In Winter Light

By Seema (seemag1@yahoo.com)

Disclaimer: Characters/places belong to DPB and CBS.

Author's note: Written for Sadistic Ferrett for the Yuletide project (http://www.intimations.org/yuletide/). Many thanks to Gail for beta'ing this story.

****

Jennifer Coates stamped her boots against the doormat, trying to get as much snow off them as possible. Of all the days for her car battery to finally die, it had to be tonight, Christmas Eve, and everyone -- she was sure -- had already cleared out for the Roberts' annual holiday party. As it was, she'd been running behind, organizing a few things for the Admiral, so by the time she'd started to pack up, both the office and the parking lot had been pretty well deserted.

Jennifer headed towards the back of the office to her desk when she caught sight of a glimmer of a light under a door. Colonel MacKenzie's office. Jennifer frowned. Hadn't the Colonel left several hours previously to go home and change for the Roberts' party? Jennifer passed the Colonel's office -- the blinds were closed over the window and the door was firmly shut. She could hear the Colonel talking on the phone, but the words were hard to make out. After a few minutes, the talking stopped and Jennifer took the opportunity to knock.

"Come in!"

Jennifer opened the door and found the Colonel putting on a black wool coat over brown wool pants and a red high-necked sweater.

"Coates," Colonel MacKenzie said genially. "I thought you'd left already."

"I could say the same about you, ma'am." Jennifer watched as Mac -- in her mind, she always thought of the Colonel by her preferred nickname -- quickly placed some manila folders in her briefcase. "Didn't you tell Commander Rabb you were leaving over an hour ago?"

"I did, but then I remembered a phone call I had to make about the Porter Article 32 hearing. So I came back to take care of that. What brings you back?"

Jennifer smiled ruefully. "Car battery is dead, probably because of the cold."

Mac nodded in understanding. "I've got jumper cables in my trunk. Where are you parked?"

"In the front parking lot."

"Okay, why don't you go out and I'll meet you at your car?" Mac took another look around her office, evidently going through some kind of mental checklist. "I'll be there in a few minutes." It was a casual dismissal, and Jennifer took the hint.

She lingered for a few minutes at her own desk, checking over some notes and then pulled on her gloves and hat before heading back into the sub-zero temperatures. She was glad she'd changed out of her uniform earlier and was now wearing warm black pants and a festive red holiday sweater with tiny green Christmas trees edging the collar. Ducking against the cold winter wind, Jennifer stood beneath a street light. The sky, lit up with holiday decorations and city lights, was a faded black color tinged with just a hint of pink. The snow crunched beneath her boots, hardened by footsteps that had come before, and of course, by the cold air itself. Jennifer hunched her shoulders and shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her overcoat. Mac had said she would only take a few minutes, and the Colonel was famous for her impeccable timing. Perhaps, Jennifer thought as she started to pace back and forth beneath the street light, it just *felt* like a long time because of the cold.

Finally, she saw the headlights of the Colonel's car.

"Sorry," Mac said as she got out. "I got stuck behind the plow."

"It's all right." Jennifer followed Mac as the Colonel rounded to the back of the car to pop open the trunk.

"Oh no," Mac said, staring into the trunk. "My cables--"

Jennifer peered in. Save for a pile of old newspapers, the trunk was empty.

"I must have taken them inside when I cleaned the car last," Mac said, more to herself than to Jennifer. "Listen," she said briskly, turning to Jennifer. "I'll drive you over to the Roberts' and then we can come back here later on for your --" she paused as her cell rang. "Hold on." The Colonel turned away and took a few steps in the opposite direction. Jennifer returned to her car -- a 1993 Toyota Corolla with 96,000 miles on it -- and simply waited. After a minute or so, Mac came back.

"Commander Rabb is on his way," Mac said shortly.

Jennifer started. "Oh you didn't have to ask him, ma'am!"

"He offered. He was wondering where we were and once I explained the situation, he insisted on coming. You know how Harm is once he gets an idea in his head." Mac shivered. "Let's wait inside, Petty Officer."

Jennifer agreed and followed Mac back into JAG Headquarters. Once again, she went through the routine of stamping off her boots, but Mac plowed straight in, heading straight for the kitchen.

"Coffee? Hot chocolate?" Mac called. "Tea?"

