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Chapter 7

1215 Zulu (0715 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Mac entered the bullpen and turned on the lights. She was halfway to her office when it struck her that something wasn't quite right. It took her a minute to realize what was wrong, then it clicked, and she shook her head with a grin. The gremlins had struck again. All of the desk chairs had disappeared from the bullpen. She wondered where they'd gone, and got her answer when she walked into her office and collided with one of them. Lined up in front of her, neat as a pin, were six desk chairs. Curious, she walked next door to Sturgis' office, not surprised to find six more chairs lined up like officers reporting for duty. Her discovery was the same everywhere. She finally returned to her own office and was busily pushing chairs back to their places in the bullpen when Harm arrived, unusually early for him.

"Gremlins again?" he asked, eyebrows raised.

"Looks that way."

He grinned and pointed over her head. "Looks like they struck twice this time."

Mac looked up. Her office name plate had been changed. Sturgis' name hung above her door. She looked across to her desk. Bud's desk plate looked back at her.

"Suddenly I'm feeling vaguely schizophrenic," she said.

"You think you've got problems?" Harm grinned. "I'm Admiral Chegwidden and Harriet Sims-Roberts!"

Mac laughed. She couldn't help it. "So the prankster struck the admiral this time too, huh?"

"Looks that way. I hope he's in a good mood."

"You hope who's in a good mood, Commander?"

The admiral had come up behind them while they were talking and now he waited with pointed curiosity for an answer to his question.

"Nobody, Sir. I'll, um, just get to work." Harm backed away hastily, and Mac held back a grin. She wondered how he intended to explain himself when he had to return the admiral's name plate.

"How's the Mercer case coming along, Colonel?"

"Fine, Admiral. We hope to finish it up this afternoon."

"That's good to know since I've got two new cases to assign to you on Monday."

Mac swallowed a groan, but she suspected she hadn't been entirely successful when she saw the corners of the admiral's mouth twitch. "Carry on, Colonel." He started to walk away, then turned back. "Oh. You might want to return those name plates to their proper places before staff call."

He didn't wait to hear her reply, and she was reduced to mumbling indignantly to herself while she tracked down a step stool.

She'd finally gotten her office back to rights after retrieving one nameplate from Bud and the other from Jennifer, and was sitting down to review her closing remarks, when her telephone rang.

"Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie."

"Colonel. Agent Gibbs."

Mac sat straighter in her chair. She'd thought she'd heard the last from Gibbs yesterday afternoon. What could he possibly need from her now?

"What can I do for you?"

"I have some information on that scrap of paper you brought us."

"Oh?" Her voice was cool, but she didn't try to hide her interest.

"We traced it to a restaurant in Copenhagen. High class place called Gendarmen."

"And?"

"We had a team from our European office check it out. Turns out Mercer was a regular customer."

"Which gets us exactly nowhere. The lieutenant's allowed to eat wherever he likes when he's there."

"Correct, though I doubt he could afford this place on his salary. There's more, though."

"Don't keep me in suspense, Agent Gibbs."

He seemed to take perverse pleasure in doing just that. Maybe it was payback for yesterday, and maybe it was just his way of doing things, but she was starting to feel like she needed a tow truck to drag information out of this man.

"Mercer never ate alone."

"Who did he eat with?"

"Man named Jorgenson. He's a major player in the European drug trade, but they haven't been able to collect enough evidence to arrest him yet."

Mac sensed where this was heading, and she didn't like it. Gibbs, Interpol, and the higher ups on both sides of the Atlantic were going to be pushing her to make a deal. They'd want Mercer to testify against Jorgenson in exchange for a reduced sentence. She asked the next question already knowing what the answer would be.

"So what do you want me to do?"

"Talk to Mercer. Offer a plea if he talks. He reveals his source and distribution chain, agrees to testify against Jorgenson, and in exchange he gets five years instead of thirty."

"I'll have to discuss this with Admiral Chegwidden."

"You know where to find me."

There was a click, and he was gone. Mac didn't like this. She hated the fact that Mercer was going to be a free man again in five years, maybe less, but consoled herself with the knowledge that the life he would live after Leavenworth would be a pale shadow of the one he'd lived before. With another sigh, she stood from her desk and went to see the admiral.

 

1615 Zulu (1115 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Harm waited for the lieutenant to be brought in from the holding cell, his mind busily turning over what he'd been told in the admiral's office. He didn't know if Mercer was going to go for this idea, but the man would have to be some kind of fool not to jump at it. The door opened then, and Mercer came in, a puzzled expression on his face.

"I thought we were supposed to be in court this morning." His voice was wary, and Harm let him stew while he wrote the date at the top of his legal pad. He didn't really need to take notes, but sometimes the pad of paper was a useful way to notch the tension up a bit. By the time he focused his attention on his client, the younger man was fidgeting.

"There's been a development."

"What sort of development?"

"We've found your contact in Copenhagen."

Harm watched, curious to see how the lieutenant would react to the news. As he'd expected, Mercer paled and shifted nervously in his chair.

"Oh?" He tried to play it cool, but Harm wasn't buying it.

