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Part Seven

0615 Hours, PST
A rain forest in central Java

 

He awoke in the pale grey light before dawn. He was lying with Mac pulled into the curve of his body, his arm snug around her waist and his morning erection firm against her back. He began to pull away before he realized she was still asleep, so he rose quietly on one elbow and gazed down at her.

With her hands tucked beneath her chin, she looked like a little girl. She had grown thinner since last spring, he saw with a prick of concern, and remembered that the last time he had watched her sleeping was in a jeep in Afghanistan. For an insomniac, Mac certainly managed to fall asleep in the most uncomfortable places.

Harm nestled his face in her hair for a moment, then cautiously eased out of the tent, grabbing his shirt and shorts as he went. The jungle was eerie and still, obscured by thick mist. Only the chuckling of water over stones broke the silence.

He stretched, thinking that sleeping with Mac in his arms made a night on the ground almost bearable. He waited for his body to leave him alone before moving quietly away from their camp. When he returned, she was dressed and had the shelter packed up.

"Leave it to the Marines," he kidded her.

"I figured it was probably an emergency, if you were already up." She smiled to show she was kidding. "Breakfast is served."

"I'm so hungry, even this stuff is beginning to look good." He tore open a packet of fruit cocktail.

"Harm, you need to eat some of this. You can't keep going without some protein."

"Look, Mom, I'm fine. What is that stuff, anyway?"

"Turkey a la king. Here, try it, there's noodles."

He sampled it. "You know, that's not too bad."

"Okay, you eat the rest, and we'll split the other stuff too. You can say you got me to eat green beans."

He grinned, thinking that only Mac could make bossy sound cute. For the first time in months, the tight little knot in his chest wasn't there. She looked more relaxed this morning, too. "Looks like you managed to get some sleep last night," he said.

"Like a log. How about you?" He caught the flick of concern in her glance.

"Yeah, actually, I did. Once I got the whim whams out of my head, I was fine." He bent to lace up his boots.

Mac gathered up their food wrappers and buried them. Her silence warned him something was coming even before she blurted, "Harm, is there something you're not telling me? I mean, I know we're in a situation here, but it seems like our chances of coming out okay are pretty good. Am I wrong?" Her gaze was keen, and he met it straight on.

"No, you're not wrong. I'm just worried about this mess I've gotten you into."

"I walked into it with my eyes open."

He nodded. Hesitantly she said, "Harm? What?"

"There *was* something I didn't tell you." She cocked her head warily. He said with quiet vehemence, "My interest never faded, Mac. Not once."

Her eyes widened in shock. She swallowed and glanced down.

Abruptly he stood and hefted his pack. "We'd better get going. Eventually they're going to trace that transmitter back here, and I don't want to leave any tracks."

Mac rose, not meeting his eyes. He hoisted her pack and held it while she fastened the straps. Very slowly he smoothed the t-shirt across her shoulders.

In silence they forded the stream above the pool, carefully erasing any sign of their passage, and headed northwest.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

By the time the third deluge of the day inundated them, Mac decided she was grateful for the rain. It gave her something to focus on besides the emotions playing ping pong inside her head. An idiotic song kept repeating an endless loop in her inner ear, keeping time with her footsteps, and no matter what, she couldn't get rid of it. Worse, it was "Jingle Bell Rock." Give me a break, she thought.

The rain also made conversation impossible, thank God. All morning they had hiked in a fizzing silence. Small talk or a banal comment would be worse than saying nothing. She never thought Harmon Rabb would make an admission like that, never -- just as she never would have expected him to open up as he had last night. She could still feel the pressure of his hands on her shoulders.

Dreamily she watched the play of powerful muscles where his jeans clung to his long legs, the easy athletic grace of his big body as he walked ahead. He pushed a palm frond out of the way, and she realized she was staring at the strong bones of his wrist, the long fingers of his hand. She pulled herself together and grabbed the branch.

Despite the miserable discomfort of this little adventure, she realized there was nowhere she would rather be than hiking through the Indonesian rain forest. With him.

Their route sloped gently across the southern flank of the huge peak, and they stayed just below the tree line for cover. It made for rough going as they scrambled over rocky outcroppings and slogged through muddy stretches of scrubby bushes and grass that rose waist high.

Harm paused to consult the GPS, and she came up beside him to look. "How are we doing?" she asked, feeling absurdly self conscious.

"Better than I expected," he said. "We made close to 18 miles yesterday, and we've already done ten today. If we go as far as that ridge up ahead and follow it down, we should be in pretty good shape to make Maribaya by tomorrow night." He pointed out the route, half obscured by clouds rolling up the mountainside.

"You march pretty good, for a squid," she teased him.

"Okay, Marine, how about you break trail for awhile?" he grinned back.

She lifted her brows in response to the challenge, took a deep drink from her canteen, and set off at a smart pace. Forty minutes later they reached the top of the ridge which divided the south from the western face of the mountain like a buttress. Rain obscured the view as Mac started down. The trees became taller as they descended, and the understory vegetation grew thick with ferns and shrubs.

At the top of a rocky cliff Mac paused to scan the possible routes before starting down a narrow opening between the boulders. The thin soil beneath her boots deepened into slick mud, and without warning she slipped, slithering into a wild downhill slide on her ass, bumping and banging off rocks and tree roots until she thumped to a stop against a huge tree.

"Mac! Mac, are you okay?" Harm came barreling down, moving nearly as fast as she had but managing to keep his feet. He grabbed a branch, slid to a stop beside her, and dropped to one knee. "Mac?"

She waved her hand. "I'm fine," she gasped, trying to get her breath. "Just wind -- knocked out--" She kept bending over, coughing a little and trying to quiet the trembling in her knees. Harm waited tensely, one hand on her shoulder, until she looked up and gave him a quavery smile. "Some Marine, huh?"

He let out his breath in relief. "You're sure you aren't hurt? That was one hell of a spill."

"No, really, it's nothing." She grimaced and touched a tender spot on the side of her head, smearing mud across her cheek.

"Here, let me see," Harm said, earning a glare as he peered into her eyes. "Okay, your pupils are contracting normally. Can you stand up?" He extended a hand to help her. Mac took it and rose shakily to her feet, trying to balance her pack, when Harm stiffened and bent closer. "Wait a minute, Mac. That's not nothing."

He lifted her hand to reveal a long, bloody gash running down her forearm. Mac regarded it in amazement, as if wondering how it got there. "C'mere," Harm ordered, and dragged her over to a trickle of water dripping down the rocks. He cupped his palm to direct the little rivulet over her arm.

"Ow! Why is it these things never hurt until you know they're there?" Mac cringed.

"Don't worry, it isn't deep. It's just a long scratch," Harm said, examining it. His touch was very gentle as he rinsed the skin clean. "The bruises will be worse than the cut." He dug the first aid kit out of his pack, ripped open an antiseptic pad, and dabbed at the blood.

"This isn't as bad as the fall I took on the obstacle course at Quantico on your birthday," she said. "Skinned my knee *and* my arm."

His fingers stilled. "My birthday?" he said lightly, not looking up.

"This was the first year we didn't celebrate together," she answered in a small voice. "I had to do *something.*"

He wiped the last of the blood from her arm and applied a dry bandage, smoothing it into place. "That has to hurt," he said, and covered it with his warm hand.

"Missing you hurt more," she whispered.

A muscle twitched in his cheek, and she could see the pulse beating in his throat. His eyes came up to meet hers, and she caught her breath at the raw pain and longing she saw in their brilliant depths. The sights and sounds of the forest faded away as they stood suspended in a crystal bell of silence. Slowly he took her face in his hands, and his mouth came down on hers.

His touch swept through her, aching with need. Tears stung her eyelids as she surrendered to the softness of his mouth, the urgency of the big hard body curved around hers. She couldn't breathe, couldn't think, could only answer his fierce intensity with her own.

He broke off and stared down at her, panting. He started to speak, then swallowed and cupped his hand behind her head, gathering her gently against him. Vaguely she became aware that their cumbersome packs were in the way, so Mac simply laid her cheek against his chest, where she could feel his heart pounding in syncopation with hers.

