Disclaimer: I do not own any rights to the TV series, Hawaii Five-0.
I must say that keeping this limited to three short parts was a lesson in restraint for me, but I managed! Thank you all very much for reading. I hope you enjoy the end.
N. J. Borba
Her eighth call didn't come until early May.
It had been almost exactly twelve month since Steve had left Catherine on her own in Afghanistan.
"Hey, it's me," her voice carried clearly over the phone line.
He leaned heavily against the archway, facing his empty and dimly-lit living room for the hundredth-or-so time since she'd been gone, "Catherine?" Steve sighed with relief, not realizing just how worried he'd been until he heard her voice again. In a year's time they'd never once talked about her not making it back home, but that hadn't stopped Steve from worrying about it, "What happened at the third location? Did you find Najib?"
"He's safe. He's home."
Steve wasn't quite prepared for how he felt upon hearing those words. He honestly hadn't expected to hear them.
He'd never even met the boy but he was elated, and not just because it meant Catherine would be able to come home. "I can't tell you how happy that makes me, Catherine. I mean it. That is the best possible news," Steve couldn't stop smiling even as he asked the harder questions, "Is he okay?" he paused, regretting that working, "Never mind, I know he's probably not. But do you think he'll be alright, readjusting?" Steve didn't realize until the words came out that he was wondering the same about her.
"I don't imagine it will be easy after what he's been through. But with parents like Amir and Farah… yeah, I think he's going to be alright," Catherine was confident. "I spent several days with them, going over everything that happened, helping Najib readjust, and making sure the men all made it home safely. I even tried to convince Amir to move his family after all this, he has a cousin in Kabul… but he doesn't want to leave the village. And as much as I'll worry, I can understand. Badakhshan is their home."
He nodded in understanding as well, "And how about you, are you…" Steve stopped short of asking if she was alright, "When do you think you'll be…"
She laughed a little to hear him sound so apprehensive, "When am I coming home?"
"Yeah, that," he breathed out.
"I am home."
"You mean you're… are you already back on U.S. soil?" Steve was surprised, not expecting that news either. "Where, at your parent's place in Maryland?"
"No, I'm home, Steve," she put a distinct emphasis on the word home, "I touched down on Oahu about forty-five minute ago. My pack took forever to get off the plane."
His whole body relaxed, though he was still trying to wrap his head around it, "You… you're on the island, right now?" Steve shook his head, not quite believing it, "Why didn't you let me know? I would've picked you up, brought you flowers… dropped you at your place."
Her heart skipped a beat to hear him mention flowers, "I didn't want to go to my place. I just wanted to come home."
Steve's brow bunched, "I don't understand, where are you right now?" he asked.
"Aloha," she replied, a soft chuckle uplifting her tone.
Catherine laughed outright, amused by how disoriented he sounded. She knew it wasn't easy to fluster him, "Turn around, Steve."
"What," he was still rather disoriented.
"Turn around and look out your back window," Catherine instructed.
Steve's brow furrowed, "How do you know I'm not already facing my… how do you even know I'm at… home…" he trailed off.
When he finally did as she said, Steve turned and thought he saw some sort of movement down on the beach.
He kept the phone against his ear as he walked toward the back window and peered out into the shadowy night. His hand was on the doorknob in an instant and he stepped outside onto his lanai, staring into the darkness again as a figure came into view. "Is that you?" he asked over the phone line.
"Beautiful night for a walk," she nodded.
"Yes…" Steve was somewhat hesitant as he remained rooted, eyes still adjusting to the darkness, "Yes, it is."
She stood along the edge of the beach facing him, having taken her shoes off to feel the cool sand beneath her toes. The shoes were propped against her pack which was resting on the edge of the lawn. "Sorry I didn't call sooner, I wanted to surprise you," Catherine spoke through her sat-phone even though she could see him standing outside the house.
"Mission accomplished," he took a small step toward her, watching as the moon highlighted her short, dark hair.
"Are you okay?" Catherine asked, "You look a little shell-shocked, I should've warned you," she whispered, still talking to him through the phone as she stepped onto the lawn, slowly closing the gap between them. "I've woken up from this dream a few times over the last few months," she confessed.