"Yes. Does the name Aren Jorgenson ring any bells?"

The other man stiffened and Harm knew the shot had hit home.

"What about him?"

"Turns out the international powers that be want Jorgenson. I guess he's a pretty big player in the drug trade over there. Now, this can work in your favor, but you'll have to do some talking."

"About?"

"The Navy's willing to make a deal. Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and five years hard labor in exchange for your testimony against Jorgenson in Copenhagen."

"And if I don't deal?"

"You still get the dishonorable and the forfeiture, but you're looking at a minimum of thirty years." Harm gave Mercer a few seconds for that to sink in, and then went on. "There's one other thing."

"What's that?"

"You have to reveal source and distribution."

Mercer didn't answer. Instead, he stood and walked to the window, gazing outside for several long minutes. Harm waited patiently. If Mercer was going to take the deal, it had to be voluntary. When the lieutenant finally turned back to him, his expression was sad, but resolute.

"I'll do it."

"I think that's a wise decision, Lieutenant."

Mercer brushed the comment away impatiently. "What now?"

"Now we go to court. You'll have to stand and allocute to the charges. You need to be detailed and specific if you expect the judge to accept your plea. If he does, I imagine you'll spend some time back in the brig at Norfolk until it's time to go to Copenhagen."

"When does all this happen?"

Harm glanced at his watch. "It's 1200 now. The judge granted us a short continuance so that I could present the plea bargain. We're due back at 1300."

"I'd like to be alone."

Harm stood. "No problem. I'll see you in court."

He bought a sandwich and took it back to his office, where he spent a busy half-hour finalizing the details of the plea agreement with Mac. He was on his way in to the courtroom when he saw Breanna Mercer step off the elevator and stopped to talk to her.

"How're you holding up?" he asked her, concerned by the dark circles under her eyes and the lines of tension around her mouth.

"As well as can be expected, I guess." Her voice trembled slightly. "Thank you for calling me this morning. If you hadn't, I'd have been sitting here with nothing to do but worry for hours."

"I'm sorry for the delay. Something came up that we had to deal with." He'd made a conscious decision not to tell her about the plea bargain, still not quite trusting that her husband would hold up his end of the deal. He didn't want her to get her hopes up only to have them dashed.

"I understand. Are we back on schedule now?"

"Yes. If you want to come in and have a seat, I think we're just about ready to get started."

"Thank you, Commander." She touched his arm, then, and he looked at her in surprise. "I want to thank you for all of your hard work on my husband's behalf."

"I'm just doing my job, Breanna, but you're welcome."

They went in then, and he saw her to a seat behind the defendant's chair. A few minutes later, the guard brought Lieutenant Mercer into the courtroom, and the final phase of the trial began.

Judge Sebring scanned the courtroom before he spoke.

"I understand that a plea agreement has been reached?"

Harm stood.

"Yes, Your Honor." He handed the judge a copy of the agreement he and Mac had ironed out, then walked back to his seat.

The judge glanced through the paperwork, then looked at Mercer.

"The defendant will please rise."

Mercer stood.

"According to the terms of this agreement, you are willing to allocute to the charges against you in exchange for an abbreviated prison term, is that correct?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Let's hear it, then."

"Three years ago I became involved in the import and distribution of Ecstasy. At first, I justified my actions by the fact that the drugs I imported were pure, untainted by dangerous additives as most street forms of Ecstasy are. Later, I got greedy. I talked to my supplier, told him I wanted to deal in larger quantities. He put me in touch with his supplier. That was about eighteen months ago."

"Who are your suppliers?" Judge Sebring had taken over the role of interrogator, and Harm and Mac sat back, attention focused on the proceedings, but no longer as intent on finding loopholes in the testimony.

"At first, most of it came from Vancouver. Later on, I developed a source in Copenhagen."

"Names, Lieutenant."

"In Vancouver, it was a man named Marcus Richardson. He hooked me up with Aren Jorgenson in Copenhagen."

"How many times did you purchase Ecstasy from Mr. Richardson?"

"At least a dozen."

"And from Mr. Jorgenson?"

"More. Maybe fifteen or twenty times? I didn't keep count."

"And what did you do with the drugs once you got them into the United States?"

"I sold a few to private clients. My distributor handled most of it, though. I delivered most of my shipments to her, and she handled the final sales transactions."

"And who was this distributor?" Judge Sebring was getting impatient. Mercer hesitated, and Harm held his breath, half expecting the lieutenant to clam up. He didn't, but when he spoke, he unleashed a firestorm.

"My wife. Breanna."

In the instant of stunned silence that followed the lieutenant's softly spoken words, a chair clattered to the floor. Before anybody could stop her, Breanna was at her husband's side. The crack of her hand against the side of his face was as loud as a pistol shot.

"You son of a bitch!" she screamed. "All you had to do was keep your stupid mouth shut!"

The gavel crashed, Sebring thundered for order, and Harm shoved Mercer into a chair, then grabbed Breanna's wrists, easily subduing her. For the space of a single heartbeat, he stared into her eyes, stunned at the depth of hatred that burned in them. Then the guard took over, pinning her arms tightly behind her, and yanking her back and away in a movement that elicited a gasp of pain.

