about the Admiral being either a hypocrite or desperate.
Nodding, A.J. digested Harm’s words. “Okay, I guess I deserve that,” he responded, sighing. Taking a sip of his Diet Coke, he tried to formulate his response.
He was momentarily spared by the waitress’s arrival with their food. Setting their salads down in front of them, she asked lightly, “Will there be anything else?” When neither Harm nor A.J. answered, the waitress turned and left the two men to their conversation.
Chuckling lightly, he added, “I’m surprised you can remember almost everything I said.”
“Most people tend to remember things when they get stabbed in the back,” Harm explained coolly.
Sobering, A.J. leaned forward slightly in his seat and went on, “Harm, you have to understand that I said things that I didn’t mean, then or now. I was angry because you left, and a little bit hurt that you chose Mac over your sense of duty.”
“Going after my partner WAS my duty,” Harm interjected. “You were a SEAL. You should understand that.”
Smiling slightly, he spoke a little softer, “You can call it what you will, but I know why you went after her. I don’t claim to know exactly what happened down there in South America, or why things happened like they did when you two came back. I’m grateful to you for bringing Mac back in one piece, in something other than a box. However, when you walked back into my office that day, I don’t want to say you were cocky, because you weren’t, but you just expected me to take you back. You left once before to return to active flight duty and I let you back then. You handed me a letter of resignation because you wanted to go look for Sergei. How was I supposed to know that you wouldn’t leave again?” Pausing for a moment, A.J. reached for his glass and took a few swallows of his drink. Going on, he said, “You are over-emotional, and at times irresponsible, but that’s what makes you a good lawyer. You aren’t afraid to go after the truth, no matter what it may be. And you have grown-up some since your return. Before Paraguay, I don’t think you could have handled Mattie, but now, I think she’s what you need. You were born to be a Naval Officer, Harm, and JAG needs you just as much as you need it.”
Harm listened quietly as the Admiral spoke and it was a long tense moment before he replied, shaking his head as he spoke, his voice fraught with restrained emotion. “That all sounds really good, A.J., but it doesn’t fit the facts.” He used the Admiral’s first name with the understanding that this was strictly a personal conversation. Otherwise, he’d be written up for insubordination for sure after what he was about to say.
“You say you didn’t mean those things, that you said them only out of anger, yet months after that you told me very clearly that you stood by everything you said that day, along with adding the statement that I was damned annoying.” His body tense, the pain was evident in his voice and he was on a roll. Who would have known that giving voice to one’s emotions could feel so good? “Not only that, but even before all of this, I wasn’t worth a visit or even a damn phone call for a month in the brig – by ANYONE! And not only wouldn’t you let me pick my own lawyer, the one you gave me…” With a heavy sigh, Harm stopped, slumping back into the seat and rubbing his head with his hand. How could something that felt so good a moment ago, feel like a knife in the gut now?
Sensing the tension of the moment, A.J. tried to break it for a moment. “Can I get you a beer, Harm?” he offered.
Harm shook his head. “I’m picking up Mattie later,” was his simple response, but he relaxed just a bit at the offer.
Seeing some of the tension ease from Harm’s body, A.J. nodded, accepting his answer. Probably a wise move, given the young girl’s history. Despite the break, A.J. knew he had to follow their conversation to its conclusion, whatever that may be. Looking down into his salad that seemed less appetizing than it had been when he ordered, he tried to phrase his response in an honest, but painless, manner. “When I spoke to you about coming back, I didn’t know if you even wanted to come back. For all I knew, you’d found another calling by crop dusting.” Looking up, A.J. studied the other patrons of the bar over Harm’s shoulder, avoiding eye contact. “Perhaps it wasn’t the best tactic, but I was hoping that making you angry would make you want to come back and prove yourself. And you have. If you want me to eat my words, I will. I still think you can be over-emotional and irrational, but like I said, that’s what makes you a good lawyer.”
So, he was TRYING to make Harm angry and paranoid. Well, bravo Admiral, it worked. Harm lived a life caught between people thinking that everything came easy to him and people that felt he needed to prove himself to them. Doing his best, being himself was never, ever enough.
