Author's note: Many thanks to Gail for the beta and for the last minute push/encouragement that got this story completed.
Mac hurt. All over. In parts of her body she'd previously been (thankfully and gratefully) unaware of.
She rolled over onto her back and stared straight up at the sky. Gray clouds moved steadily to the west, but even so, it was hot, damn hot, and humid. She turned her head to the right. The wreckage of the plane lay approximately twenty yards away, still smoldering, the nose smashed in and one wing torn off. She had no idea how she'd been thrown clear. She had no idea how she'd survived.
It was seven minutes after three.
Her head hurt.
The air smelled of rain.
Mac closed her eyes
She was dimly aware of the voice. Croaking. Weak. Calling to her. She forced herself to roll over.
"Move your six, Marine," she whispered to herself. There were scratches on her arms, bruises on her legs. It hurt to breathe. She wondered if she had broken a rib. She sat on her knees, giving her spinning head a moment to recover. As her vision came into focus, she saw tall trees reaching up to the heavens. The gray skies of earlier had been replaced with a faded blue. No clouds, no wind, just a heavy, uncomfortable dampness.
Mac stood up slowly, testing her balance carefully. It felt as if her legs were simply bruised, nothing more. She took a step towards the wreckage of the plane. She told herself she was walking slowly because she was dizzy.
"Harm?" her voice was pinched and strangled. Another step. Her strappy sandal came off; damn uncomfortable shoes, she thought and not for the first time, she cursed the designer who placed a premium on fashion. She bent over to remove the other shoe, casting it aside. The mud squished between her toes. She didn't think about what could be lurking in the lush green grasses of the Paraguyan rain forests. *I'm a Marine.* And then, tentatively again, "Harm? Are you there?"
"I'll take that as a yes." Her voice felt stronger now. She wished she could say the same for the rest of her. Five more steps and she would be at the plane. Her head was spinning. Come on, Marine. She stumbled and fell.
This time, she dreamed of blue skies.
She forced her eyes open. She had been out exactly thirteen minutes. She struggled to her feet.
"Damn you, don't do this to me!" Mac screamed.
Her skirt and blouse were soaked through, sticking fast to her skin. If she remembered her facts correctly, Paraguay had a consistent rainfall throughout the year but July was the coldest month.
It was June. Hot as hell.
That couldn't be right.
The guidebook must be wrong. Or she was remembering incorrectly.
Only a few steps more and she'd be there.
The forest spun around her. The trees reaching to the skies, the shadows closing in on her. Creatures of all sorts -- the type that slithered through grasses on their stomachs, the type with more than four legs -- all of them were advancing on her position. The enemy, all of them, keeping her from attaining her goal. Mac screamed.
And then she heard it. Heard him.
"Yes," she said breathlessly. "I'm here."
He was bleeding. A thin trickle of red. From the forehead. His eyes were unsteady, his gaze drifting as she knelt next to him. But he was alive.
"Mac." His voice was thready, barely audible. He closed his hand around her wrist. His fingers were cold. Carefully, she removed his hand so she could rip off a strip of material from her thin cotton blouse.
"Sorry, I forgot my First Aid kit in Washington," she said, pressing the material to the wound. She ignored the odd angle at which his leg was bent.
"Next time," he said, his expression glassy-eyed.
"I've got a bone to pick with you, Harmon Rabb."
"What's new?" But there was no fight in his voice. No teasing, no arrogance. This worried her. She eased him back against the body of the plane.
"I think you've got a concussion," Mac said evenly. She kept her voice calm but she felt anything but. They were in the middle of a rainforest. "Yes, you've got a hard head, Harm, but you've got to stop crashing planes. One of these days, you're going to get yourself killed."
She laid her hand on his shoulder. "You can make it up to me later."
He smiled. "How?"
"Dinner. In Washington. You--" she jabbed her finger at his chest "-- can cook. No take-out. I want a home-cooked meal."
"It's a deal."
