Disclaimer: I do not own any rights to the TV series, Hawaii Five-0.
Thank you all for reading, and especially for your kind comments. Glad you enjoyed the first bit of this short story. I really hope to have Part 3 finished for you by tomorrow.
N. J. Borba
The fifth time she called him there was snow on the ground in northern Pakistan.
"No, come on… please don't do this to me right now," Catherine groaned as the motorcycle sputtered and stalled, the headlight winking out and plunging her into total darkness.
With a weary sigh she propped the bike and fished a flashlight out of her pack. Catherine pulled the scarf a little tighter over her ears and around her neck before slowly and carefully walking the motorcycle to the side of the road. She was mindful of the icy conditions, knowing she shouldn't have been traveling at night in the first place. Thankfully, the road abutted a sizable slope and it didn't take her long to find a good place to camp.
A fierce wind kicked up as she settled in beside a concave area in the hillside.
"Better than nothing," Catherine whispered, wrapping a large wool blanket around her shoulders and down over her butt to keep her core warm. With the motorcycle sandwiching her against the mountainside most of the wind cut around her, although not enough to keep her from shivering.
Several minutes later she clutched the sat-phone in her left hand and dialed the familiar number.
"Steve, it's me," Catherine tried to keep her voice relaxed, not wanting to reveal that she'd been trembling a moment before he'd answered. She heard him sigh; a cross between relief and longing that broke her heart all over again.
"Megan has a boyfriend," Steve announced.
She was instantly confused, "Steve, who are you talking about? What are you talking about?" Catherine sought some clarification.
"Megan Marshall, Amber's best friend," he replied, "You remember Amber, Danny's girlfriend."
"Yes, I remember Amber," she actually laughed, glad for the distraction from her current predicament. "But I don't know anyone named Megan Marshall, do I? Should I?"
He backed up a little, "Didn't I tell you about how I was upset with Danny the last time you called?"
"Sort of," she nodded to herself, "You said he was mad at me."
"Yeah, I suppose he was," Steve recalled, "Danny had asked me to have dinner with him and Amber. But when I showed up there was this friend of Amber's there, Megan. Two women, two guys… I jumped to the conclusion that Danny was trying to set me up on a date."
A smile helped keep her teeth from chattering. "Danny might've been mad at me, Steve, but I can't imagine him doing that."
Steve sighed again, "I know that now. But I was upset that night. I hadn't heard from you in several months and… well, I made some assumptions that were way off. Amber and Megan grew up together in Jersey and she was visiting at the time, but she had a boyfriend; sounds pretty serious. Anyhow, Danny finally explained to me that Amber was feeling a bit overwhelmed by meeting the whole Five-0 team at once, apparently we seem intimidating to her."
Catherine's smile increased slightly, "I can understand that."
"What do you mean? We're not intimidating," he protested.
"You can be a little bit… never mind, so they weren't setting you up?" she tried to get him to continue, happy to hear his voice.
"No, Amber just wanted her friend there to even things out," he further explained. "And the only thing Danny was trying to get me to realize was that I needed to get out of the house more, to relax, not worry so much," Steve concluded, "I apologized to Danny like you wanted. And he said to tell you he misses you, too. The whole team does, Kono and Chin, even Grover. Did I tell you Grover joined the team?"
"You didn't," she laughed, doubting Grover missed her. Catherine was just glad to hear him sounding so upbeat.
"Grace asked about you last weekend when Danny and I took her shoe shopping."
"You hate buying shoes."
"Sure, but I go with you, don't I? And I love Gracie."
"I know you do," she whispered, "Steve," her thoughts drifted back a few seconds, "If you wanted to go out on a date with someone else..."
He'd never known her to be the type to need reassurance, but he gave it freely, "Catherine, I don't. There's no one else," Steve assured. "Hey, we've done this long distance thing before," he reminded her. "I kind of think of it as a temporary additional duty assignment. Is everything okay there?" he couldn't help worry about her state of mind.
"Everything's fine," she lied, "I'm just a little cold."
"Where are you?"
"We set up a base of operations slightly north of Chital."
A sharp exhale was followed by his shocked tone, "Jeez, what are you doing that far north?"
"Keeping that low profile," she explained, "Found an abandoned processing factory in a former mining community."
"No wonder you're cold," he realized, "It must be snowing up there this time of year."
"Not currently, thankfully," she closed her eyes, head resting against the rocky hillside, "We've been here since the end of October, running drills and monitoring Taliban activity. I've been gone a few days on a scouting mission south of here. Was just headed back when…" Catherine's whole body shuddered as a nasty gust of wind infiltrated her camp.
"Catherine, where are you right now?" he asked. "It's really late there. You didn't make it back to your base, did you?"
She reopened her eyes, "What makes you think that?"
"I hear a lot of static, sounds like wind," Steve guessed, "Are you outside in the snow?" the worry in his voice compounded ten-fold as he spoke those last few words.
