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Classification JAG story, Angst, Romance (H/M)
Length Approx 25,000 words, 62 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
 
Spoilers “Smoked,” “We The People,” and late season-7 eps, especially “In Country” and “Enemy Below”
 
Rating IM-15
Author's Notes Well, this year’s cliffhanger wasn’t nearly as cut-and-dried as last year’s, now was it? I realize that there are a lot of very different viewpoints about the last five minutes of “Enemy Below”, and I know that I won’t be able to please everyone with my take on it. But I’ve never been one to leave well enough alone, especially since we’ve been left hanging for four months with no word on what will happen to poor Bud. If you’d rather choose to believe that the whole thing was a dream/vision/whatever, you may want to skip this story, ‘cause I’m not going that way. Also, the timeline for the end of the episode was a little vague, but for the purposes of this story, Bud and P.O. Coates went ashore soon after the missile incident, so Mac and Harm are still aboard the Seahawk. Hope that clears things up.

Incidentally, the title comes from Rufus Wainwright’s “Hallelujah”, which West Wing fans will recognize from the season finale: it played while C.J. learned of Simon’s death and as she walked the streets of New York. The theme of the song doesn’t really fit this story, but I thought that line conveyed the appropriate amount of disillusionment for my purposes.

 

Summary A conclusion to the seventh-season finale, “Enemy Below.” The JAG crew rallies around their injured comrade and struggles to deal with the aftermath of the failed terrorist attack.
 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

 

 

When you’re in the middle of a hurricane, you lose a certain amount of perspective. You’re fighting so hard just to get through it that you’re thrilled beyond words to see the clouds finally break. That kind of thinking can be dangerous, though. Sometimes the storm has passed, sure – but sometimes you’ve only reached the eye of it, a brief respite before another, equally harrowing struggle. Even if you’ve been in and out of these things all your life, you can still be lulled into a false sense of security by the eye. Those are the times the damned thing really gets you. You think you’ve won, but half the test still lies ahead.


2243 Local
Wardroom B, USS Seahawk
Somewhere in the Arabian Sea

 


“Hey, Sundance.”

Sarah Mackenzie glanced up with a tolerant smile and shook her head. “You’re not going to let that one go, are you?”

Still in his flight suit from his earlier mission – although the word ‘mission’ hardly did it justice – Harmon Rabb flashed a grin and slid into a chair beside his partner. “Probably not. It fits you.”

“You don’t mind being Butch Cassidy?”

“Well, it sure beats that Batman and Robin thing we had going for a while in there.” Harm stretched his shoulders and took a sip of his coffee. “I swear to God, that was the longest post-flight debrief I’ve ever done, and that includes the time I pushed Tuna by the tailhook.”

“Are you surprised? You played tag with a nuclear missile that could’ve cooked half the battle group. I expect there were a fair number of questions about your tactics.”

“What, you didn’t approve?”

Mac fixed him with a look that was far more serious. “I didn’t say that. I’m just glad I didn’t have to explain to your mother how you went down in that proverbial blaze of glory we’ve been talking about.”

“Never would’ve happened,” he asserted, leaning back in his chair as she lifted an eyebrow.

“Awfully sure of yourself, aren’t you, flyboy?”

“It’s not that. Believe me, nobody’s more surprised than I am that I still have a Missile-EX record on this ship. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever knew I had one in the first place.”

“If you’re so obviously mortal, then how can you be so convinced that you wouldn’t have bought the farm out there?”

“Well, for one thing … you weren’t with me.”

She blinked at him, not understanding, but he explained. “That’s the way it’s supposed to go, right? Butch and Sundance were always together. You never would’ve seen one of them come tearing out of that building without the other.”

That oddly endearing statement, coupled with his open smile, somehow touched her. Not knowing what else to do, she simply smiled back. “You just keep thinkin’, Butch,” she quoted with a twinkle in her eye. “That’s what you’re good at.”

Their gazes locked for a long moment, and although neither would have admitted it, both officers were thinking along similar lines. Right now, their normal, everyday lives at JAG were far away, in more than just the geographical sense. Over the past couple of weeks, while they’d worked to combat the emerging terrorist threat, they’d managed to reach a different level of confidence in each other. As difficult as it was to imagine, living and working in country had actually brought them even closer. After the tumultuous year they’d had, it was something of an unexpected benefit.

But Afghanistan had hardly been the place for any personal discussions, and they were long past due for one. Now that their immediate duties had been fulfilled, the slightest trace of uncertainty had resurfaced – uncertainty about where exactly they were headed. Location may not change who we are, Harm mused silently, but it sure as hell changes what we can do about it.

He didn’t dare put a voice to the tension. Not yet, anyway. They would be back in Washington before long, and maybe once life had returned to some semblance of normalcy, they’d be able to make sense of it all. Instead, he took another sip of his coffee. “Is Bud back yet? I owe him a rematch from the last time we were on board.”

“How many moves did it take him to beat you?” Mac asked innocently, receiving a withering look in response.

“You doubt my skill at chess?” She merely watched him, disbelieving, until he relented. “Well, I made a good game of it, at least.”

“I don’t think they’re due back for a while yet. They were going out to visit a school site or something. Are we leaving on the morning COD, or what?”

He nodded. “Up with the dawn patrol, at 0435. I figure I’ve got time for a really long shower and a few hours of sleep. Nothing like a few days in the desert to make hot-bunking on a carrier feel like heaven.”

“You squids are all wimps,” she accused him good-naturedly, giving him a gentle shove.

“Oh, and I suppose you aren’t at all looking forward to getting home?”

“Sure I am. I can’t wait to get into my favorite pajamas, climb into my big, soft, real bed along with – ”

Harm’s head swung around, startled.

“ – Jingo,” she finished, enjoying his reaction. “Where was your mind just now?”

