~~~ Part Twenty-three – Ominous ~~~

Four days later
BEARLODGE MOUNTAIN RANCH
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

Kat helped Dean out of her truck and guided him up the main house stairs. He was on the road to recovery, but it would be another few days until he got back to normal, except for the two-month course of antibiotics he had to take. He was surprised to see how only a few days of illness had drained him. He'd offered only token resistance when Kat had insisted he stay with her during his convalescence.

A few minutes later, he was settled in Kat's guest room. He leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes tiredly. The pain medication was making him incredibly drowsy, but somehow, he doubted things would be very different without it.

"Anything I can get you?" Kat asked from the door.

"No, thanks. I think I'll just sleep for a while."

"Okay. I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”

"Hmm..." he mumbled sleepily.

Kat watched him slowly surrender to drug-induced slumber and retreated to the kitchen, leaving Lea to stand guard.

She busied herself preparing some lasagna, her mind working a mile a minute. A million different thoughts swirled in her brain, colliding with each other. Part of her was trying to figure out how to save the ranch from bankruptcy, and another part tried to ignore the names that had come up as she searched for the individuals responsible for the vile rumors spread about the farm and her. Marty Robson... And then, there was Dean. She could see the pain in his eyes, but every time she broached the subject of his trip to Washington, he would shut her out...

She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn't hear the front door open, or the steps in the living room. Only when a strong pair of arms grabbed her from behind, choking her, did she know there was an intruder in the house.

She tried to scream but the hand clamped around her throat, silencing her. The intruder's other arm snaked around her chest, pinning her arms to her sides. She twisted in his grasp, desperately trying to free herself, but her assailant was a lot taller and a lot stronger than she.

"Stop struggling or you're dead," he whispered in her ear. She complied and the hold on her throat slackened somewhat.

Kat inhaled sharply, panic and rage mixing in her veins. And then, she knew: the sharp tang of his Hugo Boss Cologne, the rough texture of his skin, the sweet, minty smell of his breath. Marty.

"How—" she asked, breathlessly.

"The nice L. A. parole board let me go. A month ago. I told you I'd find you," he hissed. "And now, bitch, you'll pay..."

Kat frantically tried to think her way out. "If you kill me, they'll know it was you! Just let me go! I won't tell anyone you were here! Please!" she begged.

Marty snickered, a cruel smile on his lips. "Nah... This is just the way I like you... At my mercy. And don't worry. A nice little fire in your precious barn is all it takes," he hissed, his right hand grasping her chin tightly.

A tight knot of fear twisted her gut but Kat pushed it back. 'Don't let the fear control you. Fear takes away your ability to think, and you need to think to survive', she told herself. She took a deep breath and met his light brown eyes.

"I'm not afraid of you! You won't get away with this!" she spat to his face.

"Oh, but you should be, kitten," he whispered into her ear. "I'll kill you for what you did to me. And there's nothing you can do about it," Marty jeered.

Kat struggled fiercely, trying to escape his grasp, but his hands held on to her like vices. She stomped her foot on to his, using the heel of her boot, as hard as she could.

Marty howled in pain and released her neck and chin.

"Help!" she squealed, as loudly as she could, hopefully waking Dean, or at least Lea. Kat regretted briefly having left Spirit out in the barn.

Marty straightened and swung back his arm, bringing his hand up in a sweeping arc. The heel of his palm connected solidly with the base of her neck, sending Kat into a dark pit of oblivion.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Lea's head snapped up from the bed where she had been happily sleeping, contented by her master's return. She cocked her head and listened intently. A low growl rumbled in her throat, as she heard a muffled yell.

The growling grew louder as scuffling steps and bumped furniture rattled. Sensing the hostility and fear in the other room, Lea gave a strong bark and pawed at Dean's hand. She received a sleepy slap for her efforts. Undeterred, she clawed at his hand again, insistently.

"Wha???" came a drowsy, annoyed mutter.

Lea growled and barked. Half awake, Dean rose to his elbows and listened intently. Lea never barked for nothing. But the house was quiet. He gave Lea an irate glance.

"Let me sleep, will you?" he grumbled, dropping his head back into the pillow. Moments later, he sank back into drug-assisted slumber, ignoring Lea's insistent whimpering.

 

~~~ Part Twenty-four – Terror ~~~

 

The sharp stench of diesel fuel roused Kat from the dark reaches of unconsciousness. She tried to get up but soon noticed the ropes that restrained her arms and legs. She cursed and tugged at the hemp rope bonds to no avail. She looked around her and recognized the hayloft. She was blessedly alone. But her relief didn't last. She sniffed the air carefully. Smoke. The barn was on fire.

"HELP!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.

"Yell all you want, kitten. There's no one to hear you."

Marty's calm, chilly voice sent shivers down her spine, as she head the barn door slam shut.

Panic rose sharply in Kat's gut as she heard the crackle of flames just under her, in the rafters. The old, hay and straw filled barn would burn quickly. She had to find a way out, and fast. A thick, acrid smoke had already began to fill the air, making her eyes water and her lungs burn.

