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Classification Romance (Harm/other)
Length Approximately 30,000 words, 69 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Anything after “Ice Queen/Meltdown” but before “The One That Got Away”
Rating GS
Author's Notes Gasp – I’ve gone non-shipper. Now, don’t panic, anyone. This doesn’t mean that I’ve necessarily fallen off the shipper bandwagon for good; this is just how I’m feeling at this particular time. Also, if you know anything about me personally, you’re going to be amused as all hell at what I’ve decided to do with the end of this. I offer no excuses – I’m just writing a guilty pleasure story for a change. You will be returned to your traditional JAG fare shortly.

This story diverges from show canon early on in Season 9, approximately around the episode “The One That Got Away.” I’ll provide a little bit of background info on Andrea (Andie) Nichols, but you should really read “Learning How to Fall” and maybe “After Two” to get an accurate picture of her relationship with Harm. This obviously doesn’t follow the same timeline as “Innocence Lost and Found” (another Andie story), though.

The title has a double meaning. One will probably be fairly clearly stated by the end. As for the other: well, just ask a Girl Scout.
 

Summary Set during Season 9, and in the timeline of “Learning How to Fall.” Starting over never gets much easier, but sometimes the best assistance lies in helping someone else rebuild.

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

 

 

 

He sat on the couch, slumped back with his head leaning on the cushions. The windows were open wide, a surprisingly stiff wind swirling through the apartment. The papers on his desk were threatening to scatter, but he made no move to protect them. They’d still say the same thing, whether stacked neatly on his desk or skittering across the hardwood floor.

He wanted a drink. The only thing that stopped him from pouring one was the fact that it was four in the afternoon, and somehow that made a difference in his mind. He’d never been someone who ‘needed’ a drink, and he was going to do whatever it took not to start down that path. Besides, you were supposed to drink to stop feeling, weren’t you? That wasn’t what he was looking for. What he wanted was to feel something, anything, beyond this wearying numbness that had settled in.

So he’d opened the windows, because without that humid breeze on his face, his apartment had begun to feel like a sensory deprivation chamber.

He’d gone into this assignment, like all the others, with open eyes. He’d understood that it had the potential to get ugly. But somehow, he’d always expected that any disagreement he might have with the Agency’s ways would stem from some questionable action they wanted him to take. He’d never envisioned a scenario where they might prevent him from acting.

Upon his return earlier that day, he’d immediately sat down at his desk and scratched out his after-action report on the half-dozen sheets of paper that were now spread out on the floor. He’d wanted to get it all down in writing quickly, because his superiors were never happy with vague reports, and he knew that his subconscious would immediately try to bury as many details as possible.

What are you doing? his mind demanded. What made you think that you could fit their profile? Too wild for the Navy, too straight-laced for the CIA – a man without a service. He smirked. No, he’d stay with the Agency for the moment, if only because it wasn’t in his nature to quit so easily. But understanding, on any subject, wouldn’t be this long in coming again. He’d make sure of it, for the sake of his sanity.

Harmon Rabb rose from the couch, pulled the windows shut, and gathered up the strewn papers. Placing them in a folder, he reached for the phone on the desk. Once it was in his hand, he gave some thought to what number he intended to dial. He’d made a decision early on in his fledgling CIA career not to involve anyone from JAG in his assignments. His rationale had been twofold. Pulling JAG officers into Agency matters had often ended badly in the past, even before the disaster in Paraguay. But more than that, he just wasn’t sure what talking to any of them would accomplish.

He didn’t particularly want to hear any office gossip or commiserate about tough cases. They surely didn’t want to hear about all the various ways he’d risked his life in the past week or month. JAG had brought them together and held them there. He knew that he’d been a big part of that, regardless of the admiral’s pointed remarks about his teamwork skills. But without JAG, there was little to bind him to them. They’d move on if given no other choice; it was the military way. He’d survive, because that was his way.

At one point, he’d believed that the bond he shared with Mac would transcend JAG, but if the truth were known, JAG had been the only thing holding the two of them together for some time. Whether it was their differences or their similarities that had torpedoed their friendship, he’d probably never know, but it had disintegrated all the same.

Out of the recesses of memory, a sensation flickered to life, and he imagined he could feel a graceful pair of arms encircling him from behind, a smooth cheek resting against his shoulder. He recalled the feeling of warmth that touch had always brought, and he knew who he needed to call.

There was no answer at her office, which surprised him a little. Her direct line had always had voice mail enabled before. But rather than calling the receptionist to track her down, he flipped through his address book until he found the number for her cell phone.

The line clicked in on the second ring, and then he heard her voice. “Hello?”

Some of the bindings around his heart loosened. “Hi, Andie.”

She paused for only the briefest of moments, and when she replied, her voice had the rich smoothness of caramel. “Harm. God, it’s good to hear your voice.”

“You, too. I, ah, was hoping to bend your ear a little, if you’ve got the time.”

A sympathetic smile wound its way through the line. “Must have been a pretty terrible day, if you need to unload even before Taps is played.”