He rolled his eyes, vaguely irritated at being caught so easily. “You need to get out more, Marine. There’s more to life than cuddling up with your dog.”

“And you would know this how?”

He had to admit that she had a point. “Okay, we both need to get out more.” He almost left it at that, but something compelled him to continue. “Let’s work on that when we get back, all right?”

This time, she was the one caught off-guard, and it took her a moment to realize how serious he was. “That’s a deal,” she replied quietly.

He reached toward her, intending to touch her arm, but when a sailor appeared at the hatch, he instinctively pulled back. “What is it, Petty Officer?”

The young man wore a grave expression and twisted a piece of paper in his hands. “I’m sorry to disturb you, sir, ma’am,” he offered hesitantly. “I, um, have news from Lieutenant Roberts’s shore party.”

Immediately Mac felt an inexplicable chill. “Why do you look like you want to crawl into a hole, Petty Officer … Garcia?”

Garcia swallowed and fixed his gaze on a point above their heads. “Ma’am, there was an incident in the village … a little boy, in a minefield …”

As he elaborated to the best of his knowledge, Mac whirled to face her partner, and watched all the blood instantly drain away from his handsome features. “Oh, God,” Harm breathed, his voice barely audible. “Bud?”

“He’s alive, sir,” Garcia hurried to assure them. “They stabilized him on scene, but he’s in rough shape. They’re going to helo him back here to assess his condition, and then decide whether or not he needs an evac to Landstuhl. The skipper thought you’d want to know right away.”

The two senior officers just sat there for a time, unable to believe what they’d just heard. This wasn’t supposed to be possible. Not now, after they’d fought so hard to make everything all right – not to Bud, after all he’d overcome …

But there was no time for questions now. Training eventually kicked in, and Mac was the first to find her voice. “What’s their ETA?” she asked.

“Fifteen minutes, ma’am.”

“All right. You’re dismissed, Petty Officer. Thank you.”

“Aye, ma’am.” The young man came to attention and exited quickly, leaving Harm and Mac to stare at each other, stunned.

Harm was still struggling to piece his jumbled thoughts together. “How … why would …”

Tears stinging her eyes, Mac reached out to grasp his hand, and she was barely surprised when he pulled her into a brief embrace. Both of them had a certain amount of experience in watching their world blown to pieces, and they knew that they’d need to lean on each other if they were to have any hope of getting through this.

“Things are going to get crazy pretty fast,” he said quietly. “Let’s get up there and find out what the hell’s going on.”

They were out of the wardroom in seconds, and everything that had previously been on their minds – the shower, the flight home, the recently-made pact – was instantly forgotten.

… In sickbay, a trauma team was efficiently readying the area for their incoming patient. Harm and Mac stood silently off to the side, staying out of the medics’ way, until a senior corpsman noticed their presence and attempted to head them off. “Sir, ma’am, you really shouldn’t be here – ”

“Let them stay, Chief,” ordered Captain Johnson as he stepped through the hatch. He studied the flight-suited commander and the colonel in desert BDUs who came to attention at his approach. “As you were. You and Lieutenant Roberts have really managed to change my impression of lawyers, you know.”

“May we take that as a compliment, sir?”

“You may indeed.” The captain sighed. “The helo’s on deck, so they should be down here any minute. They say the lieutenant’s in shock and doesn’t really know what’s happened to his leg. I just wanted to warn you, so you’ll be ready when you see him.”

Harm really, really didn’t want to ask the question, but he knew he didn’t have a choice. “What did happen to his leg, Captain?”

“It’s gone, Commander. Severed at the right knee. According to the team that picked him up, there was nothing left of it.”

They barely had time to process that information before a voice called “Gangway!”, and a huddle of crewmen flooded into the room, bearing a stretcher. Instinctively, Mac’s hand found its way into Harm’s without conscious direction from either of them. If the skipper noticed, he didn’t comment. The trio stood against the far bulkhead, watching the controlled chaos of the medical staff. The blanket that covered most of their friend’s body was tossed aside, and they were confronted with the hideous reality of the wound. Even bound up in layers of dressing, the stump of his right leg was unmistakable. Neither of the attorneys flinched visibly, but their entwined hands tightened almost as one unified motion.

Bud was partly conscious, and he blinked, bewildered, at his surroundings. “A.J.,” he mumbled incoherently. The corpsman frowned, not comprehending.

“That’s his son, Chief,” Harm explained quietly.

Through the bleak haze of shock, Bud seemed to recognize his friend’s voice. “Com-mander?” he managed to say in faint, halting speech. “Wha…”

“Relax, Bud.” Harm stepped closer, forcing a more reassuring expression onto his face. “Everything’s okay. You’re back on the Seahawk.”

“Leg hurts…”

At that, the proud, stoic aviator almost faltered, but he squeezed his partner’s hand even tighter and responded. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be back home with A.J. before you know it.”

Bud’s gaze focused on him for a fleeting moment, and there was trust radiating through the deep pain in his eyes. When Harm recognized it, he felt sick. This was wrong, plain and simple. As the injured officer lapsed back into unconsciousness, he pulled away from Mac and faced the wall until he could get a better hold on his emotions.

Mac had seen him retreat into himself before, though, and she wasn’t about to let it happen again. “Say something,” she asked softly. “We’re in this together, remember?”

His voice was low and almost bitter as he responded. “I step on a mine because of dumb luck, and I get to walk away. He steps on one because he’s trying to help someone, and this happens?”

“Don’t think like that. Especially not now. We have to be here for him, and – ” She broke off, a new idea taking hold. “Harm, we’ve got to call Harriet. The official notice will take forever if he’s in transit.”

“She can’t hear something like this over the phone.”

Mac started to question, but stopped as she realized that he probably knew best. After all, twelve years ago, it had been a midnight phone call that had informed his mother of his own accident on this very ship. “She can’t hear it from ZNN, either. If the press gets a hold of it soon, and releases his name …”

“Call the admiral,” he suggested. “He can get to her before the press. Will she be at the office? What time is it in Washington?”

