~~~ Part Eight: Sisyphus ~~~

(AN: About the part title: Sisyphus is a character form Homer's The Odyssey, condemned to repeat the same labour, day after day, for eternity. The title will make sense at the end of the chapter.)

SAME DAY,
2202 ZULU
JAG HEADQUARTERS
FALLS CHURCH, VIRGINIA

 

Mac picked up the last file on her desk and began reading. She was getting a new partner in the morning, a woman, Navy Lieutenant Commander Juanita Ramirez. Being chief of staff had its advantages: she had access to the new staff's service record, so she knew what to expect. She didn't need any more surprises in her life.

She'd spent the last month in a daze, working long hours, training hard in the gym, sleeping less even than usual. Nothing worked. Nothing could fill the void Harm's abrupt disappearance had created.

Bud and Harriet had tried to include her, had invited her numerous times for dinner, for weekend activities with her godson, but nothing made her smile. Nothing could take away the pain, and she hated it. She hated the fact that he had so much power to hurt her. But deep down, she still blamed herself. Rationally, she knew he was as much at fault as she was. If he'd taken but a minute to ask her about Webb, she would have said it meant nothing. Or would she?

She had still been smarting about the secrets he'd kept from her, about Loren Singer. In all honesty, she had been truly angry with him that night, when she'd showed up at his apartment before flying to Paraguay. But she couldn't make herself leave before at least saying goodbye, making sure he was okay. And then, everything had gone to hell. And every chance was now gone with him.

The small part of her that had kept up hope was slowly dying, and there was nothing she could do about it.

The phone on her desk rang loudly, jarring her out of her thoughts.

"Mackenzie."

"Sarah. It's Clayton Webb."

"Clay! I'm so glad to hear your voice!"

"Likewise."

"When did you get back?" After the mess in Paraguay, Clay had taken some time to recuperate at the family estate in Vermont. Mac had half-dreaded their next meeting, still unsure of her feelings for Clay. And with Harm gone, she was even more confused.

"Today."

"I'm happy to hear that." She was surprised to notice she truly meant it.

"Sarah-"

"Give me half an hour and I'll be there."

True to her word, thirty minutes later, she knocked at the Webbs’ door.

Webb's mother opened the door herself. "Colonel! It's so good of you to come. Clayton has spoken of you often."

"It's my pleasure, Mrs. Webb."

"He's in the study."

"Thank you." Mac walked to the study, her heart pounding. She knocked softly on the study door before pushing it open.

"Sarah!" Clay smiled, rising from his armchair, still wincing in pain. He took both her hands in his and gently kissed her cheek. "I missed you."

"You look better," she replied.

"Getting stronger every day. Come sit." Clay led her to the couch and sat next to her, keeping her hand in his.

"You still haven't found him."

"Clay-"

"I know how you feel about him."

"Doesn't matter now. He made his choice. I'm moving on." Mac said, somewhat unconvincingly.

"I meant what I said. About us..."

"I'm glad."

Clay didn't need any more incentive. He cupped her chin and kissed her softly. And again, Sarah Mackenzie chose not to fight, not to question. She parted her lips and kissed him back, pushing away the pain, burying it. There was no more looking back.

When Clay pulled back, he looked straight into her eye.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"As I said, I know you love him. And I know what you feel for me isn't love-"

"Don't say that.”

"Let me finish."

She nodded.

"But in time... I ask of you only what you can give, Sarah. I'm in love with you, and whatever you choose to give me is enough. I know he has your heart. But you have mine."

Mac tossed her head and chuckled humourlessly. "You make me sound like second prize..."

"No. Not at all. I only want you to know, I'm not asking for anything but a chance. You are the most amazing woman I've ever known, and Rabb was a fool to let you go. But I'm going in with my eyes open, Sarah. Because I do love you and respect you. You are not a prize to be won. You are a woman to be cherished. You're strong, opinionated and independent. You are all I care about."

In her mind's eye, the eyes staring back weren't green, but blue; the voice she heard wasn't a light tenor but a husky baritone. Clay had said every word she'd ever wanted to hear Harm say, and for now, it was enough. Her wounded soul craved comfort and she didn't resist. Some part of her mind was screaming at her that this was wrong, that Clay deserved better from her, that she was falling into the same patterns, making the same mistakes again.

Clay had his eyes open, knew what he was getting into, she reasoned.

"Thank you, Clay. I..." Unable to find words to explain, she leaned into his arms and pressed her lips to his.

Again, she was a different face, felt another's arms around her. She hoped it would one day be enough.

 

~~~ Part Nine: Past and Future ~~~

OCTOBER 25TH 2003
WILD ROSE BAR AND GRILL
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

Dean walked into the Wild Rose, a six-month old Lea trotting on his heel. They had become inseparable. Where Dean went, Lea went. Up in Betty, riding in the brand new truck Dean had bought, and every night, sleeping on the foot of the bed, if not in his arms, providing she didn't wake him and get sent back to her rightful place.