“It’s been a pretty terrible couple of months, to be honest.”

“I understand. I’m not exactly thrilled with my current situation, either. But you called me, so you get to go first.”

He drew a long breath, wondering how she’d react to his revelation. “I resigned my commission three and a half months ago, Andie. I had to do it in order to save a life. Now I’m flying for … another agency, and I’m just not sure I can do this for the rest of my career.”

A considerable silence followed that declaration. When her voice returned, it was filled with awe. Not disappointment, or disbelief, but simply awe. “Do you regret it?”

“Resigning? No. But I wish like hell I hadn’t had to do it.”

“Harm,” she breathed, still trying to get her bearings. Then, he could almost hear her tempering her reaction, and a stronger voice came through. “We need to talk. I mean, really talk.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

“The thing is, there’s something I’d like to do first. I hate doing this to you, but would it be all right if I called you back in … say, three hours?”

Dismay flared, but he nodded resolutely, even though she couldn’t see him. “Sure, of course. That’s what I get for calling you before the end of the work day, anyway.”

“No, it’s all right. I’m glad you did, and I am making you a solemn promise right now that by seven-thirty tonight, your phone will ring. Will that suffice, or would you rather do this now?”

Despite his mood, he smiled. Trust Andie to display such fierce loyalty. Loyalty had been in rather short supply lately. “Go do whatever you need to do, all right? I’ll still be here.”

“Waiting by your phone? Your home phone, at precisely seven-thirty?”

“Just get going, would you?”

“I’m going, I’m going.” She sighed. “Seriously now, Harm. Eventually, it’ll be all right.”

Somehow, when she said it, he believed her. “I know. Talk to you soon.”

Clicking the phone off, he crossed over to the kitchen and leaned on the island. It had been most of two years since he’d actually seen her, but they’d spoken on the phone on and off, more often than they had in the past. After they’d graduated from law school together, she’d gone to work for a firm in southeast Michigan, staying close to her roots. Family law was her bailiwick, but she spent a fairly staggering number of hours doing pro bono work with Child and Family Services in downtown Detroit.

He smiled, remembering how young and endearingly bright-eyed she’d looked when he’d bumped into her on campus that first week. Andrea Nichols had charted her course early on in life, and nothing had ever come along to knock her off it. Some people, predictably, saw that and dismissed her as naïve. He himself very nearly had, once. Those hazel-green eyes and slight frame, however, belonged to a woman with an amazing level of determination, and anyone who underestimated her in the courtroom most assuredly paid the price.

It had been her positive outlook that pulled him through that difficult first term, when he’d struggled with his reasons for being in law school in the first place. When he needed to get his nose out of the books, she offered football tickets. When he needed reassurance, she offered her couch. With diplomas in hand, they’d finally gone their separate ways, as had been inevitable, but for nearly twelve years after that day in the quad, they’d been there for each other when no other comfort would do. Even her voice over the phone had always had the power to briefly bring him back to simpler times … not the happiest or easiest times, possibly, but simpler.

Seven-thirty, she’d said. Was it seven-thirty yet?

He killed some time with a shower and shave, neither of which had he gotten in the previous forty-eight hours. Food probably should have been on his to-do list, but it held little appeal at the moment. Instead, he put a U2 CD in the stereo and stretched out sideways across his bed, waiting for divine guidance, or maybe absolution.

He dozed off a few times, only for about ten minutes each time. That had been his primary method of sleeping for a while now, and he didn’t need to be told that it wasn’t a healthy habit to have. But given his current line of work, it was decidedly less healthy to get shot for a lack of alertness.

The phone rang at 7:23, and within half a second, it was in his hand. “Andie?”

Her voice was calm and instantly reassuring. “Did you get caller-ID, or am I the only person who could possibly be calling right now?”

Harm rolled into a sitting position and rubbed his eyes. “Not exactly the only person, but I’m very much off-duty, and I’m not getting a whole lot of social calls at present.”

“Even from the gang at JAG?”

“Especially from the gang at JAG. A lot of that is my fault. I’ve been away a lot, and … it’s just easier not to get into it with them.”

There was an audible sigh on the other end. “Oh, Harm.”

A knock sounded at his door, but he chose to ignore it. The only conversation he wanted to have tonight was just getting started. “It’s all right. It’s just – ”

“In what way is it all right? Other than the fact that you’re still in one piece, which when taking your new vocation into account seems like a pretty big deal.”

The knock came again, and again it was steadfastly ignored. “Okay, it’s not all right just yet. But things are already starting to look a little better than they did five minutes ago.”

Her answering smile was clear in her tone. “That’s nice to hear. Continuing on that theme, would you please answer your door?”

“You can hear that through this stupid phone?”

“No, hon. My knuckles are getting sore.”

His mouth fell open. “Andie, you didn’t.”

“Obviously I did.”

Dropping the phone to the bed, he leaped up and crossed the apartment to yank the door open.

