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THE FOLLOWING DAY
0756 EST
THE PENTAGON
WASHINGTON, DC

 

Harm and AJ were led through a twisty maze of hallways and basement sub-levels that would make even the most hardened skeptic turn into a conspiracy theorist overnight. There were entire floors that housed nothing but decades worth of classified information. Harm mused that even the janitors probably had to have top-secret security clearances.

All parties had agreed that it was best not to conduct this “meeting” at the Academy. The less red flags they sent up, the better. The Academy officers had declared JAG Headquarters off-limits as well. They’d insisted upon staying as far away from there as possible, until such time as they were actually charged with something. Until then, however, each man was firmly convinced that what they had done was in the best interest of the United States Navy.

So, they had agreed to met at the Pentagon, which was one of the only places they could be guaranteed a secure, soundproof room. With the gravity of the situation, no one wanted to take chances with the smallest bit of information leaking out.

Except Harm, that was. At first, Harm had wanted to protect the Academy’s reputation at all costs. But now, it seemed there was nothing to protect, and he had come to believe that informing the press might be the best thing he could do. After all, with video cameras constantly in their faces, these vile human beings would be subjected to daily scrutiny and pressure. To lead any semblance of a normal life, they would have to come clean, and do it quickly.

Harm and AJ were escorted to the appointed room by a Marine, working security detail. When they arrived, most of the other men were already there. The only JAG lawyers present were those who would represent the People, if and when a trial took place. The naval officers had all opted for civilian representation. They were entitled to it, of course, but Harm couldn’t help wondering how much of the bribe money – good, decent working men and women’s money – Laura Henry’s parents’ money – was now going toward paying the exorbitant legal fees.

As other people continued to file in, the JAG attorneys rose to introduce themselves to the former JAG, and to Commander Rabb. Neither Harm nor AJ were acquainted with the two Navy commanders, but General Cresswell had assured AJ they were his best. AJ had insisted he send him at least one Academy graduate, if possible. He claimed this person would possess a deeper understanding of the Academy’s operations than would Lieutenant Commander Roberts, who had earned his commission through OCS. Also, that pretext had spared AJ from having to reveal to Cresswell the extent of Bud’s involvement in the “unofficial” investigation that had brought everyone here. Some of what Bud had done had been less than legal – a fact, which AJ was certain would come up during the proceedings today.

Per AJ’s request, the other lawyer Cresswell had sent had no affiliation whatsoever with the Academy. In this situation, complete objectivity would be just as important as insider knowledge. The facts demanded the presence of someone with no bias – either positive or negative – toward the Academy.

Cresswell had offered to inform the Secnav, but AJ had said it would be best to wait. With the war in Iraq still causing daily international incidents, Secretary Sheffield had more pressing matters to attend to. So, the only people in the room were Harm and AJ; the three suspected naval officers – Admiral Hadfield, Captain Prevard, and Lieutenant Commander Hicks; the three men suspected of passing the money – Crowley, Gibson, and Deadmarsh; two teams of lawyers, one representing the officers, the other representing the civilians; and a special team from the Navy’s Inspector General’s Headquarters. Naturally, the Academy had its own IG, but, circumstances being what they were, that department had clearly fallen asleep on the job, and was to have no place in this investigation.

Harm and AJ took their seats at the end of a very long conference table. There was a generous supply of coffee, tea, and pastries, at the center of the table, but it went decidedly untouched by all present. Even though this was an informal meeting, the Inspector General’s office had sent an official representative to keep a record of the proceedings. In addition, each man had a legal pad in front of him, ready to take their own, personal notes.

The IG representative took several minutes to introduce everyone. Harm used the opportunity to study the men who had brought this all upon them. The officers were all in uniform; the civilian men were all dressed in expensive suits, in dark, somber shades. The youngest was Hicks; Harm guessed he was in his thirties. The admiral and the captain looked to be in their fifties, or so, and the civilians all looked older than that. In fact, Harm thought, they all looked like harmless old men – like someone’s card-playing, old-time story-telling grandfathers. Of course, looks could be deceiving. In this case, they were dead wrong.

It took every ounce of self control Harm possessed not to leap across the table and wring the necks of each and every one of them. How could they sit there like this was simply some kind of mundane business conference, he wondered. How could they do anything, in fact? How could they get up in the morning? How could they go about their daily lives, knowing the madness they were perpetuating? After having spent nearly a decade in the JAG Corps, having been involved in the prosecution of some of the most wretched crimes imaginable, Harm’s capacity to understand the criminal mind had never increased. The nightmarish depths to which some human beings would sink, never, ever ceased to horrify him.

When the introductions were finished, the IG representative began the meeting. “Gentlemen, I understand that before we get started, Admiral Hadfield would like to make a statement, on behalf of himself, and the other officers present.” He looked to Hadfield’s lawyer.

“That’s correct,” the man acknowledged. He nodded to Hadfield.

Hadfield cleared his throat. “We understand that this…situation…is unpleasant for all parties involved, and it is our sincerest hope that we can resolve matters quickly and quietly. Furthermore, we won’t do you the injustice of denying what we’ve done, since it is clear that you’ve done your research. We will simply do our best to convey to you that what we did, we did for the good of the Academy.”

At that, Harm scoffed loudly. He felt the admiral knock his foot against his, under the table. This wasn’t going to be easy.

Hadfield looked at Harm as he said the next words. “I know that some of you might not believe that, but it’s the truth. I’ve been a naval officer for over thirty-five years. I’m an Academy graduate, myself, and it has always been my first priority to protect the reputation of our fine institution. What happened to those girls was a horrible, horrible thing, but what would have been even worse would be to see the Academy tarnished by those events.”

