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Classification Crossover (West Wing), Romance
 
Length Approx 30,000 words, 83 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
 
Spoilers For The West Wing: “Two Cathedrals,” “The Indians in the Lobby,” “Posse Comitatus” for JAG: “Contemptuous Words,” “Boomerang,” “Enemy Below”

 

Rating IM-15 for some language, implied sexual situation
 
Author's Notes First off, this story is set in the summer of 2002, which puts it between West Wing’s third and fourth seasons, and between JAG’s seventh and eighth seasons. It’s going to deal heavily in the events of both shows’ season finales, so a passing familiarity with one or both might be helpful. As a warning to the dedicated JAG shippers out there: this story is not going to have that much actual Harm-and-Mac time. Yes, it’s still shipper-friendly, but the primary interactions here will be between Harm and C.J., and there may be some elements of that relationship that you won’t like. Just trust me and keep reading. In general, the format leans more toward West Wing than it does JAG – I’m trying to write Harm as he might appear in a West Wing-type world. It’s something of an experiment, so if you don’t adore it, don’t be crushed. I’ll return to my regularly-scheduled shipper fic soon enough. On with the show…

 

Summary At a time when very little in her life makes sense, C.J. Cregg finds an unlikely yet powerful bond with a naval-aviator-turned-lawyer named Harmon Rabb.

 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

 

 

 

Monday
June 17, 2002
The West Wing

 


There was someone standing in the doorway of her office.

C.J. was well aware of the fact, but she didn’t immediately glance up from her computer. At five minutes before nine a.m., her schedule was already packed, and if this visitor had had something important to say, he or she would have already started talking. That was the way it worked around here. When approximately thirty seconds had passed with no announcement, C.J. finally looked over her glasses at the young woman. “Donna, I don’t mean to be rude, but isn’t Josh’s doorway your normal hovering position?”

“He’s on the Hill this morning. Besides, he wouldn’t fully appreciate the kind of information I have to offer.” Donna tossed her blond hair with a conspiratorial look. “There’s a hot-looking sailor in the lobby.”

C.J. looked at her impassively for about half a second, then shook her head. “Forget it.”

This wasn’t the response Donna had been expecting, so it threw her off stride. “Forget what?”

“The last time my day started out with a line about someone in the lobby, I ended up spending the day before Thanksgiving babysitting a pair of Indians.”

“Ironic…”

“Don’t start.” C.J. stood up from her desk and began to search the shelf for a file. Donna wasn’t dissuaded in the least.

“Anyway, I’m serious about this one.”

“A sailor in the lobby?”

“A hot-looking one. Trust me, you’d agree.”

“Because you and I always share the same taste in men,” she suggested dryly.

Donna pouted. “You’re ruining my fun. I don’t have the guts to ask him why he’s here.”

C.J. gave up looking for the file and threw up her hands, mildly exasperated. “Donna, I don’t have time for this. I have a meeting in five minutes.”

“Who with?”

She racked her brain. If that damn file had been here like it was supposed to be, she’d have been able to prepare before now, and this wouldn’t have felt like such a trick question. “With … with…”

“With one of the Judge Advocates from the Navy’s war crimes tribunal task force,” Carol answered smoothly, entering the office and dropping the requisite file onto the desk. “Leo wanted a firsthand update before the President commented about it in his speech, remember?”

“Leo also wanted to display his Air Force feathers and bitch about the Navy some more.” C.J. stopped herself as she made the connection. “Hold up. My meeting’s with a naval officer?”

Her assistant glanced down at the file to confirm. “Commander Harmon Rabb.”

“The hot-looking sailor in the lobby?” Donna asked hopefully.

“You thought so too?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Laverne and Shirley.” C.J. rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure anyone with a name like ‘Harmon Rabb’ can be classified as hot.”

“You haven’t seen him yet, C.J.” Carol smiled. “You’ll like him. Trust me.”

C.J. looked suspiciously from one to the other, mystified by their enthusiasm. “I don’t know where you two got the idea that you know my type. I’m not sure I even have a type anymore.”