With a duffel bag slung over one shoulder and a cell phone in her hand, Andie Nichols offered a shy, uncertain grin. “For the record, I’m aiming for cute and supportive, not impulsive and stalker-ish.”

“You nailed it.” Without a second thought, Harm stepped forward and caught her in a crushing embrace. The duffel bag hit the floor with a soft thud as her arms went around his neck.

They stood there for most of a minute, simply enjoying this reunion. “I can’t believe you jumped on a plane,” he told her, a little embarrassed at how pleased he was to see her.

“I would’ve been on the 4:45 into National, but I had to throw some clothes in a bag, and then I-275 was a royal mess. Had to settle for the 5:10 into Dulles.” Andie gently disengaged herself, rolled back off her tiptoes, and nudged her duffel into the apartment with her foot. “I assume there’s a Holiday Inn or something around here?”

“Yeah, you’re standing in it.”

She smiled wistfully. “I didn’t want to assume. It’s been a long time since one of us has spent a night on the other’s couch.”

“Don’t worry about it. But I have a hard time believing that your caseload allowed you to just skip town in the middle of the week.”

“Well, my schedule is more or less free and clear at the moment, so I’m all yours, like it or not.”

He caught a flicker of something in her gaze and frowned. Suddenly he remembered receiving no answer at her office, and a mental light bulb went on. “Did you … You left Holland Archer, didn’t you?”

Biting her bottom lip, she shrugged. “Call it irreconcilable differences.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. I called here a couple of times, but I didn’t want to leave a message like that on an answering machine and have you feel obligated to call back right away. Of course, now I realize why you were never home.” She gave a gesture of dismissal. “So there was a slightly self-serving aspect to my coming out here, I’ll admit. But my next job isn’t nearly as weighty an issue as your current job, it seems, so let’s start with you and leave me for later, all right?”

“Whatever you say.” Harm held out a hand toward the couch. While Andie moved to take a seat, he went into the kitchen and turned on the coffeemaker. Turning back to face her, he realized how little she’d changed over the years. Her golden-brown hair didn’t fall all the way to her shoulders anymore; it was a little shorter and more carefully styled, but he still got the feeling that she’d throw on a baseball cap without hesitation to go to a game or out jogging. Unsurprisingly, she wore a little more makeup than she had at twenty-two, but she was still wearing jeans, and he suspected that they didn’t have any designer label attached. Of all the words he could use to describe Andrea Nichols, ‘image-conscious’ wasn’t on the list.

And apparently she still liked to sit in the corner of a couch and tuck her legs up under her. He smiled and walked over to sit across from her. “I never could figure out how you managed to sit like that all the time. Doesn’t it kill your knees?”

“Just lucky, I guess. Besides, as much as I hate to bring this up, I’m not approaching forty quite as fast as you are.”

“Thanks. I really needed that.” Shaking his head, he dropped his gaze to the coffee table. “That’s right around the corner,” he commented. “In October, I’ll be forty, and what have I got to show for it?”

“Hey, don’t do that. Do I need to start reading from the gigantic list of people whose lives you’ve changed for the better?”

“I know. I promise not to go too far into the self-pity routine. But in terms of my life, personally, it’s hard to see too many tangible differences between ten years ago and today.”

“You mean because you aren’t coming home to a house with a white picket fence and two point five kids?” Andie spread her hands. “I can’t exactly throw stones when it comes to that particular topic.”

“Sure, but as you so eloquently pointed out, you’re not about to turn forty.”

“But I’m a woman. We’re supposed to freak out about such things earlier, or so I’ve been told.” She tucked her hair behind her ear and leaned on the arm of the couch, her expression growing solemn. “I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I’m just going to dive in. What’s the situation with Mac these days?”

He closed his eyes for a moment, then lifted his head to ensure that she saw the seriousness in his gaze. “Nothing. There’s nothing with Mac these days. We don’t speak.”

A little taken aback, she blinked a couple of times before responding. “That’s hard to imagine. I know things have been strained for a while, what with your turns on the bench and everything, but I never got the idea that it was this bad. Is she angry about you resigning?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think that’s the main issue, but I’ve begun to realize that I know very little about the way her mind works.”

“Well, if you had to do it to save a life, I would hope she’d have some understanding …” She trailed off, somehow plucking the truth right out of his eyes. “You’re kidding. It was her you had to save?”

“There’s a lot more to it than that – ”

“I sure as hell hope so. God, you saved her life, and the two of you aren’t even talking?” When he just stared back at her, she damped her initial indignation and folded her hands. “I think you’d better start at the beginning.”

And he did, although some might have said that he started before the beginning. In his mind, though, the rift between himself and the rest of the JAG crew had begun the day NCIS showed up to accuse him of murdering a fellow officer. Andie had known about that already, because unlike his coworkers, she hadn’t been directed not to speak with him during his confinement. But it hadn’t been long after that fiasco ended that the Paraguay fiasco had begun.