At that, against his better judgment, AJ had to speak up. “Those ‘girls,’ are midshipmen in the United States Navy, Admiral. I would hope you would refer to them with the proper respect.”

“Of course, Admiral,” Hadfield said, without a trace of repentance. “It was our conclusion that those midshipmen had suffered quite enough. Making their…experiences…public knowledge would have e H
placed them under a kind of scrutiny they couldn’t even begin to imagine. So, instead, Captain Prevard, Lieutenant Commander Hicks, and I, allowed them to see their way to earning their commissions in peace.”

Harm could feel his blood simmering. Would it really be so bad if he were to reach across the table and strangle the man with his own, Navy issue tie?

“Let there be no mistake,” Hadfield continued. “We do not condone what those boys did; we simply did not want those few bad apples to spoil the entire brigade of midshipmen, in the eyes of the public. That’s why we kept their actions as quiet as possible. We’re all deeply indebted to the Academy, in one way or another, and we could not let its reputation be sullied by such…unfortunate incidents.”

Finally, the IG representative cut in. “It is our office’s understanding that you are deeply indebted to the three men to your right, as well, Admiral. Would someone care to explain just how that came to be?”

“I think I can address that,” Henry Crowley, grandfather of Peter Crowley, who had attacked Laura Henry, spoke up. “My great-nephew, Eric Krowlezewski, attended the Academy years ago. He and his friend, Midshipman Joseph Deadmarsh, ran into some…trouble…with female midshipmen, during his time at the Academy.” The man talked about the incidents as though they were nothing more than a bad taste in his mouth; a bothersome nuisance. “The females in question had put themselves in compromising situations, and I’m afraid that my nephew and his friend took advantage of that. The females were underage, and they had been drinking at a party. I suppose one thing led to another…you know how kids can be, especially when alcohol is involved.” He stopped, and sighed. “Anyway, apparently, some confusion followed, and then, rumors of assault began circulating around the campus.”

Harm swallowed hard, trying to stave off his rising nausea. Underage drinking was illegal; there was no denying that. But so was rape, and no amount of alcohol consumption could be used as an excuse to negate that fact.

“Having violated the honor code in such a flagrant way, the female midshipmen had little recourse,” Crowley continued. “If they had gone public with their accusations, they very well could have been expelled from the Academy. Even if they had been allowed to stay, they would have had been stigmatized to the point that being expelled would have been the preferable option.”

Harm wanted to vomit. All he could think was that not being raped at all would have been the preferable option.

“What Mr. Deadmarsh, Mr. Gibson, and I did, allowed them to finish their Academy educations with dignity and anonymity. Their own violations of the honor code were never exposed. I’ve held my position in accounting here at the Pentagon for nine years. Each year, a certain amount of money is set aside for an emergency fund. We’ve had to dip into that fund on numerous occasions, to honor requests for everything from extra MREs for troops in the Iraqi theater, to the emergency replacement of fighter aircraft the Navy hadn’t expected to lose.” With his last words, Crowley looked squarely at Harm for several seconds.

Harm’s nostrils flared; he had to bite the inside of his cheek to remain silent. He felt AJ place a calming hand on his leg, as if that alone could keep him from jumping out of his seat, and pummeling Crowley.

“At that time,” Crowley continued, “Mr. Deadmarsh was serving on the House Armed Services Committee. When he found out what his grandson, and my grandson, had done, he contacted me. We agreed that it would be best for everyone concerned, to keep knowledge of the…distasteful matters…confined to as few people as possible. However, we did recognize the gravity of what had happened, and we knew it would take quite a lot of convincing to achieve that goal.”

Harm’s insides continued to churn. Best for everyone? Harm wondered if anyone had ever considered what would have been best for the victims. The man’s brief mention of the girls’ stigmatization was nothing more than lip service. They hadn’t given one iota of thought to anyone but themselves, and how it would have looked to have the grandsons of a congressional representative, and a well-connected Pentagon employee, accused of multiple counts of rape.

“We were able to access the emergency fund, and send the money through the appropriate channels.”

The IG man raised an eyebrow. “The ‘appropriate channels’ being Admiral Hadfield, Captain Prevard, and Commander Hicks?”

“That’s correct,” Crowley replied. “They were in positions that allowed them to control the disbursement of funds, as well as the press’s access to the Academy. After informing them of the situation, they saw the wisdom of our intentions, the rest followed naturally.”

“The rest,” the IG man said. “’The rest’ being to funnel thousands of dollars into the personal accounts of these officers?”

Captain Prevard put his hand up, silencing the other man. “It was the only thing we could do,” he said. He was the first one to have the slightest bit of remorse in his tone. “We weren’t happy about taking this money. We’re all officers, and we live by a certain creed. It went against everything we believe in to accept that money. But, you have to understand, we’re also husbands, and fathers. I’ve been in the Navy since I was eighteen, when I joined the NROTC program in college. I married my wife when I was a senior; she’s never known anything but being an officer’s wife. She’s had to manage our house, and raise our kids without me for most of our marriage. I’ve spent more of our marriage away, than at home. I spent years on destroyers, and I served in the first Gulf War.” He paused, and sighed. “I’ve been half the husband and father I should have been,” he lamented. “These men gave me the opportunity to make it up to my family.” Harm thought he saw tears forming in the man’s eyes. It changed nothing.

