They walked for what seemed like hours. Red was drenched in sweat and exhausted as he stumbled over yet another hidden root in the thick foliage. He was at his wits end. Liz had remained strong for a long while, but she was no longer able to hold in her cries of pain. It wrenched his heart every damn time. He began losing the battle with his own mind as he found that he couldn't stop thinking about how he was going to lose yet another person that he loved. It was unbearable.
Dembe repeatedly offered to take Liz from him, but he always refused; he needed her in his arms.
Liz's head flopped against his shoulder and he looked down to see her looking at him with tear filled eyes. He tried to school his expression so she wouldn't be able to tell that his thoughts were in a dark place, but he could tell that she saw right through him as she reached a hand up weakly and caressed his stubbly jaw. "Red," she choked out, then coughed violently.
His mouth twitched upward at the corner as he shushed her. "Lizzie, you need to save your strength."
She closed her eyes momentarily, then opened them and looked at him intently. Even though she didn't say anything, he could see her meaning clearly. She hadn't lost hope. That helped more than anything she could have said.
He bit the inside of his cheek and nodded resolutely. She wasn't gone yet.
Seemingly satisfied with his response, she closed her eyes again and moved her hand from his cheek to his chest and slipped two fingers through the buttons of his dress shirt to rest on his bare skin.
He took a deep breath and trudged onward behind Dembe and the two boys. All he would allow himself to think was just to put one foot in front of the other. It helped.
Twenty minutes later, he saw the boys break through a clearing ahead of him. He breathed a sigh of relief and walked under a branch that Dembe held up for him. As soon as he walked into the clearing, they were instantly surrounded by fifteen to twenty men holding spears. Dembe quickly approached from behind with his hands up in the air and looked to the boys to explain to the tribesmen why they had led outsiders here.
The boys began talking quickly with waving hands. They pointed at Red and Liz many times, and after what seemed like a lifetime, an old man dressed like the boys but with many necklaces around his neck stepped forward and gestured with his hand for Red, Dembe and Kevin to follow.
Red adjusted Liz in his arms and quickly followed after the ancient man; he didn't check to see if the others were following. They weren't his priority.
The old man led them towards a series of huts and lean-to's and stopped in front of a particularly large hut made of clay with a leafy roof and gestured for them to go inside. They stepped through the doorway into a dark, musty smelling room. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust, and when they did, he saw an old, wrinkly, nearly nude woman sitting in front of a loom weaving something that he couldn't identify.
The old man stepped past him and started to speak to the woman in a low voice. He wished more than anything that he could understand what was being said. Dembe stepped up beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Raymond, I'm going to go try to learn some of the language while they help Liz. Doctor Holt is going to stay with you and help."
Red nodded and watched as Dembe stepped through the doorway and back into the sunlight. He turned back to see the old woman staring at Liz with raised eyebrows. He took a small step forward, but the old man held up his hand and shook his head. Red sighed, but didn't try to move forward as the woman continued to study Liz from five or six feet away.
After a few minutes of silence the woman stood up slowly, her knees cracking in the silent hut, and slowly approached Red. She stopped in front of him, then reached out and put her hands over Liz's face and closed her eyes. But just as soon as she closed them, they opened again and her expression was filled with distress. She stepped back and gestured for him to lay her on the blanket that was spread out over the floor by a cold firepit in the middle of the room. He quickly stepped forward and laid her down gently. Liz didn't open her eyes or make a sound. He knelt next to her and lifted her hand to show the woman the rashes on her fingers. The woman bent down slowly and took Liz's hand, then studied the rashes intently. She suddenly turned and barked out instructions to the man behind her. The old man almost ran out of the hut, despite his advanced years.
"Can you help her?" Red looked at her with pleading eyes, his face open and earnest.
The woman's eyebrows narrowed in confusion. She didn't understand. He had never felt so helpless in his life.
He sighed and sat back on his haunches and waited for whatever was to happen next. He was slowly being driven crazy. He heard someone step through the doorway and turned to see Kevin standing there looking a little scared.