"Hot chocolate." She watched as Mac pulled Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets with marshmallows off the shelf. It felt rather odd to have the Colonel make the hot chocolate; usually Jennifer or Harriet were the ones responsible for filling the coffee pot.

"It's nice of Commander Rabb to come out," Jennifer said.

Mac didn't look up. "He insisted."

"He'd do anything for you, wouldn't he?"

Mac tossed the remains of the packets away. "He's coming to jumpstart *your* car, Petty Officer."

"Because you asked him."

"No, he offered." Mac turned and leaned against the counter. "Harm has a knight-in-shining armor complex, a desire to be a hero at all times to all people. This is just another aspect of that."

"Well, I'm grateful," Jennifer said. "There was a time in my life when I didn't have anyone I could ask for a favor like this." She bit her lip. "In two short years, so much has happened, so many good things. Friends, a good job, doing something I care about--" she looked at the Colonel -- "There's very little more I could ask for."

"I'm glad to hear it, Jennifer."

Jennifer jerked up at the sound of her name. She liked the way the Colonel said her name, tingeing it with just a slight intimate inflection, rolling the single syllable off the tip of her tongue. There was something more casual, more familiar about 'Jennifer' compared to the harsh multi-syllabic 'Petty Officer'.

"What about you, Colonel?" she asked, taking the mug of steaming hot chocolate Mac offered her. "Are things back to normal for you? I know you had a rough time after Paraguay, with the Commander Imes caseload and Commander Rabb not being here."

Mac shrugged. "As normal as it ever gets." She sighed. "If nothing else, this place keeps me on my toes. And I know the Admiral must be doing the same to you."

"He is interesting to work for, ma'am!"

"That's certainly an understatement." Mac smiled. "But you seem to be enjoying yourself, Coates."

Jennifer nodded. "Yes."

They settled into a comfortable silence and Jennifer couldn't help but study the Colonel, who still looked completely put together, even at the end of a 12-hour day. Impeccable hair and make-up, tailored and stylish clothes that fitted perfectly to every curve and angle of her body. There was nothing sharp or discordant about Sarah MacKenzie.

"What are your plans for the holiday?" Mac asked.

Jennifer shrugged. "Don't have any."

"You're not going to see your family?"

"No."

"It *is* Christmas."

"I know."

They lapsed into silence again. Then Jennifer inhaled sharply and asked, "What about you, Colonel?"

"I'm picking up Chloe, my little sister, at the airport tomorrow morning. She's here for the week."

"Ah."

"We'll probably do some fun girl-bonding type things like makeovers and watching chick flicks. Chloe loves 'Steel Magnolias' so we'll probably watch that," Mac said. "Would you like to join us?"

"Oh, I wouldn't want to intrude on your private time together."

Mac dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand. "You wouldn't be intruding, I promise."

Jennifer nodded, but she still felt slightly strange about the invitation. Yes, she had a fairly good working relationship with the Colonel, but they had rarely crossed the boundary from professional to personal. In fact, this was the longest non-work related conversation she'd ever had with Mac. Jennifer simply couldn't imagine what it'd be like to watch "Steel Magnolias" with Mac. In fact, the image of a tough-as-nails Marine melting over Sally Field's rant in the cemetery was an incongruous one at that and one Jennifer knew she'd have to witness to believe.

"That sounds like fun," Jennifer said finally.

"How about later on this week? I thought Chloe and I might make a trip down to Williamsburg. You're welcome to join us."

"Thanks. I'd like that." Jennifer twisted her hands together. "You know, Colonel, I've always hated this time of year."

Mac looked at her sympathetically, those limpid brown eyes filled with warmth and concern. "I know how lonely it can be." She sighed. "I wasn't always so thrilled with December myself."

"The last two years have been different. I've had you guys," Jennifer hesitated. "But it *would* have be nice to have family. People of my *own* to spend time with rather than having to, you know, scrounge for someone to put up with me every year." Her voice cracked slightly at the end of the sentence. "I'm sorry, ma'am. That just came out."

"It's okay, Jennifer. I understand." Mac shifted from foot to foot. "No need to apologize." Mac looked directly at Jennifer. "And you should know for record, Petty Officer, we don't 'put up' with you. You're part of JAG now, a part of *us*."

