To Hell and Back

Chapter 1

"You know what, Mac? Forget it! This is too important for you to screw up! And you might want to bear in mind that 'Never' is 'Never,'" Harm returned hotly "If you don't mean it, don't say it. And if you do say it, then accept the consequences and the responsibility that go with it instead of whining like a spoiled child. You claim you're a mature adult, so for once act like it!"

The door slammed behind him, leaving a momentarily shell-shocked Lieutenant Colonel of Marines staring at the spot he had just occupied and wondering just where along the way she had lost control of both the situation and the conversation.

"God damn that woman, constantly changing her mind, never saying what she wants, not only saying the opposite of what she means but also then expects me not only to read her mind, but also to fight her on what she says she wants! Who does she think I am, Brumby?" Harm muttered to himself angrily as he vaulted down the stairs and out the main door.

Slamming the 'vette's door closed he leaned his head against the head-rest and deliberately took several long, deep breaths to calm himself down. The last thing he needed right now was to join near-Christmas traffic on icy roads in a powerful, rear wheel drive car and with steam coming out of his ears.

Right now he needed someone to just listen, he needed to get the whole ball of problems off his chest and maybe dissecting it to someone would help him find a solution.

He knew exactly where to go to find that person and they weren't up in that apartment, buzzing in self-righteous fury.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

"Hey, Dad, I've come a little early this year, but..." Harm ran his finger down the letters then sighed, leaning his head on the cold, black granite "I've got nowhere else to go."

"I've got nowhere else to go, Dad, can you believe it? After all I've done for my... friends." he spat out the word "they can't make time for me when I need help. As much as I tried to deny it, Mac was right back in Paraguay. The Navy really is all I had, but I'm working on that. So what if Mac is always too busy with other men and when she's not, pushes me away? So what if Catherine doesn't want me either. I'm a survivor. I've survived worse and I'll survive this. A little heartache and damaged ego never killed anybody. Well, not usually... There are people who commit suicide for these two reasons... especially at Christmas time... but I'm not one of them!" he finished firmly, unconsciously straightening his shoulders.

Sometimes, when you're trying too hard, you need to take a step back, son, and the solution will present itself to you.

"Hey, Hammer."

The fondly remembered voice from behind him had Harm spinning around so quickly that he was in danger of completely losing his balance, a grin of pure delight etching itself on his face. "Skates!" Harm's almost shouted, as he took in the sight of his old RIO sitting quietly on a bench in front of him "What are you doing here?" he blurted out before the stupidity of the question registered with him "Oh."

Skates chuckled at the grimace on his face "Yeah, came to visit my uncle, my dad's older brother."

Harm nodded his head and stood for a moment in silent recognition of another family's loss, then taking a seat next to the petite brunette he asked, "What I really meant by what are you doing here? Is what are you doing ashore, and not afloat? And why didn't you call to let me know you were in town?"

"My shipboard tour is over, and I've been PCS'd to COMNAVAIR staff at the Pentagon –flying a damned desk instead of a Tomcat – and I'm at VOQ at Andrews until I get something sorted out. I just arrived yesterday evening, and I am still settling in at Andrews, and calling you was about next on my 'to do' list!"

"That's good to know." Harm nodded, straining hard to keep from smiling "I was afraid you were still angry at me for crashing that plane and almost killing you."

The forced lack of smile became genuine by the end of the sentence as the old guilt again rose up, trying to overwhelm him. With a tremendous amount of willpower he managed to push it away just in time to get back at teasing Beth.

"No! I was never angry at..." she stopped in her tracks when she noticed the twinkling in Harm eyes. Giving him a glare, she pouted and crossed her arms, muttering "Bastard."

Finally allowing himself to express his amusement, Harm chuckled heartily and gave her a smirk "I love you too."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, all words, no action." Beth dismissed him, casually striking a poise, leaning all her weight on one hip, crossing one arm under her breasts, while propping the other on that one to check her fingernails and then wave away his comment with a fake bored air and rolling eyes.

"Is that so?" he asked amused, crossing his arms over his chest and tilting his head as his gaze roved over her petite form, taking her all in. She looked fit and healthy.

"It is." she nodded emphatically, and then adopting a bored tone of voice added "I'm not seeing any golden band on my finger so you obviously haven't made good, no matter how well you talk the talk."

As soon as the words left her mouth, their meaning imprinted itself on Skates, making her stop in her tracks and grimace.

His eyes having instinctively gone to the finger in question, Harm raised them questioningly to Skates deep brown eyes, now darkening until they became nearly as black as the storm clouds that had brought their F-14 down that never to be forgotten night. Their light-hearted flirting in which they'd very occasionally engaged during their partnership, disappeared like a cloud on a clear Australian summer's day.

"I'm not seeing one either." he said softly, careful about stepping on a mine.

"It... uh… it didn't work out." Skates admitted, head downturned so that Harm couldn't see her pain "I insisted on remaining with the fleet for so long that we barely saw each other..."

"It's okay." Harm interrupted, holding up his hands "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to… I'm sorry for sounding like I'm trying to pressure you."

Skates shook her head, "No… it's okay… actually maybe talking about will help… When I finally returned from my deployment after our crash, we realized we had simply grown apart. Each of us had changed, grown up while I was posted away, instead of growing together as we would've if I actually took that transfer stateside and sooner at that. It didn't take us long to realize that while we still loved each other, we were now two different people. So, instead of fighting a losing battle we decided to give in to the inevitable and parted on friendly terms. I got a Christmas card from him, he's now married and already a father!"

A large hand gently gripped her shoulder, fingers comfortingly contracting around her small bones "It's a good thing you realized it quickly enough, before you did something that would be hard and time-consuming to undo. Trust me, I'm a lawyer."

Skates couldn't help but chuckle slightly at that, then resolutely pushed the dark cloud away "Aren't you a trial lawyer and not a divorce attorney?"

The memory of those times years ago made Harm smile as if he'd swallowed a rotten lemon "When I was your rank and Admiral Chegwidden had just taken command of JAG, he decided to teach those stationed at JAG a lesson in humility. My penance was duty as a divorce attorney for personnel."

"Nice." Skates remarked sarcastically, receiving a shrug in return.

"Though, truthfully, some good things came out of it that made me glad I was there."

"You'll have to tell me about them sometime."

"Okay." Harm agreed readily, believing it was just a generic comment with no true desire behind it, but Beth's eyes narrowed.

"I mean that. I know you can't give me names or any more detailed information, but I really am interested in the kind of cases you've had. The human capacity for boundless stupidity has always intrigued me."

"H'mm… How do you fancy observing human stupidity at its pinnacle, and just maybe feel like doing something for a worthy cause?"

"Anything, Hammer. Just say the word and I'll do it."

"Just hold up there a minute, don't go writing any blank checks. I'm about to ask you one hell of a favour!"