He swallowed nervously and approached them, then glanced at the old woman and gasped audibly. "Adzo?"
The woman's head shot up in surprise as she tried to place who the Doctor was. A flash of recognition passed over her face after a moment. "Kev-in," she said in a heavily accented voice and smiled.
Kevin smiled widely and turned to Red. "I worked with Adzo when I was here. She's the best they have in the medicine field."
Red nodded and sighed. All he wanted to know was if Liz was going to be ok. "Can you ask her what's happening?"
Kevin winced. "I can't speak the language. I had a translator when I was here."
Red ran a tired hand over his face and opened his mouth to say something when the old man came back in carrying something in a wooden, hand-made bowl.
He handed it to the woman, then bowed his head and walked back out. Red peered at the liquid in the bowl and winced. It looked disgusting.
Adzo gestured for him to move Liz's head up so she could swallow. He scooted behind her and lifted her upper body so that her head and shoulders were lying on his thighs. Adzo nodded and pulled Liz's mouth open then poured a little liquid in an massaged her throat to help her swallow. They did that for the entire contents of the bowl, and Liz didn't wake up once.
Adzo set the bowl to the side, then pulled a blanket down from a table and spread it over the still shivering Liz. She stood up and patted the top of Red's head, then walked out of the room without a word or gesture. He guessed that it meant they had to wait and see. He hated waiting.
Kevin cleared his throat. "I'm going to go find something to drink. Do you need anything?"
Red shook his head. "I'm fine," he said shortly. All he wanted to see was Liz's clear, blue eyes. He wanted that more than anything.
Kevin nodded, then turned and left; leaving Red and Liz alone.
He laid down next to her on the hard ground and turned on his side so he could look at her without touching her. She was so beautiful, even on her death-bed.
He reached out and carefully pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, then laid down on his arm and closed his eyes. He needed to rest. It had been at least two days since he last slept.
He let out a long, slow breath and tried to think about anything other than his dying fiancé.
Red woke with a start when he heard a soft moan in front of him. He tried to push up on his elbow, but he couldn't feel his arm, so he leaned closer and looked at her, cursing the terrible lighting in the dark, dank hut.
"Sweetheart?" He said quietly, not actually expecting her to respond.
She turned her head towards him and tried to open her eyes. "Red, where-"
He placed a finger over her lips softly. "Shh, shh, shh, you're in Africa. You were poisoned and we brought you here to find the antidote. Do you remember any of that?"
She gave up trying to open her eyes and moaned quietly. "The last thing I remember is sitting in the Doctor's office."
He nodded and put his hand on her forehead. She was significantly cooler to the touch; that gave him hope.
"How are you feeling?"
She winced and lifted her hand for him to take. "Like I was run over by a steamroller, repeatedly."
He smiled a little and threaded his fingers through hers, then leaned down and whispered in her ear, "That's a hell of a lot better than dead."
She moved her face towards him and finally managed to open her eyes. "That bad, huh?"
He nodded but didn't say anything else as she began to drift back to sleep. She needed to sleep as much as possible.
He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand as he listened to her slow, steady breathing. It sounded tremendously better than it had three hours ago.
Something other than despair flared in his chest. It felt a lot like hope.
Red stood watch over her for the next two days; only leaving her side to use the bathroom and to stretch his legs. She steadily improved as the old woman continued to treat her with the horrid looking liquid. As Liz became stronger, she got to where she dreaded the treatments, but she never complained out loud once. He knew she was grateful to be alive.
Dembe and Kevin had checked in periodically, but mostly stayed away and interacted with the tribe; Dembe had even learned to have short conversations with the people, which made asking for certain things a lot easier.
On the morning of the third day, Liz felt almost normal. She was back to eating solid food and seemed to be in good spirits; but she was ready to leave the hut and walk around for a few minutes.
Red helped her stand up, then wrapped his arm around her waist and walked with her around the small village. The children tended to stay away from them, but many adults smiled at them as they walked by.