Again and again, she yelled for help, until her throat, filled with smoke and ash, refused to work. Coughing, she furiously worked her wrists to loosen the rope, but she only managed to rub her skin raw. The hayloft was now almost completely filled with smoke, and she could see a deep orange glow edging closer and closer. The panic she had been so desperately trying to keep at bay slowly gripped her heart, as she coughed and gagged from the smoke, here eyes too irritated to see.

"No!" she screamed, completely terrified, as the approaching flames neared the post her feet were tied to. As her world faded to a dark tunnel of grey as she slipped into unconsciousness, her last conscious thought was of her certain, impending death. And fear. Complete, utter, abject, choking terror.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Lea jumped off the bed and pawed at the door, but it was securely shut. Giving an annoyed bark, she jumped back on the bed and froze, sniffing the air. She rose her muzzle high and sniffed again, towards the window.

She whimpered and barked, again and again, and licked Dean's hands with a passion. She received yet another sleepy slap.

She jumped off the bed and pawed at the door, barking and howling.

"Stop it, Lea. I'm awake," Dean grumbled. He slowly sat up and took a deep breath, as Lea kept up her furious clawing.

"Lea, stop- Damn!" Dean snapped, as he caught the smell of smoke. He stumbled out of bed and pulled the curtains open.

"Shit! KAT! THE BARN'S ON FIRE!" he yelled as loudly as he could, pulling on his jeans. "Good girl, Lea," he said, as he gave her a quick pat. He jerked the now well-scratched bedroom door open, his boots in one hand, and stopped cold. The living room furniture was askew, and he could see broken dishes on the kitchen floor.

"Kat?" he shouted, a brand new fear blossoming in his heart. "Lea, find Kat, quick!"

Wasting no time, the dog bolted out of the partially open door, and to Dean's horror, straight into the burning barn.

"Shit!" he growled, as he followed Lea. He paused by the entrance only long enough to pull his t-shit over his mouth and nose, walking straight into the raging inferno. He crouched low and followed Lea's whimpers all the way to the hayloft ladder.

"Out, girl. Go!" he said, half-choked by smoke and pushed Lea towards the door. He took a second to study his surroundings, but all he could see were clouds of billowing smoke, and angry, red and orange flames licking and cracking everywhere. He took a final breath before grabbing onto the ladder and hoisting himself into the hayloft.

Dark clouds of smoke, from ceiling to floor, greeted him. The flimsy material of his undershirt did nothing to filter out the bitter, acrid air, and he started coughing uncontrollably. On his hands and knees, he searched blindly for Kat. Stars began to dance in front of his eyes as his hand encountered a hard object. A boot.

He tugged onto it but it wouldn't budge. He tugged again, moving closer to Kat's limp form. His hands encountered a rough bond around her legs. A rope. He followed it to a nearby post. His lungs burning from the smoke and effort, he gave the knot a hard tug, fighting, praying for a little more time. If he passed out, they 'd both die here. As the thought formed in his head, the floor shuddered, and the roof gave a sickening crack. The old tinder building wasn't going to hold up for much longer.

Dean gave a knot another sharp tug and inwardly cheered as he felt the rope slip. Within seconds, he had dragged Kat to the hayloft ladder. He slipped her limp form over his shoulders and slid down the ladder, and out of the heaving and creaking building. He felt something heavy land on his left shoulder but he just kept on walking, till he reached sweet, fresh air. He walked a few more steps before collapsing to the ground. He gently set Kat on the dirt, as his abused lungs convulsed. Some moments later -- he wasn't sure how long -- his vision cleared somewhat, and he was able to draw something close to a breath without his throat wanting to turn inside out.

He crawled to Kat and turned her on her back, pressing his ear to her chest. Nothing. He tilted her head back, pinched her nose and covered her mouth with his, and blew a soft breath, watching her chest rise. He repeated the gesture and pressed two fingers to her carotid. He allowed himself a small whisper of hope as he found a weak, but steady beat.

"Come on, Kat. Breathe!" he admonished, as he tilted her head back and breathed into her once, twice, three times more.

He felt her entire body twitch and she suddenly rolled away from him, coughing and gagging. He kneeled next to her and rubbed a comforting hand on her back as she cleared the smoke from her lungs and throat.

In the distance, he heard voices shouting and he felt a strong pair of hands on his own shoulders, forcing him to let go of Kat. Something was pressed against his face and he became vaguely aware of an intense burning sensation on his shoulder. The sensation grew until his entire body began to tremble. And then, nothing.

