~~~ Chapter Twenty-nine – Step Forward ~~~

1355 ZULU
JAG HEADQUARTERS
FALLS CHURCH, VIRGINIA

 

Mac walked into the bullpen and paused by the glass doors. She smiled warmly. This was the closest thing to home she had. The four-week TAD to Naples had been insanely busy, but it had kept her from thinking too much about the events of the last year, especially the mess she had made of her personal life.

"Good to see you back, ma'am!"

Harriet's cheerful greeting broke her reverie and snapped her back to the present.

"It's good to be back, Harriet. How are the kids?"

"Angels, ma'am. I don't mean to rush you, but the admiral's waiting for you."

Mac sighed and strode towards her office to drop off her cover and briefcase and headed for the admiral's office.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Welcome back, Colonel. How was Italy?" AJ asked, once she was seated in front of his desk.

"Busy, sir. I'm glad to be back."

AJ leaned back in his chair and studied the woman in front of her. He'd watched from a distance as she struggled though the last year, watched her run to Clayton Webb to forget the pain of Harmon Rabb's departure. He'd seen the hollowness in her eyes, the long working nights, the wistful looks she still gave to his old office...

"I look forward to your report, Colonel," AJ replied. He leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment. He blew a quick breath and spoke up.

"When was the last time you took some leave, Mac?"

"Sir?"

"It's a simple question, Colonel," AJ replied curtly. This wasn't going to be easy.

"Um, it's... A few years, sir. But I don't need--"

"Let me be the judge of that. You have over 60 days of leave on the books, and I prefer my staff to accumulate no more than 30 days. So, I'm giving you 15 days of leave, effective immediately."

AJ saw Mac bristle, her jaw set, ready to argue. He held up a palm, staying her.

"Before you say a word, let me make a suggestion." He pushed a folder across his desk and motioned for her to pick it up. "I hear Wyoming's nice this time of year."

Mac took the folder from the admiral's desk, giving her CO a puzzled look. "Wyoming, sir?"

AJ stuck his chin out towards the folder in her hand. "Mr. Webb left these vacation plans for you while you were away. Dismissed."

Mac suddenly felt a cold shiver run down her spine. She rose to her feet and snapped to attention, heart hammering. "Aye, aye, sir. Thank you, sir."

The about-face and subsequent retreat to her office was done purely automatically, her entire mind focused on the folder in her hand. She dropped to her chair, knees weak, stomach in knots.

This was it.

There was only one thing Clay could have left for her. Harm's whereabouts. She placed the folder in the middle of the blotter and stared at it for long minutes. Her hand hovered over the cover, shaking.

The words from his letter still haunted her.

If you love something, let it go... I ask of you only one thing: let me go. Don't try to find me. Leave me in peace, and be happy...

She swallowed thickly and took a deep breath. Her hand dropped to the thin cardboard folder. Her breath turned to short, panting gasps as the pad of her thumb caught the edge of the cover.

He'd let her go. She'd be damned if she'd let him slip away without knowing. She had to know if he truly meant it.

If you love something...

...love...

The word echoed though her mind as her eyes quickly scanned the few pages of information, until they saw a picture, in black and white newsprint.

Her hands trembled as she picked up the clipping. Even with an oxygen mask on his face, she had no doubt it was he. She closed her eyes and silently thanked the admiral and Clay. She closed the precious folder and safely tucked it into her briefcase. Within only a few minutes, the report for her TAD was printed and delivered to Coates, her inbox was cleared and she was on her way home to pack.

 

~~~ Part Thirty – Face to Face ~~~

TWO DAYS LATER
1533 ROMEO
CRAFTON'S OUTFITTER AND CHARTER
SUNDANCE, WYOMING

 

Mac walked into the old outfitter's store, her heart pounding. A year. A very long year. Her search was about to end, either way. She had found him. Harm was somewhere out here. Only one question remained: how would he react?

"Can I help you, miss?" an old leathery man asked, from behind the counter.

"Um, I'm not sure... I'm looking for... for this man," Mac replied, showing him a picture of Harm in his dress blues.

Mo eyed the young woman carefully. Yes. It was definitely her. This was Dean's Sarah, the one he had spoke to Kat about, the one he called out for in fevered delirium... This was the woman he had come here to forget.

