~~~ Part Sixteen: Cold Fear ~~~


1803 ROMEO
DEAN'S CABIN

 

Kat had heard the intermittent barking for the last fifteen minutes. She'd finally decided to check it out. As she neared the cabin, she recognized Lea's insistent voice. Puzzled, she quickened her steps and went in without knocking.

A frantic Lea greeted her, running from her to Dean's room, whining and barking plaintively.

"It's ok, Lea. Where's Dean?" she asked. Lea instantly bolted towards the bedroom. Intrigued by the dog's strange behaviour, she followed.

The scene that greeted her only heightened her worry. Dean lay sprawled on his back, half-dressed, the covers tangled around him. She could see the large perspiration stains on his undershirt, and his wet hair was plastered to his damp skin. Kat could tell he was having trouble breathing: she could hear the rattle in his lungs from the door.

"Dean, wake up," she prompted, as she shook his shoulder. The unnatural heat of his skin startled her. He didn't move.

"Dean? Come on. Wake up!" she tried, shaking him harder. Still no reaction. "Damn! Lea, stay here."

Kat ran to her truck and grabbed the radio.

"Boomer, this is Ranch. Do you read?" she barked, as she used her other hand to free her EMT bag from its straps in the back of the cab.

A hiss of static burst though the radio. "Ranch, this is Boomer," replied old Mo Crafton. "What is it, Kat?"

"It's Dean. He's sick. I need you here, Mo. And get Doc Wallins."

There was a long pause.

"You sure?"

"Not yet, but hurry. I can't wake him up, Mo."

"On my way, kid."

"Copy. Out." Kat slammed the truck door and ran back inside, her heavy bag slung over her shoulder.

Years of training kicked in and she went to work. After trying unsuccessfully to wake him up again, she turned him on his side and leaned his head back to ease his breathing. She quickly completed her assessment. She pursed her lips as she finished. He had a raging fever, his pulse was weak and thready, and his breathing was getting worse by the minute.

She went to the kitchen and retrieved all the ice she could, packing it in plastic bags, wrapped with dishtowels.

When Mo and Dr. Wallins arrived, 40 minutes later, Dean was covered with ice packs, and shivering.

"What do we got, Kat?" Wallins asked, trusting the young woman's instincts.

"Looks like pneumonia. Rapid, acute onset," the paramedic in her replied.

"You don't think…" Wallins said, suddenly wary.

"I don't know. I doubt it..." Kat replied, not daring to voice Wallins' fears. Few people outside the cattle business knew that anthrax had always been and always will be present in cattle farming, but infections were rare. Still, the risk was real. And if it was anthrax, it meant Kat's entire herd was in danger; not from the disease itself, for cattle can be vaccinated, but she'd never be able to sell them for a decent price so she'd likely lose a lot of money. But that wasn't Kat's main concern. The ninety-five percent fatality rate of human victims was. She shivered at the thought.

"When did it start?"

"Less than six hours..."

"Any sick cattle?"

"I’m not sure but... Wait. Can't be. He's been off the farm for five days. He would have been sick before..."

"But he wasn't here..." Mo reasoned darkly.

Kat sighed deeply. "We can't take the chance. I'll start him on-"

Just then, Dean groaned and shifted slightly. All eyes turned to him.

"Dean? It's Kat. Can you hear me? Open your eyes. Come on, now..."

Slowly, his eyelids fluttered and his eyes found hers, not quite focusing.

"Kat?" he whispered hoarsely. "What's... going on?"

"You're sick. You have a really bad fever. Dean? Stay with me, okay?" she prompted, as she saw his eyes closing again.

"Tired."

"I know. Come on. Wake up."

"Tryin'..."

Kat kept him talking while Dr Wallins drew some blood and gave him some antibiotics. Once he was done, there was noting to do but wait for the results, and pray.

 

~~~ Part Seventeen: Perspectives ~~~

0324 ROMEO
CROOK COUNTY HOSPITAL
CRITICAL CARE UNIT
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

Cold. He was so cold. Why was it so cold in here? Dean opened his eyes and tried to focus on his surroundings. He was lying on a bed. But it wasn't his bed, and it wasn't his room. He had no idea where he was. Nothing looked familiar in the least: the white walls, the metal railing on the bed… The room held a certain sense of familiarity, but not enough for him to recognise it.

A soft light on the table cast a pale glow, just enough for him to make out a woman's form, on a chair by his bed.

"Mac?" he called weakly.

"It's Kat, Dean," the woman said, as she rose from the chair and sat next to him. She ran a cool, damp washcloth over his forehead.

He stared in the familiar brown eyes he loved so much and his brow furrowed. Didn't she know his name or hers? Were they undercover on a case?

"Name's Harm... You know that, Mac."

"Shhh, It's ok. Try to sleep..." she soothed.

He felt incredibly tired, but he didn't want to sleep. Something was not right, his mind kept telling him, but he couldn't figure out what. Like a bubble bursting through the surface of a murky pond, a memory surfaced. She was with Clay. In his arms…

"No..." he cried, closing his eyes.