 

~~~ Part Twenty-five – Angels in Disguise ~~~

 

Dean jerked awake, sitting straight up and instantly regretting it as a sharp jolt of pain seared his left shoulder and back.

"Owwww..."

"Easy, boy, easy," Mo said, as he helped Dean lay back on the hospital bed.

"Mo, Kat ok?" he asked, his voice roughened anew. He grimaced as his shoulder brushed the bed.

"She's resting. Smoke inhalation, a few minor burns, but she'll be fine. Thanks to you. You saved my little kiddie, boy. I'll never thank you enough for that," Mo whispered, his throat tight with emotion.

"Kiddie?"

"Kat's my granddaughter. Her mom was my daughter."

"Oh," Dean replied simply. "You should thank Lea. She woke me and pointed me in the right direction."

"I owe that dog a t-bone, but you pulled her out and you breathed the life back into her."

"I did what I had to. Damn, this hurts!" Dean groaned.

"Second degree burn on your shoulder and back. You were lucky it was only smoldering when the beam hit you. If it had been flaming, you wouldn’t be here to complain about it."

"How do you know it was a beam?"

"Jackson saw the smoke. Came running as you got out, saw it falling. He called the cavalry while you were taking care of Kat."

Dean didn't reply as he was gripped by yet another coughing fit. Once he could breathe normally again, he turned back to the old man.

"Tell Kat I'll see her soon, okay?"

"Will do. And thanks again. Kat owes you her life."

"No. I owe her," Dean said firmly, locking gazes with the old man.

Mo smiled and rose off the chair. "I'll be back in the morning to pick you two up."

Dean nodded. Once the door was shut, he closed his eyes and let himself drift off, his exhausted mind putting off the questions tumbling around it. Questions like how Kat had come to be tied up in the hayloft, and who had put her there.

 

0845 ROMEO
CROOK COUNTY HOSPITAL
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

He woke up more slowly this time, feeling watched.

"Hey, Kat," he said, without opening his eyes.

"How did you know?" she replied, her usually musical voice gravelly and rough.

"I smelled smoke."

"Funny."

Dean opened his eyes and slowly stretched, mindful of his shoulder. He looked at Kat, smiling softly. "How come you look better than I do? You spent a whole lot more time in there than I did," he asked, a teasing smile on his lips.

"I started out healthy. How do you feel?"

Dean snorted. "Well done. Shoulder hurts a bit, but what they gave me took the edge off. What about you?"

"I won't sing for a few days, that's for sure," she kidded, but her smile looked forced.

Dean pushed himself off the bed and sat up, facing Kat. "What happened?"

Her gaze instantly turned watery, starting him. This was not usual for Kat, the fiery tempered optimist who desperately refused to let life get her down.

"Hey! C'mere," he said, drawing her to him as tears spilled over her cheeks. That's when he noticed the large, purple and black mark at the base of her neck and the bandages on her wrists.

"Who did this to you?" he asked softly, stroking her back as she wept onto his shoulder. A few sniffles later, she pulled back and wiped her eyes.

"Martin Michael Robson," Kat replied blankly.

Dean's worried expression turned to puzzlement. "Wasn't he in jail for attempted murder?"

Kat chuckled humourlessly. "Paroled a month ago. Decided I needed to pay for what I did... and now my ranch is just a pile of ash," she whispered, as new tears slipped down her cheeks.

"We can rebuild it. Insurance'll pay for that."

Kat nodded tearfully. "I know. I'm sorry. This isn't usually how I deal with things..."

"Don't worry. Stress needs to relieve itself somehow," he said, his expression dark. "Listen, Kat, we need to make sure you're safe. He probably knows where-"

"No need," Kat said haltingly, a wan smile on her lips. "Marty isn't stupid. He didn't stick around. But he's always had the worst luck. He was pulled over early this morning for a broken taillight. He's back in custody in Gillette." She smiled softly. "I'm safe, big brother. Thanks to you."

Dean let out a sigh of relief as Mo walked into the room, a newspaper in his hand.

"Mornin' you two. You made the Sundance Chronicle front page," he smirked, slapping the paper down on the bedside table. Dean reached over and picked it up. He gave a dry chuckle and showed Kat the page.

Local four-pawed hero sounds alarm again!

Below the title was a picture of Lea, her liver and white coat smeared with soot and grime, pink tongue sticking out to the side, sitting next to a prone Dean, an oxygen mask on his face. In the background, she could make out her own form, lying on a stretcher, two firefighters by her side.

Kat smiled. "I knew springers were angels in dog costumes."

 

~~~ Part Twenty-six – Lost and Found ~~~

NEXT DAY,
CIA HEADQUARTERS
LANGLEY, VIRGINIA

 

Clayton Webb chuckled as he looked at the very same picture, resting on his desk. "Playing hero again, Rabb. And with a sidekick too... The more things change, the more they stay the same, I imagine," he reflected out loud. He shook his head and cursed the fates.

He threw the copy of the newsprint on his desk and lifted the receiver, dialing a DC number.

"Frank? Clay. I got the info you sent. Thanks. Yeah, it's him. Good pickup. How did that manage to land on your desk? What! How? I see... Beef cattle... Good. I'll owe you one or two. All right. Take care."

He hung up the phone as a brusque knock rattled his office door.

"Come in," he invited neutrally, fully aware of who waited behind the closed door. He turned the papers on his desk over and schooled his features to a mask of complete neutrality, devoid of any flicker of emotion.

"Mr. Director," he greeted, as Harrison Kershaw entered the broom-closet sized office. Clay noted the thin folder in his right hand. Kershaw's being exuded barely suppressed rage, held in only by a very thin sense of decorum. He threw the folder on the desk and rested his hands on his hips, his eyes cold.