“Late afternoon, but it’s Thursday, and she usually goes home early on Thursdays for A.J.”

Six different lines of thought were simultaneously racing through his head at equal speed. The time for shock was over. Now they had to act in the best interests of their dear friends. “They’re going to transport him to Landstuhl, aren’t they?”

“It looks that way. There’s no point in keeping him here.”

“All right. Will you go with him?”

She looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. “I’m sure as hell not leaving him now. Why are you?”

“Because he’s going to need his wife and son, and Harriet’s going to need someone to make the trip with her.” He raised his voice. “Captain?”

The Seahawk’s skipper pulled his attention away from his crewman and glanced up. “What is it, Commander?”

“Sir, I’m going to need a Tomcat and a refueling point somewhere between here and Andrews.”

Mac was almost as surprised as the captain at the bold request, but chose not to comment. “And what makes you think I can give that to you?” the older man inquired neutrally.

Harm’s tone and stance were respectful, but he was well aware that his next words were bordering on insubordination. “Sir, under any other circumstances I would never play this card … but after what happened here over the past couple of days, I think this ship owes me one.”

For a moment, there was a stony silence, while the commander wondered if he’d just knocked himself back a stripe or two. Finally, Captain Johnson replied in a cool, controlled voice. “And under any other circumstances, I would probably toss you to the sharks for even suggesting such a thing. Given the situation, though, I think a certain amount of … tolerance is called for. I’ll talk to the CAG and the air boss. We’re due to be relieved by the Coral Sea in a few weeks, so we can probably scrounge up a spare aircraft for you. Colonel, please tell me you don’t intend to take the backseat.”

“No, sir. I’d like to stay with Lieutenant Roberts, if I may.”

“Then you have more common sense than your partner.”

“That’s usually the general consensus, sir.” Harm looked as though he wanted to object to that statement, but she fixed him with a look that told him precisely what she thought of his plan, and he decided to quit while he was ahead.

“Thank you, Captain. I’ll be ready to go as soon as your people can arrange it.”

“Then you’d better saddle up. My plane crews are a lot faster than the ones Toby Ingles has on his boat. Your bird will be on deck as soon as I hang up the phone.” Mac had never seen a carrier captain smirk before, but she figured Harm deserved it for his earlier remark. The attorneys came to attention and left the sickbay area, waiting until they were in the corridor to regroup.

“Are you off your rocker?” Mac asked bluntly. “You’re going to dead-head all the way back to Andrews? That’s got to be a fourteen-hour trip, and it’s been a long time since you last slept.”

“Hey, if the bomber crews can do it, so can I.”

“The bomber crews have co-pilots.”

“It’ll be a milk run, Mac. They’ll give me a polar route, so it won’t be as long. Besides – I handle this kind of thing better when I’m occupied. If I stayed here, I’d probably kick in a bulkhead or something, and what good would that do Bud or Harriet?”

“Well, I handle this kind of thing better when you’re with me,” she shot back without hesitation, surprising him slightly. “And now you’re going to ditch out on me?”

“I’ll meet you at Landstuhl,” he promised quietly. “Come on, Mac, this isn’t about us. They both need help right now, and we’re in the best position to give it to them.”

“I know. I just …” For a moment, her confidence wavered, but the Marine’s formidable strength came through once again. “Just do me a favor and check the weather report this time, all right?”

It took a few seconds for her meaning to sink in, but when it did, it left him temporarily without words. They’d been in country for so long that he’d managed to forget what day it was, but now it all came rushing back with blinding clarity. It had been a year, almost to the day, since the aborted wedding and the infamous crash. A year ago, he’d been the one rushed to sickbay, and she’d been helpless, hundreds of miles away. As their gazes met, he saw again how deeply it had affected her. Jesus, has it really been that long? So much has happened … so much hasn’t happened.

“I’ll do that,” he said finally. “If you get a chance, grab my sea bag before you leave. Tell the admiral that I’m arranging transport for Harriet, but don’t tell him I’m in the air. I’ll deal with that once I get there.”

“I’ll do my best, but if he asks to speak with you, I’m not going to lie to our commanding officer.”

“I know. You wouldn’t be my favorite jarhead if you did.” He tried to smile, but it was a flimsy, hollow attempt. “I’ll see you in about a day, okay?”

“Okay. Good luck.”

“You, too.”

They waited for a long moment – just watching each other, wanting to say so much – before going their separate ways at last.


0056 EDT
Rosslyn, Virginia

 


Harriet Roberts was still sitting on the new couch in the new living room. Their new living room, supposedly, but it didn’t feel much like theirs at the moment. Bud hadn’t even seen the house that was to be his home yet: and so now, when she most desperately needed to feel some connection with him, there was nothing. Only the bare walls and a few scattered toys, and that couch.

She’d known from the moment the doorbell rang that something wasn’t right. Maybe she’d subconsciously known it for most of the day. When she’d opened the door that afternoon to reveal a subdued Admiral Chegwidden, though, the vague, nagging discomfort coalesced into real terror, and she’d barely been able to hold herself upright. But she forced herself to get through it, drawing on every last scrap of military bearing she’d ever had, until the full explanation was out. Then, something unexpected had happened. Her commanding officer, a two-star admiral and a decorated SeAL, had broken his careful focus; and for a moment, he looked just like her father, wanting to shield her from the cruelty of the outside world. When that happened, her defenses instantly crumbled, and she burst into tears.

He’d stayed with her ever since, comforting her in the only way he knew how. He’d quietly fixed little A.J.’s dinner and read his namesake a bedtime story, and he’d made the necessary calls to Bud’s father and brother when she realized she wouldn’t be able to get through it. Mostly, though, he simply stayed, understanding that she didn’t want to be alone. She couldn’t think in terms of the future just yet. Truthfully, she couldn’t think much at all. She just sat on the couch, holding a long-since-cooled cup of coffee and staring at the bare walls.