"We were going to be rich!" she sobbed angrily. "All you had to do was keep your stupid mouth shut and do your time!" She kicked out, narrowly missing her husband, who pushed away from her.

"I wasn't going to do thirty years, Breanna. Not for any amount of money – not even for you." Mercer turned away from her and waited in stoic silence while his wife was dragged from the room, struggling and hissing angrily at him the whole time. Harm shook his head. She'd fooled him, convinced him that she was a loving wife, and the whole thing had been no more then an expert job of acting on her part, a ruse to avoid suspicion.

Once order was restored in the courtroom, Mercer stood and began to talk in a grim monotone, his words dropping like stones in the silence.

"Breanna and I began attending raves when we were dating. At first, I didn't want to go. The music was too loud, and I didn't like the crowds. She can be…convincing, though, and more often then not, I gave in. Then one night, I saw her take some kind of pill. It wasn't long before her mood changed. She got…happy. And relaxed. I was going through a difficult time. My parents had been killed in an accident a few months earlier, and my younger brother had been arrested for his involvement in an auto theft ring. I held it together at work, but the stress was getting to me, so when I saw that the pills helped Breanna feel good, without any obvious side effects, I decided to give it a try."

He paused, reached for the glass on the table, and took a long drink of water before he went on.

"A few months later, we were at another party when somebody took a bad hit. The kid went down like a ton of bricks. We didn't want to be there when the medics arrived, so we left. We found out later that the kid died. I'd never seen that happen before, and it scared me. That's when I started learning more about the drug. I learned that Ecstasy, in its pure form, is rarely fatal, but that the versions sold on the streets are almost always tainted. Breanna and I talked about it, and the next thing I know she comes up with the idea that we should import a pure form of the drug ourselves. We'd make a fortune, she said, and nobody would suspect me because I was a Navy pilot."

He paused for another drink, then rubbed the back of his neck before he went on.

"It started small, an ounce here, then a few weeks later, another ounce. Gradually, people learned that the stuff we were bringing in was pure, and our client list began to grow. That's when I connected with Jorgenson."

He stopped and looked around at the grim faces that stared back at him.

"I never meant for it to get this far. It started out of a desire to provide a safe form of the drug to kids who might die from the stuff that was peddled on the street, but somehow it spiraled out of control."

He finally stopped talking and stood silent, awaiting Judge Sebring's verdict. The judge stared at him, his gaze stony, until Mercer finally dropped his head.

"Lieutenant, if I had my way, you'd spend the rest of your life pounding rocks. Luckily for you, though, somebody a lot higher up the food chain has other plans. Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and five years confinement."

The gavel banged, a guard led Mercer away, and the courtroom slowly emptied. It was over. Harm shuffled his files back into his case and stood. Mac still sat at the prosecution table, head bent over her notepad, busily writing final notes about the trial for the case file. He watched her for a moment, memorizing the play of late afternoon sunlight in her hair, the delicate curve of her shoulder, and the expression of concentration on her face. He moved to her side, and taking advantage of the fact that they were alone in the room, allowed himself a gentle touch on her shoulder.

She started slightly and looked up, a tired smile on her face.

"Quite a day, huh?" he said.

"Yeah. I have to say, I never suspected Breanna Mercer was involved in any of it."

"I didn't either. I had her pegged as the devoted wife." He shook his head. "I wouldn't want to have to defend her in court, not with a room full of eyewitnesses who can testify against her."

"It won't be pretty."

"No, it won't." He looked around, making sure the room was still empty, the door safely closed. When he spoke again, the sincerity in his voice brought her eyes up to his. "Listen, Mac. I'm sorry about last night. I was rather…insensitive."

"No apology necessary," she said with a nearly imperceptible shrug of one shoulder. "You were right. I just …wasn't ready to hear it yet."

"So we're ok?"

"Yes." She smiled up at him, and he had to resist the urge to kiss her. "Do you want to do something tonight?" she asked as she stood up and pushed in her chair.

He sighed his frustration.

"I'd like to, but I can't tonight. I'm taking Mattie out for dinner and a movie."

"That's probably a good idea. She was pretty upset last night."

"Yes, she was. She has been for a while. I'm hoping to straighten some things out."

"So I'll see you at the admiral's party tomorrow?" They walked to the door together, and he pulled it open for her.

"Absolutely." They exchanged another smile before parting to go to their own offices.

Mac relaxed gratefully into her desk chair, tired as she always was at the end of a case, more so since it was also the end of a very long week. She thought about Webb, and picked up the phone to try calling him again. She knew he was an adult, but she'd feel a lot better when she could talk to him. When nobody answered, she disconnected with a sigh of frustration, and immediately dialed a second number.

"Hello?"

Finally.

"This is Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie. May I speak with Mrs. Webb, please?"

"One moment, please." The smooth voice of a highly paid servant floated through the earpiece, and Mac drummed her fingers on her desk while she waited impatiently.

"Colonel Mackenzie?"

"Mrs. Webb. I've been trying to reach you for days."