He told her about his search for any information on Mac’s whereabouts; about the admiral’s laissez-faire attitude at his departure; about spilling more blood than he cared to admit in the Chaco Boreal; and finally about the long, continuous duel he’d fought with Mac over the course of the trip. Other than the occasional classified tidbit, he left out no details of those conversations – he didn’t want her view to be tainted by his bias. Andie was under no illusions about his capacity for screwing up that type of situation. She’d believe and understand this one, too.

He knew her well enough to recognize that she was biting back a comment or two, waiting until he was finished to speak. He appreciated the effort.

“I was just so off-balance the whole time, you know?” he admitted, going over to pour the coffee. “I thought we’d be able to deal with the crisis at hand and talk about personal things later. I just didn’t envision trying to make decisions about us in the middle of South America. But she needed to deal with it right then, for some reason. Maybe she needed to retake control of something after all that chaos. I don’t know. All I know is that it completely knocked me for a loop.”

She pursed her lips. “In retrospect, was she right?” she asked finally. “Do you both want to be on top?”

“Maybe. It’s not like I’ve never been asked to compromise in a relationship before. Granted, maybe I had to be beaten over the head with it, but I’ve done it.”

Andie looked thoughtful. “Has she?”

“What?”

“Well, let’s run down the list of what you’ve told me about, and I quote, ‘the men she picks.’ She wasn’t really given much say in things during her marriage, I’m guessing. Being with a senior officer, likewise, probably didn’t involve a lot of compromise. Then there’s the guy she left JAG for. Do those things add up?”

“You’re forgetting the one who moved across the Pacific for her,” he observed, somewhat sourly.

“No, I’m not. From what I gathered, that disaster wasn’t much about compromise, either, dramatic gestures notwithstanding. Was it?”

She had a point. “No,” he admitted. “It looked more like a tug of war. In each situation, there was always a winner and a loser.”

“So from her point of view, why should being with you be any different? You’re obviously a strong personality, so she might think that you’ll expect her to bend to some unwritten rule or another. And the fact that you’ve been hesitant in the past could reinforce that impression.”

Harm lifted an eyebrow. “I’m surprised that you’re seeing her side so easily.”

Andie gave a short laugh. “Don’t get carried away. I’m just offering random theories. I have no intention of trying to justify the things she said to you. Maybe I don’t have the right mindset to be a Marine, but if someone turns in his wings, takes off for parts unknown, and risks his neck to save my life, I’m probably going to read something into that action. I’m not going to ask him to define it in the middle of that mess, and I’m sure as hell not going to make catty comments about him wrecking everything he gets his hands on. Good lord.”

“That’s more the answer I was looking for.”

He handed over a mug of coffee, and for a moment, she watched him through the rising steam. “Do you still love her?”

The question didn’t bother him nearly as much as he would have expected. “It’s funny,” he said quietly. “Before all this started, I don’t know if I would have been able to put that label on it. Maybe a couple of years ago I was in a better position to recognize it, but not now. It took the threat of losing her for good to make me start to think, ‘yeah, maybe I do love her.’”

“Which is why this hurts so much.”

“Guess so. Now … I can’t just stop caring about her, but I’m not willing to go through this anymore. Regardless of who screwed up where, it’s too damn contentious. I don’t want to be with someone who takes those kinds of shots, and I don’t want to be taking them myself. I wouldn’t mind being able to carry on a civil conversation with her, since we do share a godchild and all, but to try for anything beyond casual friendship just seems futile.”

“You sound pretty certain of that,” she observed mildly.

“Is there any reason why I shouldn’t be?”

“Not really. But no matter how ill-defined it was, the two of you had a relationship that spanned a number of years. You’re going to have to deal with the loss, even if you know you’ll be better off in the long run.”

He looked down at his coffee for a moment. “We will be better off in the long run. Won’t we?”

“My opinion doesn’t really mean much here, but yes, I think so. The continual holding pattern is over. You’ll both be able to move on, and you most likely won’t be looking over your shoulder.”

Once again, he got the sense that her response was a little too politic. “Andie, don’t censor yourself here, okay? I want to know what you really think, even if it’s ugly.”

“It’s not that ugly. Well, if it is, at least it’s not aimed at you.” Setting down her mug, she swung her feet to the floor and leaned forward. “I think Mac has some very admirable qualities, but she doesn’t fully appreciate you for who you are. If she did, she would have accepted your way of expressing things and tried to work with it, rather than waiting for you to somehow change. If you’re both simply too strong-willed in that area to be compatible, then so be it, but where does she get off highlighting all of your perceived faults and none of your strengths? To me, that says she doesn’t get it and probably never will.”

Well, that had certainly put it plainly. Harm shook his head, amused despite the topic. “You make it sound like she isn’t good enough for me.”

Her expression was solemn. “She isn’t. But not because of her past or anything like that. After all this time, she doesn’t understand you, and therefore, she doesn’t deserve to have you.”

“You really believe that?”

In answer, Andie gave a soft smile. “Hon, you know me. I’m never going to think that anyone’s good enough for you.”