Leaning forward in his seat once more, A.J. shifted his attention from the crowded bar to his hands, which were playing with the fork on the table next to the salad bowl. “That whole case with NCIS and the investigation into Singer’s… demise,” A.J. began, choosing his words carefully, “got out of hand. None of it was handled in a manner I consider appropriate. If I could have, I would have let you pick your lawyer. I would have been in the brig, visiting you every day, along with the rest of the JAG staff. Ordering them away was one of the toughest commands I have ever given. But our presence would have made you look guilty. As for letting Mac, or whomever you would have chosen, represent you, it was out of the question, as they were all on the list of character witnesses. My hands were tied, Harm. I’m sorry about all of it, the way the whole thing was handled. I was actually surprised when you didn’t make a formal complaint about the way things were done,” A.J. explained, a small smile forming on his lips.
“You know me better than that,” Harm replied tersely. He had never complained about Krennick and he sure as hell wouldn’t make a formal complaint about anything that might put the Admiral’s command into question. He wouldn’t torpedo a friend’s career like that.
“Maybe you’re right,” A.J. mused, taking a small bite of his salad. While he had been surprised by Harm’s lack of action, he shouldn’t have been. Harm wasn’t the type to make an issue out of the matter, to push an investigation into something that could have had disastrous consequences to them all. “I *should* have known you better than that.”
Harm took a bite of his salad, wishing he could enjoy it as much as he had planned to when he ordered it. Cooking for Mattie and Jen along with himself had placed a great strain on his talents as he balanced their carnivore/junk food tastes with his nearly vegetarian one. He spoke quietly, staring into his salad. “You honestly think that having friends standing behind you makes you look more guilty than being abandoned and alone?” He didn’t even comment on the way the abandonment had made him feel. That was something that was nearly impossible for him to do and besides, A.J. had commented on the appearance of it so he stayed with the same line of thinking.
Harm had never in his life spoke with such raw emotion. He had laid it open for a few moments at a time before, but had never given it a voice. The effect was somehow healing.
A.J. took a moment to ponder Harm’s words, trying to get at the real meaning behind them. Though he kept the conversation geared towards the appearance during that time, A.J. was pretty sure there was more to it than Harm was letting in on. However, A.J. didn’t think it was likely that Harm would ever open up that much, at least to him. Spearing some salad with his fork, A.J. let it linger in the bowl as he spoke, “You know as well as I do that appearances can be important in trials, especially ones as noticeable as yours. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it wouldn’t have made you look any guiltier had we stood behind you. But the appearance of impropriety could have made things worse, and a good prosecutor would have said that we were biased if we all leapt to your defense, that we would lie to get you off. As it was, it was hard not to lie. I never thought you were capable of hurting Lieutenant Singer like that. I don’t think you are capable of hitting a woman. I think even Jennifer Coates knows you aren’t capable of such things. That’s not who you are. But she would have lied for you, and the fact that she didn’t and that we weren’t meeting with you to work on a strategy, took power away from the prosecution, even if she said the words he wanted to hear.” A.J. took the bite of salad, chewing thoughtfully, hoping he had effectively stated what he felt, though he wasn’t sure he had phrased it in the most eloquent manner, or that he had even said what he was trying to get across.
Continuing, A.J. said, “If I had the chance to do it all over again, would I do it the same way? Probably not. I might have stayed away, and I might have made almost everybody else stay away, but I don’t think I would leave you in there on your own again. I would have let somebody come in and visit, talk to you. We have to be aware of the appearance of impropriety, but I also have to remember how difficult it can be to be left alone in difficult times. I can only apologize for how things happened back then, Harm, but I can’t undo them.”
Harm sat eating his salad as he listened to what A.J. had to say, but his response was quick. “Well, excellent strategy, Counselor, if you were trying to nail my ass to the wall,” Harm replied with his typical defensive sarcasm. “Almost won me a one way trip to the electric chair.” He stopped himself, biting back the rest of his words, then sighed heavily and shook his head.
Clearing his throat, his next words were spoken softly, filled with none of the false bravado with which Harm was so good at masking his feelings. “Just one question, A.J. and then I’ll drop the subject for good.” He glanced quickly at the Admiral and then looked down at his salad. “When they sent me to the chair, would you have stayed away?”
“Hell no! I would have taken a page from your book, Harm, and busted you out of there!” A.J. spoke with intensity. “And I can guarantee you that I would not have been alone in that venture. Mac, Sturgis, Bud, Harriet, Coates, Tiner… We all would have done whatever we could to get you out of there, even if it meant plotting your escape.” A.J. bit his tongue about adding Clayton Webb’s name to the list, knowing he could have forced the spook into helping, but A.J. suspected Webb was a current sore spot between Harm and Mac, and mentioning him would have done no good.