"A commander. I knew it," he said, shaking his head. His gentle amber eyes met hers and locked there. "He's out back in the hangar, child. He's been trying hard to forget you. But he can't."

Mac stood there, unable to move. He truly was here.

"Go. It'll be all right," the old man said, giving her a little push towards the door.

Numbly, she walked outside, towards the hangar. Before she could recall moving, she stepped though the open bay door and froze. She spotted him immediately, up on a stepladder, working on a plane's engine. Although his back was to her, it was unmistakably him. His six-foot-four frame, as lean and muscular as ever, was clear, even through his loose, checkered flannel shirt. His faded jeans hugged his body like a well-worn glove, and if this image wasn't already familiar enough, the USS Seahawk baseball cap he wore backwards was a dead giveaway.

He'd heard the steps behind him, but he didn't turn.

"Gimme a sec, Mo. I'm almost done. I'll need to rebuild the carburetor soon. We'll have to order a new air filter too."

Squaring her shoulders, Mac spoke up. "Hello, Harm."

Instantly, he stiffened and his hands stilled. He didn't need to ask who it was. He heard her voice in his dreams, saw her smile, saw her laugh and cry every time he closed his eyes.

But he didn't turn around. He didn't say a word. He stared through the engine in front of him, suddenly lost. All the pain, the anger, and the sadness he'd tried to bury resurfaced in a single instant, cutting off his air supply. He gripped the wrench in his hand tightly, until his knuckles turned white. Sarah Mackenzie. She was here, standing right behind him. He didn't know what to feel, didn't know what to do. After all this time... she'd found him.

Through all the pain in his soul, something else reappeared, something not completely unexpected, but completely unwanted: love. God help him, after all this time, all this heartache, he still felt as strongly for her as he ever did. But... why? What was she doing here? How had she found him? Where was Clay? A million questions swirled through his mind, and not a word made it past his lips. Somewhat regaining his composure, he started twisting the wrench in his hand, tightening the bolt he had been working on.

Mac couldn't help but be hurt by his silence. She had gone to incredible lengths to find him and he wouldn't even speak to her.

"You won't even speak to me? I spent months looking for you! You at least owe me an explanation!" she cried, a hint of anger creeping into her voice.

Harm took a deep breath and struggled for control. Anger and longing mixed in his head, making it impossible for him to think. He was angry, simply because she hadn't had enough respect for him to honour his last request, that she not chase after him. Still, the only piece of his heart in working order screamed that she wouldn't have come all this way, after all this time if she didn't love him. But he wouldn't let himself hope. He wouldn't let himself be hurt again like he had been in that damned Paraguayan hell, or just a few weeks before.

His discussion with Kat, or rather Kat's dressing-down, came back to mind, and he realised with a start that he'd fallen in the same hole again. He was still burying his heart in the middle of nowhere, and he was still miserable. He'd hidden behind the ranch fire, telling himself Kat needed him. All the reasons he'd given himself, like his need to move on, to leave the past behind, floated in his head. But it was just another smoke screen, another stall tactic.

He cursed himself to hell. Time had run out, and for the first time in his life, he was truly scared. He was afraid to screw up his last chance with Mac, afraid of losing control, and terrified of the power Mac held over him. No. No way. He couldn't do this! Not like this, not now! Panic slowly crept into his heart, making his hands tremble.

"Not here, Sarah. Let me finish this, and then we can talk," he replied softly, despite his intentions to ask her to leave him alone. But somehow, he couldn't. 'You're a coward, Rabb,' he thought. Rabb. How long had it been since he'd thought of himself as Harmon Rabb, not the Dean Harmon he'd become?

Mac hadn't expected that. She hadn't expected the effect of his voice uttering her name again would do to her. The empty void in her soul suddenly shone with a ray of hope, a chance that maybe, just maybe, their love wasn't dead.

"Okay."

Once he'd finished what he was doing, Hammer, Harm, Dean -- he wasn't sure who he was anymore -- dropped the wrench to the toolbox beside him and wiped his hands on a rag before stepping off the ladder. There was only one thing left to do. He turned and faced her.