"Dean? What's wrong?" Mac's worried voice asked.

"Mac, why did you go to him?"

"Dean, it's Kat. You're hallucinating," Mac replied.

He tried to push himself off the bed but a sharp stab of pain in his chest, followed by a wracking cough ended his efforts. "Why did you go to Clay? I came for you…"

Kat decided it would probably be best to just play along, not to upset him any further. "When you came to Washington, last week?" she asked softly, as she ran the cloth over his cheeks.

"I came for… I made a promise… the baby…" he murmured. Kat's brow furrowed. He'd said nothing about having a child… He'd said he and Mac had been close, that he was deeply in love with her, that she'd made some openings, and so had he, over the years, but never about either having a child.

"Why did you come back?" she asked carefully.

"I had to see you."

"Why?"

"Sarah…"

"Tell me why."

"I love you."

"Why did you leave?"

"Hurts too much… see you with him."

"Did you tell me that?"

Dean tried to answer but he couldn't find the strength, so he shook his head and closed his eyes, falling back into the folds of oblivion.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Dean, come on, stay with me!" Kat urged. She shook his shoulder again, to no avail. He had slipped back into unconsciousness. She silently prayed for Dr. Wallins to get the test results quickly. He was getting worse. He was delirious with fever, seeing Sarah Mackenzie instead of her.

Well, at least, she now understood the last few days' events a bit more. He'd laid his heart out on a limb again and he'd been rejected again. She guessed he'd only wanted a temporary distraction from the pain, a temporary lapse in judgement. She hoped that's all it was. When hurt, human beings tend to react like wounded wild animals: they act on instinct. They do anything that will stop the pain, even if they know it's wrong.

She could definitely understand that. Her hitting Jack had been exactly that. Or maybe he was already sick, not really himself. Either way, she'd forgiven him. All she could hope for was a chance to finish their earlier conversation.

Dean had gone to Washington to see Sarah, and found her with another man. He'd left again, without speaking to her. She shook her head sadly. The last time they had talked, before his abrupt departure for DC, he'd let her in, showed her how much he had cared for the woman in the picture, how much he still cared.

Kat didn't know Sarah Mackenzie, but she suddenly found herself wanting to pound some sense into that woman. From what Dean had told her, she knew she had feelings for him too. So why was she with another man, and he here, alone and miserable?

The rational part of her mind kept telling her she didn't have all the facts, that she only knew half of the story, that she should reserve judgement until she had all the facts. But before she could continue her inner argument, Mo burst into the room.

"It's anthrax," the old man stated, without preamble, his usual grim expression even deeper.

Kat slammed her fist on the arm of her chair, eyes tightly shut. "Damn!"

"Helicopter's on its way from Gillette. Should be here in about half an hour."

"Thanks, Mo. I'll call the vet and quarantine the herd." Kat said, rising to her feet. "Can you go with him?" she asked.

"You go. I'll take care of the herd," Mo replied, placing a gentle hand on her arm.

"Mo-"

"Kat, anthrax is common in cattle. You know that. Anyone in the business knows that."

"I know, but the public doesn't, and since the last two years… I'll lose the ranch, Mo." Kat's eyes shifted to the still form on the bed. "And I may lose him too…"

Mo pursed his lips and faced her. "You care a lot about him, don't you?" Mo's eagle gaze bore into her soul, right to the core. Unable to stand the intensity of it, she turned away.

"Yes," she murmured breathlessly.

"You're falling for him, kid."

"No. I'm not," she defended weakly. "At least I'm trying not to let myself fall," she amended, once again wiping the sweat off his brow. He's got someone else. Someone he loves, deeply."

"But he left her, correct?" Mo questioned.

"It's not my place to tell you his reasons, Mo. But I respect him. He's my friend…"

"So was Jack."

"That was different. Dean deserves to find what I had with Jack. And it won't be with me. He's like a brother to me. That's all," Kat said firmly. Her feelings for Dean went further than friendship, but it wasn't love. In him, she'd found a confidant, a big brother of sorts. At least, that's what she thought a big brother would be like. Being an only child, she'd never experienced that kind of bond, but what she had with Dean was what she imagined it should be. This was part of the reason she'd been so hurt by his earlier behaviour. Big brothers were supposed to protect you, not hurt you.

"But you want more."

"Damn it, Mo, just drop it, okay! I have too much on my mind to put up with your crap!" Kat snapped angrily, and stalked out.

She all but ran down the hall and through the hospital lobby, until she reached the cool night air. Once outside, she paced up and down the cement walkway, chest heaving, staring at the sky. The stars above became distorted flickers of light as tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.

"Damn it, Dean, you just can't die on me!" she cried, anguish choking her. "There's someone waiting out there for you. Don't give up, please," she begged the night sky. "It just can't end this way, not again. I need you to make it, and to find your way back to your Sarah. I need to believe there are happy endings out there, Dean!" she cried desperately. Her knees gave and she crumpled to the sidewalk, tears slipping freely on her face.