They stood leaning against each other. Her head fit just beneath his chin, and he rested his cheek against her hair. After awhile he kissed her on the forehead.

"Mac," he began, and hesitated. Patterns of sunlight played across his face, illuminating the man she know so well, poised on the knife edge between friend and lover -- at once both familiar and unknown, and more urgent, more necessary than her next breath. Exhilaration and confusion tumbled together in his expression and resolved into blazing certainty.

"Mac" -- he tried again, and then he was kissing her with a thoroughness that obliterated any other thought. Clearly she was not the only one hanging onto composure by a thread.

Harmon Rabb was not a patient man, she thought, but my God, did he know how to kiss. Kisssing that was slow and simmering, his mouth and hands moving with passionate tenderness that told her everything he had never been able to say.

Like a rose unfurling to the sunlight, Mac surrendered with a sense of utter belonging. After a long while Harm rested his face against her hair and simply held her, which was a good thing because she wasn't sure she could stand up by herself at the moment. He curved his warm palm around her throat and tilted her head back for another gentle kiss, and she shivered.

He stared down into her lovely face, feeling as if he had just pulled seven Gs. Mac gave a little sigh. "We have to get going, don't we?"

He shook his head slowly, with a rueful little smile. "We're going to run out of daylight if we don't. I'd rather find a better place to spend the night."

She cupped her hand against his jaw and kissed him gently on the corners of his mouth. The knowledge that she could touch him now, as much as she wanted, steadied her. "If you keep looking at me like that, we'll end up spending the night here after all."

"I was planning on someplace a little softer, actually." Harm's hands came up and smoothed her hair back from her face, and now she was trembling for a different reason.

He took her hand, and without another word they set out, walking side by side. Dappled green light surrounded them, an enchanted forest filled with birdsong and drowsy with heat. From time to time their eyes met, and each saw the same sense of wonder reflected in the other's face.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

It was late afternoon before they heard the sound of water.

Mac turned her head from side to side, seeking the source. "It's a good thing the rain stopped," she said. "We never would have heard it."

Harm pointed. "That way, I think." He shouldered aside an overhanging banana palm, and together they pushed their way through a dense cope of shrubs dripping with moisture. Abruptly the forest opened to reveal a waterfall -- a wisp of white rushing from one ledge to the next before tumbling into a stream at their feet. Heavy jungle cloaked the walls of the narrow ravine in violet shadow, and a sliver of late sunlight lanced down to sparkle on the water.

Mac gave a little sigh. Harm lifted her pack from her shoulders, dropped it beside his, and put an arm around her shoulders. "Tired?"

"Starved." She smiled and pulled out an MRE. "Dinner is served."

Harm sat down on a log and made room for her. "What is it?"

"Does it matter?"

He gave her a tired grin and accepted one of the foil packets. "I guess it's true that if you get hungry enough, you'll eat anything." He ripped open the packet and sampled the contents. "I never thought I'd eat hamburger helper and like it." He handed her the rest, and started on the creamed spinach.

"I never thought I'd go without a bath for three days." Mac swallowed her half of the tapioca pudding, handed him the packet, and stood up. "I'm going to rinse off about ten pounds of mud." Without removing her boots, she waded straight into the water, spread her arms, and fell back with a huge splash.

Harm lounged on the log and chuckled indulgently. He didn't recall bathing being a high priority in his jungle survival training, but Mac made it look pretty inviting.

Laughter was bubbling up inside him, a fountain of quiet joy. He felt exhilarated and naked and vulnerable, as if a searchlight were illuminating the corners of his soul. The dark burden of unhappiness he had carried for the past months had disappeared as if he had stepped into sunshine. It was crazy, and he didn't care.

Mac was splashing happily around, washing out her BDU trousers. He stood up to join her, but paused and lifted his head when he caught a whiff of a strange odor. Harsh, chemical -- sulfur. Coming from over there.

She was about to pull off her t-shirt when she saw Harm beckoning to her from the bank. Quickly she waded to the shore and stood there dripping, looking at him inquiringly.

"Got a surprise for you," he grinned, and took her hand. She looked intrigued but didn't question him as he led her up the bank and into the trees.

"Harm?" she said. "What's that *smell*?" He stepped aside, and she saw a rocky little grotto tucked among ferns at the base of the cliff. Steam was rising from the still surface of the water, milky white.

"Natural thermal spring," he said proudly. "This area's full of them. That's what Maribaya is, a resort where people come to take the cure. I'm just surprised we haven't come across one sooner."

"Is it okay to get in?" she asked, bending to test the water with her hand.

"Don't see why not. It isn't too hot, is it?"

"It's perfect." She gave him a glorious smile that stopped his breath. "Thank you." She sat down on a rock to unlace her boots. "Join me?" She looked down, suddenly shy, and he found himself hesitating.

"Ah, I'll go set up camp," he said, and reluctantly retreated. The last thing he wanted to do was pressure her, he thought, even as he kicked himself. Hell, he had waited eight years for this woman. He could wait until she was ready.

Still, he found himself jerking at the ropes and fumbling with the knots as he rigged their shelter for the night. They were both exhausted, he argued in his head. There might be people on their trail right now. . . this was no time to be fooling around. . . what the hell was he thinking? She was probably wondering how to hold him off, he thought savagely as he ripped up armfuls of ferns and piled them beneath the tent before spreading the groundsheet on top. Slowly he smoothed his hand over the rough fabric, thinking of how she would feel beneath him, wondering if she would want him tonight.

With a snort of impatience, he stood up and yanked off his boots. The hell with it. At least he could cool off. Quickly he stripped and took two steps into the water before launching himself in a long, shallow dive, luxuriating as the delicious coolness flowed over his body. He pulled himself along the clean rocky bottom as far as he could before surfacing with a splash, then leaned back and floated. The first stars were glimmering in the sliver of evening sky above the trees.

Something made him lift his head. A pale figure was standing in the waterfall. He blinked, and there was Mac, submerged to the hips with her back to him, letting the cascade flow over her. The water glistened on her tawny skin as she raised her face to the spray and smoothed back her gleaming hair.

He had no memory of moving, but he found himself stepping onto the rocky ledge beneath the waterfall and rising to stand waist deep. She lifted her arms to the spray, and he was mesmerized by the play of taut, trained muscles in her slender arms.

As she wiped her face, she glimpsed him and went very still. Slowly she turned to face him, standing tall, arms at her sides. Her breasts were lush and round and beautiful, resting proudly on her slim ribcage.

Her dark eyes met his. With one stride, he swept her into his arms, and she embraced him fiercely, molding herself against him, her body all warm curves beneath cool slick skin. Slowly, gently he brushed her mouth with his, barely nuzzling at first, and then her lips parted and they were tasting each other, slow and deep, breaking only for a quick breath before desperately seeking more.

How did he ever wait for this? To finally touch her, to let his hands roam free, sliding over her flanks and up her long, smooth back. The flashpoint ignited between them, he was spiraling out of control and he felt her breath warm on his neck as he plunged his hands through her silken hair, mindless with desire. Oh, Sarah.

Her head dropped back as he traced a line down her throat to her breast, and she swayed against him. With a low growl, he swept his arms down to catch her beneath the hips and lifted her hard against him. Just as her legs went around his waist, he leaned back, panting.

"Harm," she murmured, reaching for him. Her eyes were not quite focused.

"Wait," he rasped, wrapping his arms around her waist. "I don't want to hurry, Mac."

She rested her hands on his shoulders, her expression luminous and filled with wonder. Slowly he eased back into the water and swam until his feet found the bottom, then he scooped her against his chest and carried her up the bank.

Twilight had filled the valley, and the forest was loud with the chorus of night birds and insects. Harm stopped beside their little tent and looked down at her, resting so trustingly in his arms. Slowly he let her slide down his body until her feet touched the ground.

"Ow!" she squeaked and slapped at a mosquito, then fanned the air around her head as the whine of insects filled their ears. "Bug juice, quick!"

With an oath, Harm ripped open his pack and dug frantically around until he found the plastic bottle. He pulled off the cap and squirted some into her cupped hands, then quickly drizzled it over himself. "Goddamn vampires," he muttered, slapping two of them against his thigh. "Shit!"