He was completely unprepared for the sight of her. He'd expected a uniform. Not a flowing cotton sundress, in a pale yellow, with small roses printed on the soft fabric. She held a white knit shawl tightly around her shoulders. Northern Wyoming weather was a lot cooler than the late DC spring. Her hair was a bit longer than he remembered, a soft, dark cross between mahogany and auburn. He caught himself getting lost into the brown depths of her eyes. Involuntarily, his gaze wandered to her left hand. Bare. At that, he was even more confused. Should he be glad, angry, hopeful? Her voice brought him swiftly back to the present.

"You look good," she tried hesitantly.

He didn't reply immediately, as he took off his flannel shirt. "You're cold," he stated, as he draped the shirt over her shoulders.

"Thanks."

"Come on." Harm said, as he led her to his pickup. He stopped and turned back to the hangar, giving a sharp whistle. "Lea! Let's go!", he yelled, as he opened the tailgate. A few seconds later, a flash of white and brown fur whizzed past and jumped up into the bed of Dean/Harm's pickup.

Mac couldn't help but smile. The dog was lovely. "She's beautiful!" she said, as she stroked Lea's head. In return, Lea licked her hand.

"Lea, this is Mac. Mac, Meet Lea," Harm said in the same soft tone he'd used earlier.

He opened the door for her and shut it once she was in, careful not to touch her. He slowly stepped around the driver's side and climbed in. He started the engine and headed for the farm.

Mac studied him intently. His expression remained unreadable, his eyes locked on the road in front of him. After an interminable silence, he cleared his throat and spoke up.

"How did you get here?"

"Cab, from Gillette Regional Airport."

"Hmmm."

"Where are we going?"

"My place."

Again, a heavy silence filled the cab, neither willing to touch the tacit truce they had involuntarily agreed upon.

A few tense minutes later, he pulled up the ranch road and stopped the truck in its usual spot, next to Kat's, halfway between the main house and his cabin. As he parked, he caught sight of Kat, coming from behind the house, dust swirling around her feet, her loose denim shirt flapping in the wind.

As he stepped out, she called out to him.

"Dean! It's done," she called joyously, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "First post on the new barn is in the ground! Fiesta toni --Oh, sorry. I didn't see you had, um... company," Kat said carefully, studying the new arrival. A flicker of recognition flashed in her mind. She remembered that picture from a few weeks ago, and her gaze hardened. This was Sarah Mackenzie; the cause of all of Dean's pain.

Mac stood a bit uneasily beside the silver pickup, hands tightly grasping her purse. She instantly felt a wave of hostility from the young woman in front of her.

Dean glared at Kat, sensing her resentment. "Katherine Miller, meet Lieutenant-Colonel Sarah Mackenzie, a former colleague of mine... Mac, Kat is the owner of this place, and my boss."

"Colonel," Kat said coldly, her eyes drifting towards Dean's. Catching the pleading look in his eyes, she softened, remembering the vow she had made. If she could help Dean find his heart, she would. She let a smile slip onto her face. "It's a pleasure to meet you. He's told me a lot about you," she said, rolling her eyes at Dean.

Mac gave a thin-lipped smile. His boss... So, why all the hostility? "Miss Miller. You have a nice place, here."

"Thank you, if you take abstraction of the fire..." Kat shifted her gaze to Dean. "There's a barbecue tonight, and campfire. Why don't you join us then?"

Dean nodded fractionally. "We'll see." He gestured toward his cabin. "Mac, shall we?"

"Um, sure..."

She followed Harm and Lea up the cabin steps and paused just inside the door.

"Dean?" she said questioningly.

"My middle name," he said simply, looking at the floor. He toed off his boots and headed straight for the bathroom.

"Make yourself comfortable while I take a shower. Lea'll keep you company." The bathroom door slammed shut.

Dean/Harm leaned against the closed door, his heart pounding. He closed his eyes and willed himself to calm down. He felt like a trapped rabbit, with a wolf staring it down. Kat was right: he had been running from his feelings, and now, everything had caught up with him.

The problem was, he had no idea how to deal with it. He had to admit, he still felt as strongly as ever, and she apparently cared too. He caught himself hoping she had come to get him back, to tell her the words he'd wanted so much to hear, after he'd given up the biggest obstacle between them: regulations.