"This is what you wanted."

Clay reached a hand to the folder, but before he could open it, Kershaw's hand slammed onto the desk, pinning the papers down.

"The Gentle Dove folder first."

"What kind of fool do you take me for, Harrison?"

"The kind that gave a level two top-secret videotape to a JAG officer with only a level one clearance, Clay," Kershaw replied, his upper lip twitching lightly.

"Once I give you the folder, I have no way to assure that you’ll hold up your end of the bargain, so I think I'll pass." Clay paused and let the man in front of him reflect on his words. "You tried to screw me, Kershaw. I know you tried to scuttle me with the DCI, after our little chat... See, you forgot he was a good friend of my father. Saved each other's lives in the field, some years back. He wasn't really happy to learn about your involvement in the 'Paraguay Incident'. He never authorized the use of Navy assets on that mission, and the SECNAV didn't take too kindly to being played by one of his underlings... especially in light of his predecessor's fate. So keep the info, Harrison. The deal's off."

Kershaw shook with rage, speechless. He was beaten.

"Be glad you still have a job, *agent* Kershaw. And stay out of my way, or I will take you down."

"You'll pay for this, Webb! I swear, you'll pay."

"Empty threats, Kershaw," Webb growled. "And if you're ever tempted, remember, I still have the Gentle Dove file. And I won't give it to the DCI. I know a few nasty Russian arms dealers who would have a field day if they ever got their hands on you."

Kershaw took a deep breath, withdrew his hand from the folder and turned on his heel. He paused by the door and turned back to Clay, a shadowed smile on his lips. He was back to the calm, collected, yet menacing Harrison Kershaw he'd always known.

"I was wrong. You are better than Neville was. And I can recognize when I'm beaten. But know this: my commitment to this country equals yours. In that, we'll always be on the same side. But if ever out paths cross once our work's done, I will make you pay." He closed the office door softly, leaving Clay to ponder his words.

Clay pursed his lips and leaned back in his chair. "Makes me wish I really knew what was in that folder..."

He knew he'd just made the situation worse with Kershaw but he didn't really care. Like many survivors, Clay didn't fear death or retribution. To him, only living mattered now, and if he could make Sarah Mackenzie happy, he would.

He picked up the two folders on his desk and headed out to the parking lot.

The first thing he noticed when he pulled into the JAG HQ parking lot was the absence of Mac's Corvette. Not a good sign.

He usually called her office and met her outside. He was used to the cold stares and hateful words whispered behind his back. But he wasn't a masochist. If he could avoid riding the gauntlet, he would. But this time, he'd have to face the music. Although the Robertses had included him in their 'family' gatherings when he was dating Mac, he knew Bud still blamed him for his mentor's disappearance.

He strode up to the guard and showed his CIA id, and walked in.

The elevator came to a slow halt and the doors opened to reveal the well-known Ops bullpen. He pushed the door open and walked straight to the admiral's outer office.

"Coates?"

Jen glanced at the spook and returned her attention to the computer screen on her desk. "Colonel Mackenzie is on TAD to Naples, Mr. Webb," she informed him.

"I'm here to see the admiral."

Coates gave him an icy glare before picking up her phone. "Admiral? Mr Webb is here to see you." She listened for a few seconds before giving the admiral a polite "Aye, sir."

"The admiral will see you, now."

"Thank you, Coates," Clay replied politely, as he walked into the admiral's office.

AJ looked up from the file on his desk, and studied the spook intently. It was the first time he'd come into his office since Paraguay.

"Mr Webb," he greeted carefully as he removed his reading glasses, throwing them to the blotter with the usual distraction.

"Admiral."

AJ motioned for Webb to sit, and waited. He knew of his and Mackenzie's falling out. So he could only wonder why he dared to show his face here. He very well knew that he wasn't welcome, and AJ had made it clear to the SECNAV that he would no longer risk losing officers to the CIA's ill-prepared missions. Surprisingly, Sheffield had agreed. Apparently, he'd been quite fond of Commander Rabb, and his departure had left a bitter taste not only in the admiral's mouth, but in the SECNAV's as well.

Webb opened his briefcase and pulled out a manila folder and handed it to the admiral. "I found him," he stated simply.

AJ's brow furrowed. "Him?"

"Rabb."

AJ ripped the folder from Webb's hand and snapped it open. He quickly scanned the first page and turned it, revealing the Sundance Chronicle picture. He looked at the date in the corner.

"Yesterday... So he's still there." His eyes narrowed and fixed Webb pointedly. "Why now?"

Clay sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair, absently rubbing the scar on the side of his jaw. "Because she asked me to. I love her as much as he does, and I wasn't afraid to tell her. But she loves him, not me. I want to make her happy."

"You knew what she wanted from the start. Why did you..." the admiral left the question unfinished, not sure how to phrase it.

"Have a relationship with Sarah?" Clay looked straight into the admiral's eyes, honesty shining through. "I was selfish, I guess. I hoped it would be enough. I could live without her love. But not without her happiness."