"Hey, Hammer!" Rudy greeted. "Your usual?"

"Nope. Double Bourbon, straight up, and the usual for Lea."

Rudy raised an eyebrow and poured the drink. Hammer came in once or twice a week for a beer and water for Lea, and always one, before heading back to the ranch. Any day Rudy heard the old Beaver fly over, Hammer would come in.

He set the glass in front of his mysterious man and set a plastic bowl of water next to it.

"Thanks." Hammer said, bending down to place the dish in front of Lea. He then raised his glass to Rudy and took a sip, closing his eyes.

"What's the occasion?" Rudy asked. He didn't really expect an answer. Hammer rarely talked, and when he did, he never said much. This time, however, Hammer answered him.

"Birthday."

"Who's?"

"Mine."

Rudy smiled. "Well then," he said, as he poured himself a shot, "here's to your..." Rudy raised an eyebrow questioningly.

"Fortieth."

"Forty? You're kidding, right?" Rudy asked, as both men raised their glasses.

"Nope. Forty well counted years."

"Here's to forty more," Rudy said, as he tossed back the rest of his drink.

Hammer did the same and slammed the glass down on the old oak counter. "I hope not," he said darkly and rose off the stool, slapping a bill on the bar. "Come on, Lea."

And without another word or another look, he walked out, Lea close behind.

Shaking his head, Rudy went back to wiping the bar.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Dean opened the tailgate of his truck for Lea to jump down and headed for his cabin.

"Dean! Wait up!" Kat called from the main house.

Dean sighed and leaned against his truck, kicked the dirt off his snakeskin boots and waited for Kat to catch up. The young woman grabbed his arm, lowered him down to her height and kissed his cheek.

"Happy birthday."

He rolled his eyes, staring at the sky. "Rudy has a big mouth."

"For what's important."

"It's not important. At least not to me," Dean replied.

"If it isn't, why did you go into town to have a drink on a day when you don't fly?"

"I had some mail to pick up at Mo's." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he closed his eyes. She'd never let it drop.

"Okay, spill..."

"Kat, you said you wouldn't ask."

She didn't answer. She just planted her fists on her hips, cocked her head and scowled, her intense green eyes boring into his blue ones. Her look said one, and only one thing. No bull.

Lea watched the pair and sat next to Kat, her brown gaze joining the green one. After a few more seconds, she barked decisively at Dean.

He gave an exasperated sigh. "You're ganging up on me, now?"

Kat gave a commanding nod.

Dean dropped his head and shook it in defeat. When he looked up, his eyes were sparkling, a smile tugging at his lips. "Fine. But I'm cooking. Come on," he ordered, as he strode towards his cabin.

Behind him, Kat turned to the dog and extended a hand. Lea's paw landed smack in the middle of it, in a canine high five.

"We're good, aren't we, girl?"

Lea sang a joyous yowl and took off after her master, Kat soon following.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Kat pushed her plate back with a contented sigh. "Next time I try to badmouth your cooking, smack me upside the head, will you?"

"Nah. I'll just throw you in the hayloft," Dean replied playfully. He leaned back in his chair and let his thoughts drift. Despite his desire to make a clean break, he found it almost impossible. Bits and pieces of his previous life crept up, now and then, to remind him of what he'd left behind. The latest reminder had come in the form of a package from the admiral: a set of pictures of two-month old Mackenzie Lydia Roberts, his goddaughter.

Of course, Bud and Harriet had ignored his request, and put his name as Godfather. He knew it only because his attorney had contacted him about the birth and the trust fund he'd set up. He felt the familiar ache return as images of the child's godmother flooded his mind.

He had to admit, a quiet dinner with Kat had done wonders to improve his mood, but he suddenly craved solitude. Kat had a tough, incisive side, but with him, she was jovial and friendly. She reminded him terribly of Mac.

He pushed off his chair and made his way outside, closely followed by Lea. He rested his hands on the porch rail and watched Lea at her favorite sport: chasing the bats that fed on the moths attracted by the cabin and main house lights.

Kat appeared at his elbow. "What's she doing?" she asked, watching the dog run and jump high into the air.

"Chasing bats. I don't know when she started doing it, but it's her favorite sport."

"Next to flying with you, or riding in the back of your truck."

Dean nodded. "That too."

"Cute kids," Kat said, referring to the picture she had picked up in the foyer. She passed it to Dean. "Who are they?"

"Little AJ and his baby sister, Mackenzie."

"That tells me a lot," Kat scoffed.

"Pieces of the past. Lea!" With that, he turned on his heel and disappeared inside, slamming the door.

