A/N: Well, folks, the end is here! Thank you so much for reading and enjoying the tale along with me. Of the handful of JAG stories I've written over the years, this is without a doubt my favorite.
Several posters have asked about the possibility of an epilogue or sequel. At this time I have no plans to continue the story. However, I'm not discounting the possibility entirely… it just won't be in the immediate future. :(
June 18, 2002
2348 ZULU (1848 local)
Lucky Dream Palace
Falls Church, Virginia
The first thing I notice as I step across the threshold is how dark the interior of the restaurant is compared to the sunny day outside. However, within seconds my eyes begin adjusting to the dim lighting, and I start scanning the dining room for Harm's familiar form. There isn't much of a dinner crowd tonight – most of the tables are empty, truth be told – so it doesn't take me long to spot him. He's sitting at a small table towards the back of the room, just beyond the massive blue fish tank that he couldn't stop staring at during Coates' dinner celebration.
At least tonight he seems to be fully aware of his surroundings. As I make my way across the floor towards where he's sitting, I see that the waitress has stopped by his table and is making idle chitchat. My heartbeat quickens the closer I get; soon, I'm standing just a few feet behind our server, who has her pad and pen at the ready. From here, I can just spot his face underneath her bent arm. He's smiling up at her, that sort of awkward face he gets when in a situation that requires pleasant small talk, and I must admit that I find it even more endearing tonight than usual. Is it just me, or does he seem a little… nervous? No, that's got to be my imagination. Still, the fitted dark-gray button down and coordinating steel-gray tie look quite dashing on him. Wishing I could watch him for just a moment longer, the waitress suddenly moves to one side and he sees me standing here. Those blue-green eyes light up.
Grinning warmly, he begins to rise but I shoo him back down with an appreciative smile. That's one thing to be said for being in the military – good manners come with the territory. The waitress turns and looks at me. Odd, but I'd swear it's the same young Asian woman who served us the last time we were here, 'back' in April 2005. The bandanna in her hair certainly looks the same.
"Would you care for drink?" she asks in a slightly lilting accent.
"Water, thanks." Unconsciously smoothing down the front of my dress as she gives a little bow of acknowledgement, I wait until she turns toward the kitchen before pulling out the chair across from him.
Harm gives me an appreciative once-over. "Wow, you look nice," he murmurs as soon as she's out of earshot. There's definitely something on his mind, because he sounds a little like he's swallowed a frog. He quickly clears his throat. "What's the occasion?"
"I could ask you the same thing." I smile, trying to cover my nervousness by playing coy. My heart is really beginning to race. It's just Harm, a little voice reminds me. "Just thought I'd put on something nice after my doctor's appointment—"
Sliding into my seat, my voice trails off as I notice something large, black and furry sitting where my napkin should be. At first glance my mind screams MOUSE! But then instantly I realize if there were a rodent the middle of my then Harm certainly wouldn't be eyeing me so calmly. I take a closer look.
The object in the midst of my place setting is certainly fuzzy, but it's nothing more alive than a little black jeweler's box. The kind of jeweler's box that usually holds a ring.
Raising my eyes to meet his, I finally recognize that the look on his face isn't calm at all. In fact, he's looking at me rather intently, the hazel of his eyes looking more green than blue in the dimly lit space.
Oh my god, he knows about the baby! Conflicting thoughts crash in a tangle of nerves and surprise. I'd felt we were moving in this direction, but never in a million years did I expect him to propose so soon! Fortunately, another tiny voice in my mind, the rational one, takes over before I say anything aloud. No, wait, he can't know, I just found out myself. But the timing… and I know better than anyone that nothing is impossible. Does he know? Who else could have known? Who could have told him? Is he proposing because he wants to propose? Or is he proposing because…
"Why?" That's all I can manage, my voice barely above a whisper.
Our gazes lock. "Why what?" he whispers back.
"Why now? Why here?" The sheer surprise of the moment has robbed me of my ability to form a coherent sentence. From somewhere beyond I'm vaguely aware that I'm babbling.