"Doesn't make what you did right, "AJ replied sternly.

"I've lost more sleep over this than many other things, Admiral. I took advantage of the situation. I'm not proud of that, but I promised her I'd find him, and I did. But bear in mind, she came to me willingly."

AJ pursed his lips in an irritated scowl. "Doesn't matter now. It's already done. I'll make sure she get this as soon as she's back."

"When is she due back?"

"Thank you, Mr. Webb. Have a good day," AJ said with finality.

Reluctantly, Clay rose to his feet and left the admiral's office, leaving AJ to his thoughts.

Once the door closed, AJ re-read the thin file on Rabb. He contemplated finding him for himself, but quickly dismissed the idea. Instead, he punched a button on his intercom.

"Coates, get me the SECNAV, please," he asked, a plan already forming in his mind. He could only hope Sheffield still missed JAG's star...

 

Part twenty-seven – Longings


ONE WEEK LATER
1455 ROMEO
BEARLODGE MOUNTAIN RANCH
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

Kat stood in front of the huge pile of charred debris that had been her barn. The insurance adjuster by her side walked slowly, scribbling on a pad with a scowl on his face.

"I'm not sure we can cover this, Miss Miller," he said.

Kat drew in a sharp breath and opened her mouth to speak, but the biting remark died on her tongue as another voice rose from behind her.

"Oh, but you will. It's arson, and the perpetrator confessed," Dean said firmly, walking up behind Kat.

"And you are?" the man in the cheap suit asked.

"Dean Harmon. I'm foreman here, and I'm also Miss Miller's attorney."

"I see... Well... I guess..."

Dean put his hands on his hips and blew out an irritated breath. "You guess? Listen, Mr..."

"Arzu. Theodore Arzu," the adjuster replied.

"Mr. Arzu, the building policy covers damages caused by criminal acts, up to and including the total rebuilding costs, plus 50% of the building's value in equipment, as stated in the contract under section 23, paragraph 12," Harm repeated from memory, his icy blue eyes pinning the shorter man in place.

"I, um, I'll have to verify that..."

Dean handed him a copy of the policy and a copy of the arrest report on Marty Robson. "Use my office. In the hall, second door to the right. I'll be waiting," Dean said, as he pointed to the house. Arzy fruitlessly worked his mouth for a few seconds and stalked off towards the main house.

When the screen door slammed shut, Kat burst out laughing. "Oh, man! You scared him good!" She squeezed Dean's elbow in thanks, her eyes dancing.

Dean smiled mischievously. "Well, I was a half decent lawyer in another lifetime," he said, humour shining through.

"Oh, I bet you were better than decent," Kat replied. Her smile faded a bit and she took a step towards the house. "But speaking of other lifetimes, have you made a decision yet?"

"Kat--" Dean halted, leaning his head back and staring at the deep blue, cloudless sky. Perfect for flying, he mused. Perfect to get away from this upcoming conversation.

"Are you done playing ostrich?" Kat asked pointedly. She crossed her arms, put her weight on one leg and cocked her head, studying him though her lashes. Her eyes held that fiery, determined look Dean now knew so well. There was no way she'd let this drop.

His drew his lips in a thin smile and shook his head slowly, looking at his feet. He put both his hands on the small of his back and winced as the burned skin on his shoulder stretched. He took a few steps towards the ruins of the barn and toed a charred beam with his boot.

"I need some time to think about this, Kat," he murmured, his eyes lost over the distance.

"What is there to think about, Dean? You love her, and you can't move on until you face that, and her. So, what are you waiting for?"

"It's not that simple, Kat," he said, his tone slightly condescending.

"And why not? And don't you dare tell me I'm too young to understand. You know better than anyone I've lived through more than my share of shit and heartache, so spare me the patronizing attitude," she snapped back.

He blew out a long breath and bit his lower lip before lowering his eyes to meet Kat's. "I'm sorry. It's just... I don't think I'm ready to accept I've truly lost her."

Kat walked to his side and put a hand on his uninjured shoulder. "You don't know that you have for sure. And would you really want to live the rest of your life wondering?"

"No, I don't. But I don't think I can take the additional pain, if I'm right."

"If, Dean. If. You're a lawyer. You know what suppositions and speculations are worth in court."

"Circumstantial evidence is enough, in some cases," he replied bitterly.

Kat's features scrunched. She'd hit yet another nerve. Dean Harmon was turning out to be a great friend, but as the saying went, he was a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. The bitterness in his tone was usually reserved for moments of regret over Sarah Mackenzie. However, she knew almost nothing of his previous life outside of the mystery woman whom she'd seen only in a small picture he kept in his wallet. There were pictures of his godchildren, his mother, father and brother, but none of Sarah.

"Please elaborate, counselor," Kat said solemnly.

Dean turned sharply and squared off in front of her. "Don't try to play this with me, Kat. I've been on both sides of the bench, both sides of the courtroom, both sides of the witness box, and on both sides of the law. So just don't," he snapped.