After what felt both like an eternity and an instant, she felt two strong hands on her shoulders. Kat looked up to see a pair of amber eagle eyes, filled with concern.

"I'm sorry, Grandpa. I didn't mean to snap at you like that."

"It's all right, kid," Mo Crafton replied. "I pushed too far."

"Mom would be ashamed of me."

"No. She'd be proud," Mo told her firmly, kneeling next to her. "She'd be proud to see how strong your spirit is, and how much you still believe in life, even after all you went through."

Kat smiled, and leaned into her grandfather's embrace.

"Come on, kid. The helicopter's here," Mo said, looking up at the blinking red and green lights fast approaching.

Kat rose to her feet and dusted off her jeans. "He has to be okay, Mo. He just has to."

"Pray, kid. Pray hard, "Mo replied quietly, as he led her back inside.

 

~~~ Part Eighteen, Out of Reach ~~~

30 HOURS LATER
GILETTE MED CENTRE
GILLETTE, WYOMING

 

"Sarah!"

The weak cry from Dean's bed woke her up instantly. After almost two days, his fever was still raging, and the doctors were afraid he was losing the battle. His skin was a pasty grey, his cheeks hollowed and his hair still hung plastered to his skin by rivers of perspiration. His towering figure now seemed small and vulnerable, almost childlike. Dr. Wallins had told her it was unlikely for him to survive the night.

Kat pushed herself off the chair and grabbed his hand.

"It's okay. I'm here." She didn't bother tell him who she was. Most times, when he woke up, the glassy look in his eyes told her he was seeing someone else. To ease his troubled, tortured spirit, she played along. If he didn't make it, at least she would give him a bit of comfort.

Dean's eyes opened slowly and focused on her face. "Kat?" he whispered.

She smiled softly. "Hey."

"Where…"

"Gillette medical centre," she replied quietly. "You got really sick after we talked."

Dean frowned and swallowed slowly. He didn't remember being ill… He tried to take her hand and reassure her, tell her he was okay, but somehow, he couldn't manage. As he came gradually awake, he noticed the deep circles under her eyes. His thoughts came to an abrupt halt when his breath caught in his throat, sparking a long coughing fit. His body was lost in an ocean of pain, and every breath burned in his lungs.

A soft moan of agony escaped his lips as he closed his eyes.

Kat squeezed his hand gently. "Hang in there, Dean. I need you out here. I'm getting lonely."

He opened his eyes again only to see tears shining in her eyes.

"Bad?" he asked.

She nodded imperceptibly. "Anthrax."

His eyes widened at that. "How?"

"Junter and Katz said you helped them haul a carcass out of the southern field the day before you left. It was infected. You must have breathed in the spores," she explained.

"How long?"

"Thirty hours, now."

An image slowly invaded his confused mind: Sarah. She'd come to see him… "Sarah? Did she…"

Kat gave him a quick, sad smile. "No. Just me. You were delirious." Kat dropped her head and took up his hand again.

"Do you want me to find her? There… there may not be a lot of time…"she said haltingly, her throat tight. She closed her eyes and prayed he'd say yes. Her hopes quickly evaporated as his hand slackened, slipping back to the bed.

She placed a gentle kiss on his fevered forehead and rose off the bed. "I'll get her for you, whatever it takes." She quickly walked out of the room and went in search of a phone.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"JAG Headquarters, Petty Officer Coates speaking. How may I help you?" Jen answered promptly.

"Yes, um… I'm trying to reach Miss Sarah Mackenzie," an uncertain female voice replied.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, Colonel Mackenzie is away at the moment," Jen replied, emphasizing the rank.

"Um, is there any way I can reach her? It's an emergency."

"Are you family, ma'am?"

"Um, yes, er, no… Well, not exactly… I'm a friend of a friend."

Jen's ears prickled a bit. Something was up… She thought about telling the admiral about the strange woman on the phone but decided against it. She wasn't family, so there was nothing she could do. Even if there had been an emergency, the colonel would be out of reach for the next 24 hours or so. She was on her way to the Seahawk, so she was either on a transport or a COD.

"I'm sorry, she's unreachable for the moment. Can I take a message?"

"No. Thank you."

The line went dead. Shrugging, Jen went back to her tasks.

 

~~~ Part Nineteen – Whispers in the Dark ~~~

 

Defeated, Kat hung up the phone. It had taken her the better part of a day to piece together the information Dean had given her about Sarah Mackenzie, and where to find her. There were 22 S. Mackenzies in the DC area phone book, and Kat had suspected her number was unlisted. Dean had mentioned her being a Marine, but not specifically what they had done in DC. So, she'd sifted through office after office, until a helpful clerk had informed her that there was a Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie in the JAG corps, and that the head office was in Falls Church, in the DC area.

And now that she'd found her, she was unreachable. But she was military. It was to be expected. Damn. Still, she couldn't quell the feeling of failure swamping her. She'd tried, at least. She blew a long breath and dragged her feet towards the critical care wing. The only good news was that he was still alive. Maybe he had a chance after all...