Harm met her gaze, hoping she could see his gratitude. “You’re incredible,” he stated quietly. “For the first time in a good long while, I think I’m actually starting to not feel lousy about myself.”

“I just call it like I see it.” She reached for her mug again and took a sip. “So what about JAG?”

His smile immediately faded. “Well, that warm fuzzy didn’t last very long, did it?”

That earned a wince. “Sorry. If you’d rather leave that subject for later – ”

“No, might as well get it over with. When I got back to JAG, I was told in no uncertain terms that my nine lives had run out. My tendency to put instinct ahead of regs was no longer going to be tolerated. The admiral even went so far as to accuse me of not being a ‘team player.’”

At that, Andie nearly choked on her coffee. “Please tell me you’re making this up.”

“I only wish.”

“For Christ’s sake! You saved the ass of one of his team members. You went to bat for Bud when he needed you. Not to mention the three combat decorations you’ve earned since coming to JAG – I mean, last I checked, they didn’t give those out for breaking rules.”

“This is what I’m saying.” He raked his fingers through his hair, longer now than it had been in some time. “None of that seems to matter anymore. Maybe it never did. Maybe he always resented me more than I realized.”

“That can’t be. There’s got to be some reason why it’s suddenly an issue now.”

“If there is, it sure hadn’t been made clear to me. God – I felt like he invalidated my entire twenty-two years in uniform with that one conversation. Would you believe he told me to go wrestle alligators if I needed to be a thrill-seeker?”

“Oh, like you’re out there putting it on the line strictly because you like the rush?” Andie was starting to heat up, he could tell. “The admiral may have just leapfrogged Mac on my list of people I’d like to smack upside the head. Again, I wasn’t here, but judging by the way the Singer case was handled, criticizing your teamwork skills seems like a glaring case of hypocrisy.”

“He’s not entirely wrong,” he pointed out, diffusing some of her ire. “From the Navy’s perspective, at least. I do what I feel is right, and if the rules close the door, I get in through a window. I understand why those rules need to exist, but there are situations where I can’t always obey them in good conscience.”

“That’s because the world isn’t made up of absolutes. Anyone wearing two stars, especially someone who also has a law degree, ought to appreciate that.”

“I agree. I’m just trying not to place too much blame. At least not without accepting a share of it myself.” Harm released a long breath. “As much as it hurt to leave, JAG isn’t my concern anymore, and I’m not theirs. I’ve got a new job now, and despite its glaring drawbacks, you can’t say I haven’t landed on my feet.”

She watched him while taking a long sip of coffee, not fooled for a minute. He hadn’t called her to try to convince her that his life was in order, unless he was trying to convince himself in the process. And maybe he was.

I’m thinking that we’d better leave the details of that new job, sparse as they may be, for tomorrow.”

“It’ll be a longer conversation than you think,” he warned with a raised eyebrow.

“Fine by me. I’m the one who showed up on your doorstep, remember?”

“Indeed. You think you can stay for a few days? I mean, do you need to be out shopping around for a new firm?”

Andie smiled. “Not just yet. Just because I do pro bono doesn’t mean I don’t bill any hours. I’ve been making a fair bit more than I really need for some time now. A break won’t hurt me at all.”

“You wouldn’t care even if it did, would you?”

Her reply wasn’t verbal. Instead, she stood up, walked behind him and put her arms around his neck, leaning down to rest her head on his shoulder. He closed his eyes, instantly comforted. This was what he’d been looking for in some vague way when he picked up the phone a few hours ago, but he hadn’t dared to hope that he’d really find it. It was difficult to define, this bond of theirs, but even so, he could feel its strength.

“Andie?”

“Hmm?”

“Thank you.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm awoke the next morning from an unexpectedly restful night’s sleep to find Andie folding up the blankets she’d thrown over the couch. Chivalry had required him to offer her the bed, but they were accustomed to borrowing each other’s couches, and he hadn’t been surprised a bit when she rolled her eyes and stretched out in mock luxury across the couch.

He was, however, a little surprised to discover that she’d managed to get in and out of the shower without waking him up. With her damp hair combed back from her face, she stacked the pillows neatly and wandered over to the window to watch this corner of the District beginning its day.

“Either you’ve gone all stealthy on me, or I slept better than I have in a while.”

She turned at the sound of his voice. “You looked like you needed it.”

“Do you realize you were channeling my mother just then?”

“I’ve always liked your mother.”

“Yeah, she likes you, too.” He pulled a carton of orange juice out of the fridge and poured two glasses.

“How’d Trish take the news that you left the Navy for an even riskier line of work?”

“Not too well, predictably. Even after I prettied it up a little. But it’s your turn.”

Blinking in mild puzzlement, she accepted a glass of juice. “My turn for what?”

“Confession. Before I launch into how I screwed up my life as a spook, I want to know why you left the Ham Sandwich crew.”

As expected, she shot him a dirty look. “Must you call them that? Holland, Archer and McNeil is a very well-regarded firm – ”

“With rather unfortunate initials.” He nudged her shoulder with a faint smirk. “Yes, they’re an impressive firm. You did some really great work there. So why did you leave?”