He knew they must look pretty frightening, with her hair in a tangled mess, and his clothes dirty and wrinkled. She began to tire shortly after they began, and he helped her sit down under a tree so she could rest.
"Are you ok, sweetheart?" He put his hand on her thigh and squeezed it to get her attention.
She looked at him with tired eyes. "I hate feeling like an invalid."
"Lizzie, you almost died. I say you're doing remarkably well for someone who was on their death-bed three days ago."
She sighed. "I know, I know."
He didn't know what else to say, so he sat silently next to her and massaged her shoulders and back carefully.
She rolled her neck and looked at him. "Thank you."
He smiled and squeezed her shoulder, then resumed rubbing her back. They looked up when they heard someone approaching. It was one of the tribesmen. He looked to be around Liz's age, and was tall and skinny. His loin cloth hardly covered anything.
As he walked past, he leered at Liz and openly stared at her breasts. Liz crossed her arms over her chest uncomfortably and avoided looking at him.
Red glared at him, but he didn't even look Red's way. It infuriated him, but he kept his mouth shut so he wouldn't cause a scene.
The rest of the day passed without incident, but Red couldn't seem to get rid of the bad feeling he had. Something was off, he just wasn't sure what.
That night they were moved to their own hut. It smelled like rotting meat, but at least they didn't have to deal with the ornery, old woman who pinched his arm every time she needed him to do something. He was grateful for her help, but that didn't mean he had to like her.
As he and Liz laid next to each other on the hard earth underneath a thin blanket, she turned to him and laid her head on his shoulder. He put his arm around her and ran his fingers up and down her back softly.
"Red?" She whispered against his hand-made woven shirt. After a few days, Adzo had handed him the shirt and wrinkled her nose to let him know that he smelled. He had smiled and took it, then they had taken his clothes and washed them for him. Now he wore the shirt and his boxer briefs to bed and his other clothes during the day. He couldn't imagine them being there for much longer, so he wasn't too worried about finding other clothing.
He hummed in response and kissed the top of her head. He was comfortable and sleepy; and he finally felt like things were going to work out for the best. Liz was alive, that's what mattered the most.
She wrapped her arm around his abdomen and slipped her hand under his shirt to find bare skin, then she threw her leg over his thigh and said, "Does something feel off to you?"
He pulled her a little closer and buried his nose in her hair. At least he wasn't the only one thinking that. He nodded. "Yes. Ever since that tribesman walked past us earlier today. I thought I was imagining it." He sighed "I think we should leave tomorrow. You didn't have to drink any of that liquid today, so they must think you're healed."
She nodded against his shoulder and tightened her hold on him. "I agree. I don't want to stay around long enough to find out what's actually "off".
"We'll leave first thing in the morning," he said quietly as he reached down and pulled her face up so he could press his lips to hers.
She sighed happily into his mouth as she kissed him back, and smiled softly after he pulled away. "Night, honey," she whispered.
He laughed quietly. "Honey? That's new."
He felt her shrug. "It just seems weird calling you Ray or Raymond, so I thought I would try out some pet names.
He made himself comfortable and took a deep breath. "You can call me anything you like, sweetheart."
She didn't respond as they both drifted off to sleep listening to the sounds of the wild animals surrounding them, and the soft patter of rain hitting their roof.
"Raymond, Liz, you must wake up!"
Red opened his eyes blearily and could barely make out Dembe's silhouette in the doorway.
Liz didn't stir as Red lifted his head. "What's going on?"
Dembe approached the sleeping couple with a distressed look on his face. "I've been told that a tribesman has claimed Liz as his wife."
That got his attention. He carefully extracted himself from Liz and stood up the face his bodyguard with narrowed eyes. "What do you mean by "claimed"? He said in a deadly voice.
Dembe's frown deepened. "Kevin told us when we first arrived that this tribe does not allow women to go unattached. They must be married after a certain age."