Kat sighed and walked down the porch steps, pursing her lips. "Who the hell hurt you so bad?" she asked out loud, staring at the aerial ballet of the feeding bats. Somehow, she doubted she'd ever find out.

 

~~~ Part Ten : Pages Turned ~~~

DECEMBER 24TH 2003
VIETNAM MEMORIAL MONUMENT "THE WALL"
WASHINGTON, D. C.

 

He waited just under the treeline, waited for her to leave. He should have known she'd try to find him here. He shouldn't have come.

But he had to, one last time. He had to say goodbye to his father. What he hadn't expected was for Mac to be there. He'd dropped a box of presents for little AJ and his little sister at the Robertses’ while they were at mass. He'd then headed here, for one last visit. He'd spotted her immediately, her small form hugging her jacket close against the cold.

Quietly, he'd walked to the edge of tree, and now, he leaned against a tall oak and waited for her departure.

Twenty minutes later, he saw her shoulders slump in defeat, as the cold won over her desire to wait just another minute. He waited another ten to make sure, and then walked up to the black granite panel.

"Hey, dad. It's been a long time. Longer than usual, I know." He took a deep breath and ran his fingers over the frozen stone, over the letters etched in his memory.

"You gave me your name, and you made me most of what I am. I grew up way too fast, and I spent most of my life searching for you, and living under your shadow."

He took a deep shaking breath and pinched the bridge of his nose against the sting of tears.

"Dad, this is my last visit. I came to say goodbye. I need to put you in the past and move on with my life. I love you. Thanks... for... for being there. Bye, dad." Two fat tears rolled down his cheeks as he quickly leaned to the stone wall and brushed his lips to the letters carved in the cold stone. He drew back and got down to one knee, placing his gold wings at the base of the panel, and practically ran back to his car, never looking back, closing yet another chapter in his life.

 

~~~ Part Eleven : Anniversary ~~~

MAY 19TH 2004.
WILD ROSE BAR AND GRILL
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

He stared though the glass of bourbon sitting on the bar in front of him. Yesterday, it would have been five years. Tomorrow, it would be one year. She would have been his, today. He would have given her a child, today. Instead, he was alone, and she was happy with another man.

Dean grabbed the glass on the bar and drained it in one long gulp, sending fire down his throat. He slammed the glass on the bar and signaled Rudy for another round. Gently, he ran his index over the smiling face, on the picture in his hand.

"Another one Hammer? What's got you so down? You never have more than one..." Rudy wondered, as he poured a seventh double shot of Bourbon for the tall pilot. He cocked his head and squinted in the smoke-filled bar, looking at the picture in the other man's hand. It was only the second time Hammer had ordered something other than beer, and even then, he'd drunk only one, to celebrate his birthday.

"She's pretty," Rudy tried. Dean didn't answer. He never did. The man had been working for old Mo Crafton for close to a year, yet no one in town had managed to pry anything out of him, except maybe Kat. He never laughed, rarely smiled, and almost never talked about his life before Sundance. They all knew he'd been a Navy pilot, but he'd never told anyone what he flew, except Mo, and as usual, the old hermit wasn't sharing. Dean had come in alone, without Lea, which surprised Dean even more.

Still, Rudy tried again. "She the reason you're here?"

"None of your business, Rudy," Dean replied, slightly slurred.

"Don't you think you had enough, Dean?" Rudy asked softly. "Kat'll come and get you if I call her. You can't drive back to the farm. What do you say?"

Before he could answer, a pair of rowdy young men roughly jostled Dean from behind. The photo fell from his hand and onto the floor.

Rudy recognized two of Kat's farmhands, Johnny Rae and Steve Malter. Both had often complained about Dean, and they'd tried to pick a fight with him more than once.

"Hey! Watch it," Dean grumbled.

Johnny saw the picture flutter to the floor and grabbed it in a quick swipe. Dean was nowhere near sober enough to take it from him. But the two men were quick to understand Dean wanted the picture back, badly.

"Ooooh! Nice eyes, there, Hammer! That your private girl?" the young man taunted.

"Give that back, Rae. Now," Dean growled, menacingly.

"Why? She ain't from around here, that's for sure... Pretty face too. Nice lips. I wonder if she can su--"

The insult was cut short by Dean's right fist collecting solidly with Johnny's jaw. The man reeled back and fell to the floor.

"Hey! What the f***'s your problem, man?" Johnny yelled, rubbing his jaw. "She's just a piece of ass on gloss paper, like all the others!"

Dean's vision was clouded with red. He grabbed the man's shirt collar and hauled him to his feet and swung again. This time, his right connected with his victim's nose with a bone-shattering crunch. Once again, Johnny ended up on the floor of the bar, blood pouring down his face.