The admiral returned to the living room, putting his cell phone away in his pocket. “That was Colonel Mackenzie,” he reported, taking a seat across from her. “They’ve just arrived at Landstuhl, and they’re going to take him into surgery fairly soon. They’ve replaced a lot of his blood volume, so he’s looking good. They just need to do some work on his leg.”

Harriet nodded, feeling numb. “I guess I should start thinking about how I’m going to get out there,” she said hesitantly. “I know I won’t be able to get a flight until morning, but what about A.J.? I don’t want to leave him, but I don’t know if I can handle a nine-hour trip with him …”

“Is there any way Mikey could go with you?”

“He’s about to leave for Plebe Summer – I couldn’t ask him. Bud would be crushed if I let Mikey do anything to mess up his chances at the Academy.”

“It’s up to you, Harriet,” Admiral Chegwidden said gently. “There are plenty of us who’d be willing to take A.J. while you’re gone, if you’d like. Or you can wait and decide a little later.”

“How much later, sir?” She turned her wide, pleading eyes toward him. “I don’t know what I should do, but I know I don’t want Bud to be alone …”

“He won’t be alone,” he promised. “Harm and Mac are with him, remember?”

“Actually, sir, that’s only halfway true.”

Both jumped, startled; they hadn’t heard the front door open. Harm was standing in the doorway, still wearing his flight gear and a Seahawk squadron cap. He was probably close to the last person either officer had expected to see, and this was hardly the way they were used to seeing him, but Harriet soon recovered from her surprise and stood up.

“Commander! Sir – how did you get here so fast?”

“Mil-power most of the way, and a really good tanker crew out of Keflavik,” Harm answered, not meeting his CO’s gaze for fear of disapproval. If the admiral was angry with him, though, he hid it well.

“The Seahawk crew let you take a Tomcat?”

“I, ah, managed to persuade them.” Harm took off his cover, looking at Harriet with aching helplessness. “Honey, I’m so sorry,” he said softly.

With that, she fell into his arms, weeping bitterly. After the first few hours, she’d thought that all her tears for a lifetime were gone, but apparently she’d underestimated herself. Eventually Harm guided her back to the couch, tossing his keys and cover on the table.

Harriet composed herself quickly, brushing the tears away and seizing onto him as the best available link to her husband. “You’ve seen Bud, then? How is he?”

“He was asking about little A.J.” The commander offered a halfhearted smile. “They’ve kept him sedated. He lost a lot of blood, but he’s going to be all right. That’s the truth, Harriet.”

She nodded, biting her lip. “Sir, what really happened?” she whispered.

He sighed. “He and Petty Officer Coates went ashore to observe the ground-breaking for a new school that they’d helped get the money to build. He saw a little boy playing in a minefield, and … you know Bud. He had to try.”

The JAG had been listening quietly from a few feet away, but now he spoke up. “Commander, I know your presence is appreciated, but why did you come all this way tonight?”

Harm straightened. “To take Harriet and little A.J. to Germany, sir.” Almost as an afterthought, he turned back to Harriet. “That is, if you want to go.”

She blinked, confused. “Now? How – ”

“There’s a C-38 on standby at Andrews. It’ll be more comfortable than flying commercial, and we can go directly into Landstuhl. As long as you can put up with me as a co-pilot. Short notice, and all.”

“Thank you, sir,” she breathed, eyes shining with gratitude. “I’ll go pack some things and get A.J. ready to go.”

As she hurried up the stairs, Admiral Chegwidden turned to his senior attorney and folded his arms. “So how many favors did you have to call in to make all this happen?”

Harm still wasn’t entirely sure if he was going to get chewed out for his somewhat unconventional actions, but he didn’t dare hold back the truth. “Every last one of them, I think. I also dropped your name a few times, sir, and I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t be. I just wish I could go along. But someone’s got to hang around to report on everything that’s happened over the last few days, and I’ll be damned if I’m handing it off to Singer.” The older man gave a humorless smile, studying the part-time pilot in front of him. “Do you know anything about flying a C-38? I know you’ve proven your skills with a Tomcat, a COD, a Stealth fighter, and a 747…”

Harm recognized the oblique attempt at lightening the atmosphere, and was relieved by it. “Also a Learjet once, sir. A long time ago, at the very beginning of your tenure at JAG, but it’s close enough to a C-38.”

“Right … Didn’t you end up evading Cuban air defense forces with that thing?”

His response was utterly deadpan. “They loop much better than you’d expect, sir.”

The admiral rolled his eyes. “No wonder my predecessor didn’t outlast your antics.”

“He wasn’t a SeAL, sir.”

“Damn right.” Admiral Chegwidden glanced up as Harriet appeared in the hallway, a sleepy toddler on her hip. He lowered his voice, the humor instantly gone. “Take care of her, Harm.”

“I intend to, Admiral.”
 


0614 Zulu/Local
32,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean

 


Harriet wandered aimlessly across the small, empty cabin of the aircraft, checking on her son for the twentieth time. A.J. was blissfully unaware of the reasons behind this trip: he’d fallen asleep across a pair of seats almost immediately after takeoff, leaving her to wonder about the next week, and the next month, and the next year.

Her husband was now an amputee. He would wake up every day for the rest of his life with a part of his body missing. What would that mean for them? Although she hoped he wouldn’t need it, Bud would almost certainly be offered a medical discharge from the Navy. And regardless of that … she was beginning to realize how much she’d depended on everything going as they’d planned. Part of her confidence in buying the house had been based on the assumption that Bud would soon make lieutenant commander, and the extra money from his promotion, added to his hazardous duty pay –

Abruptly she cursed herself for a fool. He’d been earning that so-called ‘hazardous duty’ pay for weeks now, and she had never allowed herself to think about the reasons why. Her time at sea had seemed anything but hazardous, and even as the war progressed, she’d never truly believed that Bud was in any real danger. How shortsighted she’d been.