As Prevard seemed unable to continue, Hadfield spoke up, instead. “I found myself in the same position as Captain Prevard,” he explained. “I haven’t been the husband my wife deserves. I made the Navy my career, and, in reality, it’s become my de-facto spouse, as well. My wife gave up her own dreams and ambitions, to support me, and to follow me around the world. Mr. Crowley, Mr. Gibson, and Mr. Deadmarsh gave me the chance to thank her, and to give her the life she should have been living.”

“The life of diamond necklaces, and five-star hotels in Rome?” Harm spat.

“Mr. Rabb,” AJ cautioned sternly.

Hadfield looked at Harm. “This isn’t just about our families, Commander; it’s about the Academy. Mr. Gibson has sacrificed a generous portion of his personal fortune, to ensure that midshipmen have state-of-the-art fitness equipment, and the most advanced technology labs, for many years into the future.”

“He’s also ensured that his son’s identity as a sexual predator will remain undisclosed,” Harm growled.

“Don’t you understand, Commander?” Commander Hicks spoke up. “We’re not monsters. We did this so that no one’s reputation would be destroyed: not the girls’, not the boys’, and not the Academy’s. We did this for the Navy. For you. For everyone who ever graduated from here.”

“How dare you!” Harm exploded. “How dare you say you did this for me! You did this for yourselves! You passed the buck on and on, and each time you did, you sealed the fate of another female midshipman to lose her dignity at the hands of these men’s relatives!” Harm’s rage was boiling over. “Tell me, was it worth it?! Was living the high life for a few years worth the time you’ll spend in a cold, damp cell, when all this is over? And how about your wives?! Does that fur coat keep Mrs. Hicks warm? Does she know every time she puts it on, she’s wrapping herself in lies?! And YOU, Admiral Hadfield! What does your wife hear every time you two go for a ski getaway, and she steps into your new place in Telluride? Is it quiet in that house, or does it echo with the agonized screams of all the girls those boys forced themselves on?!”

“Please,” Hadfield said, his voice cracking with desperation. “It would kill my wife if she knew about this.”

Harm’s eyes widened. “She doesn’t know?! How did you explain all the fancy gifts? All the trips around the world?! Did she think you won the goddamn lottery?!”

“Commander!” AJ shouted, trying to reign Harm in.

“It’s okay, Admiral,” Hadfield said. “It’s a fair question, I suppose. Even as an admiral, I couldn’t normally afford those things.” He turned his eyes back to Harm. “Have you ever been in love, Commander?” he asked softly. Harm didn’t respond, but Hadfield saw the admission in his eyes. “Have you always told her the truth, or have you ever kept something from her, to protect her?”

Harm couldn’t help thinking of how he’d kept this entire situation from Terri. For a quick, terrifying second, Harm equated himself with the guilty men. Then, he dismissed it just as quickly. What he had done was different. Very different.

“Like Commander Hicks said,” Hadfield continued, “we’re not monsters. We’re men; men who weren’t able to be proper husbands and fathers through the years, because of our commitment to the Navy, Surely you can understand that, Commander.” Tears rose in Hadfield’s eyes. He looked truly ashamed, but Harm would have none of it.

“No, I can’t,” Harm answered icily. “I’ve never used the Navy as an excuse. My problems are my own, and I can’t stand here and listen to you blame the Navy for your shortcomings as a man.”

“We did the right thing!” Hadfield shouted. His tears had begun to fall. “Those girls all broke the rules, and we didn’t punish them! We let them stay at the Academy, like nothing happened!”

“But something did happen, didn’t it, Admiral?! They were raped! And you let it happen to more and more of them, over and over again!”

Hadfield seemed too choked up to continue, so the white-haired Deadmarsh spoke up. “Commander, we didn’t hold those girls down! We didn’t force ourselves on them!”

“No, but your grandsons did!”

“We made it so that those girls could stay at the Academy!” Deadmarsh countered. “We made it so that no one would ever have to know what happened to them! They willingly put themselves into dangerous situations, and when danger sprang up, they couldn’t handle it.”

“I didn’t think studying physics counted as ‘dangerous!’” Harm countered.

“Maybe not,” Deadmarsh replied, “but, doing said studying in a male midshipman’s room is against the rules, and, instead of punishing the girl for her breach of ethics, the entire situation was silenced. We presented very generous offers to the officers here before you, and, in the best interest of the Academy, they accepted. I can’t make it any clearer to you: the actions we took saved the good name of the Academy, as well as the reputations of those midshipmen.”

“We didn’t want to make it worse,” Hadfield added, his voice unsteady. He wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. “At first, it was just the one time, just one incident. We were going to report it to the IG, but the money…there was just so much money. All the broken promises over the years, to our wives, our families. All the vacations cut short, or cancelled, because of last-minute orders. All the moving around, uprooting the kids every few years. By the time they made friends, we’d be leaving again. We were going to report it,” he said again, earnestness pervading his tone. “But then, it happened again,” he continued. “They offered us even more than before. So much money. The Academy needed so many new facilities, so many updates and upgrades to buildings and technology. How could we say no? We needed those improvements, and those girls needed privacy.”

“And your wife needed a trip to Morocco?!” Harm burst out. “If I remember right, Mr. Crowley, your grandson wants to become an aviator. Well, if I have any say in it, the only thing he'll ever fly is a paper airplane, through the bars of his cell at Leavenworth!”

“Mr. Rabb!” AJ shouted. “Next door, now!”

