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Chapter 17

 

In the morning, the contestants were roused early. They gathered on the wharf where the launches from the Radiant Heart deposited them, along with their coordinators, the singles, and camera crews. Tony Ariel was there as well. He read off the assignments through a bullhorn and gave each pair instructions on how to proceed to the location for their day trip.

Harm wasn't too terribly surprised to find himself with Nikki Upton. Her choice of activities was a twelve-mile hike through the mountains that filled the center of the little Caribbean island. Harm had to chuckle at that. If she thought wearing him out would lower his defenses to her various charms, she was mistaken. At his age, all it was likely to do was to wear him out.

One of three helicopters was waiting to take them to the trailhead. The show's staff had provided light packs containing some basic first aid supplies, climbing gear, food and water. The two cameramen assigned to them had radios for emergencies. Harm simply laughed at Selena’s repeated attempts to get him to take off the heavy-weave cotton shirt he was wearing. There was no way he was going to cart an unfamiliar pack-- even a light one-- on bare shoulders. He’d known better than that since his days in Laos.

Mac stood a short ways away, utterly breathtaking in a flowered bikini and matching sarong. To be honest, Harm wasn’t entirely thrilled with her wardrobe choice, but her instructions had been to wear something she could swim in and she didn’t have any one-piece suits. They’d made all their costuming choices several weeks before their relationship had changed so dramatically, and he wondered what, if anything, Mac’s choice of swimwear meant. After all, they had argued about her wearing-- or not wearing, more specifically-- a bikini once upon a time.

Harm pushed the thoughts aside. It simply didn’t matter any more.

Mac turned as if sensing his attention. She smiled, tucking a few strands of hair behind her ear. Harm’s heart skipped a beat. No, it didn’t matter any more. Not at all.

Mac was going to be leaving soon, in one of several bright yellow Honda Passports bearing the Temptation Cruise II logo. The young man escorting her reminded Harm of the Greek statues of Adonis: curly black hair, olive skin, and a physique to make an Olympic swimmer jealous. Not to mention a Navy Commander or two. What were they supposed to be doing today? Beach combing? He wondered how Mac would take to such a frivolous activity. It didn’t strike him as the kind of thing she’d have the patience for, but then again, he’d never been on vacation with her. He really didn’t know how she would enjoy spending her days in the sun.

One of the cameramen, who also doubled as the driver for Mac and her date, began indicating that it was time for them to go. Mac nodded acknowledgement, then turned to Harm. The fearful longing in her eyes took his breath away. He hated the idea of being separated from her, even for a day, and hated even more the circumstances that would be working to tear them apart.

Harm crossed the distance between them in two strides and swept her up into a passionate embrace. He wanted to drink her in-- fix the taste and scent and feel of her more firmly in his memory to make sure he could take that much of her with him when they parted.

Mac sighed a little as they separated, but her smile was the one Harm lived for. Everything he had accomplished in his life-- as a lawyer, an officer, even a fighter pilot-- paled beside the knowledge that he had, and did, make this woman happy. Marriage had always seemed like such an awesome and frightening responsibility. Which it was, he had to admit, but it also fulfilled some basic, masculine need inside him-- something he hadn’t even suspected he was missing.

"Have fun, Mac," he said. "I love you."

Her smile deepened. "I love you, too. I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of hearing that."

The comment sparked a thought, which Harm filed away for another time. Mac liked romantic gestures, and this one didn’t require anything but some time alone and a pad of post-it notes, which he was sure he could come up with.

Then it was time for Mac to go. Harm walked her to her vehicle and held the rear door for her while she got in. It gave him the opportunity to meet Mr. Greek Statue’s eyes over the hood of the car and impress on him the amount of pain he would be inflicting on himself if he behaved even slightly improperly toward Mac.

Being who and what he was, Harm had a pretty intimidating stare when he chose to use it. The young man swallowed hard before ducking to enter the vehicle. Satisfied, Harm leaned down to smile at Mac once more, then stepped back as the yellow Passport pulled away.

That done, Harm went in search of Nikki Upton. There was no sense in delaying any longer. The sooner he left, the sooner he could return… hopefully to find Mac waiting for him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Hey, Geordi, this one needs some cleaning up."

Geordi-- more properly George Laughton-- turned to look at his fellow tech. George was young, black and somewhat baby-faced, but the nickname came from his uncanny ability with electronics rather than his resemblance to the Star Trek character. He walked over to his compatriot and took the proffered headphones, holding one side to his ear. He nodded to the other man.

Tomorrow won't get here for a while yet. Do you think we can find something better to do with our time than worry about it? A man’s voice. Rabb, if he had to guess. The words were clear.

"Which cabin is this?" he asked.

"Six." Yes, that was the Rabbs.

"The cameras are still on?" It was more of a rhetorical question than not. The audio units integrated with the cabin cameras were far better than the secondary systems that kicked in when the lights went out. Those recordings weren’t airable because they weren’t supposed to exist, but the producers thought they could provide important information. Geordi didn’t care much one way or the other. Anyone who volunteered to go on the show, he figured, deserved whatever they got.

Was that an invitation? Mrs. Rabb’s response. Arch, confident, daring. And still crystal clear.

"What’s the problem?" Geordi asked.

"Last line," was the response.

Geordi listened.

More of a challenge, really, Rabb was saying. How did he manage to sound so innocent saying that?

Well, you know how much I love a challenge. Not that she was fooled. These two were awfully funny to listen to.

Geordi heard footsteps, then a soft click, followed by the hiss of the cheap analog recording system as it took over. His attention sharpened.

--at’s my --arine-- It was barely a whisper, followed by muffled, intermittent sounds that made him think there probably wouldn’t be any more meaningful conversation for a while.

He reached for the controls, spun the tape back and listened again. That’s my… tangerine? Marine? A dream? Nothing jumped out at him as a likely endearment.

"You think it’s important?" Geordi asked, letting his skepticism show. They had a truly terrifying amount of tape to sort through each day.

The other man shrugged. "Not really, but Steiner said to make sure he got everything with these two in it, so he might think it was."

Geordi frowned, his thoughts suddenly turning in new directions. "Why these two?" He hadn’t heard those instructions, but he wasn’t the senior tech. Still, given his own private instructions from Steiner, the possible connections were intriguing.

"It’s not just them. He wants the Andersons and Crossby/Esperanza, too."

Geordi shrugged. "Oh. O.k. Well, I can try to get some more out of it. Mark it for me and leave it on my desk when you leave and I’ll try to get to it after lunch."

The other tech gave him a sympathetic grin. "I’d tell you I’ll be thinking of you while I’m sipping margaritas on the beach, but I’d be lying."

Geordi chuckled. "That’s all right. I can’t stay in Ariel’s doghouse forever." A few unappreciated comments had gotten Geordi condemned to work the AV room while everyone else enjoyed their shore time. However, since he’d done it intentionally, he could hardly complain.

The other tech finished up a few things, then left. Geordi waited. After a while he checked the time. The dual banks of surveillance monitors showed little activity. Almost everyone had gone ashore. No one was likely to interrupt him now.