Dean bent down for another round but Malter was on him in a second, fists flying. All hell broke loose as Rudy jumped over the bar to help out Dean and try to save the furniture. Soon, the entire bar was involved.

When the dust settled, twenty minutes later, Johnny Rae and Steve Malter were headed for the drunk tank, and Dean was nursing a badly split lip, a bruised jaw and a possibly broken rib, leaning against the outside wall of the 'Wild Rose', where Rudy had managed to wrestle him.

He massaged his aching temples and spit out another mouthful of blood, his thoughts a million miles away. Actually, sixteen hundred miles away, in DC.

"Here," Kat said, shoving an ice pack under his nose. "Come on. I'll drive you home."

Dean accepted the ice and put it on his lip. "Thanks," he mumbled. He pushed himself off the wall and wavered a bit, before finding his balance. Kat held on to his elbow and walked him to the truck.

"You smell like a bar rag. How much did you drink?" Kat demanded, in her usual snappish tone, as she guided him to her huge black Chevy Silverado.

"Six doubles, and why don't you talk a little louder?" Dean replied sullenly.

"You gonna puke?"

Dean snorted. "No."

"You better not, or you'll be cleaning my truck, Dean."

"T's my truck, Kat."

"Right, and I'm the prom queen. Your truck is still at Mo's, and for the record, you have a silver Dodge Ram, not a black Silverado."

"Right," Dean replied, leaning back into the seat, closing his eyes.

A few minutes later, Kat shook him awake. "We're here."

"Kay," Dean mumbled, as he extricated himself from the truck and staggered inside, Kat on his heels.

"Thanks for the lift, Kat."

"Go in, and take your shirt off. I need to look at those ribs."

"Kat-"

"Don't argue with me. In. Now."

Dean blew a long breath and complied. He couldn't help but see the similarities between Mac and Kat. Both were strong-willed, and when they had in their minds to have him do something... god help him.

Mac. Again, his mood darkened, as he climbed the cabin steps and pushed the door open. Lea was waiting by the door, tail wagging, standing on two legs. Dean obligingly scratched her head and sent her out to chase the bats. He heard Kat come in and head for the kitchen. He headed straight for his bedroom. Slowly, he undid the buttons of his denim shirt and took it off. When Kat knocked on the open door, he threw his undershirt to the floor, wincing.

"Here." Kat handed him some Tylenol and a tall glass of water. He took both without a word

"Lie down, so I can have a look. "

He didn't bother arguing. He stretched out on his back, arms crossed behind his head, his eyes unseeing, lost in memories.

He drew in a sharp breath when Kat touched the ugly bruise on his ribs.

"Noting looks broken. You were lucky." Dean didn't reply.

Kat stared at the man in front of her. The pain was always there, in his eyes, but tonight, its depth reached out and touched her soul. Maybe she could help. Maybe it was time for her to let him know he wasn't alone. She sighed slowly. She picked up some antiseptic and started cleaning the cut on his lip.

"Ow!"

"Be still," she said softly, barely above a whisper.

Immediately, her unusual tone raised questions to his lips. "Kat? What is it?"

"In a sec." She finished dressing the cut on his lip, the one on his brow and handed him some fresh ice for his jaw.

"You didn't have to do this. I can take care of myself. But thanks."

"I know. You're welcome." She reached in her pocket and handed him a small square of glossy paper.

"It's because of her, isn't it?"

Dean opened his eyes and slowly took the picture from her hand. The pained look in his eye increased tenfold as his eyes once more glanced at her beautiful smiling face. How he missed her! When he looked into Kat's eyes, he saw his own pain mirrored, and he didn't have the strength to pretend anymore. He nodded, eyes shinning.

"Her name is Sarah Mackenzie."

"She's beautiful. What happened?"

"You can't understand."

"You don't know that. Let me tell you my story." She held up a hand, stalling his protests. She was breaking their mutual accord, but he hadn't asked her. She was willingly telling him her own story.

"I was a paramedic in LA. I was working with this great guy, Jack Malloy. Years. I spent years trying not to fall in love with him. But I did. And for a while, I was the happiest woman alive. Jack and I... we spent every moment together. We were so happy! And then... One night he was on call. He got a call for a multiple MVA on the highway. I kissed him and said I'd be waiting for him ... and he never came home. His rig was hit by a semi. He was killed on impact."

Kat wiped her moist eyes and was silent for a spell. "He'd promised me we'd move out here, where I grew up and raise cattle, leave the city... When he died, all I could think about was all that time I wasted, and all the times we could have had. I was slowly dying inside. Till one day, I decided to come out here and live our dream. From what I can tell, your Sarah's still alive, and you love her. So why are you here, working for Mo and me, and making yourself miserable?"