"What can I do for you?" The older woman's voice was cool, and Mac sensed that she'd heard from her son.

"I'm looking for Clay."

"He's out of the country."

"I suspected as much. Do you know where I can reach him?"

"I don't think he wants to be reached, Colonel."

"Ma'am, we parted badly the last time I saw him. I need to talk to him."

There was a pause, and then an icy reply.

"Unless my math skills have rusted completely, I count ten days since that encounter, and you're just now trying to locate him?"

"No, Ma'am. I've tried calling him several times. There's no answer at any of the numbers I have."

"You don't say…" Mrs. Webb didn't sound convinced.

"Look…would you just…deliver a message for me?"

"That depends on what it is. I got the distinct impression he didn't want to hear from you."

"Just…tell him I said I'm sorry."

"I'll consider it, though I don't know when I'll talk to him again."

"Thank you, Mrs. Webb and… I really am sorry."

"I'm sure you are, Colonel. Will there be anything else?"

"No."

"Goodbye, then."

The line disconnected, and Mac replaced the handset, a feeling of relief slowly settling over her as she acknowledged that, for now at least, she'd done everything she could to set things right between her and Clay. Until, and unless, he decided to turn up again, there was nothing else that she could do.

She spent the next hour tying up the few remaining loose ends in the Mercer case and contacting Agent Gibbs to let him know that the lieutenant's plea had been accepted by the court. Then she turned off her computer, gathered her things, and left the office, looking forward to a long bubble bath, a good book, and a quiet evening.

 

1955 Zulu (1455 Local)
Admiral Chegwidden's Home
Maclean, Virginia

 

Mac raised her hand to knock, but the door opened before she made contact.

"Colonel, punctual as ever, I see. Come on in."

"Thank you, Admiral. I brought a salad. Where should I put it?"

"Take it around back. You'll see the table." He smiled at her, uncharacteristically relaxed, and Mac returned the smile before moving past him to the back of the house. She was glad he'd arranged this little get-together. It had been a hard year at JAG, and it would be nice to spend some time with her friends in a purely social setting.

She stepped through the back door and was almost knocked off her feet by the small whirlwind that crashed into her legs. She steadied the salad, and grinned down at her pint-sized attacker.

"Hi, A.J."

He grinned back at her.

"Hi, Aunt Mac!"

"A.J., let Aunt Mac put down that dish she's carrying before you knock it out of her hands," Harriet called from her seat in the shade of a large tree, baby Jimmy in her arms.

"Sorry, Aunt Mac."

"That's ok, sweetie, just give me a second to set this down."

She placed the dish on the laden table, then turned and gathered her godson in for a hug. Greetings exchanged, she stayed in a crouch, and the two of them enjoyed a long conversation about his school, his friends and T-ball.

Harm stepped through the back door and saw the two of them, heads close together, sunlight sparkling in their hair, and warmth flooded through him. He moved toward the pair, and when A.J. saw him, he broke from Mac and barreled into his arms, burrowing in for a hug. Mac stood and stretched the kinks from her back and knees, then smiled at the two of them. Harm smiled back, his eyes warm with laughter and love, and for a moment, the world around them faded away. Then A.J. squirmed in his arms, and Harm set him down, watching him run off across the yard.

"I can't believe how much he's grown," he commented to Mac.

"I know. It's hard to believe it's been five years already."

He couldn't resist teasing her.

"Five years? Has it really been that long?"

She slapped him playfully on the shoulder. "You know it has, Harm."

"I'd forgotten."

His grin gave the lie to his words, and she laughed at him.

"You know," he said, his voice sinking into a near whisper. "I'd very much like to kiss you right now."

"You would, huh?" She was the one teasing this time, but as she said it, her eyes widened slightly and she moistened her lips, and he knew his suggestion had hit home.

"Yes. I would."

He moved closer to her, but she stepped back and shook her head warningly. "No can do, Flyboy. You're the one who wanted to keep things quiet for a while, remember? And by the way…where's Mattie?"

"She decided she'd rather spend the night with some friends then hang out with a bunch of grownups."

"Ahh…smart girl."

"I thought so."

"How'd it go last night?"

"It went well, I think. We worked some things out. She even conceded that she might be willing to share my attention with you on occasion. All in all, it was a good night."

"I'm glad to hear it."

They moved across the lawn to where the rest of the JAG team was assembled under the trees, and the next hour was spent in idle conversation with their friends. Sturgis had brought Varese with him, and she proved to be funny and sweet and had everybody laughing on several occasions as she told war stories about concerts she had done around the world. Eventually, there was a lull in the conversation.

"Commander? Care to help me with the grill?" A.J. asked.

"Sure."

The two men moved off together, and Sturgis suggested a quick game of touch football while they waited to eat. Harriet and little A.J. were to be the referees. Within minutes, the teams were chosen and play began. By the time the food was ready to eat, they were all pleasantly grubby and had to troop inside to wash.

Harm finished with the cooking, fixed himself a plate, and went to sit beside Mac on the grass. Bud and Harriet sat nearby, with Jimmy sleeping on a blanket between them and little A.J. loudly wondering if there was going to be ice cream, much to his father's embarrassment and Harm's amusement.