Gathering his toolkit, he walked into one of several equipment rooms that adjoined the AV room. His assignment from Steiner was tedious, if technically interesting. Tracing every single recording circuit was likely to take him the entire cruise, and he wondered what the show’s producer thought he might find.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac was bored. B-O-R-E-D. Bored. Looking for seashells was all well and good for a little while, but after several hours she needed a new diversion. Unfortunately, Alex Tantanopolous, her lovely but shallow companion, was convinced she should be having the time of her life. Oh well. She was a Marine. She’d endured far worse.

Lunchtime arrived to her intense relief. Food was always a welcome diversion and she was starved. Like Harm said, her metabolism ran at an insane rate. She’d had to forego her usual midmorning snack, which left her feeling truly famished. She was about to mention her hunger to Alex when she spotted a picnic blanket and attending umbrella laid out on the sand. She turned in that direction, assuming the spread couldn’t have been meant for anyone else.

"Oooh, I’m starving. Let’s eat!"

Alex followed her, eventually breaking into a jog to beat her to the site. He dropped to one knee beside a large picnic basket and began pulling out various dishes. Mac helped, figuring they would get to eat that much sooner. The smells wafting out of the basket made her stomach growl.

Alex looked over at her in surprise.

"Yes, that was me," she told him with a touch of asperity. "I told you I was starving."

Alex smiled and handed her a plate. "Here, then. Eat."

Mac started lifting lids. "It smells wonderful." She guessed the dishes were all Greek, based on her limited knowledge of Mediterranean cuisine. But whatever they were, they were good. She demolished her first plate, then slowed down to enjoy seconds.

Alex watched her in a mixture of amusement and awe. He didn’t take much for himself, she noted. Lots of rice and vegetables, but not much of the meat. And no sauce at all.

"You eat like my husband," Mac said, unable to hide her grin as the words rolled off her tongue. My husband… that sounds so good.

Alex gave her an odd look. Well, if he thought she wasn’t going to mention Harm, that was too bad.

"How so?" he asked after a moment.

Mac shrugged. "Disgustingly healthy."

Looking a bit wounded, Alex set his plate down. "A good diet is important. I believe there are three basic components to a person-- mind, body and soul-- and each one has to be properly cared for…" He went on for a while, espousing what Mac quickly deduced was his life philosophy and which, apparently, covered absolutely every possible moral, ethical and personal issue. She wondered if he’d gotten it from a book, or more likely, a TV special.

That’s not very nice, she chided herself as she tried to maintain a polite expression. Luckily she still had some food left to occupy part of her attention. Not to mention dessert, if there was one. At least Harm didn’t rely on some wacky philosophy to justify his health nut tendencies.

Alex wound down just as Mac started her search for dessert. She found something reminiscent of a fruit tart, and equally tasty.

Reclining on one elbow, Alex brought out a small book from a side pocket of the basket and began to read.

Mac almost choked on her pastry. Poetry? He’s going to read me poetry?! She managed to contain her reaction with an effort of will. In general, she had little use for poetry. Not that one… or two-- short-- situationally appropriate poems… from Harm… might not be appreciated…

Sighing in feigned contentment, Mac found a comfortable spot in the sun and lay back. She could at least work on her tan, maybe even daydream a bit so long as Alex stayed put where he was, safely on the other side of the picnic basket.

Lying there, she wondered if Harm was having as much fun as she was.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Nikki Upton was an ambitious woman. So far she was the only one who’d managed to garner even the slightest notice from Harmon Rabb, a feat that had won her instant respect-- and jealousy-- from the rest of the female staff. Nikki reveled in it. Harm was, without doubt, the show’s top prize, one she intended to claim. Whoever did that would be remembered after the show ended. Her name would be instantly recognized, and doors would magically open. Nikki didn’t really want to spend the rest of her life working with computers. It would pay the bills until something better came along, and hopefully that something better was starting now.

She knew how to win Harmon Rabb’s heart.

Not completely, of course. But enough to make him slip… and that was all she needed.

They were climbing a narrow trail along the edge of a precipice. Through a thin layer of jungle, they caught glimpses of the spectacular view of the rugged, foliage-covered mountains on the far side of a valley that lay hundreds of feet below them. At the moment, Harm was leaning against a convenient tree trunk, sipping from his water bottle. To Nikki’s surprise, he’d had little trouble keeping up with her, even though she was an experienced hiker. Well, she knew he was in good shape. But, the spot she’d picked was only a little ways ahead. Hopefully, he was amenable to a break.

She turned to Harm. "Do you mind if I explore up the trail a little ways? There’s supposed to be clearing with an unobstructed view. It sounded like the perfect place to stop for lunch."

Harm shrugged. "Suit yourself." He moved a short ways away and settled on the lip of a moss-covered rock, digging out a small towel to soak some of the sweat from his face and hair.

Pleased, Nikki headed up the trail. The forest steamed around her as the sun baked off the early morning’s torrential downpour. She was sheened in sweat, her bound-up hair falling in damp, curly wisps around her face. The entire morning, she’d done nothing particular to invite Harm’s attention save a little light flirting, which he’d reflected back at her without ever stepping up the intensity. Even so, he’d been very pleasant company. She could certainly see what his wife saw in him. Well, Mac would get him back, Nikki didn’t doubt. She was that kind of woman.

A few hundred yards along, the trail widened into a small clearing that jutted out over the edge of the cliff, just as the scouting team had promised. The view was astounding.

"Wow, get a load of that," Nikki told her cameraman with a gesture toward the panorama. He obediently swung the camera in the proper direction, then returned his focus to her. Nikki addressed the camera, and beyond it, the television audience.

"There are supposed to be some tree roots hanging out of the cliff just below the edge over there, and I’m going to go take a look. See, I think what Harmon Rabb really wants is to be a hero, so I’m going to give him the chance to save me." She smiled for the camera, then turned and walked close to the cliff edge to look over. Dark gray stone fell away in a tremendous sheer cliff dotted with vines and flowering shrubs. A few feet below the edge, a wide tangle of roots snaked their way across the stone, as promised. They looked pretty sturdy.

Cautiously, Nikki inched closer to the lip. The dark loam squished beneath her hiking boots, still wet from the rain. She crouched, trying to figure out how best to lower herself. She didn’t have to go very far, just enough to make it look like she was really in danger.

With a sickening lurch and a hiss like sand pouring out of a giant glass, the ground suddenly gave way beneath her feet. Nikki shrieked in terror as she began to slide over the edge, grabbing desperately for anything that might stop her fall.

 

Chapter 18

 

A woman’s scream echoed through the thick jungle growth from somewhere up the trail. Harm bolted to his feet, racing toward the sound before he could consciously command his body to move. Adrenaline poured through his system, sharpening sight and sound, and turning time into a liquid thing. Memory drew him back to his days in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and as he ran he instinctively swept the trail ahead for signs of land mines or trip wires. Not that he really expected to find anything, but the training, the experience, ran deep. Inside he was very frightened of what he might see when he caught up to Nikki Upton.