Kat walked up to him, standing toe to toe with him. She tilted her head back and looked him straight in the eye. "I don't play, Harmon Rabb. I ask what I want to know. I was foolish enough to think you trusted me, and I realise I was wrong." Her lips pressed into a thin, angry line, she turned away from him and strode towards the house, her boot heels digging deep holes in the loose dirt.

"You promised you wouldn't ask," Dean called after her.

Kat stopped cold and stiffened.

"I do trust you, Kat, but when you don't keep your word, it tends to piss me off. And that particular event is part of the reason why I'm here."

Kat pursed her lips as she toyed with a loose strand of her hair, curling it around her finger and untangling it with her nails. She remained quiet for a spell, digesting his words. The toe of her boot traced a line in the sand, the damp soil a dark contrast against the dust resting on top. Like shadow and light; like the two sides of Dean Harmon.

"I did make that promise. I'm sorry for making you think I was breaking it. But a simple 'no, I don't' would have been sufficient," Kat said quietly, still staring at the marks in the sand. "You're just like the soil of these fields, Dean. All we see is the surface as it looks, dried by the sun. But a little rain or a little dig, and what you find looks nothing like what you've seen. You never know what's hidden beneath the surface. And you never know how deep you can dig until or unless you try. The true colour of soil is the one you find underneath, not what you can see. I'll be in the house." Kat walked off, her steps more even and calm.

Dean watched her disappear, her words lingering in his mind. The cynical part of his mind told him he should be offended at being compared to dirt, but he shoved the thought aside.

A much younger woman had just served him another lesson, and that stung a bit. Strangely, it didn't bother him as much as it should have. He headed for the stable, luckily spared by the fire. In the tack room, he picked up a well-worn saddle and bridle and quickly walked to one of the boxes. He placed the equipment on a nearby hook and led a huge, almost black gelding into the alley. After a quick brushing, he saddled the horse and led him out to the newly growing pasture. He swung himself up on the saddle and kicked the horse into an easy canter. He had some thinking to do.

He guided his mount to the top of Sundance Mountain, and dropped to the ground, he let the reins fall to the ground and walked to the edge of the copse of ancient pines. The Devil's Tower stood in the distance, a tall, naked pillar of stone, whipped by wind.

The chickadees chirped in the branches, males fluffing their tiny chests in seduction. Dean let the serenity of his surroundings calm his swirling thoughts.

"I have no idea what to do about this, Mac. My eyes tell me you've been involved with Clay since I left, but... Kat has a point. What if I'm wrong?"

He blew out a disheartened sigh and ran a hand over his face. He heard a soft whimper and felt a slight shove on his back.

He chuckled and slipped a hand in his jeans pocket, taking out a small bag of jellybeans. His other arm curled around the neck of the dark gelding, scratching his cheek.

He offered the horse two of the sweets, in the palm of his hand. "Don't ever tell Kat I give you jellybeans, Sarge. She'd have my hide." He stroked the velvet nose of the horse Kat had named Sergeant Pepper. The horse raised his head and blew a breath across his face and suddenly turned his head, ears peaked.

A few seconds later, Lea emerged from the trail, tail wagging faster than light.

"You too?" Dean scoffed, as Lea pawed at his pocket. He shook his head, smiling. He tossed the dog a jellybean. He popped a couple into his mouth and smiled. He liked his life, here. Flying -- albeit not a Tomcat, but flying still -- the great spaces, the freedom.

But he loved the military life too. He pursed his lips and ran a hand through his longish hair. He loved most aspects of it, anyway. He thrived on the strict principles, the discipline, the respect.

He took a deep, slow breath, filling his senses with the scent of pine trees and rotting wood. He took a blanket from the saddle, spread it on the carpet of pine needlese tossed He
and sat, his long legs crossed at the ankles, his arms braced behind him.

Lea wasted no time taking her spot across his lap, sighing contentedly. Dean fingered the long featherings on her ears, and scratched the top of her head. As good as life was here, he missed his friends. He missed Bud's enthusiasm, Harriet's spirit, his godson's wonder at the world... Sadness crept into his heart when he realised he'd never even held his goddaughter.

He missed the Friday night basketball games with Sturgis, the after-work drinks with the crew... Hell, he even missed the admiral's stern guidance. He missed the courtroom, the endless quest for the truth that made him feel useful, like he had a purpose in life.

Here, life was simpler, ruled by the seasons, not by men. But it wasn't him. Deep down, he'd always known he couldn't run forever. He was ashamed to admit he'd gotten a rush out of finding that obscure paragraph in Kat's insurance policy. How pathetic! He really needed to sink his teeth in a good case... He didn't let himself think too much about the thrill of a catapult launch.

As the sun began to dip below the horizon, he picked up the blanket, brushed off the pine needles and stuffed it back into its saddlebag. He pushed himself up onto the Sergeant's back and headed for home, Lea a few yards ahead.

Just before he lead his mount on the downward path, she turned and took in the view. Watching him, Lea cocked her head and gave a short bark.

"I'll have to find you some city bats to chase around, I guess. Come on, let's get home."

A couple of hours later, he was rubbing down his horse in the dimly lit barn.