"She's still alive, but she's in the arms of another man. She doesn't love me, Kat. And God help me, it's been a year and it still hurts like it was yesterday," Dean whispered brokenly. And then, the dam broke, and words flooded out. That night, he told Kat his entire story, about Mac, about Sarah, from the Rose garden to Paraguay, and everything in between.

Kat listened, questioned and comforted. In her, Dean had found a kindred soul, and she'd found the friend she'd seen that first day, one that would forever have the key to her tough exterior.

"Dean, or Harm... You still have a chance. Can't you see that? She could have been kissing him for fear he'd die..."

"I can't take the risk, Kat. I wouldn't survive it..." Dean choked back a sob, a year's worth of buried pain suddenly too much to bear. He turned to the wall and curled into a ball, quietly weeping.

Kat pursed her lips and blew a long breath. Spying his guitar in the corner, she rose and picked it up.

"Dean, listen, it's your choice, but this can help, either way." Whether he chose to move on, or to try and find his way back home, she hoped the song would touch him as it had touched her. She struck a few chords and began to sing, her voice strong and clear. The song spoke of memories, of goodbyes and remembrance, of regret and hope.

As she struck the last note, she spoke again.

"The memories are what you make them to be. You can choose to remember what's worth fighting for, or keep the good times and let go of the pain. Either way, you deserve to be happy, even if you choose to let her go. But there's still a choice."

He turned back to her, eyes still moist. "Thank you. That was beautiful."

"You're welcome. It's called Please Remember, by Leann Rimes. Now get some rest." She rose to leave, but he caught her hand.

"Stay."

She shook her head. "No. I can't give you that kind of comfort. You'd regret it, and so would I. Good night, Dean."

He sighed, and nodded. Deep down, he knew she was right. "Night, Katherine. And thank you. For everything."

When the sun rose, it found Dean, or rather Harm, on the porch of his cabin, an old, worn duffel on his shoulder. He had to try, one last time.

 

~~~ Part Twelve: Severance ~~~

Saturday, May 22nd,
Roberts Residence
Rosslyn, Virginia

 

Little AJ's fifth birthday party was slowly winding down. The kids had gone to bed, and the adults had enjoyed a pleasant evening. All but one. Mac had silently hoped he would show up today, take her in his arms and fulfill his promise to her. But like so many things in her life, like he'd said in his letter, it wasn't meant to be.

She now stood on the back porch, a picture in her hand, the soft country music from inside washing over her. A year. Five years. The only promise he'd ever broken. She ran a finger on the smooth, glossy picture. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't forget him.

A gentle hand appeared on her shoulder, an arm snaked around her waist. "You still miss him?"

"I'm sorry for being so unfair to you," she murmured.

Clayton Webb smiled sadly, his cheek resting on her soft hair. "I knew when you came to me, you'd never truly be over him. And I accepted that."

"But-"

"I'm not settling, Sarah. I only accepted to have the parts of you that I can." He felt her slump a bit into his arms, and knew what was coming.

"You're breaking up with me, aren't you," he said. It wasn't a question, merely a statement of fact.

"Clay-"

"Don't."

"Will you just let me speak?" Mac asked, annoyed.

"I'm sorry."

"I do have feelings for you. But I can't give you my heart. God knows I've tried. He's gone, and he'll never be back, and I don't want to spend my life alone, but... But it's better than being loved and not loving back. You deserve better, Clay. You're a good man." At his rolling eyes, Mac smiled.

"You do have a dark side. I don't deny that. But deep inside, you're a decent man, and you want me for me, not as a prize."

Clay cocked his head to the side and nodded in thanks. "I do love you, Sarah, enough to let you go, and enough to still be your friend."

The moment he uttered the words, she wrenched away from his embrace and tears flooded her eyes.

Confused, Clay reached for her. "What did I say?" he asked, as he lifted her chin with his index and thumb.

"It's not you," Mac sniffled. "It's him. He said he loved me enough to let me go, even to you. But that he couldn't stay and be my friend, that it hurt too much." Her quiet tears turned to rivers as the hurt came back, fresh as the day he left.

He held her close as she cried for the man she loved. Once the tears quieted, she lifted her head and smiled softly.

"Thank you for understanding. I'm sorry."

Hearing the first few bars of a song he particularly liked, he dared ask, one last favour.

"One last dance?"

"Yes." She stepped in his embrace and they started to sway to the beautiful song. Mac listened to the words and her heart twisted again: Please remember, please remember me.

"I'll find him. I'll find him for you. I promise," Clay murmured into her ear.

Neither of them saw the tall man, leaning against a large oak tree. Neither of him saw the tears fall from his blue eyes. Neither of them saw him turn and walk away, and disappear into the night.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Dean quickly made his way back to his truck and unlocked the door. He sat behind the steering wheel and rested his head on it, fighting back the tears. The deal was truly null and void.

"Five years from now, if neither of us is in a relationship, we'll go halves on a kid."

"You and me? Have a baby together..."

Harm thought back to that day, his heart heavy. The deal was off. She'd found someone.

"Don't make any promises you can't keep."

"I still haven't yet..." he whispered.

Sensing his mood, Lea, unusually sitting inside the cab for security reasons, crawled under his bent chest and whined softly. Dean's large hand instinctively caressed her head.

"Let's go home." Dean started the engine and quickly rejoined the highway, heading for Sundance.

 