Harm burst into the clearing Nikki must have been looking for and spotted the second cameraman. He was standing near the lip of what had to be a huge cliff, camera forgotten in his hand as he tried to peer over. Near where he stood, a portion of the edge looked to have collapsed, leaving a sloping divot in its surface.

"Help me!" Nikki screamed again, the sound echoing up from the front of the cliff. Harm felt a wash of intense relief, followed by dismay. She was still alive… and in a great deal of trouble.

"Get back!" Harm snapped at the cameraman. "Do you want to fall?"

The man turned to stare at him, then obediently backed away. He watched the cliff edge fearfully. "She just… disappeared," he told Harm. "One minute she was looking over the edge, the next she was just… gone."

Ignoring him, Harm dropped his pack about ten feet from the edge and dropped to his stomach, crawling forward on elbows and knees. He approached the lip cautiously, testing each position before trusting his weight to it. He knew landslides from Southeast Asia as well.

He stuck his head over the edge and looked down. Nikki was maybe ninety feet below him, her form obscured by a fleshy-leafed bush whose branches she clung to. Harm could see little of her but bare legs and a pair of hiking boots dangling beneath the green mass. The cliff face turned in just below the bush, leaving her suspended over empty space.

"Nikki!" he called.

"Harm?" There was a clear note of hysteria in her voice. "Is that you? Harm, help me! I’m going to fall!"

"It’s me," he answered, trying to keep his voice calm, reassuring. "You’re going to be fine. Just hold on."

"No! Harm, help me! It’s pulling out by the roots!"

Harm studied the flowered bush, which did seem to be bent at an odd angle. He turned quickly to look back at the cameramen. The one who’d gone with Nikki was standing a short ways back, watching everything through his camera lens. The other had his emergency radio to his mouth and was speaking urgently into it.

"How long for them to send help?" he asked the man with the radio.

"One of our helicopters will be here in about two minutes," the man answered, "but they don’t have rescue equipment. Mr. Ariel says a Coast Guard helicopter is coming with a search and rescue team."

"ETA?"

The cameraman looked blankly at him.

"How long?"

"Fifteen minutes, maybe more."

Harm shook his head. "She doesn’t have fifteen minutes. That bush isn’t going to hold much longer." He poked his head back out over the cliff edge. "Hang on, Nikki! I’m coming down to get you."

"Please hurry!"

Harm scrambled back from the precipice and regained his feet. He hurried to his pack, knelt, and began digging out the climbing equipment he’d been given. He already knew the inventory and had made a cursory check before they left, but now he checked each item with quick, focused intensity. He had a rappelling harness and about a hundred fifty feet of rope, and, thankfully, a pair of climbing gloves.

Harm stood and began unwinding the rope. "Do either of you have any climbing experience?" he demanded of the two cameramen.

The one with the radio nodded. "A little."

"Good, then get over here." The man did. Harm handed him the rope. "What’s your name?"

"Donald-- Don," the man replied.

"All right, Don. Hopefully, you understand what I’m doing here." He glanced at the tree line on the far side of the small clearing. "Take the rope and loop it around that tree." He pointed to the appropriate one. It had a thick trunk and shaggy bark that might provide some added friction. "You’re going to have to lower me. There’s not nearly enough rope here to rappel. It’s going to be close as is." The tree he’d indicated stood a good twenty, twenty-five, feet from the lip.

Don nodded and went. Harm watched him for a moment to make sure he really did have some clue what he was supposed to do, then strapped on the climbing harness. He looked up when his ears reported the blade noise of the Temptation Cruise helicopter. It was too high pitched to be the Coast Guard chopper.

The bright yellow helicopter crested the mountains on the far side of the valley then dipped downward for a better look. Somewhat to Harm’s surprise, the pilot kept a goodly distance between his bird and the cliff. He was grateful. Had the helicopter come too close, the vibrations could have further jeopardized Nikki’s life, and his own. The helicopter flew back and forth, seeming to pace midair as the passengers watched what was happening.

Harm made himself ignore everything but his climbing gear. He attached the rope to his harness and checked the tension. Don stood ready with the other end of the rope looped around the tree. He had threaded it behind his back to allow him to use his body weight to counter Harm’s. Nodding to Don, Harm walked to the edge of the cliff, turned, and slowly leaned back over empty space. The rope and harness took his weight. Harm began to walk down the cliff.

He drew even with the bush Nikki clung to just about the time his line lurched to a stop. He could see her through the branches, scraped and bloodied and staring up at him with desperate hope in her eyes. She had wrapped one elbow around the base of the bush, a stalk perhaps two inches in diameter. Harm could see where the bush had begun to tear away from the cliff, exposing long, skinny roots that snaked back into the stone.

"Don’t move," Harm told her. She nodded and tightened her grip on the bush.

He looked up. "Don, I need about three more feet!" he called toward the invisible men above. He couldn’t quite reach her from there.

After a moment, the second cameraman, whose name Harm didn’t know, appeared at the edge. He appeared to still be filming. "He says there’s no more! He’s at the tree!" he called down.

Harm muttered a string of curses. Three feet short. Now what? Nikki had already dropped her backpack, so there was no real way to lighten the load the overburdened bush was carrying.

The idea that leapt into Harm’s mind made him shake his head at himself. No, too dangerous. But even as he thought it, the bush gave way another inch. Nikki let out a little mewl of terror.

Harm tightened his grip on the rope. I must be out of my mind.

Very carefully, Harm inverted himself until he was dangling headfirst with his back to the uneven stone. The climbing harness really wasn’t intended to be used that way. It wasn’t secure. Harm felt the nylon straps bite into his hip bones. That contact was now the only thing that kept him from falling five hundred feet or more. Luckily, Harm wasn’t intimidated by heights. He hooked the rope with one ankle like a circus performer to give him better stability and extended his arms under the bush toward Nikki.

"You ready to get out of here?" he asked casually, as if he were talking about leaving a restaurant. The more confident she was, the higher her chances of survival.

Nikki nodded, her face lighting with a tiny smile.

"All right, then. Take your right hand and reach over and grab my wrist. Not my hand, my wrist. Do you understand?"

She nodded again, swallowing convulsively. "Just don’t drop me, o.k.?" Very slowly, she let go with her right hand and reached for him. Harm had to smile. She was doing her best to be game, and was keeping her head.

Her fingers closed on his wrist. Harm wrapped his hand around hers in return, keenly aware of how small her arm seemed in his grip. Nikki’s other arms remained locked around the bush’s trunk and still bore the majority of her weight. Her legs dangled over empty space, making it impossible for her to brace herself.

Harm kept his gaze locked with Nikki’s. "O.k. Now for the hard part. You have to let go of the bush."

Nikki blanched.

Harm stared into her eyes, trying to impart courage to her from that contact. "Gravity will swing you this direction, but you aren’t going to fall. I’ve got you. I’m not going to let go, so you aren’t going to fall." That is, as long as me and this harness stay properly connected. He smiled encouragingly, not letting his thoughts show.

"Ready?"