After one last visit to Dean's room, she picked up her purse and left for Sundance, cursing the authorities’ bad timing. The USDA and FDA inspectors were due in town, today, to confirm what she already knew. One of her cows had contracted GI anthrax, and Dean had been contaminated while handling the carcass. But the rest of the herd was fine. That fact wouldn't help her when she sold the reminder of the stock in Billings next week, though. Cattle ranchers in the area all knew each other, and the all talked. And since Dean's illness was no secret… All she wanted to do was stay by his side, just in case. But she didn't dare let herself imagine the worst.

As she drove up the road to the farm, she spotted Mo, obviously waiting for her. She parked the truck and killed the engine.

"What the hell is going on, Mo?" Kat demanded as soon as the front door was closed.

"Some folks in Gillette got word there was a case of Anthrax in the hospital. They heard 'cattle' and 'Sundance', and jumped to conclusions. According to some rags, you intentionally contaminated your herd to poison the public, and you're an anti-American terrorist…"

Kat threw her hands in the air exasperatedly. "What! Who fed them that kind of crap? Awareness and understanding of this disease is a lot better than it used to be... How can some people still be so ignorant, stupid, fear-"

"Kat," Mo halted her, putting a soft hand on her shoulder. "I know the song. Yes, they're dumb, but the damage is done. All that's left to do is fight back They all state an anonymous source, apparently close to you."

Kat flopped to her favourite armchair, staring at the ceiling. After taking a few moments to collect her thoughts, she shoved a hand through her hair, chest heaving in fury. She gave an angry swipe over her face to wash away the tears brimming in her eyes. All her life, she'd faced prejudice: being a female paramedic entailed a lot of harping by male colleagues, and so did owning a ranch. People were now so far removed from their food sources, they had no idea what cattle raising entailed, and that most biological weapons had been discovered by chance; man exploiting nature's creations to their own devices. Anthrax was only one of such corruptions of nature. Ranchers had lived with the threat for years, but some people still elevated even incidents such as this to potential acts of malice, and the hard working farmers to pariahs, sometimes just to sell a few more papers, or so she thought.

And now, Kat was about to become a victim of circumstances.

"I've worked so hard for this, Mo, and now I'm going to lose it all…"

"No, you won't. Come on. Let's talk to them. Face the music head-on."

Kat only sighed. She hadn't slept in days. She didn't have the energy to fight. But maybe she didn't need to…"Mo," she asked icily, "Are the inspectors here?”

"Yup."

"Get them. I have a plan."

Four hours later, Kat had made a statement to the press, supported by the USDA and FDA inspectors, setting the record straight. She smiled as she saw the sensationalism sharks slowly disperse, their juicy story evaporating in the face of logic. But deep inside, she was still seething.

Someone was responsible for this, for dragging her through the mud.Anonymous source, right... She'd find out who. It would take time, but she would find out. However it would have to wait. Right now, all she could contemplate was a shower and some sleep. Dr. Wallins would keep her informed of any changes, he'd said.

The shrill ringing of the phone woke her from a light doze a few minutes later. She lifted the receiver, her heart hammering, filled with dread.

"Hello?"
---
"When?" A long sigh escaped her lips and she closed her eyes, tears once again slipping down her cheeks.
---
"I'm on my way." She slammed the phone down and ran out, the door hanging open on its hinges.