Red shook his head, confused. "How do they know we're not married? I've done everything a husband would do."
Dembe sighed and ran a hand over his smooth head. "I think Kevin may have let it slip that you weren't actually married."
Red felt like throwing something; or punching Kevin's head off. Either sounded like a good idea at the moment. "Son of a bitch," he spat out quietly. "What can we do to show them that Lizzie isn't available?"
Dembe shifted uncomfortably. "You will have to fight for the right to marry her, then once you win, go through with their marriage ceremony."
That didn't sound too bad. They were planning on marrying eventually anyway. Dembe didn't look pleased though, and that didn't bode well for him.
"What exactly will I have to do to "win" her?" Red glanced back to see that Liz hadn't moved.
Dembe shook his head. "I don't know. I couldn't understand what they were saying. They were using words I haven't learned."
Red bit the inside of his cheek as he contemplated his options. "Do you still have your gun?"
Dembe quickly pulled out a handgun from the waistband of his pants and handed it to Red. "What are you going to do?"
Red set the gun down and pulled his pants on. "Stay with Lizzie, I'll be back soon."
"Raymond," Dembe said warningly.
Red chuckled humorlessly. "I'm not going to kill him, just...help him change his mind."
Dembe nodded reluctantly and sat down on the floor by Liz's head. "Be careful."
Red rolled his eyes and stepped out into the early morning sunlight. All the single men stayed in a certain part of the village, so that's where Red headed.
As he came upon the cluster of huts, he saw that all the men were outside sitting around a fire. They were talking loudly and passing around what looked like a homemade bong.
Red immediately spotted the bastard who had "claimed" Liz and walked over to him, then wrapped his arms around his neck and dragged him away from the group. The man protested, but none of his friends moved to help as he pulled him into an empty hut. As soon as they were inside, Red threw him to the ground and pointed his gun at his head. The man looked terrified as he put his hands up and began pleading with Red, who didn't understand a word he was saying.
Red pulled the hammer on the gun back and yelled for him to shut up. The man shut up immediately and cowered in the corner while watching Red warily.
Red tilted his head and began speaking. "I want you to know one thing. My companion is "claimed" by me. If I hear that you're still "claiming" her later today, I'll kill you and burn your body." He made a cutting motion with his finger across his throat.
The man looked around wildly for a second, then swallowed noisily and nodded. He probably didn't understand what Red was saying about Liz, but he definitely understood the death threat.
Red pushed the hammer back in place and put the gun back in his waistband, then he pointed out the doorway for the man to leave. The African man quickly ran out the door with his arms over his head, looking back periodically to make sure Red didn't follow..
Red couldn't help but laugh at the man as he walked out and away from the group of now silent men.
He walked back in their hut to find Liz sitting up with a steaming cup in her hand and Dembe leaning against the wall with a smile on his face. Red walked over to her and sat next to her with a groan, then leaned over and kissed her, tasting the tribe's version of coffee on her lips.
He took the cup from her and took a small sip, then almost gagged at the bitter taste. "How can you drink this sludge?"
She laughed and patted his thigh. "It's definitely an acquired taste."
He nodded with a disgusted look on his face then looked at Dembe. "I think we should leave within the next hour or two."
He stood up. "I will make the necessary preparations."
Red nodded his thanks and watched as his friend disappeared from the doorway.
He turned to her and smiled. "How are you feeling?"
She took another sip of her drink. "Much better. I hardly remember even feeling sick."
He smiled and reached over to squeeze her bare foot. "Wonderful."
They sat in companionable silence until Dembe walked back through the doorway looking angry.
"The chief will not let us leave until you two participate in the marriage ceremony."
Liz choked on her drink and began to cough. Red reached over and patted her back until she stopped a few seconds later. "Marriage ceremony?" Liz rasped out.
Dembe nodded. "They are threatening to kill Kevin if you do not comply."
Red looked at Liz and shrugged. "We plan on marrying eventually." He reached over and toyed with the ring on her left hand. "And it's not like it will be recognized by any modern society."