Nikki’s grip on the bush tightened. She took a deep breath, her eyes terrified. "I can’t."

"Yes, you can. Look at me, Nikki." Obediently, her eyes fastened on him. "Do you trust me?"

Slowly, she nodded.

"I will not let you fall. Now let go of the bush and reach for me." He held out his other hand.

With a convulsive motion, Nikki released her hold on the shrub. Just for a moment it seemed like her hand would cross the distance to his, but then gravity took hold. She swung free, hanging solely from the one arm Harm held. She screamed in terror, her free hand instinctively flinging outward at the sensation of falling.

His own heart pounding in fear as the harness shifted against his hips, Harm reached for her. "Grab my hand!"

Nikki reached up blindly and after a few very scary moments, Harm managed to capture her wrist. The change in momentum swung them both into the stone cliff. Harm grunted in pain as sharp protrusions jabbed him in the back.

As he’d intended, Nikki hung facing toward the cliff. He pulled her upward by brute strength, his shoulders screaming. "Get your toes into the rock." The instruction came out as a gasp. The point where the stone wall dipped inward was now approximately even with her knees.

Nikki scrambled, but managed to get her feet up and planted. As she began to shift her weight to her legs, she was able to raise herself, putting her head level with Harm’s. The precarious position meant he was still straining to keep her from falling backward, but it was a lot better than it had been.

"Good. Now find a hand hold," he told her.

Following his instructions, Nikki got her hands onto the rocks and was soon clinging to the sheer stone face. Harm let go of her completely. He shifted himself a couple of feet away and gratefully turned right side up. Spots danced in front of his eyes for a moment, something he was familiar with from pulling g’s. He ignored it.

Now in a more secure position but still a bit higher than Nikki, Harm could reach down with one hand to grab the back waistband of her khaki shorts, steadying her as she inched her way upward. Harm could see her limbs trembling with each movement and guessed she wouldn’t be able to do much more. Silent tears trailed down her cheeks, though the only sound she made was the harsh gasping of her breath.

When she’d climbed to a point that put her even with him, Harm simply moved over behind her, straddling her. He found solid footholds, then wrapped one arm around her ribcage, supporting her and bracing them both against the stone face. Nikki’s hands closed spasmodically around his arm. A tiny sob escaped her as she leaned into him.

Harm took a deep breath, allowing himself to feel relief.

"We made it," he told her with an encouraging smile. "It’s going to be all right. We can wait here for the Coast Guard search and rescue team." He made himself say the name out rather than calling it SAR, as he normally would. He yelled up to Don, telling him to tie off the line. He had to be getting very tired.

Tucked against his chest, Nikki was silent. They waited. Ten minutes later, the whump whump of the Coast Guard’s HH-60 recovery helicopter filled the air around them. Harm turned his head to look, spotting the distinctive orange and white paint scheme easily as the helicopter approached. The Temptation Cruise helicopter backed off a little further, probably at the Coast Guard pilot’s instruction.

Harm and Nikki watched as the HH-60 came to a hover above them. The door opened and a crewman slowly descended on a line. Harm could see the second harness attached just below the crewman. The pilot’s aim was dead on. The crewman came straight to them.

"You folks o.k.?" he asked when he reached them. Beneath the white helmet and tinted visor, his face was nearly invisible.

Harm nodded. "We’re fine now."

The crewman braced himself against the stone as he and Harm worked to fasten the second harness around Nikki.

"Well done, sir," the crewman told Harm as he tested the connections.

"Thanks." Harm bit his lip. It felt odd to be sirred as a civilian rather than as an officer. He wondered how much he’d done to compromise his mission by his actions that day. Not that he would have done anything differently, but…

"Are you ready?" the crewman asked Nikki.

She nodded, but as the winch inside the helicopter began to reel them up, she grabbed for Harm, nearly strangling him in the process of trying to get her arms around his neck. Her eyes were wide, terrified.

"Don’t let go of me! I don’t want to fall." She buried her face against his neck.

The crewman halted the winch with a quick hand signal to his partner in the helicopter while Harm struggled to loosen Nikki’s death grip.

"Hey." He managed to gain enough space to look into her pale, drawn face. She’d kept her head while her life depended on it, but now she was losing the battle with hysteria. "You’re safe, o.k.? The crewman is going to take you up to that helicopter up there, and then he’ll come back for me." He pointed upward as he spoke.

"Promise?"

"I promise."

At that, she let go. Harm watched as she was taken up into the helicopter. When the crewman returned, he quickly attached the rescue line to his harness and released the other one. Drifting free of the cliff, Harm balanced his weight in preparation for the short ride up to the chopper. It wasn’t quite like flying to hang suspended like that, but it was still fun.

"You’ve done this before," the crewman said as the winch hauled them upward. His tone made it a question.

Harm considered his reply. He could say any number of things, make all kinds of excuses, but it was hard to be so conservative after the events of the past half-hour.

Instead, he winked at the crewman and said nothing.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac was nearly frantic by the time the Coast Guard helicopter appeared over the trees. All she knew was that someone from Harm’s party had gone over a cliff and there’d been a rescue attempt. All of the other contestants’ groups had been recalled to the landing to wait for news. Since then, Mac’s imagination had conjured every possible scenario in which Harm was either badly hurt or killed, though she knew he was probably the least likely person to fall off a cliff. He didn’t take stupid risks. But all she could think of was how much it would hurt to lose him now that she’d finally found him.

The HH-60 settled on the concrete landing pad that had been constructed for the show, its rotors throwing up a choking cloud of sand and dust. Covering her mouth with her hand, Mac struggled forward. She waited impatiently at the edge of the pad as the rotors wound down.

The main door opened in the side of the aircraft and a crewman in an orange jumpsuit climbed out. He turned to help a rather battered-looking Nikki Upton out of the helicopter. Harm followed on his own, and Mac’s heart leapt into her throat. Some small part of her brain catalogued his condition, noting the bits of blood that decorated his elbows and streaked his shirt, and the painful deliberation with which he moved. But when he caught sight of Mac he smiled his perfect, patented flyboy smile, and all of her fears evaporated.

Mac rushed forward. For the first time in their many years of friendship, she allowed herself to act on the feelings that surged inside her whenever Harm put himself in danger. She threw herself into her husband’s arms, indulging her need to hold him, touch him.

Harm hugged her back. "Hey, Ninja Girl. Don’t tell me you were worried about me." His voice was full of laughter.

Mac grinned, knowing he could read the truth in her eyes. "Nah. I just missed you."

Chuckling, Harm released her, but kept an arm about her waist as they moved away from the helicopter. Mac was aware of Nikki Upton watching them from where the Coast Guard medic was examining her, a peculiar expression on her face. Mac deliberately turned away.

"What happened?" she asked Harm.

He shook his head. "I guess she was standing at the edge of the cliff. It gave way, and she fell about ninety feet before managing to stop her fall." He glanced in Nikki’s direction. "She’s in pretty good shape, all things considered."

"Thanks to you, no doubt."

He grinned, but whatever reply he might have made was lost when one of the Coast Guard crew approached them. He held a first aid kit in one hand.