He nodded, "So have I," Steve continued toward her, cell phone still at his ear.
Her smile brightened with each small step that took her closer to reality.
They each stopped when only a foot of night air separated them. After a year apart that small pocket of space seemed like a huge chasm.
"Catherine, I…" Steve spoke into the cell phone even as he reached for her, "I like your hair," he grinned, fingertips brushing against a few silky smooth strands of hair as moonlight highlighted her almost-shoulder-length locks. "It's grown out."
A tear slipped down her cheek as she nodded silently. She felt a bit foolish for it, they'd been apart longer and she'd never cried upon seeing him again. But a lot had changed over a year's time. And what they'd had before she'd left was bigger than anything they'd shared in the earlier years of their relationship. Catherine reached out to touch his chin, the sat-phone finally slipping away from her ear as she spoke to him directly, "And what is this beard you've got going on here, sailor?" she questioned.
He shrugged, "After I heard about you cutting your hair I decided to grow it out. You know, help balance the world's hair proportions."
"You've gone a little crazy," Catherine laughed through her tears.
"I was starting to think that before you walked back into my life," Steve lowered the cell phone to his side, his other fingers brushing away her tears.
Finally both his arms wrapped tightly around her shoulders, clinging to her more vehemently than after she'd been taken by El Condor. Her arms snaked around his waist, cheek pressed against his shoulder, lips softly caressing the warm pulse at his neck. Steve listened to the reassuring sound of her breathing as his fingers slid through the short hairs at the back of her neck. Her hands moved upward to rest at the base of his neck.
After a short while they separated a little, just enough to close their eyes and allow their lips to try and convey how much they'd missed one another.
The kiss was brief compared to the way they embraced again, hanging on for dear life.
"I'm so tired," Catherine finally whispered after they'd been standing there for over twenty minutes.
"I bet," he empathized. Steve took a small step away from her as he suddenly realized he was still clutching his cell phone with one hand. He pocketed it before he noticed the sat-phone in her grasp, the screen still lit up," Maybe…" he reached for her phone, "Maybe we should turn this off, don't want to waste any more battery power."
Tired as she was, her smile lit up the night sky upon hearing that comment. She prayed they'd never have to live phone call to phone call again.
"I need a shower," she glanced over her shoulder to wear her pack was lying, "All my stuff is filthy." Catherine turned back to him, "I can't even remember the last time I shaved my legs or brushed my teeth properly. I think I chewed an entire pack of gum on the flight here. I've been on the move for the last forty-eight hours. After I left Amir's family I had a heck of a long trip. Not the easy route Joe White arranged for us there. I feel like I could sleep for a week, to start."
He left her side for just a moment as he dashed across the yard and retrieved her pack.
Steve took her hand, swinging it toward the house, "Stay here tonight. I have a shower and I'm pretty sure you still have a razor here. There's even an extra toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet, never used. Mary bought two the last time she was here, not even sure why," Steve shrugged, "And you can wear something of mine, a t-shirt or…" he wasn't ready to let go of her yet, "Just say you'll stay."
"Okay," she hadn't needed much coaxing.
Catherine looped the sash around her waist and tied it, his dark blue robe hanging off her frame as she entered the dining area.
"Sit and eat," Steve pulled out a chair and put a plate of food down in front of her, "I didn't have much in the kitchen, wasn't expecting company. Eggs and freezer waffles, orange juice," he pointed out each item, "I can run to the store if there's something specific you want."
"No," her head shook as she slid into the chair and glanced at the food, "I'm not really that hungry."
"But you need to eat something," he insisted, "You've lost weight," his words were not a question as he sat down across from her, "Ten or fifteen pounds," he guessed, watching her nod in agreement as she cut into a waffle. "Felt like I was hugging bones earlier. You were too skinny before you left." Steve took a piece of toast and bit into it as he watched her, worried by how quickly she consumed the waffle after just saying she wasn't hungry.
"You should see a doctor, could have some sort of tape worm or parasite," he said, "There've been several reports on MERS cases popping up in the States."
"I don't have MERS, or a tape worm," Catherine smiled while taking another bite.
