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Chapter 28


1930
Friday
January 28

McMurphy’s Bar and Grill
Georgetown


Mike McBurney and Faith Coleman sat across from each other at a table in the soft light of the bar. McMurphy’s was trying to give the larger chains some competition so they’d tried to give the place more of a sports bar atmosphere. They had the best steaks in town, as far as Mike was concerned. Faith had let him choose, so he decided to be honest and go where he really wanted to go. He didn’t think the place suited Faith’s personality, but maybe it was time she loosened up anyway. He was determined to make her laugh out loud tonight. Looking at her now, he wondered if he had taken on more than he should have. Mike was ordering his steak.

“How would you like that, sir?” the waiter asked.

“Medium rare.” Mike waited for Faith to disapprove.

“And for you, ma’am?” The waiter turned to Faith.

“I would like the same, but no dressing on the salad.”

Mike was surprised. He never figured her to be a meat eater, let alone someone that would eat a rare steak. He had been ready for the lecture. The waiter left them...

“Is there a problem?” Faith frowned at him.

“No, I’m just surprised, that’s all.”

She surprised him from the moment she had walked into the bar. She looked so different out of uniform. She wore her dark chestnut hair down around her shoulders. She had worn jeans that fit her beautifully. She had chosen a soft sweater that looked like cashmere; caramel in color, which made all of her sharp edges smoother and turned her into someone else entirely, in his eyes.

“I can’t remember when I didn’t like my steaks rare.” Faith was lost in thought.

Mike was still thinking about how beautiful she looked. He decided not to tell her. She was so full of surprises tonight that she might decide she was uncomfortable and leave. Or worse yet, she might move closer to him, and he wasn’t sure he was ready for that either. "Yeah, my Dad always liked his steaks that way. I guess that’s why I do.”

“My Dad always hated it that I ate my steaks that way. I never saw very much of him, though. I think I decided to like it because he hated it.” She smiled without humor. “Sorry, I sound like a very unpleasant child, don’t I?”

“Not really, but it sounds like there is a lot more to the story.” He wanted to know her better. He wanted to know why someone like her would isolate herself from everyone as she had.

“It’s a long boring story. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Let’s talk about you.” She didn’t really want to go there tonight. She hadn’t been out like this in years. Suddenly she wanted desperately to have a good time. She wasn’t looking for anything that would change her life. Just something different from work and that apartment. She liked Michael; she knew that he liked her. She could also sense that he didn’t want more than that. She had to begin somewhere. The part of her that wanted to retreat from the world had nagged at her the whole time she was getting ready. The part of her that couldn’t stand another minute of isolation had won the battle, though. Michael had slowly brought her out of herself over the past couple of months. She was going to let him be her friend. She wasn’t sure why he bothered. She didn’t feel like a very interesting person, but she wasn’t going to analyze that now. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was not alone.

“Tell me about your family,” she asked.

“I’m sure you heard most of them at Christmas when we came by.” He knew she must have heard them laughing. Everyone could identify his mom and sisters by their laughter.

“I have five sisters, and my mom, of course. My dad passed away about six years ago.”

“I’m sorry.” If he had any sadness in his life, it had never been apparent.

“It’s okay. He was a good guy. I never had much a chance to know him as well as I would like. He was a Marine too. I know he was proud that I got my scholarship to the Academy.” His mother had told him she was proud of him but his father had not. He had already begun to show symptoms of his illness by then. An illness that was taking him away from them, they just didn’t know it.

“The sister that I met: was her name… Kim?”” She thought she might steer him from that particular part of the story. He’d gotten serious all of a sudden.

McBurney smiled immediately. “Yes, that was Kim.”

“She makes you a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t she?” Faith seemed to like that.

He leaned forward and looked at his folded hands on the table. “Yes... she does. You kind of remind me of her in that regard. I think you both like to watch me squirm.” He chuckled, remembering. ”I never know what she is going to say.”

Faith arched a brow. “I don’t know what you mean,” she commented, a small smile forming on her lips.

The waiter arrived with their dinner and the subject changed for the time being.


2130
Friday
January 28
Rabb Farm
Belleville, Pennsylvania



Mac, Mattie and Mrs. Rabb sat at her kitchen table. Mac and Mrs. Rabb had their decaf while Mattie finished her hot chocolate. The drive had been surprisingly good, weather-wise. Mac and Mattie had had a chance to catch up. Grace Aviation was in the early stages of getting back on its feet, thanks in great part to Harm. Mac wondered if Harm would ever know the difference he had made in so many lives. She touched her abdomen where their baby now grew. There was one life in particular that she was thinking of right now. She smiled softly to herself.

“What are you thinking about, Mac?” Mattie asked, ever curious.

Mac thought this was as good a time as any to tell them. “Harm and I are going to have a baby. We found out last week.”

Mattie squealed and threw her arms around Mac, nearly knocking her off of the chair.
“I’m going to be an aunt?” She was thrilled at the prospect.

“Yes, I suppose you are….Aunt Mattie.” Mac laughed in spite of herself. Circumstance had made it hard to celebrate like any other couple. Mattie’s enthusiasm was contagious, though; she had forgotten how much she had lit up their world. Tom Johnson was a lucky man.

“Mac, are you feeling alright?” Mrs. Rabb’s brow was creased with concern, but she was still smiling broadly.

“I feel great, really. I haven’t even had morning sickness.” Mac silently hoped she wouldn’t bring up any more details until Mattie went to bed. She hadn’t realized how much she just wanted to be happy about this. She didn’t want to think of the negative possibilities; she just wanted to look forward to seeing their baby, hers and Harm’s.


0600 (Baghdad time)
Saturday
January 29
Green zone
Baghdad, Iraq


Gunny sat on his rack tying his workout shoes. He and the commander were going to work out this morning and then go ahead with their regular work day. Saturdays were workdays for them, but they had a more flexible schedule. Maybe a hard workout would help them sleep tonight. Then, when he thought about it, he realized that tonight of all nights would be a long one for every coalition soldier on the ground.

He was ready for coffee. He didn’t care what it tasted like. He hadn’t slept worth a damn last night. It had been a ‘noisy’ night on ‘IED Boulevard’. The area had been given this name because of the gas cans that had been left on the side of the road by Iraqi independent ‘businessmen.’ There weren’t many gas stations in Baghdad, to speak of. So a man with a gas can would stand on the side of the road. When a car pulled over; he got his tank filled, paid the man and drove off again. When the gas cans were empty they were left behind on the side of the road. The cans were later used by insurgents to make roadside bombs. Some were wired where they lay to blow when they were picked up by an unsuspecting soldier or civilian.

He went into the makeshift office he and the commander had set up. He started the coffee and began to remember his last day at home. He and Jen had gone to lunch. They’d decided to pick up some coffee at Starbucks on their way back to the office. Gunny had driven his vehicle so they went through the drive-through.

“I don’t see what the deal is, coffee is coffee….Why can’t I just say ‘Coffee black’?”

Coates looked at him as if he were from another planet. “I’ll order.”

When they had pulled up in front of the speaker and menu, Gunny rolled his window down and Jen leaned across the console and across his chest. She had leaned slightly into him so that her cheek was just a couple of inches from his lips. She was totally unaware of how close she was to him. She smelled of soap and shampoo and another scent sharp and clean that he could not name. It was if he was breathing her in, seeing her up close for the first time.

“Hey, Gunny, you ready?” Harm stood in the doorway of their office.

Gunny was startled and sloshed his coffee on his t shirt. “Damn….oh, sorry, sir.”

“A million miles away, Gunny?”

“Not quite a million, sir. Give me a minute to change this stupid shirt, excuse me, sir.”
Gunny stepped around Harm and headed for his quarters down the hall. Harm’s gaze followed him curiously down the hallway.

When Harm and Gunny walked into the gym, the music was already on and deafening as far as Harm was concerned. Where was Stevie Ray when you needed him? “What is that, anyway” he asked Gunny.

“Beats me, sir.” Gunny shrugged.

A young man passing them tossed over his shoulder, “Seether.”

Harm and Gunny looked back at him and then at each other. “Seether?”

“We’re getting old, Gunny.”

Gunny was spotting and Harm was on the bench. He was surprised that after a while the music did make him push harder into his workout. He sat up on the bench while Gunny went to get additional weights. The music changed …he heard the words:

I wanted you to know, I love the way you laugh
I want to hold you high and steal your pain, away
I keep your photograph, and I know it serves me well
I want to hold you high and steal your pain.

The song continued and it seemed to cast a pall over the whole gym. It was full; everyone kept working out the same as before. But it was as though everyone felt the song, the words taking different people different places. Harm placed his hand on his chest over the St. Christopher medal under his shirt for a moment: his Christmas gift from Mac.


2145
January 28
Mc.Murphy’s Bar and Grill
Georgetown


The music was having the same effect in another place and time zone.

Faith and Mike had been talking mostly about Mike’s family for the past hour or so. Time had gotten away from them. They had decided to have coffee at his apartment. She hadn’t liked the idea of having anyone at her apartment. No one had been inside her apartment but her since she moved there. She wanted things to be different, but she wasn’t ready to go that far.

Cause I’m broken when I’m open
And I don’t feel like I am strong enough
Cause I’m broken when I’m lonesome
And I don’t feel right when you’re gone away

Mike McBurney had stood and was putting his coat on when the song began. Faith was reaching for her coat when the words seemed to reverberate in the room. Faith felt as though it were screaming out loud the feelings she had in her heart. She had never let anyone close but the words seemed to amplify her loneliness. She was so tired of it and she wanted a whole life. Damn it, why did she feel so out of control and exposed all of a sudden?

“I’ll be back in a moment.” She excused herself.

Mike had felt her mood shift. He hoped she would not retreat back into herself again. He didn’t know why it was so important to him that she not do that. Any other time he would have cared less. She needed a friend, and he wanted to be that to her.

She returned a few moments later, composed but not distant.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes, are you?” She had put her coat on and she followed him to the door.

Faith followed Mike to his apartment. He lived just a short distance from the bar, in a nice brownstone building. She was surprised when she saw how nice Michael’s apartment was. It was neat and clean. It was masculine, of course. There was a lot of gray and black, but everything was in its place. She was relieved.

“This is nice, Michael.”

Mike turned to look at her quickly. She liked calling him ‘Michael,’ he thought. He usually didn’t like that. Mike was what he preferred his friends call him. Maybe it was a way to keep him at a distance, a little more formal, for Faith’s comfort level. He didn’t mind. He was just glad they were becoming better friends.

“Yeah, I like it.”

“I have to say I’m surprised about how neat this is. I don’t know what I expected.”

“I think I do: gym socks, empty beer cans….pizza boxes?” He chuckled.

She blushed slightly. “Yes, I suppose I did.”

“I am a Marine, Faith.” He frowned slightly; he was as squared away as anyone else.

Faith deadpanned him and said, “Yes…I know.”

“Oh are we trying to be funny here, Faith?”

She smiled, saying nothing.

He was looking at her, walking toward his kitchen. He didn’t see that he was walking into a chair that had been pulled out slightly from his dining room table. He hit the leg of the chair with his foot and proceeded to fall flat on his face.

“Michael?! Are you alright?” Faith started toward him.

Mike was up almost as fast as he had fallen, totally mortified. He straightened his clothes and looked back at Faith. She had covered her mouth with her hand in shock and now she was hiding a smile.

“Don’t fight it, Faith…You know you think it’s funny.”

“I wasn’t laughing.” She was trying unsuccessfully to keep the mirth from her voice.

“Yeah, right.”

Mike was talking and backing away at the same time. He backed into the door frame to his kitchen. The sound of his head hitting the frame made a loud crack.

“Ow!” He frowned.

Faith really did laugh then, out loud until she was wiping tears from her eyes. Mike had gotten his wish. He had made her laugh, just not the way he had intended.


0655
Baghdad time
Green zone
Baghdad, Iraq



Gunny and Harm had finished their workout. They were taking a quick break before hitting the showers and starting their work day. The elections would be underway in 24 hours. A distant rumbling could be heard from outside. Harm remembered his first visit to Iraq. If someone had told him back then that this day would come, he probably wouldn’t have believed them.

“Sir?” Gunny questioned.

“Sorry, Gunny, just remembering something, or someone I should say.”

“Oh…” Gunny wasn’t sure he should ask.

“The first time I came here, it was to defend a Marine. Corporal David Anderson.
I was to make contact with a person with the code name ‘Scimitar’. Being the open-minded person that I am, I assumed that ‘Scimitar’ was a man. It turned out that Lieutenant Dumai, a woman, was my contact.”

“Wondering if she is still alive, sir?”

“Yeah….I hope she made it. She wanted so much for her country. She was a brave woman.” Harm shook his head slightly. “It seems to be a requirement in this part of the world.”

“Yes, sir.” Gunny knew that was true. Fareeza Tarik was someone he would never forget.

Harm looked at him and remembered Afghanistan. “Sorry, Gunny.”

“It’s alright, sir. I was privileged to have known her. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe she even gave me a second thought, even as a friend. She was beautiful and brilliant and was willing to give everything she had to move her country forward. I’m just sorry she didn’t live to see it.”

It had been so unfair, and far too common in those days.

“So many Afghanis willingly laid their lives down for the beginnings of freedom, with no guarantee that it could actually be accomplished. The hope of freedom was all they had and they gave their lives anyway. How many people would do that?”

They both heard the distant sound of gunfire outside.

“There are plenty of people here who are willing to do the same. For the hope of freedom, Gunny. I just hope they have their chance.”


2300
Friday night
Rabb Farm
Belleville, Pennsylvania



Mac and Mattie were in the living room in front of the fire. Mac had a book in her lap and sat in the wing chair by the fireplace. Mrs. Rabb walked into the room and saw Mattie stretched out on the couch sleeping, her mouth open and her arms above her head. Mrs. Rabb’s box of pictures was sitting open on the coffee table. Mattie had decided she wanted to have a look into their history tonight. It was a good night for it. Mrs. Rabb walked to her front room window. There was a light snow falling, and it was about 20 degrees outdoors. There was a full moon which came from behind the clouds from time to time to illuminate the yard and the rest of the farm beyond. She loved having them here. She was sorry she didn’t get to see Harm, but she had his Mac and his Mattie.

She walked into the kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee – decaf, of course. While it brewed she looked out of the window. A feeling of true contentment settled over her. She was worried about Harm being away in Iraq, but for some unexplainable reason she knew he would be alright. She knew that he would come home safe.

She thought of her David. ‘We will have a great-grandchild my darling.’ She spoke to him in her heart. A part of her husband would live on through the child that was on its way. It was hard to believe that all this had come from their brief time together. She had loved him a long time before he knew about it or even before she would admit it. Harmon and his son were here because she loved him and they believed in their future, Though it was cut short, their lives had made a difference in the world; she believed that with all her heart. She may not have all the answers, but this was something she knew. Harmon and Mac would begin their lives and keep what they had begun over 60 years ago alive too.

“Sarah?” Mac stood in the doorway of the dark kitchen.

“Oh, you scared me.” Mrs. Rabb held her hand over her heart.

“I’m sorry. What are you doing in here in the dark?” She walked toward her.

Mrs. Rabb rested her arm around her shoulder and hugged her a bit. “Just looking out at the moonlight and watching it snow. If I turn on the light all I will get is a reflection of an old lady looking out the window.” She chuckled and Mac laughed with her. “I’m so happy about the baby, Mac.”

“Thank you. It is good to see how happy you are about it.” Mac hadn’t meant to put it quite that way.

“What do you mean, Mac?”

“Nothing, really – it’s just that the doctors wanted us to wait a year. We really had not planned to even try for a year. I got pregnant in spite of birth control and my illness.”
Mac shrugged her shoulders.

‘Then it must have been meant to be, Mac.”

She smiled at her and gave her shoulder another squeeze. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to be standing side by side with Mac, hugging her close, like her own child. There was something else, though, something she wasn’t saying. She hoped that she would be alright and the baby would be too. No one deserved happiness more than Harmon and Mac, and as far as she was concerned they were long overdue.


2200
Baghdad time
Saturday
29 January
Green zone
Baghdad, Iraq


Harm lay on his rack in his quarters. This had been a long day. He ached all over, he needed to sleep, and he needed Mac. He turned over onto his stomach and felt the frame of the rack poking through the mattress into his stomach. His legs were too long for the bed so he hung one foot off of the side. He thought of his comfortable bed at home and he remembered the great massage Mac had given him; the feeling of sinking down into a mattress in a bed that fit his body. He thought of Mac sitting on his six and working all the kinks out of his back….among other things. He had been gone nearly ten days. It was way too soon to start counting days, but he couldn’t help it. One day down was another day closer to home, to her.



1020
Sunday
30 January
Belleville Community Church
Belleville, Pennsylvania



Mac and Mattie sat on the pew with Mrs. Rabb. Mattie sat between her and Mac. Mrs. Rabb glanced at Mattie as the pastor spoke. She was such a lovely girl. She was so glad to be here with them both. The pastor’s words brought her out of her thoughts.

“Let us remember to pray for safety and success of our service men and women who are serving overseas. Today of all days in Iraq.” He gestured toward Mrs. Rabb. “Let’s remember Mrs. Rabb’s grandson Harmon, that God will grant him a safe return to his family.” The congregation spoke a soft ‘amen’.

Mac felt a lump forming in her throat. She had heard those words spoken before in various types of church services, but this time it touched her heart so deeply. It was her husband they were speaking of and she sat in a place where he was remembered and loved. She felt so close to him at that moment that she nearly dissolved into tears. She missed him so much. Mac remembered the first time she had come here, Harm’s reassuring smile and his hand clasped in hers. Mattie turned to look at her and reached for her hand. They gave each other a watery smile before the pastor led the congregation in prayer.

After services Mac and Mattie had lunch with Mrs. Rabb. Mac wanted to start back early enough to get Mattie back to Blacksburg and then have plenty of time to get back to Washington. Mattie was gathering her things to go and Mrs. Rabb and Mac sat at the kitchen table finishing their coffee.

“I never thanked you for our Christmas gift, Sarah.” Mac had loved the small scrapbook she had made. She had made copies of the pictures of Harm’s great grandparents and of her and David. There were some of Harm senior and Harm as a baby. She had even included some of Harm’s school pictures. There was one in particular she liked to tease Harm about. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old. He was beaming at the camera with the beginnings of his beautiful smile. His two front teeth were larger because he still had a lot of his baby teeth. This gave him a slightly ‘rabbity’ look. Mac had teased him and called him ‘Bugs’, short for Bugs Bunny. He was adorable, though, even at eight years old. She hoped their baby would have his smile.

“You got such a kick out of those pictures when you were staying with me that I thought it might be time to pass some of them on. I made copies, though; I’m not ready to part with the originals yet.” Mrs. Rabb looked wistful.

“That’s quite all right. It was perfect the way you did it. Besides, I think Mattie enjoyed going over the originals this weekend too.”