"Ran out of gas on my way back, rooky mistake," she admitted, "Can't call base because I'm the only one with a phone. I'm only a few kilometers down the road, but it's too dark even with a flashlight, the road is icy, not safe to walk. And I'm exhausted. Shouldn't have been driving back tonight but I was longing for my sleeping mat in the semi-warm factory. At least I found a little spot here against the mountainside, mostly sheltered. Have the wool blanket Farah sent with me, and some food."
"You have water?"
"Enough to get me back tomorrow."
"But you'll be hiking alone," he said, knowing she'd still be traversing in cold conditions, "I can't tell you how much I hate this, thinking about you huddled somewhere in the Hindu Kush with nothing but…" Steve trailed off, "This is crazy. I'm gonna get on a flight this afternoon. I can be there in about twenty-four hours, maybe less if Joe can..."
"Steve, no," she stopped him. "You can't risk it. You know you can't."
He was about to protest but didn't, "I hate this."
"You already said that," Catherine shivered again, still waiting for the blanket to eventually counteract the chilly temperature, "I don't know how long this connection will last and I don't want to spend every phone call arguing with you. Tell me about Thanksgiving," she swiftly changed the subject, "Next week, right?" Catherine couldn't quite remember, her days and months blurring a bit, "Are you having the annual football game at the park?"
"Not this year. Just doesn't feel right without you and," he took a breath, "Aunt Deb isn't doing very well. Mary is there with her round the clock."
"All the more reason to celebrate," she insisted.
"I'm sorry; it sounded like you just said celebrate?" Steve was caught off guard by her remark.
"Yes. Go to California and be with them, Steve. Cook a turkey, the whole meal," Catherine smiled as she thought about last year's mishaps and heartache. It had still been a great holiday. "They need you. And you know Deb wouldn't want you and Mary to be depressed on her account. She'll probably start singing just to cheer you up."
"I don't know, Cath."
She wasn't afraid to push him, knowing he needed it, "I do know. Go be with your family. Family is the most important thing we have, Steve. The main reason I'm here is because of family, because I owe Amir's family a huge debt," she stressed, "And I won't give up until I've repaid it. But you already know that," she found that her body was finally starting to warm, "Besides, a ticket to California is a lot cheaper than a flight to Kabul, and we both know how tight you can be with money."
He actually laughed, "Even thousands of miles away you're teasing me?"
"Just trying to make myself miss you less," she revealed.
"How's that working for you?" he wondered.
Catherine sucked back tears, "Not so well. Steve, I should probably let you go. Sleeping will help lower my body's need for extra warmth."
"Hibernation state, you're right," he agreed. There was a long stretch of silence before he dared to ask, "You still trying to savor that first time?"
"Always," she replied, "But maybe it's about time you remind…" she paused, suddenly hearing dead air on her end. "Steve?" Catherine glanced down at the phone and groaned. "Out of gas and now a dead phone battery, if I believed in signs…" she sighed, tucking the phone into her pack and burrowing further beneath the cozy blanket.
Her sixth call wasn't made until after the New Year.
"Where are you now?" Steve asked, "Stuck in a ditch, or maybe floating down river without a paddle, heck, probably without a boat."
Listening to his troubled voice caused a chill to run down her spine. Catherine shivered even though this time she was fairly warm inside the old factory. She'd taken up residence in a smaller back room away from the men who had a crackling fire going in the main chamber, "What's wrong?" Catherine pressed her back against the stone foundation wall, sitting on the worn rug that she'd called a bed for many months, wool blanket and quilt covering her lap.
"Nothing," he responded.
"Don't lie, you're upset," she could hear it in his voice, "What happened?"
He blew out a breath, "Aunt Deb passed away two weeks ago, day after Christmas," Steve took a shakier breath before continuing, "I'm sorry, Cath. I really didn't want to tell you over the phone," he waited for a response, wondering if she was still there. Steve heard the hushed sound of her breathing and wasn't sure what to make of her silence, "Mary's pretty much devastated even though we knew it was coming. She and Joan were here with me for Christmas when Aunt Deb passed. There was a hospice nurse with her, but… Mary hates to think about her being alone when she… but Aunt Deb had insisted that Mary come visit me."
"She knew," Catherine finally whispered.
"What was that?"
"Deb, she… she knew it was time," Catherine was certain, "That's why she sent Mary away so she wouldn't have to be there for it. Deb wanted to spare her that pain," she understood, unable to hold her tears back. "Steve, I'm so sorry. I should've been there. I should be there now to…"
"Nothing you could've done, Cath," he tried to comfort her, "I actually feel like her passing has made your mission make more sense for me. You're doing the right thing. What you said about family the last time we talked… you're exactly where you need to be," he assured, "We didn't have a formal funeral, she didn't want that. Mary and I spread her ashes out along Waimanalo Beach. Deb said it was the most beautiful place on the island and she wanted to be close to us here. Mary and Joan are staying with me for a couple more weeks."