"Get on with it Hammer! Fish or cut bait!" Skates scolded him, her curiosity piqued. Harm was pretty well known throughout the aviation community for speaking his mind, and Skates found his present prevarication both frustrating and intriguing.

Harm took a breath, and indicated the path leading away from the wall, in a mute invitation that they should walk.

Skates nodded, rose to her feet and fell into step beside him, just sitting on the bench on a chilly winter evening had done little to help her keep warm.

"Well, there's this girl…" Harm began diffidently.

For some inexplicable reason, Skates felt her heart sink as he spoke, but when he hesitated, she managed a reasonable facsimile of a friendly grin and said, "Isn't there always? Go on…"

"I don't mean in that way!" Harm said shooting his friend an exasperated glance.

"So what way do you mean?" Skates asked.

"If you stay quiet for a moment or two, I'll fill you in on all the gory details," Harm gritted through his teeth.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Get on with it!" Skates grinned.

While they walked slowly back towards Beth listened attentively and when he was done explaining Harm waited for her response with bated breath. This could go wrong in so many ways...

"When do I get to meet her?"

An explosive sigh of relief escaped Harm as the tension he had felt instantaneously dissipated, while his face lit up on one of his hundred megawatt special grins.

Resisting the urge to loop an arm around Skates' shoulder and squeeze her to death in gratitude, he contented himself with just turning his grin in her direction, and then shook his head slightly in disapprobation at his own thoughts.

He really should've had more faith in Skates. Why did he keep using Mac as a yardstick by which to compare all women based on the Marine's behaviour and attitude, and expect them to react the same way? Had she really scarred him that badly?

He had asked Mac a favour, a single favour, which he honestly felt that she definitely owed him, but she hadn't even given him a fair hearing before she had erupted, not only bringing up past issues he'd believed had been dealt with, even if he hadn't been happy the way those issues had been resolved, but she had also been catty and petty trying, as usual to make the conversation all about her, and even going so far as involving his mother, outright calling him a bad son and questioning his ability to be a good father even before he had a chance to be one, forcibly reminding him of how she'd questioned his integrity before a court-martial in which he was to be the judge and then tried to have him removed from the case, knowing that would almost certainly destroy his career. Skates' ready acceptance therefore was balm to his soul, and he knew that he had done her a grave injustice in assuming that she might react in a similar manner to Mac, when Skates was definitely not the same!

Skates, who'd never failed to prove her loyalty and friendship, Skates who knew more about the latter, heck about both qualities, than Sarah MacKenzie would know in her entire life.

And why the heck was he still going on and on about Mac, even in his private thoughts? He may have accepted her "never", but he'd obviously hadn't let go of her. Wasn't it about time he actually let go of her for good and move on with his life?

Okay, he decided, this is it. From now on, no more Mac, nothing I do or think should be about her anymore.

With that decision foremost he pulled himself together and smiled at Beth "How about tomorrow?"

Beth thought for a second, her mind furiously going over the next day to make sure she didn't have anything pressing to do. Her face then cleared as she smiled "Sure, I've got a couple of days off to get settled in, pick me up?"

"Be ready to go at zero six thirty."

"Yeah, speak for yourself." she snorted gently, good humour forefront.

"Oh, don't worry about me." Harm dismissed her worries, finger waving in the air to chastise her.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

"Mornin'!" Skates chirped as she fell down into Harm's Corvette, then grimaced. "Damn, this car is low. I swear my tailbone aches from misjudging the seat's height."

"You're like some freaking Energizer Bunny, you know that, right?" Harm groused, glaring at her as he fought off a yawn.

"Somebody hasn't had their morning coffee yet." she observed with amusement.

"No, I haven't. I swear, I've been getting up at 0500 since I can't remember when and getting in a run before work, but somehow it still hasn't gotten easier to really wake up before 0900."

"Years are finally starting to catch up to you, old man." she teased, then gave an offer he couldn't have refused even if someone held a gun to his head "Stop by the next Starbucks, my treat."

"You just bought yourself a slave for life." Harm blinked at her gratefully.

Skates made a show of looking him up and down, before wrinkling her nose and shaking her head "No thanks. Big as you are, you'd eat me out of house and home within a few days."

She shut up, heat crawling into her cheeks as she realized the just how much possible innuendo Harm could draw from this. Shooting him a quick sideways glance she breathed a sigh of relief, followed by a quiet giggle, as she realized he was still too out of it to catch that. She figured she could exploit this opportunity to get a little gentle mocking in, but decided to give the guy a break. After these last couple of days, months actually if what she'd heard was true, he deserved some respite.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

"We're here!" Harm announced grandly.

Skates yawned and blinked her eyes open, the warmth generated by the car's heating system had lulled her into a doze. Looking around all she could see was a rather shabby clap-board house and a few yards away a timber built barn also looked as if it could stand some TLC. "And where, exactly, is here?" she demanded.

"Why, where we are, of course," Harm grinned, knowing full well that is answer would only exasperate Skates.

He wasn't disappointed, Skates swivelled her head so that she looked straight at him, it seemed to Harm looking into the deep, brown eyes he was staring into the twin barrels of a loaded 12 gauge. Raising his hands in mock surrender, he grinned again, "Power down, Skates, this is the Johnson house, it's where the girl we've come to see lives."

Skates snorted, "Considering you're asking me, by your own account, for a huge favour, you're not exactly going about things the right way to endear you to me!"

For some reason Harm felt the tips of his ears burning red, "Ah… It's not really me needs to be endeared to you, but I'm hoping you'll take a shine to Mattie, so if you're ready, Miss Hawkes?"

Ten seconds later Harm wrapped on the wooden frame the screen door, and smiled nervously at Skates, "She should still be at home, the hanger was all locked up and we went past, and the pick-up is still here." He nodded at a dilapidated, rusting truck that Skates, after a shrewd look, judged to be twelve, maybe fifteen years old. But before she could ask for details, the door opened, to reveal a young teenager her face, screwed into a puzzled frown, surrounded by a riot of red-blonde curls that fell below her shoulders to the middle of her back.

But just as much as Skates gave the youngster a quick inspection she became aware that she too was being appraised by a pair of bright blue eyes that were alight with curiosity as they flicked from Harm to Skates and back.

"Hey, Mats…" Harm greeted the youngster.

A flashing grin, but still showing puzzlement, replaced the frown, "Hey, Harm… What brings you down here today, I thought we weren't going to court until tomorrow?"

"We're not," Harm agreed, "And if you let us in out of the cold, I'll explain why we are here... And it would help if there's such a thing as a cup of coffee in the house?"

Mattie blushed for her lapse in hospitality and stepped back, "Of course, come on in. You remember where the kitchen is, right?"