She sank into a seat just as Harm emerged from the cockpit, running a hand through his short hair. “Mind if I join you?” he asked.

“Please do.” She waved absently, and he took the seat across the aisle from her. “You’re not nervous about leaving the Air Force in charge of the plane?”

He smiled a little and shrugged. “Might as well let them do what they do best – straight and level flight. Besides, Captain Weiss is probably a bit more alert than I am at the moment.”

“You do look tired, sir.”

“Please try to forget about the ‘sir’ thing right now, Harriet. If you can convince your brain to go against instinct, of course. But yeah, I’ve crossed more time zones today than the sun. Actually, I don’t even know what ‘today’ is anymore.” He stretched his long legs out in front of him. “I hope Mac remembered to bring my sea bag over from the carrier. I think I’ve been wearing this nasty flight suit for two straight days.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. “What you did was pretty incredible,” she said finally. He glanced over at her, surprised. “It hasn’t hit the news yet – I don’t know how much they want the public to know – but the admiral told me the whole story. And Bud wrote to me about it, actually. It was the last message he sent before …” She paused to gather herself, but continued in a steady voice. “Saving five thousand lives in three minutes – it must have been surreal.”

“That’s one word for it.” Harm sighed. “Somehow none of it seems all that incredible right now,” he said quietly.

Harriet looked back at A.J. again before speaking up. “Sir – Harm – can I ask you something?”

“Anything,” he replied solemnly.

“After your ramp strike, how badly were you hurt?”

He hesitated for just a second, choosing how best to reply. The circumstances surrounding his original change of designator weren’t something he spoke of often, although he knew there were a number of rumors on the subject that occasionally circulated around JAG. “Pretty badly, I guess. I wasn’t at death’s door or anything – ”

“No, that was last year,” she commented under her breath, surprising him yet again.

“ – but they weren’t sure how well I was going to be able to walk when it was all over. I had to have surgery to fuse two of my vertebrae and stabilize my spine.”

“But you came back,” she pointed out, reining in the note of hopefulness that kept creeping into her voice. “I mean, you came all the way back. You even got back in the cockpit.”

“Yeah, I did.” He decided not to mention the fact that it had taken him five years to get there, and most of another four before his return to active flight status. He also left out the months of utter despair and disillusionment he’d felt as he’d pushed himself to heal. “I was determined. Bud will be, too. And I didn’t have someone as amazing as you to lean on. It’s going to be all right, Harriet.”

“I know.” She sighed, tucking an uncooperative lock of blond hair behind her ear. “I’m just afraid that this is going to change him, somehow.”

“I think that’s one of the few things that you can help him with. If you try not to see him any differently now, maybe he’ll be able to do the same.”

“I hope I’ll be able to handle that,” she said uncertainly, turning her head toward the window as they flew toward the rising sun. He interpreted the motion as a signal that she didn’t want to talk anymore, and leaned back in the seat to close his eyes for a while before landing. After a few minutes, though, she spoke up again. “Harm?”

“Yeah, Harriet?”

“Do you know what happened to the little boy? The one Bud was trying to help?”

The commander felt a dull twinge of guilt as he realized that the thought had never crossed his mind. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. I expected as much.” Still gazing out at the feathery clouds, she shook her head. “Little boys playing in minefields … The world is awfully screwed up right now, isn’t it?”

“I think the world is always screwed up in one way or another. We’re just now getting around to finding out about some of it. Those mines have been there for decades, and they’ll probably be there for decades longer, no matter what we do or don’t do about it.” As the words left his mouth, he heard the ringing pessimism in them, and regretted speaking at all. Of all people, she didn’t deserve to bear his frustrations. But as she turned back to look at him, there was very little sadness in her eyes.

“Maybe. But who was it that said ‘all that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph in this world is for men of good will to do nothing’?”

Not for the first time, he was impressed by her quiet strength. “Women of good will are pretty good, too.” Harm met her gaze and offered a small smile. “I don’t remember who said it first. But I’m glad you said it again.”


0827 EDT
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 


“Tiner, where is Lieutenant Sims?”

Petty Officer Tiner looked up at the petite yet utterly intimidating figure in front of his desk and swallowed hard. “Um, ma’am, I don’t know. Maybe she took a personal day today?”

“Then shouldn’t that be marked down somewhere?” Lieutenant Singer folded her arms, her patience already wearing thin. She had about a million forms to file: since JAG’s Three Musketeers were still off on the Seahawk and Watertown, respectively, all the after-action reports had fallen to her, and she wasn’t particularly happy about it. And since the administrative officers seemed to be disappearing just when she needed them …

“Ma’am, the admiral’s on his way in – maybe he knows something.”

“You’d better hope he does,” she informed the young man icily, stalking back toward her office. Just as she reached the doorway, however, a voice called out, “Attention on deck!”, and Admiral Chegwidden strode through the bullpen.

“As you were,” he said briskly, not slowing his pace. “I want the entire staff in the bullpen in ten minutes, and that means everyone who’s not in court, TDY or otherwise off-duty. If anyone’s up in the library or outside having a smoke, get them back in here ASAP. That is all.” The last sentence was punctuated by the closing of his office door.

Singer lifted an eyebrow, her curiosity piqued. Maybe something was happening. She wasn’t actually hoping for another terrorist plot, of course, but anything had to be better than all the reports she was currently facing. She’d been in her element during the crisis of the past few days, and any further opportunity to prove her skills would only make her stock go up.

Precisely ten minutes later, the full complement of JAG officers and staff was present in the bullpen, wondering what kind of news their CO had for them. The admiral stepped out of his office, and they saw for the first time that he looked tired. More than just tired, really: he looked older, somehow. Singer immediately recalled the colonel’s rehearsal dinner the year before, how the admiral had been forced to break the festive mood and tell them about the commander’s crash. This look was eerily similar, and she wondered if something had happened out on the Seahawk.