Mrs. Rabb wanted to ask Mac all weekend if she was all right. She did not want to pry into their lives, but Mac had been more emotional than she had been for sometime. She felt she was holding something back, but barely. She decided to just ask and get it over with.

“Mac, you can tell me I’m a nosy old lady if you want to, but I have to ask you something.”

Mac looked at her, questioning. “What? I don’t have a problem with you asking me anything, Sarah. You’re my friend.”

Mrs. Rabb heaved a sigh of relief. “You have something on your mind, Mac, something that’s troubling you. I’d like to help if I can.”

Mac’s eyes welled up immediately. “Oh for heaven’s sake, I cry at the drop of a hat lately. I know that a lot of this is hormones, and to be honest I don’t know where to begin. Harm and I had just found out about my being pregnant before he left and I didn’t handle things well. I didn’t discuss anything with him – I made decisions without asking his opinion of anything. We fought but we were able to resolve things before he left.”

Mac continued to wipe tears from her face with her bare hand. She didn’t want to give too much detail. “I don’t know.... it’s not something I can explain. Harm hasn’t done anything wrong at all. I know this is stupid.”

Mrs. Rabb got up and got a paper towel and handed it to Mac. “You’re just not a Kleenex person are you, Mac?” She grinned and patted her back.

Mac laughed through her tears. “No, I guess not.”

“And this is not stupid. Sometimes when we speak our fears out loud, it takes the teeth out of them. They can’t hurt us anymore.” She winked at Mac.

Mac nodded. “I’m just afraid this will come between us – we’ve been so happy. I don’t know, I just feel Harm holding back, when we talk and I mention anything about being pregnant, he asks me if I’m feeling all right. He doesn’t want to talk about it. I can tell.”

She placed her hand on Mrs. Rabb’s forearm. “I don’t want you to misunderstand. Harm has been wonderful. I know he loves me. I just don’t want this to change what we have.”

Mrs. Rabb placed her hand over hers. “Oh, honey…do you really think that is possible?” She gave her an indulgent smile.

Mrs. Rabb had once again done what she had when she first met her. She drew her out and made her laugh at herself without making her feel foolish. That was a gift, Mac decided. She chuckled, still wiping tears.

“I guess not.”

“Give him time, Mac. He has lost a lot in his lifetime. It would be only natural for him to feel some apprehension about you now. This year has been a doozy for both of you. He’ll come around – give him time, honey.” She gave her forearm a squeeze.

They both stood. Mrs. Rabb gathered Mac into her arms and hugged her. She knew there was a part of Mac, however small, that needed to lean on someone. A small part of her that still needed a mother. She leaned back and looked at Mac.

“On your twentieth anniversary, you two should write a book.” Mac nodded and they both laughed and turned to walk toward the front door.

Mattie bounced into the room and came to abrupt halt. “Mac, are you all right?”

Mac waved her off. “Oh I’m fine…just hormonal.”

Mattie saw an opportunity. “Do you want me to drive, Mac?” Her eyebrows slightly rose with hope, her eyes twinkling with mischief.

“I’m not that hormonal, Ms. Grace.” She linked her arm around her neck and they walked the rest of the way to the door.


2330
Baghdad time
30 January
Green zone
Baghdad, Iraq



Harm sat in his office. He thought if he called now he would catch Mac after church services, but before she left to take Mattie back to Blacksburg. He hoped so, because he wanted to talk to them all. Harm hadn’t seen Mattie in a long time. He wished so much to be there with them. It had been a long day. Iraq voted. It had not been a perfect process but it had not been deterred by the insurgents. No matter what was said or done, from now on they were moving forward. Harm shook himself out of his thoughts and dialed his grandmother’s number.

Mrs. Rabb answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Grandma?”

“Harmon? Is that you, son?”

“Hello…How is the love of my life?”

She had heard the smile in voice when he spoke. “Don’t you try to charm me, Harmon Rabb. I know all your tricks.”

“Where is my wife?” He still got butterflies sometimes when he thought about talking to her. It had been nearly two weeks. He needed to reconnect with his lifeline.

“Oh, honey, you missed them. They left about a half an hour ago. Mac was worried about snow being forecast out near Blacksburg this evening. She wanted to be sure she missed it.”

Harms heart sank. He had been looking forward to this all day. “Oh, well, that was probably a good idea.” The disappointment was apparent in his voice.

“I know she’ll be sorry she missed you.” Given Mac’s frame of mind it may have helped, or maybe not. ‘Those two,’ she thought.

“Did she seem all right to you?”

“She was fine, Harm. In fact, I have never seen her look better. She doesn’t look as though she’s been sick a day in her life.”

Harm could see her in his mind’s eye: standing in the kitchen, cleaning up and talking to him about his day. She did look more healthy; strong and very feminine at the same time – one of the things that had attracted him to her in the first place. He had never met anyone like her. “She is beautiful, isn’t she, Grandma?”

“She’s lovely, Harmon, and I understand congratulations are in order.”

“Oh…yeah, we found out just before I left.”

“It’s wonderful news.”

Silence on the line

“Harmon?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

“I have a question for you, son. Are *you* all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I am a bit worried about Mac. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.” Sometimes it was terrible to have someone know you so well.

“That’s understandable.”

“I don’t want to lose her, Grandma. We came so close last fall.”

“I know, son, and I know what you fear. I don’t think anyone knows better than Mac what she has to lose, but you need to see the joy in this for Mac’s sake.”

“I know….it doesn’t even seem real to me yet. It’s just that the risk is so great.”

“It’s in your nature to want to protect her, Harmon, but she has a perspective on this that you don’t and I pray you never will. I’ve never known you to afraid of anything, Harm. Don’t be afraid to trust this…enjoy this time, celebrate it. You both deserve it.”

He knew she was right. He was trying to let the fear go, and if he were honest, the anger too. He thought that over time it would go. He loved Mac; nothing would change that. Maybe he was afraid of losing her so much that he didn’t want to think about the reality of the baby. He didn’t know.

“I really am lecturing you, aren’t I, Harmon?”

“That’s okay, Grandma. I don’t mind, really. I haven’t really been able to tell anyone how worried I am about this. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone about it.”

They continued to talk but about other things. They talked about Mattie and her adjustment to living with Tom. They talked about how things were going there in Belleville. He told her he was doing fine, no problems there. He expected to be home in a few weeks. When they ended the call, Harm did feel better, but he didn’t feel that things in his own heart were resolved. He knew that what his grandmother had said made sense; he just wasn’t there yet. There was no way around it.


1930
Friday
4 February
TJ’s
San Diego, California



Mike McBurney entered the bar and scanned the room, looking for Faith. They had agreed to meet here after they wrapped up their investigation of an incident involving a destroyer that had run aground near North Island. They wouldn’t be getting back to Washington until tomorrow and one more day of warm weather and no humidity were fine with him. As he looked around the room he overheard two young ladies at a table talking, rather loudly.

“Hey, who’s this?” They weren’t shy, if the way they were looking at him was any indication.

One of the girls, who appeared to be much more intoxicated than the other, said, “Oh…hey…maybe he’s here to see the ‘iceberg’ at the bar.” She looked over her shoulder.

“Hmmmm?” Her companion looked at Faith, who was sitting at the bar. “Coleman??? Not hardly…I can’t believe she’s even out of uniform…that’s enough excitement for her for the night.” They both broke up laughing. “I really think she’s an android…Ha ha ha.”

Mike looked toward the bar and saw Faith’s posture stiffen; she had heard them. She turned on the barstool and was going to slip down to her feet and walk out of the bar. Michael came into her line of vision, and when their eyes locked, she knew he had heard them too. He stood a bit straighter and gave her a conspiratorial wink. The pain was evident in her eyes, but as he walked toward her she began to smile at him. She watched him pass the girls at the table, and as he passed them he said,

“Excuse me, ladies,” and flashed a flirty smile.

They both answered at once. “Oh, that’s okay.” Both girls sounded just a little too eager to engage him in conversation.

Mike strode quickly by, not acknowledging the girls at all after he passed them. He walked toward her and gave her another one of those charming smiles. As he neared her, she realized he wasn’t slowing down; instead he was getting closer and closer. He walked up close to her side and slipped his arms around her, locking them low on her waist as though it were a natural action that he did every day.

“Let’s give those ‘cats’ at the table a show,” he whispered in her ear. He leaned back slightly, waggling his eyebrows. The hurt was still evident in her eyes. “Come on, Faith…..the hell with them.” His face was close to hers and kissed her cheek lightly. He could feel her heart pounding in her back.

She looked back at him, considering the possibilities and fighting the urge to run from the room. However uncomfortable she was, Michael was drawing her in and she loved the idea of showing them they were wrong about her, so she took him up on his invitation.

He kissed her lips gently and pulled back a bit and looked into her eyes. “Come on…..” He kissed her again, more deeply this time, and to his pleasant surprise she kissed him back.

Faith allowed one arm to slip around his waist and the other came to rest on his chest. As Michael deepened the kiss further, she clutched his shirt in her fist. How long had it been since she had been held by anyone? It had literally been years since she allowed anyone to kiss her. This felt so good. She was losing herself in this. She had to come back to earth before she made a fool of herself.

Mike broke the kiss and lightly kissed her cheek again before whispering, “Smile, Faith … pretend you enjoyed it.” He certainly had. He could tell it had been a long time for her. She was a little awkward...for a half a second. When she gave herself over to the kiss he had to remind himself that this was an act. This was payback for a couple of assholes who were making her uncomfortable.

Faith found her voice though it cracked slightly. “I do…I did….okay.” She looked at him, and they both began to laugh. Faith laughed at herself and Mike at the situation. She leaned closer to him. “It’s not funny.”

He pulled her in even closer. “Yes it is.” He glanced over his shoulder. “We still have an audience…Lets dance.” He took her hand and she followed him out to the dance floor. He pulled her into his embrace and they began to dance. Faith held onto his shoulder with one hand, holding herself slightly back from him while resting her hand on his chest.

“I’m not going to bite you, Faith,” Mike whispered into her ear.

“I know.” She leaned back slightly, looked at him and said sincerely, “Thank you for this, Michael. You’re a good friend.” She allowed him to pull her further into his embrace.

He returned her look. “You’re welcome and yes…. I am your friend. How do those two ‘ladies,’ and I use the term loosely, know you?”

“I worked with them when I was stationed here at JAG San Diego. In all fairness, I’m not a friendly person.” She looked him in the eye, smiling slightly. “You know how I am. I don’t make a very good first impression.”

“Still…I don’t think what they did was….necessary.” He looked over and saw that they were still watching, whispering behind their hands. ‘Women,’ he thought. They could be crueler to each other than any man could ever be. He was raised with five of them and he thought that made him an expert of sorts.

“Oh…I’m not going to let them get to me. I’m an android…remember?” She quirked an eyebrow at him, mocking the label her 'friends' had placed upon her.

Mike leaned in closer and whispered in her ear, for the benefit of their audience. “Oh...I don’t know, Faith. You sure don’t kiss like an android.” Her response to his kiss, once the shock had worn off, had been anything but mechanical.

Faith blushed deeply, all the way down her neck. She could not help but laugh out loud. She may have even giggled. She was having so much fun and knowing the two ‘ladies’ who were watching. It would be all over JAG San Diego that she wasn’t such an ‘iceberg’ after all.


1600
Baghdad time
7 February
Green zone
Baghdad, Iraq


Harm was using the interview room as a place to meet with Major Hanson. The major would be spearheading the implementation of the program once they got more of the details hammered out. They were finishing up for the day when they heard a knock at the door.

“Enter.” Harm looked up from his case file.

“Excuse me sir, Major Hanson has an emergency phone call.”

“Put it through, Gunny.” Harm looked at the major and turned his phone toward him, so he could answer it more easily.

“Major Hanson….Sandy? Are you all right?”

Harm stood and walked toward the door. He heard the major say, “A girl…that’s great. Is she all right? Oh, honey, I love you too.”

Harm closed the door and walked down the hallway where Gunny waited.

“It looks as though someone just had a new baby.” Harm raised his eyebrows.

“It happens.” Gunny shrugged. “I understand this is their third, sir.”

“Third? He can’t be much older than 30. Three kids?” Harm couldn’t imagine. He hadn’t gotten his mind around one yet.

“Some guys are just family men. Look at Commander Roberts, sir; it suits him too, if I may say so.”

“I don’t think Bud would mind, Gunny, and I have to agree.” Harm smiled at the memory of Bud holding his daughter while he spoke to him during their visit last month.

Gunny knew about Mac being pregnant. Jen had told him. He wasn’t sure how she’d found out. Not a lot got by Jennifer Coates in that office. It was kind of curious to him that the commander hadn’t mentioned it. He figured some people were private about things like that. He also knew the colonel had been pretty ill. He didn’t really think it was appropriate to ask. He smirked to himself, thinking, ‘That’s not a problem Jen ever had.’


1730
Baghdad time
Green zone
Baghdad, Iraq



Harm glanced at the clock on the wall of their office. “Gunny, get General Creswell for me, will you?” The General was expecting an update today. It would be the first one he had given by phone.

“I’m going to step down the hall to my quarters for a moment. I’ll be right back.” He stood and walked out of the room.

Gunny punched the necessary numbers to place the call. Jennifer Coates answered. “General Creswell’s office, this is Petty Officer Coates, can I help you?”

“Well, I don’t know, Jennifer -- can you?” Gunny chuckled.

“You! What are you doing?” It was great to hear from him.

“I’m placing a call for the commander to General Creswell.”

“Oh, and I thought you were just calling to see how I was doing,” Jennifer teased.

“I could ask how you and Commander Coleman are getting along. Had any long conversations lately?” She had told him about speaking out of turn the day he left for Iraq. They were both laughing when Harm walked through the office door.

“Hey, Gunny, have you put that call through yet?” Harm frowned; a little curious as to whom Gunny was speaking. It couldn’t have been the general.

Gunny was serious immediately. “Uh, Commander Rabb for General Creswell.”

“Right away, Gunny.” She put the call on hold and buzzed the general.

“Commander Rabb for you, sir.”

“Very well, Petty Officer. Are you alone out there?”

“Yes sir. I’m putting the call through now, sir.” He must have heard her laughing, Jen thought. She was thinking if she picked up the pace neither she nor Gunny would have to make any excuses for joking around on government time.

General Creswell picked up the phone and punched the button. “Commander Rabb?”

“I have him for you, sir.” Gunny handed the phone to Harm.

“General Creswell?”

“Commander, put this on speaker. I want to hear what both of you have to say.”

Harm looked at Gunny, who was starting to walk out of the office, and stopped him with a raised hand. Harm pushed the button for the speaker phone.

“Commander Rabb, what have you and Major Hanson been able to come up with to deal with the problem list you sent me last week?”

“Sir we are working on a program that will help build their non-commissioned officer corps. It has been virtually nonexistent and we think may have contributed to some of the officers’ ability to retaliate to any infraction inappropriately with impunity. “

“Very well, go on.”

“We will be helping implement the framework that will allow punishment with extra duty, cuts in pay, things of that nature. More severe infractions to be will be punishable by isolation versus physical punishment. We also believe building the ranks of non-commissioned officers will give the regular soldiers more incentive to do well.”

“What’s your assessment, Gunny?”

“I think it’s a good plan, sir – I just don’t think it’s realistic to think it will happen overnight. Culturally these people have no problem getting in anyone’s face if they see them doing something they think is wrong. Especially an older man when dealing with a younger person; it has been acceptable for a long time.”

“What about the building up of the noncom ranks?”

“I agree, sir, completely.”

“Very good. Has training begun, Commander Rabb?”

“Yes, sir – we will be traveling with Major Hanson next week to begin implementation in several locations, sir.”

“Sounds like a good start, Commander. Let’s finish this. It’s your ticket home. Carry on.”

The general ended the call. Gunny and Harm looked at each other.

“I wasn’t disagreeing with you, sir.” Gunny wasn’t sure how the commander would take his assessment of their program.

“Don’t worry about it, Gunny. I know this is a hell of a task. The general asked your honest assessment and you gave it. I wouldn’t expect any less. We have to begin somewhere. I know there will be bumps in the road; we will learn as we go. I just know that if we back off using cultural differences as an excuse, then we could end up with a military every bit as ruthless as Saddam’s.” They heard a knock on the door.

“Enter.” Harm turned toward the door.

“Would you like to see by beautiful daughter, sir?” Major Hanson was grinning from ear to ear.

He placed his briefcase on Harm’s desk and opened it. He pulled out a file labeled ‘Cassandra.’ He opened it and handed a computer generated copy of a picture of a young woman holding a tiny baby.

“The nursing staff at the hospital sent this.” He left the file open showing what looked like ultrasound pictures.

“Congratulations, Major.” One of the pictures, labeled ‘Cassandra 3 months,’ caught Harm’s eye. He thought that Mac might be nearly three months along. ‘God this is really happening’ he thought. They were going to have a baby.

“Thank you, sir.” He took two cigars out of the pocket of his briefcase and handed them to Gunny and Harm. “I know you can’t smoke these here. I just figured that if I can’t be with my girls tonight, I can at least be the proud papa and pass out the cigars.” He took back the picture and looked lovingly at the print. “If you’ll excuse me, sir, I have some showing off to do.”

“By all means, Major. Carry on.”

The major nodded to Gunny and he and Harm were smiling, watching him leave the room. When they looked at each other they both looked quickly down, feeling a little embarrassed at their unguarded moment.

“Uh, I’ll be in my quarters if you need anything, sir.” Gunny quickly left the room.

Harm sat back down at his desk. He looked at his phone. ‘What time is it in Washington?’ he wondered. It couldn’t be too much later than 0900. He dialed the numbers, praying she would answer her phone. No such luck. He could e mail, but what he needed was to hear her voice. You didn’t get that from e mail.



2330
10 February
Roberts Residence
Alexandria, Virginia


Bud sat on the sofa in the den. He kept going over the conversation he’d had with his father the day before. He lost control of his temper so quickly lately. He hated that he had lost it in front of Little AJ.

“Bud?” Harriet stood in the doorway. “What are you doing still up?”

“I’m sorry, honey; I’m just trying to clear my head.” Bud looked at her apologetically.

“It’s your father, isn’t it?” Harriet knew, Bud hadn’t been this quiet in a long time.

“It is, but mostly it’s me.” Bud patted the couch beside him, inviting her to sit down.

Harriet sat beside him and took his hand waiting for him to speak.

“I can’t believe how quickly I lost my temper yesterday. I scared Little AJ so badly he wouldn’t even hug me this morning before I went to work.” He looked at Harriet. “I never wanted to ever see that fear on his face.”

“Bud, I think you’re being too hard on yourself.” She knew how much being a good father meant to Bud.

“I don’t know, Harriet. I have been over it a thousand times in my mind … and do you know what the worst thing is? I sounded exactly like him. Even my voice was just like his was. He would back me or Mom into a corner, yelling, belittling us, throwing every curse he could think of at us. He didn’t always hit us…the words could hurt as much as if he had.”