"That's good, they need you. They…" she couldn't stop thinking about sitting on that stretch of her favorite beach with Deb McGarrett, sharing the beauty with her. Catherine remembered the promise she'd made to the dying woman there. "Take care of them, Steve. They need you," she reiterated. "You and Mary need each other, all the time, but especially right now. Promise me you'll take care of her, okay?"
"I will," he agreed, "Aunt Deb left something for you. I have it here at the house for when you get back." Steve could hear her sniffle, "You okay?"
"Yeah, just… tired," Catherine was touched by how his concern so easily switched from Mary to her, "We've had some really long days."
He'd figured as much, "How's the training coming along?"
"A little better now," she replied, "It's been interesting. I've had some trouble getting the men to follow my lead. They want to help and they trusted Amir enough to join up, but Amir sent them all to me without exactly telling them I was… you know…"
"What, a former U.S. military officer?" Steve guessed.
Catherine actually chuckled at that, "No, he didn't tell them I was a woman."
"Oh. I can see how that could make things tricky."
"Conflicts have come up, some of the men not taking me seriously," she expanded, "Not like I can blame them, you don't just change a lifetime's worth of culture and thinking overnight," Catherine acknowledged. "So I started dressing like them and I… I changed my hair."
"Keeping it pulled up regulation style?"
"That wasn't enough. I cut it, a lot," she revealed, "There's not even enough to push behind my ear."
"That's dedication," he replied, "Sounds like a pretty good strategy to me," Steve responded in a positive manner.
She smiled, "As soon as I cut it most of the men realized how serious I was."
"And it's just hair, right?" he offered.
Catherine nodded to herself, "Hair means very little when it comes to finding Najib."
"I agree. Hair is trivial."
"So you don't mind that I look like a boy?" Catherine asked.
Steve grinned, "I do like your hair very much, but it's not the most important thing I admire about you. And it'll grow back," he tried to put things into perspective for her.
Catherine was buoyed by his encouragement, but doubts still plagued her. "I don't doubt that finding Najib is what I'm meant to be doing, Steve. But nothing eases the doubt in my stomach as I teach these men how to aim a weapon and pull the trigger. They were never meant for this. They're peaceful people. Most are farmers, potters and weavers. They're only here because the Taliban took their children and they want to fight back, but…"
"War turns a lot of innocent men and women into soldiers," Steve tried to rationalize, "You didn't think it would be easy, did you? I wish I was there, Cath. I wish you had the entire Navy at your disposal. But you're going about it the best way. Those men wouldn't be there if they didn't have the desire. And I believe you're the right one for this job."
"Yeah, well, I was trained by the best," she agreed.
"You were," Steve boasted.
"I was talking about the Navy," Catherine chuckled.
He laughed as well, thankful for the break from all the seriousness, "When do you strike? Have you narrowed down the three locations to one yet?"
"No, my scouting missions haven't yielded much so far," she explained, "And the snow cover hasn't completely melted yet. When it does we'll head south again. I'm hoping to strike the first location within the next few weeks. If we don't find Najib there we'll hit the second and then the third. And if he's not at any of them…"
"You'll start all over again," Steve understood.
The seventh call came about two and a half months later.
"How'd it go?" Steve knew something had happened.
"Nothing at the first location," Catherine relayed the news, voice a worn-out shell of her usual tone. "One of my men tripped a bomb. Three were caught in the explosion. Ahad and Hamid died instantly, but Mehrak escaped with minor injuries. It's scary how easily you can obtain weapons and explosives here. And how the heck did this go from me keeping a low profile to leading men into battle?" she coughed loudly.
Steve worried as he listened to her, "Are you okay?"
"Fine, just the dust here," she explained, "We're training in the lower lands now. Steve, I… I spotted Najib yesterday when we struck the second location. He saw me from across a field, but I don't think he recognized me. He was… he looked…" Catherine swallowed, "I watched him set an explosive charge before their convoy rolled out. We tracked them to a third location, different one than what we'd scouted. It's a fortress. And what if it's too late? Najib is helping them, Steve."
He heard her sniff, not sure if she was crying or the dust was irritating her, "He might just be trying to survive, Cath. When do you hit the third location?"
"Not for a week, maybe longer. I want to make sure Mehrak has recovered well enough to join us, and Amir says he has five more men en route. We're going to need them. I've scouted at least three dozen Taliban soldiers at the third camp. That's exterior guards alone. Double anything we've gone up against so far."
"Do you need supplies?" Steve asked, "I could make a call. Not everyone over there thinks I'm a menace."
"No, thanks," Catherine was grateful for his offer, "I have a friend still stationed in Kabul who's been helping me out, sending supplies when she can."
"Good, that's good."
A long stretch of silence settled over them.
Neither knew what to say, knowing no words could easily express what they were feeling.
"You'll, uh…" Steve wavered, "You'll let me know what happens."
"I will," her tone was positive; for his sake.
To be continued…