“You want me to bring him back here?” Carol asked, making a few notes on her boss’s blotter.

“No, I’ll go get him. Cleaning drool off a uniform is tough.” She brushed past the two assistants, shaking her head, and strode through the busy hallways toward the main lobby.

Finding a naval officer in a busy room was typically a simple task, one made even simpler in the summertime. C.J. idly wondered what genius had decided that white uniforms were a good idea. The Navy certainly seemed to have gotten the short end of the dress-code stick. When her gaze fell on the only man wearing such a uniform, however, she rapidly amended that opinion.

He was probably about her age, with dark hair cropped short and eyes that defined a new shade of blue-green. Sitting ramrod-straight in a chair against the wall, he looked both at ease and alert at the same time. Handsome, certainly, but she didn’t immediately see what had turned Donna and Carol into instant groupies. She shrugged inwardly and started to cross the foyer.

“Commander Rabb?”

The commander stood up, moving to meet her - and suddenly she understood why the other women had been so insistent. She was quite accustomed to her role as the ‘tall girl’. This was the first time in recent memory that she’d actually had to look up at someone.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered politely, shaking the hand she extended to him.

“I’m C.J. Cregg, White House press secretary. Thanks for coming.”

“My pleasure.” His impressive smile faded slightly as an expression of puzzlement flitted across her features. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m just surprised. You’re a Judge Advocate - that’s code for lawyer, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She glanced down at the gold wings that gleamed over his breast pocket, hoping to keep from making a fool of herself. “And apparently a pilot, as well?”

A hint of the smile returned, and she found herself just a little dazzled. “It’s a long story, ma’am.”

“If we have time later, I’d like to hear it.” The words were out of her mouth before she could rethink them, but she recovered quickly. Nobody, not even a hot-looking sailor, was going to knock her off balance this early in the week. “Let’s talk in the Roosevelt Room. If you’ll follow me…”

She led him past the communications bullpen, surreptitiously watching his reactions to the controlled chaos around them. Visitors’ impressions of the West Wing were fascinating to study: it was easy to tell a first-time visitor, just from the sheer awe that invariably radiated from the person. This particular visitor was hard to read - his expression didn’t change at all - but eventually she caught his eyes flicking back and forth, taking in their surroundings. Gotcha, she thought.

“Have you ever been in the West Wing before?” she inquired pleasantly.

“No, ma’am. The closest I’ve been is the Rose Garden, for an awards ceremony.”

“Then maybe we’ve crossed paths before?”

“Actually, it was during the previous administration. I wasn’t able to stay for the reception, so I’ve probably seen less of the White House than the average tourist.”

As they reached the Roosevelt Room, she opened the door and waved him in. “Who was getting the award?”

“I was.” He was already moving into the room as he said it, so he didn’t see her eyebrows rise in restrained disbelief.

“I think I’d like to hear that story, too,” she commented, then briskly moved on to business, taking a seat at the table. “Listen, this isn’t a big deal. It’s really more of a formality than anything else. As you probably know, the President is addressing a joint session of Congress in two days, and one of the topics is the state of our detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Leo McGarry had a few questions about the upcoming tribunals that he’d like to have officially answered before the final draft of the speech is written.”

“Well, I’ll do my best to give you the most official-sounding answers I can,” Commander Rabb replied with a smile, setting his briefcase and cover down on the table.

“I can tell you’re going to fit in just fine around here. Okay, first off. What kind of progress has the task force made?”

“We’ve got a framework in place for the basic procedure. Preliminary hearings are still set for the beginning of October.” He paused, noticing her slight wince. “Is there a problem?”

“Not with the actual hearings - the DoD has our complete support on that front. It’s just the timing.” C.J. sighed, folding her hands atop her notebook. “I don’t think there’s way to put this delicately, so I’m just going to say it. This coming September is going to be a complicated time. The one-year anniversary of the attacks will bring to the surface a lot of emotion that people really haven’t had time to bury yet. If an entire year passes and no one has been convicted…”

“Ma’am, none of the detainees at Gitmo was on board an airliner on September 11th,” the commander pointed out quietly.

