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Part Five

The next morning, 0530 PST
Somewhere in the mountains of Central Java

 

In the silence before dawn, the air felt almost cool.

The morning hush was broken only by a distant bird call. Bars of golden sunlight slanted down through the leaves, dramatic as a cathedral.

Mac blinked sleepily and turned her head. All she could see was Harm's broad back, his t-shirt pulled tight across his shoulders as he lay curled against her side. His chest rose and fell with his slow, steady breathing.

She sat up and rubbed her eyes, looking down at him. With faint surprise, she realized she could count the times she had ever seen him unshaven. Slowly she let her eyes move over his face, his body, noticing more tiny changes wrought by the past six months. He appeared younger in sleep, relaxed, but there was a faint brushing of blue shadow beneath his eyes, and even sleeping he carried an air of indefinable sadness -- or perhaps it was loneliness. She reached out and gently brushed a blade of grass from his hair.

Carefully, so as not to wake him, she eased herself to her feet and tiptoed away until she found a tree large enough to shield her. Thinking of bugs, she finished as quickly as she could and went to rinse her hands and face in the stream. On an impulse, she pulled off her brown Marine t-shirt and splashed the water over her arms and neck, reveling in the coolness before pulling the shirt back on with a shiver of distaste.

When she stepped softly back to her bed, Harm rolled onto his back and grinned up at her. "Hi, Sleeping Beauty." His voice was low and gravely with sleep.

"Hi," she smiled, and sat cross legged beside him.

"What time is it?"

"0545. Local."

Harm rubbed his eyes and sat up. "Been up long?"

"No. Just now. In fact, I can't remember the last time I slept so well," she admitted.

"Coffee ready?"

"I wish."

"Well, at least it isn't raining. This is monsoon season, when it rains all the time. We'll get a dozen downpours a day."

"Ah, good travel tip. Thanks."

Harm got to his feet, groaning, and she kidded him, "Not used to sleeping on the cold, hard ground, pappy?"

"I joined the Navy so I'd always have a nice, warm bed at night," he retorted, and stumbled away into the underbrush. When he returned, looking marginally more alert, she had two MREs unwrapped and ready. Harm sat and picked one up. "Ham, yum. My favorite."

"It was either that or lamb stew."

He sighed and chewed. "Guess it could be worse. We could be digging up roots and berries, hoping they aren't poisonous."

"It may come to that. Do you have any ideas for getting out of here?"

He considered. "The road's out, they'll be watching it."

"You're right. How come you walked in, anyway? Wouldn't it have been easier to get Marburg out by helo?"

"When we asked, the military gave us some bullshit. I guess they figured it would look more believable if they "discovered" the massacre later. I could have saved myself the trouble -- Marburg refused flat out to leave. I was going to have to drag him out at gunpoint."

"Well, if we can't call Jake and we can't make for the road, what else is there? We could go north, over the mountains. It's only about 20 miles to the coast road, and we could hitch a ride to Jakarta."

"They'll be watching for that."

"I could risk a call to the embassy."

"Same problem, the government troops will pick it up and intercept us." He frowned. "Our only ace is that we have proof that their military is involved, right? That's why they'll try to stop us. Otherwise, they could spread their story that Marburg was CIA and got killed by an Al Qaeda cell, and it would work."

"Okay, keep going."

"So our only option is to get to the embassy without being picked up. The only way to do that is to get to Jakarta without being intercepted. Anywhere we go, we're going to stand out like a sore thumb, except--" His head came up.

"Except what?"

"There are still a lot of European and Australian tourists coming to the island, right?"

"Yes, but--"

"And a lot of them visit the resort at Maribaya, don't they? To see the temple ruins and the hot springs? It's only about 50 miles west from here, and tourist buses go there all the time."

She sat up straighter. "We can make 50 miles."

"Damn right we can. We blend in with the tourists, get on a bus, and it'll take us right into the center of Jakarta."

Mac was nodding before he finished. "I like it. That can work."

"We should be able to make 15 miles a day, given the terrain."

"So that's three days plus, give or take. Water's no problem, but we only have five MREs left between us."

Harm waved his hand, dismissing it. "We'll find some roots and berries. Better for you anyway," he grinned.

"Okay. In that case, you can forage off the land and I'll eat the lamb stew." Her smile lit up her face, and he felt glad warmth spread through him.