 

~~~ Part Twenty – Awakenings ~~~

Same time
GILLETTE MED CENTRE

 

There was nothing but a thick grey fog around him. Grey fog and pain. He didn't know where he was, or even where here was, but he knew he hurt. Every piece of him, from his hair to his toenails, throbbed and prickled with agony. Harsh voices and flashes of light sometimes permeated though the mist, but nothing identifiable. Time passed, uncounted, unseen. He only knew it did, but never how much or how little.

Slowly, the fog thinned and lifted, and he remembered a few images: a woman. Long chestnut hair. Kat. Kat had been there. Her voice sounded sad, anguished. Why? He couldn't remember.

The mist parted a little more, taking with it the sharp edge of pain, leaving behind a dull but bearable ache, deep within. Sick. He'd been sick. That's what she'd said. He wasn't sure if it was Mac or Kat. But he hadn't seen Mac in a year…or had he?

He could now hear a constant hum of voices around him. Disconnected fragments, here and there, but ever present. Slowly, he became aware of his body. His chest hurt. His joints ached. His throat felt dry and parched.

A sharp rustle of fabric next to him focused his attention to his immediate surroundings. A voice. There was someone there, touching him: his chest, his arm.

"His temp is down and his lungs sound clearer, Dr. Wallins."

Dean struggled to open his eyes. It took a few tries, but he managed to crack his eyelids open. Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the lighting and he could make out two figures beside the bed he was in. The metal railing on the bed and the IV in his arm spoke of a hospital, but he had no recollection of getting there. He tried to push himself up, but he only managed to knock his hand on the rail. The effort left him breathless, and he could only wonder why he was so weak.

"Dean? Can you hear me?"

He tried to speak, but no sound came from his dry, irritated throat. A few sips of water later, courtesy of Dr. Wallins, he tried again.

"Hi," he managed roughly.

"How do you feel?" the middle-aged man asked, as he listened to his breathing.

"Like I... was hit... by a truck," he replied, a bit breathlessly.

Wallins chuckled. "To be expected. Any pain?"

"A bit. Chest."

"Again, to be expected."

"What happened?"

Wallins gave a rueful smile. "You contracted anthrax."

His eyes went wide, confusion filling his features. "How? I was vaccinated…"

Dr Wallins' brow furrowed. "It's rare but not unexpected in cattle farming. It's present in the soil... You apparently handled an infected carcass. But you were vaccinated? Why?" he asked. It was unusual for people to be vaccinated against such a disease, unless he'd been exposed previously.

Dean sighed. "Navy. Till last year."

"I see. However, vaccines are never 100% effective. In this particular case, the efficiency is 92,8%, providing you get a yearly booster. Which I'll guess you didn't get. Still, the odds of you contracting this were slim. But I guess that's what saved your life. This thing carries a 95% fatality rate after the onset of acute symptoms. You were lucky."

"Story of my life," he muttered, as he closed his eyes.

"You're currently under four different courses of antibiotics. Get some rest. I'll come by later, but I think you're out of the woods. Good thing Kat was there and called me."

"Where is she?"

"I'll call her for you."

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

Kat ran out of the stairwell and skidded to a halt in front of room 332. She gulped and took a few heaving breaths, combing her unruly mane into a loose ponytail. She squared her shoulders and pushed the door open.

She found his still form exactly where she'd left him, a few hours before. She was surprised at how different he looked. The unnatural pallor of his skin was almost gone, the feverish flush of his cheeks vanished. He looked ill, of course, but he no longer looked at death's door. Quietly, she walked up to the bed and took his hand.

Instantly, his eyes opened.

"Hey," he whispered hoarsely.

She smiled tearfully and gave his hand a hearty squeeze. "Hey. It's so good to see you!" she said, sitting on the bed. "You gave us quite a scare, Dean."

"M' sorry."

Kat laughed softly, her relief evident. "It's okay. But don't ever scare me like that again, or god help me, I'll kill you myself."

He smiled weakly, fighting sleep. "What happened?" he asked, his voice unrecognizable.

"How much do you remember?"

"Bits and pieces."

"Dr. Wallins didn't tell you?"

Dean nodded. "Yeah. I mean... Last thing I remember is..." He closed his eyes as memories of his brief lapse in judgement returned.

"Nothing happened. We had coffee, and I sent you to bed. A couple hours later, Lea started barking so I went to see what was up. That's when I found you."

"Kat..."

She put a hand on his shoulder, blinking slowly, a soft smile in her lips. "Get some rest. We'll talk later."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure," Kat replied, her tone still unusually soft. Even though he was still fuzzy, he could tell something was wrong.

"What is it?"

"It can wait."

"You-"

"I'm sure. Now shut up and sleep."

Dean smiled and closed his eyes, surrendering. He dreamed again, his mind filled with images of Sarah Mackenzie. He woke with a start, in the depth of night, screaming.

"Mac!"

"No, Dean. It's just Kat again," she said, her voice dead and hollow.

Dean let his head drop back to his pillow, a bit lost. The dream had been so vivid, so real... "Kat? God, I'm sorry..."

"It's okay. It's not like it's the first time."

Dean turned to his side and frowned. He set a questioning gaze on Kat.

"You were pretty out of it. You thought I was her." Before he could open his mouth again, Kat rose from her chair and joined him on the bed.

"Don't you dare apologize. You were sick. You were delirious with fever."

"She never came here, did she..."

"No. I just played along for a while. You'd get upset if I tried to tell you different," Kat explained, her gaze distant.

"My luck just keeps getting better and better," Dean muttered, as he winced in pain.

Kat shook her head. "No. I disagree. You're alive, aren't you?" The tone of her voice was not her usual confident, incisive tone. Dean, although incredibly tired, could instantly tell something was not right.

"Kat," he said pointedly.

"Hmm?"

"Look at me."

She did, but her eyes wouldn't meet his. She knew if she looked at him he'd know something was wrong. She suspected he already knew. Instead of answering, she rummaged through her purse and handed him a thin stack of newsprint clippings.

Dean took the sheaf of paper and read the first title: Local Cattle Rancher Breeds Anthrax. He flipped the page and read the next: Anthrax On The Loose! He quickly leafed through the titles, some bearing pictures of Kat and the ranch, growing more and more concerned.

"Kat..." he tried, unsure of what to say. He couldn't help but feel responsible.

"It's not your fault. Dealing with anthrax is... well, it happens once in a while, but since 9/11, people are a lot more afraid," Kat explained quietly, her eyes on the floor.

"I know that. But there's more, isn't it?" he questioned.

"All these quote a source close to me. And I have no idea who or why. And now the townsfolk are all suspicious. They think I did this on purpose." Her anger again flared and her voice rose, as she began to pace agitatedly. "It's bad enough I'll have to have the herd destroyed. Nobody'll buy from me, even if it's not dangerous, but because of the bad press. I may lose the ranch because a bunch of uneducated idiots heard the word anthrax."

"So sue them."

"Who?"

"Find the anonymous contact, and sue him"

Kat's face scrunched into a grimace. "For what? And I don't have the money for a lawyer."

"For slander, for one, and you don't need money. You have an attorney."

"Who?" she asked, exasperated.

"Me," Dean stated, as if it were obvious. "I told you I used to be a lawyer."

Kat's puzzlement slowly turned to curiosity. "Yeah, but don't you need a permit or something?"

"Bar licence, and I can get that easily enough," Dean said thoughtfully. It would require the help of Stanford Milton, but it was feasible.

"Are you sure?"

"Kat, it's my fault you're in this position. It's the least I can do."

Kat gave him half a smile. "Thanks. But don't think I don't know what you're trying to do."

"And what's that?"

"Trying to change the subject from one Sarah Mackenzie, Dean."

He leaned back in his pillow, closing his eyes. Mac. Why had everything in his life have to go back to her?

'Because you still love her,' a little voice inside answered.

"As always, right to the point," he said, keeping his eyes closed.

"I'll let you off the hook for now. But we need to talk once you have your strength back. I have to go back to Sundance tonight, and I'm going to Billings tomorrow. Get some rest. I'll see you when I get back."

"All right. Take care, Kat," he said fondly, looking into her eyes. He had to admit, he had no idea what he would do without her friendship.

"I will. See you in a few." She stopped by his bedside and kissed his cheek softly. "Bye, big brother," she murmured, and was gone.

Dean sighed wearily and smiled. A "little sister"... He wasn't exactly surprised to see it exactly fit their relationship. They understood each other like no one else in their lives, and they could lean on each other. But he couldn't help but be ashamed for having thought she was Mac. Always, it came back to her. Why was it so hard not to think of her?

She had obviously moved on, and made a new life. So why couldn't he? He dozed off, his mind again filled with her image, her name on his lips, in his heart, wondering.