“I understand that, but there’s a very real connection. We’d like to be able to have at least a start on the tribunals before September, so that the public can see that someone is being held accountable.”

“I see.” He watched her impassively. “May I ask a somewhat blunt question?”

A little surprised, she only shrugged. “Blunt questions are all I usually get.”

“Is there a concern that starting the tribunals in October might be too late for any PR benefits to affect the November elections?”

C.J. narrowed her eyes. This guy played hardball. After three years in front of the press corps, though, she wasn’t about to blink. “Well, that is blunt, so I’ll respond in kind. I don’t believe that the tribunals are likely to have an appreciable effect on the President’s chances for reelection, but we’d certainly like to see some resolution on this issue while we’re all still in the White House.”

“You don’t expect to win reelection?”

“Are you normally this aggressive, Commander, or am I just lucky?”

Abruptly he softened, offering a self-deprecating smile. “My apologies, ma’am. I guess you can take the lawyer out of the courtroom, but - ”

“I don’t believe that for a minute. I think you say exactly what you want to say just about every day of your life. Thing is, my M.O. is awfully similar.” She met his gaze, challenging. “I fully expect to not only win reelection, but to win it in a walk. If you repeat that to anyone with a microphone, I know many, many ways of making you very sorry. But that’s not the topic at hand. Nine months ago, the American people got collectively sucker-punched, and we think it’s time to start hitting back. So why can’t we start holding these guys up to the law right now? Why do we have to wait until October? Why do we even have to wait until next week?”

“Well, quite frankly, because this is an entirely new procedure of unparalleled magnitude. We’re racking our brains for precedent, and like usual, we’re tripping over our own red tape. If we push to start the tribunals any earlier, Headquarters will have a hard time getting prepared, and something might get missed. We just want to make sure it’s done right. That’s my only objection.”

“But will you raise our concerns with your superiors?”

He merely tipped his head in acknowledgement. “I never ignore a directive from the White House.”

“All right. Then I suppose all I need is a way to argue that point and sound confident. There are a lot of people accusing us of stalling the issue, and they’ve got rather loud voices. What can the President tell Congress Wednesday night to reassure them?”

Rabb considered the question carefully. Finally, he replied, “He can tell them that the enemies of the United States will not now, nor will they ever, escape the reach of justice. The legal branch of the armed forces rarely gets the opportunity to directly act in defense of the country, but I can assure you that every one of us is more than ready to perform our duties. That much is a certainty.”

Both the words and the fire behind them made an impact, and C.J. nodded resolutely. “Commander, your candor is refreshing, to say the least.”

“That’s probably the kindest possible way to put it, ma’am.”

“The ‘ma’am’ thing really isn’t necessary. Around here, we’re lucky to get anything above ‘hey, you.’ ”

“I doubt that, but I can be flexible. Would you prefer Ms. Cregg?”

“I’d prefer C.J., actually.”

Instantly she regretted making the suggestion. What the hell was she trying to do here? Make friends? She wasn’t likely to ever see him again. Fortunately, he wasn’t put off. “Fair enough. I’m Harm.”

“I think we’re done here, but if you’ve got a few minutes, I could show you around.”

Harm smiled again - and this time she felt that he was actually smiling at her, not just in her direction. “I’d like that.”

They roamed the halls for a while, as C.J. offered her best account of the history of the building. The naval officer listened intently, with a kind of decorum born of years spent in the service. He wore the uniform for all the right reasons, she saw. He had a deep respect, almost a reverence, for this place and what it represented. She found herself feeling a touch of guilt for the indifference she so often displayed as she flew through six critical tasks at once. Her first reaction was to push it aside. Her second reaction was to decide that this man must have a fascinating history of his own.

“Thank you for the tour,” Harm said as they returned to the lobby. “I’m sure you have a number of other important things you need to get to.”

She glanced at her watch. “Yeah, like my morning briefing, unfortunately.”