"Let's go."

 

Later that morning

 

This wasn't rain, Mac decided. This was a solid wall of water, an endless warm shower falling straight out of the sky as if dumped from a celestial bucket. There was no point in wearing a poncho; there was simply nowhere that wasn't wet, and it brought no relief from the heat. She walked with her head down to let the water sluice off her nose and chin and kept her eyes on Harm's boots just ahead.

They were working their way westward across a wide swath of grassland that flowed down one shoulder of the mountain. It was a gentle slope, angling downhill, and Mac welcomed the sunlight on her face when they first emerged from the trees. The air quickly turned steamy as humidity rose from the damp ground, and swarms of insects buzzed around their heads. As the morning wore on, the brilliant sun was gradually obscured by low grey clouds until the rain began abruptly, bringing relief from the bugs but instantly soaking them to the skin. The tall grass stems brushed as high as their shoulders, clinging and scratching as they pushed their way through. The pounding of the water on the leaves was so heavy it made conversation impossible, and she suspected she would drown if she tried.

Then suddenly the trees closed in around them again, and they were struggling through dense tropical undergrowth. The rain continued to pour down, only slightly diminished by the canopy of foliage high overhead, and the ground became steeper and slick with mud. She was so intent on her footing that she literally bumped into Harm when he stopped, and she had to grab his waist to keep from stumbling.

"Whoa -- easy," he said, gripping her shoulders to steady her. The warmth of his hands on her wet skin arced through her, and she didn't resist when he pulled her into the shelter of an enormous palm frond sagging over their path. "You okay?"

"Yeah, but I didn't know I'd be swimming home." She risked a glance from beneath her lashes and pushed her dripping hair back. "Now I know why they call it a rain forest. Where are we?"

"Here," Harm held out the GPS and pointed to the tiny map readout. "We're following the central mountain range. It runs northwest toward Jakarta. We're almost to the bottom of the pass between these two peaks, see? There's probably a river or stream up ahead. Once we find a way across, we'll have to climb up and over the shoulder of that volcano. Maribaya is on the far side."

"Volcano?"

"Yeah, there's lots of them around here. Mostly inactive, though."

"How the heck do you know all this, anyway?"

He looked smug. "Crash course on the Internet when I got the mission profile."

"Anything about snakes or tigers or tarantulas to worry about?"

"Why, have you seen any?"

"Cute. Well, lead on, Dr. Livingstone."

"That was Africa, Mac."

"Whatever."

Harm grinned at her, and something spilled warm inside her. It was with a lighter step that she followed him as they wound their way among huge tree trunks festooned with lianas and thick with bromeliads clinging to their branches.

As suddenly as it began, the rain stopped. In the silence, Mac heard the dripping from a million leaves and a faint chattering of birds or monkeys high in the canopy. Not far ahead, a roaring sound became louder with every step. Without warning, Harm's arm shot out and blocked her from moving forward, and when she peered around him, she saw why.

The earth fell away at their feet into a thundering void. A waterfall roared down into the heart of a rocky gorge in a slender plume of white sixty feet high. Black volcanic rocks wet with mist lined both sides of the cataract and shook with the force of the falling water. To their right and above, cliffs rose sheer to the spine of the mountains.

"What do you think?" Harm shouted in her ear to be heard.

"Can we go downstream, find an easier way to cross?"

He peered over the edge, and she closed her eyes. "It could be miles before we find anything better, Mac. Look, you can see stones going across at the bottom. Once we get down there, it'll be easy."

She swallowed the butterflies in her stomach and nodded. "Okay. You don't have any rope, do you?"

"Sorry. But it's not sheer, Mac, look. It's like big steps, see?" He looked down at her, and his arm slipped around her shoulders with a reassuring squeeze. "I'll go first. Will you be okay?"

"Sure thing." She set her jaw and nodded. "Lead on."

Harm looked at her, frowning, then resettled his pack before kneeling and dropping over the edge of the ravine. His wet hands were white where they clamped against the rock, and he lowered himself until the top of his sleek head disappeared. She knelt to peer over and watched as he worked his way about ten feet down, moving easily. He was right. It wasn't straight down, it was more like a series of ledges where the boulders were piled one against the other like blocks, and none of the drop offs appeared to be more than six or seven feet. Mac took a deep breath and lowered herself over the side.