Harm nodded his head at the statement as a small smile crossed his lips, soon to turn into a full-blown chuckle. He looked over at A.J. “Can you picture Harriet busting me out of the brig, guns blazing?”
Smiling and laughing with Harm, A.J. tried to picture that scenario, but couldn’t quite get it. “Nah, Harriet wouldn’t have gone in there with her guns blazing. She would have tried talking to the guards first, try to con them into letting us bust you out of there.” A.J. cared about the younger woman just as much as any of the others in his chain of command, but he believed Bud had summed it up well a few years earlier by saying that Harriet could con anybody into anything. She had the right amount of persistence, the optimism, and the intelligence to get what she wanted. A.J. was still chuckling as he said, “But if that failed, she’d be firing along with the rest of us.”
After sharing a laugh with his friend, Harm sobered again. He had promised to drop the subject and he would. Now they could get back to an earlier point of business. “A.J.,” he said with a deep cleansing breath, looking his companion right in the eye, “I’d be honored to be your best man. If you still want me after all this, that is,” he added with a nervous chuckle.
Taking a bite of his salad, A.J. regarded Harm for a moment, grateful he had dropped the subject. “Harm, I’d be honored to have you as my best man. I can’t imagine why you would think that I wouldn’t want you. I deserve everything you said tonight, and you deserved to have the answers.”
Letting out his breath, Harm relaxed back into the seat and took another bite of his salad before speaking again. “So, have you warned Meredith about the Navy family saber tradition?” He wasn’t quite sure that a saber and Meredith were a good mix. At least he’d be the one holding it and not her.
Grinning, A.J. nodded. “I told her to watch out for a few surprises at the ceremony, but nothing specific. She’s got a crazy side, she’ll love the tradition.”
The two longtime friends continued to speak comfortably as they proceeded through dinner. A lull after the waitress brought their coffee ended with a few soft words from Harm. “She said never, A.J.” He fiddled with the creamer and then glanced at his companion before looking away.
“Sarah, in Paraguay,” he explained with another quick glance, his voice hoarse with emotion. “She said things would never work between us.”
Slowly stirring his coffee, A.J. found himself startled by Harm’s sudden change in topic. There was no doubt in A.J.’s mind as to who Sarah was, and A.J. was also surprised that Harm had chosen to use Mac’s given name, indicating how serious the situation was for him. Treading carefully on what he knew was thin ice, A.J. asked softly, “Did she say why?”
“Does it even matter?” Harm replied with his near patented approach of answering a question with a question. He slumped back into the faux leather of the booth. “I shouldn’t have brought it up anyway. You’re our C.O. and…”
Listening to Harm fade into silence, A.J. shuddered internally to think of the consequences Mac’s words may have had on Harm. “I’m not your C.O. tonight, Harm. After everything that’s been said…” he allowed himself to trail off. “What she said, and why she said it, obviously matters to you, and if it matters to you, then it matters to me.” A.J. was unsure of his words, but desperate to keep Harm talking on the subject.
With a sigh, Harm complied. He wasn’t really sure why he was getting into all of this with A.J., but he had kept it buried so long and that was doing no good so he might as well continue on this track. As much as they were different, he and A.J. did often seem to understand each other. “She said we both want to be on top – and that’s physically and emotionally impossible.” It was obvious he was quoting her by the way he spoke. Sighing, Harm rubbed his pounding head with his hand.
Whatever it was that A.J. had been expecting, that wasn’t it. If that seemed to come out of left field for him, A.J. could only imagine what it must have been like for Harm, especially after he had quit the Navy to go after her. Harm could say all he wanted to about how it was his duty to go after her, but A.J. knew the reasons went deeper than that; it was becoming more and more obvious with time. And knowing Harm like he did, A.J. knew that he had taken Mac at her word; when she said never, he accepted it, albeit unhappily. Under normal circumstances, taking Mac at her words may have been a good idea, but in Paraguay… Only Mac knew what was going through her head down there. For that matter, who knew what was going through her head now, or why she was with Webb when he was the one who dragged her down there?