"Sure do," Harm replied, as with a hand on the small of her back he guided Skates down the hall while Mattie closed the front door behind them.

A minute or so later Mattie and Skates were sat at the kitchen table while Harm stood at the kitchen counter. "Mattie, I'd like you to meet Skates, that is Beth Hawkes. She's a naval officer too, and she'll be coming with us to court tomorrow. Skates, this is Mattie Grace Johnson, my former boss, and the girl I told you about yesterday…" Harm left the two women to acknowledge each other while he busied himself with coffee grounds, filters and carafes of water, and once again Skates found her the subject of a speculative gaze from the teenager.

"Harm never said anything about being married?" Mattie asked.

"Oh, I'm not his wife." Skates hurried to clear up the misunderstanding, heat again crawling up her neck.

"Ah." Mattie's face shone with understanding "Too early to talk about the M and the K words, got it!"

It took only a few seconds for Harm and Elizabeth to make the connection to the two words people avoid mentioning in the early phases of relationships in fear of running their partner off. Marriage. Kids.

Skates' eyes shot to Harm's face an almost panic-stricken plea for help plain to see in her expression.

Harm's placed the carafe of fresh-brewed coffee on the oilcloth that covered the kitchen table. "Mattie," he tried to explain with great patience as he sat down, "Skates, Beth, isn't my romantic partner in any way, shape or form. She is however a very good friend, closer to me than almost anyone else in the world. Back in the day when I was still flying she was my last RIO, and one day, maybe when you become an aviator, you'll come to understand exactly what that kind of bond entails!"

Skates shot Harm a swift, guarded look and then turned her smile on the teenager, for fear that Harm might see the reflection in her eyes of the sudden and unexpected hurt that she felt. While she could put up a front that would fool most of the world, one of the consequences of that bond he had just told Mattie about was that it made it almost impossible for either of them to conceal their feelings from the other. In this case however she was given a double break, firstly Harm refused to meet her gaze for fear that she might get an idea of the thoughts and feelings that the aviator turned attorney was beginning to formulate about his former GIBS, and secondly was the response from the copper haired youngster.

"RIO?" repeated the young girl, her voice echoing her confusion, but that didn't last very long as the aviation savvy girl swiftly made the connection, "Oh… yeah… Radar Intercept Officer… the Gal In the Back Seat!"

"That's her!" Harm agreed, the ones who do all the work – or so they reckon!"

"Don't listen to him, Mattie, Skates smiled, "There's a very good reason why they're just called drivers!"

Mattie broke into a grin of pleasure as she realised that what she was hearing was two very good friends gently teasing each other along the lines of an obviously well-worn argument, but still, there was something about the two officers that made her wonder about the real nature of their relationship!

"So now that we've got that straight, shall we just take another run at the ground rules for tomorrow?" Harm asked.

Mattie sighed theatrically, "Harm, I got it, I really do."

Harm took a sip of his coffee before he answered, "in that case, you won't mind repeating the lesson for Beth now, will you?"

Mattie gave him a long-suffering look that also managed to embody a vast amount of teenage cynicism, "Okay," she answered reluctantly, and then in a nearly sing-song voice she recited, "I don't chew gum, or spit on the floor, I call the judge 'Your Honour', I answer all questions truthfully but I don't volunteer any information for which I'm not asked."

Harm nodded approvingly, "And?" he prompted.

"And I speak from the heart and tell them why I want you to be my guardian."

Harm nodded in satisfaction, "Good. Very good, stick to the game plan, keep it simple and we stand a more than good chance…"

"There's just one thing," Mattie began, shooting a glance at Skates, as if asking for her support, "Do I really have to wear a dress?"

Harm drew a deep breath. He ought to have known that Mattie wasn't going to give up this particular argument so easily. "Yes, Mattie you do. Apart from anything else, it's the only item of clothing you've got that isn't jeans and sweats! Besides, it shows that you have self-respect, and it also shows respect to the court!"

Mattie cast a significant look at the jean-clad Skates, "You're wearing jeans, can't you tell him?"

"Yes, I'm wearing jeans, but tomorrow, in court, I shall be wearing my service dress, which apart from being pretty uncomfortable, is from a fashion point of view, totally hideous. But it's what's needed for the day."

"How can I be showing respect for the court, when I turn up in disguise? Like I'm pretending to be someone I'm not?" Mattie asked in an aggrieved tone.

"Mats, the courtroom is like a theatre stage, we're all acting a part… and to some extent we're all wearing costumes. Do you remember what |I said about working for you? When the Admiral came to see me?"

Mattie gave a slight shake of her head, "Nuh-huh."

"I said amongst other things that I liked working for you because I didn't have to wear a suit and tie. Well, now I'm back at JAG, I do got to wear them – even of it is a blue suit. And tomorrow, if I wasn't wearing my uniform, I would be wearing a suit and a tie, it's what's expected someone who has my part. Like the judge will be wearing a robe, and do you think that he…"

"Or she!" skates interrupted.

Harm gave Skates a warning look, but continued with a nod to acknowledge the truth of her contribution, "or she, wears a robe at any other time? Like at home?"

Mattie glowered, "No… prob'ly not…" she grudgingly conceded.

"Good, so that's settled then," Harm smiled, but with a note of finality on his voice. "You'll wear the dress, and Beth and I will be here at zero nine hundred in the morning, also in our best bib and tucker, okay?"

Matte tried one last appeal, this time direct to Skates, "Can't you make him see that I just don't do dresses?"

Beth smiled in sympathy but also shook her head. I'm sorry, Mattie, but just for once, he's right. It will make a much better impact on the judge if we're all smartly dressed."

Mattie's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Okay, I'll wear the damn… uh… the damned dress, but I'm not happy about it!"

Harm reached out and gave an affectionate tousle to her hair, "Hey, that's life, Squirt. Nobody said it had to be fair, and we all have to do things from time to time that we don't like."

Mattie gave Harm a flat look in return and turned to back to Skates, "And he's a friend?" she asked despairingly.

"Trust me," Skates smiled warmly, "there's none better and if Harm's with you, he's with you all the way!"

A grin split Mattie's face and she turned it on Harm, "Yeah, and that's the truth!"

Harm looked not only surprised, but slightly startled by this encomium and the tips of his ears burned red. Skates noted his discomfort and said to Mattie, "Why don't you show me this dress that you dislike so much, maybe there's some way of hiding its worst points!"

"A gallon of Avgas and a match book?" Mattie suggested.

Skates just laughed. "C'mon you, let's go see this dress."

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

Harm and Skates sat in silence as Harm manoeuvred through the county roads until he reached the I-29 North and then as he settled the 'vette at a steady sixty-five Skates looked across at him and said, "You chose that dress for Mattie, didn't you?"

"Uh… yeah… like I said, she didn't have any dresses – or any girl stuff in her closet – and she needs that dress for tomorrow!"