He seems thrown off by my hesitation, but forges ahead. "Mac, after all that's happened with you and me, with Kabir, with Bud… life's too short. And you're too important for me to lose."
"Really?" Hope blossoms in my chest.
He shrugs one shoulder and gives me another lop-sided, uncertain smile. "I planned to ask you later tonight, but when I saw you walk in I just couldn't wait."
My eyes begin to sting with tears. If I'd thought my heart was racing before, it's now pattering frantically against my ribcage. Hardly daring to breathe as I turn my attention back to the box, time seems to stop as I study its lines, reaching out to draw the tip of one finger across the top. Yep, it's fuzzy.
"Aren't you going to open it?" he finally asks.
Blinking, I realize I've been sitting there staring at the ring box for nearly a full minute. Our gazes meet as I reach for it. His eyes are bright with anxiety as gingerly lift the lid, the spring-loaded mechanism popping open with the tiniest effort.
Inside is one of the most beautiful solitaire diamonds that I've ever seen, so much so that I gasp involuntarily. The sparkling central stone is flanked by two smaller diamonds and is set on what at appears to be a platinum band. I look at the ring. I look at him. I look at the ring. I look at him. And finally beginning to believe, I look back at the ring.
"Oh, Harm…" Overcome with emotion, my eyes fill helplessly as I pluck it from the case with trembling fingers and hold it up to the light. It's more exquisite than anything I could possibly have imagined, and I fight back a joyful sob. He couldn't have picked out anything more perfect. "It's stunning."
"I hoped you'd like it," he says. Mild relief washes over his face, his jaw relaxing a little. "Actually, I prayed that you would."
The only time I've ever seen Harm pray has been at church on Christmas or before going up in a Tomcat, but that's beside the point. Eyes brimming with happy tears, I give a watery laugh. "Must have paid off. It's beautiful."
He waits for all of thirty seconds more. "So?"
I glance up at him. "So… what?"
"Mac..." He rolls his eyes.
"If you want an answer, then you need to ask the question." Even though I'm sure I know what's going on here, this is no time for us to fall back into ambiguity. There are some things that simply cannot be assumed.
Thankfully, he doesn't hesitate. "Will you marry me?"
"Hell, yes!" I blurt out in relief, a manic grin spreading across my face as the floodgates open. Oh shit, I'm crying. I mean, really crying. My heart feels like it's about to burst from my chest, I'm so happy... and the tears are beginning to flow like Niagara Falls in the middle of a freak hurricane.
"Well then, come here."
It only takes about a second for my vision to go watery and reduce Harm to a blurry, wavy outline across the table. At least I can hear him chuckling, which reassures me he hasn't run for the hills. We seem to have finally gotten this communication thing down pat. Feeling rather than seeing as he takes my left hand and slides the ring onto my finger, I wonder why on earth I didn't think to wear waterproof mascara tonight. The doctor had warned me about hormones, certainly, but this loss of control is ridiculous. Not to mention incredibly embarrassing.
With the ring securely in place, I can't help but think about how I must look. "Oh god," I laugh, pushing back from the table and grabbing my bag. "I need a damn Kleenex. Be right back."
"Can you see where you're going?"
"Well enough." I smile.
It only takes a few seconds for me to cross the dining room and duck into the ladies' room. Grateful that none of the stalls appear to be occupied, I quickly tear a few squares of toilet paper and straighten. As I blow my nose in a forceful and totally un-ladylike honk, I take a long sweeping glance of the room. It's just like every other restaurant women's restroom I've ever been in, stark and utilitarian. Only, it's this one that has haunted my thoughts over the course of the last eight months. This is where it all began.
Stepping up to the mirror, I grab a paper towel from the dispenser, dampen it under a faucet and quickly begin to repair the damage to my make-up as best I can. A few minutes later and I finally feel somewhat presentable again, although I could use a little more lipstick. Reaching into my handbag, I begin to hunt…
"Good choice you make."