She sighed and looked at Dembe. "Tell them we'll do it, but we're leaving immediately after it's finished."
Dembe nodded and disappeared once again. Liz was lost in her own thoughts, so Red took her drink from her hands and set it down next to him, then wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. "Are you sure you're ok with this, Lizzie?"
She nodded and pressed closer to him. "I don't see that we have much choice, but even so, I already wanted to marry you."
He smiled and wrapped his other arm around her as they waited for Dembe to return.
Three hours later found them facing the chief who was reciting the tribe's traditional marriage vows. The men had forced Red dress like them, so all he wore was a loin cloth and a necklace. They had also insisted that he bathe and shave. Soon after they painted his body with their warrior paint; the entire thing had been uncomfortable to say the least, but Red had allowed them to do whatever as long as he didn't have to be completely naked; but he did feel funny with his ass out for everyone to see.
As soon as Liz saw him, she had put her hands over her mouth to stifle her laughter. He'd just sighed and took in her own appearance. Much to his disappointment, she wasn't nude, and was in fact covered from head to toe in what looked like a hand-woven potato sack so all he could see was her eyes.
The chief had called them forward, and now here they were, going on twenty minutes of chants and vows that neither of them understood. For all they knew, they were marrying a monkey.
The chief finally looked at him and asked him a question. He had no idea what was said, but he nodded like he understood. The old man looked satisfied and asked Liz the same question. She nodded resolutely, then the chief was handed a wool ribbon by a covered woman. He took her left hand and his right and began to wrap the ribbon around both of them so that their hands were bound together. The symbolism was actually quite beautiful.
Soon after, the chief addressed everyone loudly with his arms outstretched. He smiled widely and said something else, then the entire tribe cheered and threw wildflowers up in the air. He looked over to see Liz smiling at him with tears in her eyes. He leaned down, pulled her face cover down slightly, and kissed her softly, then pulled back and smiled at her. "I love you, sweetheart."
She reached up with her free hand and wiped her eyes. "I love you too, Raymond."
He huffed a laugh. "Now it's Raymond, huh?"
She shrugged. "Well it seemed kind of important to call you by your given name since we're married and all," she said sarcastically.
He swallowed back the emotion closing up his throat and wrapped her in a one-armed hug.
They were interrupted by Dembe clapping him on the shoulder. "Congratulations, brother."
Red nodded his thanks, then the tribe began forming a line to congratulate them one by one.
An hour later, the festivities began to die down as people returned to their huts for their daily chores. Kevin approached them with a smile. "I'm happy for you guys. When they threatened to kill me, I wasn't sure I would be here to see it."
Liz stepped forward and pulled him into an awkward hug. The doctor patted her on the back uncomfortably as Liz spoke. "I just wanted to thank you for everything you've done for me. I wouldn't be here if not for you."
"You're welcome, Liz. I'm just happy that the tribe was still here."
Liz stepped back and blinked back her tears. "Me too," she whispered.
"I spoke with the chief, and he informed me that it's now ok for us to leave," Dembe said as he took a step back.
Red nodded. "Good. I don't think I can go another day without running water. We'll be back." He turned and pulled Liz after him towards their hut to gather their few belongings.
On their way they passed by the man who had tried to claim Liz. As soon as he saw Red, he cowered against a hut and closed his eyes tightly.
Red just smiled and shook his head, then quickened his pace so Liz wouldn't ask why the man had reacted like that.
They reached their tiny hut for the last time and walked in together. As soon as they were inside, Liz wrapped her free hand around his neck and pulled him down to kiss her.
Her mouth was insistent and hot on his as she moved her hand from his neck down to squeeze his bare ass. "Mmm," she mumbled. "I'm liking this piece of cloth." She began to move her hand around his thigh and stopped at the edge of the cloth. "Makes for easy access," she said as she moved her fingers under the cloth.
As her fingers teased over his inner thigh, Dembe walked in the room. "Are you ready to go?"