"Still, you should see a doctor. You've been gone for a year."
"Yes, mom," she rolled her eyes at his comment.
"You talk to your parents while you were gone?" Steve wondered, chewing his toast slowly.
Catherine slowed down a little, too, clearly not realizing how hungry she'd been, "Once. I told dad what was going on. He covered for me with mom. She would've been pissed."
Steve nodded, "Good moms worry."
She looked him in the eye, "You heard from Doris this past year?" Catherine realized it was something neither of them had mentioned during their brief phone calls.
His back straightened a little, "We can talk about that some other time. Right now I just want to sit here and watch you eat."
"That's not creepy at all," she grinned, perfectly fine with letting the Doris topic slide, "I don't think I've ever eaten better scrambled eggs than these." Catherine held her fork in the air, pointing it at him. "What's your secret for getting them so light and airy?"
He smiled, "Do you have any idea how much I've missed you?"
She sat on the sofa in the dark living room, legs curled beneath her. Catherine was exhausted but wide awake.
The stairway light flicked on and she turned to see Steve making his way down. "I woke up and you were gone."
"Sorry," Catherine chewed her lip, hearing the distress in his tone, "I had trouble sleeping and I didn't want to bother you."
He sat down beside her and she pressed herself against his side, his arm slung over her shoulders. Steve gently kissed her temple, "I heard you mumbling something in your sleep. Sounded like a name… Zalmai?"
A nod was given as she swallowed a lump in her throat.
"You found a new boyfriend over there?" he tried to joke, but instantly saw regret flash in her dark eyes. Steve could tell something was bothering her, "Talk to me, Cath. We don't have to worry about dead phone batteries or voice encryption."
Catherine sighed, "I probably should've gone to my place tonight. Didn't mean to wake you, I don't want to put this all on you."
"I haven't slept that well this past year," he admitted, "What's one more night?" Steve shrugged, hoping to get her to relax, maybe even open up. He knew there was a lot that had gone unsaid over the year, their few brief conversations had barely breached the surface. After several quiet minutes, Steve sat forward and thought of a new tactic, "I think I might have something to help," he let go of her, stood and walked across the room.
Steve grabbed something off a shelf and then rejoined Catherine on the sofa. He handed the item to her.
"What is this?" she glanced down at the emerald green cardboard for a moment before realizing it was a seven inch vinyl record. She flipped it over and read a simple label, "Deb McGarrett," Catherine turned her eyes to Steve again, "She recorded a single?"
"It's a demo of I Got the Sun in the Morning. Aunt Deb recorded it just before her tour got canceled and she took Mary in," he watched as she pulled the record free of its sheath. "I know it's not Chicago, but I remember when we all went to the club to listen to her sing. I remember the smile on your face as you listened to her. You seemed so happy that night, relaxed," Steve recalled, "Deb remembered you had a record collection and she wanted you to have that. It's the only one of its kind."
"This is…" Catherine was a bit overwhelmed, "It should go to you or Mary. It should stay in the family."
"Aunt Deb wanted you to have it," Steve stressed, "You are family, Cath. Deb considered you family," he let her know, "The last time I saw her was the day after Thanksgiving. She and I had a long talk that morning about a lot of things, but mostly you. Aunt Deb said she knew you'd be back. And she told me to hang on to the good thing I had, never let go."
Her fingers gently rubbed along the edge of the black vinyl.
"There was this boy in our group, Zalmai. His nickname was Kouchak," she spoke softly, the memories still raw.
"Doesn't that mean small?" Steve identified the word.
Catherine nodded, "He was twenty; not really a boy. But he was shorter than me; small and scrappy. The youngest boy you helped me rescue, Sahar, he was Zalmai's cousin. Zalmai joined me in the first wave of men Amir sent. He and I were instant friends, he never challenged my authority, always eager to help in any way. He sort of flirted with me, which was completely inappropriate," she smiled, "He told me how sorry he was that I'd cut my hair because he thought it was the most lovely hair he'd ever seen. He was a charmer."
"Sounds like he was also a bit of a rebel," Steve noted.