~~~ Part Twenty-one – Prowlers ~~~

NEXT DAY, 1405 ZULU
CIA HEADQUARTERS
LANGLEY, VIRGINA

 

Clayton Webb marched down the hall to DDCI Kershaw's office, with a determination very rarely seen in the usually affable agent. A year after the Paraguay 'incident' as referred to by the agency, Webb still wasn't back to his previous standing. Hence, any information he needed for personal reasons was hard to come by. Favours were the currency of such trade, and he had very few left to cash in, and very little to offer in return. But he'd made a promise.

Sometimes, in the past year, a lot more than he liked to admit even to himself, he'd lain awake, Sarah in his arms, cursing his own lack of honour, and Rabb's excesses in the matter. But she had come to him willingly, had she not? A part of him couldn't help but think he'd taken advantage of the situation, of her.

The man had saved his life, and he had thanked him by taking from him the woman he loved. But in that itself was the catch, for he too, loved Sarah Mackenzie. But which of the two's love was strongest?

Webb snickered at his own thoughts. The answer to that question didn't matter. Sarah had made her choice, and it wasn't him. But he would keep his word to her, for his love. He would find Harmon Rabb Jr. for her.

He knocked twice on Kershaw's door, waiting to be invited in. He was bold and determined, but not stupid.

"Come in, Mr. Webb."

"Afternoon, Mr. Director," Webb greeted politely. The two men squared off, neither lowering his eyes.

Kershaw was the first one to speak.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Webb?"

"You know why I'm here. Rabb," Clay replied, his eyes piercing, an air of arrogant coolness securely in place.

"You seem quite confident for a man whose position in the Agency is so precarious, agent Webb," Kershaw replied, emphasizing the word agent.

"My position may be 'precarious', as you say, but you and I both know the company needs agents of my calibre. It's only a matter of time until I gain back my position," he replied calmly. To an outsider, the cool conversation was just that. But to the well-trained eye, it was like watching two prowling lions, circling each other, neither willing to back down, or lash out first.

Kershaw's calm façade slipped minutely. "Your father's shadow is no longer long enough to protect you, Clayton," he hissed.

Webb's eyes narrowed and he laid both palms flat onto Kershaw's desk, leaning over it, his still scarred face only inches from Kershaw's. "I don't need it, and you know that better than anyone, Harrison. I know all about Operation 'Gentle Dove', and all your little secrets..." Clay trailed menacingly.

Kershaw's mask of calm unflappability cracked and his features contorted in anger.

"Are you threatening me?"

Webb glanced at the older man calmly. So, his sources were correct. Kershaw did have a few skeletons of his own to hide. But he wasn't exactly surprised. Very few people rose to the position of Deputy Director in the Agency without such 'inconveniences'. But Clay was treading on very thin ice. One did not threaten such a powerful man without careful considerations as to the consequences. But as Kershaw had so conveniently put it, Clay didn't have much to lose.