By keeping her eyes firmly on the rock and refusing to look down, she found it wasn't too bad. She kept moving slowly and steadily, feeling carefully for each new hand and foot hold before transferring her weight, ignoring the yawning space at her back. Then she felt Harm's hands on her waist, guiding her down until her boots touched the broad, flat ledge at the edge of the stream.

"You made it, Marine!" Harm bellowed in her ear to be heard above the thundering water. She let out the breath she had been holding and returned his broad grin. The ledge was scarcely large enough for both of them with their packs, and she could feel the warmth of his body through their clothing. Then she turned and looked.

Harm saw the blood leave her face, and quickly put his hands on her shoulders. "It's okay, Mac. It really isn't bad," he reassured her. "Mac, you dropped thirty feet from that helicopter yesterday, into a fire fight! This is nothing!"

"They train us to do that!" she yelled back. "It's okay, Harm. I can do it." She swallowed, and he tried to remember if he had ever seen her this scared.

"Take off your pack," he ordered, and wordlessly she complied. He shrugged his off too, holding it by the strap, and grabbed hers in his other hand.

"Harm, you can't carry both of them!" she cried.

"Sure I can, that's the benefit of traveling light," he kidded her. "Seriously, they'll balance me, and it'll be better for both of us to have a lower center of gravity. I'll take them across and come back for you."

She looked at him and nodded once. He saw her bite her lip, and impulsively he leaned down and kissed her cheek. "It'll be fine, Mac, you'll see."

"Good luck," she said, and he turned and stepped out onto the first boulder in the racing stream. Tensely Mac watched as he walked confidently from one rock to the next, moving with the easy grace of a sailor negotiating a deck in heavy seas. Dozens of rocks tumbled across the watercourse where the waterfall roared into the gorge. What had appeared from above to be an easy string of stepping stones turned out upon closer inspection to be a series of huge boulders, big as Volkswagons, surrounded by torrents of deep water and exploding spray. It was obvious that a fall into that maelstrom would mean certain drowning as your body tumbled down the rapids for miles.

But Harm appeared unconcerned. He reached the far side with no obvious difficulty, secured their packs in a cleft of rock, and started back. Mac watched closely, noticing that his boots slipped a bit on the slick stones, and at one point he made a short jump. Great. How the hell do I get myself into these things, she wondered.

Then he was there in front of her, balancing easily on the flat top of the first boulder and holding out his hand to her. "Come on, Marine!" he shouted. "It's okay, I promise!"

She gathered herself and stepped. Harm caught her hand and steadied her beside him before turning to point out the way. "I'll go first, and you step where I step," he shouted in her ear. "I'll be right there, Mac, I won't leave you." She nodded.

Now she had to look down, and the rushing water did nothing to offset her vertigo. The first few rocks were almost level, but the next had a slanted surface. She watched as Harm stepped onto it, and she took a breath and followed, trying to stand upright as he did. Her boots slipped a little, and her body went rigid as she teetered on the edge of balance.

His big warm hand closed around her wrist, and instantly she found her equilibrium. He flashed a warm smile, water dripping from his face, and she managed a weak one in return as they stood, drenched with spray, the torrent thundering around them. "Okay?" Harm shouted, and she nodded. They negotiated the next few steps without trouble, and then she saw the gap -- three feet of space between one boulder and the next, with a glossy, ominous wave surging dark between. Harm jumped lightly across, his long legs making it look easy. It was easy. It was only three damn feet. Come on, Mac.

It was no use -- she froze, staring at the gap like a bird transfixed by a snake.

"Mac! Mac, look at me," Harm was calling to her, and finally she lifted terrified eyes to find his warm gaze holding her. "Just hop over, Mac. It's flat over here, there's plenty of room to land. You'll be fine."

Helplessly she stared back at him, panic rising in her throat.

"It's okay, honey. I'll catch you." Over the roar of water she could hear his voice, calm and steady. She concentrated on him, only on him, and felt some sort of control returning. His gaze never wavered as he held out his hand. "Come on, Sarah. I promise you'll be all right. I won't let go."

She leaped, and was caught and held in an iron grip. It was ridiculous that she had forgotten how strong he was. Harm pulled her tight against him and she hugged him back fiercely, pressing her face into the hard muscles of his chest. Neither of them moved for a long time.