“Well, if you need to follow up on what we discussed, all my numbers are on here. The pager’s been on the fritz lately, so if you can’t find me at the office, your best bet is my cell phone.” He held out a business card, and she was careful to take it without brushing his fingers.

“You do owe me a couple of stories,” she reminded him, tilting her head toward his wings. In response, he gestured toward the card in her hand.

“That’s an acceptable reason to call, too. But you’re the one with the crazy schedule, so I’ll leave it to you. It was a pleasure meeting you, C.J.”

“You, too.” She watched him put on his cover - perfectly straight on the first try - and stride through the doors. A Marine guard saluted as he passed, and he returned it automatically. So much of the military way of life seemed like that, she thought. Automatic, rigid, without a second thought. But he wasn’t entirely like that. He’d spent most of their meeting arguing with her, which wasn’t usually the way to get a free tour out of her. But she’d given it to him anyway. What was it about him?

It wasn’t until she was most of the way back to her office that she was able to put a label on it, and when the realization came, it stopped her cold. The military posture, the sense of being calm yet alert at all times, the way that he challenged her at every turn … hell, even his height …

After a split-second, she resumed walking, setting a course for her assistant’s desk.

Carol heard her approach, as she always did. “CBS wants a minute to talk about Wednesday after the briefing,” she reported. Receiving no reply, she looked up. “What? Did the hunk turn out to be an idiot?”

“Hardly.” C.J. folded her arms across her chest, shaking her head. “You were so sure I’d like him.”

“Well, yeah.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Carol.”

“I really don’t.”

“It didn’t cross your mind at any point that the commander might remind me of someone?”

After a moment of bewilderment, understanding flooded Carol’s features. “I didn’t really think he looked that much like – ”

“He does to me. His entire bearing screams ‘Simon’ in flashing red letters, and I can’t believe you don’t see that.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“It’s all right. Briefing starts in ten?”

“Yeah. I’m just pulling up the market summaries for you.”

“Okay. Give me five minutes.” C.J. stepped into her office and closed the door, attempting to regain her equilibrium. Carol was probably the only person on staff who had even an inkling of how deep her emotions ran on the subject of Simon Donovan. The Secret Service agent who’d protected her during the threats of the past spring had been well known among the staff. They’d all gotten accustomed to hearing his calm, wry voice in the halls, quietly taking all the misdirected frustration she’d thrown at him. They’d all expected him to leave as quietly as he’d come once the threat had passed. None of them had expected to be attending his funeral.

A robbery, Agent Butterfield had told her. A convenience store and a couple of scared, stupid kids. They’d found Simon with a rose lying next to his hand, a casualty of duty and a victim of being in the wrong place at the worst possible time. A few people had wondered who the rose might have been for, but she had no intention of enlightening them.

C.J. looked down at the business card in her hand, holding it over the wastebasket for a long minute. She didn’t need to go through this. She didn’t need to dredge up all the questions she’d buried over the past few weeks. There were too many other things to worry about.

There are always too many other things to worry about, part of her mind pointed out. That’s why you keep pushing it aside. It isn’t going to go away on its own, no matter how long you avoid it.

It had been most of four years since she last had a real friend - someone to talk to who didn’t live and breathe this job the way she did. Maybe a Navy lawyer was as good a distraction as any.

Dropping the card into her desk drawer, she picked up her notebook and started toward the pressroom. Before anything else, she had an economic crisis, a new medical research bill, and a possible autoworkers’ strike to brief.
 


Tuesday
JAG Headquarters

 


“You’re looking awfully chipper today. What do you have up your sleeve?”

Harm raised his hands in surrender. “Not a thing. I’m just convinced of my client’s innocence.”

“Sure you are.” Sarah Mackenzie folded her arms and stared her partner down as they crossed the bullpen. “Come on. Not even a clue? For your very best friend?”

“For my very best friend, certainly. Just not while she’s also playing the role of lead prosecutor.”

“Ah, well. I had to try.” Undaunted, Mac breezed past him and into her office. Harm only shook his head and continued on to his own office.