Looking anything but repentant, Harm followed AJ quickly into the next room. He slammed the door behind him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

AJ had his back to Harm, but Harm could see the older man’s broad shoulders rise and fall with his rapid, angry breathing. Harm stood there silently, waiting for the admiral to put him in his place. He had an eerie sense of déjà vu. The only difference between this and many times in the past, was that AJ was wearing a suit, instead of a uniform.

Finally, AJ turned around. He bore the full weight of his incredulity down on Harm. “Just what in the hell were you trying to accomplish back there?!” he demanded.

“Admiral,” Harm said, “they keep saying they were trying to protect the Academy’s good name, but, thanks to them, the Academy doesn’t *have* a good name anymore. How can you condone keeping this quiet? I want to hold them up to the light of scrutiny! Doesn’t this country have a right to know what’s been happening here?!”

“Yes, and, when this is all over, they will,” AJ said. “But, they have no need to follow whatever proceedings may happen, from start to finish. They don’t need re-enactments, and up-to-the-minute coverage on some sleazy television show! What’s more important to you, Harm – that justice is served, or that it’s served in front of a live audience?”

When Harm gave no response, AJ continued his argument. “I trust that, during your career as an aviator, you saw things and did things that the American people are far better served knowing nothing about. This isn’t spook-speak, Harm; I’m not some CIA agent trying to wield my big, black pen, and cover up every useful piece of information, in the name of ‘classification.’ I’m doing exactly what should be done here. I’m loath to agree with Hadfield on this, but the scumbag’s right: we can salvage the Academy’s reputation if we conduct our business away from the press. I’ve played these political games for a lot longer than you have, Harm, and, unfortunately, these are the rules. I may not like them, but I’m not going to fold and go home. I’m going to keep playing, because, right now, that’s the only way we’re going to get any kind of resolution to this.”

Harm understood the admiral’s point of view, but he certainly wasn’t inclined to agree with it. He had been sure AJ would be the strongest advocate for exposing these pigs for who they are. “Are you saying it’s in our best interest to sweep all of this under the rug?” Harm asked.

“Hell, Harm, of course that’s not what I’m saying,” AJ defended himself. “I’m saying it’s in the *Navy’s* best interest to clean up its own house, and, if it can do that without television crews banging down the Academy’s gates, and without ten straight weeks of headlines in the National Enquirer, it’s in *everybody’s* interest.” There was a conference table in the room, and AJ finally took a seat at it. Harm did the same.

“What about the girls, sir?” Harm asked. “What’s in *their* best interest?”

“Exactly what we’re doing – nailing these guys, in whatever way we can. If that means doing it behind closed doors, then so be it. Harm, the important thing to focus on is that we *are* nailing them. They’re not getting away with anything. Good luck to those boys finding work on this planet with dishonorable discharges hanging over their heads. And, good luck to the sick bastards who let them get away with it. By the time the system is done with them, they’ll have no pensions, no rank, no privileges, and certainly, no hope of employment in the nearest ten galaxies.”

Harm thought of Laura, and of the countless young women like her. He sighed heavily. “Somehow, that doesn’t seem like enough, sir. Not even close.”

AJ moved his chair closer to Harm’s. When he spoke again, his tone was quieter. “Harm, I’ve seen things you couldn’t even begin to imagine. When I was the JAG, I kept the most disturbing cases for myself. I resolved them as quickly and quietly as possible. When I had my door closed, or Tiner, or Coates, told you I wasn’t to be disturbed, what did you think I was doing? I was putting out fires as fast as I could. I sure as hell wasn’t watching baseball.”

“Sir – “ Harm interrupted.

“Do you want this to turn into an OJ Trial?” AJ spoke over him. “That’s what it’ll be, once the press gets wind of everything. You have no idea how many times I laid matters to rest, before they even had a chance to be passed to you, or to Colonel Mackenzie. There are a lot of things I’ve had to do, and other things I would have *liked* to do, but sometimes, that uniform forced me to act otherwise. If you knew half of the dirty deeds I had to keep quiet about, you’d be questioning more than just the Academy’s reputation; you’d be doubting the whole damn Navy’s.” AJ ran a tired hand over his face. “JAG was never really mine, you know. I was at the whim of the CNO, the SECNAV, and sometimes, even the president. I did what I could with the latitude I was given, and, more often than you would dare to imagine, that latitude was nowhere near wide enough.”

“You’re not making me feel any better, sir,” Harm said. “Are you trying to tell me that crime cover-ups in the Navy are the norm, and not the exception?”

“What I’m trying to tell you is, the Navy’s a big place, Commander, and there’s a lot of room to cover things up. There’s a lot of room for scumbags to hide. The uniform may look nice, but it doesn’t make the man. As an ex-JAG, yourself, you should know that. Damn it, Timothy McVeigh could put on an admiral’s uniform, but you know what? He’d still just be a messed up sonofabitch who decided to kill hundreds of innocent people.”

“But how…” Harm shook his head, at a loss for words. “How did these guys get promoted, time and time again? Surely if they’re capable of something like this, there had to have been signs along the way. Small things, petty crimes. Hell, they probably blamed some young seamen for things they did. I wonder how many innocent kids I helped convict.” Harm’s stomach turned at the thought.

AJ sighed. He could tell Harm was crossing the line. His emotions were taking control; they were suffocating his ability to reason. “I want you to go home,” AJ told him.

“What?!” Harm spat.

“You heard me,” AJ said seriously. “Your presence is no longer needed here.”

“But, sir!”

“What’s the problem, Harm?” AJ demanded. “Do you doubt my ability to stand up for those midshipmen? To act in their best interest? Harm, I’m the best chance they’ve got, because, right now, you’re more of a hindrance than a help.”