"No. I'm merely using information to get information," Clay replied audaciously, a wicked half smile on his lips.

"You're just as ruthless as he was... And lucky for you, I do need men of your talent," Kershaw admitted grudgingly. "What do you want?"

"I told you already. I want Rabb. Where did you hide him?"

"Why is he so important to you?"

"My reasons are my own. They don't concern you. But the information I have does. I propose a trade: the 'Gentle Dove' folder for Rabb's whereabouts, and my undersecretary post."

"Your ambition will be your downfall, Webb."

Clay chuckled. "Now we can both watch your back. You know it's better to have me on your side, Mr. Director," Clay said, as he sat in front of Kershaw's desk. He had just made a very powerful enemy. And he had no doubt Kershaw would take the old adage to heart: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

"Give me a week," Kershaw growled.

"I'll be waiting."

 

~~~ Part Twenty-two – Dressing Down ~~~

TWO DAYS LATER
0922 ROMEO
GILETTE MEDICAL CENTRE

 

Kat crept silently into Dean's room, trying not to wake him. She sat beside the bed with a deep sigh and let her head fall back, staring at the ceiling tiles.

"Hey," came a gravelly whisper from the bed.

"I thought you were asleep," Kat replied.

"Resting, not sleeping," Dean replied, a small hint of humor creeping into his voice.

Kat chuckled. "Big difference. How do you feel?"

"Ask me in a week."

"Ok, I guess you won't want to see the visitor I brought," Kat replied mysteriously.

Dean slowly shook his head and blew a long breath. "Can't it wait?"

"I don't think so." With that, Kat rose form her chair, and left the room, leaving Dean completely puzzled. A few minutes later, he heard a frantic scratching of claws on the floor. An instant later, a ball of brown and white fur barreled into him, whining and whimpering.

Dean smiled broadly as he attempted to grab the deliriously happy Lea and settle her on his lap.

"Hey, girl! I missed you too."

Lea let out a barking yelp and howled joyously. Both Kat and Dean laughed. Soon, Lea quieted, lying on Dean's lap, furiously licking his hands, arms and face.

"Okay, okay, enough! I'm clean... Lea! Stop it! Lea!" Dean tried, desperately trying to stop the dog's assault. Kat watched the duo, her shoulders shaking with mirth. It was good to see Dean smile, and maybe now, Lea would start eating again.

"How did you get her in here?" Dean asked, slapping at the dog's tongue.

"I used to bring Spirit here for the sick children. They have a zootherapy program set up, so I brought her instead of Spirit..."

"I hope you'll take her to see the kids."

"I will, but not before she's had lunch. She hasn't eaten since you were brought here."

Dean cocked his head and took Lea's head in his hands. "Is that true?"

He received a sloppy, wet kiss in reply.

After a few minutes of 'catch the hand under the blanket', Dean was able to get Lea to lie on the foot of the bed so he and Kat could talk.

"I'll come back in a few minutes to get Lea, and I'll see you in a few hours," Kat said, once he was settled. He noticed her shoulders slump a little, and her eyes weren't as bright as usual.

"Kat," Dean said seriously. "How did it go, in Billings?"

"We'll talk about that tomorrow, okay?" Kat pleaded.

"Kat, talk to me."

She tossed her head in defeat and slouched in her chair. "Bout as well as you'd expect. It'll take me most of next year to make up the losses. That lot was prime grade, maybe AAA, for some, and it didn't even cover the semen fees..."

"I'm sorry."

Kat gave an angry snort. "Would you stop feeling sorry for things you aren't responsible for?"

Dean lowered his head and picked at his blanket. "One thing's for sure. I acted like an ass towards you."

"True. And you still owe me an explanation about what happened in Washington. You did see her, didn't you?" Kat asked carefully.

Dean pursed his lips and blew out a long breath. "I don't think I'm ready to talk about that yet," he said, toying with one of Lea's feathery ears. True to form, the springer had crawled up on the bed and claimed her spot by Dean's side.

"Let me go first, then. I told you a bit about Jack, and that I'd be dead if it weren't for some people giving me a chance. And I told you I'd explain why I'm always so direct." She took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

"It's because keeping secrets nearly cost me my life. I used to date this guy, Marty Robson. I met him here, in Gillette, when we were in high school. After three years, I decided to follow him. He was going to college in L. A., and I managed to land a job as a paramedic there. By then, I was convinced he was the best thing that could ever happen to me, not because he was good to me, but because he had convinced me that I was worthless, and that no one would ever want me, let alone love me. That's when he started hitting me."

"Kat," Dean tried, suddenly uncomfortable, "you don't have to tell me this." He suddenly felt even guiltier about his near assault on her. But he understood her reaction a lot better. Still, he didn't want to force her to share those painful memories if she didn't want to.

"I know. But I want to. And I don't mind. It's a way for me to not let it control me, and if I say it enough, maybe I can make a difference in someone's life. And besides, no one can really make me do something I don't want to. So... I was saying. He started, well, not hitting me per se, but, throwing me against walls, grabbing my arms and squeezing really hard, you know, that kind of stuff," she said, almost nonchalantly.

"But... God, it must have been so horrible for you," Dean sympathized.