Finally she leaned back, gripping his arms. Her shaky little laugh died on her lips as he slowly wiped the moisture from her face with the palm of his hand.

At the heat in his gaze, an answering spark flashed through her body. His clear green eyes darkened in response, and his hands tightened on her waist. Their clothing was soaked, plastered to their skin. They might as well have been naked.

For an endless moment they stood together, balanced above the torrent, motionless, scarcely breathing. At last Harm broke his stare and stepped back. He took her hand and did not let go as they negotiated the rest of the distance to the bank, where he lifted her pack onto her shoulders, and silently they adjusted their gear. Without a word, he led the way as they scrambled up the steep slope. At the top, he extended a hand to pull her up the last few feet. "Thanks," she panted.

"You're welcome," he said. "Ready?"

She nodded. He began to break a trail through the undergrowth, moving upward toward the ridge far above.

 

Part Six

1700 Hours
Somewhere in the mountains of central Java

 

Harm lifted his arm and swabbed sweat from his eyes with the sleeve of his t-shirt. They had been climbing steadily all afternoon, working their way up a precipitous rib of the mountain range, and the intermittent sunlight had transformed the jungle into a steam bath. From time to time, cool grey clouds closed in like fog and rain, obscuring everything but the next few yards, only to disappear just as suddenly. They slogged upward, swapping the lead back and forth without talking much.

That suited him just fine. His thoughts kept whirling around like dry leaves, refusing to settle. That look -- that instant when her eyes had widened with trust, and she leaped -- it felt like being struck by lightning.

He had been within an inch of kissing the hell out of her. Like that would have solved anything. Desire had always been there between them, a banked ember ready to catch fire between one breath and the next. They both had known that for years. Giving in would only make it worse when it was over.

He watched her as intently as he could without being obvious. Since yesterday, he had sensed some sort of change in Mac, as if some of her fiercely held defenses had been abandoned. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, and it was driving him crazy. When she reached to pull down the wide leaf of a banana palm and let the clear rain water run off into her open mouth, he nearly groaned. Her sodden t-shirt poured over her like paint.

"Clay isn't going to like it, finding you in the middle of a CIA operation," he needled her, just to break the silence and his hot, coiled thoughts.

"Is *that* what's been bothering you all day?" she asked, watching him as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Nothing's bothering me." The arc of Mac's eyebrow annoyed him intensely.

"Oh, so that's why you haven't said two words to me since this morning."

"It's a steep hill, Mac. I didn't notice you having a lot of extra breath for conversation."

"Does *everything* have to be a competition between us?"

"We're lawyers. It's our job."

"And working together forces us to be adversarial, is that it?"

"We don't work together anymore," he snapped, and was startled to discover that the emptiness could still threaten to swamp him. He expected her to come back with a zinger, but she was silent for so long he looked up. She was watching him with that same wistful sadness that had surprised him before.

"We're working together now," she said softly.

"And Clay won't like it."

That pissed her off, he saw with satisfaction. "For your information, I am not dating Clayton Webb."

He glared. "So all that billing and cooing was just for my benefit, is that it?"

"He wanted more, and I said no!"

"Well, that's a first."

"First what?"

"First time you ever walked away from a man who offered you a safe bet."

For a second he was sure Mac would slap him, but she didn't. She went very still. "Stop it."

"Stop what?"

"Stop trying to stiff arm me. You do it every time someone gets too close." Her eyes narrowed. "You're scared."

"Maybe I am." His mouth was a grim line. "But you're just as scared as I am."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The unmitigated bastard! I'm going to kill him, Mac fumed. There's nobody around, I could get away with it.

She was hiking at a furious pace, panting harshly and refusing to look back to see if Harm was in sight. Palm fronds and branches slapped at her and clumps of grass scratched at her legs. Rocks and pebbles skittered away beneath the soles of her boots as she struggled upward.

How dare you, you lousy son of a bitch. You've always been jealous of every man who ever looked at me. Scared! You don't even have the guts to admit what you want.

I have nothing to be ashamed of, dammit. I didn't use anyone. I cared for every single man I have ever been with. I made mistakes, sure, but I learned from them and put them behind me.

She stomped onward, fuming, filled with a pleasurable sense of righteous outrage. All the reasons why he was dead wrong tumbled over one another, eagerly shoring up the walls of her anger.