An awkward silence descended on them, and Jennifer felt a blush of self-conscious warmth rising in her cheeks. She didn't mean to complain or whine; her life was a thousand times better now and she'd never been quite the happy before in her life. For once, Jennifer felt useful, wanted, and needed -- qualities she'd never quite experienced before. But telling the Colonel, now that was another story entirely.

"I thought you were dating someone," Mac said suddenly. "What happened to him?"

Jennifer could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. "It didn't work out."

"Ah. Sorry."

"No worries." She saw Mac stiffen at the use of the phrase. "Is something wrong, ma'am?"

"No," Mac said. She offered Jennifer a faint smile, a mere shadow of its usual radiance. "A friend of mine, a very good friend in fact, used that phrase quite a bit."

"Oh. What happened to him?"

"He went back to Australia."

"Commander Brumby, ma'am?"

Mac shifted position again and seemed suddenly intent on a few sprinkles of white sugar on the countertop. "You've heard of him then?"

"Lieutenant Roberts, ma'am. He told me a lot of stories about all of you when we were on the Seahawk together," Jennifer said, smiling. "I got to know all of you really well. I'm sorry it didn't work out with Commander Brumby."

Mac shrugged casually, but the expression on her face told another story entirely. "If you have two people in a relationship, Jennifer, you can't just expect one person to hold on for both. It's a myth that one person can love enough to keep it together. Real life just doesn't work out that way."

"Is that what happened with you and the Commander?"

"Relationships are difficult," Mac said, inhaling sharply. "Maybe that's stating the obvious, but it's true. You can't underestimate how very hard one has to work when one is involved with another person." There was a clipped formality to her voice, a strange edge that Jennifer found unnerving. "And it's not a question of trying *harder*."

Jennifer put her mug down with a little more force than she had intended, but Mac didn't notice.

"In the military," Mac went on, seemingly oblivious to Jennifer, "maintaining a relationship with a fellow officer is even tougher. There are rules, procedures, careers, so many things to add to the mix. There are considerations you may not have even thought of before, but there they are--" she sighed "-- and they get in the way."

"I understand," Jennifer said softly. Oh, how she *did* understand. There were lines that could not be crossed, words that could not be spoken. Jennifer Coates had come far in her life and she had no intention of losing what she had gained now. But there were times when she wished the rigidness of military life would fall away and she could be truly free to express her feelings, who she *really* was. "I love being in the Navy now, but it does make it--" Jennifer paused, mentally searching for the right word -- "a little harder to be with a person you care about."

Mac bit her lip and looked Jennifer directly in the eye. "Is that the case with you, Jennifer?"

"What?"

"Is there someone you care about in the Navy?"

"No, not in the Navy," Jennifer said, relieved.

"Ah, another branch, then."

"You could say that."

"An officer or an enlisted man?"

Jennifer bit her lip. "You know me, Colonel. I never take the easy way out."

Mac stared at Jennifer with compassion in her brown eyes. "It has been known to work before, Jennifer. I've known of cases where officers and enlisted personnel manage a relationship." Her lips turned down slightly at the edges. "Of course, it *is* strongly frowned upon and in the cases I'm familiar with, one or both individuals ended up leaving the military."

"That's my understanding," Jennifer replied carefully. "At any rate --" she flashed a smile in Mac's direction "-- at this point, it's probably nothing more than a crush and it'll work itself out."

Mac picked up her empty mug as well as Jennifer's and deposited them into the sink. She waved off Jennifer's attempts to help her clean them and then neatly dried them and put them aside.

"I hope it works out for you, Jennifer," Mac said softly. "Don't put--"

"Someone here need a jump?"

Both Mac and Jennifer turned around at the sound of Harmon Rabb's voice.

"Took you long enough to get here," Mac said, a little sharply. Mac brushed by Jennifer, it was obvious the cold had nothing to do with the pink color in her cheeks. The recent tension between the Colonel and Commander, to use a cliché, had been thick enough to cut with a knife.

The Commander spread his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I tried my best, Mac." He turned to Jennifer. "I saw your car up front. Why don't we go and see if we can't get it started?"

The Colonel was already a few steps in front of them and Jennifer held back just long enough to ask, "How long were you there, Commander?"

"Excuse me?"

"Outside the kitchen, listening."

The Commander had the grace to look ashamed. "About two or three minutes."

"Ah." Jennifer pulled on her black leather gloves.