"No… no she doesn't!" Skates declared emphatically.

"But you agreed with me about showing respect to the court…" a baffled Harm replied.

"I did. And I do. But she doesn't need that dress. She needs a dress that shows her as she is, not as she was five years ago!"

"But…"

"But nothing, Hammer. First stop when we get back to the DC area is Tyson's Corner mall!"

"A mall? On December twenty-third? Skates…" Harm whined.

"Suck it up, sailor! Just be thankful that Mattie kept her mom's sewing box with a tape measure in it so I could get her measurements!"

Harm chanced a quick sideways look at Skates, "That bad, huh?" he asked.

"Harm, you have no idea!" Skates laughed at him.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

Harm, sat waiting at the kitchen table, twitched back the cuff on his service dress blues and frowned. He had long since finished his coffee, poured as Skates had hustled Mattie upstairs to change out of the despised dress and into the new outfit that Skates had procured from the 'Mom and Daughter' rack at the most expensive women's retail outlet at Tyson' Corner. But that had been nearly half an hour ago!

'What takes women so long to change out of one dress into another?' Harm fretted as the minute hand on his watch ticked inexorably around towards the point where they would have to leave the house or risk being late at court, and there was no way that was going to happen today, today's proceedings were far too important to Harm, and to Mattie for that matter, to risk screwing up in any way.

Growing at more agitated by the second Harm was on the verge of getting to his feet and yelling at the stairs for the two women to get a move on when he at last heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs. With a puffed but inaudible, 'It's about time!' and swivelled in his chair to glare and door as it opened.

"Wow, basilisk stare, much!" Skates grinned impudently at him, and before Harm could respond she continued blithely, "I know we've kept you waiting, but I think you'll agree the end product was worth it, so close your eyes…"

"Beth, we haven't got time for this," Harm protested.

"We have, if you'll stop arguing about it," Skates replied sweetly.

With another snatched, frustrated glance at his watch he figured that it would be quicker to indulge Skates' whim than argue with her and then closed his eyes.

Five seconds later Skates, her voice brimming over with laughter, said, "Okay, you can open them now!"

Harm did as he was bid and then stood stock still, his mouth opening in surprise, while Mattie stared at him a worried expression creeping over her face while Skates her eyes flitting from one to the other also began to look anxious.

Finally, Harm found his voice, "Wow! That is… That… I mean it's… It's…" Finally, abandoning the attempt to find words to describe what he saw, with a dawning smile he turned to Skates and asked, "Okay, who is this young lady? And what have you done with Mattie?"

His words were prompted by Mattie's appearance in a dark, but not Navy, blue dress in knitted jersey, with a modestly high round neck and three quarter length sleeves, the slightly flared skirt fell from a simple bodice, the hem just brushing Mattie's knee. The dress was set off by a pair of low-heeled, black leather court shoes that looked suspiciously similar to those worn by Skates in uniform. A hint of gold at Mattie's neck and wrist completed her outfit, but the biggest change was to her hair. No longer a wild mane rioting down to the middle of the back it had been pummelled, cudgelled, beaten, twisted and teased into a wrist-thick braid that hung straight down Mattie's spine. A treatment that had caused some discomfort to the teenager if her reddened eyes were any sort of clue.

"I told you I looked like a geek! This is so not me, and you heard him, even Harm doesn't think it looks like me!"

"Mattie…" Skates began to protest but her voice was overridden by Harm as he opened his arms.

"C'mere, Squirt… I was just teasing and the only reason I was teasing was that I absolutely couldn't find words to describe just how great you look. It pains me to admit it, but Beth made a much better job of choosing your outfit that I did!"

"Really?" Mattie asked tremulously.

"My word as a sneaky, low-down shyster!" Harm pledged, and then his full blown, aviators' grin broke across his face, "So, yeah, really, now are you going to come here so I can give you a hug?"

With a sob of relief Mattie stepped forward throwing her arms around as much of Harm as she could reach while she buried her face in the cloth of his uniform jacket and took comfort the feeling of warmth and security as his arms folded around her.

Skates stood and watched for a few seconds, her broad grin slowly mutating into a smile that combined both pleasure and a hint of sadness, just for once not caring that if Harm lifted his head and opened his eyes he would be able to read her heart in her face. But then, becoming aware that each passing second that that possibility was approaching reality, she cleared her throat meaningfully, "isn't it about time we got going?" she asked innocently.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

Harm, Beth and Mattie entered the sparsely populated courtroom proper and made their way to the front, Mattie acknowledging on the way an encouraging smile from a burly man in his forties, who she told Harm in a whisper was the Albemarle County Sheriff, the man who had allowed her to drive the Grace Aviation truck. That praise was no recommendation to Harm, and he fixed the law officer with a flat, almost unfriendly stare, receiving an unrepentant grin in return, but before Harm could formulate a greeting, or a protest his attention was distracted by a happy cry of "Uncle Harm!"

Harm's head jerked around in surprise, there was only one person in the world who called him that, and what little A J Roberts was doing here was something that Harmon Rabb couldn't fathom until he saw the youngster flanked by his parents, both Bud and Harriet dressed in their best Service Dress Blues.

Harm dropped to on knee and drew the child into a brief hug, "Hey, Champ, how ya doing?"

"I'm good Uncle Harm!" A J Roberts nodded his head determinedly.

"Good… now let me up, Tiger, I need to speak with your mom and dad!" Harm rose to his feet, "Bud, Harriet?" he asked bemusedly, "What are you doing here… how did you…?"

"Find out about what you were up to… sir?" Harriet challenged him. "Leaving apart the fact that we are going to have a long conversation about why you've been so secretive about this… young lady…" she broke off to smile warmly at Mattie, before her cornflower blue eyes switched their focus back on Harm, "The Colonel visited with us yesterday and she was concerned…"

"Not quite, Harriet!" Bud interrupted firmly, "Colonel MacKenzie was pretty indignant that you'd asked her to be a character witness for you, and we thought she was being unfair, so with your permission, sir, I figured I'd try and do what the Colonel doesn't want to!"

Harm nodded, "Harriet?" he asked gently.

Harriet's chin came up, "Yes, sir, I stand whole-heartedly with Bud on this one. I am disappointed in the Colonel, with her attitude… but I… Bud and I count you as a friend, and if our being here and speaking up for you will help, well, here we are!"

Harm smiled gravely, "Thank you both, but don't let yourselves get dragged into whatever quarrel the Colonel thinks she and I might have!"

"No, sir, we will try to stay friends with both of you, you are both A J's godparents, after all.

"That we are, that we are," Harm sighed heavily.

"But, sir," Harriet continued as if Harm hadn't spoken, "whatever you and the Colonel are to each other now, doesn't have any bearing on us coming here to speak up for you today!"