Andie’s expression shuttered, but only for a moment. She turned her hand palm up in a gesture of surrender. “They asked me to take a case I couldn’t possibly take. Senior partners turned it into an ultimatum, mainly because they’d always wanted me to take more of those kinds of cases and less of the kind that came from Child and Family Services. Since they were going to show me the door anyway, I made use of it before it could hit me in the ass. That was that.”

“What was the case?”

This time, she didn’t attempt to conceal the shadow that fell over her delicate features. “A custody dispute. A very ugly custody dispute involving a lot of money and not nearly enough love. I’ve been handling juvenile cases my whole career. I recognize that kind of abuse a mile away. The partners either didn’t believe me or didn’t care. Either way, I wasn’t about to stay there a minute longer.”

“Good for you,” Harm offered quietly.

“You would have done the same thing. Of course, I may have burned that bridge entirely when I went to the opposing attorney with tips on how to beat Steve Chalmers. I didn’t get specific, but I’m sure they’ve got a pretty good idea of where some of those strategies must have come from.”

That was unexpected. Andie had always been devoted to seeking justice, but cowboy tactics were much more his style than hers. “Did it work?”

The devilish, satisfied spark in her hazel eyes was new to him, and gave her a uniquely attractive look. “Like a charm.”

“Wow. I’m impressed.” He shook his head with a muted smile of concern. “You’re gonna be okay?”

She could have shrugged the question off, but she understood how pointless such an action would be. “It hadn’t been the happiest place to work for a while now,” she admitted. “Their goals and mine never meshed as well as I hoped. That said … I was there for most of nine years. I know it’s not the same as leaving the Navy after so long, but when it comes to practicing law, they were all I’ve ever known.”

Tucking back her still-damp hair, she conveyed a hint of the vulnerability that he remembered from all those years ago. Packing up and moving on was all but a foreign concept to her, he realized. This wouldn’t be easy for her, no matter how well she faced it.

“Okay, maybe it’s not the same, but we graduated together. We’ve been practicing for the same amount of time. You left Holland Archer, I left JAG. If nothing else, you have to admire the symmetry.”

That earned him a smile, though it faded more quickly than he would have liked. “You’ve done this before,” she observed. “Starting over, I mean. I could probably use some good advice.”

“You’ll do fine. But if advice is sought, I’ll do my best to provide.” Stepping closer to her, he rested his chin on the top of her head, and she relaxed against him. In stocking feet, Andie was five foot six “on a good day,” or so she said; about average height for a woman, but nowhere close to matching his six foot four. The wide difference had made for a number of amusing moments in the past, and on occasion it served his male pride to be able to be so physically protective.

After a moment, he suggested, “Let’s get out of here, all right? There’s got to be something fun and mindless and touristy we can do.”

In response, she pulled back with a playful gleam in her eye. “You know, I’ve never been to the Air and Space Museum.”

“Never?” With a melodramatic expression of shock, he staggered back a step. “Stay right there. I’m gonna go grab a shower, and then you and I are gonna check out some planes.”

As he headed for the bathroom, she called after him, “But all I really want to see is Apollo 11 …”

“Too bad!” he called back good-naturedly, knowing full well that she would continue to tweak him like that for the rest of the day.

An hour later, they were strolling into the main entrance of the National Air and Space Museum. Over Harm’s objections, Andie insisted on tucking a map into her purse – “for posterity,” she claimed. While schoolchildren on field trips dashed around excitedly, the pair headed straight for the Wright Flyer exhibit, to start at the very beginning.

“The hundredth anniversary of powered flight is this December,” Harm remarked as they took in the fragile-looking construct of fabric and wood. “I was sort of thinking about going down to Kitty Hawk for the celebration.”

“I bet it’ll be something. A hundred years from that thing to the Boeing 777 and the F/A-22. Crazy.” True to form, Andie couldn’t resist another comment. “You do realize, of course, that the actual event is the only thing that took place at Kitty Hawk, right? The Wright brothers lived, worked, and did most of their preceding and subsequent tests in Dayton, Ohio. Nobody’s named an aircraft carrier after Dayton, as far as I know.”

He turned to her, lifting one eyebrow in amusement. “I never noticed this before, but you’re a Midwest snob.”

Her eyes widened, though she too was more amused than annoyed. “A Midwest snob? Doesn’t that sound like a contradiction in terms?”

“You know what I mean. You’ve never wanted to live anywhere else, have you?”

“Not really. I’m not cut out for New York City, and I’m equally unsuited to Southern heat or California earthquakes.” She shrugged, not at all bothered by the concept. “Things work for me where I am, and yes, I take some pride in my general area – so what of it?”

“Nothing. It must be nice to identify so closely with someplace.”

They moved on to another exhibit. “You don’t identify much with California?”