"So…has anybody figured out who the gremlin is yet?" asked Bud, attempting to draw attention away from his son's antics.

"Are you sure there's only one?" asked Harm.

"You think there's more then one?"

"I consider it a distinct possibility."

Jen spoke up from her place on the other side of the Roberts clan.

"I don't know, but if I ever find out who reprogrammed my start up waves, I'm going to get even."

That prompted a round of laughter.

"And I'd like to know how those rubber ducks got into the water cooler," said Harriet, who'd had to help mop up spilled water when Jen had removed the half full bottle from its position on the cooler.

Harm chimed in. "I don't suppose anybody's willing to confess to the out of order elevator?"

Silence. Evidently, nobody was willing to take responsibility for that one, either.

The admiral spoke up, then, and the laughter subsided.

"Unless I miss my guess, just about everybody had a hand in the fun."

"Even you, Admiral?" asked Coates, ever one to speak before thinking.

"No comment."

That prompted another burst of laughter and some lively conversation, which he allowed to go on for a few minutes before speaking up again.

"I will admit that the last two weeks have been…entertaining, but in the interests of maintaining the proper degree of professionalism in the office, I think the practical jokes should stop now."

A disappointed groan swept the group.

"And on that note," the admiral continued, "I think it's time to start cleaning up." Everybody stood and began gathering plates and glasses, and in no time, the chores were done and dessert served. Groups formed and reformed in a human kaleidoscope as people renewed friendships and caught up on gossip. Little A.J. played ball with his father and Sturgis, and Harm wandered over to Mac, interrupting her conversation with Harriet.

"Mac? Can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure. Excuse me, Harriet. I'll be right back."

"Take your time. I wanted to talk to Jennifer about something anyway."

Mac followed Harm around the side of the house. Whatever he had to say, he obviously wanted to say it in private. They seated themselves on the porch steps and watched a group of kids playing ball in the deepening twilight. The evening air was cool, but not unpleasant, and the voices of the children drifted to them on a soft breeze. Mac watched the changing colors in the sky and waited for Harm to speak.

"There's something I need to talk to you about."

He sounded serious, worried almost, and she turned to look at him.

"What is it?" Mac grew worried too. "Is Mattie ok?" It was all she could think of that might have this effect on him.

"Mattie's fine."

"Then what's wrong?"

"I'm thinking of leaving JAG."

Her heart plummeted to the tip of her little toe at the words. He was leaving? But why?

"I don't understand. I thought we were ok."

"We are ok, Mac. We're more then ok. That's why I think I should consider leaving JAG."

She shook her head, confused.

"You've lost me."

"Here. Maybe this will clear things up."

He held his hand out to her, fist closed. Slowly, he turned it palm up and allowed his fingers to open. She gasped, stood, and moved to stand at the railing, her heart pounding, her eyes staring sightlessly into the deepening twilight. She felt his presence behind her, and shivered as his hand landed gently on her shoulder, turning her around to face him. With a gentle finger he tilted her chin up. The corners of his mouth twitched, though his eyes were serious.

"Tears again, Mac?"

She nodded once, but didn't try to speak. She didn't think she could past the lump in her throat.

"Listen. I know this is kind of sudden. We've only really been a couple for a week, but I've known what I want for a long time."

Mac tried to speak, but he shushed her, his fingers gentle against her lips.

"If it's too soon, or if you're not sure, I'll understand." He paused, then went on, "But a long time ago you told me that you wanted a good man, a great career, and lots of comfortable shoes."

"You still remember that?" She was a little surprised, though not much. The man had a mind like a steel trap.

"Yes, and you already have two thirds of what you wished for that night. I'm offering you the third."

"You're offering to take me shoe shopping?"

She couldn't resist the gentle tease, and he smiled at her.

"Not exactly - though if it's something you feel strongly about, I suppose we could look into it." Then he turned serious again. "Wait." He looked around, spied the bench, and led her over to it, then pushed her gently down.

"What…?" she asked, the single word trailing off into silence at the slight pressure of his fingers against her lips.

"I've waited years for this, so let me do it right, ok?"

She watched, her heart in her throat, her eyes filling with tears again, as he knelt on one knee. Then he took her hand in one of his, running his thumb back and forth across her knuckles while he watched her. She saw him take a deep breath, and knew that he was nervous, but when he spoke, the quiet tones of his voice reminded her of melted chocolate - rich, and sweet, and warm.

"Sarah Mackenzie, will you marry me?"

She took the ring from him, and held it in her hand for a moment, savoring the warmth that had passed from his body, through this tiny circlet of gold, and now into her. She thought about the symbolism of the circle as an unbroken, never-ending bond between two people who are willing to devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then she took a deep breath, and slid the ring onto the fourth finger of her left hand.

He pulled her up and into his arms, and her hand went to his shoulder while she tilted her head to seal their bargain with a kiss that spoke of love and promises and eternity. Mac wanted it to go on forever, but eventually he pulled back slightly, and brought his hands to rest on her hips.