~~~ Part Thirteen : Mistakes ~~~

MAY 24TH 2004
0444 ROMEO
BEARLODGE MOUNTAIN RANCH
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

It was nearly dawn when Dean finally pulled his truck up to the log cabin he and Lea had been sharing for close to a year.

He was barely out of the truck before Kat, dressed only in her raspberry terry robe, barreled down the main house porch steps.

He could tell she was angry, really angry, just by the way she dug her heel into the dirt as she stomped up to him.

"Where the hell have you been?" she yelled, without even taking a proper look at him.

Silence.

"Answer me, damn it, Dean! Five days. Five days, you've been gone, without a single word! Was it so hard to leave a simple-" She cut her tirade short when she saw his eyes.

The brash and confident, if sometimes-dark Dean Harmon she knew was completely gone, and in his place stood a haunted stranger. Haunted didn't even begin to cover the depth of the sorrow and despair she saw in the sea-colored pools. The purple blotches under them suggested long hours without sleep, and the lines of pain at their corner told of a heart broken anew.

She reached out a hand in the misty, cool dawn and placed it on his arm, as he leaned on the cab of his Ram. "Talk to me. Please."

He looked at her only briefly, his eyes again filling with unwanted tears. He was so sick of feeling out of control, weak and hurt. He didn't want to talk. He didn't want to explain. He needed to feel something other than pain.

"Dean, please... Where did you go?"

When he raised his eyes again, all she could see was a burning need, an urgency she'd never felt from him before. Before she was aware of him moving, she was engulfed in his arms, and his lips devoured hers, plundering her mouth and neck with demanding kisses.

"Dean-" she tried.

"Please. Oh, please.. I need you. I need to... I need to feel something else, please," he begged, his voice quivering.

"Dean, stop. This isn't right," she tried, pressing her palms into his chest. But he didn't seem to hear her. His hands tangled in her long hair, drawing her close.

"Dean, no!" Kat's heart began to pound against her chest. This wasn't right. This wasn't the way he usually behaved. Cold fear suddenly flooded her mind as one of his hands tried to reach inside her robe.

"Damn it, I said NO!" she screamed, and backhanded him, hard.

The moment she screamed, Dean released her, his eyes widening in horror. His hand instinctively went to rub his cheek where she'd hit him, but he didn't feel the pain. All he could see was the sheer terror in Kat's eyes. He backed away from her and bumped into the truck. He leaned against it for support as he tried to comprehend what he'd almost done.

"Oh, dear god... What have I done?" he whispered. "Kat-"

"No..." she murmured, shaking like a leaf, tears falling from her emerald eyes.

Dean reached a hand to brush away her tears, but stopped short. Kat turned on her heel and bolted to the house, slamming the door and locking it.

"F***!" he yelled, as he slammed his fist onto the hood of the truck, leaving a sizeable dent and bruising his knuckles. Thirty hours of driving and raging emotions had pushed him to the brink and he'd snapped. And now Kat had paid the price. He stormed into the cabin, and almost slammed the door onto Lea's short, docked tail.

His rage instantly evaporated and he dropped to one knee, calling Lea to him.

"I'm sorry, girl. None of you deserve this," he said wearily, angry tears welling up once more. This time, he didn't have it in him to fight them. He rose to his feet and staggered to his bedroom. He went straight to the closet and retrieved a bottle of Bourbon he'd kept there since he'd arrived, but had barely touched. He fully intended to drown his sorrows in alcohol until he passed out. He unscrewed the cap and took a long swig, feeling the heat of the drink down his throat. He swallowed more, again and again, until he had to stop to breathe. He retreated to the living room and dropped to the armchair facing the fireplace. He stared through the dark hearth, his mind in turmoil. He took another long drink from the bottle in is hand.

Suddenly, he jumped to his feet and hurled the bottle at the stones, shards flying everywhere, his sight obscured by the tears. He paced the living room, filled with an exhausted tension, overwhelmed by the last week's events.

Soon, however, the combined effects of fatigue and alcohol caught up with him. He knocked his foot on a table, stumbling and falling to his hands and knees. He hauled himself up onto the sofa, wrapping his arms around a pillow, breathing hard.