“Sir – “

“You’re antagonizing them! Harm, I know the way these kinds of people work: the harder you push them, the harder they’ll push back. Our best shot is to concede as much as we can, to appease them a little – but just to a certain point. Just enough so they think we’re sympathetic to their pathetic defense, but without us giving up the advantage. And, unfortunately, thanks to you, our advantage isn’t very strong. We’ve got a mountain of evidence pointing directly to each one of those bastards, but, correct me if I’m wrong: the vast majority of that evidence was collected illegally!” AJ stopped for a few calming breaths. “I don’t know what the hell you were thinking, other than getting to the truth, no matter the cost, even if that meant having Bud hack into all manner of financial systems and computers. You’ve put at risk not only your career, but that of a husband, and father of four children. How do you feel about that, Harm? Do you want that splattered all over the front page of The Baltimore Sun?”

“Admiral,” Harm said, about to defend himself.

“Go home, Harm. It’s the best way.”

“Sir, I created this monster, and now, you’re asking me to step aside, while someone else drives the stake through its heart?”

“I’m asking you to trust me, Harm.” AJ reached out and placed his hand on Harm’s shoulder. He looked into his eyes earnestly. “I’m asking you to let me take care of this, because I’ve done it before. Maybe not in this exact situation, but I’ve dealt with these types before – with people who think that rank brings impunity. I know their game; I’ve seen all the moves. They won’t walk away from this, Harm. I won’t let them.”

Harm hung his head. He was silent for several seconds, then, finally, he nodded his approval. He reached into the pocket in the inside of his service jacket, and pulled out his wallet. He removed a photo from the clear plastic holder inside. It was Laura Henry’s service photo, taken at the end of her plebe year. Harm had taken to carrying it with him during the last few weeks, to remind himself what he was fighting for.

“It’s Midshipman Henry, sir,” Harm told the admiral. “To remind you,” he said solemnly. “You’re not fighting for some abstract purpose. You’re not fighting for some trite slogan about accelerating your life, sir. You’re fighting for her, and for all the midshipmen like her.”

 

SAME DAY
2212 EST
HARM'S APARTMENT
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

 

Harm had been completely drained by the end of the day. He hadn't known how he would feel after the meeting, so he and Terri had agreed in advance that she should plan to stay at her condo that evening. He had insisted that in case he was angry, or disappointed, or overcome with rage, he wanted her to be as far away from him as possible. This whole situation had caused him to hurt her so much already; he couldn't bear to see himself doing it to her again.

When he arrived home, he opened a beer, and was halfway through it when he decided alcohol simply wasn't the answer to his problem. No degree of being drunk could make him forget what he had heard in that room earlier. Instead, he decided that the only thing that could even come close to making him feel the tiniest shred of happiness, was holding Terri in his arms.

Harm was already in bed when she arrived, but he was waiting up for her. She was in his bathroom, getting changed, while they talked about what had happened.

"It was strange to sit across from them, and take a good, long look at them," Harm told her. "They looked like regular people on the outside. It’s scary, when you realize that the most ordinary looking people can harbor the most vile, horrible secrets your imagination can conjure up."

"What did you expect?" Terri called from the bathroom, where she was applying a facial cleanser. "Evil people don’t have horns, or carry pitchforks."

Harm chuckled, despite the situation. “It would have made my time at JAG much easier, if they did.”

“Yeah,” Terri replied, “and it would be even better if all the good people, all the people you could trust, had wings and halos.”

“Nobody’s that good,” Harm lamented softly.

Terri peeked her head out from the bathroom door. “You are.”

Harm placed his hands behind his head and sighed. “Not this time,” he lamented. “I should have dug deeper, sooner. I knew something was wrong with Laura, but I didn’t want to push. I knew something was up.”

Finally ready for bed, Terri emerged from the bathroom. Her hair was pulled into a comfortable ponytail, and she smelled of the rose-scented lotion she'd rubbed into her hands and elbows. “Sweetie,” she said, “there was no way you could have known how deep this all went.”

“Maybe not,” Harm admitted, "but I was her instructor, not to mention one of her superior officers. And, as such, it was my job to look out for her, to make sure she was all right.” He shook his head. “Way to go, Rabb. Talk about dereliction of duty.”

Terri slipped into bed, and rested her hand on Harm's chest. “You can’t save the world, y'know. Even Superman has bad days.”

“I don’t want to save the world, Terri; just the Academy.” Sighing deeply, Harm rolled over and opened his nightstand drawer to look for his class ring, which he had placed there when he made the decision to take it off. He felt around with his hand, but he couldn't find it. Suddenly overcome with the frantic urge to look at it, to see if it still inspired in him the memories it once had, he sat up, swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and pulled the whole drawer out. “Where's…I know I put it…I could've sworn…Babe, do you remember me putting my Academy ring in here when I took it off? It's gone.”

Having his back to her, Harm couldn't see the smile that crossed Terri's face. Terri slid closer to him. She smoothed her hand along his bare back. “It'll turn up. Don't worry.”

“Don't worry?” Harm said anxiously. “Terri, that ring is irreplaceable.”

“Harm, please, we'll look for it in the morning, all right? You've had a really tough day. Just come back to bed.”

Harm gave in to Terri's request, despite the nagging feeling that the ring had disappeared. When he sank back into the bed, and pulled the covers up, Terri pulled him against her, curling together like spoons.