"The fights were hard. I'd get upset, he'd get up and grab me, and then, he'd let me go, and beg me to forgive him. Or I would fight him, and grab the phone to call 911... Either times, I'd tell him to leave, to get the hell out of the apartment and to never come back. But as soon as he would start to leave, I'd remember how no one could ever want me, other than him, so I begged him to come back, and he would. We would make up, and I'd make excuses about the bruises. As you noticed, I'm not the most graceful gal out there. I'm a klutz, and most people believed the lies. But not everyone."

"Not Jack, I'm guessing."

"Not Jack. And I have a feeling you wouldn't have, either."

"No, probably not."

"So, one day, I show up at work with this doorknob-sized bruise on my arm. I tell Jack some bullshit story about falling into a door, when I pull off my shirt, and there they are. Four more big bruises, just under my arm."

"A hand print."

"Yup. Jack started grilling me about it, and he involuntarily backed me into a corner. I freaked and hit him. He calmed me down and we talked. He was the first one to care enough to help. But I hated him for it, for a while, for making me see how far I'd let things get. And then, one day, I got the courage to dump Marty. I told Jack I had to do this alone. Good thing he didn't listen to me. When he came into our apartment, Marty had me in a strangle hold. He's in jail for attempted murder," Kat finished, her voice low, eyes filled with tears.

Dean reached out his arm and squeezed her shoulder, a bit confused. "I'm glad you got past that, but what does this have to do with me?"

"Secrets can sometimes kill you, Dean. That's why I'm so honest and open. And you're doing the same thing I was: you're letting the fear control you. "

"What?"

"You're so afraid to lose what you have that you can't see it for what it is: nothing. You've been running away from her for over a year, and nothing's changed. You've only managed to make yourself miserable. And if you truly had moved on, what the hell were you doing back in Washington, and why didn't you have the guts to talk to her and why in god's heaven did you not tell her you love her?" Kat demanded, chest heaving.

Dean could only stare at her, open-mouthed and stunned. He blinked several times, and fruitlessly worked his mouth, but no sound would come out.

"Listen," Kat continued vehemently, her eyes blazing, "I know it's harsh, but someone had to make you face the truth sooner or later, and I'm sorry if this ends our friendship, but stop acting like a coward, which I know you're not. At least talk to her, Dean. For your own sake. You'll never get past this if you don't. I'm sorry." She rose in one swift move and headed for the door, certain she had shattered one of the most precious friendships she had ever known.

"Kat, wait," Dean said softly. She stilled by the door, not turning around.

Dean took a breath and gathered his thoughts, still reeling from the chewing out he'd just received. "You know, for a girl your age, you have a lot of nerve, talking to me like that. I-"

"I don't regret it one bit, De-"

"Quiet, Kat," Dean ordered sternly. It had been a while, and even with a limited lung capacity, he could still give orders if he wanted to. But Kat was not one used to obey. He expected her to tell him off, but she quietly complied, still keeping her back turned.

"I may not want to hear it, but you're right," he said softly. "But I want to know one thing: How the hell do you know I love her or that I didn't speak to her when I went there?"

Kat's posture softened somewhat, and she backed up a few steps before facing him. She smiled slightly, an air of compassionate understanding on her face. "I know because you said so yourself."

His brow furrowed and his expression turned to one of complete confusion. "I did? When did I do that?"

"You mistook me for her a lot, when you were sick. I asked you why you left. You said because you love her, and that you two hadn't talked," she explained quietly, as she slipped her hand in his. "Talk to her. Please. You still have a chance. I wasted a lot of time with Jack, partly because I was afraid my love for him was borne out of gratitude, but I never regretted it. It's not too late, you'll see."

Dean shrugged and let his head drop forward. "But how can I make up for what I've done? And if she truly is with him?"

"Then, you'll know for sure. As for how to make up for it, well, all I can tell you is that true love forgives everything."

"How can you say that? I ran away from her, for over a year! How can I justify that?"

"How did she justify almost marrying another man?"

"That was different-"

"How?"

"Well, I'd rejected her-"

"And that night you told me she came to you, would you have sent her away?"

Dean blew out a breath and shook his head sadly. "But I did send her away."

"Because you had a situation to deal with. You didn't send HER away."

Dean sighed again and squeezed his eyes shut, running a weary hand over his face.

Kat rose from her spot on the bed and called Lea to her. "You have a lot of thinking to do, but you need rest too. I'll be back later, all right?"

"Okay. And Kat?"

"What?"

"Two star seals have nothing on you for chewing out my six."

Kat's face scrunched in bewilderment. "Um, I think I'll take that as a compliment, even if I have no idea what you just said."

"It was, trust me."

Long hours after Kat had left, Dean was still awake, contemplating what a mess he'd made of things. There were so many unknowns, that he just had no idea where to start. But he wanted to try. He just hoped he'd find a way, and when he did, that it would not be too late.

 

 

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