The past few weeks had been a struggle for both of them, and for the entire staff. Once the immediate crisis in the Arabian Sea had passed, they’d all managed to relax - perhaps too much. Certainly they hadn’t been prepared for the bombshell that had shattered their dear friend’s life only a few days later. Now that Bud was back at home, beginning an arduous rehabilitation process, everyone was going above and beyond to make everything appear normal – whatever that word meant anymore.

One of the bastions of normalcy at JAG HQ, apparently, was the relationship between its top attorneys. It felt as if the rest of the staff was looking to Harm and Mac to maintain the expected balance in the office. As a result, despite the closeness they’d found during their time in Afghanistan, something seemed to be keeping them in a perpetual holding pattern, preventing any further evolution. And it was driving him nuts.

Harm sat down at his desk and attempted to focus on the report that Lieutenant Singer had recently delivered. It was obsessively detailed, as usual. He was still searching for actual evidence in the fourteen-page document when his phone rang, bringing a welcome distraction.

“Commander Rabb.”

“Commander, this is C.J. Cregg. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“Far from it, believe me,” he responded, a little surprised. He hadn’t really expected to hear from her again. “Looking for a reciprocal tour of our action-packed office?”

Her laugh was short, but genuine. “Thanks, but I’m fine.”

“What can I do for you, then? If you need additional information for the speech, you’re running short on time. It’s tomorrow night, isn’t it?”

“Actually, I wasn’t calling about the speech. This is on another matter.” There was a pause on the line as she considered her approach. “I realize that this may be a somewhat odd request, but I think I’d like to hear some of those stories you alluded to yesterday. I was wondering if, possibly, you’d be willing to meet after work to discuss them sometime.”

There wasn’t an immediate response, and she rushed ahead. “Of course, if you’re uncomfortable with the idea - ”

“No, not at all. Would you hold on for just a moment?” Harm covered the receiver and called out to Singer as she passed by his door. “Lieutenant, a minute, please? This was supposed to be a summary, not the history of Western civilization. Could you clean it up so that I can find the ballistics report without a compass? Thank you. Dismissed.” As the junior officer disappeared around the corner, he returned to the phone. “I’m sorry, I had to get some information.”

“No, it’s all right. Like I said, I know this is an odd thing to ask.”

“I was just thinking that it doesn’t sound odd at all. It just sounds like a normal - ”

“Date? No, that’s not where I was going with it. I mean, trust me, I’m not anywhere near prepared to do anything even resembling a date.”

He blinked, starting to get confused. “Okay, I stand corrected.”

“Wait, I didn’t mean to be so vehement. What I mean is, this is a purely self-serving request. I could really use a few hours away from my job, and my job doesn’t really allow for many opportunities to talk to anyone outside of … well, my job. I would just like to have an evening of intelligent conversation with a person who doesn’t live and die by the exit polls in Peoria. That’s all I’m proposing. Take it or leave it.”

Harm hesitated for a moment, trying to weigh the consequences of his answer. After tossing a brief glance in the direction of Mac’s office, he replied finally, “All right. You’ve got a deal.”

She hadn’t really expected him to agree, so it took her a moment to decide how to proceed. “Okay, then. Are you free Thursday?”

“I am. Are you sure you’re going to be?”

“I’m never sure, but since the speech will be over, I ought to be able to escape before too late. Say eight o’clock?”

“That ought to work. I don’t suppose you’ve already thought of a location?”

“As a matter of fact, no, but thinking on my feet is one of the things I get paid to do. Do you know Café Maria on Columbus Avenue?”

“Sure, I used to live around there. I was addicted to their hazelnut coffee.”

“It’s their Thursday special. I told you I think on my feet.”

“And you do it well. So, Café Maria on Thursday night?”

“Sounds good. I really appreciate this.”

“I’ll look forward to it as well. Good luck with the speech.”

“Thanks. See you then.”

Harm hung up the phone, then stared at it for a while. What exactly had he just agreed to? She’d gone out of her way to explain the non-date status of this meeting. Then what was it? Make new friends week? She was certainly an interesting person. Bold, but in a refreshing, non-threatening way. So what the hell does she want with me?