"And I want real food. No tofu substitutes, no vegetables only. I want grease and calories, lots of 'em."
"Anything you want, Mac."
"Yes." He licked his lips.
Mac got to her feet. Harm gestured at her abdomen.
"You look good pregnant," he said. "I meant to tell you... earlier."
Heat rose in her cheeks. "I'm going to find some water," she said.
She broke the branch, grunting with the effort. She knew there was no way she'd be able to walk far without assistance. She was also very aware Harm wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
For once, she was in charge.
And they needed water. Luckily, she'd found a water bottle in the wreckage of the plane. The farmer, if nothing else, had stocked his plane well. She would thank him later, when the United States Navy made restitution for the loss of the aircraft.
She glanced over at her shoulder at Harm. His head was lolling to the side.
Should she stay or go? It was getting dark and she needed to make a decision fast. She swallowed the lump tightening in her throat, coughing in the process. Harm didn't seem to hear her.
"Commander!" She purposely sharpened the inflection in her voice.
Harm opened his eyes.
"Stay awake. That's an order!"
He slurred the syllables, but she heard him clearly. "Aye, aye, ma'am."
She leaned against the stick, heading into the woods. Her bare feet tripped over stones, rocks, and the occasional squishy thing. She never looked down.
She was sure she could hear water somewhere. North? South? Until this moment, she had never realized just how many sounds there were in a jungle. She still felt hot, as if she were burning up from within as well as without. She knew now it wasn't the fault of the Paraguayan climate but rather her own body betraying her.
She glanced up at the sky. Ten minutes past seven.
She turned to retrace her steps.
She was going back to Harm.
"I'm never flying with you again," she said. Her throat felt parched, her lips dried and cracking. Had it only been twelve hours since the crash? Surely Webb and Gunny would send out search parties for them. If they made it back. Her stomach churned with anxiety for the two men. Of course Gunny and Webb would be all right; Gunny was extraordinarily capable and he would have gotten Webb to the hospital in time. She cleared her throat and turned to look at Harm. "Any time you take the stick, it doesn't turn out well for me."
"I hope you're criticizing the circumstances and not my skills as an aviator," he said. They were sitting very close to each other, shoulders touching, backs against the plane. The pregnancy pad made a good cushion for Harm's hurt leg. She'd made a small fire, but didn't have the energy to search for more wood.
"They go hand in hand, don't they?" She purposely didn't look at him, instead, concentrated her attention on the flames dance weakly. It was more smoke than fire now.
Silence and then he said, "I meant what I said earlier."
"Do you still remember our deal?"
"You really want to go through with it?"
"We shook on it." His lips curved up. "Are you going to break your word, Mac? You told me not to make a promise I wouldn't keep."
"Fine time to talk about having a baby." She was cold now, the dampness from her clothes seeping into her skin.
"When are we going to talk?" Reasonable question, yes, and once she had answered that same question, rather glibly, "When it happens," but now there were no excuses. There were no interferences now, no admirals, no significant others, no ambitious congresswomen, or district attorneys with their own agendas. Here there were only the trees, the black sky dotted with stars, and the thousands and thousands of creatures surrounding them.
"Aren't we skipping an important step?" she asked slowly. She swallowed hard. The omnipresent lump in her throat was hard, painful.
"I'm pretty sure we are," Harm said. "We're like that, Mac."
Harm was right and she'd come to accept that some things in their relationship would remain unspoken. Except she had articulated once, to Commander Turner, in a moment of weakness. He'd promised not to say anything to Harm, but at the same time, she always wondered if Turner had kept the confidence. She shivered. So cold. In the distance, she could hear the howl of an animal. Coyote? Wolf?
"We missed our chance," she said it coolly. She eyed him carefully, noting the sudden tension in his jaw. For seven years, she had worked with Harmon Rabb Junior, and for seven years, she had memorized every detail of his face, knew his expressions and mannerisms so intimately.