Mac began to giggle, and then they were laughing and holding each other. Slowly they began sliding their hands over each other, their touch slow and sensual. Her breath caught, and very gently, he laid his palm over her breast to feel her heart pounding.

Mac knelt gracefully and slipped beneath the tent, and he crawled in after her. She began spreading the oily stuff on his thighs until he caught her hand, swallowing hard. Slowly he slipped a hand behind her knee, pulling it into his lap, and smoothed the oil down her long legs, first one, then the other.

She recapped the bottle and set it aside. Her eyes were luminous in the spangled dark, her glance eloquent as a touch. The heat leaped up, pure as sunlight. Now was the time to speak in a language beyond words.

Entranced, he traced his fingertips lightly along her collarbone and over the swell of one breast, watching her eyes darken and her breathing deepen. Her skin was like satin, and there was a fine tremor running through her body as he leaned down to touch his lips between her breasts, over her heart.

She brought her hands up to cradle him, and her touch sent the cool fire flickering through his blood. She was silken and slender and strong all at once, and without effort he felt eight years of restraint fall away.

The first time . . . the first time . . . the emotional tide sweeping through him was obliterating every landmark. He felt the softness of her breasts against his chest as he placed delicate kisses on her forehead, her cheekbones, her eyelids, and beneath her ear, slowly sliding his mouth along the exquisite curve of her jaw. He lingered to kiss the little hollow at the base of her throat, feeling her pulse pounding clear and hard against his lips, answering the beat he could feel in every part of his body.

Slowly he lowered her until she was lying across their bed, the starlight turning her skin to silver. He wanted to look at her forever, but she was reaching for him, her smooth slender arms and legs sliding around his body and pulling him down to her. Distantly he was aware that somewhere deep inside, a tightly guarded barrier was melting away in her silken warmth. Joy flooded through him like a golden tide.

My God, Sarah . . . the ache in his body was an imperious demand. He was drowning, desperate to get closer and closer still, shaking with the effort to hold back as their mouths caressed each other slowly, endlessly. Beneath his hands, the long, delicate lines of her body were at once familiar and utterly new.

Her eyes were dark and blurry with wanting, and her body rose to meet his as he kissed her throat. Then her cool hands were there, stroking and guiding, and he surrendered and entered her, feeling as if he were plunging into the heart of life itself.

 

Part Eight

 

In the night, he awoke to the rush of rain in the leaves and the gentle touch of Mac's hands on his body. Softly her mouth caressed his neck and chest. "Harm," she whispered, her breath warm on his cheek, and they reached for each other. This time it was slow and simmering, with a sweetness that seemed to fill the night.

 

0720 Hours PST
Somewhere in the rain forests of central Java

 

Mac snuggled closer to the warmth of the big hard body wrapped around her, letting his fine, springy chest hair tickle her face as she breathed in the scent of him -- of them. Her body felt tender all over, languorous and sweet.

Slowly she opened her eyes. Harm's sleepy smile filled her vision, his eyes gleaming beneath drowsy lids. Their hands rested between them, entwined, and after a moment he lifted them and brushed a kiss across her knuckles -- a light, almost casual gesture -- but now there was ownership in his touch.

"Tell me we don't have to get up," she murmured.

The corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement. "Works for me."

She gave a satisfied little sigh and nestled closer until the tip of her nose brushed his. After a few minutes, she spoke without opening her eyes. "I have to go to the bathroom."

"You Marines have such sweet pillow talk."

She smiled and sat up, brushing her hair back and knuckling her eyes like a little girl. Pale sunlight slanted down through the canopy high above and turned the mist on the water into gold. Swiftly she slipped out from beneath their shelter and disappeared into the trees.

Groaning with displeasure, Harm crawled out after her and did the same. When he returned, he saw her standing in the stream, waist deep, just as he had first glimpsed her last night. His heart expanded with a sweet, swift ache.

He waded into the water and slipped his arms around her, and she leaned back against him. "This feels like Adam and Eve in the Garden," she said. "But no apples, darn it."

His chuckle was a quiet rumble deep in his chest. "Not even a serpent."

"Yikes, I hope not."

"I hear they can be very tasty."

"Eew, did they teach you *that* in SERE training?"

"Why do you think I became a vegetarian?"

She laughed, a light, happy sound. He held her, rocking just a little, and together they watched the mist rise off the water and listened to the jungle come alive around them. After awhile he dipped his head to nuzzle her neck where it met her shoulder, and she tilted her head with a sound that sounded suspiciously like a purr.

When his hands began roaming over her body, she turned in the circle of his arms. "If we start, we may never get out of here."

"Would that be a bad thing?"

"I'm starving."

"You're right, that MRE is our last meal."

"Don't even joke about it."

He smoothed her wet hair back. "Okay. But I promise, next time there'll be room service."

"Deal."

They waded out and pulled on their damp, muddy clothes, and sat on the log in the sunshine to share the remaining food. "This is not how I envisioned our first breakfast together," Harm said.

"You did?" Her eyes were shining.

"Did what?"

"Imagine it."

His gaze was warm. "Repeatedly."

"I love you," she whispered.

The flash in his eyes told her how much he needed to hear it. Her heart was hammering in her fingertips as she leaned forward, cupped his face in one hand, and kissed him gently. "I tried so hard to get over you," she said.

"Hopeless, huh?" He had a cocky grin, but it would never fool her again. This man was guarded, not because he did not care, but because his emotions ran so deep.

"Utterly," she agreed, and then he was kissing her until she couldn't breathe.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Bushwhacking through the jungle that day was hard, hot, slow going, but her heart was so light it scarcely seemed to matter. Every few minutes she would feel Harm's eyes upon her and look up, and his smile would lance through her with a physical shock.

As they moved lower in elevation, the understory vegetation became increasingly dense as the trees reached higher and higher for the sunlight above. The canopy was alive with scampering monkeys and the flitting shadows of birds and butterflies, and the air was heavy with the rich, damp odor of decaying plants on the forest floor. Insects droned around their ears.

After five hours, they had made barely four miles of the twelve they needed when they came across a thin trail of packed dirt. It intersected their route, disappearing among the trees uphill and continuing down the slope below, headed more or less in the direction they had been taking.

"First signs of civilization," Harm observed.

"If we follow it, we could be spotted," she said.

"Yeah, but not likely, not up this high. There will be settlements down lower, but my guess is, this is a path to a hot spring somewhere. There won't be a lot of traffic along here."

"Well, it would certainly be a lot easier to follow a trail," Mac said. She was tired, more tired than she would have expected to be, and a faint headache pressed behind her eyes. Guess the hard going and short rations are getting to me, she grumped to herself.

"Okay," Harm agreed, and took a reading on the GPS. "We can start making up some time. Maribaya is about eight miles that way, all downhill."

They hiked in silence for the next hour, walking single file on the narrow track. Just as Mac was about to call for a five-minute rest stop, the trees thinned out to form a small clearing where a second trail intersected theirs. She dropped down to sit on a fallen log and surreptitiously swallowed a couple of aspirin with a deep drink from her canteen.

"Here, Mac, let me have it. I'll refill it for you." Harm held out his hand.

"Thanks," she said, grateful that she didn't have to get up for a minute. "Do you think we need to start purifying our water?"

"Definitely, now that people are around. But I think we're still okay with rain water." He pulled down a big frond and let the runoff splash into the canteen.

A movement in the corner of her eye brought Mac's head up. Two girls stood on the branching path, hesitating just inside the trees. They were slim and brown and held bundles that looked like washing.

"Hello," Mac said, standing up and putting her palms together in the traditional gesture of greeting. Harm looked up, surprised, and followed her gaze.

"Hello," he added, smiling. The two girls giggled behind their hands, and Mac saw that they were very young.

"It's all right," she smiled, gesturing for the girls to continue on their way. With bent heads and averted eyes, they sidled past, cutting covert glances at them. Just as they came abreast of her, Mac held up her hand, palm out. "Wait, please?"

The younger of the girls looked like she wanted to bolt, but the other turned to her shyly. Mac gestured at her clothes and wrinkled her nose. "Sarong?" she asked, and gestured at the girl's garment. "Buy sarong?" She held up a folded bill.