"Thank you for that, Harriet," Harm replied with a smile. "Look, we don't have time right now, but I promise after the hearing, we'll find somewhere for a coffee, and I'll tell you all about Mattie!"

"That's a promise?" Harriet asked coyly.

Harm grinned, "It sure, is Harriet!"

Harm and Mattie took their seats at the petitioners' table in the courtroom and waited for the court to be called to order, while Beth slid into a seat immediately behind Mattie, who, sitting nearest the aisle, hissed into Harm's ear, "That's him!" indicating the middle aged-man taking a seat at the what Harm instinctively thought of as the prosecution table.

"Your father?" Harm asked, visually inspecting the badly shaved, shabbily dressed and watery eyed individual who glared back at him with absolute loathing.

"Yeah, that's him!" Mattie ground out between clenched teeth. But before Harm, Mattie or Tom Johnson could say anything else, the bailiff's voice rang out.

"All rise! The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of Albemarle County is in session, the Honourable Judge Madeleine Smith presiding!"

Judge Smith was an attractive brunette in her mid-to-late forties, with a no-nonsense manner about her. She stood in front of her chair taking in the scene in the court room before saying, "Be seated!" suiting her own actions to her words.

She wasted no time, as she donned a pair of reading glasses and opened the file in front of her, saying, "Commander Rabb, you have petitioned the Family Relations court for the guardianship of Matilda Grace Johnson, a minor child."

"I have your honour." Harm replied.

Madeleine Smith removed her reading glasses and lay them on the bench in front of her, "I have read the report by Donna Le Moyne, the Guardian Ad Litem and the housing inspection report by Morgan Watley. Both reports raise questions, but both indicate a refreshing honesty and a realistic appraisal of the challenge you face."

Harm leaned forward slightly in his seating his hands lightly clasped on the table top in front of him, "I would be glad to answer any questions the court has your honour."

"And you will have your chance," Judge Smith responded, "However, this matter has become complicated by the return of Thomas Johnson, Matilda Grace Johnson's biological father."

Harm shot a glance across the aisle at Tom Johnson, to see a smug expression cross the other man's face as he heard the judge's words.

"Now, Mister Johnson, I understand that at this time you wish to address the court?"

"I do, your honour," Tom Johnson's voice was rasping and husky, the product of a long period of alcohol abuse.

Judge Smith nodded, "You need to be able to convince me that you are willing and capable of taking care of this child, so before you speak your piece, I have a few questions for you. Firstly, where have you been for the last six months?"

"Well… well, I've been trying to get my life back together, your honour."

"And you left Matilda on her own?"

Johnson sat back in his chair, his hands clasped on his stomach, "No, I left her with relatives," he grinned indulgently across the aisle at his daughter, "She chose not to stay with them, Mattie can be… uh… strong-willed!"

"And what's to say that you will not abandon this child a second time?" the judge asked.

"Well, ma'am, I was the victim of a very unfortunate accident…"

His prevarication was too much for Mattie, rising to her feet before Harm could prevent her, she glared across the aisle at her father, "You killed my mother!" she accused him.

Judge Smith turned her attention to Mattie, "Miss Johnson," she admonished the aggrieved teenager.

Mattie looked at Judge Smith, "My name is Grace, Mattie Grace," she indicated Tom Johnson, "Johnson is his name!" She lifted her head slightly and continued, "And he was drunk…!"

But before she could say anything else, she was stopped by Harm's softly spoken, but clearly audible, "Mattie… sit down." An unhappy Mattie sat and listened as Harm added, "Your father has a right to be heard, and you need to respect this court."

An embarrassed but still defiant Mattie gulped, and once more addressed the Judge, "I'm sorry… your honour."

"Apology accepted," the Judge replied and then with just a suggestion of a half-smile and an acknowledging inclination of her head added, "Miss Grace."

There was a couple of seconds silence while an abashed Mattie lowered her gaze and Judge Smith returned her attention to Tom Johnson, who stood to face her, "Your honour, I was not always the way I am now. Mattie might not remember, she might not want to remember, but I used to be a good man, and I used to be a good father," he said earnestly. "See, her mother used to work nights, and I used to make the dinner, I used to read to her," his voice cracked with emotion as he looked across the aisle at his daughter who returned his tear filled glance with one of scorn. "The fact is, I've made some mistakes, made some big ones. Things I can never repent for, no matter how much I wish I could, but I am trying to be a better man… for Mattie. And all I'm asking is that you give her the chance to get to know me the way I am now." Johnson gave a slight shrug and after a moment resumed his seat, and as he did so, Mattie once again stood.

"May I say something, your honour?" she asked.

The judge made an open hand gesture implying permission, and said, "This is your day, Mattie."

"There is no way this man can make it up to me. He got behind the wheel when he was drunk, I will never forgive him for that." Mattie half turned to her left for a moment and indicated Harm, "Commander Rabb has offered to make a place for me in his life, and he has offered me more parenting in the few months that I have known him, than I have received from that man in a year or more. I promise to do as he tells me, and that I won't cause any trouble for him."

The judge shook her head slightly, "Trouble is a part of life. I am only interested in how Commander Rabb is going to handle that trouble."

Her words brought Harm to his feet, "Your honour, I lost my father when I was young, not because he left, but because he went missing in action in Vietnam. I know what it's like to grow up without a father, and I don't take the responsibility of fatherhood lightly. I give my word to this court, your honour, that I will do my level best to ensure that Mattie gets everything she deserves. I've given her my word that she will never be alone in this world again!"

Tom Johnson surged to his feet, his anger evident in his voice, "There's only one problem with that! You're not her father!"

Judge Smith intervened before the situation could escalate, "Donna Le Moyne was most impressed with Commander Rabb; she believes he would make a very suitable guardian."

"But, doesn't a man have a right to be with his own child?" Johnson demanded.

"That is a primary consideration, Mister Johnson. However, this court must also consider what kind of father you will make, and also what kind of guardian Commander Rabb will make. I am not at all happy that you disappeared, leaving Mattie without adult care and supervision, and I am not at all assured that you are capable of supporting and caring for Mattie. What is your current employment?"

"I… uh… don't have a job…" Johnson confessed.

Judge Smith looked at him severely, "And where did you plan for you and Mattie to live?"

"I was going to move back into our old house with her, Your Honour."

Mattie almost jumped to her feet," Your honour, may I say something on that?"

"Go ahead, Mattie," Judge Smith smiled.

"Firstly, your honour, I will never consent to sleeping under the same roof as that man. He does not own the house, it was left to me in my mother's will, together with the business. But thanks to him, I have now lost both home and business. The new owner of the home has let me to stay there until this is over, one way or another. And I don't think the new owner will allow him to even enter the premises!"

"You have lost both home and business?" Judge Smith asked, her eyes narrowing in concern.