Sipping his coffee, A.J. watched Harm rub his head, the situation obviously weighing heavily on him. The C.O. in him knew he should back off, that condoning a relationship such as Harm and Mac’s was not only unheard of for a C.O., but it was also almost against regs. However, A.J. had resigned himself years ago to one day having to lose one of his two best officers because their relationship was determined to go that way. He had seen it the day they met, and he was surprised it hadn’t happened years ago. Now, with Harm obviously hurting in front of him, A.J. wanted to give Mac a good dressing down about her actions, but that wasn’t an option. Not at the moment, anyway, but talking to Harm was.
“Harm,” A.J. began, setting his coffee mug down gently on the table, “I won’t pretend to know what happened in Paraguay, and I won’t even hazard a guess as to what led up to Mac’s statement. I don’t know what was going through her head then, nor do I know what is going on in her head now. What I do know is that whatever happened in Paraguay was a traumatic event. I do know that Mac was held captive, I do know that Webb was tortured and that she had to listen to it, I do know that she was witness to the execution of two other people, all things which could easily lead her to saying things she doesn’t really mean. After experiences like that, no one comes through unscathed, the toughest Marines included. Have you talked to her, really sat down and talked to her about Paraguay? Talked to her about what she was thinking and feeling down there, how you were thinking and how you felt? What she saw, what she went through, what you saw and what you did?” A.J. asked, completely unsure of where he was going and of what Harm’s reaction would be.
Staring into his coffee cup, Harm tried to process all that his companion had asked. He certainly hadn’t spoken to Mac about any of those things, but would it have helped if he did? Would it have helped if she knew he had witnessed the brutal executions through the binoculars when he first arrived outside the camp? Would it have helped if she knew the things he had done to get to her when he did? Would it have helped if he told her just how scared he really was down there that he wouldn’t get to her in time? Would it have helped if he told her that his world would have ended if he hadn’t? Could they have formed some sort of bond over the shared tragedy, like she seemed to have done with Webb?
Harm sighed again and simply answered the question that was asked. “We didn’t speak until she came asking for help with that Imes fiasco. It was too late by then.”
Pursing his lips, A.J. stared down into his own coffee mug, pondering his next move. While Harm had been employed elsewhere, bringing up his name to Mac had almost been forbidden. She acted like she didn’t care that he was gone, but A.J. knew differently. There was too much bitterness and anger in her words when she spoke about him, a sure sign that she cared. If she had shown no emotion at all, A.J. would have been more willing to swallow her reaction, but he still would have found it difficult to believe her. After eight years, even A.J. hated not having Harm around, and Harm had been much closer to Mac than himself. And the relationship between the two of them ran much deeper.
“Perhaps it wasn’t too late, Harm,” A.J. finally said. “Not the right time, but maybe it’s never too late. Experiences like that are never forgotten.”
When A.J. finally answered, Harm was rather surprised by the reply. “So, you think I should just go to her and talk about it now?” he asked incredulously. Now thinking of the advice this man had given him four years earlier regarding Mac, Harm went on. “And how does that fit with ‘Never look back’?”
Thinking carefully about his response, it took a moment for A.J. to answer. “The situation was different back then. Mac wasn’t in a dangerous situation in Australia.” A.J. sighed heavily before going on. “Whatever there is between her and Clayton Webb will not last. I think that Brumby would not have been the best choice for Mac, but she stood a better chance of staying with him than she does staying with Webb. I think that what Webb and Mac currently share is nothing more than a bond over surviving the events of last May and that Mac needs to feel close to someone who can understand what she went through, someone that she could talk to, if she felt so inclined. She just…” A.J. trailed off for a moment, knowing his next words would sound harsh, but he didn’t mean them in a harsh manner, “needed to be with someone. Webb was able to satisfy that need; he understands what she went through, he survived it, and he was there for her at the time. But Webb isn’t the only one there for her now.”
“I’ve always been there for her,” Harm replied defensively. “Not that she gives a damn. You can speculate all you want, but she made herself perfectly clear. Hell, she even said that the Navy was the only thing I had.”
Harm was not making this easy for A.J., and there was a part of A.J. that wanted to just tell Harm to go to Mac, kick Webb out of the way, and do whatever he had to in order to work out this thing between them, whether that meant kissing Mac senseless or the two of them screaming at each other until they were hoarse. However, as easy as that would be, it probably wasn’t the best course of action. Sipping his rapidly cooling coffee, A.J. asked, “Do you think she’s right? Do you think that the Navy was the only thing you had?” He wasn’t really sure of what he would do with Harm’s answer, but he felt it might be important.
