Kate shivers in the air conditioning that blasts through the bus, tries not to lose her balance as she heads for the back. Castle is behind her, chatting warmly with the driver even as the man peels out of the airport parking lot and sends everyone swaying.
The yellow school bus smells like humidity and dirt, body odor and damp cotton, but Kate pauses and glances over her shoulder at her husband, watches the crooked grin on his face and the animated way he talks.
Indonesia is warm this time of year and the sun filters sharply through the bus's open windows. Kate gives up trying to find a spot and instead stands where she is, an arm up and a hand gripping the overhead luggage rack, the wind whipping loose strands of her hair in her face. She spits one out and it comes flying back, wet now and tasting of salt, and Kate scrapes her cheek against her raised arm, her other hand gripping her bag at her side. Castle laughs loudly and comes back to her in the middle of the aisle, steady on his feet even as the bus lumbers around a curve in the dirt road. His fingers touch her side and slide down to her hip, that smile still on his face.
"Cool, huh?" he grins.
"Hot, actually," she smirks back. "But yeah. Pretty cool."
"You ever been in this area of the world before?"
"Nope," she shakes her head, her eyes transfixed on the riot of jungle and urban landscape outside the bus. They pass thatched huts and soaring palms, four-story adobe buildings and chrome offices. Black macadam parking lots, dirt and gravel paths, telephone poles interspersed with the sacred albino cow.
Yeah. That's right. A herd of albino cows. Kate spots a calf with its pink nose, pink-rimmed eyes and snow white hide as it ducks behind its mother and disappears.
As they head towards Taro in Bali, the urban details fall away and it's just the crowd of jungle and sudden strange rock sculptures that palace the countryside. She relaxes a little more, easing into the sway of the bus over pitted dirt roads.
"How's your friend?" Kate smiles.
Castle's breath washes warmly over her cheek in a laugh. "The driver?"
"Uh-hm," she murmurs, can't take her eyes off the landscape, the sneak of sky through the thick fingers of trees.
"He works at the place we're going. I asked his name. He told me a story."
"Of course he did," she smiles, gives Castle a quick glance of her eyes. He's watching her, not the view, or maybe she is the view. "Did you actually get his name?"
"I Ketut Banni, but he goes by Banni. Apparently, the Balinese only have four names."
"We only have three-" she starts but he's already shaking his head.
"No, I mean. There are only four available names - and they indicate birth order. Wayan would be first born, Made is second, and so on. Ketut means he's fourth in his family, and the 'I' in front of his name indicates that he's male. 'Ni' is female."
"Wow," she frowns, trying to thread the pieces of that cultural condition together. "Okay. So Basically it's like naming your kids One, Two, Three, and Four?"
"And also which caste. I'm a brahmana."
"You're a what?" she says, feels the smile slip across her face again. Her hair is getting in his mouth now, she sees, and she tries to corral it, scraping her fingers through the tangled locks and tucking it back behind her sunglasses.
"Priest caste - includes writers."
"Of course you are," she scoffs, shaking her head. "Priest."
"We swapped stories. He told me the history of the village, its 'moral ecological history', he said."
"Moral ecological history?" She still has no idea what Castle has planned for them in Taro; he only told her Bali, Detective, and then she followed him out here onto a yellow school bus with a group of surprisingly ethnically diverse people - an Australian couple, a group of German men who keep trying to pull out cigarettes, a huge family from Nigeria, a handful of Balinese who seem to be going in to work. She's still clueless why Taro, why Bali, why Castle has that sly, pleased smile on his face.
She's pried one or two things from him, slowly and with great seduction - and relish - but he's kept his mouth closed about why.
"Banni told me: Long ago the Javanese holy man, Rsi Markandya, was told by the gods to go to a certain forest and establish a village there. He set out with eight hundred followers to work and clear the land, to build a temple, and to create a sanctuary."
"A sanctuary?" she questions, noting the use of both words, temple and sanctuary, and wondering why such pointed diction. It always means something with Castle.
"For the sacred albino cow."
She breaks with a little laugh, but she's already seen them, and she lifts an eyebrow to him in invitation, wanting the rest of the story.
"Well, the first attempt to build the village was met with tragedy. Illness claimed half, and the rest were dragged out into the forest by wild animals. So much blood and death that the Javanese holy man went back to his temple gods and prostrated himself, filled with remorse."
"Huh, are there jaguars in Bali?"
"No? No, I think the Bali tiger, the leopard, deer, wild boar, and oh, wild cattle."
"Bali tiger?" she asks with a stirring of interest, her fingers uncurling from her bag.
"It's extinct now. But back then, I bet it ate a lot of those villagers."
She laughs a little and shakes her head at him. "So what did the Javanese holy man do? Because obviously Taro is here."
"He was so filled with guilt and regret, so humbled by his failure, that the gods granted him four hundred more followers and told him to try again."
"And he did?"
"He did. Good things come to those who wait," he rumbles, the sound of his voice reverberating in the air between them. Telling her something.