Harm tipped his head to look at her. "Because I didn't give up Renee for you?" His voice was surprisingly calm, non-accusatory.
"You made that choice a long time ago," she said softly.
"Yes, but you've always assumed I picked Renee." He reached across, his fingers skimming her bruised leg. "You never stuck around long enough to hear what I had to say."
She inhaled deeply, a long breath that quivered within her chest.
"Even so, it didn't change anything," she said quietly.
"I didn't want to hurt her," Harm said.
"So you let her hurt you?"
"'Hurt' isn't the word I would use."
She recognized the apology for what it was, still, she could not resist pushing a little more. "What word would you use?"
He reached for her with his good arm, and she let him pull her close. "Damn, Mac, you're burning up."
"Don't go Marine on me."
"Gunny and Webb will send help. They will be here soon."
"I'm counting on it."
She was flying. Through the blue skies, through the clouds. She had wings -- no, she was in a plane. A yellow plane. 'Sarah'. She giggled at the coincidence. Below, the land was a patchwork of green, yellow and brown squares, crisscrossed with white and black. It was quiet up here, cool. She could fly forever. She leaned forward.
"Higher," she whispered, "go higher."
The early morning sun blazed down on them. Her skin felt prickly, her scalp itchy. The throb in her head was stronger, a sure sign of dehydration. Her stomach lurched as she turned to look at the man sleeping next to her, his head tilted back against the curved body of the plane, his hand pressed into the ground for support.
"Good morning. It's ten after eight," she said brightly. Harm didn't respond. She pulled free of his arm. "Harm?" She touched his cheek lightly.
"I'm going for water."
"You need it." She ran her tongue over her own cracked lips. "Harm. Stay with me."
He opened his eyes to look at her. "Don't worry," he said quietly. "I'm not going anywhere. Not this time."
She followed the sound of the water, marking her path by breaking off tree branches. She had been walking for nearly two hours (precisely 82 minutes, 37 seconds). Her feet ached, blistered, bleeding, flesh torn. Inadvertently, the image of Clay's bruised and battered body flashed in her mind. Her stomach lurched. She stopped, leaning against a tree for support as she retched. After three minutes, she pulled away. Her hand was covered with slime and insects were crawling across her arm and leg.
She moved deeper into the forest.
She'd never seen anything as beautiful as the clear pool of water. The greenery appeared especially lush and vibrant and she took care not to slip on the boulders lining the stream bed. She washed her face, slurping at the cold water greedily. And then, she stripped, cooling her hot body in the soothing waters. All of the dirt and grime of the last few days washed away.
But not the memories; those, she would never be free of: Clay bloodied and barely able to stand without her support, the execution of the missionaries, the moment when she had been strapped to the table, of turning her head to see Harm bursting through the door...
She lost her footing then, slipping on some slime; she landed in the water with a splash. Shaken, she got out of the water and retrieved her clothing.
In the distance, she could hear the call of some exotic bird (Helmeted Woodpecker? Saffron-cowled Blackbird? She could no longer keep the details of her quick studies about Paraguay straight in her head). She glanced up at the sky. Now officially afternoon, the sun was moving from directly overhead to the west. She straightened her skirt and blouse (though, here in the jungle, in the condition they both were in, did it really matter?). Gripping the water bottle tightly, she headed back to the crash site. Back to Harm.
"I didn't think you were coming back," Harm said as she pressed the water bottle to his lips. She noticed the emotional undercurrent in his voice. He was like that, Harm was, always wanting her more when she was unable to be with him, whether it be for emotional or physical reasons (and sometimes, for both). "You were gone a long time."
"I'm sorry. It took me a while to find a clean source of water." She didn't tell him about her swim. Her clothes had dried out, wrinkling against her skin. "But you know I wouldn't leave you here."
"I know. Semper fi and all that."
"Not just that." She was tired, so tired. She thought about curling up on the ground and just closing her eyes. But Harm needed her. Hell, she needed herself.