He blew out an annoyed breath. That was only an excuse. Nothing he had done had changed the way he felt about Mac, and nothing ever would, he was sure of it. And suddenly, the ugly reality of what he had done was staring him right in the face, and the picture he was contemplating was less than pretty. He recalled Kat's words to him, only a few weeks before, with vivid clarity. It was time to stop running for good, this time.

He quickly undressed and stepped under the hot spray, praying he would find a way to work things out with Mac, thanking his lucky stars that for once, he'd said the right thing, telling her he wanted to talk, instead of running again. He'd decided to go back to Washington after the hunting season, but he hadn't exactly decided what he'd do about Mac. He rubbed his hands over his face and shook his head vigorously. It was a moot point, now.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sarah Mackenzie slowly walked through the small house Harm had been calling home for about a year. There wasn't much of the man she knew in this place, but there were subtle signs, here and there, like the picture on the foyer table: Little AJ and his sister, Mackenzie. Harm Sr., his guitar... But no pictures of her. She didn't know if she was surprised or hurt by that. Probably a little of both, she reasoned.

Lea followed her from room to room, her little tail wagging. Almost unconsciously, Mac put a knee to the floor and caressed the dog's soft, feathery coat.

"Harm with a dog. Go figure," she mused Lea sniffed her hand intently, her dark brown eyes focusing on her face.

Mac watched, puzzled by the concentration the animal displayed. Suddenly, Lea headed straight for the bedroom, a place she hadn't dared invade.

Mac didn't know what to make of Harm’s reaction. Shock, of course, but... There was no hint of the man she used to know, no smiles, no cocky remarks, no friendly banter. When he'd walked her into the cabin, the look in his eyes had been the one of a cornered animal.

She blew a long breath and took his shirt off her shoulders. On a whim, she pressed her nose into in and inhaled his distinctive scent. He hadn't changed his aftershave, and the hint of kerosene and engine oil, mixed with his unique scent was somehow very fitting.

From what little information she'd gleaned from the package Clay had left her, she had learned that he'd found a way to fly. She chuckled, as she imagined him in the cockpit of an old bush plane, his ever-present Seahawk ballcap backwards, a wide grin on his face.

But somehow, she doubted this was how the people of Sundance knew him.

A sharp tug on the hem of her dress snapped her back to reality. Lea had grabbed onto her dress and was tugging her towards the bedroom.

"Hey! Let go!"

Lea complied, but kept running back and forth from her to the bedroom. Mac quirked her brow and called Lea to her.

"You want to show me something?"

"Woof!"

Curious, Mac followed Lea to Harm's bedroom. She paused in the door, making sure the water was still running in the shower before invading his privacy. The bedroom was surprisingly stark, considering Harm's tastes in contemporary decors. A simple double bed, white sheets, wool blanket, two pillows.

The nightstand harbored a tissue box, a tiny reading lamp and a small alarm clock. Nothing on the dresser. To Mac, the room felt impersonal, cold. There had been one or two pictures, a few personal items in his stateroom on the Henry, but nothing here.

In a sense, it comforted her. Maybe he hadn't planned on staying here after all.

Lea bumped Mac's hand with her wet muzzle, drawing attention. When Mac looked down to the dog, she trotted to the bedside table and pawed at the drawer insistently.

Mac glanced back and forth between the drawer and the door. The last thing she wanted was for Harm to find her snooping around his bedroom. Hearing the shower running still, she walked over to the nightstand and pulled the drawer open. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight. She reached in and tentatively withdrew the stack of pictures from the drawer. They were all of her. The first thing she noticed was how worn they were, as if he'd sifted through them time and time again. In her mind's eye, she could picture him, lying in the dark, the only light coming from the tiny lamp, looking at those pictures. God knew she'd done the same with her pictures of him, sometimes even when Clay was asleep beside her.