"I thought you didn't ride," Kat asked, leaning against the tackroom door.

"Dean Harmon doesn't. Harmon Rabb does."

Kat pushed herself off the door and walked up to Sarge's nose, stroking it softly. "Do you really see yourself as two distinct people?"

Dean sighed and rolled his shoulders. "Sometimes. I guess I'm trying to be someone I'm not," he replied quietly.

Kat could hear the slight note of regret in his voice. She wasn't sure why, though. "Are you saying you regret not being Harmon Rabb anymore?"

He dropped the soft brush he was holding into the plastic pail by his side and sat on a bale of hay, blowing out a long breath. "I had things all figured out, out there," he said, his hand gesturing vaguely towards the mountains. "Now I'm not so sure."

Kat leaned against the horse's shoulder and crossed her arms. "Why not?"

Dean ran a frustrated hand through his hair and threw his head back. "I miss a lot of my old life. I mean, I love it here. I love flying and I don't get to do it as often as I want to back in DC, but... I left a lot behind: friends, family, the Navy... I never even contemplated doing anything else since I was a little kid. I lost my wings a while back, and I had to find a new way to serve. I ended up at JAG. Wasn't my choice, but I was good at it, and I enjoy it still. I went back to flying but I gave it up so I could have the career I wanted. And then, I threw it all away for her. I saved her life. Makes it worthwhile, but somehow, it cost me my soul. You asked if I still loved her, and I do. But I'm afraid I'll resent her for what she cost me."

Kat listened intently to his confessions, not understanding everything he was talking about, but getting the gist of it. He missed his old life, but the new one had its good points.

"You said you had it figured out. What was your plan?"

"Going back to DC after the hunting season, and trying to get back in the Navy. Maybe even JAG."

"What about Sarah?" she asked carefully.

"That's where it all went to hell. I don't want to spend my life wondering, Kat. But I have no idea what to do about Mac. If she is involved with Webb, I don't know how I'll react. Some part of me doesn't want that to cost me the rest of my life over there, like the friends and family I mentioned, and not the job. But... Damn, I deserve some happiness in my life, Kat."

Kat pushed off the horse and flopped on the bale next to Dean. She laid her head on his shoulder and snaked her arm around his waist. "And you deserve it. But you have to be honest with yourself, Dean. I said it before; I'll say it again. You need to make peace with her, even if it hurts you. Then, you can heal. Either way."

Dean remained quiet for a while. Suddenly, he chuckled.

"What's so funny?" Kat asked.

"You know you're the only person I can open up to this easily? People usually have to figure out how I feel from at least fifty yards away."

"Must be my charm," Kat replied smartly, a perfect smart-ass grin on her face.

Dean rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to speak, but stayed silent, unsure if he should be annoyed or amused by her remark. He chose a cross between both. "You're insufferable, you know that? Every time I pay you a compliment, you just get snarky."

He expected another biting comment, but instead, when she replied, her voice was low and filled with pain.

"It's a lasting effect of the abuse. I tend not to believe it when people pay me a compliment. Like I'm not worthy of it."

"That's not true, Kat. "

"I know. But... sometimes, I still hate myself. I still see myself as the weak woman who couldn't protect herself, who couldn't get out of the mess she let herself fall into." Kat let her head fall forward and ran her hand through her tangled hair over and over again, until Dean caught her wrist and gently put her hand in her lap.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Kat mumbled, tears falling from her luminous green eyes.

Dean drew her to him, pressing her head on his good shoulder. "Shh. It's ok. I understand."

Kat sniffled into his chest for a few minutes before pulling back. "I'm sorry. Just a lot of... bad memories."

"You sure you're all right?"

"I'm sure." Kat wiped her eyes and smiled softly. "Thanks for being there."

"Thanks for listening."

"You're welcome."

"You are too. Now let's go. I'm starving."

"Mr. Rabbit food is starving? Since when?" Kat asked mischievously.

"That's it. Enough with you." Dean said in mock exasperation. He shoved to his feet and grabbed both Kat's wrists, dragging her to her feet. Before she had a chance to protest, he leaned forward and threw her over his shoulder.

"Dean Harmon, put me down this instant!" Kat squealed, her clear laugh sparkling like a cascade, over his shoulder.

"No. You said next time you badmouthed my cooking, to smack you upside the head. I'll remind you that I promised to throw you in the hayloft. So, I'm keeping my promise."

"One problem, Dean," Kat pointed out, hanging upside down. "Hayloft's burned out."

"I know."

"Then, where -- NO!!!"

A loud splash followed Kat's yelp of surprise, as Dean dumped her in the tub used to water the cattle.

Smiling, Dean calmly backed towards his cabin while Kat extricated herself from the water.

"I'll get you, Dean. I swear to god I'll get you!"

He stopped walking and put both hands on his hips, a cocky grin on his lips. "Dinner in half an hour. My place. And bring dry clothes."

A second later, he was sprinting towards the cabin, a sopping wet, chestnut-haired tornado on his heels.

Late that night, Dean and Kat shared a glass of Bourbon on his porch, staring at the stars.