"I doubt that's a Balinese proverb."
"Who knows?" he says, giving away nothing. But he reaches to her wrist and circles her hand, releases her fingers from her bag into his own grip. She flexes and fists her hand to restore circulation, leaning in to softly kiss his jaw in thanks.
"Well, you've waited plenty," she murmurs at his skin. "So keep your secrets. Now it's my turn to wait."
Castle takes her bag and leads the way off the bus, stopping to give Banni a pat on the shoulder and a thank you, a tip slipped into his shirt pocket when he's busy smiling back and shaking hands good-bye. He might not find it until he gets home, but Castle thinks anyone who manages that last bridge with it's wooden runners and long fall to a concrete basin and jagged rocks - and doesn't kill the whole busload of people doing it - deserves a hefty reward.
Kate's got her fingers fisted in the back of his shirt, turning around to look for their luggage or maybe trying to avoid getting stepped on by the eager group wanting to finally get off, and so Castle can feel the moment she gets her first view of the resort where they're staying.
"No," she gasps.
He feels the grin stretch so wide across his face he can barely contain it. She's wearing a long wrap skirt that reveals the svelte line of her legs, a white t-shirt with her sunglasses pushed back on her head, hair in a messy pony tail from the wind, and her lips a pale, beautiful pink as she stares.
"No, no. It can't be. No way. Castle," she cries out, but she pushes right past him and stops, open-mouthed, at the archway framing the verdant expanse of grass and palm tree and forest beyond, and right there, lined up as if to greet them, are the sanctuary's twenty inhabitants of Elephant Safari Park and Lodge.
Kate, gorgeous and stunned, reaches out a hand to the nearest elephant's narrow head, her fingers barely touching the mottled brown skin. The elephant stands silent, quiet, shifts on its feet and Kate startles, drawing her hand away and turning back to look at him over her shoulder.
"Rick," she breathes out.
He keeps quiet, watches the waving brown trunk lift and tap her on the shoulder, and she yelps and turns back around with a gasp, both hands on the railing that divides the guest walkway from the elephants' enclosure. Castle comes up to her then, his hands sliding to her hips and his mouth at her ear.
"This is why I wanted you in Bali."
"Oh my God," she cries out and when she turns her cheek into his, he feels her tears wet at his skin. "Oh God, I love you."
He cups the back of her neck, fingers digging through the knot of her hair, and he kisses her softly.
The elephant nudges nosily between them.
She stands on the balcony off their suite and watches the elephants' elaborate dance.
Castle is sitting down in one of the wide chaise lounges just behind her, but she can't sit. She can't do anything other than lean against the railing and feel the sun-warmed wood under her palms as she stares across the parkland to the intricate movements of the rescued elephants.
Two have sat down on massive stone benches, forelegs raised to paw the air, trunks lifting and weaving. A few others sidestep in procession around the edge of the circle they've made, dance closer only to curl a trunk around a tail and move away again, all in those precise, adorable lines.
Like children holding hands.
But these children are huge elephants. And she touched one. She held out her hand and stroked the tough skin, the wrinkles and ripples between its eyes and down its strong, tensile trunk.
It's only four o'clock in the afternoon and she's felt like the last few days of travel have been mind-numbingly exhausting, but suddenly she's a live wire. She's trembling with it.
"Castle," she calls out, extending her hand behind her and gesturing for him. She can't bear to take her eyes off the elephants. "Castle, look."
He comes to her side, his hand wrapping around hers, and he brings her fingers to his lips in a formal kiss. "I'm glad you like it."
"Oh." Because that's not even close, not even...
"They're pretty amazing," he sighs out.
"Tell me," she says, her voice rasping with an emotion she can't clear. "Tell me the story."
"They're rescued Sumatran elephants - thirty in total - who live side by side with the resort owners, employees, and... us."
"They're an endangered species," she says softly. They look so old, so very old and so knowing, each movement deliberate and calculated, the lumber of the herd in single file towards a broad lake. Slowly, the elephants ease down into the water, trunks spraying water or patting down the hide of the beast next to them, shifting to go deeper or tossing their heads, ears moving in elaborate patterns.
"They have the freedom of eight acres, and the bull elephants act as - well, transport. You get up in the morning and your taxi is waiting right outside the door. That wide ledge? The rail slides to one side and you step onto the wooden brace and sit-"
He chuckles in her ear and she closes her eyes for an instant.
"Yes, Kate. You ride an elephant. To the pool, to the spa, to breakfast."
"Oh my God."
His arm slides around her waist and her heart is thundering so hard that she's shaking against him.
"There's a safari - which is really just an elephant ride through the bordering rain forest. A guide sits on the elephant's shoulders and then we sit on this wooden bench across the elephant's back. It's-"
She turns and presses her face into his neck, squeezing her eyes shut, and she'd be mortified by how much this has wrecked her, but she's too overwhelmed to care.
He's given her elephants for their honeymoon. Elephants she can reach out and touch.