Lea jumped onto the couch, whining softly. Slowly, she nosed the pillow from Dean's arms and replaced it. She licked his face and hands, trying her best to comfort her human, but to her dismay, failed. So, she just let him hold her, until he surrendered to exhaustion and slept.

However, Lea remained awake, standing guard.

 

~~~ Part Fourteen: Betrayal and Chances ~~~

 

Kat stood, her back to the door, her breath coming in fast, ragged gasps, a flood of hot tears flowing down her cheeks. Slowly, she slid down the door to the floor and bitter sobs escaped her throat.

How could he? How could he do this to her? Marty loved her-

Marty. It wasn't him... Abruptly, her eyes snapped open, the memories fading into the back of her mind. She took a long, heaving breath and rose from the floor, reliving the confrontation with Dean. Still unsure of what was real and what was nightmare, she brought her wrists up for inspection: nothing. No bruises, no scrapes. Nothing. Dean hadn't even touched her arms. He hadn't even hurt her. True, he'd kissed her when she didn't want him to, and forcefully, at that, but he hadn't hurt her. He'd tried to touch her... but when she had screamed, he'd let her go.

But he didn't let you go the first time you said "No", her mind reasoned. That's wrong...

She knew that. She also knew Dean. And Dean wouldn't do this. He wouldn't hurt her.

Then why was her right hand throbbing viciously? And then, it came back to her. She'd hit him. And from the lump on the side of her hand, she'd hit him hard. She walked into the living room and flopped to her favorite armchair, rubbing her left hand over her eyes. Unbidden, Jack's words came back to her.

"I know he hit you for a long time, and I know you hit back for protection. But it just keeps up the cycle. No one deserves to be hit. I'm not talking about life preservation, Kat. But as decent people, we can do better, and deserve better."

Jack had saved her from the abusive relationship with Marty. That's why she had hesitated for so long, before admitting her feelings to Jack. She had been afraid that her feelings for him had more to do with being grateful for saving her from him, and from herself, than true love.

She remembered when she finally had the courage to confide in Jack. That day when Jack had pushed her buttons, like he loved to do, until it was just too much. She'd snapped and hit him. Horrified, she'd tried to leave, but he wouldn't let her go. He just held her, quietly, until she calmed enough to hear him out. And then, she'd told him about the abuse, about the daily hell she was living though, about how she didn't know how to get out of it.

Jack had listened, and unlike the others, who'd noticed the bruises, who'd bought the obvious lies, he did something. And slowly, she had started to live again, and eventually love. When fate had taken Jack from her, two years before, she knew she'd never find someone like him again.

She though back to Dean. Sarah Mackenzie was obviously the one who held his soul. She couldn't deny she felt strongly for him, but he was meant for another. If she could help him heal, help him find his way back to his life, she would. Dean was not a bad person. He'd made a tragic mistake, but in his heart, he was a good and decent man.

Kat dried her eyes and walked back out of the house, toward his cabin. She was poised to knock when she spied his form though the screen door. He was asleep, on the couch, Lea in his arms. She retreated back to her house and brewed some tea.

She would not let him walk away without them discussing this. She settled in a rocking chair by the window and waited.

 

~~~ Part Fifteen : Forgiveness ~~~

 

Hours later, Dean woke up, exhausted, hung over, but calmer. Sitting up, he heaved a long sigh and let his gaze wander over his small home.

He pushed off the couch, went back to his room and opened the closet, retrieving his suitcase. Slowly, he emptied every drawer and packed away his belongings, including Lea's favourite blanket.

In the bathroom, he paused and gently probed the angry bruise on his jaw. It would serve as a reminder of his actions. He lowered his eyes from the mirror, too ashamed even to look at himself.

Once he was done, he cleaned the place up from top to bottom. That being done, he put his luggage by the door and gave the old log cabin one last look.

"I guess you'll have to find some other bats to chase," he told Lea. He closed the door behind him and carried his stuff to his pickup.

"Where are you going?"

At the sound of Kat's voice, Dean froze. "I'm going back to Mo's. Don't worry. I won't leave town. Sheriff Grady will know where to find me."

"I'm sorry."

Dean whirled on his heel. "Don't. Don't you dare be sorry, Kat. What I did was not your fault, and it was inexcusable. And I fully expect you to press charges."

"Still, I shouldn't have hit you like that," Kat replied, her eyes locked on the dirt between her feet.

"I deserved it."

"NO ONE ever deserves to be hit! Do you hear me?" she yelled, stepping up to him, clearly upset.

Dean wasn't sure what to do. Should he take her in his arms and try to comfort her? He'd scared her badly, and he'd acted like a monster. He settled for standing his ground, his eyes downcast.

"Kat, I'm the one who's sorry. You've been a great friend to me and... There's just no excuse for my behaviour."

Kat's fiery eyes softened. "But there's an explanation."