"My leg is broken," Harm said. He sounded forlorn, almost like a little boy. Not like the stubborn, no holds barred Harm she knew. She knew he must be going crazy, not being able to help her, not being able to help himself. After all, Harm was so used to playing the hero now, wasn't he?
"Yes, I know," she said softly.
He reached out, touching the red crisscross of welts on her shins. "Damn, Mac."
"You were running a fever last night."
Without thinking, she brushed his hair off his forehead. Perspiration shined on his forehead. The wound on his forehead seemed to be healing; she wondered if he'd have a scar to show for this particular adventure. She hoped so much in the same way that she'd hoped, in the past, that she could burn herself onto him.
"It's gone now," she said. "Trust me, Harm, I can take care of us."
"I thought you said there wasn't an 'us'."
She stood up. Suddenly she felt dizzy again. "You know what I mean," she said evenly. She turned to go.
"Where are you going?"
"We need firewood."
Hunger gnawed at the pit of her stomach. She looked down. Beetles and crickets of indeterminate variety (oh why hadn't she read up on survival guides before taking off with Webb?) crawled on the ground. She dropped to her knees, groaning with the exertion the downward movement had made. She was so tired, so very tired. She looked over her shoulder.
Harm was growing weak. Harm depended on her.
Resolutely, she scooped up a handle of six-legged creatures in her hands.
"Imagine that it's a super-size burger with fries. Okay, never mind. Tofu then. Stir-fried with vegetables," she said as she served Harm on a palm frond. He grimaced at the sight of the three insects. "Come on, sailor."
"Ladies first." He grinned at her, that lopsidedly cocky grin of his. "We might be in the middle of the jungle, but you can't accuse me of forgetting my manners."
"Fine." She lifted up a cricket and bit into it. Head first. Then the rest of it.
"You jarheads have an interesting idea of gourmet cuisine," Harm said.
She swallowed hard and reached for the water bottle. "It tickles the back of my throat." She gulped down some water. "You've got to eat something, Harm."
Still, he hesitated.
"It tastes like chicken, but could use a little salt. Maybe paprika or cayenne," she said. She held one cricket between her fingers.
"Mac," he said, swatting her hand again.
"Please," she said. And she knew he understood what she didn't say (couldn't say, that is), what she was thinking. Don't die on me.
She stayed awake that night, her knees pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped around them. It was getting cold now. Yes, *now* she could believe July was the coldest month in Paraguay.
"We won't be like this forever," Harm said drowsily.
The fire crackled. Tomorrow, she would find more firewood. Perhaps venture further out into the forest. Perhaps she could find some help. Fury mixed with frustration bubbled up inside of her. Why wait for Gunny and Webb? She would rescue them.
"For once, I want to be the hero of my own life," she said softly.
"What?" Harm asked. It worried her just how listless he looked, how utterly lacking in energy.
"I don't want to sit and wait for someone to find us. I'm going to get us out of here." She got to her feet. "This is my mission and I'm damned if I'm going to sit around and wait for someone to come get us. I'm perfectly capable of rescuing us on my own."
He laughed at this comment. "You needed help before."
She glared at him. "Low blow, Harm. For your information, I was doing just fine. Both Clay and I were, before you showed up."
"If I remember correctly, you were strapped to a table and I saw cable jumpers." Harm's eyes didn't leave Mac's face. "I think I showed up just in time."
"I had a plan."
"What was that plan, Mac? Getting yourself killed? That's some plan."
She flushed. "I was trying to save Clay."
She held up a hand. "Don't." Her heart was beating unusually fast.
"You know what I think," Harm said gruffly. "He had no right to put you in that situation."
"I'm a Marine--"
"You're also a human being."
"I can take care of myself." She twisted her hands together. "Or are you just upset because I had an adventure without you?"
"If that's what you called getting yourself almost killed..."