“Bud, that isn’t what you did yesterday.” Harriet could not see the comparison at all.

“I think I need to talk to someone, Harriet.” He wasn’t sure how she would feel about it, but he was not going to let this get out of control. He had too much to lose.

“Do you want me to go with you?” She knew now that Bud was really troubled. He would never have considered counseling a couple of years ago.

“I don’t think so. I think this is about me. I’ve always worried that my childhood would affect my family. I don’t want to let it.”

“Bud, what are you talking about? You’re a wonderful husband and father.”

Bud remembered talking to Harm just before he and Harriet were married. He’d told him about his fear of becoming what his father was. Harm had tried to reassure him but Bud had carried that fear throughout their marriage.

“Thank you, Harriet.” Bud kissed her cheek. “I just don’t ever want to let you down, and I think it’s time I did something about this anger before it gets out of control.”

Bud kissed her cheek. “I love you.”

Harriet smiled at him. “I love you too.”


1845
11 February
Friday
The Ship’s Wheel
Norfolk, Virginia



Retired Master Chief Bud Roberts sat at a barstool nursing his first but not last beer of the evening. It had been a hell of a week. He was able to avoid being called up by the Navy to serve. ‘ Christ!... unbelievable,’ he thought. He wouldn’t be caught dead in fatigues or Cammies as they now called them. The medical review board Bud had been able to get to review his personnel file ruled that he was not fit for duty – a ruling that didn’t bother him in the least. What he had been totally unprepared for was being thrown out of his son’s house and forbidden to ever come near them again. He shook his head, wondering what the hell Bud’s problem was anyway.

“Roberts?” Someone was calling from across the bar.

“Master Chief Roberts?” Big Bud lifted his head to look for the person calling him. He looked across the bar and then recognition dawned.

“Maguire? Well, I’ll be damned. How are you doin'?” To Big Bud Roberts his old shipmates were family. He felt more at ease with them than he had ever felt with his sons or Angie. Well, maybe not in the beginning, but the longer he served, the more he felt the Navy was his family. He didn’t allow himself to be close to anyone else; it hadn’t been necessary, especially after Angie died.

Senior Chief Matt Maguire approached him and shook his hand. “I’m doing great. Just down here seeing a few old friends.”

“How long has it been? Twenty years?” It had been a very long time. Angie was still… well, he wouldn’t go there now. He hoped he wouldn’t ask about her.

“What have you been doing since I saw you last? Keeping busy?”

His friend arched an eyebrow. He had known Big Bud well. To say he ‘got around’ was an understatement. Matt sure as hell couldn’t keep up. His wife Katie would have killed him.

“You know me. I’m doing anything I can get by with.” Big Bud laughed before taking a long pull on his beer.

The door to the bar opened letting in the traffic noise from the street. A woman stepped in the door and looked toward Big Bud and his friend.

“Bud? My God… is that you?”

“Katie…well, I will be damned. When are you going to get old, woman?”

A well preserved woman of nearly 50 years laughed and walked quickly to the bar where Big Bud and her husband Matt were talking. Big Bud swept her into a bear hug.

“I always said Matt had the best looking babe in the whole 101.”

Matt and Big Bud had become friends in boot camp. Their company number was 101. Katie hadn’t been able to get to their graduation so they’d called her that evening. They’d squeezed into a phone booth, drunk out of their skulls, both telling her in the most colorful language that she was ‘the best looking babe in the whole 101’ – though Big Bud had never seen her in his life at that point.

“Stop lying, you old silver-tongued devil!” She laughed. “I can’t believe we ran into you like this.”

Matt began to talk about what they were doing in town, but Big Bud was lost in thought, wondering what Angie would look like now. Seeing Katie and remembering their friendship took him back. It had been their first hitch and they were both stationed out of Norfolk. Bud was on the carrier USS America and Matt was on the destroyer USS John King. The girls had become good friends. Hell, he and Angie had driven Katie to the hospital when she went into labor with their oldest son. Matt’s ship had been out and Bud had only been home a week.

“Bud?” Katie asked. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, hey, sorry…need another beer…not enough alcohol in my system.” He laughed a bit too loud. “What can I get you, Katie? It’s on me.” He looked at her husband. “Matt?”

Matt looked at what he was drinking. “I’ll have whatever you’ve got there.”

“Nothing for me, thanks.” Katie and Matt had heard about Angie. They‘d been stationed in California at the time and had been unable to get back. They had sent flowers but somehow she doubted that Bud knew anything about that.

“How are the boys, Bud?”

“Fine, fine. They’re both in the Navy. If you can believe that.”

“Nothing wrong with following in the old man’s footsteps.” Matt had a son who was serving too.

“They’re not really what you could call following –my- footsteps. Bud Jr is a JAG attorney, a lieutenant commander. Mikey is in his second year at Annapolis.”

“Really?… Bud… that’s great. You must be so proud.”

Katie was stunned. She knew what kind of childhood those kids had. It hadn’t started out badly, but by the time Bud got orders to Jacksonville and they had decided to get out for a couple of years, things had gotten pretty bad.

“Yeah…who would have thought it, huh?” Big Bud chuckled to himself. “It didn’t have anything to do with me, Katie.”

Katie looked down, not really sure what she should say. Her husband spoke up. “You gave them a tradition of service. That’s something to be proud of.”

“Nah, I think whatever they have, as far as the good things, Angie gave them. I just paid the bills.” He gave Matt a sideways glance. “You know me, Matt.”

Matt did know him; he also knew he wasn’t always as he liked to describe himself now. He took out his wallet and opened it to show a picture of Bud Jr. and his family and also Mikey’s Academy picture. He handed the wallet to Katie and Matt looked over her shoulder.

“Bud, they look great. I can’t believe it. Little Bud has four children? His wife is beautiful.”

Katie remembered how close Angie had been to Bud Jr. and how protective he’d been of her, even though he was just a little boy.

Bud nodded, unable to think of an appropriate response, especially in light of the fight he had with Bud earlier this week.

“Mikey is so handsome. He was so young, just a baby the last time we saw him. He’s a grown man now.” She shook her head. “He looks so much like Angie. She would have been so proud.”

Big Bud was relieved that they already knew. He didn’t want to explain. He was still raw from his argument with Bud. He could still hear him say “I will never understand why a selfish bastard like you is alive when a good person like my mother is dead.” The words were still ringing in his ears.

Matt could see that Bud was getting more depressed by the minute and he also remembered this would usually precede a bar fight with anyone within reach. It was time to change the subject.

“Hey Bud, remember the time we decided to drag race down Hampton Boulevard? We both had those old ‘53 pick-ups. Damn, I still can’t believe we didn’t get arrested.”

Bud laughed out loud. “Hah, we were drunk on our asses. I still can’t figure out how I got those damn trash cans in the back of that pick-up.”

“We could have been busted down to E1 if we had been caught. Man, someone up there was looking out for us that night.”

Katie remembered that night too. “Yeah, right. I remember someone calling me to be sure his uniform was ready for captain’s inspection the next morning. Bud was on leave, but you weren’t. I still don’t know how you got through that day. You were green to the gills.”

Bud continued to laugh. He remembered seeing Angie and Katie standing in the yard, arms folded across their chests. They hadn’t been nearly as mad as they seemed to be.
In that moment he wished to be young again; to have Angie with him again. Seeing Katie made him remember her more clearly. Tonight she hadn’t faded into the haze of his dreams. The picture in his mind was clear suddenly and sharp as knife.

Matt decided it was time to go. They had promised to meet another couple out in Virginia Beach later. “Bud, we have to get going. We’re meeting the Greggs at Darryl’s. Do you want to join us? I don’t know if you remember Lou – I think that was after I came back in.”

Matt and Katie had gotten out for a few years, but civilian life just wasn’t working for either of them so he’d reenlisted.

“No thanks, Matt. It was good to see you.” Big Bud stood and shook his hand. “Katie.”
Katie kissed his cheek and hugged him.

“Take care of yourself, Bud. I’m so glad we ran into you like this. We need to stay in touch. We share too many memories.” She gave him a sad smile and took her husband’s hand as they walk toward the door.

Big Bud watched them walk out. He was grateful they were leaving. He didn’t think he could take much more of memory lane tonight.

He returned to his bar stool and ordered another beer. His mind returned to the argument he and Bud had. The one he never saw coming, but had been due for a long time….

Bud had handed him a large manila envelope. “The medical review board has approved your exemption from being recalled.” Bud looked at his father, appearing to be waiting for something.

Big Bud took the envelope. “Dirty bastards, thought they could screw me.” He turned to go to the door. He had been waiting for an hour for Bud to come home from work. He had called him and asked him to meet him at his house.

Bud was incredulous. “So that’s it?”

Big Bud turned back to face him. “What?”

“I bust my ass to get you out of something that you probably could have done if you gave a damn about anyone but yourself. And your answer is….What?” Bud walked toward him, anger rising up in him so quickly he didn’t even have time to rein it in this time.

Big Bud huffed. “What the hell is your problem? You’re a lawyer; that’s your job. Nobody forced you.”

“Nobody forced me? You come into JAG and insult and irritate half of the people I work with. Embarrass me and pressure me minutes before I have to go into court. Nobody forced me? The hell you didn’t.”

Harriet was upstairs with the girls when she overheard Bud and his father talking. She was afraid this was coming. Bud had been more than a little on edge lately. It didn’t help that every little thing that could go wrong did: running out of gas, locking his keys in the car, you name it. It also didn’t help that he was still adjusting to the new CO. Harriet thought that he had been handling everything well up until the last week or so. She stepped out of the nursery and looked down into the foyer.

“What do you want from me anyway?” Big Bud was in no mood for this nonsense. “Blood?” He turned and walked to the door, then turned toward Bud intending to leave with a sharp retort. He didn’t get the chance.

“I don’t want a damn thing from you, you asshole. I will never understand why a selfish bastard like you is alive when a good person like my mother is dead. You never gave a damn about her or us. What did you get out of it all? You got two sons who have loved you and wanted your respect. What did she get?…..She’s dead!”

Big Bud’s arrogance seemed to seep out of him and into the floor. “It’s not my fault she died, Bud.” He looked as though someone had hit him.

Bud felt no guilt; he only wished he had. “No it’s not your fault, Dad. You just made her life a living hell while she was alive. That was your fault.” He continued to walk toward Big Bud. “Leave….and don’t ever ask for anything from me again.” He was trembling with anger.

Harriet was so stunned by what she was seeing and hearing that she did not see little AJ at first. He was standing in the doorway to the den, looking from his father to his grandfather. He didn’t make a sound, but the confusion and fear on his face was plain to anyone who looked at him. Little AJ heard his mother gasp and looked up at her, and then he began to cry.

Big Bud opened the door and started out. Bud took the doorknob out of his hand and shut the door on him almost before he was completely outside…..

Big Bud awakened from his daydream to find himself sitting on the same barstool, ordering one drink after another. He wasn’t far from home. He would be all right, he figured. He had been unable to shake the vision of the hatred in his son’s eyes. He had always come around after they had a major blow out, but somehow he didn’t think that would happen this time. That argument had come out of nowhere. He’d wondered if this day would come. They had been on borrowed time for a long time. His past mistakes had remained buried in the details of all their lives. ‘Mistakes’ seemed a small word for what he had done. Angie was gone; she was the glue that held their family together. Mikey wouldn’t be able to patch this one. The older Mike became, the more distant he was from him. The last time he had seen him it had seemed to him that Mikey could barely stand to be in the same room with him.

“Hey fella, you buying the drinks tonight?”

Bud turned toward the woman speaking to him. She had probably been a pretty woman once. She had a hard look about her. She wore a bit too much make up and reeked of cigarette smoke and Chanel number five. His kind of gal.

“Sure….what’ll ya have, honey?” Big Bud didn’t care who she was. He was sure he wouldn’t even remember her name tomorrow, it didn’t matter. He wasn’t alone.


1543
Baghdad time
6 Blocks south of Green zone
Baghdad, Iraq


Harm and Gunny were returning to the Green zone following one of their training sessions held at Camp Anaconda. Major Hanson had been talking nonstop about his family since they had left camp.

“We’re naming the baby Cassandra. It’s for her mother and for my sister Cassidy.”

Major Hanson was still beaming with pride. Harm thought that he had been like this since he learned of the baby’s birth. The major looked at Gunny.

“You married, Gunny?”

“No sir.”

“Confirmed bachelor, huh?”

“Not really, sir, the right woman just never came along. I thought she might’ve a few times, but it always turned out that she was more in love with the idea of being married to a Marine than the realities.” Gunny shrugged.

“How about you, sir?” Major Hanson looked at Harm.

“Yeah, just last Christmas.” Harm smiled at the memory.

“Planning on any kids, sir? If I may ask?” He was curious. It seemed the commander became quiet when he spoke about his family.

“You may, and as a matter of fact we just found out we’re expecting.” Harm gave them a slightly embarrassed grin.

Gunny and Major Hanson congratulated him.

They were nearing the main gate to the green zone when they heard an all too familiar sound. An RPG was rocketing through the air and crashed into the side of their Humvee, striking near the gas tank. Gunny could see exactly where it had lodged in his rearview mirror. For whatever reason the explosion was delayed.

“It’s at the gas tank. Its gonna blow. Get out!”

Gunny got out from behind the wheel. Harm and Major Hanson quickly exited on the opposite side of the vehicle. They quickly tried to run for cover when a rain of gunfire exploded into the air. Marines inside the green zone were already responding to the attack. The Humvee exploded, knocking them all to the ground. They were on their feet quickly. Harm, Gunny and the major had begun making their way to the main gate, using the Marines’ return fire for cover. They were within a few steps when the major was struck by two bullets. He was hit just above and just below his body armor. Harm was nearest to him and was sprayed with blood and bone from his wound. He was stunned for a moment, and then called to Major Hanson.

“Get in the gate, Commander – they’ll come and get me.” Harm could barely hear him over the gunfire...

“I’m not leaving you, Major.” Harm could hear Gunny yelling in a distant part of his brain, but he could not tear his eyes away from the major.

Major Hanson could feel the life flowing out of him. He knew suddenly that he wasn’t going home. “Go on, Commander.”

Harm understood what he was thinking and refused to leave him. Things seemed to be going into slow motion.

“I’m going, I know it. You go home, you have to…..” The major’s eyes began to roll back in his head and his body began to convulse. “Sandy…” The major’s last breath left him, and Harm attempted to drag him back to the camp. He felt a fist in the middle of his chest and someone grabbing him by his jacket.

“Commander!” Gunny had grabbed Harm by his DCU jacket and used his body weight and momentum to pull him away from the major. Harm’s back hit the wall of the building they were partially hidden behind. The hard hit seemed to knock him into survival mode, and he hit the ground running with Gunny covering him as he went. They made it inside the gate. Harm and Gunny looked back to where Major Hanson lay dead, both trying to absorb what had just happened.

It had been quieter since the elections. There were still ‘pockets’ of resistance, but they had become smaller within the last two weeks. Suddenly the call for ceasefire was given. After the dust cleared, there were two men who had begun this firefight. Their guns were spent of bullets and the empty RPG launcher lay at their sides. These people meant to die. They had to know there was no way they would get away if they attacked this closely to the green zone. They just wanted to take as many Americans with them as possible. They had taken one American life. Major Thomas Hanson. Cassandra’s father. Sandra’s husband. He had said that he had two sons. They would never see him again. Harm suddenly felt so weary, as though he could barely walk. He said nothing but turned to walk toward his quarters. A corpsman ran toward him and stopped him with a hand to his chest.

“Commander!” He had already begun trying to assess Harm’s injuries. “Commander, are you all right?”

Harm looked at him as though he couldn’t quite comprehend what the corpsman was saying. Harm could see the corpsman looking at his uniform. It was then that he became aware of the blood on his clothing and his face. The smell of it hit him full force suddenly, and he felt the bile rising in his throat. Harm turned quickly away from the corpsman and lost whatever lunch he had been able to eat that day. When Harm was able calm his stomach down, he began to tear at his DCU jacket. He pulled so hard that the buttons flew into the air, nearly striking the corpsman. He threw it onto the ground and turned away from it.

“Come on, Commander, let me get you to the infirmary and get the docs to check you out.”

“I’m not injured, Petty Officer.” Harm thought of Major Hanson and looked back over his shoulder. “I’m fine”

“With all due respect, sir. Let us have a look to be sure.” The corpsman was persistent.

Gunny stepped up behind Harm.

“We’d like to have a look at you too, Gunnery Sergeant.”

Gunny nodded and they all walked toward the infirmary.


0500
Eastern Standard Time
11 February
Harm and Mac’s apartment
North of Union Station.


Mac lay on her back in their bed in a deep sleep, the comforter tucked under her chin. She had been dreaming of snow. She and Harm were back at Pine Loch. It was a quiet and still night. The only sound she heard in her dream was the sound of the large snowflakes lightly touching the ground. She and Harm were walking along the path that led to their cabin. She had her hand in the crook of his arm. He looked down at her and placed his hand over hers. He leaned down to kiss her…

Mac woke suddenly to what she could have sworn was a loud explosion. Her ears were ringing. She sat straight up in bed and immediately broke out in a cold sweat. Something was wrong. She knew it deep in her soul, something was very wrong and it involved Harm.

Mac got up and started making her coffee. She didn’t have to be up for over an hour but there wouldn’t be any more sleeping this morning. She showered and dressed. While she made her breakfast she turned the television on to listen to the local news and the traffic report. She had court this morning at 0900 so she decided to get there a little early today. She hoped the details of her day would help her shake the feeling of unease she still had.
She hoped against hope that she would hear from Harm today. He couldn’t get back soon enough for her.


2200
Baghdad time
11 February
Green zone
Baghdad, Iraq



Harm stood in the shower, letting the hot water pour directly over his head. This was the third shower he had taken today. Outside of a nasty bruise on his back and some skinned knees, he had come out of the firefight unscathed. He could not get the smell of Major Hanson’s blood off of him, or so it seemed to him. He knew that this was all in his head, that it was the effects of what he had been through that day. Still, he figured a shower couldn’t hurt, whether he was imagining the smell or not.

As the shower water pelted down on his back and shoulders, he thought of Mac and their baby. He suddenly felt an overwhelming need to see his own child. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about the baby as a real possibility before this because of the risk to Mac. Now, as he stood there, he couldn’t wait to see it. He closed his eyes and summoned the memory of Mac placing her hand almost protectively on her stomach right after they had learned she was pregnant. He had never allowed himself to even touch her there. He needed to go home and tell her he understood now. He believed the baby was meant to be and he wanted to see the baby’s face too.

He remembered what Chaplain Turner had said at their wedding. ‘You have begun a journey today. One that will bring you great joy and also may bring you pain…..If you bear all things together, you will endure.’ As he turned off the shower, he knew that he had been holding back when it came to the baby. He also knew that Mac knew it. He wanted to go home and do what Major Hanson would never do again; hold his wife in his arms.