 

~~~ Part Thirty-one – Memories and Misconceptions ~~~

 

Harm felt the water slowly turn cold as he let the spray pound on his back, both arms braced on the stall wall in front of him. He raised his head and shut off the water. Time to music. He grabbed a towel and quickly dried himself. As he toweled his hair, he reached to the door hook for his clean clothes. His hand encountered wood.

"Damn it!" He smacked the heel of his hand to his forehead. In his haste to escape Mac, he'd completely forgotten to bring a change of clothes... He snorted angrily and tied a towel around his waist. He cracked the door open and called out.

"Um, Mac?"

Startled, Mac promptly replaced the pictures in the drawer and shut it silently.

"Yeah?" she asked as she walked back into the living room.

"Um, I, ah, I need a favor..." His voice was contrite, uncomfortable.

"What can I do for you?"

"I... I, ah... need... um, could you..."

"Spit it out, Harm..."

A quick smile graced his lips before he sobered again. She hadn't changed a bit. Still right to the point. "My bathrobe... back of the bedroom door," he said quietly.

"Oh, um, sure. Just a sec."

Mac quickly retrieved the garment and rapped on the bathroom door. "Here."

The door opened a crack and Harm snaked his left arm out, palm upwards.

Mac couldn't help but stare at the rosy-pink and brownish, barely healed skin on this upper arm, all the way up his shoulder. Before she could stop herself, her fingers trailed the fresh scars, breath locked in her throat.

Harm sucked in a hissing breath at her touch and winced. The burns didn't hurt, but her touch burned hotter than the charred timber that had seared his flesh.

Mac instantly removed her hand. "I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I... I didn't mean to hurt you."

Harm stood frozen, on the other side of the door, his heart in turmoil. His body still hummed with the aftershocks of her touch. He shook his head sharply and grabbed the robe.

"It's all right. Doesn't hurt much anymore. You just... startled me." He quickly slipped the robe over his shoulders and secured it around his waist. He dumped his dirty clothes into the hamper with one sharp flick of the wrist and pushed the door open. Mac was still in the middle of the hallway, eyes wide, mouth slightly agape. God, she was beautiful.

Mac was caught in a similar trap, but what she saw was slightly different. Out in the hangar, he'd looked a strong as ever, a deep tan giving his skin a warm glow. Now that she really looked at him, she saw how thin he was; still muscular, but more angular. The pallor of his skin wasn't completely covered by the tan, and his eyes had lost some of their sparkling brilliance. He looked... she wasn't sure what, but something was wrong with him, besides the obvious burns.

She blinked once, twice, breaking the trance. He dropped his gaze to the floor and brushed past her to his bedroom.

"What happened?" she asked gently.

"Barn fire, thee weeks ago. Kat's ex tried to kill her. A beam fell on me when I pulled her out. Second degree burns. They're healing," he said quietly as he shut the door.

Three minutes later, he was dressed. He squared his shoulders and joined Mac in the living room, a tense smile on his lips.

"I--"

"I--"

Both started at the same time. Mac blushed. Harm chuckled. The tension filling the room sagged a bit as the two former best friends and partners recognized a bit more of each other.

Harm flopped into the leather armchair facing the fireplace. Easy banter floated through his head, coupled with hurt and resentment. He just had no idea how to react. Barely three weeks ago, he'd vowed to close the Mackenzie chapter of his life for good, and now, she was here, completely paralysing him. He rubbed his hands restlessly together and wracked his brain for something to do or say.

"How's Clay?" popped out of his mouth. He closed his eyes and bit his lip, kicking himself mentally. To his surprise, Mac didn't get angry.

"Don't know. Clay and I... Things didn't work out."

"Oh. I see," Harm replied a bit crossly. Instantly, he shook his head. "I'm sorry. This," he gestured towards her with both his hands, "... isn't easy."

Mac pursed her lips and smoothed her dress. "No, it's not... Why is that? We used to be friends.."

Harm smiled sadly. "Used to be."

"Why did you leave?"

"You know why!" he said, heatedly. He threw his head back and sighed deeply. "Mac... Listen, I don't want to fight with you. I just... I don't know how to do this, okay?"

"Do what?"

"Talk to you."

Mac lowered her head. "We were never very good at that, were we?"

"Seems all we ever managed to do was get one of us hurt."

"Is that why you left? Because I hurt you?"

Harm ran a hand over his still damp hair, leaving it to rest on his neck, lost in thought.