At last, he decided that it was nothing more than what they’d outlined: a friendly cup of coffee between adults who admittedly had next to nothing in common. If nothing else, it would be a break in his routine, and his routine could definitely use a break. Making a note in his weekly calendar, he turned his attention back to his computer.


Thursday
Café Maria

 


C.J. swung her car into the first available parking space and hurried toward the door of the coffeehouse. Twenty-four minutes past eight. Damn. She’d been on her way out at seven forty-five, but Toby had cornered her with a ‘quick’ question about subsidies for soybean farmers, and Toby’s questions were never quick. Now she was just hoping that her companion hadn’t already given up on her and left.

When she reached for the door, though, another hand shot out to grab it - and she was greeted by a pair of piercing eyes that, once again, she had to look up to meet. “Good timing,” Harm observed, tucking his cover under his arm and holding the door open. “I was just rehearsing my apology for being late.”

“Looks like we can just chalk it up to demanding careers.” C.J. stepped inside and located a suitable table near the corner. “I wouldn’t have expected lawyers to have to work so late, though.”

“I had to meet with a client. Trial’s making him nervous, so I have to continually keep reassuring him that he’s not screwed.”

“What’s the charge?”

“Murder.”

She blinked. “Well, I can see why he might be nervous about that.”

“Yeah. The kid’s twenty-four years old, and the security report alleges that he got into an argument with a fellow squad member and attacked him outside their barracks.”

“Did he do it?”

He lifted an eyebrow. “If I knew, do I you really think I’d tell you?”

“I don’t think you’d tell me. But you do know, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”

That line of conversation effectively ended as he ordered their coffees from a passing waiter. C.J. watched him for a moment, sizing him up again. “Law is probably one of the few professions I could never picture myself in.”

“Really? I would’ve expected the West Wing to be full of lawyers.”

“Oh, it is, but they’re mostly former corporate types. I’d be surprised if any of them had ever been near a murder case. No, it’s the whole concept of trying to defend a person whom you know is guilty. I couldn’t handle that.”

“I’m not too fond of it myself, but I understand the fundamental necessity of it. Fortunately, the situation doesn’t come up all that often.” Harm leaned back in his chair. “So what path does one take to get to the White House press secretary’s office, if law school is out of the question?”

“A lot of luck, mostly. I escaped the Midwest to go to Berkeley, and I graduated with no clear idea of where I was going. I did a little work for some political action committees, but eventually I found myself doing PR for film studios in L.A., and although the money was good, I can’t say I was too sorry to leave when the Bartlet campaign came calling.”

He shook his head. “I’m having a hard time picturing you in the Hollywood lifestyle.”

Instinctively, she bristled. Her PR work wasn’t something she was particularly proud of, but it had been a part of her life, and she wasn’t about to let anyone cut her down because of it. “Why’s that? Do you have any firsthand experience with ‘the Hollywood lifestyle?’ ”

In response, she received a sardonic grin. “Dated a producer for a year and a half. You have about as much in common with her as I do with the Queen of England.”

She began to relax. “I see. Producers are an interesting bunch.”

“That’s one way to put it.” Their coffees arrived, and he took a sip of his before continuing. “It sounds like you escaped to California somewhere around the time I was escaping from it.”

“You’re from out west?”

He nodded. “Around San Diego. I went to high school in La Jolla.”

“Nice area.”

“Unless you’re sixteen and can’t wait to get out, sure.” He smiled ruefully.

“You knew even then that you wanted to join the Navy?”

“I knew that from the time I was five. It’s the family business, such as it is.”

“So do you come from a line of Navy lawyers, or Navy fliers?”

He folded his arms and leaned on the table. “What do you think?”

“I’d say fliers.”

“You’d be right.”

She swirled the straw around in her coffee, idly wondering why he didn’t volunteer any further information. “I feel like I don’t understand the military perspective as well as maybe I should. We’ve had a fairly smooth ride with the Pentagon for most of the term, but sometimes I think your bosses’ opinions about my boss are colored by the fact that he doesn’t have a military background.”