Chris doesn't count, I was a kid and a drunk. He was sexy as hell and he was the first person who ever really wanted me, and he got me out of my dad's house . . . . You'd better not bring up John Farrell again, either. He was kind and decent, and his approval felt so great, like the father I never had . . . . I was still a kid then, too. And he'd have given me the law school recommendation anyway, you know he would.

Somehow she was still uncomfortable. Well okay, there was Dalton, of course. He dazzled me, opening the door to a world of wealth and sophistication I had always dreamed of. How could I have known he only wanted a female figurehead for his firm, not a real partner?

And what about Mic? You can't say I used him. He walked out on *me,* remember? Besides, I didn't agree to marry him until *after* he lost his job. Maybe he wasn't the world's greatest lawyer and we weren't really right for each other, but he was decent and we would have had kids, a family, a real life. It felt so good to have someone *want* me that much . . .

And Clay? He would ask me to marry him, with the right encouragement. He's acerbic and irascible, but he's brilliant and I'm sure he'll be head of the CIA someday. He could give me money, security, an exciting life -- but I said no, didn't I?

Mac was an old hand at self-justification, it was the enemy of every alcoholic. This felt way too much like that, and it made her a little sick.

My God. Did I ever actually *love* any of them? Love, where it didn't matter who they were or what they were offering? Did any of them make my heart fly?

Her steps slowed, and she scarcely noticed. I have always earned my own way, dammit. Sobriety, the Marine Corps, law school, JAG. But come on, Mac -- can you honestly say you would have gotten seriously involved with any of those men, if they hadn't offered security? Isn't that why you were always trying to talk yourself into feeling more than you did?

The truth itched and stung like a leech. God damn you, Harm. Why do you have to know me better than I know myself?

Stiff, angry tears clung to her lashes. I never had to talk myself into being in love with you. I use all my energy trying to talk myself out of it, for crying out loud! I swore I wouldn't spend the rest of my life pining away for a man who refuses to need anyone. And every time I tell myself I've closed that door, once and for all, it opens again at the touch of your fingertip.

Harm's hand clamped around her wrist, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. He yanked her roughly back into the trees and raised a finger to his lips, scanning the mountains behind them. Her scathing retort died as she heard the *whump whump* of helicopter rotors.

A Huey was flying low over the trees, heading straight for them.

She could feel her pulse hammering beneath his grip. They crouched, motionless, and watched the big helo flatten the grass as it approached. Together they threw themselves to the ground beneath a clump of banana palms and hunkered down as it roared directly overhead. Mac found herself praying the leaves were thick enough to conceal them. It seemed like forever until it drew away.

She lifted her face from the dirt and peered at Harm. He was still listening, and his hand tightened painfully on her wrist. "What" -- she began.

"Shhh!" he hissed.

The helicopter was swinging around and coming back. It passed just north of their position before looping back toward the northwest. Neither of them moved until the echo of its rotors died away on the hillside. Mac got to her knees and brushed herself off. "Well, that settles it. They're looking for us," she said.

"Looking for us, hell. They came straight for us." He grabbed his pack and began pulling things out, flinging them aside and digging into every pocket until he held up a tiny gadget that resembled a cell phone. "Son of a bitch!" Harm began to curse under his breath like the sailor he was.

Mac sat back on her heels and waited until he wound down. "They must have slipped it in there on the drive," he said in disgust. "I never even stopped to wonder how they followed me to Marburg's camp."

"Look, maybe we can use it to our advantage."

"How? The last time something like this happened, we were in Belfast, remember? I fastened it to the collar of a stray dog. Have you seen any of those around here? Even if we disable it, they'll know which way we're headed. Why haven't they intercepted us?"

She frowned, considering. "Terrain's too rough to set down. They drop some guys in here, we could give them the slip. We're just lucky they were dumb enough to tip their hand early."

"So we destroy the transmitter and go on. They can't be sure where we'll come out of the jungle."

"Or we seal it in one of our little Ziplock bags and toss it in the next stream. With luck, they'll think we decided to head for the coast. They'll figure it out, but it'll buy us some time."

He started to argue, and stopped, looking thoughtful. "You know, that could work."

"Jungle warfare is what Marines do, Harm."

"And you stopped me from wasting time kicking myself. Thanks, Mac." He missed her look of surprise as he rummaged around in his pack, pulled out a small plastic pouch, dropped in the transmitter, and ran his fingers across to seal it watertight. They both stood and shrugged into their packs.