Harm got out of the shower and wrapped himself in a towel. He dressed in sweat clothes and went back to his office before going to bed. There wouldn’t be any sleep tonight.
He sat at his desk and thought again of what his grandmother had said. ‘You need to trust this…for Mac’s sake.’ He knew now that he needed to do this for his sake too. He hadn’t been able to reach Mac all week. He would try and catch her again at work. He dialed the number, praying all the while that she didn’t have court that afternoon.

“Colonel Rabb.” Mac was slightly out of breath.

“Mac?” Thank God she was there.

“Harm? I was just going to step out. I’m so glad you caught me.”

“I’ve been trying to catch up with you for over a week.” God, it was good to hear her voice.

“Any idea about when they may let you come home?” Mac was hopeful.

“I thought it might be the middle of next week, but I don’t know for sure.” Harm didn’t intend to get into it. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“Yeah, I don’t have court this afternoon and I worked through lunch. I was just going to step out and grab a bite downstairs.”

“I don’t want you skipping meals, Mac.” Harm wanted to talk about something normal, like what she was having for lunch. He didn’t want to talk about life and death; he just wanted to hear her voice.

“I’m not skipping meals, Harm. I had a huge breakfast. I think that’s pretty good, considering the nightmare that woke me up this morning.” She still shuddered to think of it. That was one of the many reasons this call was so welcome. “Besides, I have a bottle of water and a protein bar here in the office. So stop worrying, Harmon.”

“What nightmare?” Harm wondered.

“I was having the most wonderful dream. We were back at Pine Loch, walking in a softly falling snow – then out of nowhere there was an explosion so loud it made my ears ring. I woke up in a cold sweat.”

“There could be a reason for that. I had a near miss this afternoon.”

“What?” Mac knew that something was wrong.

“I’m sorry, Mac – I’ll tell you about it when I get home. I just need to hear your voice and talk to you. I need to tell you something. I know I’ve held back where the baby is concerned. I want you to know I’m sorry.” A lump suddenly formed in his throat. “I…..uh, want to see the baby too.” He hoped Mac would say something because he knew he wouldn’t be able to.

“Harm….it’s okay. I know this whole ordeal with me has been so hard for you. You never have complained…except when I left you out of the loop, and I won’t do that again.”

“Okay,” he whispered.

“Harm, are you really all right?” After all he had said about the events of his day, she realized that they really were connected, still.

“Yeah, it’s just been a rough day. I miss you.” His voice was still a whisper.

“I wish I were there with you.” Mac knew he needed her and she wanted so much to be there for him.

“Me too.” The sound of her voice was beginning to loosen the knot he had felt in his chest since that afternoon.

Mac heard a knock on her door. “Just a minute, Harm.” She looked toward the door and called, “Enter.”

Harriet stepped into her office with one of the girls in her arms. “Sorry to intrude, ma’am.”

“Harriet, not at all.” Mac thought this was just what she and Harm needed.

“I brought someone to see you.” As though on cue, baby Jennifer let out a loud wail.

Harm could hear the baby on the line. “Which one is that, Mac?”

“It’s baby Jen. She’s making herself known, like her namesake.”

Harm could hear Harriet and Mac laughing and the baby in the background. He needed to hear about something normal. His friends, his wife, even the insistent cry of an impatient baby was a welcome respite from what he had been feeling for the last 12 hours.

Bud came to her office door and knocked on the frame.

“Bud.” Harm heard Mac talking to him, and also in the background, an additional cranky baby.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” He looked at Harriet. “Honey, you’re going to have to take Justice. General Creswell is back in the building.” He looked down the hallway as if he expected him to walk in at any moment. He placed Justice in the double stroller and kissed her forehead. As he turned to walk back down the hallway, he came face to face with General Creswell.

Mac spoke into the phone in a low voice. “Harm, its General Creswell. I think I’m going to have to go.”

“Okay, I’ll try and catch you later.” Harm’s heart sank; he wasn’t ready to let her go yet.

General Creswell looked into Mac’s office and said, “Colonel Rabb, are you speaking with Commander Rabb?”

Mac looked as if she had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “Yes, sir.”

“Keep him on the line. I want to talk with him.” His stern commanding expression was firmly in place.

“Harm, did you hear that?” Mac’s tone was almost apologetic.

“Yes, I’ll stay on the line.” He was suddenly glad he wasn’t in Mac’s office at this moment.

“Commander Roberts.” General Creswell turned toward Bud. “Do you not have enough work to occupy your time?”

The Roberts girls suddenly quieted and watched the general with rapt attention.

“Yes sir” Bud stood at attention.

“Then I suggest you get to it. You are dismissed.”

“Yes sir.” Bud quickly left them without a backward look.

“Sir, this is really my fault. I brought the girls as a surprise for Bud.” Harriet tried to explain.

General Creswell did not smile but looked directly at Harriet. She almost visibly wilted under his gaze. He looked down at the girls, and one of them gave him her most beautiful open mouthed smile and a belly laugh.

A smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Which one is this?” The general nodded toward one half of his adoring audience.

“That’s Jennifer, sir,” Harriet answered, smiling in spite of herself.

The general nodded thinking to himself. ‘It figures.’

Harm was still holding on and had heard the exchange. He supposed he was just waiting his turn for the general to ream him one too.

Mac handed the phone to the general, and he looked at her steadily until she understood that she should leave him.

“Oh, excuse me, sir. I’ll just step out for a late lunch.”

Mac and Harriet went swiftly out the door. As Mac closed the door behind her, they heard the general say “Commander Rabb…”

Baby Jen heard him too, at which she laughed her belly laugh again, well within earshot of the general.

Mac and Harriet hurried down the hall toward the elevators.


Chapter 29


1530
11 February
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia



General Creswell closed the door to Mac’s office as he spoke to Harm. “I was notified of Major Hanson’s death this morning, Commander.”

“Yes sir.”

“Good man. I was acquainted with the major during his first tour in Iraq.” The general would be paying Sandra Hanson a visit later that afternoon.

“Yes sir.” Harm thought he should say more but didn’t feel he had the words to adequately express what he felt at that moment – the words to say that would do a good man justice.

“I trust you and the Gunny came through the skirmish all right, Commander?” The general had been given a report when he was notified of the incident. He wanted to get a feel for how the commander was handling this for himself.

“Yes sir. I would like to say, sir, that Gunny Galindez literally saved my life today. He should be commended for the way he handled this situation. The knee he had replaced didn’t keep him from performing his duty today.”

“I am sure you both performed your duties well, Commander. I will however look into your recommendation.” He was pleased that the commander was living up to the good things he had heard about him.

“Yes sir.” Harm honestly didn’t feel he had. Gunny had risked his life to get him back into the compound. He had been momentarily stunned by the attack and the severity of Major Hanson’s injuries.

“We need to discuss how we’re going to proceed. How close was Major Hanson to completing the training for the Iraqi UCMJ?”

“He was just finishing up, sir; many of the new Iraqi units have already begun implementation of the new protocols.”

“Major Hanson was getting ready to rotate out. His replacement was to begin March first.” It was an old story, and no matter how many times he heard it, the irony never failed to strike him. A Marine being killed just days before he was to return to the States.

“So I’ll be staying, sir?”

“No, Commander, the major’s replacement will be deploying early. Lieutenant Colonel Bradley Murphy should be on board by the 14th. Major Hanson’s staff will assist in familiarizing him with what has been done so far. I will however expect you to lend any assistance that is required.”

“Yes sir.”

“I will expect a full report on the transition upon your return. Barring any unforeseen delays, I will expect you and the Gunny to report to JAG headquarters by Monday the 21st.”

“Yes sir.” He was relieved to have a clear date to look forward to, but the major’s words were still going through his head. ‘You go home….you have to…`’ He was so sorry that the major wouldn’t be going as well.

“Do they have any idea who the shooters were?”

“They have identified both of them. I recognized one of the men; I remember seeing him on the way to the compound just minutes before the attack... The authorities here have identified him as former Iraqi military. The other is believed to be Syrian. He had a Syrian passport.”

“Very well. Carry on, Commander.” With that the general ended the call. He placed the handset on the phone and left Mac’s office.


1630
14 February
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia



Lieutenant Commander Faith Coleman walked into her office shortly after leaving the courtroom. She noticed that there was a coffee mug sitting on the calendar. She walked around her desk and saw that the mug had a small red ribbon tied around the handle. The letters USMC were written boldly on the side of the mug in red, so large that it could have been seen from across the office. She also noticed that the mug was placed on today’s date. February 14th. No card was given. She smiled and picked up the mug. She was looking at it when General Creswell passed her office. He could not help noticing her gift.

“Commander.” General Creswell stood in the doorway.

Faith put the mug down on her desk and came to attention. “Sir.”

“Stand easy. Nice coffee mug….gift?” He raised his brows in question.

Faith felt awkward. “Ah…yes…sir…I think so.”

“You don’t know if this is a gift?” The general was puzzled.

“I….I don’t know who it’s from, sir.” She felt like an idiot.

The general tapped the doorframe and turned to leave. “Well, it looks as though your secret admirer has good taste. Carry on”

“Yes sir.” She could feel heat rising up her neck to the top of her head. ‘Secret Admirer?’


1710
14 February
Harm and Mac’s Apartment
North of Union Station



Mac was coming in the door when she heard Harm’s voice on the answering machine. She ran to the phone and picked it up. “Hello? Harm?”

“Mac, I’m so glad I caught you.” Harm thought he had missed her yet again.

“Hello, you – it’s got to be after 0100 there now. What are you doing up so late?” He sounded tired.

“I wanted to get as much done as quickly as I can so I can get back to you. Besides, I think I’ll be out of here sometime tomorrow or early Wednesday.”

“Oh, thank God. I think this had been the longest four weeks in my life.”

“Yeah, me too. I think I may be back by Friday. At least I hope to be. By the way, happy Valentines Day.”

“That’s right, it’s Valentines Day and you’re too far away to properly celebrate.” A smile crept into her voice.

“Yes I am, but I didn’t forget. I hope you won’t mind, but since Jen still has a key, she delivered your Valentine gifts.”

She turned to look around the room for the first time since she answered the phone. There were four dozen roses placed around the apartment: in the kitchen on the island, on the coffee table, at their bedside and on the dining room table. She hadn’t even noticed their scent until now. They were same deep shade of red as the ones she had carried at her wedding.

“Oh Harm, they’re beautiful.” She felt tears spring to her eyes. She was quiet for a moment, wiping away tears.

“Hey, are you still there?” Harm thought they might have lost their connection.

“I’m here. Damn it… I cry at the drop of a hat lately. I even cry over Hallmark commercials.”

Harm chuckled into the phone. “Sounds like I’ll be coming home to a whole new Mac.”
He knew that she was getting frustrated with herself, but he found it very endearing at the moment.

“It’s not funny,” she protested, only half serious. “What if I were to lose it in court?”

“Oh, Mac, I don’t think you’ll do that. This probably won’t last long anyway.” He knew she wouldn’t do as she feared; no matter what was going on, Mac was too professional for that and he told her so.

She had needed to hear that. His confidence in her meant so much to her.

“Harm, the roses are so beautiful. I can’t believe you did this. Why so many?”

Mac had walked from the living room to the bedroom and back, looking at them all. She touched the delicate petals with the tips of her fingers.

“A dozen for every week I’ve been gone.” Harm blushed, suddenly feeling a bit embarrassed.

“Oh…” Mac teared up again. “You know, you’re going to have to stop being so nice. You’re making me cry.” Her voice was cracking with emotion.

“Well, I never thought I’d hear you say that.” Harm laughed in earnest. He couldn’t help it. “Honey, you have to stop that crying. I promise I’ll never send you roses again.”

“Okay…at least not until I get myself under control again.” Mac was laughing and wiping tears from her eyes.

“I kind of like Mac…out of control.” Harm couldn’t resist teasing her.

“Very funny, Sailor.”

“I love you, Mac.” Harm was a bit more serious.

“I love you too.” Mac heard a beep come over the line.

“Honey, I have to go. We have to keep the calls to a minimum. I just wanted to let you know I’m nearly on my way and wish you Happy Valentines Day.”

“Happy Valentines Day to you, Harm.”

“Bye.” And with that the phone cut off.

She took the phone away from her ear and said to no one, “Bye.”

Still weepy, she walked back into their bedroom and decided to shower and get comfortable before she ate dinner. She thought a shower might help her settle down and get a grip. Harm was coming home; what in the world was she crying about? She had picked up some Chinese on her way home. It made her feel lonelier to make dinner only for herself. She had done it for years before she and Harm finally found each other, but now she could barely stand it.

After dinner Mac settled on the couch with a book: James Patterson’s 3rd Degree. A murder mystery was probably not what she needed to be reading just now, but she wanted something to occupy her mind. Anything to help her think about something besides how far away Harm was and how much she missed him. She had been falling asleep on the couch lately and getting up in the middle of the night to get into bed. She hated getting into bed alone since her nightmare. It seemed to her that his side of the bed felt huge.

By 2130 she began to nod off, so she thought she better go to bed. She locked up and turned the lights out except for her bedside lamp. She sighed and pulled the covers back – and sat down on something that felt like cardboard. Mac jumped up quickly and pulled the covers back.

She saw a huge poster-size Valentine card. On the front of the card was a picture of a very sad-looking bull dog with a red ribbon around its neck. Mac laughed out loud and lifted the card out of the bed. It read: “Wish I could be with you on Valentines Day. I miss you. Love, Harm” How could he have done this? It had his signature. She knew it as well as her own. It was perfect, though, and it was just what she needed.

He could read her like a book, even from halfway around the world. She would have to remember to thank Jen for helping make this possible. She stood the card against the wall so that she could see it from where she lay in bed. She slipped into her bed and turned out the light. She hoped he would like the gift she had for him.


1300
London time
14 February
North park Muslim Women’s Shelter
Oldham, United Kingdom


A man in a public works uniform shuffled down the sidewalk in front of the shelter. He walked to the glass storefront door and opened it. He walked toward the desk to ask for the proprietor. A man approached him immediately and asked him what he wanted. He answered him in a thick cockney accent.

“I need to speak to the owner ‘ere. Been working on the gas lines two doors down, want to make sure there ain’t no damage down your way.”

The man stepped more squarely between the public works man and the young woman at the desk.

“I am Arzu Muehe. May I help you?” The man spoke in impeccable English with no hint of an accent.

“I’m just here from the public works to check out your pipes…I been working down the road there and I’m to be sure you have no problems ‘ere...” The man smiled, revealing several missing teeth.

“You may proceed. Please let us know if we can be of any assistance.”

He turned to the woman at the desk and spoke to her in Farsi, thinking the old man could not understand.

As the man walked to the back of the building he heard him instruct the young woman at the desk to say nothing to him. He told her that if the man were to have any questions she was to direct them to him and that if she did not she would be punished severely...

The public works man made his way to the utility room, but not before noticing several women sitting on mats on the floor: wearing traditional Muslim dress, eyes down and hands folded on their laps. The teacher’s lesson was apparently on the role of Muslim women. ‘Women are for the house....’

The shelter was purported to be a place where Muslim women who had recently immigrated west could learn new work and language skills. The woman at the front desk was dressed as any other western woman except for the hijab she wore on her head. As he walked toward the back of the building, another picture emerged.

As the public works man opened the door to the utility closet, he spoke under his breath. “You in place, D2?”

There was what appeared to be an old vagrant man walking up the alley behind the store front. “On my way, D1.” Each building had a small bricked enclosure with trash receptacles just out side the gate. There were approximately two dozen men sitting on mats inside the small bricked garden behind the North Park Women’s Shelter.

“I will quote my brave brother from the Speakers Corner. ‘Yes, my friend, I am an extremist and I hope my children are extremists.’ We must proclaim that there is but one god and his name is Allah. We must rid the world of the Crusaders.” Asa al Hundu seldom allowed himself to be seen in public. This however was a special occasion. Many brothers were in place to begin their new mission. This was only the beginning. They were regrouping from their losses in Afghanistan. It was time to remind the world who they were. The shootings of British nationals in Riyadh and the murder in of another in Iraq last fall had apparently already fallen from the British national conscience. They must strike harder and send two nations into mourning once again.

D2 shuffled closer to the enclosed area to allow him to hear and see who was speaking. “My friends, our brother Aziz Nasiri will be allowed to complete our holy task. The great Satan will send its woman of state to meet with its lap dog. We will use this opportunity to show the world their weakness. They will die in the streets at Number 10 Downing. The world will see and they will know.”

D2 listened as he turned to walk away from the makeshift prayer room, lifting lids from garbage cans as he went. The speaker noticed his movement in his peripheral vision.

“Who is this?” he said aloud. “A worthless dog that picks from the scraps of others.
Stop him!” He could not allow a man to act in such a way without correction. The men stood from their prayer rugs and began to chase him.

“D3, are you in place?” he said just before the men caught up with him. He prayed the authorities would catch up with him before his wire was found.

“We are, D2.” D3 contacted the local police.

Their plan B had been simple: if either man incurred the wrath of the residents or patrons of the establishment, they were to incite as much of a disturbance as they could. Local authorities could be called in to quell the disturbance and arrest D1 or D2; thereby rescuing them from what could be certain death.

D1 had heard the disturbance and the conversation of D2 and D3. He carefully secured the listening device inside the room above the door frame. He closed the utility room door and walked casually toward the door. He tipped his cap toward the young woman at the desk.

“It’s all right as rain, Miss.” The young woman looked at him; she seemed to be imploring him not to say more, and then she looked down, busying herself with some papers on the desk. D1 slipped unnoticed out the door.

D1 would make a phone call later that day. He would call an old comrade from his days in Vietnam. He had flown the unfriendly skies with Lieutenant Tom Boone. Although his government still denied that the S.A.S ever fought in Vietnam, he knew at least one person who knew for a fact that he had.



0700
15 February
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


Faith had come in early this morning. She wanted to have time to leave her gift for Michael before he had the chance to catch her. She had planned it perfectly. She’d found a coffee mug similar to hers but with very large blue letters that read GO NAVY on the outside. She’d even found a blue ribbon to tie around the handle. She couldn’t keep the smile off of her face. This was fun.

She was touched that he’d thought of her yesterday, but he had also been kind enough not to make it too personal. He had known it would make her uncomfortable. She thought again about what a good guy he turned out to be.

She slipped into his darkened office and placed the coffee mug on his desk on today’s date, February 15th. She knew it was late and that it didn’t make sense to give a Valentine’s gift on the 15th, but somehow it fit. She returned to her office and closed the door.

General Creswell walked across the bullpen from the break room. He was carrying his second cup of coffee of the day. A bright blue ribbon caught his eye as he passed Major McBurney’s office. He stopped and looked through the open blinds in his office window, spotting the coffee mug very similar in appearance to Commander Coleman’s. He drew his brows down in thought and continued to walk toward his office.


0830
15 February
Chegwidden residence
Meredith Point, Maryland


AJ answered the phone in his office. “Tom! I was wondering if I was going to hear from you.”