Dean regarded her with a mixture of awe and bewilderment. "After what I've done, you still want to talk to me?" he asked, totally shocked.

"I need to understand why a man, a friend I consider an honourable one suddenly turns into a..."

"A brute, a monster. Kat... I'm so sorry... I... there's just no words to tell you how ashamed I am," he said quietly.

Kat took a deep breath. "Let's talk inside."

He suddenly noticed she still wore only her bathrobe, and as usual, she was barefoot.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm angry at you. I'm angry with you too. You scared me, and I hate that. I felt safe with you, before, and now I'm not sure of anything. But I know something bad happened to you. And I also know people sometimes screw up and make awful mistakes. And I know when to forgive, and when not to," she said, her green gaze burning once more with a wisdom Dean had very seldom seen in people so young.

He looked at her, his face a mask of sincerity and seriousness. "You may not believe me, Kat, but I do respect you. You're a lot younger than I am, but you're wise, and you're fair, way beyond your 28 years."

Kat gave a small, rueful smile. "If you knew all I went through, you'd understand. I'm like you. I'm a survivor, and I've lived through more than my share of horror. But I was lucky. It gave me a unique understanding of people, and the reasons why they hurt the ones they care about. Not all the people who cause pain are evil and bad, Dean. Some, like you, are truly good people, who deserve a chance. If I hadn't been given that chance, I'd probably be dead," she said, looking straight at him.

"Are you su-"

"Damn it, Dean, are you deaf?"

"No. I'm mortified."

"That makes two of us. Look at the size of that bruise!"

Dean reflexively rubbed his jaw. "I've had worse. And you definitely do not hit like a girl," he said, risking a grin. If she was willing to forgive his lapse of control, how could be begrudge hers? "Come on. Better laugh about it. " He was rewarded by a smile.

"Why thank you!" Kat quickly sobered, and they walked to the house. Suddenly, she turned on her heel. "Dean, I forgive you. But never again. Never. Are we clear?"

"Yes ma'am. And for the record, I still think you should press charges. I told you I used to be a lawyer. I lived by and for the law. Still do, even if I'm the one breaking it."

"That's why I can forgive you. Your honesty. I value that, in my friends."

"We're still friends?"

"We're still talking, aren't we?"

"You're an amazing woman, Katherine Miller."

Kat smiled, her usual bright, mischievous grin. "I do try."

Dean rolled his eyes. "I'm trying to be nice, to make amends-"

"Just go back to being your usual smartass self, Dean."

Again, he rolled his eyes, threw his hands in the air and followed her inside. "Why do I bother?"

"Because you're hopeless!" Kat yelled from the kitchen.

Dean chuckled, infinitely grateful for Kat's renewed friendship, a new lesson fresh in his mind. True friends know your nature, and trust is always rewarded.

True friends. Like one Sarah Mackenzie...

The thought formed itself, unwarranted, in Dean's mind. He squeezed his eyes shut and sat at the kitchen table, trying once again to forget.

They shared a quiet cup of coffee and some fresh cinnamon rolls, each lost in their own thoughts. After twenty minutes of complete silence, Kat decided it was time to face the music head-on. She had witnessed Dean's mood slowly descend from cautiously optimistic to dark to sullen. The deep circles around his eyes were still as deep, and he was unusually pale.

"You look like hell."

"I know," Dean replied quietly, not quite ready to talk.

"You went to Washington, didn't you."

"Yeah," he replied laconically, staring into his cup. The dark liquid never failed to remind him of a pair of almost equally dark eyes.

"You want to talk about it?" Kat sighed. Dean was about as talkative as a rock.

"No."

"I'm sorry, but this time, you owe me an explanation, Dean."

"I know. I just need some time to think... to process all of it. God, it's such a mess!" he said dejectedly. He leaned back in his chair, rubbing his painful temples, groaning slightly.

"Are you all right? Physically, I mean."

"Fine."

"Liar."

He rose his head and fixed a weary gaze on Kat. "You never change, do you? Always right to the point, no punches pulled, no pun intended." His tone was softer, but it held a note of desperation and defeat she wasn't used to from him.

"No, I don't. What you see is what you get. And I'll explain why. But you still haven't answered me. What's wrong with you?"

Dean sighed and shook his head. "I haven't slept for more than three hours straight in the last five days, so I'm tired. I'm sore and hung over. Satisfied?" he said a bit gruffly. His mood was shifting faster than a thunderstorm in summer. His relief at Kat's forgiveness had somehow evaporated, consumed by the darkness residing inside.

"So that's what I smelled... Bourbon. Listen, go to bed. You obviously need some rest. I'll come and get you for dinner. We can talk then."

Dean nodded and rose from his chair, his eyes a deep, clouded grey, like a storming sea.

 

 

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