Harm felt a cool, metallic sensation against his warm back. He thought it was strange; Terri didn't usually wear necklaces. Only when they got dressed up to go somewhere nice, would she put on more than earrings and a ring, and she'd certainly never worn jewelry to bed before. Curiosity getting the better of him, Harm rolled over to investigate.

He saw a silver chain around Terri's neck, but the charm that was weighing it down was obscured by her tank top. Gently taking the chain in his fingers, Harm lifted it slowly from between her breasts. When he saw what it was, he stared at it for several seconds, not saying a word.

Worried that he might be offended by her action, Terri froze, waiting for some kind of acknowledgement from Harm. Harm’s eyes bore into hers deeply, but he still hadn’t uttered a syllable. Getting more nervous by the second, Terri said, “Harm?”

“Shhh,” Harm replied. Scooting down a few inches on the bed, he placed a tender kiss on his ring, which Terri had strung on the silver chain. Moving still lower, he kissed his way down her torso until he reached the hem of her tank top. He pushed it up her body, kissing the newly exposed skin as he moved back up. Sensing where Harm wanted to take things, Terri pulled the garment over her head, and dropped it onto the floor.

Harm kissed his ring one last time, then brushed it aside. He kissed softly at the valley between Terri's breasts, one hand coming up to cup and massage one of the mounds, while his other hand stayed at her waist, keeping her in place. Her desire growing, Terri straddled him, so he could see his ring hanging between her breasts again. She massaged Harm's thighs, while Harm pulled her close to him, his mouth seeking hers. Their tongues mated slowly, and Harm reached around to run his hand along the soft skin of Terri's back.

When they finally parted from the long, slow, sweet kiss, Harm reached up and cupped Terri's face in his hand. He looked deeply into her eyes. "I can't believe you did that for me," he whispered, in awe.

A lone tear slipped down Terri's cheek. “I thought it might remind you that it’s worth fighting for.”

Harm brushed the tear away with his thumb. He kept his gaze locked with Terri's, unable to tear his eyes away from hers, from this woman who, inexplicably, always seemed to know exactly the right things to say and do. "I love you," he whispered, before pulling her in for another kiss. Drained by the day's events, he'd been exhausted earlier. Now, however, having Terri in his arms was filling him with the need to make love to her. His mind wanted sleep; his heart wanted Terri.

Sensing Harm's weariness, she whispered in his ear, "Relax. I'll take care of everything." And, with that, she moved her hands to his chest, trailing her finger along his skin. Moving her hand lower and lower, she finally reached the place where his arousal was growing steadily. She massaged him lightly at first, moving to and from his erection slowly, sometimes cupping his hardness through his boxers, other times tickling his inner thighs. All the while, her mouth devoted itself to tasting the sweetness of his throat, his neck, and his earlobe.

Harm bucked when she slipped her hand inside the opening of his shorts, finally making true contact with him. Maybe it was his sleepiness, maybe it was his intense emotional reaction to seeing his ring on a necklace, around Terri's neck. Whatever it was, it was making Harm extra sensitive to Terri's touch. He regretted his tired state, but he decided to give in and let Terri take control this time, vowing to himself to make it up to her, next time.

Terri could feel herself growing moist; the mere thought of having Harm inside her soon made her body respond quickly. She shifted to Harm's side just long enough for Harm to lift up so she could tug his boxers off of him. Instead of just resuming her place on top of him, like Harm was expecting, she instead lowered her mouth to his now fully hardened penis. She moved up and down slowly, letting Harm feel her mouth on every centimeter of him. Reaching the tip, Terri released him from her mouth, grasped his shaft in her hand, and swirled her tongue along the head, looking up to make sure Harm was watching her. Watching, and going slowly insane with need.

Terri could hear Harm's breathing speed up, and when she resumed sucking him fully in and out of her mouth, his hips began to move in increasingly quicker and harder thrusts.

“Terri,” Harm panted. He took her hand in his, and moved it away from his penis. “Please, now.”

Terri rose up and removed her pajama pants and panties. She was ready for Harm, and he hadn't even touched her. Not wasting any time, she straddled Harm's thighs again, sinking down onto his straining manhood, taking him gratefully into her body. Despite Harm's lethargy, he was able to thrust up into her, and Terri helped him along by rising up and coming back down quickly. She placed her hands behind her on the bed, and arched her back, creating a wanton display that drove Harm crazy.

Seeing the woman he loved, doing this for him, while his ring swung back and forth against her body as she rocked above him, was driving him over the edge all too quickly. His Navy career had been a source of tension in every romantic relationship of his adult life, until now. Until Terri. Annie, Jordan, and Renee had all ended their relationships with him because of it. Annie, out of fear; Jordan and Renee, out of jealousy. Hell, even things with Diane might have been different if he hadn't gone to flight school, and she to crypto. But Terri was different. Not only did she understand the Navy's place in Harm's life, but she wholeheartedly embraced it. It was a fundamental, inseparable part of him, and she wouldn't have had it any other way.

Those thoughts struck him head-on, as he watched Terri above him, working her physical and emotional magic. He decided in that moment that tonight would be the night. He'd been meaning to ask her for a while now, but things had been so crazy; there was never an appropriate time. If there would ever be a more appropriate night than this, when he was certain, through every fiber of his being, that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, he didn't know when it could be.

Sensing that Harm was close, Terri moved faster above him. Harm's hands were busy holding her hips firmly, so Terri used her own fingers to stimulate her most sensitive spot, so that they could climax together. She knew Harm would be too tired afterward, and that was fine; this was about him, about what he needed, and about her wanting to give it to him.