“Approximately twenty-four hours ago,” the JAG began, “Lieutenant Roberts was badly injured in Afghanistan. He stepped on a mine while trying to help a child, and was evacuated to Landstuhl for medical treatment. According to Colonel Mackenzie, the lieutenant’s condition is stable, but he suffered a leg injury that will likely require some surgeries and the use of a prosthetic. Lieutenant Sims is en route to Germany as we speak.”

There was a stunned silence in the room, and Singer found herself leaning against her office door in order to maintain her equilibrium. Bud Roberts? That couldn’t be right … could it? As she watched Admiral Chegwidden’s steely eyes, though, it was clear that there was no mistake.

“I know this comes as a shock to everyone, because we don’t think of ourselves at front-line personnel, but the important thing right now is to let Bud know that we’re here for him. To that end, Petty Officer Tiner will collect any kind of cards or gifts you wish to send to the Roberts family. If anyone wants to coordinate a larger gift, you have my blessing.” He sighed, and straightened his shoulders. “We’ve got to go on with business now, so that’ll be all. Lieutenant Singer.”

She jumped a little, startled. “Sir?”

“My office, in fifteen minutes. We need to discuss the possibility of you going out to the Seahawk to replace Lieutenant Roberts for the remainder of the cruise.”

“Aye, sir,” she responded awkwardly, her mind still churning. A few minutes ago, she would have been cheering at the idea of taking that assignment. She’d coveted it from the start, and the fact that Bud had beaten her out for it had always irritated her. A few minutes ago, everything had been different. Now, instead of triumph, she felt vaguely ill.

Bud Roberts, a man for whom she’d rarely held anything but contempt, had been in a war zone, and he’d braved a minefield to help a child. And it had almost cost him everything. Lauren Singer had always clung stubbornly to her belief that anything was possible if you were willing to look out for yourself above all: but somehow that tenet seemed hollow now, and she was surprised to discover just how much she ached for the embattled family. It didn’t make sense, and it didn’t fit her self-image, and all of that only made her feel worse.

Shutting the door to her office, she sat down at her desk and rifled through the drawers, searching for a box of Kleenex. The bottom drawer caught on something, and she reached around to extract whatever had tripped up the rollers. When she pulled the obstacle free and looked at it, she immediately dropped it on the desk in shock. It was a crinkled picture of Bud and little A.J., playing in a sandbox and apparently having a marvelous time. The photo must have been left behind when she’d cleaned Bud’s personal effects out of the office …

Suddenly she clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle the involuntary gasp that bubbled up from her throat, and she resumed the search for Kleenex with new fervor. This is stupid, she chastised herself even as the tears welled up. I don’t even like him, and his wife drives me nuts. I don’t need to cry over them. I’m stronger than that.

But for the first time, she was beginning to understand that she wasn’t nearly as strong as she’d thought she was, and it was wrecking her whole worldview. Surrendering, she put her head down and cried for a few minutes. Then, carefully, she fixed her makeup, lifted her chin, and strode toward the admiral’s office.


1752 Local
Medical Center
Landstuhl Air Base, Germany

 


“Colonel?”

Mac shook off the remnants of a light sleep and blinked at the young nurse standing in front of her. “Is he out of post-op?”

“They just moved him up to his room. The doctor’s in with him now, explaining the extent of the procedure to him.”

The ‘extent of the procedure’ sounded far kinder than cold reality did, Mac thought grimly. At that moment, Bud was learning the full truth: that every step he took from here onward would be with the aid of a prosthetic limb. “Can I see him when they’re finished?”

“Of course. It’s room 218. Also, I’ve been instructed to tell you that there’s a C-38 inbound from the States, ETA in half an hour.”

“Thanks.” She shook her head at that, almost finding the will to smile. Trust Harm to make things happen, even in the middle of the night. Mac stood up and braced herself to go talk to her friend.

He was gazing blankly at the wall when she approached the door, his features entirely unreadable. The sight gave her pause. It wasn’t as if he looked awful: other than a few cuts and bruises, and the leg hidden from view by a blanket, he looked fairly good. But in her experience, there had always been a spark of something indescribable and unique behind Bud’s round blue eyes. When he’d faced baby Sarah’s death, there had been blinding anguish, but at least there had been life. This … this nothingness was simply surreal.

“Do you mind if I come in, Bud?”

He glanced up with a start, then waved a listless hand. “You’re better-looking than my last visitor,” he replied faintly.

The remark wasn’t typical of him, but Mac chose to see it as a good sign that he was attempting to make jokes. “I come with better news, too,” she told him, coming around to stand by his bed. “Harm’s bringing Harriet in. She’ll be here within the hour.”

A flicker of uncertainty crossed his face, and for the first time she wondered if maybe he didn’t want to see his wife just yet. But he nodded bravely. “So she knows?”

“We figured we should tell her before some idiot reporter did.” Mac chewed on her lower lip, unsure how to proceed. “How are you feeling?” she asked finally, when no other words came.

Bud gave a weak, humorless chuckle. “Incomplete,” he answered dully. “Other than that … I don’t know how I feel yet.”

“Well, don’t worry about a thing. Just concentrate on getting better, and your friends will take care of anything else you need.”

He looked up at her with painful questions in his eyes. “Ma’am,” he asked solemnly, “how much ‘better’ do you really think I’m going to get?”

She closed her mouth, at a loss. Sure, she could try to reassure him with empty platitudes, but what good would it really do right now? “Harm made me watch ‘Men of Honor’ with him last month,” she offered lamely. “Carl Brashear stayed in the Navy with one leg, and he was a diver. The suits have got to be lighter now than in his day – you could take up scuba diving on the side.”