The girl's eyes became huge. Wordlessly she set her bundle on the grass, pulled out a square of blue fabric printed with tiny red flowers, and held it up questioningly. "Yes," Mac smiled, nodding vigorously. "Yes, I like it. Here." She extended the money to the girl, who hesitated, then snatched it and handed over the cloth. Rapidly she retied her bundle, swung it to her hip, and hurried off with a brief, muttered phrase, pushing her companion ahead of her. They quickly disappeared into the forest.

"Shopping again?" Harm was amused.

"I'll stick out like a sore thumb in BDUs if we have to blend in with tourists," Mac said. She folded up her purchase carefully and sealed it in a plastic bag before stuffing it into her pack.

"They'll tell their village about us."

"They would have done that anyway. At least this way, they might think we're just tourists on a hike."

"Good point. This is probably the way to a hot spring where they do their laundry." He handed the canteen back to her.

"I wish we could find one. I feel like an old, wet dog." She picked at her filthy shirt.

"You look beautiful." She started to make a tart rejoinder before she saw the tender light in his eyes and realized he meant it. He gave her a brilliant smile, and her heart warmed to see him looking so relaxed and happy. He said, "Of course, you look better without any clothes at all, but still . . . ."

Her smile grew wistful and sweet, and he took her in his arms and kissed her.

"Speaking of old, wet dogs, they'd probably run if they got one whiff of me," he mumbled into her hair.

"You smell great. Very manly." She leaned back in his arms and regarded him with a grin. "So is the four-day beard."

"You like it? I was thinking of keeping it."

"Really? It's a whole new look for you. Kind of scratchy, though."

He laughed. "In that case, it's history." His voice dropped into that husky, sexy murmur that made it hard to breathe, and then he was kissing her again, slow and hot, and she was kissing him back.

Harm lifted his head and took a shaky gulp of air. "We can't do this now."

She sighed and stepped back, letting her fingertips trail down the deep muscles of his chest. "Good thing you're worth waiting for, sailor." She glanced up from beneath her lashes.

"I'll never ask you to wait again, Mac." He touched her cheek, his green eyes turbulent, then swung his pack to his shoulders. They set off, and as the afternoon passed, they encountered no one else on the trail.

By late afternoon, Mac was exhausted, with a cracking headache. She plodded along, keeping her eyes on Harm's heels, and only looked up when he stopped.

They had emerged from the trees into a valley where fields had been cleared from the surrounding forest. Narrow terraces and rice paddies spread out across the land, and far in the distance they could see tiny buildings on stilts, with thatched roofs.

"Is that Maribaya?" Mac asked.

"No, the town's about a mile down the road," Harm pointed, and she saw a thin track winding along the far side of the valley. "This is just a village. Good place to spend the night, though." He gestured to a small hut, open on three sides, perched at the edge of the fields on their right. It was deserted.

"Looks like they probably use it as a place to rest when they're working in the fields during the day," he said. "Nobody will notice if we sleep there tonight."

"Okay," she nodded, too tired to hide her disappointment.

Harm looked at her sharply. "Are you okay?"

"Yes. I'm sorry, I just thought we'd get there tonight."

They started toward the little pavilion, staying inside the trees to avoid being seen. He said, "I know, I was hoping so, too. But it's late, the tourist buses won't be running any more tonight, and I don't think we can risk a hotel."

"No, that wouldn't be smart," she agreed. She tossed her pack onto the rough wooden platform and hoisted herself up. She sat down and reached for her canteen.

"I'm going to scout around over there." He pointed, and she nodded as he headed back into the trees. The sun was beginning to set, and a tiny breeze rustled the dry thatch in the roof of the hut. She curled up on the dusty boards and closed her eyes against the glare.

When Harm returned, he was surprised to find her asleep. I should have noticed she was worn out, he kicked himself, and sat down quietly nearby, squinting as the setting sun turned the surface of the rice paddies into burnished bronze. Across the valley, cooking fires winked on like fireflies in the gathering dusk, and still Mac slept. He watched her with growing concern.

Just as it was getting dark, the harsh cry of a bird broke the stillness. Mac sat up and gazed around in confusion. "Harm?" she said.

"It's okay, you were sleeping," he reassured her.

"How long?" she grumbled, rubbing her eyes.

"Oh, an hour or so. Hey, look what I found." He held up two coconuts.

"Wow, great! Where did you find those?" She tried to muster some enthusiasm.

"Under a palm tree, where else? We finally got down where they can grow. Here, try this." He dug into the eyes on the end of one nut with the tip of his knife, and handed it to her. Dutifully Mac tilted it and sipped at the rich liquid that ran out.

"This is great, Harm. Thank you."

"Well, at least we won't go to bed on an empty stomach. Tomorrow, we should get up before it gets light so we can bypass the village, then we can just walk into town and find a restaurant that serves breakfast. Think you can hold out, Marine?"

He was working on the second coconut, but her silence made him look up. She was sitting with her head bowed, holding her coconut in her lap. "Mac?" he said.

Her head snapped up. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I'm not very hungry."

He frowned. Mac wasn't hungry? On impulse, he reached out and laid the back of his hand against her cheek. She pulled away irritably as he caught his breath in a little hiss.

"Mac, you're running a fever. Why didn't you say something?"

"What good would it have done?" she asked dully. "We had to keep going."

"We could have rested more. You could have taken some aspirin, at least."

"I did take some. Don't fuss, Harm, I'm just tired. I'll be okay tomorrow."

He frowned and bit back his questions. She was right, that was the trouble. There wasn't a damn thing he could do until they got back to civilization, and that wasn't going to be easy.

"Okay," he said with a calmness he didn't feel, and resumed hacking at his coconut. He forced himself to eat a few chunks of the white meat, but it was cloying and stuck in his mouth.

He could hear her rustling around and saw the gleam of her body in the starlight as she undressed. He started to object, thinking she would get chilled, and then she shook out the fabric she had bought that afternoon. Mac stepped into it, pulled it up and knotted it above her breasts. Then she knelt beside him.

"So that's a sarong, huh?" he said.

"Yes. It's wonderful for the tropics -- it's cool, and at night you just loosen it and lie down, and it covers you. Tomorrow, I can wear it as a long skirt."

"I like it. Easy to get off."

That earned him a smile, he was relieved to see. She said, "We can bury all our stuff before we leave here, right? Especially these nasty clothes?"

"Right. We'll just take our money and papers. Nobody will find our gear, at least not right away."

"What about weapons?"

"I'd like to have them with us, but I'd hate to get caught with them. What do you think?"

He watched her as the moon came up, outlining her exquisite profile in silver. "I think we should risk it," she said. "If you stick one in your belt at your back and button your shirt, nobody will see it. And you can dump it if we have to go through a checkpoint."

"Sounds good." He spread out their groundsheets and stacked their packs against the single wall of the hut. Mac opened her canteen and tilted it, but it was empty.

"I need some water," she fretted. "Where are the iodine tablets?" With growing irritation she dug around in her pack.

"Here, take the rest of mine," he said, handing her his canteen. "I'll get you a refill." She had already drunk three quarts since noon, he realized with unease. Well, he supposed it could only do her good.

"Thanks," she said. "Too bad we couldn't camp beside a stream again tonight."

"I promise you a hot bath tomorrow."

"That would be lovely." She gave him a wan smile and lay back down.

When he returned, he thought she was asleep, but she sat up and reached for one of the canteens. "Thank you," she said, and gulped thirstily.

"Need some more aspirin?" he asked.

"I just took some, thanks."

He settled himself against the wall at his back and opened his arms. "C'mere."

Gracefully she settled herself between his bent knees and leaned back, and he wrapped his arms around her. "This is nice," she murmured against his neck.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Sleep now, Mac."

" 'Kay," she mumbled. He could feel her relax, and a moment later her breathing became soft and even. She was warm, but not overly so; in the sultry heat of the tropical night, he held her close.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

He hadn't intended to sleep. It seemed a foregone conclusion that his anxieties -- about Mac, about the village across the valley, about the unknown dangers they might face tomorrow -- would conspire to keep him alert and on guard. So of course he went out like a light.

The moon was high in the sky when his eyes snapped open. For a moment he couldn't tell what had awakened him, and he listened, taut with tension, his automatic in his hand. Then Mac stirred against him and he realized she was burning up.