Rabb hesitated for a moment and then lowered his voice. "Are you going to do anything?"

"About what, sir?"

"You mentioned a crush of some kind."

"No, sir, I don't think so. It's too complicated and it would never work."

"I understand that perfectly," Rabb said, with a contemplative smile. They stepped out into the biting cold December air. "You won't know unless you say something. Take it from someone who knows. Don't miss the opportunity to let someone know how you truly feel about them." He looked at Jennifer sadly. "It could be worth a try, Jennifer."

"I don't need to try here, sir," Jennifer said honestly. She saw Colonel MacKenzie standing beneath the streetlight, a slim figure in silhouette. "I already know what the outcome would be."

"That's a defeatist perspective, Jennifer."

"Or perhaps it's a realistic one. I'm not like you, Commander." The words were out before she realized what she was saying. Jennifer pressed a hand against her mouth. "Oh, I'm so sorry, sir."

"No need to apologize and we're off duty, so it's Harm." He offered her the lopsided grin that so many of the ladies in JAG raved about, but Jennifer, by now, was immune to Harmon Rabb's charm. She shivered and hurried to her car. Rabb had already pulled up beside her and now he popped his hood.

"Cables are in the back," he muttered under his breath.

"Let me get those," Jennifer said.

He waved her off. "I've got this."

"Harmon Rabb here to save the day," Mac said. She had wandered over to them, a faint trail of footprints in the thin layer of snow on the sidewalk. She brushed by Harm as she came to stand next to Jennifer. He turned and looked at her, a faint smile spreading across his face. "He'll have you up and running in no time, Jennifer."

"Though, you may want to get that battery checked on Monday," Harm said. "It could just be bad."

"It is five years old," Jennifer said as Harm connected the jumper cables, first to her battery and then to his. Next to her, Mac slouched slightly. "So you may be right."

"Go ahead and start her up," Harm said, already rounding over to his car to turn the engine. Jennifer obliged and a few minutes later, her car roared back to life. "Let it run for about five minutes and then I'll follow you to the Roberts' place. You *are* coming to the party, aren't you?"

"Wouldn't miss it," Jennifer said. She looked at Mac for a moment. "You did say you were going to be there, right, Colonel?" She hoped she didn't sound desperate, but the appearance of Harmon Rabb *had* broken up a nice conversation. While the Roberts' annual holiday party might not be the place to continue that conversation, Jennifer did want another opportunity to talk to Mac in a more relaxed, personable setting than JAG. With all of the trappings and dignities of the military stripped away, for a few minutes, she and Mac had been just two women -- two *ordinary* women on the same level -- talking.

"Of course," Mac said. She was standing very close to Jennifer now, one hand on the open driver's side door. "I'll be right behind you."

"And on that note --" Harm tipped his head in the direction of Mac's car "-- Bud and Harriet are probably wondering what's taking us so long."

Mac nodded. "See you there, Jennifer."

Jennifer backed up and headed to the parking lot entrance. In her rearview mirror, she could see Mac passing beneath the streetlight once again. Jennifer paused for a moment to admire the backdrop of golden light and the slow sprinkle of snow, before pulling out into the street, the Commander's headlights reflecting in her rearview mirror.

It took forty-five minutes to reach the Roberts' home, thanks to the lack of traffic. During the drive, Jennifer listened to the radio, which played a selection of holiday tunes. As she pulled up to a traffic light, she surreptitiously looked around; there was no way the Commander could see her and she had no idea where the Colonel was. Undignified as it might be, Jennifer sang along to "Feliz Navidad," her head bopping in rhythm to the music.

The Roberts' home was gaily decorated with lights on the shrubbery flanking the front door. Single white candles, tipped with clear bulbs, lit up each window of the white colonial. Jennifer headed up the pathway, a thin sheen of snow covering the bricks. She paused briefly when she heard the Commander pull up and then a second later, the Colonel parked behind him.

"There you are!" Lieutenant Roberts threw open the door, pulling Jennifer into the house. "Come in out of the cold."

"Thanks," Jennifer said gratefully as the warmth of the Roberts' home surrounded her. In the background, she could hear a jazzy version of Christmas carols playing. Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the silhouette of the Christmas tree, decked out in colorful lights and homemade ornaments. Wrapped gifts were artfully arranged on the red tree skirt. The aroma of spiced cider and other items -- baked ham, for instance -- filled the air. Jennifer inhaled deeply; yes, it smelled very much like Christmas. She let the Lieutenant help her out of her coat and then stepped aside as a shivering Mac, followed by the Commander, stepped into the entry way.