Mac cocked her head and studied him carefully. There was something very different about his whole demeanour. He had changed. He was calm, composed. And then, it occurred to her. He'd taken an unmistakable air of maturity. It was undeniable. Even from what little he'd said, she could tell he was still the same, yet so different. And for an instant, she was afraid she didn't know him any more.

"I don't have an answer ready for that one, Mac. All I can tell you is I needed to." His gaze sharpened and bore into her suddenly, accusatory. But he didn't speak. After a few seconds, his eyes softened again. He rose off his seat.

"You hungry?" he asked, a lopsided grin lighting his features.

Mac smiled back. This was him. She could always tell if he hid something by his smile.

"Aren't I always?"

"Okay. I'll cook us dinner. Maybe it'll make talking easier." His eyes lingered on her, his entire being aware of her close proximity. It would be so easy to let go, to sweep her up in his arms and...

He shook his head to rid himself of the mental images. He'd been alone for way too long.

"What?" she asked, staring back.

"Nothing... I just... You're really beautiful, that's all." He smiled thinly, eyes averted, and walked into the kitchen. He breathed deeply a few times, composing himself. As he rummaged though the pantry, he couldn't help but wonder at how fast she could turn his world upside down, and make him completely lose focus. Sudden anger bubbled up and he grabbed top of the pantry door tightly.

"Why are you here, Mac?" he asked sharply, his head low, his forehead resting on his arm. "Why did you come here when I asked you not to? Have you no respect for me?"

Mac was a bit stunned. One second, he was almost flirting with her, the next he was snapping at her. When he lifted his head and looked at her, she was completely unprepared for the depth of the pain she saw there, or the fathomless sadness.

She stood in the kitchen doorway, frozen. "What?" she mumbled.

"Why the hell couldn't you stay away from me and let me try to find some sort of happiness? Huh, Mac? Tell me why. Why are you here?" he practically screamed, fury clouding his expressive eyes.

Her own anger rose through her and she shoved her purse open, withdrawing a worn envelope from it, waving it at him. "This. This is why. I have to know if you meant it."

Harm released the pantry door and faced her, his brow crinkled in confusion. He knew what was in her hand: the letter he'd left for her, taped to his apartment door.

He lowered his despondent sea-coloured eyes to the floor. "I meant it. I want to be left in peace, Mac."

She didn't reply. She didn't move. She didn't breathe. The letter fluttered to the floor.

Hearing only the soft brush of paper on the floor, he lifted his eyes to look at her. His gaze narrowed in puzzlement. What he saw on her face could only be described as shocked amazement. Her eyes were shining, but her face had suddenly drained of all colour.

"Mac?" he questioned softly, stepping towards her.

"W... Wh...Why..." she stuttered.

"Why what?"

"Why didn't you tell me?" she whispered, as he took her elbow and gently guided her to a chair.

"I thought the letter was pretty clear, Mac. As I said, I can't keep watching you with others. It's... It's too much to ask," he said softly, as he knelt in front of her. All his rage had gone up in smoke at seeing the trouble in her eyes. He just didn't understand why.

She shook her head. "No... that... That's not what I meant."

He was completely confused now. "What are you talking about, Mac?"

"Why didn't you tell me you loved me?" The words rushed out in a tear-laced whisper.

Harm's eyes widened and his jaw slowly dropped. How could this be? How could she not have known? "I... Mac, Sarah... You know I always have," he breathed.

Mac slowly shook her head from side to side, too overwhelmed to even cry.

A horrible realisation was slowly forming into Harm's mind. She *hadn't* known. He swiftly rose to his feet, dazed. He felt his throat tighten and his breath came in panted ragged gasps. 'Oh, dear God, what have I done?' he thought.

"But... Mac, Clay... I saw you kissing... Oh dear god, how could you not know?" he asked, almost frantic.

"You always pushed me away," Mac cried. "How was I supposed to know? And I kissed Clay because he kept me from being tortured. Harm, he was willing to die for me. How could I not grant him some comfort?"

Harm scrubbed both his hands over his face in a vain attempt to regain some control. He suddenly found himself suffocating.

"I need some air," he mumbled and stormed out.

Instantly, Mac went after him, grabbing his arm. She wasn't about to let him run again. "Harm!"

"I'll be back, Mac. Please. I just need to breathe." He gazed deep into her eyes, silently pleading.

Her hand slipped off his arm. She nodded and went back inside.

 