"Sir, I came to make sure you’re all right. You’re bleeding in a couple of places that I can see."

Harm glanced down at himself, obviously surprised, then shrugged. Mac helped him shed his ruined shirt, noting how gingerly he moved with new concern.

"What did you do? Crack a rib?" She kept her voice light. She’d seen Harm chafe when his various girlfriends had tried to mother him. She doubted she’d have much more success.

Shaking his head, Harm settled on the edge of the landing pad. "No, it’s all in my shoulders. I’m sure I pulled something-- probably a few somethings." He gave her a rueful smile as she sat down beside him. "I’m getting too old to play hero."

Mac looked him over. He was a mess of scrapes and bruises, but nothing that looked like it would hurt for more than a few days. Her eyes traced the clean lines of his chest, watching the subtle play of muscles as he moved, breathed.

"I don’t think so."

She didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until the crewman tending Harm chuckled. Mac flushed and looked away, covering her mouth with one hand. Yep, that’s me. Harmon Rabb’s personal groupie. The thought made her smile.

After a moment, Harm shifted his seat until his thigh brushed hers. "So how was your day, dear?"

Mac chuckled. "It was fine until you called me dear."

He laughed. Mac joined him. She was amazed by how different she felt now compared to all the other times she’d been with Harm after he came back from something dangerous. Then, she’d had to fight to keep her fear, her rage, her relief all bottled up-- invisible. Today she could openly admit her relief and laugh her fears away.

Mac looked at her husband, wondering why. There are no more regrets between us, she finally decided. That was the difference. Hopefully, they would never have to live with regrets again, not where each other was concerned.

Mac reached over to take Harm’s hand, relishing the feel of his fingers closing around hers. No more regrets, she repeated, this time making the words a promise.

 

Chapter 19

 

Thursday morning, A.J.'s work was interrupted by what sounded like a somewhat heated conversation taking place outside his office. He stepped unobtrusively up to the open doorway to listen. The topic wasn't too hard to guess. He'd seen the evening news the night before, with its brief clip of Commander Rabb dangling upside down from a rappelling line in the midst of what was being called a "daring rescue attempt". Steiner had released just enough footage to whet the audience's appetite-- even A.J. could get nothing more from him save a confidential assurance that the commander was unhurt. The entertainment column in the morning paper was predicting a record audience for the premiere episode that night, thanks in part to Rabb's foolhardy heroics and the ensuing media coverage.

A.J. peeked around the corner. Gunny, Tiner, Singer and Harriet were standing in a cluster beside Tiner's desk.

"I'll bet Colonel MacKenzie was mad," Gunny was saying, "with her husband going off and playing hero with some cute blond."

"Oh, come off it, Galindez." Lieutenant Singer rolled her eyes. "Why would she care? It's not like they're really married."

Gunny shook his head. "You weren't there, ma'am. They're married."

"You mean, in the biblical sense?" Tiner chimed in, a bit wide-eyed. The comment earned him a snort from Gunny and a reproving stare from Harriet.

"Lieutenant!" Harriet scolded, her disapproval marred by a smile she couldn't quite hide. "Don't forget these are senior officers we're talking about."

Tiner stiffened at the rebuke. "Yes, ma'am."

Singer frowned at the exchange, her face its usual disdainful mask. "Even if it's
true-- and I doubt it is, by the way-- it won't last. They'll be divorced inside a year. Two, tops."

There was a moment's silence, in which A.J. had to force himself not to step out of his office. It was beneath him to get involved in such a petty squabble.

Galindez broke the silence with a chuckle. "Yeah, right. I'll believe it when I see it, ma'am."

Harriet cocked her head, giving Singer a penetrating stare. "What makes you say that, Lieutenant?" The question was sincere, if somewhat wary.

"Several things." Singer raised her chin a fraction. "First-- and with all due respect--" the aside was said in a slightly mocking tone. "The commander isn't exactly a one-woman man, if you get my drift. Even if he reforms now, his mid-life crisis is just around the corner. If you don't think there won't be a string of bimbos then, you're being naïve."

A.J. winced invisibly at the thought of Rabb hitting mid-life. The man already got into enough trouble as it was. Hopefully that day was still a few years off, though A.J. suspected it would begin the moment the commander could no longer fly fighters.

"Second," Singer continued, "Colonel MacKenzie is very much the jealous type, all her talk notwithstanding. She's never going to completely believe he's not cheating on her, so she's going to keep demanding proof. You know… 'If you love me, you won't go out with the guys tonight.' 'If you love me, you won't do your carrier quals this year.'" She mimicked Mac's throaty voice surprisingly well. "Over time, one ultimatum will lead to another and eventually…" Singer shrugged as if it were of no consequence to her. "Well, you get the idea."

A.J. pursed his lips. Singer, I think you missed your calling as a clinical psychologist. Despite himself, A.J. was impressed by the analysis. He thought she was being too bleak, but her take on the two officers' characters was disturbingly accurate. It was probably a good thing she hadn't gone into psychology, though. There was no telling how many patients she would have killed trying to cure them.

"Lieutenant, I think you put entirely too little trust in the commander and the colonel." Harriet's firm statement made A.J. smile. "They're great together."

"I guess we'll find out tonight, won't we." Singer nodded to the other three and took her leave from the conversation.

Tiner and Gunny exchanged worried looks, then turned in concert to stare at Harriet. "She's coming tonight?"

Harriet shrugged. "I couldn't very well not invite her. It would be rude."

There was a short pause in which many things were carefully left unsaid.

"Hey, does anyone know if Colonel MacKenzie is going to change her name?" Tiner asked suddenly. "It's going to be confusing to have two Rabbs in the office."

Gunny shrugged. "At least their rank structures are different."

"I'd love to see the clients' reactions when they find out their defense attorney is married to the prosecution."

Gunny frowned at Tiner. "I'm not sure they'll be allowed to go against each other in court any more. 'Appearance of impropriety' and all that."

Harriet gathered up a pile of papers from the corner of Tiner's desk. "Well, I'm sure it's a small price to pay, all things considered. Now, if you'll excuse me, I really need to get back to work." She smiled at the two and walked away.

A.J. decided he'd better get back to his desk before someone noticed his eavesdropping. He'd already been turning over the question of how to handle having his two most senior attorneys married to each other, but as he settled in his chair, he pushed the thought away. The SecNav himself had promised he could keep them both in JAG. He was certain they would be able to work out the details.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Somehow, A.J. thought, word of the JAG Temptation Cruise party must have spread. He didn't think Harriet could possibly have invited all the people who filled the Roberts' small home to overflowing. The guests were a truly astonishing mix of people, all of whom seemed to have agreed to shed their various ranks and positions for the night to a degree that shocked the Admiral. He'd counted a total of three congresspeople, one senator, two judges… and one very uncomfortable-looking CIA agent in the press.

"You couldn't resist either, I see, A.J." Judge Amy Helfman stepped up beside him, a glass of wine in one hand. Her normally solemn gaze flashed with amusement. "What's your excuse?"