“I think it’s time we had another conversation about Trafalgar Square.” Tom had some information that might help. He also had heard from Jack.

“Do you want me to contact Nelson?” AJ didn’t relish the thought. He’d had one too many battles with the old SecNav.

“No, I’ve already spoken with him. We’re going to meet him at his home, if that’s all right with you.”

“I’d prefer it. When?”

“Tomorrow, about 1300, if you can make it.”

“Sounds good. See you then.”

Tom Boone hung up and turned his attention to a news report on television. The lovely ZNN anchor woman was describing the DIA’s special clandestine teams that were being used by the Pentagon to gather intelligence.

Tom smiled without humor and shook his head. “Well, honey, they’re not too ‘clandestine’ now.”


Same time
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


The staff was assembled at the conference room table. The doors to the conference room opened and Petty Officer Coates called

“Attention on deck!”

With that, all present came to attention. The general walked into the room, carrying his coffee mug. It looked exactly like the one Mike had placed on Faith’s desk yesterday. Their eyes locked for a split second, and then both officers resumed eyes forward at attention.

The general pulled his chair out. “Be seated.”

Faith and Mike sat directly across from each other, beside Sturgis and Bud who sat nearer to the general.

General Creswell leaned slightly forward, looking at Mike. “Are you a coffee drinker, Major?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mike was trying to figure out what was happening here. It couldn’t be a coincidence. He had never seen a mug like that one in the office before he bought Faith’s yesterday. If this was bait, he wasn’t taking it.

He looked at Faith. “You, Commander?” He was giving her his unreadable and assessing look.

Faith could do this. She was an expert at unreadable. Although she had to hand it to General Creswell; she hadn’t seen this coming. He must have seen her this morning, or maybe he had seen Mike yesterday.

“Yes, sir.”

Bud and Sturgis were looking at each other, trying to figure out why this morning’s staff call was about coffee so far. Lieutenant Vukovic and Petty Officer Coates, who were also present, were just glad not to be the focus of his attention.

The general opened the file he had placed in front of him. “We have ET1 Miles Thomas, undergoing training at FCDSSA Dam Neck, charged with attempted murder. Commander Turner, you will prosecute. Commander Roberts, you will defend.”

Bud opened the file. He was to defend a man accused of attempting to kill his wife. ‘Okay, is this a test?’ His thoughts must have been apparent on his face.

“Problem, Commander?”

“No, sir.” Bud put his game face back on.

Sturgis gave him a questioning look for a moment. He knew something was up with Bud.

“Major McBurney, Commander Lucy Maron is charged with dereliction of duty. Her patient, PFC Jeff Kilpatrick, was released to return to Iraq after she deemed him fit for duty; apparently the PFC had difficulties after his return to Iraq... You will prosecute, Major, and Commander Coleman, you will defend.”

The general chose this time to take another drink of his coffee. Mike and Faith were following his movements and then both looked away almost at the same time.

The rest of staff call was uneventful. Lieutenant Vukovic was to sit second chair with Sturgis. The general dismissed the staff and they filed out of the conference room.

Faith made eye contact with no one but walked swiftly toward her office. Mike followed not far behind. Faith sat down at her desk as Mike stood in her doorway. He knocked on the frame of the door.

“Major?” She looked up at him, her face had ‘what do you want’ written all over it.

“Commander, may I come in?” His eyes were sparkling with amusement. He decided that the general was having a bit of fun with them. If they had been in any real trouble they would be in General Creswell’s office right now.

“Do you think that’s wise, Major?” She arched an eyebrow. Her expression returned to unreadable.

He took one step in and lowered his voice. “Come on, Faith, relax.”

She gave him a look of exasperation and then nodded toward the chair in front of her desk. She was afraid that if she argued with him it would draw attention.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“What do you think? You know very well that the general brought that mug into staff call on purpose.” Faith whispered loudly, which made the situation even more amusing in Mike’s eyes.

“He was just having a little bit of fun, Faith. If he thought we were doing anything wrong, we would surely know by now. Just relax, we’re just friends. You’re acting guilty…. do you know that?”

He knew that would set her off, but he was having such a good time teasing her that he chuckled in spite of himself. “By the way, thank you for my coffee mug. Even if you actually stole my idea…” He counted to himself, three, two, one…

Faith’s face flushed red, and she drew her brows into a frown.

“What? Stole your idea? Who is acting guilty….what do you mean…”

She saw what he had been up to and it had worked; he’d made her step back and stop being so serious. He was going to make her laugh at herself again.

“You’re welcome.” Faith remembered her manners, blushing all the while

Michael was laughing at her now; behind his hand to be sure he wasn’t overheard.

She looked down unable to keep the smile from her lips. She looked at him and laughed. “Get out of my office…..”

Mike stood and composed himself as best he could and did as he was told.


1300
16 February
Nelson Residence
Alexandria, Virginia


Former Secretary of the Navy Nelson sat in his den with Tom and AJ. “I am expecting Jack any moment. Shall I pour you a drink, gentlemen?”

“No thanks, too early for me.”

AJ folded his arms across his chest and settled back on the sofa. He hoped they were closer to a resolution on this. He would have liked to be able to tell Harm the next time he saw him that this was resolved. Harm had no idea what they had learned so far; he preferred that he not know anything until it had already been taken care of. He may have been overstepping in that regard, but at least he wasn’t alone in his desire to do it this way. AJ smirked, thinking about Rabb’s usual reaction to being left out of the loop.

“Something amusing, AJ?” Nelson sat down in a wing backed chair near his fireplace.

“I was just thinking about how glad I am that Rabb doesn’t know anything about this yet. I think we should keep it this way until the matter is resolved.”

“I agree wholeheartedly.” Nelson emphasized the last word. “Things seem to get out of control when he is involved, especially when the situation involves a family member or a friend, directly or indirectly.”

Tom Boone listened and nodded in agreement. He wanted to do something to help Harm and seek justice for Trish, for Hammer’s sake. He would never forget his old friend. Harm had become a friend to him as well, although he gave him a hard time about it. ‘You have friends?’ he had said. He did consider Harm just that.

Nelson heard his wife leading Jack back to his den. He stood and met him in the doorway.

“We did say 1300, didn’t we, Jack?”

“Oh…am I late?”

Jack feigned concern, much to the amusement of the other two men in the room. Jack didn’t feel the need to answer to Nelson, although he definitely wanted to be on his team. He still wasn’t sure of Nelson’s motives, but as long as the end result was the same, he didn’t care. Nasiri was going down one way or the other. Jack walked to the open bar and poured himself a large bourbon. He turned back toward the other three men.

“Cheers, gentlemen.”

AJ just watched him with amused curiosity. How did he drink like that and stay as healthy as he appeared to be? He agreed with Sturgis – there was something unjust about that.

Nelson huffed. “Help yourself, Jack.”

“Don’t mind if I do” He downed his drink and poured another before sitting down on the large sofa at the center of the room.

“What do you have, Tom?” Jack knew Tom had something in mind or he wouldn’t have called this meeting.

“My contacts believe something big is in the works. Our friend Nasiri has apparently been chosen for a ‘holy task’ sometime in the near future. We do not have the whole story, but we do believe it will take place in Britain. Apparently they believed that the college students, who were the original target at Trafalgar Square that day, were diverted because they were not important enough in the eyes of Allah. They want a prominent political figure. My contact believes it is our new secretary of state.”

Jack sat forward on his seat. He started to speak but then stopped.

They all looked at him.

“Our new secretary of state will visit Number 10 Downing Street in March.” Jack sat his drink down. “It has to be March 20.”

Nelson stood and walked to his bar. “The question is, how do they know about the trip? Her itinerary is not public knowledge.”

AJ looked at Jack. “How do you know this, Jack – Blaisdell?”

Jack was silent. He did not work with the Company. He would not disclose even to his closest friends who he worked for, not for anyone.

“Gentlemen, I have never said I worked for the Company, and Blaisdell did not give me this information.”

Tom raised his eyebrows. “The Company is not aware of this?”

Nelson piped in, “You’d be surprised what the Company doesn’t know.”

“Look, Blaisdell is not necessarily a bad guy in this; he did help us locate Nasiri. I know they are using him to get to someone, a very high value target. I don’t want to get in anyone’s way, but I am not going to sit on my hands while Nasiri builds another bomb and kills more innocent people.”

Nelson was silent for a moment. He knew why Nasiri was being allowed to move about freely. He had known for some time. He also knew who Jack worked for and admired his discretion. He knew that the so called ‘high value target’ was...Asa al Hundu, long suspected to have direct involvement in the preparation for the 9/11 hijackings. His superiors had to be notified. If they were not careful he could slip through their fingers and they would lose both Nasiri and al Hundu.

AJ spoke. “This is getting more complicated by the minute. I am in this to help in any way I can to see justice done for a friend and colleague. I think it would be wise to step carefully. We warned Harm to let the authorities take care of this.”

AJ looked at Jack. “I think the same should apply to us. It’s one thing to identify the bomber, and follow the progress of the authorities in his capture; it is another to involve ourselves personally.”

Nelson stood and walked toward the window behind his desk and looked out. “I can assure you, AJ, no one here is working outside government channels.” He looked at Jack. “I know that for a fact.”

Jack needed to make a phone call. He didn’t have time to socialize anymore. Suddenly things were deadly serious. He wasn’t sure what his superiors knew and there was only one way to find out.


0700
Baghdad time
16 February
Baghdad International Airport
Baghdad, Iraq


The plane carrying Harm and Gunny had just lifted off of the runway. As the plane ascended, Harm looked out of the window. He watched as Baghdad became smaller and smaller until it became what looked like a patch in the desert. He thought for a moment of the contrast, the brown desert with the patch of city with the blue of the Chesapeake Bay and the green of Virginia and Maryland. He closed his eyes and put his head back; letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Home. He was going home, to his life, to Mac.

Gunny sat across the aisle from him. He saw the commander lean back. “Ready to go home, sir?”

“Yes, I am.” He opened his eyes and looked at Gunny. This trip had been pretty tough on him too, though he knew Gunny would die before he ever admitted it. “You know, Gunny, I want you to know I appreciate what you did back there.” Harm paused for a moment and looked down. “The day Major Hanson was killed.”

Gunny was serious. “Not at all, sir. I was just doing my job.”

“I know I shouldn’t have hesitated. I could have gotten us both killed.” Harm was still going over the incident in his mind.

“Sir, if I may, that’s not how I saw it at all. You wanted to give Major Hanson a chance to come home to his family. I just think he knew something that you didn’t; he knew he wasn’t going to make it.” Gunny had seen the look before – more than once – of a mortally wounded man who knew he was going to die.

Harm nodded, and extended his hand to Gunny, who shook it. “Thanks, Gunny.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

Harm leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and heard the words the major had said. “I’m going…I know it…” Harm’s eyes snapped open and he opened his briefcase. He needed to think about something else. He would catch up on his sleep later.

Gunny was lost in thought as well, remembering the conversation just before the RPG hit. The major was still beaming with pride about his family and asking Gunny about his life. ‘Confirmed bachelor, huh?’ He hoped he would not always be a bachelor. Just now it occurred to him that being alone was not something he wanted to do any more. He had been thinking about this for some time and it was past time to do something about it. How hard could it be to ask someone out? He was a Marine, for God’s sake.


0030
18 February
Harm and Mac’s apartment
North of Union Station



Harm quietly slipped his key back out of the door after he opened it, and flipped on the small lamp beside the door. Taking off his overcoat, he hung it on the peg near the door and pulled his tie loose from his neck. He didn’t want to wake Mac; he hoped she would stay asleep at least until he slipped into bed beside her. Dreams of doing just that had been with him for the last day and a half. He slipped his shoes off and removed his tie as he walked quietly toward their bedroom. Harm looked up to find Mac watching him.

He stopped short, startled for a moment. “Hi.”

Mac saw love and what she could have sworn was a little bit of wonder in his expression. She stood at the top of the steps, her hair beautifully disheveled, her body full and lush looking under her silk pajamas.

She spoke, “Hello, Sailor.”

Her sleepy sexy voice wrapped around his head, shooting sparks all the way down his spine. Harm walked swiftly to her, wrapping his arms around her waist. He had pulled her shirt up and her waistband down as he pulled her toward him so that he could lay his cheek against her stomach. He kissed her smooth skin there, and then stepped up the steps, lifting her as he went. Mac’s body slid down his and he kissed her as she wrapped her legs around his waist. Harm nearly forced her mouth open with his own; he was so hungry to taste the flavor that was distinctly Mac. Her body was warm and firm under his hands and if it was possible Harm would have sworn her skin was softer than he remembered.

He broke the kiss. “Mac…”

His need for her was immediate and so intense that he nearly fell to his knees. He nipped at her bottom lip before plunging down to her neck and tasting it with hot open mouthed kisses that nearly took her breath away.

Mac continued to cling to him tightly. She ran her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck and whispered his name into his ear before she took the lobe between her teeth.

Harm inhaled sharply. “Baby…God, let me…”

He kissed her deeply again as he laid her carefully down on the bed. He needed to lay her down while he could still stand. She slid her hands down his chest, smoothly unbuttoning his shirt.

He broke the kiss. “Baby ...you’re killing me.”

Harm ground himself against her. His body was calling out to hers on a primal level – he needed her like the air he breathed.

She brought both hands up on each side of his face and nipped his top and bottom lip. It was as though she had read his mind. She looked him directly in the eye.

“Love me, Harm.” She kissed him hungrily. “Now.”

What was left of Harm’s clothing and Mac’s pajamas was quickly dispensed with. Mac pulled Harm down between her legs and he framed her face between his forearms.

“I wanted to take my time. You’re so beautiful, Mac.” He tasted her lips and looked at her through eyes half closed and dark with desire.

Mac arched her body beneath him, straining to get closer. She opened her mouth to deepen her kiss, drawing him in further.

He couldn’t believe how ready she was for him. They came together slowly; Harm was trying to control himself, and he did not want to hurt her. Her body was so wet and tight and warm, it felt like the sweetest torture to take it so slowly. He trailed kisses along her jaw line to her temple and back down.

Mac was still clinging to him tightly – she could feel him holding back. He was nearly holding his breath and his body was trembling with need.

“You’re not going to hurt me ….please don’t hold back.” She took his bottom lip and nipped him slightly with her teeth. “Please…..”

With that all of his control snapped and a low growl rumbled from deep in his chest. He plunged his hands into her hair and tasted the sweet skin where her shoulder met her neck. Every breath he heard her take, every sound she made caused every nerve ending in his body to hum with pleasure.

Mac felt her release coiling low in her body; she wanted him to let go and go over the edge with her. No matter how many times they made love, it never ceased to thrill her that he found that much pleasure in her. He had seemed so elusive for so long, but now he was hers on a level she never thought possible.

Harm felt his control slipping. He plunged both hands down, cupping her bottom, tilting her body just so, kicking up the pleasure a notch for both of them, if that was possible.

He closed his lips around her ear lobe and growled “…let it go, baby.” As he spoke, Mac felt her body tighten around him as she flushed warm with release as they let go together.

Sometime later she lay still tucked under him, his arms and body framing her securely underneath. He raised his head and gave her a lopsided grin.

Mac chuckled softly. “Well, hello to you, too.”

He kissed her cheek. “Hello.” He looked at her through half closed eyes. “You taste so good.” He tasted her neck again, reawakening every nerve ending in her body.

“So do you.” She rested her hands low on his back.

He raised his head, suddenly concerned. “Am I too heavy?”

“No, my stomach just feels a little tighter down there. I love the feeling of our baby between us.” She smiled up at him.

“I love you.” He kissed her temple.

She touched his arm and looked into his eyes. “I love you too.”


1200
Saturday
February 19
Gunny Galindez’s apartment
Alexandria, Virginia



Gunny lay stretched out across his bed. He was vaguely aware of sunlight in the room through his closed eyelids. What time was it, anyway? He opened one eye and saw the digital clock at his bedside table. Twelve noon? He groaned audibly and got up from his bed.

He had stripped out of his uniform and fallen into bed as soon as he walked in the door last night. He walked to the mirror, squinting at himself. He flinched; God… he looked rough today. Splashing cold water on his face, and carrying his towel with him, he padded into his sparsely decorated living room and kitchen. Gunny was definitely a no frills man. He filled the carafe with water and got out the coffee more from memory than sight. A benefit of no frills lifestyle: you knew exactly were everything was.

After the coffee had brewed Gunny stood looking out his window onto the street. He lived on the second floor of his apartment building. He was jet lagged pretty badly this time and, if he would have admitted it, damn sore…all over. As he poured his second cup, he heard a car door slam, and he looked up just in time to see Jen get out of her car. He saw her glance at his truck in its parking place. As he slowly put down his coffee cup, it dawned on him that he was standing there in nothing but his underwear. He made a dash for his bedroom and pulled on a pair of jeans.

The door bell sounded. “Just a minute.” ‘Great,’ Gunny thought. ‘I haven’t even shaved.’ He grabbed a shirt out of his closet and pulled it on over his head. It was a black long sleeved t-shirt. He opened the door.

Jen stood in the doorway. “Hey, Gunny.” She couldn’t believe how glad she was to see him.

“Hello, Jen….” He just stood there, taking her in. She was wearing her ‘I’m only 18’ expression today. She looked all wide eyed and innocent; her hair was down around her shoulders.

Jen frowned slightly. “I guess I could have waited ‘till Monday to say hello, but I just drove by to see if you’d gotten in yet.”

Silence.

“Look…I’m sorry…I’ll just see you Monday.” She looked as though he had slapped her.

Gunny came to himself. “No...No, Jen, come in…I’m jet lagged…I just got up.”

Jen was surprised. “You slept ‘till noon?”

“Yeah, I just made coffee…do you want some? It’s not Starbucks, but I make a good cup of coffee.” He was beginning to be able to make conversation. ‘Wake up, Galindez!’ he thought.

“I think I’ll pass. I’ve sampled your coffee at the office.” Jen folded her arms across her chest. She hadn’t seen Victor like this before. He was always sharp; she was usually the one trying to keep up.

He didn’t answer her, but instead just walked back into his kitchen to get his coffee.

Jen watched him, and as she did, she realized how much she had missed him. She blushed at the thought.

“So…when did you get in last night?”

Gunny came back into the room and took a drink of his coffee. “Around midnight.”

Jen noticed that he hadn’t shaved. She stepped closer, looking at his face more intently.

Gunny stroked his beard self-consciously. “I know.... I need a shave.”

“I thought you might want to go grab something to eat. I bet you don’t have anything in the apartment. It’ll be my treat.”

“That would be great…just let me shave and we’ll get going.” Gunny took his kit from his sea bag and took it into the bathroom. He pulled his shirt off and started filling the sink with hot water.