~~~  Part Thirty-two - Adversaries in Friendship ~~~

 

Kat was stepping out of her own house when she saw Dean abruptly burst from his, quickly followed by the mystery woman. She watched the scene unfold with apprehension, but when she saw her go back inside, and him slowly amble towards the stables, she knew it wasn't over between them. Not yet, at least.

She hesitated only a fraction of a second, eyeing the stables, before walking decidedly towards the cabin.

She carefully climbed the porch steps and pulled the screen door open.

"Can I come in?" Kat called softly.

Mac's head rose sharply. "Oh! Um, Harm, I mean, Dean's not here..."

"I know, Miss Mackenzie. I saw him walk out. Can we talk?"

Kat saw the puzzled curiosity in the other woman's eyes. "His description of our relationship was a little understated; I'm his boss, but we're also good friends. I like to think of him as a big brother, especially after what he did for me a few weeks ago. Other than that, there's nothing between us. I'm no threat to you, but I can be your ally."

Mac regarded the young woman curiously. "You're.... ah, very, ah..." Mac struggled to find a polite way to describe the young woman's boldness, but Kat beat her to it.

"Forward, blunt, brutally honest?" she said with a smile.

Mac gave her a pursed smile. "That's one way to put it."

"I am. What you see is what you get. Dean, um, Harm said the same thing when we met. The first thing I did was call him an idiot," Kat explained, her lopsided grin and sparkling green eyes offering nothing but sincerity.

"Okay, I'll bite. What did you want to talk about?"

Kat sighed and flopped to the sofa. "I'm not sure. I guess I wanted to meet the woman who means so much to De-- Harm. He's told me a lot about you."

"Oh?"

"Well, most of it not willingly. I didn't even know you existed, till about a month ago. I had to pull him out of a bar fight over you."

"What?" Mac asked, incredulous.

"Long story short, he was considerably drunk when two of my employees swiped a picture of you. One of them made some inappropriate comment, and next thing I know, my foreman has bruised ribs and a split lip, and two of my employees are in the drunk-tank, one with a broken nose. That's the night he told me about you."

Mac stayed silent for a spell. About a month... AJ' birthday... She realised Kat was still talking to her.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"I said that's when things all went to hell. He vanished the next morning. I found out he went to DC. To find you..." Kat paused, unsure of the emotions she was provoking in the other woman.

"Look, this isn't really my place to tell. But you need to know this. When he was on his deathbed, you were the one he was calling for. I did try to reach you, but you weren't available, I was told. But all he could think of was you. He's scared of getting his heart torn out again. But he loves you, very much."

Mac moved to speak, but Kat held up a hand. "Don't. I shouldn't even have said a word, and Dean..." Kat paused, rolling her eyes, "Harm will probably never forgive me. Just give him time to speak his heart, Miss Mackenzie."

"You seem to have quite a rapport with him," Mac said icily.

Kat turned to Mac, her eyes blazing, her jaw set. "Now, listen carefully. Harm is my friend. Nothing more. We understand each other, and yes, he talks to me about his feelings." Kat suddenly chuckled.

Seeing Mac's bewildered look, she explained. "You see, three weeks ago, he told me you'd be jealous of my ability to make him talk. Looks like he knows you pretty well."

Caught red-handed, Mac could only lower her eyes and concede. "He does. But I feel like I don't know him, anymore."

"He's more mature, I think. Pain has a tendency to do that to a person," Kat replied, her features closed.

Mac studied the young woman for a spell. "I can see why you get along so well. You're a lot like him, only a lot more open."

For an instant, both women's eyes met, and held each other's gaze. Silent understanding rose out of a simple look. Those eyes shared and mirrored abuse and fear, loneliness and love. They understood. They knew.

Kat smiled. "I knew there was a reason I wanted to talk to you before I tracked him down."

Mac smiled back. "I'm glad he had a good friend."

Kat pursed her lips and nodded ruefully. "Yeah, but I have a feeling he won't stay here for much longer. Not when he has you to go home to."

Mac threw her head back and sighed. "We're nowhere near anything like that."

"But you still do love him. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here."

"But--"

"He left."

"Yes."

"Listen, Miss Mack--"

"Mac, please."

Kat nodded. "You'll find a way."

"I'm not so sure. I'm not even sure I should have come here," Mac admitted sadly.