"Nasty day to have car trouble," Bud said to Jennifer. "It's below zero and the wind chill makes it feel like negative twenty. Or so the forecasters say. I can't remember the last time it got this cold."

"It's that Arctic air mass," Harm said jovially as he took his coat and Mac's and hung them in the hall closet. "Moved straight down from Canada and east to us."

Mac said nothing, merely raising an eyebrow, before pushing past the Commander. Jennifer didn't miss the look the Commander shot in Mac's direction. A second later, the Commander had recovered his composure and was speaking to Bud about a case they were working on together. Jennifer shook her head; some people, she thought with a smile, couldn't leave their work at the office. She wandered through the house, looking for Harriet, before locating her in the kitchen.

"Can I help?" Jennifer leaned awkwardly against the counter. Her relationship with Harriet Sims could only be described as cordial, but working in the same JAG office had reduced quite a bit of tension. In fact, Jennifer considered Harriet an excellent role-model -- a professional who managed to serve her country but also was a good wife and mother.

"Um, you can make the punch," Harriet said. She pointed to the empty punch bowl, cans of Sprite and a gallon or cranberry juice. "Glad you could make it, Jennifer. It's an awful night to have car troubles."

"That's what the Lieutenant said, but Commander Rabb came out and gave us a hand."

"Well, I'm sorry you got a late start on the holiday, but it can only get better from here on out."

Mac wandered by, baby James in her arms. "How did the USO concert go, Harriet?"

Harriet wiped her hands on the white apron she wore. "According to my sources, rave reviews." She beamed, her smile stretching up to the corners of her eyes. "And remember the diva I was worried about? The one who required twelve dozen roses in her own private dressing room and also needed a special tea that could only be purchased in Shanghai?" Harriet leaned forward conspiratorially. "Well, apparently, the tea and the dressing room for her *manager* and the diva is actually very sweet and down-to-earth. More importantly, she was a hit with the soldiers."

"Come on, give us some names, Harriet," Mac said, her eyes twinkling with mirth.

Harriet shook her head. "I've been sworn to secrecy."

"She's really enjoying this," Mac said to Jennifer. "Don't you think?"

"I most certainly agree." Jennifer poured some Sprite, followed by the cranberry juice, into the glass punch bowl.

"You guys can't be the only ones with secrets, always locking yourselves away in your offices or conference rooms," Harriet said. She lifted a steaming platter from the oven. "What do you think?" The smell of honey-glazed ham filled the room and Jennifer breathed in the aroma appreciatively.

"Delicious," she said sincerely. She turned as she heard the Admiral enter the kitchen, Turner in tow.

"Drinks are over there. Beer, wine, soda, water." Harriet pointed towards a cooler in the corner of the dining room. "Help yourself."

"You read my mind, Harriet," the Admiral said. "How do you do that?"

Harriet merely winked in response. "Is Meredith coming, sir?"

"She's in Italy for the holidays. Didn't I mention that to you when I RSVP'd?"

"You may have, sir, but I must have forgotten. The USO concert seems to have blocked everything else out," Harriet said apologetically. "Jennifer, are you finished with the punch yet?"

"Yes, ma'am," Jennifer said. "Just need some ice-cubes."

"In the freezer."

"Right."

As she reached for the ice-cubes, Jennifer heard Mac and Harriet talking about the baby in the background. There was a casual intimacy between the two, a spark of warmth in their conversation. Jennifer knew Harriet and Mac had known each other for many years so of course there would be a closeness in their interactions. But still, Jennifer couldn't push away the faint desire to have that for herself; of course, a couple years ago, Jennifer didn't even feel as if she could be a part of this group. Baby steps, Jennifer, baby steps, she reminded herself. She took a handful of ice-cubes and dropped them into the punch; some of the liquid splashed back up at her and Jennifer was grateful she'd chosen *not* to wear white as initially planned. She dabbed at the spots on her sweater with soda water before helping Harriet carry out trays of appetizers into the living room.

Mikey Roberts was playing with little AJ, while in the background, Harm and Commander Turner discussed a recent basketball game. Jennifer let her gaze drift and saw Mac seated in the corner of the sofa, baby James still on her lap.