"Absolutely," she smiled again, "He told me how much he wanted to visit the U.S. and become a musician. He and his friends often spent time singing American pop songs. Zalmai wanted to be a drummer, wanted to live in LA and travel with a band."
He couldn't help notice how she kept referring to the young man in the past tense. "What happened?"
"The third raid was the most difficult. I had men stationed around the perimeter, but we had to get inside the compound before we found Najib. Zalmai was very serious about the cause. He, along with two other men, Nabil and Hessami, were the three I took into the compound with me. We quickly realized the interior was housing many boys taken by the Taliban, not just Najib. They were sleeping when we got inside, confused by what was going on. Zalmai calmed them, even started singing a traditional Afghan song to reassure them. It took me a while to convince Najib who I was. He was scared at first, but when I reminded him of the soccer ball he actually hugged me."
She took a deep breath. "At that moment I felt like it had all been worth it. But it wasn't over yet."
"Getting out wasn't as easy," Steve guessed.
Her head shook, "We were leading the boys out of the compound. I was in front, Hessami and Nabil in the middle. Zalmai stayed at the back. For all his joking around and singing, Zalmai turned out to be the best gunman I had. He was helping one of the younger boys who couldn't run as fast when Taliban soldiers clipped him in the leg. Zalmai pushed the boy through the doorway toward safety but another Taliban soldier shot him in the back, through his chest," she sighed, "When he didn't come out with the last boy, I…"
"You went back for him," he was already sure.
A nod confirmed it, "I had to drag him the rest of the way out, but I couldn't leave him there to…"
Steve immediately flashed on Freddie, the way he'd left his friend behind. It had been different, though. Freddie had been a trained Navy SEAL. Zalmai had just been a young man trying to defend family, "He didn't make it, did he?" Steve gently asked.
"We got him on the truck and the men drove us through the night, across the border and into Kabul. But about halfway there Zalmai clutched my hand. He looked into my eyes and asked me if all the boys were safe. I assured him they were. No one else had gotten hurt, all the men escaped, all the boys, Najib…" she gulped, "Zalmai smiled and told me that he was glad my face would be the last thing he got to see. Then he started humming until his eyes closed."
He held her tightly, selfishly grateful that it hadn't been her lost in the fight. "You can't blame yourself. You knew the risks, Cath."
"We always do, don't we?" she sighed, "Every battle, every war… still doesn't make it any easier."
"No, it doesn't," he commiserated.
"I knew going into this I was risking my life. I was prepared for that," Catherine glanced at the record in her hands, "I wasn't prepared for risking others. You, or the three men I lost."
Steve did his best to keep her grounded, "How many boys did you save?"
She bit her lip, "We found sixteen others at the compound. So including Najib, seventeen."
"And how many did we save from that convoy when I was there?"
"By my calculation that makes twenty-eight young boys whose lives you saved. Twenty-eight rescued and only three casualties," he shook his head, "I hate to break it down into numbers like that, Cath, but that's not a horrible ratio."
"I still blame myself," she sniffed, "How can I not? I left you and went off on this foolish mission."
"It wasn't foolish," Steve understood what she was feeling, the doubts that always snuck in after a tour: Did I do right? Did I do everything I could've? "And you didn't leave me, you were here with me the whole time. And I was with you."
"Steve, how can you say that? I was gone for a year, we were separated."
"No, we weren't," he maintained, grinning as he watched her brow rise even further, "Okay, yes, physically we were. Separated by time and distance, but…" Steve calmly ran a hand over her short hair, "Not love," he flashed an encouraging smile, "You think I say those words lightly? When I said it I meant it, Catherine. And even when we're not together, we're together. I know you understand what I'm getting at."
Catherine calmed down, allowing herself to think a little more clearly. She finally nodded, "Yes."
"So whatever comes next, we'll be together one way or another."
She snuggled up even closer, head resting against his shoulder again, "I hope it's this way for a very long time."
"Me, too," Steve kissed her brow, "Out of curiosity, how many more of these life debts do you have hanging out there?"
Her dark eyes gazed into his, "Just one."
His head shook slowly and deliberately, knowing she was referring to the Taliban soldier he'd shot while she'd been freeing the children, "That one was wiped clean the second I saw you in the backyard a few hours ago," Steve assured her.