"I'm staying abreast of an ongoing undercover investigation." He cracked a smile. "What's yours?"

She chuckled. "Me? Oh, I've always been a closet soap opera addict."

"This is a far more sordid obsession than Guiding Light, Your Honor." Clayton Webb raised his glass in salute as he joined them.

"I notice that didn't deter you," A.J. pointed out.

Webb grinned. "Heck, no. I think we've all been quietly dying to see these two together, so why not indulge my voyeuristic side along with the rest?"

Bud Roberts appeared at A.J.'s elbow then, saving him from a response. "Sirs, ma'am, it's almost eight o' clock. The show's about to start."

"Thank you, Bud." A.J. nodded to his conversation mates then went to find himself a seat.

Meanwhile, Harriet stepped up in front of the muted t.v. and raised her voice. "If I could have everyone's attention, we're about to get started here."

The volume in the room dipped for a moment, then resumed. People found seats or stood behind the clustered furniture, drinks in hand. Harriet had popped a truly astounding amount of popcorn, which circulated the room in two large Tupperware bowls.

"Now," Harriet said, clapping her hands together in front of her, "we all know why we're here--"

"To see Colonel MacKenzie in a bikini!" Webb called from the back of the room, to loud applause and a few whistles.

"Webb!" A.J. stared at the CIA man, who grinned impudently.

Harriet made shushing motions and slowly regained the room's attention. "Seriously, I think we've all, at one time or another, thought to ourselves that Commander Rabb and Colonel MacKenzie would make a great couple. I know I have." She grinned, bouncing with excitement. "So tonight, we'll finally get to see them together."

"Everybody sing it with me," Tiner jumped in. "Am I the only one who hears the screams, and the strangled cries of lawyers in love…"

"Lieutenant!" A.J.'s bark cut through the howls of laughter.

Tiner straightened abruptly in his chair. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." He looked intimidated but not very repentant.

Sighing, A.J. stood and held up his hands. The room quieted expectantly.

A.J. let his gaze roam the gathering. "It appears I need say something on a serious note, before this evening gets entirely out of hand."

"Oh, lighten up, Admiral." Bobbi Latham grinned sweetly to take the sting out of her words. "Personally, I've been looking forward to this premiere ever since that little get together at your place. Harm and Mac put on quite the show." She raised her eyebrows expressively.

A.J. fought the temptation to roll his eyes. "May I remind you all that Commander and Colonel Rabb's presence on this show remains part of an serious undercover investigation, despite all appearances, which I'm sure will be quite to the contrary." He was a little afraid of just how contrary. Harm and Mac would still have to work with these people when they returned.

"Let me also remind you all that you are professionals, whether military or civilian, and that I expect everyone to maintain a certain level of decorum this evening." A.J. swept the room with his gaze, noting the subtle shift of expressions. Satisfied, he let the smile he'd been holding in emerge. "But don't let that dim your enthusiasm."

He retired to his chair while a chorus of "Yes, sir!"s ran around the room, accompanied by laughter.

The show started a few moments later. The theme music began, heavy with tribal drum rhythms, as the Temptation Cruise II logo appeared. Images flashed across the screen. Some were obviously staged shots, others "real". Each of the couples was shown in some kind of sultry pose as the announcer said their names. In Harm and Mac's case, the two stood face to face, his arms hooked around her waist, holding her close. They were dressed for a night on the town save that the commander's shirt was about halfway unbuttoned. Mac held the lapels in her slender hands as if she'd paused for a moment in the early stages of undressing him. They were staring at each other, smoky gazes unmistakable, until something off camera called for their attention. The two turned in unison to look at the camera, and then the scene cut away.

"This is going to be worse than I thought," A.J. muttered under his breath.

Beside him, Bobbi Latham laughed. "But just think how much ammunition this will give us to use against them. I'm not going to have to do Harm any more favors for quite some time," she added, her tone playfully smug.

"Don't bet on it, Congresswoman," Webb said from across the room. "He'll find a way to guilt you into it no matter what you've got on him."

Bobbi turned, her grin deepening. "Are you speaking from personal experience, Mr. Webb?"

Webb cleared his throat and looked away, eliciting a chuckle from A.J.

The t.v. soon recaptured his attention. The show's host stood on a tropical-looking beach, explaining to the audience the rules of the competition. He moved quickly from there into a combination introduction of each couple and summary of the wedding ceremonies.

"Today saw nine couples joined in holy matrimony," the host said from his spot on the beach. "Obviously, we can't show you everything, but we will give you the highlights. Some of the weddings were perfect--" the screen flashed through several scenes of couples saying 'I do' or exchanging rings and kisses. "Some were not so perfect--" The t.v. jumped to a scene that could have come from America's Funniest Home Videos, with a bride tripping on her skirt and wiping out both her husband-to-be and best man. "And some were just a little strange." This time the scene was of Harm scratching a square in the sand. The camera stayed with them as he explained his actions and Mac's inexplicably happy response.

"Does anybody know what their thing was with the porch?" Victor Galindez asked, his gaze on Sturgis.

Sturgis raised his hands. "Why are you looking at me? I don't know any more than the rest of you, and probably less. I'm the newcomer around here, remember?"

"So, Harm, Mac, what was the significance of the porch?" This time, the question came from the television. Harm and Mac sat in plush chairs side by side, their casual dress proclaiming that this had taken place sometime after the wedding. Their hands were clasped, balanced on the adjoining arms. A thirty-ish woman sat across from them. The set up was very obviously an interview.

The first thing A.J. noticed beyond the oddity of seeing his officers holding hands was how relaxed and happy both seemed.

At the question, however, the two shared a significant, slightly guilty look. "We're going to have to come clean about that, aren't we?" Mac asked Harm.

His answering chuckle held a clear note of embarrassment. "Go right ahead. It was your engagement party, after all."

She rolled her eyes. "Gee, thanks."

A.J. blinked as the implications sank in.

"You know, they did spend an awful lot of time together on your front porch that night, Admiral." Bud's eyes were round with realization. "You don't think… something happened… do you?"

"I think we're going to find out, Mr. Roberts," he answered tightly. He felt just a little trepidation at the prospect.

Onscreen, the perky interviewer gave Harm a curious look. "Now, when you say 'your engagement party', I'm assuming you mean she wasn't engaged to you at the time."

A.J. saw the aviator's unflappable cool settle into place. "That would be correct," he answered with an easy smile.

"What happened?"

Harm glanced at Mac, giving her the field. She stared down into her lap for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "Let's see. It was the night of my engagement party. A friend hosted it at his house. Harm had gone out to the front porch to wait for his girlfriend, who was running late, and I went to talk to him about a case we were working on at the time." She flashed Harm a nervous smile. "We ended up talking about old times and… and why it had never worked out between us, I guess. It was supposed to be a goodbye of sorts."

Mac paused for a deep, bracing breath. "To make a long story short, he kissed me… or I kissed him… I'm not really sure who started it… and all the things we felt for each other but had never said somehow just… boiled out in that kiss--"

"Sounds passionate," the interviewer observed.