“I thought I had her,” Harm answered with a heartbreaking sigh, looking as defeated as he felt. “I thought I had friends, too, good friends, but after my time in the brig…” The sigh this time was a frustrated one. “I said I wouldn’t mention that again.”
“You always had your friends, Harm,” A.J. said softly. Harm said he wasn’t going to bring everything up again, so A.J. certainly wasn’t. But during Harm’s absence from JAG, he wasn’t forgotten. On the contrary, some of his staff, like Bud, continuously asked about him. Did Harm even know that?
Harm stopped to think now, honestly trying to consider the question posed to him. “The Navy’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From the moment I could say ‘yes’ there was a ‘sir’ or a ‘ma’am’ attached to it. Even as a kid, identifying ranks was as easy to me as identifying colors or shapes. I learned my way around a carrier by the time I was five. I never considered anything other than becoming a Naval Aviator. The ramp strike changed that.” He paused for a moment, reorganizing his thoughts after the memory of that night flashed once again before his eyes.
A.J. silently sipped his now cold coffee, content to wait, making sure Harm got a chance to speak.
Clearing the emotion from his throat, he went on. “Even through my recovery though, I never once considered leaving the Navy if I had a choice. I knew early on it would mean a change of designator, A.J., but I always knew that if I could pass the physical again, I’d stay.”
Harm pushed the cup of cold coffee away and finished his piece. “When I was flying for the company,” he told his friend in a hushed voice, leaning forward in his seat “it wasn’t the Navy I missed. It was Mac.”
To say that A.J. was surprised by this statement would be putting it mildly. He had figured that while flying for the CIA, Harm had missed the courtroom, the cases, the occasional investigations, and the people at JAG. But for Harm to say that he didn’t miss the Navy, but he missed Mac, gave some indicator to A.J. of just how deep his feelings ran for her. Meeting Harm’s gaze, A.J. asked, “You didn’t miss the Navy at all?”
The ringing of his cell phone saved Harm from facing that question. “Rabb. Hey, Mattie!” She was calling from a pay phone at the high school. Many of the kids had cell phones now, but Mattie hadn’t asked for one – not yet, anyway. His face lit up at the sound of her voice, the tension of the ‘no holds barred’ conversation falling away in an instant.
Harm glanced at his watch. Where had the time gone? “Sure. We’re just finishing our coffee. I can be there in fifteen minutes.”
Although A.J. was trying not to eavesdrop, he couldn’t help but to overhear Harm’s end of the conversation. He could hear Mattie a little, too. Like most teenagers, she could talk pretty loudly, and from the sounds of it, pretty quickly, too. Catching a word or two here and there, A.J. was startled when he caught Mac’s name. Glancing at Harm, A.J. observed his body language.
Harm tensed, cringing slightly before pulling the mask of indifference back across his face. “No, uh, I had dinner with the Admiral.” Harm chuckled lightly. “Yeah, I will. I’ll see you in fifteen, Mattie. Bye.”
Harm put his cell phone away as he spoke. “Mattie’s ready to leave the dance. She says she’d like to get to know you better sometime.”
“Why would she want to do that?” A.J. asked with a smile. “I am that ‘mean old man that fired you.’” Leaning forward, A.J. reached into his back pocket to pull out his wallet and pay the bill.
“I guess I’ve changed her mind,” Harm replied softly, without explaining further. He brought his own wallet out, contemplating offering to pay the bill, but somehow, given all that had gone on tonight, splitting it seemed much more appropriate. “Since Meredith’s not around, why don’t you come with me to pick up Mattie? We can go back to my place and have a beer?” he offered instead.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” A.J. smiled. “I’ve got to get home. Meredith should be home soon. Some other time, though.” Rising from the seat, A.J. tossed a few bills from his wallet on the table, more than enough to cover the meal. “This one’s on me.”
Harm was chagrined, now mentally kicking himself for not offering to pay the bill first. “A.J., please, that’s not necessary.” After a stern look from his companion, he quickly realized that this was not the moment to argue. True, A.J. was a friend, but he was also his commanding officer. “But, thank you, sir!” he added crisply.
A.J. was pleased with Harm’s response. Good, the man did still know his place. Didn’t want this best man job to go to his head.
As they headed for the door, Harm spoke again, making a joking reference to the last time he served as best man at a wedding – Bud and Harriet’s. “Oh, and don’t worry about my dress whites, A.J.,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh and a jaunty tilt of his head, “I’ve switched cleaners.”