Luckily Red's back was to the door so he couldn't see what was going on. Red sighed quietly and pulled Liz's lower body flush with his so she could feel how much he wanted her. She hooked her chin over his shoulder and smiled at Dembe. "Yes, let's get out of here."
Dembe nodded. "Kevin and I will be waiting by the entrance." Liz smiled and watched him walk away, then she turned her face into Red's neck and placed open mouthed kisses against his flushed skin.
"Lizzie," Red groaned as her fingers began wandering again.
She smiled against his skin and pulled back. "Come on, let's go. The sooner we're home, the sooner we can consummate our marriage," she said teasingly.
They unwrapped the ribbon holding their hands together, then dressed into their clothes and left the hut minutes later.
As they walked through the village one last time, Adzo stopped them and pulled Liz into a hug. Liz hugged her back tightly and pushed back the tears that threatened once again. This woman was the reason she was here, she wished there was another way to thank her.
Almost as soon as the hug started, it ended as the woman pulled back and walked away without a backward glance.
Red slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close as they walked the rest of the way to meet Dembe and Kevin.
Two hours later they were in Red's jet flying over the Atlantic Ocean. She felt like she was sitting in the lap of luxury after living like a tribal person for the last few days; she would never take technology for granted again.
She sat next to Red, as Dembe and Kevin sat together a few rows back watching "The Three Stooges".
She smiled as she listened to their laughter; they had really bonded during the last few days.
Red pulled her from her thoughts by taking her hand and squeezing lightly. She looked at him and sighed. "I need to call Ressler."
He nodded and picked up the satellite phone next to him and handed it to her.
She let go of his hand reluctantly and dialed Ressler's cell. He picked up on the third ring."
"Hey, Ress," she said cheerfully.
"Liz! It's good to hear your voice."
She smiled. "It's good to be able to speak."
She could clearly hear his sigh of relief. "Where are you guys?"
Liz shrugged even though he couldn't see it. "Somewhere over the Atlantic heading home. How's the case going with The Mailman?"
"He's dead. He made a mistake and killed himself with his own toxins. Serves him right."
Liz laughed quietly and leaned her head on Red's shoulder. "Great news. At least no one else is going to be hurt. Was anyone else infected by the letter I touched?"
"No. It was still there when we checked your office. Seems the secretary forgot to file your paperwork. A mistake that saved a lot of lives."
"Good, great news. Anything else I should know?" She reached over and threaded her fingers through Red's. She was glad that she could do that freely now.
"No, that's it. I'll let Cooper know what's going on...And Liz? I'm really glad you're ok."
She smiled. "Me too, Don. Me too. Talk to you soon." She hung up the phone and threw it on the seat next to her, then moved closer to Red. It seemed like she couldn't stop touching him, and she didn't want to either.
He kissed her head. "Everything ok?"
She nodded. "The Mailman is dead. Seems he wasn't as smart as he thought."
He huffed a laughed. "That seems to be the running theme with criminals these days."
They were silent for a few moments until Liz ran her free hand across his upper thigh and ghosted it over his groin. "Lizzie, we have an audience."
She smiled and continued to tease him until she felt him respond. "They aren't paying any attention, and they have headphones on. Ever wanted to be part of the Mile High Club?" Before he could respond, she stood up then pulled him up and tugged him along after her.
As they consummated their "marriage" in the large airplane bathroom, she couldn't help but worry what was to come for them in the future. They would still have to keep their relationship a secret, but it was worth it to her. He meant more to her than she ever thought possible, and she knew he felt the same.
And it caused her to smile against his bare shoulder as she thought about how their relationship had begun; by asking him to pretend to be her fiancé.
They had come a long way since then, and she couldn't wait to see what happened in the future.
AN: *cue Looney Tunes theme* Tha-th-th-that's all folks. I've had so much fun writing this fic. Thank you all so much for your support the last five months. It means everything to me. You guys truly are the absolute best. Thanks for reading! I would love to hear what you think. :)