Harm arched his eyebrows. "You have no idea."

The interviewer laughed. "So your friend's porch was where you two first realized you loved each other?"

Mac's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Not really." She glanced at Harm. "I knew long before that, anyway."

He shrugged. "Me too, I guess. But that was the first time we allowed ourselves to realize how deep it ran." He raised Mac's hand to his lips, watching her all the while. She smiled gently in return.

"Did you know about this, A.J.?" Bobbi asked with a twinkle in her eyes.

A.J. looked at her. "That two of my officers were making out on my front porch at such an inappropriate moment? No, I most certainly did not." He wondered if he sounded properly appalled, or just irritated at his ignorance. "If I had, Ms. Latham, you can be sure I would have done something about it."

"Like?" Bobbi continued to grin at him. But then again, baiting people was one of her favorite sports.

A.J. lowered his voice to a murmur. "Like ordering them to take it to the guest bedroom and not come out again until they'd figured out what they wanted." He met Bobbi's gaze squarely. "Just think: Rabb wouldn't have gone down in the Atlantic, Mac wouldn't have gone TAD for three months… can you imagine how much more work my office could have gotten done this past year if I'd known what was going on then?"

Bobbi chuckled. "I never took you for such a romantic, Admiral."

"Thank heaven for small favors."

The premiere continued with introductions of each of the singles on the cruise.

"Hey, look. It's the commander's chippie." Singer pointed to the television. A young woman with shoulder length blond hair and a deep tan was smiling for the camera.

"Singer!" Harriet stared at the other woman, who shrugged.

"I just call 'em like I see 'em," she answered.

Nikki Upton, A.J. thought, was far too attractive for comfort's sake. To him she looked painfully young, but from the comments the young men in the room were making, he deduced that he was probably outnumbered in his opinion. Unfortunately, Commander Rabb fell somewhere between those two examples. He wondered what that would mean.

"She's not as pretty as Mac," Bobbi observed while Nikki told the audience about her childhood in southern California.

"She is blond though, ma'am," Gunny returned.

Bobbi turned on him. "Is that supposed to mean something, Sergeant? Gentlemen prefer blonds, perhaps?" Her question was as sharp as her glare.

Galindez sucked in his breath. "No, ma'am. I wasn't speaking personally… it's just that Commander Rabb does seem to have a thing about blonds."

"You know, that's true." Bud looked between the two with surprised realization. "Renee, Jordyn, Annie…"

"I'm not blond," Bobbi pointed out, her expression one of feigned injury.

Bud paused for a moment, staring at her. His mouth closed with a snap. "No, ma'am." A.J. chuckled.

Sturgis turned to the congresswoman, his expression curious but not entirely pleased. "Were you planning to tell me about this at some point, Bobbi?"

"You didn't know?"

"Should I have?"

She gave him a helpless look. "I figured someone would have said something, if for no other reason than to make Harm squirm."

Sturgis's expression cleared. "Ah." He glanced at A.J. "In retrospect, I believe the Admiral attempted to tell me, but I apparently missed the full implication of his words."

Bobbi chuckled and waved one hand dismissively. "There's very little to tell, honestly." She smiled. "Even if Mac weren't around, you would have nothing to worry about."

A.J. returned his attention to the show once he was certain another of his officers' love lives wasn't about to blow up. With the introductions complete, the show had gone into commercials. A.J. took the opportunity to refill his drink.

When he returned to his seat, the show's host stood at the ship's rail. "Paradise hasn't been without its ups and downs for these nine couples already. Very soon, we'll show you who's been arguing and why. But first, let's go to our panel of experts for some quick and dirty predictions."

The scene flashed to a group of four people-- two men and two women-- sitting in a loose semi-circle across from the female interviewer they'd seen before. Each of the four was introduced as some kind of psychologist or relationship counselor.

The interviewer checked her cue cards, then looked at the panelists. "Having had forty-eight hours now to observe the couples, who do you predict will win?"

"The Andersons," one promptly answered and heads nodded down the line.

"What? No way!" Boos filled the Roberts' living room. Tiner even went so far as to throw a piece of popcorn at the t.v.

The interviewer continued her questions. "All right. Who do you predict will be the first couple disqualified from the competition?"

"The Na's."

"The Coopers."

"No, the Sorensons."

"Opinions appear to be divided." The interviewer smiled at the foursome. "Which couple would you say is most passionate?"

"The Rabbs."

Several people cheered. A.J. had to smile. Add 'mule-headed' and 'prone to getting in trouble', and that pretty much sums them up.

"I'd have to say Crossby/Esperanza," one of the others countered.

"And the most likely to still be married fifty years from now?"

"The Andersons."

"The Washingtons."

"The Rabbs."

The other panelists’ heads turned toward their colleague in surprise. He leaned forward. "Consider what we've seen and heard just in these first forty-eight hours. They've been through too much to get to this point," he explained. "They're not going to let anything permanently separate them."

A.J. raised his cup in solemn salute to the psychologist. "Amen to that."

The interviewer cocked her head, her expression doubtful. "But you don't think the Rabbs are likely to win this competition?"

The psychologist just shrugged. "No. But I think they'd survive an affair."

Silence filled the Roberts'. A.J. felt a growing anger at the very thought. "Well, they wouldn't survive me," he growled at the television. "I would personally wring the responsible party's neck and send the broken corpse straight to Hell in a custom-crafted handbasket."

"I'm sure people would be lining up to crucify the commander, sir," Gunny assured him, his dark eyes snapping as if he had every intention of being first in said line.

"I hate to say this, Galindez," Webb injected calmly, "but you probably have the wrong culprit. Mac's got the rotten track record there. Harm may have had a lot of women…" For a moment a spark of humor showed through. "But never more than one at a time."

"How do you know?"

"I'm CIA, Gunny. We know everything." He flashed Galindez a superior smile.

Tiner threw popcorn at him.

Following on the panelists' discussion, the television began showing arguments. Trash t.v. that it was, of course Temptation Cruise spent a great deal of time focusing on any and every apparent rift between couples. Some of it was ludicrous enough to laugh at, but seeing Harm and Mac at each other's throats over Brumby while still dressed in their wedding attire tore at A.J.'s heart. His hands clenched into fists that didn't relax until they'd resolved the argument. And when Commander Rabb dipped his new wife there in the passageway for a passionate kiss, resounding applause broke out in the Roberts' living room. A.J. cheered right along with the rest.

The general mood lightened as they watched snippets of The Newlywed Game. A.J. got to explain to those who were unaware about Mac and Harm's ill-fated flying expedition and why 'Crash' was so incredibly apropos as a description. And later, Mac's "Do I look fat?" drew shrieks of laughter from the women in the room.

"I have to hand it to him," Judge Helfman said with a smile. She gestured toward the t.v. with her glass, her eyebrows raised in amusement. "He managed to answer the unanswerable question."

Webb started to chuckle. "Can you imagine what would have happened if he'd tanked that one?"

"He'd have had one ticked off Marine on his hands, that's for sure," Gunny said.