"Thank *you,*" she said as they started off.

"For what?"

"For being the kind of friend who tells the truth, even when it isn't what I want to hear."

He turned to stare at her. She glanced away and said, "It's going to get dark pretty soon. Do you want to keep going?"

"Uh," he stammered, "um, it's pretty steep around here to try to hike at night. Let's get over the ridge. There should be a stream on that side."

Mac nodded and set off. He followed without knowing where he put his feet. In his mind, he was back on a street in Belfast, crouching behind a burning van and preparing to sprint toward the IRA car. Seeing Mac step out to cover him, armed only with a fake pistol she made with her hands. Risking her life to back him up without a second's hesitation.

Once again, he was awed by her courage. And overwhelmed with shame, as if he had used a hammer to crush a butterfly.

His throat thickened at the unconscious gallantry in the set of her slim shoulders. Damn. Sarah Mackenzie could still surprise the hell out of him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Rain swept in, but it stopped before they reached the crest of the ridge. There they halted, feeling their hearts lift at the vista before them. The entire southern side of the island fell away at their feet, flowing down the steep flanks of the mountains in undulating waves of green and plumes of cloud. Jagged peaks marched away to the northwest, and to the south the coastal plains were a misty cloak of paler green. Thunderheads rimmed with a nimbus of gold soared into the sky, vast pillars towering above the land that was disappearing into the endless shimmer of the sunset.

Far out on the horizon, the sea sparkled in a veil of stars. It flashed in their eyes, so dazzling Mac had to shade her eyes. Then Harm moved between her and the sun, a dark figure whose outline wavered against the brightness. Suddenly goose bumps ran up her arms.

"Mac?" he asked, putting a hand on her shoulder. He was looming over her, a featureless shadow, and his tone was sharp with concern.

She had to clear her throat to answer, and her voice sounded tiny and distant in her ears as she said, "It feels like we're lost on the far side of the moon."

"At least it's beautiful," he agreed quietly. She nodded. Wordlessly they turned to the northwest and began moving across the flank of the mountain.

It was getting dark by the time they found a stream. It trickled down from above and flowed away through a rocky ravine, but at the base of a cliff the water widened to form a small pool. Rocks surrounded the natural hollow and screened it on three sides.

Harm dumped his pack and stretched. "We're not going to find a better campsite," he said. He knew she would march all night if he didn't call a halt. Mac simply nodded and dropped her pack beside his. He glanced at her with concern. She was clearly exhausted, and she was being awfully quiet. He hesitated, started to speak, and instead headed off into the trees.

"Where are you going?"

"Gotta see a man about a dog."

The moon was rising when he returned, and it bathed the little clearing in faint silvery light. Mac was sitting on a tarp with her arms wrapped around her knees and her head resting on them, but she looked up at his step. He held out two round objects with a flourish. "Breadfruit," he announced.

"How did you find it?"

"They teach aviators a few things in survival school," he said, and dropped down beside her. He began peeling one with his knife.

She held up an MRE. "If we split one of these twice a day, we'll have enough to see us through," she said.

He nodded. "You take the stew and the applesauce, Mac. I'll take the veggies and rice."

"You need to eat more than that, Harm, you outweigh me by eighty pounds!"

"Okay, we'll split the applesauce. And here, try this." He handed her a slice of spongy white breadfruit.

Mac took a cautious bite. "It's kind of like a potato," she decided.

"It's better when it's cooked." He was pleased to see her take another slice. "You know, breadfruit has a long and disreputable history in the Navy," he said. "It caused a mutiny."

"You're kidding."

"Remember Captain Bligh? Mutiny on the Bounty? They were heading back from Tahiti with a load of breadfruit plants. They were going to raise it in Jamaica to feed slaves. The crew decided they preferred Tahiti."

"Now that I've tasted this stuff, I can't say I blame them," she said. The tension eased a fraction at the tiny joke.

He squeezed the last of the peas-and-carrots mush into his mouth and wadded up the foil packets. "Time to launch our stowaway," he said, and held up the transmitter in its bag. He walked over to the stream, where he squatted down and blew into the bag to inflate it. Mac stood back as he sealed it tight and tossed it into the water, and together they watched it bob away on the slow current. "Vaya con Dios," he said, and pulled something from his pocket. "Toothbrush?"