"Do you think it's time to say something to the others?" he asked.

Mac smiled, fully aware that the happiness flowing through her right now, if harnessed, could probably fuel the nation's lighthouses for the next hundred years, but not caring a bit.

"Want to make a bet?" she countered his question with one of her own.

"What do you have in mind?"

"I'll bet they don't believe us."

He considered her challenge with the air of a serious poker player.

"What are the stakes?"

"Loser makes breakfast in the morning."

She watched his eyes darken, saw the tip of his tongue dart out to moisten his lower lip, and almost dragged him away from the party then and there.

"You have a bet," he said, one eyebrow quirked in amused challenge. "I like my eggs scrambled with peppers and onions."

She laughed at that, then slipped her hand into his, and together they walked around the corner of the house. It was nearly dark by then, and most of the JAG corps had left, causing Mac to wonder fleetingly how many people had seen the two of them on the porch. She doubted many had. They'd been in a corner that was shielded by shrubbery, and even if, by some chance, somebody had noticed, she found she really didn't care.

The group that remained had pulled their chairs around a small campfire that crackled and popped in an open section of the yard. The Roberts children slept on a blanket nearby while the adults chatted quietly. They looked up when Harm and Mac approached.

"We were wondering where you two disappeared to," said Harriet, and her eyes zeroed in on their clasped hands, then raced upwards to take in the smiles on their faces.

"We saved you a couple of seats on the off chance that you hadn't abandoned us entirely," said Sturgis with a grin, indicating two empty chairs next to him.

Harm guided Mac to the chair beside Harriet and took the one next to Sturgis himself.

"Did we miss anything interesting?" he asked casually.

"Not really. Just about everybody's gone home," answered Bud. "We were starting to think you two had left, too."

"I'm sorry, Bud. We got involved in a conversation."

"Not a problem," said the admiral. "Would you like a beer?"

"No thanks. I have to drive tonight. Do you have a Diet Coke handy?"

"Sure do. Mac?"

"Sprite?"

A.J. reached into the cooler beside him and passed the two cans. Mac leaned across Harriet to take them, and the ring on her finger glinted in the firelight. Harriet gasped.

"Colonel?" The younger woman's voice rose to a squeak, and Mac suppressed a grin. Somehow she'd known Harriet would be the first to notice.

"Yes, Harriet?" Her voice was calm, but beside her, Harm choked on a laugh.

"Um…Is there something you want to tell us?" Harriet's voice came out in a rush, her excitement nearly getting the better of her.

"Oh… you mean about this?" Mac indicated the ring on her hand, her movements casual.

By this time, everybody had noticed the ring, and dead silence descended as they awaited Mac's answer. She looked at Harm, and the two of them shared a smile.

"Mac and I are engaged," he said, his voice nearly as nonchalant as Mac's had been.

Harriet shrieked, causing the admiral to cover his ears reflexively. Jennifer came around her chair to get a closer look at the ring. Bud and Sturgis, however, were skeptical.

"I thought you put the kibosh on the practical jokes, Admiral."

The admiral grinned.

"I did, Lieutenant, but only at the office."

Bud turned toward Mac.

"It is a joke, isn't it?"

Mac grinned mysteriously. "What do you think, Bud?"

Sturgis shook his head and rolled his eyes at Harm. "Buddy. I've known you to pull some whoppers in your time, but this one really takes a prize."

Harm laughed. "Thank you, Sturgis. I'm glad you approve."

Jennifer looked up from where she'd been looking at Mac's ring.

"Sure looks real to me, people."

"They must have borrowed it." Bud refused to be convinced.

Harriet was quite willing to believe in magic.

"Have you set a date yet?"

Her enthusiasm bubbled over, and Bud began to look angry, convinced his friends were taking advantage of his wife's naiveté.

"We haven't talked about it, Harriet, but I promise you we'll let you know."

"Wait. You mean this is for real?" This time it was Bud's voice that ended in a squeak, as his jaw dropped slightly and his eyes grew wide.

Harm took Mac's hand in his own, squeezing it gently before he answered.

"Yes, Bud. It's for real."

Later, Harm and Mac would wonder how the kids slept through the next few minutes of pandemonium. There were enough hugs, handshakes, and hearty congratulations to make everybody smile for the next month. That done, and relative quiet finally restored, Harm and Mac were pressed into a quick explanation of the sudden change in their status. Afterward, there were Coca-Cola toasts and more handshakes and hugs. Then, by silent agreement, the friends began saying their goodbyes.

Harm and Mac were the last to go.

"Thank you, Admiral," said Mac.

"For what?"

"For keeping our secret for a while."

"It wasn't my secret to tell, but you're welcome." He shook Harm's hand and gave Mac a brief hug. "I guess we should talk about what to do with the two of you now, huh?"

"I imagine one of us will have to leave JAG, Sir," said Harm. "I've already told Mac I'd be willing to be the one to go."

"Don't make any decisions yet, Commander. Let's see what I can work out."

"Thank you, Sir."

"Goodnight, you two. I'll see you Monday."

"Goodnight, Admiral," they answered simultaneously, then grinned at each other. A.J. just shook his head, turned, and went into the house.