Her slender body positively radiated with fever. He stroked her damp hair back from her forehead and winced at the baking heat beneath his palm. Her face and body were slick with perspiration and she was moving restlessly in her sleep. That must be what woke him, he realized.

What could he do for her, he wondered frantically. He groped for the canteen and poured a little water into his hand, then smoothed it over her neck and shoulders. She mumbled something and opened her eyes, gazing at him dully.

"Hi, sweetheart," he said quietly.

"Thirsty," she muttered.

He sat up, propping her against him, and held the canteen to her lips. She gulped at it, then turned her head away. "Thanks," she managed.

"Just rest, baby," he murmured, stroking her forehead.

"Sick," she mumbled. " 'm sorry."

"It's not your fault, Mac," he said quietly. "You're going to be okay."

She looked at him with trust and closed her eyes. He sat cradling her against his chest, hoping he had told the truth. What could have caused this, he wondered. We have eaten and drunk exactly the same things, and the military stuffs you so full of shots before you go into the field, there's no way you're supposed to get sick.

Her hands plucked fretfully at the knot in her sarong, so he finally loosened it and let the garment fall lightly over her. She seemed cooler, and rested against him more quietly. Harm tilted his Rolex so he could read the lighted dial -- 0015. They needed to get up in a couple of hours, and she needed all the rest she could get.

He awakened from a light doze to feel her huddling against him, clutching his t-shirt in her fists and shivering. Great, now she was having chills. Quickly he dragged the spare tarp over her, tucking it in as best he could. He was stifling in the hot night, but Mac's teeth were actually chattering. He hugged her close, willing her to get better, to be all right.

It was one of the longest nights of his life. When Mac seemed to be resting more quietly, he allowed himself to relax, but soon he would feel her temperature start to climb again. Over and over she pushed at the heavy tarp, he pulled it off, and the cycle would start again. Repeatedly he soaked her discarded t-shirt in water and smoothed it over her arms, her neck and breasts, trying to cool her off, but she scarcely seemed aware that he was there.

At last she stopped moving restlessly and dropped into a quiet sleep. Harm eased out from behind her with a silent grimace as he stretched his cramped muscles. Quickly he slipped into the trees and dug a shallow hole to conceal the gear they needed to leave behind. The moon had set, and the night was very dark.

When he returned to her, he saw the gleam of her eyes. "Hi," he said softly, stroking her hair. Her forehead was cooler.

"What time is it?" she whispered.

"Oh-four hundred. Do you feel any better?"

She sat up, absentmindedly gathering her sarong around her. "Yes," she said.

"Think you can walk?"

That earned him a glare, as he hoped it would. "Think you can keep up?" she snapped.

He grinned and began tossing their things into the center of one of the tarps. Mac gathered up her dry t-shirt, underwear, and her boots, and dressed quickly. At the last minute, she remembered the aspirin bottle and slipped it into the pocket of his work shirt.

Harm pushed his automatic into his belt, resting flat against his spine, and pulled his shirt on over his t-shirt. He wrapped both tarps around the small pile of gear and knotted the bundle securely with the clothesline, then carried it into the woods and tossed it into the shallow hole, covering it with leaves and dirt.

Mac was waiting beside the hut when he came back. He took her hand, and silently they started down the path.

 

Part Nine

0400 PST
A mile outside Maribaya, Indonesia

 

Slipping past the sleeping village was surprisingly easy. They left the trail as they drew near and moved stealthily through the jungle, angling toward the road. A dog gave a sleepy bark, and that was all.

They halted just inside the trees when the road came into view. The eastern sky only hinted at dawn. Mac sat down to rest.

"Think we'll be too conspicuous on the road?" he asked.

"Yes. But I don't see that we have much choice. I don't think I can manage a long hike through the jungle today."

He looked at her closely. It was unlike Mac to admit any weakness. She gave him a faint smile. "I'm just trying to be realistic, Harm."

"Well, we shouldn't meet anybody at this hour," he said. "Let's chance it."

She stood and took his hand again, and together they stepped onto the road. "Here goes nothing," he muttered under his breath, and they started walking down the dusty track that gleamed pale in the darkness.

He shortened his stride and Mac kept pace gamely, but he could tell her endurance was already waning. It was only a mile to the town, he reminded himself, but by the time the first bullock cart rolled past them, he had his arm firmly around her waist, supporting her. They walked past scattered, silent huts where chickens scratched and smoke was just beginning to rise from cooking fires, and as the eastern sky gradually lightened they began to see people -- just a few, here and there, then more. An old taxi rattled past, followed by a group of women carrying water jars. A few incurious glances came their way, but that was all.

The road changed from dirt to pavement, then became a street lined with small shops and buildings. They passed some crumbling stone ruins, which he supposed were the ancient temples that attracted tourists, and they paused to let Mac rest on a bench. Harm wished fervently for some sort of prop -- a camera, anything -- so he improvised, pretending to consult a creased brochure that he found on the ground. The sun lifted above the palm trees and filled the street with clear light.

"Okay," Mac said, and stood up. "Is it too early to find a café or something?"

"We'll find out," he said. Slowly they walked on. After about fifteen minutes they emerged into a wide paved square surrounded by handsome stucco buildings, and Harm steered Mac to the central fountain. "Let's rest here for a minute and reconnoiter," he said, and she sank gratefully onto the low stone wall encircling the fountain.

There were some people around, and a few cars drove by. Harm kept his eye on the outdoor restaurant in front of the largest hotel, and eventually a waiter appeared and began cranking open the colorful umbrellas over each table.

"Okay, here we go," he said. Mac pushed herself upright and swayed, and he caught her around the waist. "Easy," he said, frowning with concern.

"I'm okay, Harm," she said firmly, but she leaned on him. "I can do this."

Slowly they paced over to the café and sat down at a table overlooking the square. The waiter appeared, and Harm ordered. When the food came, he smiled at the waiter and held up some money. "We want to get the next bus back to Jakarta. Can you tell me what time it goes?"

"Right in front of the hotel, sir. At nine o'clock." The man nodded and discreetly pocketed the tip.

"Three hours," Mac said lightly.

"It'll be okay," he reassured her. "Are you hungry at all?"

She shook her head and sipped at her mineral water. Harm tried to keep himself from gobbling as he downed four crisp rolls with butter, a bowl of sliced mango, and several cups of blessedly hot, fresh coffee, but he scarcely noticed what he was eating as he watched Mac pretend to pick at a piece of toast. She was very pale.

They dawdled over their breakfast for more than an hour, watching the activity in the square. Harm could detect no signs of military vehicles or surveillance. Other customers began to drift into the café, and finally he decided they would be conspicuous if they lingered any longer. They walked into the hotel and found seats in an alcove of the spacious lobby. Harm picked up a newspaper from the table and unfolded it.

"I think I'll use the ladies room," Mac said.

Automatically he stood and reached out to steady her, but she gently disengaged her arm. "I think people will notice if you try to go with me," she smiled.

"Will you be all right?" He was tense with concern.

"Yes." She set her jaw and walked slowly across the lobby.

Harm waited anxiously until he saw her navigating toward him ten minutes later. He jumped up and took her arm. "Okay?"

She swept her hair behind her ear with a hand that shook ever so slightly. "Okay," she nodded. He let his hand brush casually across the back of her neck. Her skin felt hot. They sat down side by side on the small sofa, and he took her hand.

"Mac, there has to be a doctor in the hotel. I'm going to ask."

"No!" Her low tone was vehement. "It will only attract attention. We can't afford to answer questions now, not until we get to the embassy. I can make it, I promise." She knew better than to remind him there was nothing he could do.

Harm scowled. "How about some aspirin, at least?" He fished the little bottle out of his breast pocket, marginally relieved to be taking some sort of action. She nodded, and he beckoned a passing waiter. "A bottle of mineral water, please, and a pot of coffee."

When the refreshments came, Mac swallowed two tablets and leaned back with her eyes closed. He stretched his arm along the back of the sofa, and she settled against his shoulder.