“Right.” He hesitated slightly. “Ma’am, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but…”

“But it’s not helping, is it?”

Bud shrugged a little. “I think I just need some time on my own to try and get a handle on all this.”

Mac tried valiantly to smile, despite the way her heart twisted at his words. “Of course. I’ll be around if you need anything.” She touched his shoulder briefly, then moved to the door before he could see the tears forming.

In the hallway outside, she slid down the wall, feeling drained and very alone. There was literally nothing she could do, and no one to bear this helplessness with her. Unconsciously she wished that Harm would hurry up and walk through those doors, and she was vaguely surprised at how much she needed to see him. Somehow, it felt as though he was the only one who could ease her mind right now. Perhaps it was because he alone would understand exactly how she felt. Or maybe it was because they’d hardly been separated at all during the past two weeks, and she simply didn’t want to be without his warm voice and expressive eyes any longer.

“Colonel Mackenzie?”

The small, shaky voice came from somewhere off to her right, and she blinked a few times, focusing on the young sailor who stood there crumpling her cover in her hand. “Petty Officer Coates,” she greeted, a little surprised. “When did you get here?”

“The skipper let me take a couple days of liberty,” Jennifer Coates answered quietly, looking nothing like the brash, misguided girl she’d been when they’d first crossed paths at Christmas. “I hopped on the COD and found a transport over from Khalid, but I have to be back in forty-eight hours. Is Lieutenant Roberts, um … how’s he doing?”

“He’s okay, but he’s got a lot to deal with. I don’t think now is the best time to go in and see him.”

Bud’s legalman nodded, but her face fell. “Ma’am, this is – this is really hard,” she confessed, a slight tremble in her voice. “I mean, when they gave me the choice to join the Navy, we weren’t at war or anything, and … I just didn’t expect something like this to happen, not to somebody I know.”

Mac sighed, feeling suddenly aged. “Neither did I,” she said quietly.

Jen scrubbed at her eyes for a moment. “Do you know if the lieutenant’s wife and son are coming here, or …?”

“Lieutenant Sims should be here any minute – Commander Rabb’s bringing her in. I think she probably has little A.J. with her.”

“That’s good. He’s always thinking about them, you know – we have a calendar up in the legal office to count down the days until the end of the cruise. He tacked up a picture of A.J. next to it. They must be a pretty amazing family … They’ll be okay, won’t they?”

Mac watched the young woman, looking so hopefully to her for reassurance; and if possible, she actually felt more hopeless. What reassurance did she have to give?

Finally, as if to rescue her, the elevator doors opened to reveal her godson, her friend, and … what was the right term to define Harm? She dismissed the nagging question, letting it be washed away by her overwhelming relief at seeing him. But she didn’t go to him: instead, a silent greeting passed between them as he stood back, allowing her to greet Harriet first.

The two women embraced, with little A.J. in between them, and Harriet gave a watery smile. “It’s so good to see you,” she said softly.

“Likewise,” Mac replied warmly. “Was the flight okay?”

“The flight was fine, but the landing almost got interesting. They put us in a holding pattern and then tried to divert us, but the commander threatened the controller’s career – ”

“It wasn’t his career I threatened,” Harm corrected, a little embarrassed. “It was a vital part of his anatomy. But we got here, didn’t we?”

“Oh, I’m not complaining, sir.” Harriet paused, recognizing Petty Officer Coates. There was a moment of awkward silence, but then A.J. toddled over to the girl and looked up at her.

“Hi,” he said brightly.

Jen smiled back, anxiously. “Hi, cutie,” she responded. “Your daddy loves you a lot, you know.”

“I know,” A.J. said matter-of-factly, and even Harriet had to smile.

“Come on,” Mac suggested. “Let’s get you in to see Bud.”

The trio disappeared behind the door, leaving Harm and Jen behind in the hallway. “How are you holding up, Petty Officer?” Harm asked gently, picking up on her discomfort.

“To be honest, sir, I’m not doing so great,” Jen answered truthfully, her dark eyes glistening. “I just remember hearing the explosion, and then everyone was running around, trying to get to him without setting off any more mines. It was just so crazy, and ever since, I haven’t been able to close my eyes without seeing it …”

She shuddered visibly, and Harm reached out to place a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Jen, the only thing that matters now is that he’s going to be all right. It’s not going to be easy, but trust me – he’s a lot tougher than he looks.”

“I’ll believe that, sir.” But she still seemed unable to shake that fear, and when she lifted her chin to meet his gaze, her careful calm was on the verge of slipping. “Commander, I’m aware of how totally improper it is of me to ask this, and it pisses me off that I’m about to perpetuate a female stereotype … but I honestly think I’d feel a hell of a lot better right now if I could just get a hug or something.”

She flinched a little, anticipating a negative response, but his lips curved upward in a small smile. “You may be on to something there.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, she was holding onto him desperately, her face pressed into his flight-suited shoulder to hide the few sniffles that escaped. After a moment of surprise, he closed his arms around her, feeling awkward. He’d never really been the type of person others looked to for comfort, but he had been the one to help her all those months ago, and she didn’t have anyone else.

A minute or two later, Jen pulled back and swiped a hand at her reddened eyes. “Thanks, sir,” she murmured, somewhat apologetically. “I think I’ll go figure out where the enlisted quarters are before the colonel gets jealous.”

Harm raised an eyebrow. “Before the colonel gets jealous?” he echoed pointedly, and a look of guilt flickered across her face.

“I mean, um … she looked like she could use a hug, too …” And with that, the petty officer escaped through the stairwell doors, leaving him to shake his head.

… “Hey, Bud, look who I found.”

Bud shook himself awake and lifted his gaze to the doorway, where Mac stepped back to allow Harriet into the room. The senior officer watched as husband and wife went through the same range of emotions simultaneously: relief at finally being together, coupled with bravely disguised pain. “You got here so fast,” Bud began tentatively. “Um, what day is it, anyway?”