"You brought one!" she exclaimed. "I was just wishing I had."

"Hey, always prepared, right? Here." He held out a tiny travel size tube of toothpaste.

"Thanks." She looked away, remembering the time she had called him a Boy Scout. Now the jibe seemed hateful.

While she brushed, Harm quickly buried their trash and busied himself rigging a length of clothesline between two saplings. He flung his tarp over it and began tying down the corners. Mac helped him spread her ground cloth beneath the little canopy. "There," he said, dusting his hands. "That'll keep most of the rain off, at least."

She handed him the toothbrush. "Here. Thanks."

He knelt on one knee beside the stream to brush his teeth, and she sat on a boulder and began pulling off her boots. Silently she dipped her feet into the water.

Harm rinsed and spat, then gestured. "Blisters?"

"No. Just sore. Borrowed boots." She stood up and unzipped her pants.

"Uh, Mac? What are you doing?"

"I'm going swimming. I've never been so hot and sweaty in my life." Without another word, she stepped out of her BDU trousers and tossed them over a bush, followed by her t-shirt. In the dark, her underwear was only a blur, some sort of athletic bra and briefs, he noted distractedly. She stepped gingerly into the pool and halted. "Do you think there could be snakes or leeches or anything like that?"

"Nah, the water's moving too fast and the bottom's rock, not mud."

Normally she would have kidded him about sounding like Jack Hanna, but she simply lowered herself into the water. "Oh, this is great," she sighed.

Harm stood up and pulled off his t-shirt with a jerk. A man could stand only so much. Quickly he yanked off his boots and socks and tossed his jeans over a log before wading into the pool in his shorts. He submerged completely, reveling in the coolness.

He surfaced with a snort and shook himself like a dog. "You're right," he grinned at her, and was rewarded with a faint smile. He took a breath. "Mac. About before. I'm sorry."

"Why? You were right."

"So were you. I was just hitting back."

"I know." The moonlight etched her profile in silver. He gritted his teeth, knowing she was beating herself up, knowing it was his fault. Even worse was the resignation in her voice, as if she wasn't surprised. He wished he could drown himself.

They floated in silence, their heads bobbing on the water. The moon rose higher, turning the pool into a disk of silver.

"What do you think will happen, when we get back?" Mac's voice sounded small and uncertain.

He sighed. "I'll probably get canned for getting Marburg killed. You could get off with a slap on the wrist, if the Admiral can finesse the fact that an active duty officer was participating in a covert mission in a friendly country. Of course, it won't help that I was involved."

"He doesn't hate you, Harm."

"He sure doesn't love me. Hell, I can't blame him anymore. Given the situation, no CO in the military would have sanctioned my trip to Paraguay, but he might have granted emergency leave if I hadn't pushed the limit so many times."

Mac concealed her surprise. Was Harmon Rabb admitting he might have been wrong about something? Treading carefully, she said, "What do you mean?"

"Resigning to search for Sergei. A galactically stupid decision. Disobeying a direct order to stay with Bud. Almost tanking a defense because I thought the guy was guilty, then investigating *after* I was off the case. Trying to protect my brother from NCIS. Running that private investigation of Singer." He shot her a look. "That ticked you off, too. And you were right."

She stared at him in disbelief.

He went on, "The Admiral was right, I *was* letting my emotions make my decisions. I guess I started thinking I was above the rules. Inexcusable. Hell, I had duty drummed into me from my first day at the Academy."

She said fiercely, "You risked your life for an entire battle group. You saved my life in Paraguay."

"And I'd do it again." His eyes were somber. "But if I hadn't tested his authority so many times, Chegwidden might have given me a little leeway." There was a silence, and then Harm blurted, "He was wrong to question my sense of responsibility, though."

"I think he was hurt," she said slowly. "Did you ever think he rode you so hard because he expected so much of you? You're the most talented officer I've ever known, Harm. He wanted to see you go all the way."

He frowned. "Maybe," he said thoughtfully, and sighed. "Don't have to worry about that anymore. Guess I'll be finding out how I do in private practice."

"Maybe we both will." She gave him a rueful little smile, and he felt something relax inside. It always comes back to this, he thought wistfully. When it comes to me, Mac gets it, and I get her. Guess that's why we push each other's buttons so well. We're wired the same way.