"I love you, you know," Catherine echoed the words he'd said to her a year ago.
"I love you, too," he easily responded.
"Oh, look… if it isn't Mr. I'm too sick to come into work for three days," Danny chided as Steve strolled into HQ.
Steve just grinned, stroking his clean-shaven chin, "What, you've never played hooky before?"
"Me? Well, yes, as a matter of fact I've played hooky more than a few times in my life," Danny admitted, "I just figured you weren't the type, and yet here you are smiling like an idiot and outright admitting you've been ditching work the last few days in order to what… sleep in? Goof off? What exactly does a super SEAL even do when he goofs off from work?" Danny wondered, "Rescue kittens from treetops?"
"Sleeping in," Steve nodded, "Yes, there was some of that."
Grover and Chin exchanged a look, "Something strange is going on here," the former police captain noticed. "I don't think I've seen you smile this much since… ever."
Kono chuckled, "You heard from Cath again, didn't you? Is she okay?"
"Why don't you ask her yourself," Steve replied.
"We would," Chin was quick to respond, "But you seem to be the only one she ever contacts."
"Yeah, sorry about that," Catherine said, announcing her presence as she stood behind them, having snuck in the back way while Steve had distracted them.
The others all turned around to face her, surprised to hear her voice. Mouths hung open for a moment as they stared at her.
"You're back," Kono was the first to snap out of her state of shock. She wrapped her arms around the woman, hugging her excitedly. "When did you get home?" she asked. One hand fiddled with Catherine's shorter hair, "Leave it to you to go battle Taliban soldiers in the Middle East and come back looking completely gorgeous."
Catherine appreciated the compliment. "I got home about…"
"Let me guess," Grover turned his attention to Steve again, "Three days ago? About the same time this guy came down with some mysterious flu-cold-malaria."
"Malaria?" Catherine questioned.
Chin was the next to hug her, "I'd have given him a three week pass if I'd known you were home." He let go and smiled, "Aloha."
"Aloha," she replied, squeezing Chin's hand.
Danny took a small step toward her, hands stuffed in his pocks, glancing down at the floor periodically, "You, uh… you look... I'm glad you're…"
Without allowing him to continue, Catherine simply wrapped her arms around him.
He easily hugged her back, "We good?" Danny whispered.
She nodded, "We're good."
When his cell phone rang, Chin apologized and took the call, walking toward his office. The rest of them chatted for a moment until he reappeared, "I'm sorry to break up this happy reunion," he looked to Steve, "That was Duke, HPD found a dead body in Halawa. House was ransacked."
"Sounds like a robbery gone bad," Steve shrugged.
"That's what HPD thought, too," Chin noted, "Until a few minutes ago when another dead body was discovered in Pearl City, house a mess. Probably not a coincidence."
"Do we have IDs on the bodies?" Steve couldn't help jump right back in.
"Just the one so far," Chin relayed, "Guy in Pearl City had a driver's license on him, Jason Hirakawa."
Steve nodded, "Chin, you and Kono head to Halawa. Danny and Lou," he turned to the two men, "Check out Pearl City for me. Catherine and I will run background on this Hirakawa, and see if we can get an ID for our second victim."
Catherine stood silently beside the computer table as he gave out orders. She watched the team follow his lead. When they were all gone, her gaze shifted back to Steve, "You just turned down a crime scene… two crimes scenes… to stay here and run background checks? I could've done that on my own."
His face was a combination of smile and thoughtful brow furrow, "You okay with this?" Steve wondered, "I didn't even ask if you wanted your spot on the team back? I have to admit we let Grover take over your office and there's only the five of them. But I figure I don't use mine much, so we could share."
She smiled, "Could we get matching desks and sit across from each other?"
"You're teasing me again?" his arms crossed as he tried to read her.
"According to you I was just TAD, right?" Catherine recalled what he'd said to her over the phone months ago.
"That's right," Steve confirmed with a slow nod, not quite sure where she was headed with that train of thought.
Her fingers danced across the computer as she typed in Hirakawa's name.
"Then we should get back to work," she concluded.