"Yes, ma'am," Mattie replied, forgetting protocol for the moment, "He took out a bank loan secured on my mother's property and then took off. I tried to keep the payments up, but on top of day to day running costs and bills, I… I couldn't manage it… so the bank was going to foreclose on the house, and the business, to sell it to pay off the debts. That man has left me with nothing, and all that I had was what my mother left me. All I have now are her jewellery and her watch."

Judge Smith's face set in stern, disapproving lines as she turned her attention back to Tom Johnson.

"Is this so? You took out a bank loan against property which you did not own, and then instead of using that loan for the benefit of your family and your business, you took off with it?"

Johnson looked uncomfortable and had difficulty in meeting the judge's eyes, "Yes, your honour… but at the time I was drinking… drinking a lot… and I wasn't thinking straight."

"Let me get this straight! You were drinking, so you thought it all right to defraud your child of her inheritance?"

"I guess it sounds bad, your honour, but I never meant no harm…" Johnson said weakly.

The judge however was not moved. "Mister Johnson, let me get this straight, you have no job, nowhere to live and you are an alcoholic. What on earth made you think that I would consent to release Matilda into your care?"

"I am a recovering alcoholic, your honour," Johnson said, pathetically defiant. "I've joined AA and I haven't touched a drop of liquor in weeks!"

"Your honour," a soberly suited man in the row immediately behind Tom Johnson got to his feet, "May I add something?"

Judge Smith looked at him impatiently, "Well, Who are you?"

"Your honour, my name is Ambrose Burnside, I'm Tom Johnson's sponsor at AA."

"Very well, what is it you wish to say?"

"Your honour, Tom Johnson has a lot of problems. He will find it difficult enough to overcome those problems without having to try to contend with a hostile teenager. Your honour, as much as I have sympathy for Tom Johnson's aims, his needs must take precedence for the moment. Your honour, he needs space and time to get a hold of himself, and I don't believe that until that happens, that he is capable of being a parent."

Tom Johnson whirled around, his jaw sagging open in disbelief and his face working furiously as he struggled to find a voice, "You… you… you back stabbing son of a bitch!" he cried.

"Mister Johnson!" Judge Smith rapped the bench with her gavel, "That is enough! Sit down and be quiet or I will have you removed from the court! Is that clear?"

Johnson turned back to face the bench. He made a vague gesture with his right hand, as if waving off an attack from behind even as he gulped and nodded, "Yes, your honour. I'm sorry… It… I... He…"

"I understand, Mister Johnson. But that does not excuse such an outburst! Now, sit down!" Judge Smith waited until Johnson had complied with her order before she turned back to Harm and Mattie.

"We have just heard, enough, I think, to justify not returning Matilda to her biological father, but what is it that makes you think I could be persuaded to allow you to assume the position of legal guardian to Matilda?"

Harm stood, "Well, your honour, I do have a job, a pretty secure one at that, and I do have somewhere for Mattie to live…"

"Only just acceptable, Commander, according to Morgan Warley's report."

"As it stands your honour, that is so. But I have just acquired the neighbouring apartment, and I have the building's owner's permission to make the two one bedroom apartments into a larger two bedroom apartment, and I have asked a respected firm of DC architects to draw up plans for the conversion."

"So, Mattie would be living on a construction site for a while?" Judge Smith asked disapprovingly.

"Only for a very short while," Harm replied, although with a sinking feeling in his stomach.

"I see… And who would be carrying out this conversion?"

"That would be me, your honour."

"And you are a board licensed builder, Commander?" Judge Smith asked sarcastically.

"No your honour, I am not. But I converted my present apartment from a loft storage space into a dwelling, and I also restored an antique airplane back to airworthiness. In fact, the airplane is how I first met Mattie, it was kept in her company's Hangar here in Charlottesville."

"Very well, if I decide to grant you guardianship, a further home visit will definitely be on the cards!" the Judge said. "Now, I see from Ms Le Moyne's report that you have provisionally enrolled Matilda in a DC school, but not commencing until the New Year. Why is that?"

"It didn't make much sense to me to have Mattie start school in DC only to have you reject the petition, and then she would have to disrupt her education even further and enrol in a new, different school. I know her absence from school isn't satisfactory, but she will have access to a first class public library in the area where we live, and I am not a bad hand as a maths and science coach."

"I see. You may sit down, Commander. Matilda, what makes you so sure that Commander Rabb will be able to provide you with the home and with the care you need?"

Mattie gulped and grabbed Harm's hand to give it a convulsive squeeze before she stood.

"Your honour, Harm – Commander Rabb – has ever since we first met – gone out of his way to make sure that I am okay. At first when he was working for me and found out that I was on my own he used to wait for me to finish for the day before he took me home, and made sure I ate something other than pizza every day, and then when he re-joined the Navy he sicced a neighb… Uh… I mean he arranged with a neighbour lady, a Mrs Pearson, to make sure that I got a balanced meal each evening. I didn't know it at the time, but he paid Mrs Pearson for the food and for the time she spent cooking it. Maybe he doesn't know it, Your Honour, but when Ms le Moyne came to my house to interview him, I sat on the stairs and kinda listened in. One of the questions she asked him was why was he doing this, why was he applying for guardianship. He told her that somebody needed to look after me, and it was out of affection… Ms Le Moyne, and I both know that he meant love, but he's just too buttoned up to come right out and say so!"

Judge Smith let a small sympathetic smile play on her lips for a moment or two before she asked, "Anything else?"

"Yes, your honour. The new owner of my mom's house? That's Harm. The Commander I mean. He took over the mortgage from the bank and is paying it off according to the schedule, he's even making up the arrears…"

The judge looked surprised at that, "Commander?"

Harm got back to his feet and placed a hand on Mattie's shoulder, and she in an almost automatic gesture raised her own hand and placed it on top of his.

"Your honour, Mattie has a home with me for as long as she wants it, but I also figured it wasn't fair on her to lose her mom's house as a result of wrongdoing by a third party. I couldn't afford to save the business, so that has gone. But when the house is paid off and I have free and clear title to it, then if Mattie wants it back, she shall have it. In the meantime, I figure we could both use it as a weekend residence during the summer when we come down to fly, and in the meantime, there's enough to do in fixing it up and maybe modernising it where it needs."

"I see… thank you, Commander. Please sit down…" Judge Smith popped her reading glasses back on her nose and started looking through the files in front of her, occasionally nodding but just as frequently giving a disapproving shake of her head. Her reading, however, was interrupted as Bud Roberts stood up, "If it please the court, your honour, may I be heard?"

Judge Smith looked up in surprise. She had of course, noted the trio of navy uniforms ranged behind the plaintiffs and had been somewhat surprised that the young child accompanying two of those uniforms had remained so still and quiet throughout the proceedings.