"He's adorable, isn't he?" Mac asked as she noticed Jennifer looking at her. Jennifer settled on the sofa.

"He looks just like Lieutenant Sims," Jennifer said, lapsing into familiar formality. She touched the baby's cheek lightly. "What a good baby he is!" She glanced at Mac.

"Isn't he?" There was a look on Mac's face, one Jennifer had never seen before, but it was easy enough to decipher; Jennifer herself had worn that very same expression many times in the past: a mixture of wistfulness, of longing, of safety and belonging. After a moment, Mac roused herself. "I should go check on Harriet. The baby is my guilty pleasure, but it's not fair for Harriet to stay in the kitchen all night." She handed the baby off to Jennifer and disappeared.

"Is it your turn to play babysitter?" Commander Rabb asked, shifting his attention away from Turner to her.

"It looks that way, sir," Jennifer said. She pressed her cheek against the baby's, loving the feel of soft skin next to her own. "Is Ms. Grace coming later, sir?"

"No, not tonight, Jennifer," Rabb said. He offered her his lopsided grin, one that fit his aviator personality perfectly but Jennifer was starting to realize that there was insecurity behind that smile, a kind of longing as well. He's just like me, Jennifer thought startled. We both want what we can't have.

"Would you like to hold the baby?" The question sounded inane to her, but Jennifer couldn't think of anything else to say to the Commander in her rush to cover up her own uneasiness.

"Do you think that's such a good idea?" The Commander sounded nervous. Jennifer found it slightly amusing that a man who could fly tomcats on and off the deck of a flight carrier could be apprehensive about holding a baby. Still, she understood; the first time she'd cradled a baby in her arms, she'd been very nervous as well.

"I think it's a fine idea, sir."

"Hmmm." He took the baby from her and stood rather awkwardly. Jennifer carefully directed his hands so that the baby was well supported. Baby James stuck a fist in his mouth, kicked strongly at the Commander's forearm, before settling down.

"He likes you, sir," Jennifer said.

"Well, that makes one person," Harm said and it was impossible to miss the note of bitterness in his voice. Jennifer leaned forward, pushing herself up slightly on her tiptoes.

"It's Christmas Eve, sir," she murmured. "It's the happiest time of the year."

"You're right, Petty Officer. It's a good thing to keep in mind." He still sounded doubtful, but Jennifer just patted his arm and went to find Mac and Harriet in the kitchen.

"We're almost done here," Harriet announced as Jennifer came in. "Why don't you and the Colonel set the table? We're going all out tonight. China *and* silver. You'll find the holiday napkins -- they're red -- in the hutch in the dining room."

"Sounds nice," Mac said. She led the way into the dining room. The china was already set out in stacks on the table, and the silver utensils were piled rather haphazardly, as if Harriet or Bud had just randomly pulled them out of a drawer and dropped them. Mac opened several drawers before discovering the one which held the red linen napkins. The bright color made a nice contrast against the green brocade tablecloth. "Do you know anything about formal place settings, Jennifer?"

"A little, ma'am, yes," Jennifer said, picking up a fork and eyeing it speculatively. She could never quite remember whether the big fork was the salad fork or the dessert fork, and every now and then, she'd come across mention of a fish fork. She shook her head. "I'll give it a try, Colonel."

"It's *Mac*, Jennifer."

"Right, I'm sorry."

Mac frowned. "Don't apologize."

"Yes, ma'am, I'm sorry, ma'am." Jennifer blushed. "I'm doing it again, right?"

Mac laughed. "Now, about the table settings..."

"Oh yes. I learned how when I was planning the Admiral and Ms. Cavanaugh's wedding."

Mac arched an eyebrow. Jennifer's attempt to organize the May wedding of her commanding officer had been a bust, to put it lightly. She'd had a picture perfect image of what the wedding should look like in her head, but unfortunately, that same ideal hadn't quite appealed to either Chegwidden or Ms. Cavanaugh. She knew both had appreciated her efforts, but in the end, Jennifer had learned that perhaps it was better to *listen* and take it from there, rather than trying to guess at what the bride and groom wanted.

"Yes, well, I know my plans didn't go over so well with the Admiral and Ms. Cavanaugh, but I did learn a lot from the experience," Jennifer said hurriedly. "For instance--"

"Jennifer," Mac said, pointing at the china. "The *place setting*."