“I sense a personal question coming on.”

“Wait for it.” C.J. shot him a stern look, but her eyes twinkled. “Seriously. Does it bother you that the President never served?”

“Not particularly. I don’t think everyone in this world is meant to wear a uniform.”

“But he’s your commander-in-chief,” she persisted.

He shrugged. “Politics and the military don’t always fit all that well together. I approve of the way he’s handled the recent conflicts, and they couldn’t have chosen a finer officer to advise him than Admiral Fitzwallace.”

“Hypothetically, though, if he ordered you to do something that you thought was ill-advised … you know, because of a lack of experience or understanding of the situation …”

“I’d still do it. Orders are orders. That’s the only way the whole thing works.”

She had a hard time believing that anything this critical could be so black and white. “There’s been a lot of concern about the direction of our efforts in Afghanistan,” she said carefully. “People are afraid that the war on terror could turn into another Vietnam, that a conflict could arise between political and military objectives. Doesn’t that worry you?”

When she looked up, the coldness in his eyes shocked her into silence. “You don’t want me to start in on Vietnam right now,” he replied quietly. “I’m not really into finger-pointing on this topic, but whatever happened over there cost me my father. And I don’t think you really want to go there tonight.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, not knowing how else to respond. “I’ll back up a little. But I really am interested in what you think of the President.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s an election year,” she shot back immediately. “No, really. I almost never talk to a person who doesn’t have some kind of agenda, and I get the feeling that you might just be one of the few honest people left in Washington. So would you humor me?”

Harm spread his hands in an expansive gesture. “I have nothing but respect for the President.”

“You didn’t vote for him, did you?”

“Come on, how many card-carrying Democrats are there in the armed forces?”

She studied him, narrowing her eyes. She knew when she was getting the run-around. “You’re not going to tell me, are you? Even if you hated everything about him, you’d just sit there and not say a word.”

“I don’t hate anything about him.”

“But if you’re as conservative as you claim, you must dislike some of his policies.”

He merely fixed her with a cool expression and recited a well-worn phrase. “Public criticism of my commanding officers is prohibited under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Almost as an afterthought, he rolled his eyes. “I should know, after my run-in with the last commander-in-chief.”

She decided not to pursue that comment for the moment. “I’m sure the ACLU loves it when you guys prosecute that one.”

“Depends on who’s in the Oval Office at the time.”

This was starting to get frustrating. The more he dodged, the greater her instinct to press the issue became. “Harm,” she began, sharply catching his attention. “This isn’t a state secret here, all right? I just want to know what you think. How wrong could that be? It’s just you and me.”

He looked at her in disbelief. “ ‘Just’ you? C.J., you’re the press secretary. I can’t imagine a more dangerous conversation.”

“You don’t think I can keep the opinions of a casual acquaintance to myself?” she demanded defensively. “You think I’m going to waltz into the briefing room tomorrow and give your sound bites to the New York Times? You have no idea how well I keep secrets, Commander.”

“I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.” He touched her arm, stalling some of her anger. “But I can’t tell you what I think of your boss’s defense budget or his stance on Roe v. Wade. Not because of who you are, but because of who I am. I really am sorry.”

Something about those earnest yet unyielding eyes sent her into another maelstrom of memories, and she had to mentally shake herself out of it. “I’m sorry, too. I think some subconscious part of my brain is trying to sabotage this – whatever it is – because every so often, you remind me of someone. A lot, in some cases.”

She half-expected that explanation to fall flat, but instead he nodded in understanding. “I know that feeling. Sometime I’ll tell you how I met my partner – ”

“I got him killed,” she blurted out, surprising both of them. “The person you remind me of. Indirectly, he’s dead because of me.”

Immediately she was horrified at herself for dropping that kind of news on a near-stranger. It wasn’t even something that she’d consciously admitted to herself, but it was the way she felt. He would have been justified in running the other way after something like this …

… but he didn’t. Instead, there was something familiar in his expression. “Unfortunately, I know that feeling, too,” he replied quietly.