She dozed off and on for the next ninety minutes, while Harm meticulously read every page of the International Herald-Tribune and didn't remember a word of it. He was very careful not to rustle the paper and disturb her. At last people began bustling around the lobby, and he saw a big bus pull up outside. "Okay, Mac, it's time," he murmured in her ear, and she opened her eyes and nodded, sitting up a little straighter.

Mac started to stand, but her knees gave way and she plopped back into the cushions. He saw her clench her teeth and grip the armrest to try again, and his heart turned over in his chest. "Easy, baby," he told her, grasping her arms lightly. "I'm here."

When he helped her get to her feet, she was trembling. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry to be such a nuisance."

"You're not a nuisance. Easy, now," he said, and locked his arm around her waist. Moving very slowly, they walked outside with a total lack of hurry that belied his inner tension. People were dropping tote bags and duffels beside the cargo doors of the bus and climbing aboard, and the driver merely shrugged when Harm inquired about two seats. Certainly, sir. Yes, they would stop at the Hilton in Jakarta. He accepted the cash and punched out their tickets, and Harm helped Mac up the steps. Nobody seemed to notice their lack of luggage.

The old Trailways had definitely seen better days. Harm inched his way down the aisle, keeping a firm grip on Mac and waiting for other passengers to struggle into their seats. A babble of European and Australian accents swirled around them.

The bus wasn't full, and he was able to steer Mac to a pair of seats near the back. She stumbled into a spot by the window and dropped onto the shabby blue upholstery, letting her head fall back against the headrest. He sat beside her and took her hand, scanning the scene outside as best he could through the dusty windows.

There was the usual delay, as someone insisted on loading a crate of clucking chickens into the cargo bay, engaging the driver in a loud argument with much gesticulating. The old bus smelled of dust and babies and orange peels and people, but Harm knew it could have been a lot worse. At least there were seats, not benches, and there was a restroom in the back and a cooler with bottled water at the front. And no livestock in the passenger area, he noted grimly.

The driver climbed in and the doors hissed shut, and they started up with a jerk and a belch of black smoke. The heavy old bus ground its way up through the gears as it circled the plaza and headed out of town, and Harm sent up a silent prayer of gratitude. So far, so good. Just four hours to go.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Of course, the air conditioning didn't work. The fans hummed and blew hot air around, but the interior of the bus was stifling. Every window stood open, even when it rained.

They swayed and bounced over the rutted mountain road, which was paved only in short stretches. The endless green of the jungle pressed close on both sides of the road, often brushing against the sides of the bus and parting occasionally to provide a view when they veered around a corner of the mountains. The road became an endless series of switchbacks that slowly descended toward the coast as the day wore on.

Mac's head lolled against his shoulder with every lurch. Harm kept his arm around her to hold her steady, but he knew it was more to reassure himself than anything. If there was one thing he hated more than forced inaction, it was feeling helpless, and now he had to endure both.

Mac's fever waxed and waned. One minute her skin was cool and clammy, the next she was radiating heat. She didn't really sleep and tried to stay alert for his sake, but her eyes were dull. From time to time he held a plastic bottle of water to her lips and she managed a few swallows, and twice he helped her to the malodorous restroom, where he waited anxiously outside the door.

"Is your wife all right?" a pleasant voice spoke behind him in an Aussie accent. He turned and was confronted by a nice-looking older woman in a straw hat who was regarding him with polite concern. She continued, "I noticed she doesn't seem to be feeling well. Is there anything I can do?"

Harm felt unreasonably relieved. "Yes, thank you," he nodded. "She's ill, and she's being awfully quiet in there. Can you" --

"Of course, dear." She bustled past him and tapped at the door, to no response. "What's her name?" she demanded.

"Sarah."

"Sarah, are you all right? Answer me, dear." The woman rapped smartly on the door of the restroom and bent her head. "Sarah, it's Cora Boyles. I'm coming in, all right?" She tried the handle and it turned, and cautiously she eased the door open. Harm stood back, his view blocked. "All right, dearie, you're going to be all right," he heard Cora say soothingly, and there was some bumping. The door swung shut, and Cora stood there with Mac leaning on her.

"I think she just fainted, poor thing," Cora said as Harm practically lifted Mac into her seat. "Whatever is the matter with her?"

"I don't know," Harm admitted, brushing Mac's hair off her forehead. "She's running a temperature. It's why we decided to go back to Jakarta early."

"Oh. I see." Cora leaned toward him with a conspiratorial whisper. "I thought she might be -- you know, expecting."

"N-no," Harm stammered. "I don't think so." He looked up. "Thank you for your help, Mrs. . . ."

"Boyles. Cora Boyles, dearie. Just let me know if there's anything else I can do."

"Thank you." Harm turned back to Mac and gently pulled her into his lap, cradling her against his chest. Mrs. Boyles shook her head and whispered to her husband, who hadn't been paying attention, "She isn't wearing any rings."

For the next hour they swayed steadily along a level stretch of road, and Harm scarcely took his eyes from Mac. She had not roused at all, but her breathing remained light and even. Her face was waxen beneath her tan, and her skin was filmed with perspiration. Please, he prayed silently. Please, let her be all right.

The sound beneath the tires changed, and suddenly they were running smoothly along on blacktop. Afternoon sun slanted across the road where small houses and farms were scattered among scrubby palmettos. Harm glanced at his watch and saw it was nearly 1300.

When he looked down, Mac was watching him with a tiny smile. "Hi," she whispered.

"Hi," he smiled with relief and stroked her forehead, which seemed cooler. "How are you feeling?"

"Better, I think." She lay quietly in his arms. "Where are we?"

"About 30 minutes out," he said. "Be there in no time."

"What time is it?"

His gaze sharpened, but he concealed his worry and told her. "Oh," she whispered. "I thought we just left."

Her fingers plucked restlessly at his shirt and then were still. "Will they let us stay together?" she asked in a small voice.

"Count on it."

She turned her face into his chest, and he felt her warm breath. Gently he cupped the back of her neck, supporting her against him, and dropped a soft kiss against her temple. "You won't leave me?" he heard her whisper.

Pain twisted his heart. "No," he said quietly. "No, I won't leave you, Sarah, not ever again." With infinite tenderness, he stroked her hair. "I love you," he whispered. "I'm sorry it took me so long to tell you."

Her hand tightened in his, and he knew she had heard him.

 

0200 PST
Jakarta, Indonesia

 

The teeming squalor of the capital city closed in around them. Ramshackle huts thrown together from corrugated iron and palm thatch jostled for space with low stucco buildings and areas of scrubby grass where goats and naked children played, and telephone wires zigzagged everywhere. Gradually the buildings became larger and more prosperous as they approached the center of the city, where rickshaws and foot traffic gave way to sleek modern cars. Beautiful old Colonial buildings mingled with modern steel and glass, and the boulevards were lined with stately palms.

At last the bus swung into a wide central square and pulled up in front of the Hilton. People stood and started gathering up shopping bags and hats and purses, while Harm remained sitting quietly with Mac, waiting for the crowd at the front to move ahead.

He put his hand against Mac's face and stroked her cheek. "Come on, baby. Time to wake up now. We have to get off."

"Huh?" she frowned and opened her eyes, squinting.

"Can you stand up?" He would carry her if necessary, but it would draw attention.

" 'Course I can," she snapped, and swung her feet to the floor. Quickly Harm put his hands on her waist, boosting her to her feet and steadying her as she swayed. "I'm all right," she muttered, and began tottering down the aisle, hanging onto the back of each row of seats. He got in front and helped her down the steps.

Throngs of well-dressed people were milling around the entrance of the hotel, chattering in a dozen languages. Harm peered into the wide, shady lobby, wondering if they could call from here, but then he spotted a pair of military guards who appeared to be stationed by the front desk. He drew Mac behind a wide pillar.

"Okay," he whispered in her ear, "our embassy is right across the square. Just a couple hundred yards away, Mac. There are lots of people around, so we're going to walk right over there and show our credentials at the gate."

"Okay," she nodded, and set her jaw. He tightened his arm around her and followed a noisy group heading to the cab stand.

They had taken only a few steps when a woman's voice rang out, "Sir! You can get help in the hotel!" From the corner of his eye he saw Cora Boyles waving at him imperiously. Oh hell.