Webb tossed off the last of his drink. "Jerry Springer, eat your heart out."

After another commercial break, the premiere moved into its last segment-- the outing. The host returned to give them a short introduction.

"As you are all probably aware, the first outing didn't exactly go as planned. Due to a very serious emergency, the details of which we'll show you in a little while, the day's activities ended slightly before noon. However, before we get to the potentially deadly situation two of our number found themselves in, let's take a look at how the rest of the couples enjoyed the early part of the day."

A.J. and the others were treated to a montage of film clips, each showing a man and woman involved in various innocuous vacationing activities. They saw John Washington struggling to figure out how to use a Ski-Doo while his companion darted across the waves in the distance. They also saw Stacy Anderson giggling, one hand clasped in her companion's as he gallantly helped her across a rickety wood bridge.

"Whoa, baby!" Webb's comment summed up the general male reaction as Mac's image appeared. She lay sprawled on her back in the sand, staring at the cloudless sky as she turned a seashell over in her fingers. Her bikini and flawless tan only made her more lovely-- not to mention more visible-- than usual.

"You're not planning on forming a fan club, are you, Webb?" A.J. asked with as much disdain as he could muster.

A male voice from offscreen accompanied Mac's image, either reading or reciting poetry. As they watched, Mac rolled her eyes and exhaled her breath in a sigh that fluttered her short bangs.

"Now that is a bored Marine," Bobbi observed.

"Well, you know Marines, ma'am," Tiner said with a sly glance in Gunny's direction. "They think beaches are only good for invading."

"At least we're not afraid to get off our boats and get in a real fight," Galindez returned.

"Gentlemen." A.J. called them to order before the generally friendly rivalry could get out of control.

After a little while, the show's host returned. This time he stood on a humid jungle plateau, rugged mountains framing him in an awe-inspiring backdrop.

"Here is where it happened," he solemnly told the audience. "Here is where a woman nearly lost her life, and a man put his own at risk to save her." The host gestured toward the cliff edge. "The cliff below me is a staggering five hundred and eighty-four feet tall. I warn you that some of the footage you are going to see may be disturbing, even frightening. If you are easily alarmed or have a fear of heights, we advise you to use discretion while watching this next segment."

This time it was Gunny who threw popcorn at the t.v. "Would you get on with it already?"

The host steepled his fingers in front of him. "The story actually starts this morning as our couples said good-bye to their spouses and prepared to head out for the day. Specifically, I'm talking about Harm and Sarah Rabb." The screen changed to show Harm and Mac amid the milling chaos that had to be the staging area on the beach. The host's voice continued to narrate as Harm turned abruptly to sweep his wife up in a desperate-looking kiss.

"It seems like Harm somehow sensed the danger that lie ahead for him," the host observed, "if this kiss is any indicator. But the day started out routinely enough."

The view changed to show Harm and the single girl, Nikki, climbing a rugged trail. They exchanged occasional words in sporadic but friendly banter.

"What Harm could not have known was that his companion had put a plan into motion that would nearly cost her her life."

They watched as Nikki took off up the trail ahead of Harm and emerged on the same clearing where the host had been standing. She turned to face the camera, then proceeded to explain her plan for letting Harm rescue her and become her hero.

A.J. felt the blood drain from his face at the girl's unimaginable foolishness.

"What an idiot!" Gunny shook his head sadly.

Singer shook her head also, but in disgust. "Boy, did she ever nail that one on the head. The commander is such a sucker for the whole 'damsel in distress' thing. I wonder if he thinks women really like that."

Bobbi turned to give her a wide-eyed, innocent stare. "You mean we're not supposed to?" At Singer's affronted look, she chucked. "I'm a huge fan of seeing women take charge of their lives and accomplish anything and everything a man can… but I'll be the first to admit I love having a big, strong man to come to my rescue when I need it."

"And when have you ever needed rescuing, Congresswoman?" Sturgis asked her with a smile.

She grinned. "Why, every time I go to open a new jar of olives. Or have to program my VCR."

Harriet wrinkled her nose in an impish expression. "For me it's every time the car makes a funny noise." She smiled at Bud.

"Or I need to hitch the trailer to my truck," added Judge Helfman.

Bobbi laughed. "See, men are indispensable."

While the conversation was taking place, on the television, Nikki had gone to the edge of the cliff to look for tree roots. The collapse was so sudden it startled the room into silence, broken only by Nikki's scream. The camera cut to Commander Rabb where he rested further down the trail. His head snapped up at the sound, his face filled with alarm.

They watched in silence for the first tense minutes as Harm ran to the clearing, assessed the situation and devised a plan. A.J. could see him become the officer he was. He gave orders will the full expectation of being obeyed, his assumption of command both effortless and efficient. A.J. found himself nodding as Harm walked down the cliff.

"Well done, Commander," he said softly.

"I do believe he'll make a good CO someday," Sturgis added.

A.J. chuckled. "With a few years of marriage and fatherhood to mature him, I'd have to agree." He crossed his arms. "Maybe by then I'll be ready to retire."

"You, sir?" Sturgis smiled indulgently "I'll believe that when I see it."

The remainder of the rescue footage was a mixture of tape shot from a helicopter and images from the second cameraman who'd been with the commander. There was little sound beyond the noise of the helicopter blades and the few instructions Harm had shouted up the cliff face. But it wasn't hard to guess the conversation that took place between Harm and the girl. Her heart was written on her face-- desperation, hope, and faith. The way she clung to the commander after the rescue helicopter arrived spoke very loudly of her feelings.

"You know, that's going to be trouble." Harriet watched the screen with a worried frown as the Coast Guard helicopter landed at the beach to disgorge its battered passengers.

Webb waved the comment away. "Pfah. Harm's hardly going to be impressed. He gets to play hero all the time." His gaze cut toward A.J. "Amazing thing, that, especially since JAG is considered a non-combat assignment."

"Oh, I'm not worried about Commander Rabb," Harriet assured him quickly. "I'm worried about that girl. Did you see her face when Harm and Mac walked away together?"

Webb's brow wrinkled. "What about it?"

"Ooooh, she's right." Bobbi's mouth formed a little moue of concern. "Nikki might have been trying to win Harm's heart with her little stunt, but it worked the other way around."

"Meaning?"

Harriet gave him an are-you-really-that-dense look. "She thinks she's in love with him, Mr. Webb."

There was a short moment of silence.

"Well, I wouldn't be too concerned," A.J. finally said, his voice intentionally casual. "I'm sure Mac can handle it. And her."

"Probably with a good old-fashioned right cross," Gunny added with evident satisfaction.

On the television, the episode was wrapping up. Harm and Mac sat side by side, hands clasped, while the Coast Guard medic looked Harm over. The two appeared to have eyes only for each other as they talked and laughed. The camaraderie that had always characterized their relationship showed clearly, but it had grown into something new. Something stronger and deeper than any mere friendship could be. A.J. felt an almost fatherly swell of pride.

For the first time since the entire investigation had begun, A.J. began to feel truly confident that the two would be able to make it work.

 

 

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