"And when you go off on some crazy ass mission and get shot down or captured by renegade soldiers, that's okay? You can fly F-14s two thousand feet over Afghanistan and I'm not supposed to say anything but 'good luck'?" She glared at him. "Is there a double-standard here that I should be aware of? A rule book that says Harmon Rabb Junior is the one who gets to have all of the fun? The one who gets to win all of the cases? The one who can break every single rule written and walk off without a consequence? Huh? Is there something I should know about, Commander?" She was out of breath as she finished talking.
Harm stared at her. "I had no idea you felt that way."
She put her hand to her chest, feeling the pounding of her heart. "Neither did I."
They were dancing. She was wearing blue satin and diamonds. He was in dress whites -- no, a tuxedo. He wouldn't wear dress whites any more but she wasn't sure why. The Navy was a part of him as the Marines were a part of her. Still, he hadn't explained the change in attire and she hadn't asked.
They were moving across the dance floor, his arm firm against her back. She could feel the firmness of his support, the unwavering devotion. In his arms, she felt the way she had always wanted to feel. A fairy tale ending, she thought as she put her hand to hair to feel the tiara there. This is where I get what I want, where I dance into the sunset with you.
Her feet and legs both ached and she wanted desperately to remove her shoes and throw them away. But she knew more than ever, with certainty, that she never wanted to stop dancing.
She felt faint the next morning. She rolled onto her back. Harm was still sleeping. She struggled to sit up, running her fingers through her hair, combing out twigs, leaves, grass, and God knows what else. She tried to stand up, leaning against the plane wreckage for balance, but she stumbled and sank back to the ground. As she looked over at Harm, his broken leg, the healing wound on his forehead, she felt a tinge of despair.
We're going to die out here.
"What time is it?" Harm asked.
She glanced at him dully. "Twenty-two past eleven."
"We've been here two days."
"Three." But she wasn't really sure of that either. For the first time in her life, her uncanny sense of time was failing her.
"Gunny and Webb will send someone."
"I'm sure of it. Any moment now."
He looked at her. "You look like hell, Mac."
"So do you."
They stared at each other.
"We need water," she said finally. There was only a little bit left in the water bottle. She glanced in the direction of the stream. She wondered if she had the strength to make it that far – the four-hour roundtrip sounded daunting. Her head was pounding, her stomach churning; she'd never been this hungry before. She scratched at the ground, ignoring the little red ants crawling over her skin, the burning sensation they left behind. And then, she just lay still.
"Mac?" Somehow, he'd dragged himself over to her. His hand was soft on the curve of her back. He leaned down, breath warm against the back of her neck. She rolled over onto her back, looked up at him. He cupped her face with his hands. "I'll get the water."
"Don't be an idiot."
And then, she cried.
"Do you think about Brumby at all?" Harm asked.
Night was creeping in slowly. Shadows grew long and the music of the night, the symphony of the jungle, grew louder. She threw twigs into the fire, watching the sparks flare up.
"Only that I didn't love enough for him to stay." She lifted her chin to look at him defiantly. "And sometimes I wonder if it was my last big chance at doing something that mattered."
"Perhaps, but not as much as it once did."
"JAG is still important to me."
"You've always had a problem separating the personal from the professional. Renee was a prime example of that." The words were getting harder to form; the syllables were getting stuck in her throat "I felt sorry for her. She really loved you, Harm."
"I know." He looked down at his hands. "But she's happy now." He glanced at Mac sideways. "She's pregnant, due in November."
"Is that why you remembered the baby deal? Because of Renee?"
"I never forgot it."
Harm was drifting from her. This she was painfully aware of as she tipped the water bottle against his parched lips. The temperature continued to drop, every hour colder than the one previous. She had scavenged for food again, this time finding bark and leaves, but Harm had turned away from her offerings. She sank to her knees next to him, holding his face in her hands.
"Stay," she whispered. "Damn you." She could taste the salt on her lips. She leaned against him, slowly at first, and then his arms snaked around her. "This isn't a good-bye you get to make."
He mumbled something.
But his eyes closed.
"Harm," she whispered, "I've got so much to tell you."