Harm ignored the woman and kept walking, trying to keep the group of people between them, but Cora would have none of it. She came bustling up, tugging at his sleeve. "Mr. -- Mr.? I'm sorry, I didn't get your name. But Sarah, she needs a doctor, you must see that. You must let me take her into the hotel." Her eyes were kind, but her strident voice carried.

"Please, no, Mrs. Boyles," Harm said politely, not stopping. "Our hotel is right over there. We'll be fine, thank you." Over his shoulder, he saw people peering at them. One of the army guards turned with a frown.

"But she is *very* ill! They have a splendid doctor here who speaks English, don't you want me to call for him?"

Harm caught Cora's arm in a viselike grip. The quiet fury in his tone was frightening. "Listen to me. We are in serious trouble. If you don't stop right now, you'll be in danger too. Walk away from us. *Now.*"

The authority in Harm's cold face was sufficient. Cora's mouth snapped shut, and she backed away with wide eyes. People turned away, shrugging.

The flagstones of the plaza were hot and white in the pitiless glare of the afternoon sun. The American embassy seemed very far away as Harm led Mac across the street and into the park. People strolled here and there, some in business clothes, others obviously tourists, and no one paid any attention to the tall man walking very slowly with his arms around a slim woman.

Mac's steps wobbled uncertainly. She seemed almost to be sleepwalking, but she clung tightly to him and kept putting one foot in front of the other. They paced slowly beneath a grove of tall palms and sat on a bench to rest in the shade. Harm hated to make her move, but he felt as exposed as a fly on a plate. After a few minutes, they continued down the walk toward the far corner of the plaza, where the gates of the American Embassy stood surrounded by flags hanging limp in the humidity.

"Almost there, sweetheart," he kept repeating in her ear. "You're doing great. Just a little farther."

By the time they reached the bustling intersection, Harm was practically carrying her. A few people turned to stare and he glared at them until they turned away. The traffic lights changed, and they joined the throng crossing the street. Harm turned right on the wide sidewalk and started walking toward the Marine guard standing at attention in front of the embassy gates. Twenty steps. Ten. He dug in his pocket and pulled out his wallet and Mac's.

"This is Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie, Corporal," he said, holding up their credentials in front of the Marine. "I'm David Roberts, CIA. We need protection inside the embassy immediately. Ambassador Beresford will vouch for us."

The Marine's impassive expression didn't flicker. Furiously Harm turned to look for the sergeant in command of the guard post.

A black Citroen screeched to a halt at the curb and two army officers stepped out. One shouted an imperious command as a dusty truck with canvas sides pulled up and a dozen armed soldiers scrambled from the back and fanned out across the street, stopping traffic. Behind them, a crowd began to gather.

"Halt!" the officer cried again. "These people are fugitives, criminals! They are wanted for arrest by the government of Indonesia! Take them!" At his peremptory gesture, four soldiers ran forward.

"Hold it," Harm bellowed in a voice that could carry across a busy flight deck. He held up their credentials. "We are American citizens, and we are requesting the protection of our embassy! You can't arrest us! Sergeant!" Desperately he looked around. Two Marines appeared behind the gate and he snapped, "Gunnery Sergeant, this is Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie of the United States Marine Corps. Now open this goddamn gate!"

Sidearms appeared in the Marines' hands as if by magic, covering the surrounding soldiers. The gunny was speaking urgently into his radio and gesturing for the guard to unlock the gate. Harm slipped an arm behind Mac's knees, picked her up, and turned to carry her through.

From somewhere came a sharp crack, no louder than a motor backfiring. Harm's head snapped back as if he had been kicked, and he staggered. A woman screamed, and a second shot rang out. His leg collapsed and he went down on his knees.

He refused to let her fall. Slowly he sank forward until Mac rested on the dusty pavement, and only then did he crumple beside her.

"Hold your fire!" the gunnery sergeant bellowed at his men. The snick of weapons cocking and locking backed him up and feet pounded inside the compound as Marines with rifles came running to join those aiming their weapons through the gate. "Okay, Corporal. Bring 'em in." the gunny ordered in a low voice.

Even as the gate swung open, the government troops drew closer. "Halt, or be fired upon!" the gunny shouted. Then he paused, as every eye turned toward the two figures sprawled on the ground.

Mac was struggling to rise. She got to her hands and knees and pulled herself painfully toward Harm. She tried to shout, but her voice was dry and cracked. Painfully she leaned across Harm, trying to shield him with her body. She raised a hand that trembled with effort. "Don't shoot."

Somewhere at the back of the crowd, cameras were clicking. An officer barked an order, and the government soldiers lowered their weapons. Four Marines hustled onto the sidewalk, closed ranks around Harm and Mac, and carried them inside. The embassy gates clanged shut.

 

Conclusion

1430 PST
United States Embassy, Jakarta

 

"Colonel. Colonel, can you hear me?" Ambassador Beresford's face swam into her field of vision. She blinked.

"Where's Harm?" she whispered.

"Colonel, what the hell happened out there? I've got to talk to Washington *now.* The Indonesians are claiming Marburg was murdered, and CNN has it all over the news."

Shakily Mac pushed herself to a sitting position and let her legs dangle over the side of a hard little brocade settee. Her head swam, but she looked around and recognized the entrance hall of the embassy. "Where's Harm?" she insisted doggedly.

"What Harm? Oh, you mean Roberts? They're taking care of him," Beresford snapped irritably. "Look, Colonel, you *have* to give me something to work with."

Mac wiped her face with a trembling hand and forced herself to concentrate. "Marburg and his assistant were murdered by members of the military," she said carefully. "We have their identification, we can prove it. Harm and I killed six of them and escaped. We walked cross country to Maribaya and took a bus from there. That's it." She got slowly to her feet and started unsteadily toward the archway.

"What the hell do you mean, that's 'it'?" Beresford scurried after her and grabbed her arm. "You mean to say that cockamamie theory of yours was *true?*"

"Yes," she said, and looked pointedly down at his hand. "Now take your hand off me."

Beresford dropped her arm. "This won't be the end of it, Colonel," he began, but the tirade stopped abruptly as his wife appeared at his elbow.

"Colonel Mackenzie," Mrs. Beresford said graciously, impaling her husband with an icy glare, "you look exhausted. Won't you sit down?"

"I need to see Harm," Mac repeated stubbornly, and kept going.

The older woman slipped her arm around Mac. "This way, dear."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The doors to the kitchen slammed back to reveal a scene from hell.

Banging metal, harsh lights, voices barking orders. Controlled chaos as men hurried past. Marines bent over the stainless steel counter in the center of the room. Dark red streaks smeared the tile floor where their boots scuffed in it.

Long legs in blue jeans hung off the end of the table. Feet shod in muddy hiking boots.

Mac staggered forward, clinging to Mrs. Beresford's arm. A Marine moved aside, and there was Harm, sprawled half on his side with his shirt gone and blood everywhere.

Someone pulled a stool forward and she sat, clutching the edge of the counter. Harm's cheek was pressed against the metal table and she noticed a little patch of fog on the cool surface beneath his nose. His eyelashes fluttered, and there was recognition in his eyes as he saw her and struggled to speak. Mac watched with sick dread as a thin streak of bloody foam trickled from the corner of his mouth. She clasped his fingers and squeezed gently. "You're going to be fine, Harm. It's okay," she whispered.

"Get that pressure bandage secured," a calm voice ordered. "And where the hell are the splints?"

"This is all I could find, sir," a young private said, looking scared as he held up a couple of bed slats.

"Okay, it'll have to do. Gimme that tape. How are his vitals?"

The voices continued clanging above her, and she stopped listening.

When they rolled him onto his back to immobilize his leg his body clenched, shaking with a spasm of pain. She pulled herself to her feet and leaned over him. His hand clutched hers so hard she thought the bones would crack, but she managed to smile. "It's okay. You're going to be fine," she kept whispering, over and over. Harm's desperate gaze locked with hers. At last his body relaxed, and his eyelids drooped. Someone took her by the shoulders and moved her back, and four men lifted Harm into a stretcher basket, securing him with heavy webbing.

"Okay, Colonel, we're taking you to the roof now," someone ordered.