"Sorry." Jennifer quickly arranged the dishes and utensils appropriately. "Okay, fold the napkin and put it on the left. Then from outside in, dinner fork and then salad fork." She tipped her head to the side briefly, trying to remember the rest. She had memorized the image when she'd first seen it in a book, but now, with Mac staring at her, Jennifer felt hopelessly flustered. "Um, the dinner plate goes on the place mat, and then the soup plate is followed by the soup bowl. Upper left hand corner of the setting, that's the bread and butter plate and butter knife. Eh, here in the middle, just above the main plate, dessert spoon and fork." She took a deep breath. Mac was still watching her carefully. "Diagonally from the one o'clock position, um, the water glass and the wine goblet. And finally, here on the left, dinner knife on the inside and soup spoon on the outside." Jennifer looked at Mac. "There. What do you think, ma'am?"

"I'm very impressed," Mac said. She quickly followed Jennifer's example. "I never could remember the order of the utensils." She smiled. "I once went to a formal dinner party in Okinawa with some friends and none of us could figure out whose bread plate belonged to whom or who should use which water glass." She smiled. "Some declared we should just go with the glass to our left. It worked just fine for us that night, but it is nice to know exactly what goes where, isn't it?"

Jennifer nodded, hoping against hope that she indeed was right about whether everything went.

They worked in companionable silence, setting up the rest of the table. Under her breath, Jennifer hummed along with the Christmas carols playing in the background. Harriet brought out several bottles of red and white wine, along with a pitcher of water. Finally, she lit the two red tapers in the middle of the table.

"It's beautiful," Jennifer breathed.

Harriet stood back, an expression of pride crossing her face.

"Let's round up the men and eat," she said with a smile.

"Good, I'm starving," Mac said, with a faint chuckle. Jennifer grinned. The Colonel's appetite was legendary around JAG headquarters. Bud arrived first, with Turner and the Admiral in tow. Mac looked bewildered. "Where's Harm?"

"On the phone," Bud said. "He'll be here in a second."

"I'm here now," the Commander said, coming in from the main hallway. White snowflakes dotted his dark hair. Jennifer couldn't resist. She leaned over.

"Ms. Grace, sir?"

Harm looked at her with an odd expression and then nodded. "Yes."

"We'd be honored if you'd sit at the head of the table, sir," Bud was saying to the Admiral. The Admiral, however, shook his head.

"No formality, Bud. You and Harriet are the hosts," he said firmly. It was settled then -- Bud and Harriet each took a seat at either end of the table. There was a moment of awkwardness of the remaining six grappled with the complications of where to sit. They finally settled on Mikey, Harm and the Admiral sitting on the left side of the table while Turner, Mac and Jennifer sat, in that order, on the opposite side.

"Bon appetite," Harriet said as she passed around a silver dish of candied yams.

"Everything looks delicious," Mac said sincerely.

"Thank you, Colonel."

It wasn't lost on Jennifer that Mac hadn't corrected Harriet.

Dinner passed pleasantly enough; most of the conversation centered on the two Roberts' children, Mikey's studies at the Academy, and discussion on recent cases, most notably an upcoming Article 32 dealing with a sailor who had jumped overboard in order to get discharged. As the laughter died down, Harriett pushed her chair back.

"Who is ready for dessert?"

Jennifer groaned. "I'm absolutely stuffed." Several others, including Mac, nodded in agreement.

"Well, maybe later," Harriet said optimistically. "I've got both pecan pie and apple as well."

"You really went all out. And as busy as you were," Mac said as she stood up from the table. Harriet laughed.

"I had a little help from someone with the initial MC."

Jennifer frowned. "MC?"

Mac laughed as she lifted up some of the dirty dishes. "Marie Callender, Jennifer."

"Ah." Jennifer, feeling slightly foolish, helped clear away the table. In the kitchen, Bud waved the women away.

"We'll take care of this," Bud said gallantly. He pecked Harriet on the cheek. "You must be exhausted, sweetie. Why don't you go and sit down?"

"Thank you, Bud."

Settling into the living room, Jennifer snuggled down contentedly into the corner of the Roberts' sofa. The cushions were soft and comforting and she tipped her head backwards, feeling warm inside. She wanted to savor this moment forever. Mac settled down next to her.