It was his turn to shrug. “There was never a real close-knit mentality where I was – nobody I knew seemed to have much in common with me or each other. Besides, I left there while I was still fundamentally a kid. My adult life has been spent in Annapolis, D.C., or in squadrons.” He paused a moment, considering. “I never gave it a lot of thought before, but I don’t really feel at home here the way you do in Detroit.”

“We’d gladly adopt you,” she offered obligingly.

He knew it was meant to be a throwaway comment, but somehow the larger concept struck a chord. “Don’t tempt me.”

Andie turned about from the brightly-painted Fokker biplane in front of her to look squarely at him. “You’re really thinking about leaving Washington, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know. I’m not ruling it out. I’ve got friends here, but it’s not like there’s anything holding me down. And there are enough not-so-great memories here to make the concept of being somewhere else kind of appealing.”

Her eyes probed his features carefully, gently. “Is this more related to your Agency career, or – ?”

“A little. But we can talk about that later, all right? This is supposed to be fun.” As they started toward the next hall, Harm glanced across the way, his newly-honed senses detecting a stranger’s gaze. “Heads up. Stalker at your four o’clock.”

Andie followed his gaze casually and rolled her eyes skyward upon locating the person in question, a thirty-ish man in thick glasses and a NASA T-shirt. “Stalker?”

“He’s pretty obviously checking you out.”

“How do you know he isn’t checking you out?”

“Because his eyes are halfway down your shirt!”

It was true that NASA-boy seemed to have taken an interest in her close-fitting V-neck shirt. Still, she shook her head, giving Harm a tolerant smile that he inexplicably found rather endearing. “Harm, I’m not the type of girl who gets ‘checked out.’ I’m the girl you get to babysit the kids while you check out more, ah, striking girls.”

That unflinching self-assessment gave him pause, and he studied her more intently for a moment. Maybe she wasn’t a model, but he couldn’t imagine a living heterosexual male who would pass up a second glance at Andrea Nichols. Her bright eyes, fair skin, and graceful body were …

Wait a minute. Since when do I think about her body at all?

Deliberately, he chose not to answer that question, and instead spoke his mind with a knowing gaze. “Andie, you need to understand something, and I mean this in the best possible way – you are very definitely not a girl anymore.”

Right after he said it, he realized just how bad such a remark could sound. Then their eyes locked, and he was warmed to see recognition and gratitude there, along with a new light.

“That guy still watching me?”

He looked. “Yep.”

And then she knocked him for a minor loop by threading her arm through his and leaning in to kiss his cheek, making sure that the action was done in full view of the other man. “Sorry, stalker, but this is one giant leap you’re not going to be taking. My dance card’s full.”

Receiving a slight tingle from the spot that her lips had brushed, Harm had to fight the urge to send a triumphant glance in the direction of NASA-boy. Then he immediately wondered what had brought that particular urge on at all. So she’d decided to send this poor guy a message, and she’d made him a co-conspirator. So what? Was he really ascribing some kind of meaning to the idea that she’d ‘chosen’ him over some random ogling nerd? Man, do I need to get out more.

They moved on, still arm-in-arm in case NASA-boy hadn’t fully gotten the message, and finally came upon a display describing the Wild Weasel and Iron Hand aerial missions over Vietnam. Immediately recognizing the significance to her friend, Andie started to step back, in case he didn’t want to confront that particular memory today. Harm understood her intention and appreciated her thoughtfulness, but as she began to slip her arm out from under his, he caught her hand. “It’s okay. It’s not like I haven’t seen all this a dozen times before. Go ahead and read it if you want.”

She did just that, taking in the descriptions of the Navy and Air Force aircrews who’d flown at such perilously low altitudes in order to destroy SAM sites in the North. They’d talked about Vietnam a little in the past, but on such occasions it had always felt to him as if he were giving her a lesson. Andie had been only a few months old on that December day in 1969, and her tranquil suburban hometown hadn’t sent as many young men off to war as others had. She’d made it clear to him that her understanding of that time had been shaped by him more than anyone else, and he took that responsibility seriously.

“This is you,” she told him, gesturing toward the pictures of young pilots forever changed. “If you’d been born twenty years earlier, this is exactly what you would have been, risking it all so that others might live. You really are your father’s son.”

Somehow, that idea bothered him profoundly at that moment, and it took a few seconds for him to figure out why. “Not anymore,” he said, and her head swung around at the sadness that had crept into his voice. “He wouldn’t be too proud of me now.”

She looked up at him in shock. “What does that mean?” When he didn’t respond right away, her fingers tightened around his. “Harm, please, tell me what you mean by that.”

“We shouldn’t do this now,” he stalled lamely. “Later, when we get back to my place.”

“That isn’t good enough.” Urgently, she placed herself in his sightline, and he was startled to see such heartbreaking empathy in her expressive eyes. “Did you bring me here so that you could pretend for another few hours that you’re not hurting? If so, you were doing pretty well at it for a while, but when you said what you did just now … Harm, the level of pain you’re radiating at this moment is staggering, and it’s killing me to witness it. I can’t just keep looking at airplanes after this. If you want to keep this to yourself and continue hurting, I can’t stop you, but I’m telling you now that it’s hurting me to see you. Please let me in.”