Jen walked around the living room and kitchen. The apartment was small, but just right for one person. There were no pictures on the walls. The furniture was large, made of soft brown leather. A couch and a chair, tables made of oak, stained dark to accent the other furniture. He had a large flat-screen television, and two crates with DVDs and CDs sat on each side of it. He had lamps on each end table but nothing else. No pictures, no decorations of any kind. He didn’t even have a brag wall, with all his awards, something Jen had been sure he would have.

“Haven’t you finished moving in yet, Gunny?” Jen asked absently. She walked toward the open bathroom door.

“Nah, not yet. I just have the necessities; most of it is still in storage. I haven’t been home much, and when I am, I’m not the kind of person who likes to hang around my apartment.”

Gunny had shaving cream on his face; he was tilting his head back and had begun shaving his neck.

Jen walked to the doorway of the bathroom. “I know what you mean. I...”

Gunny was standing in front of the sink in his jeans and bare feet. In his rush to dress he hadn’t buttoned the top button of his jeans. Jen knew she should say something…anything.

“I hate hanging around the apartment all weekend, too. I ‘d rather be out.”

She was determined to look at Gunny in the eye and not be distracted by how strong his body looked. He was in a lot better shape than she had given him credit for, his six pack firmly in place just above those open jeans. She decided she’d better walk back into the living room and talk from there. She was afraid her eyes would give her away. As she turned, she noticed a deep scratch with a bit of bruising starting on his lower back and snaking around his side.

“What happened here, Gunny?” Jen lightly touched the scratch, and Gunny flinched. “Oh…I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. It doesn’t really hurt – I just wasn’t expecting you to….” Gunny turned around to look at her. He still had bits of shaving cream on his face. “Touch me.”

Out of nowhere the air was electric. Their eyes locked, attraction pulled at both of them suddenly.

“What happened?” Jen’s voice was soft, almost a whisper.

“It was when we got hit with that RPG. I’m sure you heard about it. There was a firefight; I got a bit of a scratch below my body armor on the way back to the compound.”

Gunny’s eyes hardened for a moment. It was an old reflex. When he thought about things like that, he had learned to put it away somewhere in his mind and close the door on it. It wasn’t an easy task, but it was doable. It helped him do his job; he believed it made him a good Marine.

Jen had heard about the firefight. She also knew that Gunny was being considered for a commendation for his conduct in that situation.

“I heard.”

“Not a lot gets by you, does it, Jen?”

He grinned and tapped her nose with a bit of shaving cream. He needed to lighten the mood. Talking about this was still difficult; besides that, her closeness and the pull between them made him feel vulnerable, and he wasn’t ready for that.

“Hey!” She grabbed a towel from the rack and wiped it away. “Just for that, Victor, you’re buying.”

She turned on her heel and walked back into the living room. ‘Whew,’ she thought, then for reasons she couldn’t explain, she remembered something she saw when she first looked at Victor standing at the sink. ‘Hanes…the waistband of his underwear said…Hanes.’ Well, he definitely wasn’t a boxer man. The question was…were they just briefs…or were they boxer briefs?

“You ready?” Gunny had finished dressing and reentered the room, standing just a couple of feet behind her.

Jennifer was startled and turned quickly around, her face flushing red at what she had been thinking.

“...yeah, let’s go.”

With that Jen walked around him and toward the door. Shaking his head, Gunny grabbed his coat, and they walked out of his apartment door, locking it behind him.


1330
Saturday
February 19
Harm and Mac’s Apartment
North of Union Station



Harm sat in the corner of the couch, waiting for Mac to bring him his promised, though belated, Valentines gift. Mac carried a small bag that was deep green in color with gold paper inside. Harm recognized the bag; it was from the jewelry store they had bought their wedding rings from.

“What’s this?” He sat up and she handed him the bag. Inside the bag was a small envelope which Harm opened. The front of the card was a picture of a smiling woman roughly sketched with hearts floating all around her. Harm opened the card and it read: ‘When I count my blessings I always count you twice. Happy Valentines Day. Love, Mac.’

He smiled and leaned forward and kissed her lightly. “Thank you.”

He opened the box. It held a tie clasp. It had a thin bar centered upon it, with an opal at each end of the bar. In the center was a ruby. There was space on each side of the ruby. Harm looked at her, slightly puzzled.

“Your birthstone and mine, with room for our children on each side.”

Mac blushed a bit...she was afraid she sounded corny all of a sudden.

“There are two opals….because I counted you twice.” She looked away, feeling self conscious.

Harm put his gift on the coffee table and gathered her into his arms. She turned into them immediately.

“Thank you – it’s perfect.” He kissed her hair.

“But… children? Just how many do you want to have, Mrs. Rabb?” He leaned back teasing her with his smile.

“I know we may just be able to have one naturally. I just want to get through this with one healthy baby and my own health intact. Even if we can only have one this way, I want to adopt other children.”

She looked into his eyes and skimmed the tips of her fingers through his hair. “I know you’re going to be a good father, Harm. I’m looking forward to raising -children- with you.” She kissed him. “I have something else for you.”

She reached for a manila envelope on the coffee table and handed it to Harm. “You really outdid yourself this time, Mac.” He smiled and opened the envelope, reaching in to pull out what he recognized immediately as a ultrasound picture, very similar to the one he had seen in Major Hanson’s file. He looked up at her with such a look of wonder and something else….a sweetness that she could not name. “Is this – ?”

Mac finished his sentence for him. “Our baby….I had it done yesterday morning, just before you came home.”

“You’re okay?”

“I’m fine, everything is fine.” Mac reassured him.

Harm had turned back to look at the picture. There wasn’t a lot to see that really looked like a baby. A circle had been drawn around the area where the baby was, but Harm was totally fascinated just the same. He turned to look back at her and then leaned forward to place the picture back on the coffee table.

In almost one fluid motion he scooped her up in his arms and carried her to their bedroom. He laid her on her back and lay down beside her. He splayed his hand flat against her lower stomach and after a long moment slipped his hand beneath the waist of her lounging pajamas so that he could feel her skin and the tight little ball just underneath.

He looked up at her, giving her that soft, almost sleepy look that she loved. He returned his attention to the place where there baby was growing, brushing his cheek against it. Harm curled his body around her with his head resting on her.

Mac raked her fingers softly through his hair, and Harm drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He hadn’t said a word since he looked at the picture; he didn’t have to. Mac felt a peace that she’d never thought she would experience. This wasn’t a moment to die for…it was a moment to live for. A moment she’d thought might never come.


1645
February 24
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


Lieutenant Commander Faith Coleman sat at her desk. She had finished her closing arguments and they were awaiting the verdict. It had been a long week for her. In the beginning she had not been convinced of Commander Lucy Maron’s innocence, but as she researched her case and interviewed PFC Kilpatrick’s friends and fellow Marines, she felt she had a more accurate picture of what had happened. The platoon leader’s testimony had been particularly damning, but she was able to rebut his testimony with witnesses of her own. She was sure the members would rule in her favor.

She was pulled from her thoughts by a knock on her open door. “The members are back.”

Faith nodded stood and followed Mike out of the bullpen. They were usually all business when they were opposing one another in a case, but she seemed quieter than usual. Something was up; he just didn’t know what it was.

They took their seats with Mac at the bench. “Commander Lucy Maron, will you and your counsel please rise?” Mac turned to the senior member of the panel. “Captain, you may publish your findings.”

“Commander Lucy Maron, United States Navy, on the charges and specifications of dereliction of duty, this court martial finds you not guilty.”

“This court is adjourned.” Mac rapped the gavel, closing the case.

Commander Maron turned to Faith and shook her hand. “Thank you so much, Commander.”

Faith looked at her directly. “You’re welcome, Commander Maron.”

Faith turned toward the aisle as Commander Maron turned back to the seats where her husband and family waited.

“Well, it looks like I’m buying this time.” Mike looked at her, grinning sheepishly.

“That won’t be necessary, Major.” She walked swiftly down the aisle and out of the courtroom.

Mike frowned and followed her out of the courtroom. He was going to find out what was up with her if it was the last thing he did.

Faith opened the doors on the bullpen and walked swiftly toward her office with Mike right behind her. She turned to close the door, but Mike followed too closely to allow her to do so.

“May I talk with you a moment, Commander?” He closed the door behind him. “What do you mean, it won’t be necessary?”

“I just don’t want you to feel obligated.” She was still not making eye contact with him.

“Faith, I know you haven’t known me for a very long time, but when have you known me to do something I don’t want to do, outside of a direct order?”

She looked at him. He was smiling at her again, his eyes sparkling with mischief.

“So…where do you want to go?”

Faith knew she had been beaten…besides, she also knew he was just trying to be nice. “McMurphy’s is fine.” She thought to herself, ‘What could go wrong?’

“Great. I’ll follow you to your apartment and we can get ready there. I brought my sea bag.” Mike was gone before she had a chance to answer him.


1700
Mac’s Office
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


Mac sat back in her chair. She had just turned off her computer. She was sleepy all of a sudden. She laid her head down on her desk atop her folded arms. A knock at her door startled her.

“Hey….you okay?” Harm stood in her doorway, his brow furrowed with concern.

“I’m fine…just a bit sleepy.” She yawned, covering her mouth. “I just need food and my bed.”

“Oh… I think I can help you out with both of those things. And that’s -our- bed, Mrs. Rabb.” Harm walked further into her office and closed the door.

“Are you finished for the day?” She rocked back in her chair, crossing her legs.

“Yeah, I just left Judge Helfman’s office. Bud needs a continuance on a case I’m helping him with. My case load has been pretty light this week.” Harm leaned against a book case near her door and he watched as a slow sly smile spread across Mac’s face. What was she up to?

Mac arched her back and locked her fingers behind her head. She waited just three seconds before seeing the reaction she wanted.

“Harm?”

He was somewhere else for a moment. He was at home, with her long beautiful legs in another position entirely.

Mac smiled slyly. “Harmon…are you ready?”

Harm’s eyes locked with hers. “…Yeah.”

Mac uncrossed her legs slowly and stood up. She crossed the room to where Harm was standing and looked him directly in the eye.

“I guess we’re ready to go, then.” She placed her hand on the inside of his arm and gently guided him into turning toward the door.

“Yeah…I…have to get my cover.” He was already on his way home as far as he was concerned.

Mac picked up her coat and Harm took it from her. She slipped into it as he held it for her, his hands resting for just a second at the closure in the front of her coat. Mac walked out and he followed her for a quick trip to his office.

‘Please God; I don’t want to run into Creswell on our way out.’ He did not.

They were finished there for the day and they began what was a very interesting trip home.


1445
London time
February 25
Heathrow International Airport
London, England


Aziz Nasiri was waiting in line to go through customs. He had completed a successful mission that had taken him from Britain to Germany, through Ireland and back again to London. He was able to secure three of the five components needed to construct the explosive device he was to use on his ‘holy task.’

He was confident that he would get through customs inspections without a problem. The components were sewn into the frame of his suitcase. They would not be detected even if they searched his bag thoroughly. He had used both of his valid passports, the one in which he was Kevin Donlon and also the one which carried his own name. He had finished his trip with a leisurely vacation in Ireland. He had met no one there; he didn’t see the necessity of waiting, but his mentor al Hundu had been correct. They must arouse no suspicion.

He was surprised when he met with his contact in Berlin; their organization was much larger than even he suspected. American arrogance had given them many allies. It was just a matter of time now. He was anxious to get back to Oldham to speak with his mentor. He had much to tell him and was sure he would be happy to hear about what he had learned in Germany.


0930
Eastern Standard Time
February 25
CIA headquarters
Langley, Virginia



Blaisdell replaced the handset on his phone. He had just spoken to his contact with MI-6 in London. Aziz Nasiri had used both of his passports in the last ten days.

Something was coming up, something big…he could smell it. He sat back in his chair and turned it around to face his window. He suddenly thought of Jack Keeter and remembered that he had not heard from him in over a month. This could mean one of two things. Either he had his own source of information, or he or perhaps Rabb was already working on this on their own. Blaisdell didn’t care for either prospect. He dialed his phone number.

“Jack?”

“Blaisdell? What can I do for you?”

“I think I may have some information that you may find useful.” Blaisdell suspected that if he gave Jack some of what he had, Jack might be an additional source of information.

“Fine, 1300 okay?”

“Great – see you then.” With that, Blaisdell ended the call.

Jack closed his cell phone. “He wants to see me. Says he has some information for me.” He raised his eyebrows at his guest.

AJ sat on a barstool in Jack’s kitchen. “He just wants to find out what you know.”

“I know, but I can handle him and he may have something I can use.” Jack walked into his kitchen and took a glass from inside his cabinet.

“Have you heard anything from Rabb yet?”

“No... not yet. I did get an invitation to an engagement party from Mac. Poor Sturgis is going to take the plunge.” Jack snorted.

“Yeah, we got our invitation yesterday.” AJ watched as Jack reached for a bottle of bourbon that was on his kitchen counter.

“What are you doing, Jack? It’s not even 1000 and you’re pouring yourself a bourbon?”
AJ stood and walked around the counter.

“Are you trying to kill yourself?” He was incredulous. “Put it down…and that’s an order.”

Jack smirked. “Why, AJ…I didn’t know you cared.”

AJ laughed in spite of himself. “Shut the hell up. You and I are going to get something for breakfast…besides bourbon.”

Jack screwed the cap back on the bottle without pouring any in his glass. “I don’t know, AJ...Wild Turkey…the breakfast of champions.” He put it down and followed AJ to the door.

AJ threw him a sidelong glance. “Let’s go.”


1330
Sunday
February 27
Mike McBurney’s apartment
Alexandria, Virginia


Mike lay on his couch, staring at the telephone on the end table. He had been thinking about calling Faith all day. Things had been strained between them since Thursday night, to say the least. She had spoken to him Friday, but never more than common courtesy and not more than one or two words at a time. She was acting the way she had before they had become friends. He was almost back to not being able to read her at all. He picked up the phone and dialed her number. She answered on the second ring.

“Hello?”

“Faith?...Hi…I was wondering…do you want to go get a cup of coffee?” Disgustedly, he thought, “Smooth, McBurney, just blurt it out.’

Faith was silent for a moment. She felt better than she had on Friday, and she did owe him an explanation. She had worked in her apartment all weekend, reorganizing every room. She felt more in control of herself. Mike was just trying to be her friend. He was one of the few she had ever had in her life.

“Faith, are you there?” Mike thought she might have already hung up.

“I’m still here, Michael.”

Mike let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. They were still friends; she was still calling him Michael. He didn’t know why that was so important to him, but it was.

“So how about I pick you up in an hour? We’ll go to Starbucks – I’ll even buy.”

“Why don’t I just meet you there?” She wasn’t ready to have him here again, not even at her door.

Mike understood immediately. “Okay, see you in an hour.” She still needed space.

As Mike drove to meet her, he went over the events of last Thursday, trying to figure out what he had done to cause her to clam up like she did. He had followed her to her apartment. He had gone into the bathroom to change into his civvies, and when he came out Faith was dressed and waiting. She’d had her back to him, looking out the window. He’d walked up behind her and said her name. She’d turned around quickly; he’d thought he had just startled her at first, and then he’d seen the look of sheer terror on her face.

She had quickly walked around him and picked up her coat, saying she was ready to go. He had followed her out of the apartment, and as they rode down the elevator he noticed a light sheen of sweat across her forehead. For the rest of the night, conversation was stilted at best.

He pulled up in front of the coffee shop and parked next to Faith’s car. When he got out, he saw her sitting in the window. She saw him and nodded a greeting. He noticed she had ordered for him. He walked up to the table. “Mocha?”

“Yes, I thought I might as well order for you.” She smiled at him shyly.

Mike sat down and took her olive branch in the form of a cup of coffee. “I love this stuff.”

“I know…I do too. When I drink it, it’s like a hug.” Faith realized she had thought out loud and blushed furiously.

“I never thought of it like that.”

Faith continued to blush. “I don’t suppose you would…you’re a Marine. I’m surprised it’s not ‘coffee black.’”

“No, that would be Gunny…he’s just not into the Starbucks, latte, espresso thing.” Mike smiled, remembering their conversation.

“I know I owe you an explanation, Michael.” She was still staring at her coffee cup.

“You don’t –owe- me anything, Faith. I’m just concerned – I’m your friend and I can tell that something is going on. I just want to help.”

Faith nodded her head. “I know…I know. First of all, I want you to know you didn’t do anything wrong at my apartment the other night. It’s just that I….well…” This was harder for her than she’d thought it would be.

“Look, you don’t have to talk about this if it makes you uncomfortable.” Mike was beginning to suspect something terrible and he didn’t know if he could handle it well. He suddenly felt very protective of her. Her armor was down; he wasn’t used to seeing her this way.

“I want to do this…okay? You’re my friend; I don’t want to be this way, not with you.”
She continued, “I haven’t had anyone in my apartment in a very long time. Actually no one but me has been in it since I moved in.”

Mike looked at her questioningly.

“This sounds like I’m some kind of basket case. I’m not.” Faith was getting exasperated, and she hadn’t even begun to explain.

“Is it about the OCD?” He spoke carefully, not wanting to offend her.

Faith sighed. “In a way. I’ve had some counseling about this; that is why I know as much as I do about it. Order is the way I control my environment. It started with little things as a child. It was the way I handled stress, the way I still handle stress.”

Mike waited quietly.

Faith forged ahead, trying to make her story as generic as she could.

“Sometime ago, years really, I had a bad experience with someone in my apartment. It made my need for order more extreme. Being alone in my apartment makes me feel safe. I didn’t even think about it until you were changing clothes, and then I thought I could just hang on until you were ready and we would leave…but when you walked up behind me…it all came back. The case last week didn’t help – dealing with Commanders Maron’s practice as a psychiatrist. It’s really complicated, Michael…I don’t think I could explain it all, not in one day, anyway.”

Mike frowned, thinking of what to say next. He wanted to ask her, ‘What bad experience?’ Had she been raped? What? He looked at her, waiting for her to continue.

“That’s all, really…I just wanted you to know...that the way things have been over the last week have not been your fault. It’s just me.” She studied his face, trying to gauge his reaction.

It was still light outside. He didn’t want to go home yet; he still felt the need to know more than he did. “Do you feel like taking a walk?”

Faith looked out the window. It was turning into a beautiful evening; warmer, though it was the end of February. “All right.”

They walked together down the sidewalk. He took her hand and put it into the crook of his arm. “Is this okay?”

Faith was touched; he was trying so hard not to do the wrong thing. “Okay.”

They had walked around the city block and were heading back to their cars. “Faith…out in California. You know, when we were at TJ’s. I didn’t even think…” He stopped in front of her car.

“Michael, it’s okay.” She was searching his face, trying to figure out where this remorse was coming from.

Mike sighed…he had to ask. “Faith…the bad experience you had...it wasn’t –??”

Faith understood. “No, no…it wasn’t. I just…can’t really talk about it.” It had not been rape...it had just been another experience that made her close her self off more than she ever had before.

Mike was so relieved. When he remembered kissing her while they were in California, he wanted it to remain a good memory. It had been fun – they had laughed together, and he had never seen her more relaxed. It was important for some reason that he not lose that.