Harm and Mac walked to Mac's car, parked just ahead of Harm's on the street. She turned before opening the door, and tried to see his expression in the darkness.

"So?" she asked.

"So…. what?"

"Who won?"

"Ah, our little wager."

He pretended to think about it.

"I think we both won," he said, using what she had come to refer to as his bedroom voice to deadly advantage, "but if you want to come to my place, we can discuss it further."

"You have a deal." She stretched up to give him a brief but passionate kiss, then opened her car door and settled herself inside while he was still collecting his wits.

"I'm ready," she said, looking up at him with a smile, "are you?"

 

Chapter 8

1405 Zulu (0905 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Conversation around the conference room table was more relaxed then it had been in months. Saturday's party had gone a long way toward improving morale, and even though it was Monday morning, traditionally the grumpiest day of the week, several smiles had already been spotted.

The door opened, and silence flooded into the room as officers began to rise to their feet, expecting the admiral to make his appearance. Instead, Jennifer stepped inside, and they relaxed again.

"Sorry, everybody. Admiral Chegwidden had to take a phone call. He says you're to wait and he'll be in soon."

She disappeared, and the chatter picked up again where it had left off.

"Has anybody heard whether or not Harriet got all those paperclips untangled yet?" asked Sturgis.

"She took them home," Bud answered. "Little A.J.'s having a grand time untangling the mess."

"Speaking of practical jokes, one of those rubber ducks turned up on my desk this morning. Anybody want to claim it?" Harm looked around the room, not surprised when nobody confessed to the crime.

Mac grinned and reached into her briefcase. Without a word, she placed a tiny yellow duck in the middle of the polished wooden table. There it sat, a cheerful addition to the formal ambiance of the room, surrounded by uniformed military officers who stared at it in amused silence. Somewhere nearby, a high pitched squeak sounded, and Bud placed a second yellow duck beside the first.

Sturgis and Harm opened their briefcases, and soon four rubber ducks formed an incongruous centerpiece, diminutive tails touching, bright little faces staring back at the adults around them. Harm shook his head and chuckled. "Technically, nobody defied the admiral's orders, but I'd love to know how the little fellows ended up on our desks."

The door opened again, and the officers quickly rose to attention. This time it was the admiral, and he stopped just inside the door, staring at the tiny yellow toys that cheerily defied the concepts of military order and discipline. He shook his head and looked again. They were still there. He sighed.

"I distinctly remember putting an end to this," he said, a tinge of frustration in his voice.

"You did, Sir. These were on our desks this morning," Mac volunteered the information, the corners of her mouth twitching as she fought down a grin.

The admiral reached into his pocket, pulled out a yellow duck, and placed it with the others.

"I know."

With a distracted "At ease," he moved around the table, and took his place at the end, never taking his eyes off the ducks.

"Obviously, there's only one way to put this to rest," he said, after he was settled. "It's time to come clean, people. I want to know who did what to whom, and I want to know now."

Silence.

"We'll take it in order." He looked around at the assembled group. "I believe the first prank was the elevator?"

The quiet was broken by a self-conscious cough.

"Um…that was me, Sir." Sturgis attempted to look contrite, but he wasn't very convincing. “Knowing Harm’s penchant for losing track of time in the morning, I thought it would be fun to throw up a roadblock for him." He grinned at Harm, who traded the grin for a mock glare before shaking his head with a smile of his own. "The look on your face, Harm…”

"Wait until I get you out on the basketball court again," Harm said, but Sturgis just grinned more broadly.

The admiral broke in. "And the…" he gestured toward the center of the table. "Tub toys?"

Bud spoke up. "That was Harriet, Sir. She'd gotten them in a gift basket for the baby." He hesitated, and then in typical Bud fashion, rushed on. "They were brand new and clean."

"Lieutenant Sims did that?" The admiral didn't bother to hide his surprise. "I wouldn't have pegged her as a prankster."

Bud's expression was a mix of confusion and pride that was downright comical, and several people chuckled.

"Let's see…the next one was…"

Mac spoke up.

"That would be the confetti in my sun visor, Sir."

"Oh yes. I heard about that. Heard you traipsed through NCIS with bits of it in your hair, too." The admiral looked around. "Anybody want to confess and risk the colonel's wrath?"

"I did that one, Sir." Harm looked a little ashamed of himself, but his eyes twinkled as he looked at his fiancée. "I was sure the elevator prank was Mac's idea. I was just getting even."

"I see. Well, Commander, for your sake, I hope the colonel doesn't hold grudges."

"Me too, Sir."

Harm noticed the thoughtful look in Mac's eyes and decided he'd better be careful over the next few days. She couldn't do anything at JAG, but with the amount of time they were spending together outside of work, he knew she'd find it easy to play a prank of her own. And Mac being Mac, she’d wait a while before doing anything, just to watch him squirm.

"Next were the mouse traps, as I recall," said the admiral, looking around again.

"I'm afraid that was me, Sir," said Mac. "I wasn't sure who to blame for the confetti, so I decided to be an equal opportunity prankster."