“Terri!” Harm cried, just before he climaxed. Pulling her in toward him, he simultaneously grabbed a hold of his Academy ring, and slammed their lips together, moaning into her mouth as he hit the peak. It was several seconds before he opened his eyes, and it took several more seconds after that, for him to finally notice his hands. They were holding fast to the two things that meant the most to him in the world: one was still touching Terri; the other was squeezing his ring tightly in his fist, the action forcing Terri to stay close, lest she break the chain it was on.

Harm's knuckles were white as he held onto the ring – and everything it symbolized – with all his might. After looking at her lover's hand around the ring for a long minute, Terri carefully pried his fingers off of it.

Harm smiled sheepishly. “It's harder to let go of than I thought.”

“That’s because you're not supposed to let go of it, baby. You're supposed to fight for it, with everything in you, the way I know only you can.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm and Terri cuddled together for a long while. Both were exhausted, but it was for different reasons that neither one was able to sleep. Terri was worried for Harm. She was worried about what would happen if justice didn't work out the way he wanted it to, and she worried about the lengths he would go to, to ensure that it did.

For his part, Harm was overcome with nerves. He knew Terri loved him, but he also knew she was as obstinate, strong-willed, and independent as he was. And, with the way he had sometimes treated her during the past few months, she would have every reason to turn him down. Still, after the night they'd just had together, and after last night, when they’d stood on that bridge, talking long into the night, Harm was never more certain that Terri was the woman for him. The night he’d fallen apart in her arms ranked as one of the most painful, yet life-affirming nights of his life. Terri was strong for him, when he’d had no strength left in himself.

Ever so quietly, so Terri wouldn't notice, Harm opened the nightstand drawer, and felt around in the darkness for the small, black velvet box he'd put there earlier. He removed the diamond ring and placed the empty box back in the drawer.

He clicked on the bedside lamp, then got back under the covers, spooning with Terri. He placed tiny kisses on her bare shoulder. “Terri?” he asked softly.

“Hmm?” Terri replied in a dreamy voice. She may not have been asleep, but her mind and body were completely relaxed.

“I know you’re already wearing one of my rings on your neck, but, what would you say to maybe…putting this one on your finger?” Harm reached his arm around Terri's body, putting the ring in front of her eyes.

Terri froze. “Harm, that’s an engagement ri – “ It took Terri's mind a second to catch up with her eyes, and, when it did, she was left speechless.

“It is an engagement ring,” Harm confirmed. “And, I ask again, what would you say to wearing it, and being my wife?”

After several seconds, during which, for Harm, time seemed to stop, Terri turned over and stared into Harm's eyes.

"I love you, Teresa," Harm continued. "I was a stupid fool in the past. I almost lost you, and it scared the hell out of me. I don't ever want to be that scared again, baby. I don't think I would survive it."

A lone tear escaped Terri's eye. "You won't lose me, Harm. I love you, and I don't need a ring to be sure that you love me, too."

“Maybe not,” Harm said, "but, you'll need it to know I plan on loving you forever, and a long time after that."

“Promise?” Terri asked, tears already rolling down her cheeks, and falling onto her pillow.

Harm took her hand and intertwined their fingers. "Promise."

“What would I say to wearing this ring, and being your wife?" Terri repeated Harm's words. “I'd say it's the best idea I've ever heard.”

 

1515 EST
THE FOLLOWING DAY
HARM’S OFFICE
UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

 

At exactly 1515 the next afternoon, Harm heard the knock on his door, that he had been expecting all day. He was certain that Laura would come by, to ask him what had happened the previous day. She had every right to know the details, but Harm was dreading the encounter. He was ashamed to have to tell her that his behavior had gotten him “banned” for the duration of the proceedings.

“Come in, Midshipman,” Harm told her. “Have a seat,” he said, before she even had a chance to stand at attention.

“I guess I don’t have to tell you why I’m here,” the girl said nervously.

“No, you don’t. I don’t have much to tell you, though,” Harm confessed.

“What do you mean, sir?” Laura asked. “I thought you were going to iron out the details of the trials.”

“Uh, well, we were,” Harm stalled, “but Laura, you have to understand – I was there only as an observer, and only because Admiral Chegwidden pulled some strings.”

“But, you can still tell me what happened, can’t you, sir?”

Harm shifted in his chair. “Um, actually, I’m afraid not. It’s all privileged information, related to a pending trial. You know I can’t share it with you.”

“How can you say that?” Laura argued. “None of this would even be happening if it wasn’t for me. Don’t I have a right to know what happened in that room, sir?”

“Of course you do,” he said firmly. “In my mind, you do, and, in a world where everything goes right, you do. If I could, I would tell you every word they said. Unfortunately, I can’t do that.”

Laura sighed heavily. She was quite familiar with attorney-client privilege, and the myriad confidentiality issues that went along with investigations and trials. Nevertheless, she had been hoping Harm would bend the rules a little for her. Then again, somewhere deep in her heart, she knew he wouldn’t be the man she respected and admired, if he’d tossed his principles out the window, just because she asked him to.

Harm sighed. “It’s just one of those aspects of the law that every self-respecting attorney eventually comes to detest.”

“Can’t you tell me anything?” Laura asked.

Harm wracked his brain, trying to think of what he could say, without revealing too much. “Actually, yes, I can. I can tell you that none of the men is contesting the accusations. They know it’s been found out they’re guilty as sin; they couldn’t squirm their slimy way out of that, no matter what they tried. That being said, there will be a trial, but, at this point, with the evidence that’s stacked against them, it’s little more than a formality. So, by the way, will be the trial for your attackers. Their families’ money isn’t going to get them out of it any longer; not to mention, their own fathers and grandfathers have already admitted their guilt for them.”