"You look like you're about to fall asleep," Mac observed.

Jennifer opened one eye. "I over-ate," she admitted.

"That makes two of us."

In the arm chair, Harriet stretched out her legs. "It's been a good Christmas so far, hasn't it?" She looked expectantly at Mac and then at Jennifer.

"Yes, it has," Mac said softly.

Jennifer nodded. The evening certainly hadn't started out auspiciously when her car battery had died, but it had all turned out well -- better than well, as a matter of fact -- in the end. And she firmly believed all things happened for a reason. A smile crossed her face as she remembered the first time she had been as guest in the Roberts' home; had it really been just two years ago?

"What are you thinking?" Mac asked softly.

"About how Commander Rabb couldn't find a place to put me over the Christmas holidays because all of the brigs were closed," Jennifer said. "And so he brought me here, and then Lieutenant Singer accused me of stealing her bracelet."

There was a moment of silence at the mention of Singer's name, but then Harriet recovered her composure.

"You've come a long way from that person, Jennifer," the lieutenant said brightly.

"Yes, ma'am, thank you. And I have all of you to thank for that," Jennifer said. She tipped her head to the side, resting it against the arm of the sofa. "I honestly cannot think of anywhere else I'd rather be tonight than here. And it's good to be here as an invited guest--" she flashed a smile in Commander Rabb's direction "--and not as someone accused of larceny."

"Well," Mac said, "we're glad you're here with us too, Jennifer."

Jennifer let a slow smile cross her face. A few minutes later, the men joined them and there was more casual conversation until Harriet got up to serve the pie.

"Let me help," Mac said, and without saying a word, Jennifer followed the other two. As Mac sliced the pie, Jennifer ladled on the vanilla ice-cream. She breathed in the deep aroma of the apple pie, reveling in the sweet cinnamon smell.

"My mother used to make the best apple pie," Jennifer said quietly. "I really miss that."

"My family wasn't much for holidays," Mac said, taking a deep and contended breath. "It's part of the reason why I treasure these times with you and with Chloe as well."

"I forget sometimes how lucky I was growing up," Harriet said pensively. "My family was deeply rooted in tradition and while it's next to impossible to have a white Christmas in Florida, well, it was still a very special time of the year and more than anything, I want my sons to remember that about *our* holidays. That it's about people, not the gifts, about spending time together and being there for each other." Her lips turned up slightly as she carefully arranged the plates on a silver serving tray. "The circumstances and situations may not always be ideal, but in the end, it doesn't matter as long as you're surrounded by the people who love and care for you."

Was it Jennifer's imagination or did Mac's eyes mist just a little?

They rejoined the others in the living room. Mikey had turned up the Christmas carols up and Bud and Turner were both singing along to the strains of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." As Jennifer looked towards the window, she saw that it was snowing once again. The thermometer on the back porch -- a white contraption decorated with a rainbow -- revealed that temperatures were hovering around twenty degrees.

"What's the matter?" Mac asked softly.

"I was just worried about my car," Jennifer said. "About whether it'll start or not. The temperatures are getting down there and I need a new battery." She offered the Colonel a pensive smile. "I guess the fact it didn't start earlier this evening is making me a little jumpy."

"Don't worry," Mac said. "One of us will make sure you get home in one piece."

Jennifer smiled gratefully. "I don't want you to go out of your way, Colonel. I certainly wouldn't want to impose on you at all."

"Don't worry, Jennifer, it's not out of my way at all." Mac smiled. "For a friend? It's most definitely not an imposition. And Jennifer?"

"What?"

"For the last time, outside of the office, it's Mac."

"Understood, ma'am." Jennifer swallowed her giggle. "I'm sorry, ma'am."

Mac laughed, a deep rich laugh, and a few minutes later, her alto joined the others in a chorus of "Feliz Navidad." A second later, Jennifer and Harriet also joined in the singing. This time, Jennifer didn't care who saw or heard her singing. For once in her life, she knew she belonged and that these people would accept her for who she was, nothing more, nothing less. For that, she was grateful.

Outside, the snow continued to fall against a backdrop of a purple-pink sky. Jennifer smiled as her gaze met Mac's. She couldn't put a finger on it, but she had a strong feeling that this year was going to be the best Christmas ever.

~ the end

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