The dome of the sky was spangled with brilliant stars, and they floated in silence. After awhile Mac spoke, cautious as a sonar operator probing the depths. "Has it been lonely out there?"

He started to make a smart remark, and stopped. "The Navy meant more to me than I ever understood until it was gone, Mac." He flipped a hand, dismissing it, but his voice sounded hollow. "Everything disappears sooner or later, right?"

"Your love for your father never did," she reminded him gently.

"I still miss him." She didn't expect him to say any more, but after a long moment Harm whispered, "I keep wondering if he'd be ashamed of me now."

Her heart contracted. For the first time, she could glimpse the lonely little boy who shut everyone out so he would never feel that kind of pain or loss again.

"No," she said quietly. "He'd be very, very proud."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The moon was high by the time they climbed out of the pool, and clouds were beginning to obscure the stars. Mac squeezed the water from her hair and crawled into the makeshift tent to dig around in her pack. Harm slid out of his wet shorts and pulled on his jeans.

He paused before ducking under the tarp. "You decent?" he called.

"Sure."

He crawled in and saw that she had a flashlight shining on the floor, shielded and pointing away from the opening. "I didn't think anyone would be able to see it, just for a minute," she said. She was wearing a clean dry t-shirt and panties. "Give me those," she said, gesturing at his shirt and wet underwear. He handed them over, and she hung them from the rope at the end of the tent, next to her own. "Maybe they'll get dry by morning."

"Do you have any more of that bug stuff?" His clean skin was beginning to attract mosquitoes in droves. Wordlessly she handed it over. "How did you manage to keep a spare shirt dry?" he asked.

"Marine secret," she said primly. The golden light slid over her long bare legs, gilding her skin, and he swallowed and willed himself not to stare. It was a cinch she wasn't wearing a bra under that t-shirt.

Mac propped their packs at the end of the tent, wriggled into her BDU pants, and switched off the flashlight. He scooted up and reclined against his pack, trying to ignore the brush of her arm against his as she lay down.

Her breathing soon steadied, becoming deep and even, and he knew she was asleep. Harm lay staring into the darkness for a long time.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Water. Black, icy water everywhere, filling his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Lightning flashed, and a gigantic wave roared over him like a locomotive racing down the backside of hell. It was cold, so cold, and the lines were wrapped around his legs and where was the damn knife! The chute was dragging him down and he couldn't breathe --

He sat up with a jerk and stared wildly into the dark with sightless eyes. The roar of water filled his ears.

"Harm! Harm, it's me! You're okay, you're awake," Mac was calling to him, and gradually he became aware of her arms around him, her breath warm on his cheek. With a click, he remembered where they were, realized the roar of water was rain drumming on the tarp overhead. He took a deep, shuddering breath, weak with relief, and scrubbed a hand over his bristly face. It was the dream, just the damn dream.

"It's okay, Mac. I'm okay. Sorry." He sat with his arms resting on his knees, breathing hard. She rested her palm between his shoulder blades, and after a moment the flashlight clicked on, creating a tiny glow like a candle between them.

"You were dreaming," she said.

"I know."

"Was it your crash?" she asked, and he wondered if she was having one of her psychic moments.

"Yeah."

"Does this happen a lot?" Her voice was filled with gentle concern, and her warm palm began rubbing little circles on his back. Silently he hoped she'd never stop.

"More than it used to. Look, it's nothing. An anxiety dream, that's all. What time is it?"

"Oh-one hundred."

Thank God she didn't sympathize. She just sat beside him, listening to the rain, and after awhile she said, "That was the most terrible night of my life."

He was astonished. Out of all the terror and jumbled confusion and pain of that crisis, it had never occurred to him she might feel like that. He started to tell her he was sorry, and decided anything he might say would sound absurd. Instead he squeezed her hand briefly and leaned back.

Mac switched off the light and sat staring out at the rain. He could just discern the graceful line of her back and throat, silhouetted against the night. After a while she turned her head to look at him, and he saw the gleam of her eyes.

Wordlessly he held out his arm. She came down to him in one graceful movement, nestling her head into the hollow of his shoulder, and his arm went around her. A slim hand lay on his chest, over his heart, and he covered it with his own.

Her body was soft and warm against his. She gave a little sigh, and he laid his cheek on her hair.

They lay quietly, listening to the rain. After awhile it stopped, as if someone had turned off a faucet in the sky.

 

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