On an impulse Faith leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Michael.”

Mike stepped back from her and smiled his most charming smile. “You’re welcome.”
He turned to walk back to his car and tripped over a piece of uneven pavement. Mike heard Faith trying to cover her laughter.

“Hey…what can I say? Comic relief.”

Mike and Faith returned to their respective apartments with their friendship intact.


Chapter 30


1545
Friday
March 4
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


Bud sat at his desk facing his computer. He was putting the finishing touches on the paperwork closing his case. It was over before it got started, much to his relief. Gunny knocked on the frame of his door.

“Enter.” He looked up.

“Sir.” Gunny stood at attention.

“At ease, Gunny.”

“Petty Officer Coates said you wanted to see me.”

“Yes, Gunny – have a seat.”

Gunny sat down in the chair in front of his desk.

“I want to thank you for your help with the Thomas case. What you were able to uncover helped exonerate my client.”

“You’re welcome, sir.” Gunny had simply made a few well placed phone calls. He had gotten access to some medical records which indicated that Mrs. Miles had been hospitalized a number of times while her husband was out to sea. The ER personnel suspected abuse but Mrs. Miles would never confirm it.

When Bud had questioned her about it, she broke down. It seemed that Mrs. Miles had acquired a boyfriend while Petty Officer Miles was stationed aboard the Lincoln, a boyfriend who had abused her in the past. He had beaten her severely the last time in retaliation for not cooperating in a plot to kill her husband. The plot would have required her to act when he transferred to Dam Neck. It backfired when Mrs. Miles refused to follow through. The state’s attorney was filing conspiracy to commit murder charges against her boyfriend, and ET1 Miles Thomas was free and was filing for divorce.

“There is another matter I would like to discuss with you…” Bud got up and closed the door.

Gunny came out of Bud’s office about 20 minutes later with a perplexed look on his face. Jen noticed and got up from her desk and followed him to his.

“What’s going on, Gunny?”

Gunny just shook his head. “I’ll tell you sometime.”

Jen smirked. “How about now?”

Gunny looked up at her. “How about dinner?” His eyebrows were drawn down but he still had a smile on his face.

Jen hadn’t been expecting that one. She was quiet for a moment. She had been hoping he would ask her out. This was a date, wasn’t it?

Gunny looked almost panicked. She was too quiet.

“You mean like a date?”

He looked up at her and narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, I think so – what do you say?”

Jen turned toward her desk and said over her shoulder. “I say….okay.”


1930
Friday
March 4
McMurphy’s Bar and Grill
Georgetown



Harm and Mac sat a table with Harriet and Bud. Harriet was enjoying her first night out in quite a while. Her parents were in town and they had graciously offered to stay with the children, allowing a short outing for Harriet. She had not been very happy about leaving the kids with her mother, but she knew her father could handle the children and her mother for a couple of hours.

“I can’t remember the last time I was here.” Harriet was looking around the room. There had been a few changes…it looked less like the smoky bar they used to come to when she first came to JAG. Now it was non-smoking with a sports bar feel to it.

Harriet had agreed to help Mac plan Sturgis and Varise’s engagement party.

“I appreciate your coming and helping me with the last minute details. I want this party to go off without a hitch.”

They were planning to have just close friends attend. They had all been so busy that they hadn’t had a chance to celebrate Sturgis and Varise’s engagement.

“You and Bud will be able to make it, won’t you?”

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

Harriet didn’t know how to act. The party was on the 11th; that would make two Fridays in a row that she would be out with grown-ups. She couldn’t help smiling at the thought.

Harm stood up and nodded toward Bud. “If you ladies will excuse us, it’s time for me to beat the commander here at a game of pool. You up for it, Bud?”

“Sure.” He stood and followed Harm to the pool table.

Mac and Harriet resumed their conversation, and Bud and Harm played a couple of games of pool. True to his word, Harm won both times. He looked across the bar and was surprised to see Major McBurney sitting in a booth with a very attractive lady.

Bud looked in the direction Harm had been. Bud recognized Mike’s companion right away.

“Wow, who knew?”

Harm frowned. “What?”

“Commander Coleman certainly looks different out of uniform.”

Harm took a few steps ahead of Bud to look more closely. He looked back at Bud with a mischievous grin on his face.

“I wonder how long this has been going on.”

Bud, ever the voice of reason, said, “They may just be discussing a case, sir.”

Harm looked at him. “Bud, you go over a case at home with files all over the floor eating pizza. You don’t go out…looking like that.” Faith Coleman really was an attractive woman.

“Looking like what?” Mac and Harriet had decided to join them at the pool table.

Harm got his deer in the headlights look.

“What are you two up to?” She knew that look. She looked across the bar and saw what they had.

“I didn’t know they were seeing each other. That’s kind of nice.”

Harm looked at her with raised eyebrows. “I don’t know, Mac. They work together.”

They all looked at Harm, who got the irony of what he had said immediately. He smiled sheepishly. “I suppose I’m not the one who should be giving that argument am I?”

Mac tucked herself beneath his arm and hugged him close. “No, I don’t think so.”

“We’re going to have to get going. I don’t want to tempt fate and leave my parents alone too long with their grandchildren.” Harriet didn’t know who she was more worried about at this point, her children or her father.

“Yeah, we have to go too. I’m sleepy and it’s only 2100.” Mac yawned.

“Get all the sleep you can, ma’am. You’re going to need it.” They all laughed at that and made their way to the door.

Harm couldn’t resist the chance to needle McBurney a bit. They passed their table on their way out. “Hello, Major, evening out?”

Mike looked up, startled. “Commander Rabb, you know Commander Coleman.” He said it almost too quickly.

Faith didn’t have time to hide her reaction. Shock and panic would have been a pretty accurate description.

“Commander,” she said automatically, hoping against hope to move them along toward the door. The trick was to make no small talk and make as little eye contact as possible. She looked across the table at Michael, thinking that he might help her out here.

She needn’t have worried; Harm kept the conversation going. “You know Commander Roberts; I don’t believe you’ve met his wife.”

Harm went on with the introductions. Faith could see Michael in her peripheral vision. He was starting to see the humor in this situation and he began to smile more broadly as he spoke with the commander. If he embarrassed her she was going to kill him.

Harm looked from Mike to Faith, waiting for more of the story, but he was being nudged along by his wife. Faith knew there was a reason that she liked Colonel Rabb. They exchanged pleasantries as they left with Bud and Harriet following closely behind them.

Mac pinched Harm lightly on the back.

“Stop giving them a hard time, Rabb. Have a little mercy – we were there once.”

She looked back over her shoulder; remembering and thanking God those days were over.


2345
March 4
Friday
Gunny’s Apartment
Alexandria, Virginia


Gunny lay on his back in the center of his bed in a tangle of sheets and blankets. He was tired but his mind would not stop going over the events of the day. He and Jen had had a great time. Dinner was good; thank God Jen shared his penchant for the perfect steak. They danced, which was even better.

For a long time he had not allowed himself to get too close in their friendship. Tonight things had shifted and he didn’t know how he felt about it. If he were honest he would say he felt a little foolish. Jen was younger than him, beautiful, and as far as he was concerned could have any man she wanted. What was she doing with an old broken down Marine like him?

Holding her while they danced was amazing; she fit into his arms as though she were made for him. At one point he rested his cheek against hers losing himself in the feel of her body so close to his. He pulled back slightly and looked down into her eyes… he had almost kissed her when he came to himself and looked away.

He didn’t want to presume anything. It wasn’t like being with anyone else. He worked with her; they saw each other every day. If he screwed this up, it would ruin everything, and being back at JAG meant too much to him to screw that up now.

His conversation with Commander Roberts had been enlightening, to say the least. What was this with the officers at JAG? Did they all feel this responsibility toward Jen? He thought for a moment that the commander was going to ask him what his intentions were. The phone rang, pulling him out of his thoughts.

“Galindez.” A call this late had to be work related.

“Victor?” Jen had given up the battle she had been fighting with herself since she had come home from their date and called him.

“Jen? What’s up?”

“I just wanted to talk to you for a moment. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No, I was having trouble falling asleep anyway.”

“I just need to ask you something.”

“So ask.” Gunny hoped he didn’t sound short with her. There was no taking the Marine out of the man most of the time.

“Did you have a good time tonight?” Jen thought she sounded like a kid; she didn’t know how to begin this conversation. They had been having a great time, but after they danced and he had nearly kissed her he had gotten quieter and seemed to back off from her.

“Yeah, great, why?”

“I just got the feeling something went wrong about halfway through the evening. I wanted to be sure I hadn’t done anything to make you uncomfortable.”

“No, Jen, you didn’t.”

She blew out a breath she had nervously been holding. “That’s good to hear. I also wanted to ask you, what were you and Commander Roberts talking about this afternoon?”

He should have known she wouldn’t let that slide. “I’ll tell you, but I don’t want you to take any offense with the commander…..agreed?”

“Okay.” What was this about? she wondered.

“The commander was just making sure I knew that you had a lot of people at JAG who were concerned with your future. He didn’t say anything negative, Jen; I think he was just curious about our relationship.” He laughed a bit. “I think he wanted to be sure I had honorable intentions.” He continued to smile, thinking of his conversation a couple of months ago with Commander Rabb. Gunny wondered if Jen understood the ‘family’ she had at JAG.

“Oh.” Jen wasn’t angry; she was touched. Bud and Harriet were family to her as far as she was concerned. “Does that mean that you aren’t going to ask me out anymore?”

Gunny was quiet for a moment.

“Victor?” Jen didn’t like the silence.

“Yeah…I’m here.” Gunny figured it was time he just laid it on the line. “Look, Jen, to be honest, I feel a little foolish. Here I am, this crusty old Marine, and then there’s you – you’re young, you’re beautiful, so what in the world would you want with me?”

It was Jen’s turn to be quiet.

“Jen?” Gunny felt a knot forming in his chest.

“Victor…I think you should let me worry about that…okay?” Jen had been as afraid to go forward as he had been, until tonight.

“Okay?”

Gunny was surprised at how relieved he was. “Okay.”

“So…where are you taking me to dinner tomorrow night?”

Gunny smiled, remembering that once Jennifer set her mind on something she didn’t beat around the bush. They made plans for the following night, and finally, after ending the phone call, they both got some sleep.


0915
Monday
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


Harm and Sturgis were in the break room immediately after staff call. Major McBurney breezed in a few minutes later. He stopped short when he saw the two commanders, and then continued into the room.

“Major.” Harm leaned back on the counter and took a drink of his coffee.

“Sir.” The major then nodded toward Sturgis. “Commander Turner.”

“So you and Commander Coleman will be going to Oklahoma today?” Harm knew the answer to the question; he just couldn’t resist needling McBurney.

“Yes, sir.” McBurney poured himself a cup of coffee.

Harm just looked at him, waiting; the silence was beginning to make McBurney uncomfortable. Sturgis just looked on. Harm had told him about seeing him out with Commander Coleman Friday night.

After waiting another moment, Harm started toward the bullpen. “Good luck.”

“Yes, sir.” McBurney visibly relaxed as Harm left the room. He turned toward Sturgis.

“Will you be leaving this afternoon as well, sir?”

“Yes, I’m just on my way to pick up my travel itinerary.” Sturgis would be going to Iraq to investigate an explosion that killed two Marine Reservists. Coleman and McBurney had the sad task of dealing with the fallout in their hometowns.

“I understand congratulations are in order, sir.” Mike had heard about Sturgis’s engagement from Commander Roberts.

“Thank you, Major – the Rabbs are giving us an engagement party this coming Friday. If we are able to settle this case in a timely manner, that is. Why don’t you come by?” Sturgis started walking out of the break room, then turned and said,

“Bring a date…if you like.” Sturgis smiled to himself as he walked the rest of the way out. He couldn’t let Rabb have all the fun.


1300
March 7
Monday
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia



Major McBurney had just left Commander Turner’s office, making arrangements to coordinate his investigation with his and Faith’s. He glanced toward Commander Rabb’s office. He just couldn’t leave the commander thinking that he and Faith were getting…he didn’t know … serious. They were just friends; he didn’t want anyone, especially the commander, to get the wrong idea. Faith wasn’t the kind of person to…and he wasn’t either. As he walked toward Commander Rabb’s office, a little voice in his head told him to leave it alone, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. He knocked on the frame of the commander’s door.

Harm looked up. “Enter.”

“Sir, may I speak with you for a moment?” What the hell was he doing?

”Of course, Major, have a seat.” Harm thought that McBurney had the look of someone that was about to stick his foot in his mouth. He knew that state of mind very well.

McBurney sat down. “Sir, I think I need to clear something up.”

Harm frowned, appearing not to know what he meant. “Major?”

“The other night…you know, at McMurphy’s…Faith and I…I mean, Commander Coleman and I are just friends…we’re not dating….or anything.”

“Major, I wasn’t aware that anyone here thought otherwise.” Harm was having a good time with this. He stayed quiet then, allowing just enough time for the major to decide to get himself in a little bit deeper.

“I just wanted to be sure. Commander Coleman and I are good friends and I don’t want any wrong impressions to reflect badly on either of us. We are very good friends and I don’t want…”

Harm thought it was time to stop him before he embarrassed himself further. He was ‘having some mercy,’ as Mac had put it.

“No one is under the wrong impression, Major. Anyway, I’ve made some lifelong friendships here at JAG. I know how valuable they are.” He smiled, thinking of one ‘friendship’ in particular.

At that moment, Mac sailed through his open office door, not realizing that Major McBurney was sitting in front of Harm.

“Hey Sailor…buy your wife some lunch.” She looked to her right and saw the major, who stood upon her entrance to the room. “Oh…excuse me.”

So much for military decorum. She nodded toward McBurney, greeted “Major,” and stepped further into the office, sensing the awkwardness immediately.

Mike looked out of the door and saw Faith walking toward his office. They were just getting ready to leave. Thank God he had an out.

“If you’ll excuse me, sir, ma’am.” He came to attention, then turned on his heel and left Harm’s office. Harm stood and walked around his desk to follow him out.

Faith met Mike in the middle of the bullpen and Harm leaned on his doorframe. He knew McBurney could feel him watching him. Coleman was speaking to him in a low voice. Harm turned back into his office, and as he did he heard Commander Coleman say ‘Michael.’ Harm raised his brows and grinned at his wife. He reached up to loosen the door stop and closed his office door.

“Michael? Uh oh, this is more serious than I thought. Faith and Michael.”

“Stop it, Harm.” Mac teased.

He looked at Mac, pretending not to understand. “What?”



1553
March 7
American Airlines flight 714
Somewhere over the Midwest


Faith sat back in her seat, trying to prepare herself mentally for what she knew was going to be an emotionally charged case. These families were deep in grief. They felt betrayed by everyone. They didn’t think that security at Camp Anaconda was adequate and they also felt betrayed by the Iraqis. News reports had indicated that an Iraqi suicide bomber was responsible.

Mike sat next to her, thinking about his conversation with Commander Rabb. He turned to look at Faith. She had her head back and her eyes closed. ‘I have made some lifelong friendships here at JAG.’ He knew that he and Faith were getting closer all the time. He also knew that Commander Rabb and the colonel had been friends a long time before they ever began a serious relationship

It depended on who you spoke with, though. Some never saw a thing until recently, but scuttlebutt was that they had been in it from the first time they worked together. They had handled things professionally, though…what was he doing? This had nothing to do with his and Faith’s relationship. He huffed out loud and shook his head.

Faith raised her head and looked at him. “Did you say something?”

“No, no – I was just thinking…”

“About the case?” Faith frowned.

“Yeah…yeah. I hope Commander Turner can give us a clearer picture of what happened the day of the explosion. These people need answers, and all the speculation flying around is not helping.” He deftly steered the conversation away from what he had been thinking about.

Faith nodded in agreement. She dreaded the grief she knew she would see. She’d wondered at times if her family would grieve her. She had lost touch with all of them. She had not spoken with any member of her family in years. Her parents had divorced after her younger sister graduated from college. Like staying together had done any of them any good. Her thoughts were showing on her face.

Mike leaned forward so that he could get a better look at her. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Oh…I’m just thinking about dealing with the grief that I know the families must feel.” She turned back to look out the window.

“And?’ He knew there was more to it than that.

Faith turned back and looked at him directly. “I was thinking about my family. I was wondering if they would grieve me if something were to happen to me.”

“Of course they would, Faith.” Mike frowned; where did that come from? She had still been pretty closed-mouthed about her personal life. No details anyway.

“You don’t understand, Michael; we were not a close family. I mean, I wasn’t abused or anything. We just…it’s hard to explain.” Faith folded her arms across her chest and looked out the window.

“Try me.” Mike was hoping she would try to open up a little more on this trip. She was like a mystery that he felt he had to solve.

“Well, as I have said before, my parents were professionals; very busy people. We were all in boarding school as soon as we were old enough to go. When we were home we stayed out of their way. Some kids become close as a result of that, but because we were in three different boarding schools most of the time, we weren’t.”

“What about summers?” Mike had a lot of good memories of summer. He had a very large immediate and extended family. There was always a gathering of some type: a cousin to visit, summer jobs when he got older. He was kept busy. His mother believed the old adage: ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’

“My parents usually had a camp of some type to send us to. We did have longer visits in summer, but like Christmas time, I couldn’t wait until it was over and I went back to school.”

Faith suddenly remembered one summer in particular. She had been about 10 years old, and had happened to come up on her parents as they argued viciously. She began to tell Mike about that day.

“I had been walking through the house and stumbled upon them in the living room. I slipped behind a full length curtain, hoping they would not notice me and pull me into their argument. They had a terrible habit of using their children to hurt each other. What they never got was that they had hurt their children most of all. They screamed insults and threats of divorce; they threatened each other with taking the children away. It frightened me more than I could say, although I didn’t know why. As I got older I began to realize that my life would be no different.”

Faith stopped speaking, realizing that this was getting too deep. She hadn’t meant to go on like she had. She looked down and saw that Michael had taken her hand while she was speaking.

Mike was leaning back, resting his head on the seat, watching Faith as she spoke. She looked down at her hand clasped in his and he realized what he had done. He started to remove it but Faith tightened her grasp just slightly. He gave her a soft smile, hoping to reassure her. He wasn’t trying to do anything but be her friend and he knew she might let go. They were both in uniform, though her overcoat across her lap covered their hands.

Faith returned his smile, resting her head back on the seat, and in a very short time fell into a deep sleep.



2035
Thursday
March 10
American Airlines Flight 732
Somewhere over the Midwest


It had been a grueling four days. Both Mike and Faith were so tired they didn’t even try to make conversation. Mike thought it was another sign of true friendship. They had the ability to be quiet together and still be comfortable. Faith had held up well, he thought. She had a lot more strength than she realized. Faith kept her military bearing but had been intently focused on what the families of the fallen Marines had to say. She’d given them the time they needed to speak their minds and rail against the situation if they wanted to. She hadn’t been emotional at all. It was a time when her rein on her emotions benefited her well.