"You trapped your own mouse?" asked Harm, amused at how devious she'd been.

"If I hadn't, it would have been obvious who the prankster was, wouldn't it?"

"I don't know. As I recall, you didn't trap the admiral's mouse and nobody thought he was the prankster."

"Only because his office was locked when I did it. Otherwise, I'd have gotten his, too."

"Excuse me," A.J. broke into the conversation. "Let me make sure I've got this right." He turned to Mac. "You would have played a practical joke on me?"

Mac shifted uneasily in her seat, but didn't try to avoid the question. "Yes, Sir. I would."

The admiral just shook his head. "What is the world coming to?" It was a rhetorical, tongue-in-cheek kind of question that didn't require an answer. "O.K., after the great mouse incident, what was next?"

Harm answered. "I believe that was the paperclips, Admiral, and I have it on good authority that that one was courtesy of Petty Officer Coates."

"Good authority?' asked Mac.

"Mattie."

"Ahh…I never could keep a secret from my roommates, either."

The admiral shook his head in amused resignation. "Somehow I knew Petty Officer Coates had figure into this somewhere." He looked around the table. "Next?"

Mac laughed. "I believe that would be the enemy fire incident, Sir."

"Enemy fire?" He looked puzzled for a heartbeat, then he smiled. "Ah, yes. The petty officer's computer. Anybody want to confess to that?"

Bud spoke up. "That was me, Sir."

Unanimous surprise greeted his confession, and he grinned self-consciously.

"I'm impressed, Lieutenant."

The admiral's sincerity amused Harm, and he traded smiles with Mac.

"I believe that brings us to name plates and chairs, does it not?"

A strange light hid in the back of the admiral's eyes when he said that, and Harm tried to puzzle out its meaning while everybody waited for somebody to confess to the last set of pranks.

The silence grew.

Harm looked around, meeting first Mac's eyes, then Bud's, and finally connecting with Sturgis, who shrugged, apparently as bewildered as the rest of them.

The admiral cleared his throat.

Mac's eyes widened as she looked over at him.

"You, Sir?"

"Why is that so surprising?" He cast a curious look at her, and Mac stammered into silence. Harm decided to help her out. Maybe it would lighten his punishment for the confetti.

"We just don't usually think of you as the practical joke type," he said.

The admiral quirked an eyebrow in his direction. "Oh? And what type is that?"

Now Harm was in trouble, and Mac's smile contained both gratitude for his assistance, and amusement that he was suddenly the one floundering.

"You're always the consummate officer and leader, Sir. We simply wouldn't have guessed it about you." Sturgis leaped to Harm's rescue, and it was his turn to come under the admiral's scrutiny.

"So. You don't think I have a devious side, is that it?"

Sturgis, Harm, and Mac all looked at Bud, waiting for him to say something brilliant, but Bud, in a pitiful attempt to look inconspicuous, buried his head in a file, stubbornly refusing to look at his fellow officers. The other three shook their heads and rolled their eyes before turning back to the admiral.

"All right, folks. Let's put the ducks away and get to work."

Within moments, rubber ducks were safely stowed away; notepads and pens poised and ready; and four pairs of eyes focused intently on their commanding officer. A.J. cleared his throat, opened the first case file of the day, and began the meeting.

Later that afternoon, when AJ came back from lunch, the ducks were back. They were lined up in a straight, perfect row on his desk, but they'd been ingeniously personalized. Each wore a uniform made of…wait. Were those coffee filters? A petty officer, two lieutenants, two commanders, and a lieutenant colonel were perched at attention. AJ couldn't decide whether to laugh or bellow for the "ducks" in question to haul ass into his office.

After a moment, he noticed a Post-It stuck to his computer monitor. With a sigh, he pulled it off and slipped his glasses on, recognizing Mac's tidy handwriting.

"Admiral,

There's an old saying about having all your ducks in a row. Your 'ducks' are lining up as we speak. We promise, no more pranks. But we couldn't resist this one, since you so kindly forgot to lock your door today.

Quack!"

The absurdity finally wore him down, and AJ gave in to the laughter. One of these days, the madhouse he presided over would finally drive him insane. But, in their unique fashion, he knew they would make it one hell of a ride.

 

The End

 

Rubber Ducky, you're the one,
You make bath time lots of fun,
Rubber Ducky, I'm awfully fond of you;

Woo woo be doo

Rubber Ducky, joy of joys,
When I squeeze you, you make noise!
Rubber Ducky, you're my very best friend, it's true!

Doo doo doo doo, doo doo

Every day when I
Make my way to the tubby
I find a little fella who's
Cute and yellow and chubby

Rub-a-dub-a-dubby!

Rubber Ducky, you're so fine
And I'm lucky that you're mine
Rubber ducky, I'm awfully fond of you.

Every day when I
Make my way to the tubby
I find a little fella who's
Cute and yellow and chubby

Rubber Ducky, you're so fine
And I'm lucky that you're mine
Rubber ducky, I'm awfully fond of -
Rubber ducky, I'd like a whole pond of -
Rubber ducky I'm awfully fond of you!

Doo doo, be doo

 

 

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