"And you are?" she queried.

"Lieutenant Budrick Roberts, Junior, your honour. I have the honour and the privilege of serving with Commander Rabb."

"And what is it you wish to say, Lieutenant?"

"Ma'am, I have known the Commander for eight years. During that time I have watched him mentoring younger officers, both as navy officers and as attorneys. I am one of those officers and I have first-hand experience of the Commander's dedication to those for whom he feels responsible, but not just in our professional world, but also in our personal world. It was the Commander who, when my present wife and I were still dating but had had a falling out, engineered us into a social occasion where we had no choice other than to speak with each other, and then once we had broken the ice anew, well we… but what I'm trying to say ma'am, is that the Commander has a deep wellspring of compassion, and once his interest is engaged then there is very little he will not do in order to achieve an equitable result." Bud gave a slightly shame-faced grin as he recalled the memory of the silly fight that he and Harriet had, while she blushed rosily.

"All very interesting and very commendable, Lieutenant, but hardly pertinent to this case?"

"Maybe not your honour, but if the court will permit, I shall show that the Commander has always taken a keen interest in children's welfare and well-being. Apart from being the very much loved Godfather to both of our children, Commander Rabb at no little risk to himself has protected the son of a former comrade, killed in the line of duty, from those who also wished to kill the child – a potential witness against them – even taking the child and his mother into his own home and on another occasion he not only saved the life of a six year old girl, after her twin sister had been killed, but he also tracked down and was involved in rescuing that little girl from the killer, during which encounter his own life was put at risk, subsequently he obtained psychiatric help for the traumatised child and then introduced her to the family that adopted her, with whom he still maintains close links. Mattie Johnson could ask for no finer guardian, and I have no hesitation in saying that I am totally confident, Your Honour, that Commander Rabb will exert the same application and determination in order to give Miss Johnson the very best home possible."

"That's all very commendable, Lieutenant, but how does that bear on this case?"

"Goes to prior conduct ma'am," Bud replied instantly.

Judge Smith fought down a grin. "I see. It seems you can take the attorney out of the courtroom, but you can't take the attorney out of the man!"

"My apologies if I have offended the court, your honour," Bud replied.

"No, there has been no offence. And the court is grateful for your input, Lieutenant, but unless you have anything further to say, you may sit down."

"Aye, aye, ma'am!" Bud snapped out his reply, responding to Judge Smith's command presence, a sharp kick on his ankle as he started sit made him realise what he had said, and with a guilty start he looked back up at the judge, "Oh… I'm sorry, again, I should have said 'yes, your honour'."

"Don't worry about it Lieutenant, the court heard the appropriate phrase."

Bud sank down again with a sigh of relief.

"Now…" but before Judge Smith could finish what she was about to say, Skates was on her feet.

"Your honour?"

"Yes?"

"Your honour, I would like to say a few words as to Commander Rabb's character."

Judge Smith Blinked, "Very well… you are?"

"Lieutenant Elizabeth Anne Hawkes, your honour."

"And you are also an attorney, Lieutenant?"

"No, your honour, I'm a Naval Flight Officer."

"I see… and what is your connection with the Commander?"

"Your honour, Commander Rabb is not just an attorney he is also a Navy Aviator, a fighter pilot. When he was on active flight duty I was lucky enough to be detailed as his RIO, his Radar Intercept Officer. He flew the airplane and I operated all the radar and associated equipment. Commander Rabb always showed absolute determination, intrepidness, resolve, honour and integrity while we flew together. I don't know if you know anything about Navy medals, Your Honour, but amongst the campaign and achievement medals Commander Rabb wears is the ribbon of the DFC, the Distinguished Flying Cross, which has been awarded twice, and that your honour is not an award that comes up with the rations."

Skate drew a deep breath, "I admit I haven't seen the Commander for a while…"

"How long a while, Lieutenant?"

"Uh… about two years, your honour…"

"What makes you think that Commander Rabb is the same man today that he was then?"

"I'm sure he's not, your honour. I am sure that he retains his sense of decency, his integrity, his honour, but I am also pretty sure that besides being a little older, he is also a little more experienced and a little wiser than we last met. But, your honour, if he were to ask me today if I'd climb into the back seat of an airplane he was piloting, I would have no hesitation at all in once more trusting him with my life all the way to hell and back, ma'am.

"To hell and back?"

"Yes, your honour, I'd follow him into hell and back. If needed, I'd even stay there. I trust and believe in him that much. But apart from my faith in Commander Rabb as a pilot and a leader, I also have the utmost respect, admiration and regard for his personal qualities. he is one of the most determinedly loyal, kind, dependable and caring people I have ever met. I have seen him interact with children and young people, on Tiger cruises, during on-board school field trips, and in purely social situations, and I firmly believe that any child who has Harmon Rabb in loco parentis is a very lucky young person."

"That sounds awfully committed to someone whom you hadn't seen regularly in... what... two years?

"I don't know how much you know about the team dynamics between a pilot and their RIO, your honour, but most of these bonds are closer than what they have with their spouses. Except for the lack of an intimate relationship, we've shared more in the six months we flew together than married couples do in during their entire marriages."

"Is that so?"

"Yes, ma'am. From Triple A over Bosnia to pushing our wingman to safety by his tail hook, to going down in a storm."

"You went down in a storm? In an airplane?"

Skates stopped, her brain catching up only now as her passionate defence of their relationship caught up to her. She squeezed her eyes shut as she realized just what she could've done that second, showed too plainly how much of an emotional risk Harm would've been as a guardian.

In his seat Harm covered his face with his hand as he groaned silently. He honestly hadn't expected this, but he still didn't hold it against Skates. He knew she was a very passionate person, fierce in the defence of those she cared about. It was one of her greatest strengths, if not THE greatest. If this bid for custody failed because of her testimony, it wouldn't be her fault, it would've been his, because he'd failed to consider the fact that her passion sometimes had her tongue running ahead of her brain. Which sometimes wasn't such a good thing, because it ended with her saying a little too much.

Which was just one of the numerous points they had in common.

"Yes, your honour, May 2001. Lightning strike caused a catastrophic failure of all systems."

"Commander Rabb?"

Harm sighed and rose "It's true, your honour. After they fished me out of the Atlantic 17 hours later, Skates was waiting for me in the Sickbay. She literally brought me back to life."

"With CPR?"

"No, ma'am. According to the reports I read, I was critically hypothermic, nearly drowned and had various other injuries when they brought me in. They were losing me and have given up hope, when they allowed Beth to try. As corny as it sounds, her desperate calls and pleading for me to return brought me back." Harm privately grimaced at a foul taste over having to say something so corny.

It put the bond he and Skates shared into a completely different light, one far removed from the real one. In that one they weren't partners with unlimited trust and close friends, but modern day Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers, held apart by rules and regulations. In Harm's private opinion this cheapened what they had, their bond was a lot more.