Laura nodded sullenly. “Will I have to testify, sir?”

Harm’s heart fell. He knew this would be an issue, eventually. “You might,” he answered honestly. “Do you think you can handle that?”

Laura’s response was barely a whisper. “Yes, sir.”

“It won’t be terrible,” Harm promised her. “Like I said, their guilt is a given. But, the jury might still need to hear your testimony, and maybe even that of some of the other victims.”

Laura nodded. A while back, she had made a promise to Harm, to see this through to the end. She was not about to break a promise; especially not to the man who had taught her the true meaning of integrity.

“Sir,” Laura asked, “do you know when that might happen? The trial, I mean.”

“Which one?” Harm asked.

“For Admiral Hadfield, and the others.”

“I…uh…I don’t know,” he admitted.

“Didn’t they settle all those details yesterday?” Laura asked.

Damn, Harm thought. She’s not going to let me get off so easily. “They…um…they might have, but I really wouldn’t know.”

Laura’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean, ‘you don’t know,’ sir?”

Harm swallowed hard. “Um, I was not-so-politely asked to leave the meeting, and it was made clear to me that I won’t be invited back.”

“What?!” Laura balked. “Sir, what are you talking about?!”

“Apparently my…um…behavior…wasn’t appropriate.” Conveniently, he skipped mentioning the string of insults that easily could have had him facing insubordination charges.

Laura’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “What happened in there, sir?!” she demanded. “You can’t let them do that! You have to be a part of this; I need you!”

Harm ran a hand through his hair. He knew this would happen, and he knew he would hate it. “Laura, please, calm down,” he pleaded. “It’s going to be okay; Admiral Chegwidden’s staying on top of it. I promise you, he won’t let anything slip below the radar.”

“But why can’t you be there with him?” Laura prodded again. “We were going to see this through to the end, sir – together. You promised!”

“I know,” Harm admitted. “And, we still are. I’m not abandoning you,” he assured her. “Look, what happened yesterday was…it was my emotions, getting in the way of reason. It doesn’t change anything about the case that’s being built against these guys, and it doesn’t change their guilt, or that of your attackers.”

Laura sighed. Harm’s words had done little to ease her worries, but there was nothing she could do to change what had happened. “Realistically, sir, what will they be looking at? The boys who…did that to me, I mean.”

Finally, a question Harm could answer with reasonable confidence. “Well, for starters,” he replied, “they’ll be treated to dishonorable discharges. The fact that their guilt is indisputable, will also buy them some jail time. I can’t say how much, but they will do time; that I can promise you.”

Laura nodded. “And what about the others, sir? Admiral Hadfield, Captain Prevard?”

“I’m not sure,” Harm said. “Admiral Chegwidden will keep me informed as best he can, but, there’s a chance you and I won’t know much of anything, until it’s all over.”

Laura’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean, sir?”

Harm bit his lip. He had the feeling Laura would be as upset with the turn of events as he had been. “They…uh…they’re insisting on a closed trial: no cameras, no interviews, no press.”

“Can they really do that?” Laura asked.

Harm nodded. “If the convening authority, and the judge, agree, then yes, they can. Our convening authority is General Cresswell. He was appointed as JAG after I had already left the JAG Corps, but Admiral Chegwidden told me the chances of anyone outside the trial getting any information, are very slim. Unfortunately, this is as much about politics as it’s about right and wrong, and the general seems to think that would only be exacerbated by having daily recaps on ZNN.”

Laura shook her head in disbelief. “So, let me get this straight, sir: I had to come forward. I had to tell practically the whole world what happened to me, but these guys get to hide? They get to air their dirty laundry in private?!” She scoffed in disgust.

On the outside, Harm kept his expression neutral. Inside, however, he was smiling. It had been a long time since he’d seen Laura feel this strongly about anything. Even if the displayed emotions were anger and disbelief, at least she was passionate. In Harm’s opinion, she had spent far too many months drowning in a kind of apathy that didn’t become her at all. In the end, her indignation over what had happened to her might be the only thing that would keep her firm in the belief that she had done the right thing, in coming forward.

Over the course of the past few weeks, Laura had had moments of certainty, and moments of paralyzing doubt. Harm hated listening to her question herself. On the other hand, the occasions when she was overcome with righteous rage, made Harm’s heart swell with pride. Anyone who hoped to have a successful career in the law had to first have faith in the system, and, from the moment he’d met Midshipman Laura Henry, he had known she would have a long, distinguished career in the Navy. Now, a large obstacle had planted itself firmly in the way of that future. But, Harm was confident Laura wouldn’t let that stop her.

“I feel the same way,” Harm told her. “In fact, that’s why I was ‘blacklisted’ from the meeting. They were going on and on about keeping things quiet, for the sake of the Academy’s reputation, and I said a few things that ruffled some feathers.”

Laura showed the barest hint of a smile at Harm’s words. “Is that all, sir?” she teased. “Ruffling a few feathers?”

Harm chuckled, relieved that the tension seemed to have eased, even if only a little. “To be honest, midshipman, I would have liked to break a few legs, but that really would’ve gotten me into trouble.”

Laura laughed. “Yes, sir.”

Harm cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his tone was somber. “I know this isn’t the ideal situation, but it’s the one we’re faced with right now. All I can do is give you my word that Admiral Chegwidden is going to tell me everything he can, and I’ll do the same for you.”

 

 

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