Kat pointed to the sky and squinted. "That Draco?"

"Huh, Where are you looking?"

"Right next to the top of the old elm."

"Hmm. No. That's Hercules. Draco is farther north. View's better in July..."

"I bet you don't see many stars in DC."

"Not many. And no bats for Lea."

"Are you leaving?" Kat asked, trying to keep the fear and disappointment from her voice.

Dean sighed deeply and drained his glass. "Maybe. I don't know for sure yet. But I won't leave you till I know you're on your feet."

Kat smiled warmly. "I'll be okay on my own. Have bee for a long time. But I'll miss you."

Dean smiled back softly, his eyes looking east. "I'm not gone yet, Kat."

But he knew where his heart was. He just wasn't sure he was ready to go after it.

 

~~~ Chapter Twenty-eight – Acceptance ~~~

0456 ROMEO
BEARLODGE MOUNTAIN RANCH
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

Dawn found Dean still in his chair on the porch, his shirt damp with the morning dew. He shivered as he watched the sun rise slowly over the lake. Despite his intentions of yesterday, he knew that going back to his old life was impossible. Dreams and wishes didn't come true, at least not in his life. He knew that going back to the Navy and JAG was probably impossible, and that life had gone on for his family and friends, without him. He'd felt the awkwardness once, and this time, he knew they weren't likely to forgive him.

He'd spent too much time stuck in the past, he reasoned. He'd left DC behind, and all his past, or so he thought. It was now time for him to live with his decision. His place was here, now. Kat needed him, despite her assurances that she'd be okay. He closed his eyes. No, she didn't need him; he needed her, her friendship and counsel. The irony of a career naval officer and fearless pilot needing a little sister wasn't lost on him. But he was willing to accept it nonetheless.

He took a deep breath and rose from his chair, stretching his stiff muscles. He tucked away his memories of Sarah Mackenzie into the small remaining corner of his heart and squared his shoulders. One day, he'd be happy again. Without her.

He heard the door of the main house creak open and smiled as Kat emerged in the growing dawn, her hair wild and tangled, her small form engulfed by her old raspberry red robe.

"Morning," he called.

She turned to him, surprised. "Hey! You're up early!" she replied as she strode towards him.

"Never went to bed. Coffee?"

Kat put her hands on her hips and her jaw dropped in dismay. "You spent the night out here? Are you nuts? You're still on antibiotics!"

"I'm fine," he said, as he held the door open for her. "And you're a fine one to talk, miss Barefoot."

Kat snorted and wiped the sand off her bare feet on the doormat. "Saves on shoes. What were you doing up all night?"

"Thinking."

"Too much of that'll fry your brain," Kat kidded as she filled Dean's kettle and put in on the burner. When he didn't reply, she turned to him and eyed him carefully, her head cocked to the side. He was slowly unbuttoning his flannel shirt, staring into nothing.

"Why that look, Dean?"

"Made up my mind." The reply was toneless and delivered with a heartbreaking finality.

"Oh?"

"I'm not going back. I closed that chapter of my life a year ago. The choice is already made."

Kat pursed her lips and ran a hand through her tangled locks. She walked to the table and sat, covering his hand with hers.

"So why do you look so defeated? Sounds like you're already regretting it."

"I don't have any regrets that weren't there before, Kat. I just... Sometimes, I just wish I could say what I feel to the rest of the world like I do with you. But that just isn't me. I know I can be impulsive and that I let my emotions guide my actions, but I can't speak my heart when it matters. That's a paradox I have to live with. What I said yesterday about DC and the Navy's just an unattainable dream, Kat. Besides, I've left and come back before, and it only made things worse."

"But do you have to give up your identity, your friends, your family, to get over one woman?"

"It isn't just about Mac. There's so much you don't know about, Kat. There's a lot of things Harmon Rabb did that I'm not proud of. I need to start clean."

"I'm not asking you to tell me something I promised I wouldn't ask, but I don't understand... I thought you were happy, before that thing in South America you said you can't talk about..."

"I haven't been happy for a long, long time. The last year before I came here..." Dean's eyes clouded and darkened, as he remembered his trial, the isolation. "In the last eight years, I've been accused of murder three times, put on trial twice, and killed more men than I can even remember. I've started to make a life here. I have to hang on to that."

Kat sighed as she saw yesterday's hopefulness turned to resignation. "I'll be happy to have you, but..."

"It's my choice, Kat. Thank you for being my conscience, but I want to move on."

"Okay. I respect that. You're my friend, and that's the least I can do. I just don't want you to look back in a couple of years and regret it even more."

Dean locked his sea-colored eyes on her. "If I do, I'll have only myself to blame."

"But you can't live just with Mo's flights... You'll always have a place to stay here, but times are gonna be tough for the next year."

Dean nodded. "I know. I'll check, but there has to be a state bar exam in the fall. I'll take it and get my bar license, open a small law office, either here or in Gillette. "

"Hmm..."

The kettle whistled, putting an end to the conversation. As Dean poured the boiling water over the grounds, he felt another page of his life turning.

 

 

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