Judge Smith nodded in appreciation of the depth of the bond shared between Harm and Beth, and wondered if they had really worked their way through all the ramifications of that bond. Somehow she doubted it. After all it had been Matilda Johnson who had said that Commander Rabb was too buttoned up to be able to express himself freely, and Judge or not, Madeleine Smith was still woman enough to remember the pangs of uncertainty she had gone through before her own husband had finally admitted that he loved her. 'What was wrong with men?' But her train of thought was now lead her to reconsider and then overturn the judgement she had already decided upon, to refuse the petition, make Mattie a ward of court and instruct CPS to assume charge of her. But... there was something appealing about the way the teenager looked Rabb, and the two glowing character references she had just heard were two of the most positive and passionate arguments she had received while on the bench, and besides she was well aware of the past failings of the Virginia CPS, and in fact the tale of the young twins which Commander Rabb had been instrumental in resolving struck a faint chord of memory, and it looked superficially at any rate, and despite possible, or even probable, objections on moral and welfare grounds, that Matilda Johnson's best interests might be served by allowing Harmon Rabb to become her guardian. But even so, those objections...

"Commander, I am disturbed not only by the risks posed by your chosen career, but by the nonchalant manner in which you accept them."

"Your honour, as pilots we are trained to anticipate and prepare for the worst, that way we cut down on unpleasant surprises. So, there is nothing nonchalant about the way in which I view the risks of my career, which in any case have reduced sharply over the last twelve months. Your honour, I have reached the age of forty. In terms of fighter pilots that is old. Flying fast jets is a young man's game, requiring quick reflexes, and as we get older our reflexes slow. Twenty years ago I graduated first in my class from the Navy Fighter Weapons School. Today I doubt I could qualify for admission to that school. Additionally, the aircraft which I fly is in the process of being phased out of the fleet. The F-14 is being replaced on all our carriers with the F/A18 and at forty years old and in view of the limited number of hours I fly each year it is extremely unlikely that the Navy would consider it to their economic advantage to cross-train me on the newer type of airplane. No, your honour, my flying days are practically over, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that I have made my last trap in an F-14... I mean I have probably already made my last carrier deck landing. I now face no more inherent risk than a civilian attorney, and given that the Navy and Marine Corps have less hardened wrongdoers than the general population, I am probably less at risk than almost any DA in the country."

Judge Smith felt an unexpected pang of sympathy, the desolation in Harmon Rabb's voice, and the pain in his face as he publicly stated that he believed his Naval flying days were over were convincing tells that he was merely stating the truth as he saw it. And she had to acknowledge that his comment about the dangers faced by civilian prosecutors was well founded. Two at least had been murdered in the last year, and she wouldn't she acknowledged to herself, disallow a civilian attorney from assuming legal guardianship on the grounds of that slight risk. There was just one more hurdle, but if she'd read the signs aright, then that would be dealit with easily enough. Her decision made, Judge Smith made a note on the file and closed it before raising her head and speaking.

"Sheriff Ames," she said sharply, "I am issuing a bench warrant for the arrest of Thomas Johnson on charges of fraud and obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception. Mister Johnson, in view of the fact you have no employment and nowhere to live and no longer any ties to this community, I am remanding you in the custody of Sheriff Ames as a flight risk until the allegations that have been made against you in this court have been investigated. At that time you may expect to face criminal charges or in the seemingly unlikely event of the allegations being baseless you will be released without charge. Also, you have spectacularly failed to show this court that you are in a position to take care of your daughter, and indeed you have left this court with the impression that should the challenge of raising your daughter single-handedly be too much for you that you would again abscond and abandon her; this being the case I am ordering you stripped of all parental rights and concerns with regards to the minor child Matilda Grace Johnson. Do you understand, Mister Johnson?"

"You can't do that!"

"I not only can, but I have! You must also understand this, you may not have any contact by any means of communication including but not limited to telephone, email, facsimile, post or face-to-face with either the minor child Matilda Grace Johnson, Commander Harmon David Rabb USN or Lieutenant Elizabeth Anne Hawkes, USN. Is that also understood?"

Johnson, grey faced and visibly shaken managed a mumbled, "Yes, I understand."

"Then also understand this: if you breach any of those orders then you will be charged with gross contempt of court, and you will certainly face a lengthy period of incarceration. If, however at any time in the future you demonstrate that you are gainfully employed, have suitable accommodation and have maintained a state of sobriety, you may petition this court to have those conditions lifted and also petition for the restoration of your parental rights. Sheriff Ames, please take Mister Johnson into custody."

The surprised murmur from a few onlookers was quickly silenced by a rap of Judge Smith's gavel and a forbidding glare she swept around the room. Once order was restored and Johnson been escorted from the room, Judge Smith rapped again with her gavel.

"Custody of Matilda Grace Johnson, a minor child, is awarded to Harmon Rabb and Elizabeth Hawkes. You will get unannounced visits from a CPS worker who will check on Mattie and in six months, if their reports satisfactory, you'll be able to petition for adoption.

Harm and Skates' eyes met in surprise and stupefaction. Harm rose to ask what the hell was going on "Your Honour?"

"In Mattie's best interests this is the only way you're getting custody, Commander. Take it or leave it."

"I'm not saying no, your honour, but I'm a little surprised... Skates, Lieutenant Hawkes, hadn't applied for custody after all..."

The judge sighed and sent him a sharp look as she steepled her hands "Commander Rabb, you're a forty year-old single man petitioning for the custody of a minor female who is not related to you. You're not just lucky you were even taken seriously in the first place, but also lucky an investigation wasn't launched against you over possible sexual exploitation of Miss Grace."

"Harm wouldn't do that!" Mattie exploded.

The judge banged the gavel as Harm and Skates calmed Mattie down.

"I know that now, Miss Grace, after seeing how you behaved around him. But the fact persists, that with the circumstances and people involved, the case did look suspicious."

Harm nodded slowly, when looking at it from this angle, he had to agree with the judge's assertion.

"Your honour?" Skates faltered.

"To hell and back, Lieutenant, that's what you said. You're now the mother figure to a teenager. Welcome to hell. This case is adjourned!" a smile softening her words the judge rose and left the court.-room.

"Well..." Harm

"Well..." Skates agreed.

"That's all you two got to say?" demanded Mattie, looking at them incredulously.

"Well, Skates, what can I say?" Harm turned to his still speechless RIO "Except welcome to the family?"

"Uh, thanks, I think…." she managed to stutter, still completely flummoxed by the turn of events.

"And to think," Harm continued in a gently mocking tone "after your moving speech at your Court Martial, that I thought you'd be a great JAG. Good thing you didn't become one, because with your style you'd be joining your clients in jail."