The raspy, female voice startles me momentarily, my searching hands going still in my purse as I look up into the mirror. Sure enough, reflected behind me is the elderly Chinese woman whose first appearance changed my life.
"Hello," I say, only breaking eye contact long enough to turn around. She's standing by the wall a few feet away. Almost everything about her is the same: the worn clothing, graying hair has been pulled up into a serviceable bun and a mop in her hand. But this time she is also wearing an expression of satisfaction.
"Good choice you make." she repeats, ignoring my greeting. "Was good choice. Good change."
If you want to change your life, you need not look beyond the present moment.
Since finding myself back in time all those months ago, I've dreamt of what I would say or do if this mysterious being – because there's no way she can be a mere mortal woman – were ever to reappear in my life. At first I'd felt nothing more than anger and frustration at being tossed back into a world that I'd long ago left behind. Then I'd been given a second chance at hope: of having children, of recapturing the magic with Harm that I'd thought had been lost forever. I am now wearing his ring on my finger and carrying his son or daughter within my body. And it's all due to this one being's intervention. How can I ever thank her for this gift?
Feeling that the words aren't enough even as I open my mouth to speak them, she holds up her hand.
"Destiny is picky thing," she says. "You make choice, things change. Make other choice, things no change. But every little choice have potential to turn into big effect." Her eyes sparkle with an ancient aura of understanding.
And with that, I know.
When we'd last met, she'd flashed me an excited gap-toothed smile. "One," she'd said. "One thing you change. But beware, what you think you want to change not necessarily the correct thing to change."
As the wheels in my head had begun to turn on that night so long ago, I wondered how she knew about my fortune. And as I wondered, a picture formed in my mind, the then-recent memory of Harm looking at me as I'd read the words of my cookie's fortune out loud.
And with his likeness still floating through my mind, she told me what a good choice I'd made and disappeared from my life. At the time I hadn't appreciated the true depth of what had transpired, searching the restaurant in confusion, and continuing to puzzle endlessly over her words until the memory had become faded and blurred with distance.
It wasn't until that awful day outside sickbay aboard the Guadalcanal, waiting helplessly for news about Bud, that I'd finally understood. Or at least I thought I'd understood…
Standing here once again in the ladies' restroom in the Lucky Palace, I'm awed by a wave of certainty as it washes through me.
"It wasn't just about choosing Harm, was it? I've wanted him forever, thought of him as mine, but I never had the courage to tell him. All those years I'd just assumed he knew how I felt, and assumed I knew how he felt about me. I didn't, or couldn't, hear him telling me the truth until it was too late. That's what I chose. I chose to break the cycle of miscommunication, of being ambiguous about my feelings. And of making assumptions about his."
"Good changes this." Nodding with an enigmatic smile, she bows slightly and gives me one final wink before slipping nimbly out the door with one last parting shot: "Good choice you make."
I watch as the door swings shut behind her, pondering the events that have brought me to this point and realizing that instead of freaking me out, having had a mysterious savior gives me a strange sense of comfort and peace. I know I'll never see her again.
After thirty full seconds of contemplation, I turn back to the mirror and pinch my cheeks lightly to give them a healthy glow. As I do so, the ring on my left hand captures the light of the fluorescent bulbs above. For a moment I stand there admiring it and how it looks on my finger. Then looking back at the mirror, I smile softly at my reflection and repeat with happy confidence: "I didn't just choose Harm. I chose us."
Although I look significantly better now than I did when I first left the table – the raccoon effect has been minimized – I realize I could still use a little lip color. It takes another thirty seconds for me to quickly refresh my lipstick and collect my belongings. There's a bottle of pre-natal vitamins floating around in my purse that will make a useful prop when I break the news to Harm. Giving myself one last smile in the mirror, I follow the little old Chinese lady's path through the door, thinking about the vitamins and how my happy fiancé has no idea he's about to become even happier.