The sounds of the jungle were louder than ever.
She laid her head against his chest.
She didn't even care when it started to rain.
"Lieutenant Colonel Sarah MacKenzie?"
She tipped her head to the side. The air was crisp, sterile. She was warm too, covered with white. "Yes?"
"I'm Doctor Milagros Ybarra. You are at Our Lady of Peace Hospital here in Apya." The woman's gentle and lilting voice, tinged with a Spanish accent, was warm and soothing. "How are you feeling?"
She blinked; the room came into focus. The picture window to her right revealing a brilliant blue sky, the small television mounted in a corner, and a door directly in front of her, as well as another to the left. White spots, where the paint had chipped away, dotted the beige walls.
"I'm okay," Mac said. She pressed her hand to her forehead; when would the pounding cease? "Harm? Is he here?"
"The gentleman who was with you?"
"You refer to your husband? I believe he will make a full recovery from his injuries." The doctor pressed a warm and comforting hand to Mac's forehead.
"No, he's not my husband," Mac said softly. "When can I see him?"
"Soon." The doctor was checking a chart now. "But first, you must rest. You have had four days in the Paraguayan rain forests. It is, under the best of circumstances, a difficult experience. Your survival is nothing short of miraculous. You were both unconscious and you were running a high fever when you were found by local farmers. You would not have made it through another night."
"We were found by local farmers? Not a Mr. Webb? Or a Gunnery Sergeant Galindez?"
Ybarra shook her head. "I know not of those names, Colonel." She smiled. "Now, you must rest."
When she opened her eyes, she wasn't alone. Harm was sitting by her bed.
"Hey," he said softly.
"Hey yourself," she said.
He reached out, caressed her hand in his. "I know this isn't a good time, but--"
"You're right," she said firmly. "How is the leg?"
He pointed to the cast. "Mending. How are you?"
"Tired. Exhausted. It's hard work taking care of you." She tried to smile, but the cracked skin on her lips made it difficult.
"Could say the same about you." But his voice was gentle, almost pensive.
"Do you know about Gunny or Webb?"
"No word. The Admiral hasn't heard anything either."
"We can't leave until we find them," she said determinedly.
"I need to make sure they are okay, that they survived," she went on doggedly. "You don't have to stay, Harm. I know the Admiral would want you back in Washington –"
"He's not expecting me anytime soon," Harm said. "I'll stay with you."
"That's a promise?" For a moment, she dared put more hope into his words than reality would conceivably offer.
"I told you before, have I ever broken a promise I made?"
"You didn't seem to think too kindly of Webb before."
"He put you in danger, Mac." There was a quiet intensity to Harm's tone of voice. "So yes, I do feel some animosity towards him. He had no right to do that to you. At the same time though, he has come through for us in the past and I have no intention of leaving him out here."
"We went through a lot together. I think -–" she paused, swallowing hard "—- he may have been willing to die for me."
"A lot of men would, Mac."
She jumped at the opening he gave her. "You never told me how you came to be in Paraguay."
"As you said before, can't let you have all of the fun. And maybe you're right. Maybe I was jealous that you went on an adventure without me."
"Is that all?"
He shrugged. "That's all."
Her eyes suddenly felt very heavy.
"We'll look for Gunny and Webb in the morning," he said. He leaned over the bed, brushing his lips lightly against her forehead. "Get some rest, Mac."
"Come fly with me," he said. She laughed.
"Not with you, Commander," she said. "Flying with you invariably lands me in hot water."
"Not this time," he said earnestly. "Trust me. This one time."
"How high are we going to go?" she asked.
"The sky's the limit."
"Oooh, I like the sound of that."
"You know how it is, Sarah MacKenzie. You say jump and I say how high?" He was grinning, that crooked lopsided grin of his, the one she found adorable and damn it if he didn't know it.
"In my dreams, Harm," she said, still laughing. But she took his hand and let him her help into the plane. "Let's go flying."
~ the end
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