At that, his willpower crumbled, because the idea of causing her pain was too much to face, and because it seemed nobler to be doing it for her sake than for his. He just had to hope that telling her wouldn’t make things worse. Nodding in acquiescence, he waved a listless hand toward the doors. “There’s a courtyard out there.”

She didn’t release his hand as they moved out onto the neatly-manicured grass, settling on a bench that seemed to be out of the main flow of pedestrian traffic. “Something happened,” Andie theorized by way of an opening, not wanting to push too hard. “On one of your missions – a fairly recent one, I’m guessing – something went wrong.”

“You could say that. If you talked to the Agency, they’d say it went just fine.” His jaw tightened as he mentally scanned through all the details, sorting them by level of classification. “Andie, there’s a lot of this that I won’t be able to tell you. All I can give you is the basics. It’s infuriating, but there are good reasons for it, and – ”

“I know,” she broke in. “I can handle that. As long as it helps me to understand what it is that’s torturing you right now.”

His lips twisted in a humorless smirk. “Remarkably prescient choice of words. There was torture involved, but I wasn’t the subject.” He took a few measured breaths before explaining. “I was part of a team sent in to retrieve something from someone. The someone in question was observed during the operation and later taken in by the local authorities for ‘questioning.’ We tried to secure his family, but we were too late. They brought his six-year-old son out into the middle of the village and put a gun to his head in an attempt to flush us out.”

He could feel her tense up beside him, seeing what was coming, and he wished he could somehow keep from having to finish this narrative. “We could have extracted him,” he stated flatly, his voice sounding dead even to his own ears. “It would have been ugly, but it was possible. Another guy on the team and I were all set to try, but the command element ordered us to pull back. Exposing ourselves would have destabilized the larger situation, and most likely would have caused more deaths further down the road. I understand that, and from that point of view, I accept what they made us do.” He closed his eyes, unable to face her. “But as a human being, you’re simply not supposed to stand by while a six-year-old child takes a bullet to the back of the head. And that’s what I did.”

Andie’s hand trembled, and he realized belatedly that he’d all but crushed her fingers during his confession. Feeling guilty on yet another level, he tried to release her, but she grabbed a hold of his hand with conviction.

Her soft, slightly tearful voice broke through the darkness. “Harm, look at me.”

He didn’t oblige, opening his eyes only to stare at a crack in the concrete walkway. “I’m not sure I can.”

“You could a few minutes ago. What’s changed?”

“Andie, there’s nothing in the world that’s more important to you than protecting children. I didn’t want to tell you because I knew it would rip you up, and because I’m more ashamed of this than I’ve been of anything in my life. If I hate myself for having let this happen, what must you be thinking?”

“How about letting me make my own decisions on how to feel about this?” she suggested quietly, a complete absence of malice in her tone. With her right hand still entwined in his, she reached up with her left to turn his face toward her, and he took some solace in what he saw. There was shock there, and anguish, but no condemnation. She ached for the child, but she still ached for him as well. “You’re not a monster. I know how badly you must have wanted to save that little boy. It was a horrible situation, one that no one should ever have to face. As awful as it sounds, I’m willing to believe that you did what had to be done.”

“I almost didn’t,” he told her, a catch in his voice. “I almost said ‘the hell with it’ and went in anyway. That’s the moment I keep reliving – the moment I made that decision. I keep wondering what would have happened if I’d gone the other way.”

“Don’t you think that you probably would have been killed yourself? Maybe I don’t understand the setup, but that might have escalated things, and the boy might still have been killed. I know I can’t fully understand what this must feel like, but Harm, you were willing to risk far more than your own life for that child. No matter what the result, that should count for something.”

Harm thought about the threats that had been made against the American and British embassies, and the almost certain terror that would have rained down on them had the CIA task force been exposed. That knowledge was the only thing keeping him from full-blown self-loathing, and Andie didn’t have that. All she had was his word that it had been important.

“You really believe that?” he asked, still braced for some sign of disappointment or even anger from her. Was it possible that somehow she didn’t see this as a betrayal of her highest ideals?

She failed in her attempt to smile, but her gaze, though pained, was resolute. “I’m doing my best to believe it,” she said truthfully. “I think that’s about all you can do, too.”

His voice fell to a whisper. “I can’t help feeling like I may have failed myself and everyone I know.”

“You haven’t. To do that, you would have had to lose your most basic sense of what’s right and wrong, and I know you’ll never let that happen.”

He realized then that he could spend the rest of his life near this woman and still never understand how she always managed to find precisely the words he needed. “After it happened, nothing felt real to me until you came … I felt like I could so easily lose my grip on everything, and I need – God, I don’t know what I need …”

Without a word, she pulled him into her soothing embrace, stroking her long fingers through his hair. “I don’t know, either,” she murmured after a while. “But you’ll figure it out. You always do.”

 

 

 

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