"Roof?" She looked up in confusion.

"This man needs a hospital asap. Do you want to trust the locals? We're evacuating you both to the Guadalcanal. They sent a helo, it's on the roof." She focused on the Marine corpsman who was speaking to her, and then someone picked her up bodily and followed behind Harm's stretcher. Four Marines carried him, swaying and bumping up some dark stairs. One corpsman was holding aloft a clear plastic bag connected to a thin tube that snaked down to disappear beneath the blanket.

The unfamiliar arms around her were enormous. It occurred to Mac that this is what it must feel like to be carried by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

They burst through a door into brilliant sunlight. Hot wind roared around them, stinging with sand and grit. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her face into the wall of the Marine's huge chest, feeling his ribbons against her cheek. "Okay, ma'am," someone yelled, "we've got you," and she felt herself being handed to another set of arms, lifted and bumped and laid down on a hard, flat surface.

She turned her head to see Harm's stretcher beside her. An oxygen mask obscured his nose and mouth, and his eyes were closed. His eyelids looked thin and bruised. She reached over and managed to grasp one of the straps that held him.

With a roar and a shudder, the big helicopter lifted off, tilted, and headed out to sea.

 

December 17, 1400 Hours PST
University Hospital, Sydney, Australia

 

There was a tree outside his window. He gauged the passage of time by the color of the light filtering through its leaves, and amused himself by watching shadows dancing on the wall while he drifted on the drugs.

There was no change in the constant, soothing hum of background noises from the corridor, but he knew when she came in. A breath of fresh air, a whiff of perfume. Mac.

"Hi," he croaked, and opened his eyes.

"Hi yourself," she smiled, and leaned over the rails for a quick kiss. She was wearing her Class A's. This couldn't be good.

"Going somewhere, Marine?"

She flicked an anxious glance at him and pulled up her usual chair. She reached for his hand, carefully avoiding the IV line taped to the back. With her other hand, she held up a long envelope.

"Orders?"

She nodded, looking unhappy.

"When?"

"Now."

He digested this in silence. "You sure you're feeling okay? Well enough for the flight, I mean?"

"I'm fine, Harm. It was just a light case of dengue -- a few days of bed rest and Tylenol and I'm fine. Really." She shrugged. "I felt a whole lot better when they told me you were going to be okay."

He made a face. "Nothing three weeks flat on my back won't cure." His left leg was encased in a full length plaster cast suspended in a sling.

"They still won't let you try the crutches?"

"Not until the incision in my back heals enough to start rehab." He shrugged. "No big deal. It's not like I have anywhere else to go, right?"

"Only if coming home to me doesn't count," she said lightly. He squeezed her fingers and stared at the ceiling, and she peered at him closely. "You heard from them, didn't you?"

"Yeah. They cut me loose." He gave a brief, humorless laugh. "They'll pay my medical bills and buy me a ticket home, but that's it. Sure you want to be involved with a guy who can't hold a job?"

"You may not be the only one." She tapped the envelope. "I guess I should be glad this wasn't delivered by a couple of guys carrying handcuffs."

"Think they'll charge you?" His casual question didn't deceive her.

"I think that's going to be up to the Admiral," she said. "I'll worry about it when the time comes."

"What time is your flight?" he asked, hooking his index finger around hers.

"I have to leave in a few minutes." She smoothed the short hair from his forehead. "I'm going to miss watching reruns of 'Walker Texas Ranger' with you."

She hoped he would laugh, or at least smile, but his bleak expression turned serious. "I'm going to miss a lot more than that, Mac."

"Me, too."

He nodded, frowning, and shifted a little. A not-quite-comfortable silence fell between them. She was looking away with a sad, wistful expression that tore at him. Through the fog of medication, he scrambled for the right words, but nothing came. Jesus, Rabb, suck it up. Now or never. "Mac," he managed in a strangled voice.

She looked up.

"What happened out there" -- he tried, and started over. "It was important to me."

"Me too," she said. When he remained silent, the light in her eyes went out and she said casually, "But hey, stressful situation and all that. How long can something like that last, anyway?"

"How about forever?"

Her gaze snapped to his. Suddenly the whole future was poised in the stillness between them.

Mac was staring at him as if she could see right into his soul, and he supposed she probably could. "All or nothing," she murmured, shaking her head.

"What?" he whispered, confused.

"All or nothing, it's all you know how to be. It's why I love you so much." Oh great, now she was crying.

"Mac -- sweetheart -- I didn't mean to upset you--" If she says no, he thought wildly, I won't survive it.

"Harm. Shut up." She was leaning over him, smiling, and then her soft mouth was on his. He could taste her tears, hot and salty.

When he could breathe again, he grinned, "So I guess I can take that as a yes, counselor?"

"Yes," she laughed, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "Yes." Slowly she shook her head. "You really do have lousy timing, you know that? I have to go, right now."

He grabbed the shiny steel bar hanging above him and pulled himself up, grimacing. "Harm -- no, you'll hurt yourself," she said, reaching for him.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you too," she murmured, and kissed him.

 

Epilogue

Six weeks later, 1900 Hours
North of Union Station, Washington, D.C.

 

"Hey," she said, tossing her coat and cover on the rack. "Sorry I'm late."

Harm looked up from the sofa where he was sitting with his leg stretched out across the coffee table and clicked the remote to turn down the jazz pouring from the CD player. "You're not late," he said, smiling up at her.

She bent to give him a swift kiss. "Wow, you started dinner already. You must be feeling better."

"I had to do something with all this time on my hands." He caught her wrist and pulled her down onto his lap.

"At least until you find something better to do with your hands," she grinned as he began unbuttoning her jacket. Their kiss was long and lingering. When they finally pulled back, Mac rested her head on his shoulder and asked, "How did rehab go today?"

He shrugged. "Okay."

"You've come a long way from the skinny scarecrow who came off that plane in a wheelchair two weeks ago," she said. The deliberate pace of physical therapy would never suit Harm's restless nature, she thought, smoothing his hair.

"Yeah, I guess. Anyway, it's better now that the cast is off." He tightened his arm around her shoulders and stared across the room at nothing. His deep set eyes were somber.

"Hungry?"

"Huh? Oh -- no, not yet. You go ahead."

"Harm. What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong."

She wanted to shake him, but she knew he'd simply clam up. So she took his hand and said carefully, "Whatever is bothering you, it's affecting me, too. It would really help me to know what it is."

His lips tightened, and for a bad moment she was sure he wouldn't answer. Please, she thought. If he won't trust me now, it will never be any good.

Harm looked at her and sighed. "The Admiral came by the hospital to see me today."

"Admiral Chegwidden?"

"Yep. He offered me reinstatement, with full time in rank and benefits." He looked at her sharply. "You didn't know."

"I'm not exactly on his short list of confidants these days. But Harm -- that's wonderful. What do you think?"

"I think he needs good litigators, or he wouldn't have asked."

Privately, Mac thought the Admiral was struggling with a classic case of letting go. He saw himself in Harm and had nurtured his career, but when the leash got too tight, Harm had rebelled. They were both strong, stubborn alpha males -- it would be difficult for them to get past it.

"What do you want to do?" she asked.

He started to speak and stopped. "I don't know, Mac. I love the Navy, and I love the law, but I'm not sure whether Chegwidden wants me -- or a lap dog. Besides, you and I are together now. We can't both work for him."

"There are lots of jobs in the military, Harm."

"And that's another thing. What are the odds that we'll both be stationed in the same place from now on?"

She leaned back and fixed him with a stern look. "Harm. You told me how much you miss it. Do you really want to give up this chance? If you don't want it, fine, but don't do it on my account. The details will work themselves out."

He regarded her silently. Finally he said, "The Navy is where I belong, Mac. Not just because I love it, or because I didn't leave on my own terms. When I was seventeen, I made a commitment to serve -- I can't turn my back on that. It matters."

She nodded, unable to speak. He swept her hair back and cradled her face with both hands. "It's not much to offer you, Mac. We won't be rich, we'll move around a lot, there'll be times we won't be together. We'll have to make some tough career choices."

"Don't sugar coat it or anything," she grinned.

"So you'll marry me?"

"Just try and stop me."

 

The End

 
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