"Love as strong as this finds a way, Mac. It always does. Take it from someone who knows."

Kat once again smiled at Mac's disbelieving air. "I may be young, but I'm nothing if not wise. And I'm 28, not 18..." Kat said smartly. "Friends?"

A bit overwhelmed, Mac could only nod and smile. "Friends."

Kat rose and whistled. Lea appeared from the bedroom. "We'll find him and bring him back."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm leaned onto the old poplar fence, arms crossed over the weatherworn wood. He stared over the newly growing alfalfa fields; the pale green of the young shoots was slowly tuning to shimmering yellow in the setting sun's light. He narrowed his eyes against the glare, lost in his own private world. The reddening rays shone onto his open denim shirt and undershirt and he felt the heat of them onto his chest, warming his skin.

But nothing could dispel the chill in his heart. He didn't have enough words to describe how big of a fool he'd been. He shook his head and bit his lip, swallowing a deep sigh.

"What are you doing out here?" Kat asked gently, suddenly appearing by his side.

He didn't say a word but looked curiously at Kat. This wasn't one of his usual thinking spots.

Kat pointed her thumb and rolled her eyes towards something behind him. He threw a look over his shoulder and snorted. "Don't you have anything better to do than track me down?"

"Woof!"

"Yeah, that's what I thought too."

Kat hoisted her small frame onto the fence and sat on top, facing Harm. "You didn't answer my question."

"That's because I haven't found a way to tell you how much of an idiot I am," he replied, his voice low.

Kat chuckled and gave him half a smile. "Isn't that the first thing I ever said to you?"

He threw his head back and put his hands on the small of his back. "Now's not a good time, Kat."

"You can't just stay here while she waits for you to get your ass in gear... And what do I call you now, anyway? I know it's Harm, but..."

"My real name is Harmon Dean Rabb Jr."

"Junior, huh? I have to say, your, quote unquote, new name is--"

"What the hell is it you want me to say, Kat?" he retorted angrily. "That you were right? That I was wrong? That I misjudged the situation, and ran like a scared pigeon?" He stalked off the fence and tossed his head, lips drawn into a thin line, like he always did when he was upset.

"I was right about what, exactly? And what did you misjudge?" she asked softly, still sitting on the fence.

"You were right about my hasty judgment of the situation... And she didn't know."

Kat cocked her head to one side and blew an annoyed breath. "Complete sentences, and complete explanations, Harm, please."

He turned on his heel and paced up to her, and back. "You were right. She was kissing him for comfort. We... we didn't know if he was going to make it or not. And she didn't know I loved her. But I swear to god, she was with *him* when I went to DC... She told me things hadn't worked out between them," He abruptly halted his pacing and scrubbed both his hands over his face.

"God, I don't know what to think anymore..." he murmured.

Kat jumped off the fence and placed a hand on his shoulder. "She's here, isn't she?"

"Yes, but is it because she ended up alone again? Am I just a replacement to her? And why the hell didn't she come and find me before?"

"Those, you'll have to ask her."

"But how can I? I left! Vanished without a trace for over a year! How can she get past that?" Harm asked, his eyes closed tightly. Conflicting emotions were chasing themselves so fast over his features that Kat had trouble keeping up. But the desperation in his voice was heartbreakingly clear.

"Do you love her?" Her voice was soft and warm.

He opened his eyes and looked into her green ones. "You know I do."

"Then go to her. Work it out. However long it takes, but don't let her leave here with any doubts or misconceptions left. Okay?"

"How? How can I do that, Kat? I betrayed her. How can we ever work through my leaving her the way I did?"

"Start from ‘I'm sorry,’ and work from there. You can get though this, one day at a time, if you both want to. Now, go. She's waiting for you."

Harm stood still for a full minute, gathering his thoughts.

"I said GO!" Kat repeated firmly.

Harm drew in a full breath. "Thanks, Kat. You'll make a hell of a great mom, one day."

Kat eyed him suspiciously. "I'm not sure that's a compliment, coming from a guy almost twelve years older than I am... But I'll say thanks, anyway."

She watched his retreating form for a few minutes before climbing back up on the fence. As he disappeared around a bend in the road, she couldn't help but think how much she'd miss her unofficial big brother.

 

 

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