Commander Turner and the JAG investigators on the ground in Iraq had been able to find the origin of the blast. It was an IED that had been exploded by remote control. It had been attached to a new coffee urn that was to be installed that morning by a civilian contractor. It had been placed near the old one and a mess cook was just minutes from installing it. The device had been placed inside the urn prior to its having been brought onto the camp. SOP was that any type of Iraqi civilian contractor, once inside the camp, was to be guarded by at least two Marines. Any type of working party consisting of Iraqi civilians was also heavily guarded and closely watched. Sturgis did feel that security was lax as far as the civilian contractors outside the camp were concerned. More could have been done to prevent this; protocols had already been changed, just too late for the Marines who were killed. He’d made his recommendations and was returning to JAG.

Knowing the truth did very little to heal the immediate wounds of the families, though. He hoped time would help. Both Marines had taken out additional life insurance, so their families were compensated well monetarily. One of the young men had a wife and child; his widow was only 20 years old, his son only 18 months old. He couldn’t fathom being married at that age, much less being widowed.

Mike was shaken from his thoughts by a touch on his arm.

“Michael?” Faith looked at him, questioning.

“Yeah?” Mike sat forward in his seat and stretched slightly, trying to shake the cobwebs from his mind.

“Are you all right?” He had been quiet for the last hour.

“I was just going over the past few days in my head.” He leaned back into his seat.

Faith looked at him. “It might be better not to dwell on it. We did everything we could, but there was no way to assuage the pain they were feeling.”

“You did a really good job back there, Faith. It was really awkward at times, but you never showed a moment of discomfort. I have to say I admired that.” As he finished his sentence, he looked at her.

She turned her head to look out the window, seeing nothing but the dark night. “Thank you, but it was not easy for me. I’m just used to…hiding my feelings. It was very difficult.”

“What they needed was someone who focused on them and let them have their say without getting emotional. Sometimes that is the best way; let me pay you a compliment, Faith.” He nudged her with his elbow. “You did well.”

She looked at him and smiled. “Thank you.”

“Man, I’m ready to get back, even if it means getting up at 0600 tomorrow morning.”

He just wanted to sleep in his own bed tonight. He suddenly remembered Commander Turner’s invitation for his engagement party tomorrow night. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”

Faith answered automatically, thinking more in terms of conversation that of a date. “Nothing in particular. I’m feeling pretty worn out from this …ordeal. I’ll probably try to lose myself in a good book.”

The commander had said he could bring someone. “Commander Turner invited me to his engagement party tomorrow night. The Rabbs are giving it. Why don’t you come with me?”

He didn’t relish the thought of being there without her; Commander Rabb enjoyed ribbing him too well.

“I don’t know, Michael – I don’t really know Commander Turner very well.”

Faith really didn’t want to go. He seemed nice enough; he was a very squared away officer as far as she was concerned. She just wasn’t sure she knew him well enough to come to a celebration that personal.

“Come on, Faith. I don’t know them any better than you do, but he did ask me personally, and he also said I could bring a date.”

He wanted to take the last part of that sentence back, but it was too late. He saw Faith’s walls go up immediately.

“I don’t know.” How would she get out of this? She couldn’t have people thinking they were dating.

“Look, Faith, it’s just me.” He decided to go for the emotional plea. “I have to go now since the commander asked me – please come with me. They’ve all been friends for years; I want to bring a friend of my own.” He gave her his most disarming smile.

‘Oh, there it is. He’s turning on the charm,’ she thought. She was becoming less and less immune to it all the time. She sighed audibly.

He had won, he knew it. “We’ll only stay an hour and I’ll think of some reason we have to get out of there, I promise.”

Faith was still quiet. She was going to go; she was just trying to be sure that nothing could be read into her acceptance of his invitation.

“All right, I’ll buy you another steak.” He was getting desperate.

She laughed. He had resorted to bribery. She was going to go anyway, but he didn’t need to know that.


0830
Friday
March 11
North Park Muslim Women’s Shelter
Oldham, England



MI-5 agents with police backup were in place at four locations around the women’s shelter, waiting. They planned to move in as soon as Nasiri entered the shelter. Aziz Nasiri walked briskly up the sidewalk toward the building. He carried a backpack with the last component of the bomb he and his mentor al Hundu were building. It would be nine days until he would be allowed to fulfill his destiny and send the British and American dignitaries to hell, where he believed they belonged. He saw some of the women and children getting into a bus in front of the shelter.

Just before he stepped down the curb to cross the street, he heard what sounded like a car backfiring, coming from the street below. He walked to the rail on the small overpass and looked down into the alley. He saw nothing.

The bus was backing out of its parking place in front of the shelter. The driver’s foot slipped from the brake onto the gas, sending the bus backward very quickly. Nasiri was turning around when the bus jumped the curb and hit him, knocking him over the rail of the overpass. Nasiri had no time to react or call out. The driver did not realize he had hit him. He thought the bump he felt was from the bus going up over the high curb. The women who sat in the bus had not looked up or around. They sat with eyes down and hands clasped in their laps. They were being watched closely by Mr. Muehe, who was accompanying them, and from where Mr. Muehe sat he had not seen him either.

A little girl, who sat with her mother, did see him fall. She was terrified and confused. She remembered this man from yesterday. He had struck her mother hard across her face. She had made the mistake of looking directly at him. He had hit her more than once, but the blow to her face had caused her to pass out. The little girl had thought for a moment that her mother was dead. What should she do? Should she tell the man who was accompanying them? What if he became angry and beat her? What if they beat her mother again? She would say nothing. They were on their way to see a doctor. They would help her mother. She would never tell anyone what she saw. The bus started down the street and turned the corner. Two blocks down they were stopped by policemen and government agents. The little girl and her mother were rescued almost before they understood what was happening.

Aziz Nasiri had fallen hard on the pavement. He had broken his cervical vertebra high in his neck. His third cervical vertebra had in fact been shattered. This interfered with the innervations of his diaphragm. He felt nothing from his neck down and his breathing was becoming difficult to impossible. He knew he was dead, his holy task left undone. His last thought was of the little girl he saw as he fell over the rail. He had looked into her eyes and saw the fear and loathing in them.

Mr. Nasiri was dead.


2045
Friday
March 11
Harm and Mac’s apartment


Sturgis and Varise’s party was beginning to break up. The happy couple had left fifteen minutes before. A good time was had by all. AJ had come but Marcella was in New York with Francesca. Harm and Mac were at the door saying goodbye to Bud and Harriet.

“Thanks again for helping me with this, Harriet.” Mac hugged her as she started through the door.

“Oh, I didn’t really do anything. It was just great to get out and be with my friends again.” She took Bud’s arm and they walked toward the elevator.

“Good night, sir, ma’am,” Bud still couldn’t do the Harm and Mac thing yet.

At the same time Harm and Mac said, “Bud,” slightly exasperated.

“I’m sorry.” Bud and Harriet laughed as they closed the gate to the elevator.

Mike and Faith were now leaving and hoping to make a quick exit. They had mingled with the other guests tonight but talked mostly to each other.

“Mike, thank you for coming.” He smiled broadly and shook his hand.

“Thank you for having us…Harm.” Mike was having a hard time with the first names too.

Harm gave Mike a wink when Faith was saying goodbye to Mac. He turned toward Faith.  “Faith, it was nice to have you here tonight.”

She looked at him and couldn’t help returning his charming, though mischievous, smile. “Thank you, s...Harm.” She blushed furiously and followed Mike closely out the door.

Harm started to say something to them but Mac slipped into his arms, distracting him just enough to allow their escape. Mac reached up and whispered, “Stop it, Harmon.”

“What? I was being a gracious host.” He gave her a sly look.

“You know what you’re doing.”

Harm hugged her to him and happened to notice Jen in the kitchen, starting to clear things away. He stepped out of Mac’s embrace.

“What are you doing, Jennifer?” Harm went swiftly into the kitchen, shooing her out. “We have this under control. You’re a guest.”

“You need some help clearing this away. I don’t mind, really.” Jen wanted to help. She had missed being around both Harm and Mac. This apartment felt like home to her even in light of all that had happened in the apartment next door.

Mac stepped into the kitchen. “The night is still young – you should get out and enjoy it. It’s not even nine o’clock”

Just then they heard a knock at their door. Harm looked around, thinking that maybe one of the guests had forgotten something. He opened the door to see Tom and Jack standing in the doorway. “Kind of late, aren’t you?”

“Sorry, has everyone gone home?” Jack spoke in a low voice, leaning in and looking around the apartment. He saw AJ and Gunny talking in the living room. “We probably ought to wait until more of your guests have gone.”

Harm looked slightly confused, and then he realized that this must be about Trafalgar Square. “We were just finishing up. Come in.” He nodded toward Tom Boone. “Tom.”

“Rabb, it has been a while, hasn’t it?”

He shook Harm’s hand. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt such a sense of relief about the news he was going to share with him tonight. He had made a promise to himself that Trish’s killer would not get by with what he had done. He would see him dead, no matter what it took. Now it was true, and without firing a shot; Trish would have liked that.

AJ looked across the room at Harm and his new guests. He caught Tom’s eye and he knew something was up. He looked back at Gunny.

“Excuse me, Gunny, I think I’ll go say hello to the late arrivals.”

Gunny took that as his cue to get Jennifer going. Something was up, and he had the feeling that whatever it was couldn’t be discussed while he and Jen were there.
He walked to where she was standing with Mac.

“Are you about ready to go?” He smiled at Jennifer.

She returned his smile warmly. “Yes, let me get my coat.”

He touched her shoulder. “I’ll get it.”

Mac looked at Jen with raised eyebrows. “You and the Gunny?”

Jen folded her arms across her chest and looked away. “Yeah, I think so.” She turned to look at him and saw that he was waiting near the door.

“I hope it works out for you, Jen.” Mac said it sincerely

“Thank you, Mac.” Jen walked to Gunny and he slipped her coat onto her shoulders.

She and Harm bade them goodnight, and they left with Gunny holding her elbow, gently guiding her out. Mac turned around to see AJ, Tom and Harm standing in the living room talking. They kept their voices low; something was definitely up, and this time Mac wasn’t going to be left out of the conversation.

“Please sit down, gentlemen. Can I get any of you something to drink?” Mac figured that was one way to place her into the conversation. They all politely declined.

Harm held his hand out to her. “Come on, this concerns you too.”

Mac breathed a silent sigh of relief. He wasn’t going to shut her out. She still worried about that. This had to be about his mother. The loss and the injustice of it had always been with him. She saw it at times when he thought she wasn’t looking. He would linger over an old photo, or his mother would come up in every day conversation. He would hesitate and move on; not wanting to dwell on what was still so painful to him. She walked over to him and took his hand, and they all sat down.

Tom and AJ looked at Jack, silently giving him the go ahead to tell the story they had kept to themselves for months. He began.

“As you know, Harm, we told you we would find out all we could about who was responsible for your mother’s….the incident at Trafalgar Square.”

Jack could not bring himself to say the word ‘death’; saying it this way seemed to anesthetize the pain of the situation. It did for him, anyway.

“We all had our sources and now that the pieces are nearly all together we can tell you what we know. The person responsible for the bombing was Aziz Nasiri.” He looked directly at Harm.

Mac knew immediately who he was. “The Holy Land Liberation Crusade? The one involved in the ZNN fiasco?”

“Yes.” Jack waited for Harm to speak; he had been quiet. He was still trying to figure out why.

Harm remembered Ginny Baker, and the hatred she had expressed from the witness stand once her cover had been blown. She had used Stuart Dunston and nearly got him thrown in Leavenworth. She had played her part well. Mac’s language skills had solved that case.

“Why?” Harm asked the simple question.

“The goal had been to detonate the explosives near a group of college students who were visiting from the States. MI-5 got word that something may be up in the area, so the school was notified and the tour was cancelled.”

“But why allow the public there at all if that was the case?”

He still couldn’t accept this; in his heart he felt something could have been done. He still felt responsible, although he knew that it was unreasonable to do so.

“The threat had been vague and the intel was not 100% reliable. They didn’t even know the students were the target until after the explosion. The locals thought they needed more to shut down the area entirely.”

Jack hoped the fact that Nasiri was dead would be some consolation to Harm. He knew that his old friend was still struggling with this.

“Do they have him in custody?” He wanted a chance to see him pay. Whatever the sentence was, he wanted to be there to see it handed down.

“No.”

AJ and Harm were incredulous and spoke at the same time. ”No?”

“He’s dead,” Tom said quickly.

“How?” Harm had to know. AJ leaned forward in his seat.

Jack continued. “The British authorities were getting ready to close in on Nasiri and another suspected terrorist. They were using a Muslim women’s shelter as a front for their organization. MI-5 had a team waiting for him to return this morning and was going to take them both into custody. The thing was... how do I say this?” He looked at Tom.

“He got hit by a bus.” Tom was deadly serious, but the irony of it was making it difficult to stay that way.

“What?” Harm couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“He was knocked off of an overpass and fell into an alley below. The fall broke his neck. He broke his third cervical vertebra and it paralyzed his diaphragm – he smothered to death.” Jack looked from Harm to Tom.

Tom spoke up. “Kind of fitting, I think.”

Harm stood and walked across his living room. He wasn’t sure what he should feel. He thought he would be relieved, but he wasn’t. He was glad to hear that there was one less terrorist in the world, but he knew there were more out there. His eyes welled with tears when he realized what he really wanted was for his mother to be alive. She was never one for revenge, but to his mind, justice had been served.

Jack finished what he knew of the story.

“Nasiri had been bringing components for putting another bomb together; the target this time is believed to have been the prime minister and our Secretary of State.” Jack waited a moment. He knew Harm was having a hard time absorbing all of this.

AJ had been watching him closely. “Harm, I know this is a lot to take in at once, but we all know you too well.”

He looked at Mac. “You wouldn’t have been able to stay out of it. You and Mac had just begun your life together. I know that the small amount of information I gave you in December had you struggling to stay out of this. I think if you hadn’t been so caught up getting Mac through her illness you would have been right in the middle of all of this.”

AJ stood and walked over to Harm and folded his arms across his chest. “We just didn’t want to see any more lives destroyed because of this senseless terrorist’s act.”

Harm looked at AJ and then back at his friends and his wife. He nodded, not wanting to speak just yet. He almost had it under control; he had nearly swallowed the lump in his throat when Tom decided it was time for a bit of levity.

“Well… we can take comfort in the fact that…there will be no 72 virgins for our friend Aziz.” Tom gave him a sarcastic smile and raised his eyebrows, hoping this attempt at dark humor would fly.

Harm looked at Tom and the irony struck him immediately. The bastard got hit by a bus. No martyrdom for him, no glorious killing of perceived infidels. He got his by way of a bus. He looked at Mac and she rose to walk over toward him. He couldn’t help but chuckle, and as he did huge tears began to fall from his eyes. Then he began to laugh. Mac began to laugh with him, wiping tears from her face too.

Jack stood and walked into their kitchen. “I don’t suppose you have anything stronger to drink than fruit juices in here, do you?” He opened their refrigerator.

Mac joined him. “Yes, we do, but all we have left is white wine and light beer.”

AJ looked at Jack and smirked. “At least it’s not bourbon.” He didn’t care if he did sound like a scold.

Jack shivered. “It’ll have to do.”

He and Mac set out glasses and poured wine into all but one. Mac gave herself sparkling water. Tom, Harm and AJ joined them standing around the kitchen island. Jack lifted his glass.

“Gentlemen and Lady, a toast… to public transportation.”



2220
Friday
March 11
Starbuck’s
Alexandria, Virginia



Gunny and Jen were sitting at a table finishing their coffee. Jen had once again ordered for both of them.

“I still don’t see the big deal. Coffee is coffee.” Gunny smirked at her.

“You know you like it. It was your idea to come here tonight anyway.” She smiled smugly. He liked his Venti Vanilla Breve Latte with whipped cream. He just wouldn’t admit it.

“I had a good time tonight. Sturgis and Varise make a nice couple.” He changed the subject.

Jen raised her brows. “They seem so different, though.”

“Opposites attract sometimes, Jen.” He winked at her.

She looked down, blushing slightly. “You know, the colonel asked me about us tonight.”

He looked at her directly. “What did you say?”

“She asked if we were together and I said that I thought so.” Jen looked at him, hoping she hadn’t said too much.

He smiled at her and gave her forearm a squeeze. “Let’s go.”

Jen looked at him and stood. He took her coat from the back of her chair and held it for her to slip her arms in. No one she had ever dated had done that for her. The commander had, but that was different somehow.

She followed him out to the car and they rode to her apartment in silence. He would look over at her from time to time but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t seem angry; she couldn’t tell what he was thinking at all. They had gone out twice last weekend and had a great time. He showed a bit more affection Saturday night, but was still pretty reserved compared to other men she had been out with. He acted as though he was trying so hard to be careful, not to make any mistakes in their relationship.

They arrived at her apartment. “Do you want to come up?”

“It’s pretty late – your roommate might not appreciate it.” The old awkwardness was starting to creep into their conversation.

“She’s TAD to Norfolk this week and next week. Come on, Victor.” She looked at him with that expression that could always do him in. “You know you don’t want to go home yet. I know for a fact there is -nothing- in that apartment. You said yourself that you don’t spend a lot of time in it.”

“If you’re sure…” Gunny cut the engine and took keys out of the ignition.

“I’m sure. Maybe we can find a movie we both agree on.” Jen got out of the truck and started toward her apartment building.

“No chick flicks,” he teased, suddenly very glad that he had taken her up on her invitation.


2330
Friday
March 11
Harm and Mac’s apartment


Harm and Mac had just settled into bed. Their guests were gone and their apartment was cleared of the remnants of their party. Harm was exhausted. What a day it had been. He scooted closer to Mac and turning her onto her side pulled her snugly into his embrace. They lay in silence for a few moments, in their favorite spooning position.

Mac rested a hand on his forearm. “Harm, are you all right?”

“Yeah…I think so.” He was still reeling from the news, trying to absorb it all and reconcile it with what he had come to feel about his mother’s death.

Mac knew he still had some things to work out. She had been thinking, almost since they had been told the news, that they needed to get away. She turned on to her stomach and faced him. “How would you feel about taking a long weekend over the Easter holiday and going to visit your grandmother?”

Harm was silent for a moment. He did like the idea. “I haven’t seen her since we got married.” Harm suddenly thought of Mattie. “Do you mind if I ask Mattie too?”

“I’d love it. I’ve gotten pretty attached to her too.”

Harm leaned in and kissed her, giving her that soft look that she loved. She saw pain there too, fresh and sharp – the kind she knew he couldn’t put into words. She reached up to trace his cheekbone with the tip of her forefinger, to caress and comfort him as much as she could, without bringing all the pain to the surface.

“Mac,” he said in a whisper. He leaned in and kissed her tenderly. He knew what she was doing. She finally knew him well enough to know just what he needed and he loved her for it.

 

 

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