“In Germany? I think it’s Saturday evening.” Harriet tried to smile, dropping her tote bag on a chair.

Soon, A.J. had wormed his way through his mother’s legs to peek over the edge of the bed. “Daddy!” he exclaimed happily, and the expression of anguish that darkened Bud’s eyes made Mac’s insides clench.

“I’m going to let you guys have some family time, all right?” She inched back toward the door, but Harriet’s use of her name briefly halted her.

“Mac … thank you. For everything you and Harm have already done, and for everything I know you’re going to do. We can’t thank you enough.”

“That’s what friends do.” She disappeared around the door, leaving the Roberts family alone together for the first time in months.

Harriet immediately rushed to the side of the bed and kissed her husband long and hard. “I’ve been waiting so damn long to do that,” she whispered, grasping his hand tightly within hers. “Are you okay? I mean, are you in any pain?”

He shook his head, feeling a stab of shame for putting her in such a hideous situation. “The doctors said I can probably go back to the States in a few days. There’ll be a couple more surgeries, and some fittings for a prosthetic, and a lot of time at a rehab center to learn how to use the new leg…”

Automatically, she glanced down at his legs as he said it, looking at the unnatural outline underneath the sheets for the first time and forcing herself not to react. He watched her carefully, waiting. “I thought you’d be crying already,” he observed softly.

“I’ve cried enough,” she answered, just as quietly. “I cried when I didn’t have you, and yes, I cried most of the way over here – but now I’ve got you back, so there’s nothing to cry about.”

He pulled her close, once again amazed by this woman. Before long, a three-year-old’s claim of “My turn!” separated them, and Harriet lifted A.J. up onto the bed. Bud felt his son’s tiny arms clinging to him, and it took everything he had to hold back his own tears. What would fatherhood be like for him now? Would a game of touch football in the backyard ever feel the way he’d expected it to?

“What happen?” A.J. asked curiously, taking in the strange hospital surroundings. “Hurt, Daddy?”

Bud met his wife’s gaze questioningly, and she shook her head, mouthing He doesn’t know. He forced a note of cheerfulness into his voice. “I got a pretty big boo-boo, A.J.,” he explained simply, hoping that maybe the boy wouldn’t be frightened if he didn’t sense his parents’ fear. “I have to get a new foot before I can get up and play with you.”

“New foot?” Confused, A.J. scrambled around to look under the blanket before Harriet could stop him. He blinked, then returned to hug his daddy as if seeing the bandages was absolutely normal. “Miss you, Daddy.”

Bud exhaled in relief. “I missed you too, sport.”

… Outside the door, Mac just looked at Harm, unable to find words for the events of the past day. Finally he held out a hand to her, and she allowed him to lead her over to a cushioned bench in the corner. “You’re a sight for sore eyes,” he remarked, weariness creeping into his voice.

She smiled sympathetically. “I brought your sea bag over, and I got us a couple of rooms at the nearest hotel, since the Q was booked. We can take Harriet and A.J. over whenever they’re ready.”

“That’s my Marine – always prepared,” he said, before realizing what that sounded like.

She merely fixed him with an amused glance. “Your Marine, huh?”

He shrugged, too tired to come up with a decent excuse. “Blame it on the jet lag?”

Although she had every intention of filing that comment away for later use, she chose to let it go for the moment. “When was the last time you slept?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“I haven’t been airborne practically non-stop for the last twenty-six hours and fourteen minutes,” she countered.

“Yeah, but as soon as I slow down, I’m going to have to actually think about all this, and I’d rather avoid that.” Harm leaned back against the wall, defeat echoing in his words.

“He’s going to be okay, Harm.”

“I know. I just did my best to convince Petty Officer Coates of that. It’s going to be so hard on them, though. As if they haven’t been through enough already.”

“Yeah.” She toyed absently with his Academy ring for a moment before weaving her fingers through his. Neither one commented on the slightly unusual display of closeness. “I heard from the air boss that Captain Johnson’s putting you up for a Navy Cross.”

At that, he turned his head toward her with an expression of disbelief and dismay, and she raised her free hand in surrender. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I just thought it might be a semi-bright spot in an otherwise horrific week.”

“Getting a Navy Cross? When one of my best friends is getting a plastic leg? It’s going to take a lot more than another damned medal to brighten my day.” Almost immediately, he softened his tone. Why on earth was he snapping at her, of all people? “Sorry. That sounded pretty awful. I just … God, Mac, when I walked into the house and saw Harriet – I thought I was stepping back in time. I could’ve sworn that it was my house, and my mother, and being on the other end of it all just about killed me.”

“It’s not the same thing,” she told him firmly. “It’s not even close. We’re making sure of that. Listen, why don’t you try to catch a few minutes of sleep? I’m sure Harriet won’t want to leave for a while, and I’ve been told I’m a pretty decent pillow.”

“You offering your services?”

“Isn’t that what it sounded like?”

“In that case, I gratefully accept.” He disentangled his fingers from hers and studied the bench critically. “All right, I think I can make this work.” Without another word, he swung his legs up onto the bench and laid his head down on her thigh, and she closed her eyes, inexplicably reassured by his nearness.

Within minutes, his even breathing signaled that he’d fallen asleep, and she felt a flutter of warmth at the idea of having a grown man and a decorated aviator sleeping across her lap. Not just any man, of course. No other man she’d ever met had the power to monopolize her thoughts the way that he did. She drifted back to that aborted conversation in the Seahawk wardroom, and the resolution they’d made in the last moment of peace they’d had before all this madness. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought he was asking her out. Had it meant anything close to what she thought it meant – and after everything that had changed, did it still mean something?

Deliberately she put those thoughts aside. This wasn’t the time or the place. Right now, what mattered was their friends. Anything else could wait. Even if they’d already waited half a lifetime.

 

 

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