She stared at him. “Are you serious?”

He sighed. “Maybe it’s time I explained the story of why I’m a lawyer with wings.”

She listened as he told her about the accident that had ended his flying career and the life of a fellow aviator, about how his search for a new life had eventually led him to his position at JAG. Somehow, as painful as it sounded, hearing that gave her comfort. If he could shoulder that kind of guilt and still move on, maybe there was some hope for her after all.

Abruptly, he pulled himself back to the present. “I apologize. I’m sure the last thing you were looking for tonight was a sob story. Especially since it sounds like you’ve got enough to deal with on your own.”

“Actually, I was just thinking that it sounded more like a success story to me. And regardless of what I was looking for tonight, I think maybe this was exactly what I needed. Because of what I’m dealing with on my own.”

“If you want to talk about it, it seems like we’ve already established a ground rule of nothing off-limits.”

She drew a deep breath. “It’s not a very complex issue. This spring I received a number of emails threatening my life. I had a Secret Service agent assigned to me for almost a month, and we got to be pretty close. Last month, we accompanied the President to New York City for an event, and that night they arrested the man who’d been threatening me. Unfortunately, Simon – Agent Donovan – walked into a convenience store holdup that same night, and the robbers shot him.”

Once it was out, the tale lifted some of the weight from her shoulders. “Next to what you just told me, it’s practically nothing, but that’s what happened.”

“It’s not nothing,” Harm told her, his voice gravely serious. “But I don’t understand how it could be your fault.”

“I tried to tell him not to come to New York. He wouldn’t have been there at all if it hadn’t been for me - ”

“You mean, if he hadn’t been doing his job?” He shook his head. “C.J., I don’t know if I’m qualified to comment on Secret Service procedure, but I can tell you what it means to have a duty to uphold. He would have been there no matter what, regardless of how close he did or didn’t get to you. It has nothing to do with the reasons he was killed. I can promise you that.”

“I know. I mean, on some level I know, but sometimes …” She attempted a wan smile. “I don’t know if I can believe all that just yet, but I appreciate you saying it nonetheless.”

He drained his coffee cup before speaking again. “It seems to me that despite some rather impressive political divergences, the two of us might have more in common than I’d expected.”

“How do you figure?”

“You drove up in a ‘65 Mustang, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I had to pay a fortune to get it shipped here from L.A., but I do love that car. Your point?”

“I was in love with my ’68 Corvette – drove it for almost ten years before it was stolen. I spent half of last year and a hell of a lot of money to restore another one.” He flashed a grin, and she felt some of that tension she’d been unable to shake finally begin to ease. “Mac teased me mercilessly about it.”

“Mac is?”

“My partner, Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie.” He paused a moment, reconsidering. “It’s funny. I always refer to her as my partner, even though we don’t often work together anymore. I guess ‘best friend’ is probably a more accurate description. We’ve been getting each other in and out of trouble for almost six years now.”

At her look of disbelief, his lips twisted wryly. “I know. It makes me feel old just to say it.”

“No, I was just surprised to hear that anybody in the Navy stayed in one place for six years.”

“Hey, I’m a lawyer, remember? I’m well-versed in the concept of rolling with the punches.” He shrugged. “What about you? I know you expect your boss to win reelection, but if for some reason he doesn’t, do you know what you’ll do next?”

“I’m trying pretty hard not to think about it at the moment. Ask me again in a couple of months, after the convention.”

“Whatever you say. At any rate, I imagine there are a number of groups out there who’d kill to have you running point for them.”

“You don’t know me well enough to mean that,” she countered, daring him.

“No, I suppose I don’t. But I tend to trust my first impressions.”

“And your first impression of tonight is?”

“That you’re an enjoyable conversationalist, and that I wouldn’t mind repeating tonight in the future. Unless your Thursdays are booked up.”

Strangely flattered, she only shook her head. “I think I could manage another jailbreak next week. Same time, same channel?”

“I’ll be here. Hopefully closer to the actual specified time, but no promises.”

“That goes for me as well. Have a good week.”

“You, too.”

 

 

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