Disclaimer: I do not own any rights to the TV series, Hawaii Five-0.


Hard to Tell

By
N. J. Borba


She sat on a hard plastic chair, head in her hands.

The steady hum from a few different machines permeated the otherwise quiet room. It was a private room. She guessed the team and the governor had made sure of that. A soft light above the bed cast a shadow across the ceiling. The rest of the room was dark. Middle of the night. Second night he'd been there. First for her. She'd only gotten in hours ago after being roused from a not-so-peaceful sleep. Thrown on a flight without explanation. Too tired to protest.

A car and driver had been waiting for her at the Honolulu airport, all arranged. She'd been transported straight to the hospital. Her heart had thumped loudly in her head as she numbly heard the words spoken by a volunteer desk attendant; Steve McGarrett, fifth floor, room number 525. She'd walked the halls. A nurse on the fifth floor looked up from her station and pointed like they'd been expecting her. She'd walked into the room, thinking she'd been prepared for whatever she would find.

He'd been hurt before, shot, dislocated shoulder, a host of other scrapes and bruises and broken bones.

But she hadn't been prepared for this.

Her head lifted and her hands instantly curled into tight fists, nails digging into her palms as she looked at him again.

His eyes fluttered open, lids blinking. Once, twice, half a dozen times before they actually focused.

"No," he groaned, spotting her on the chair.

"Steve, you're safe now. You're in the hospital," she explained, not sure how many times it had already been explained to him. At least three times by her over the last two hours.

Steve closed his eyes again, "Go away," he whispered. "Leave me alone."

Those words hurt, like a sucker punch to the gut. She couldn't help recall the only other time he'd ever pushed her away, told her to leave. The time he'd learned about her keeping Doris's secret from him. She still regretted that decision. But they'd gotten past it, well past it now. "I'm not leaving you," she whispered back, unclasping her hands and reaching out for him. Her fingers brushed against his hand and he recoiled from her.

"Please… just go," Steve groaned, trying to turn away. But his ribs ached too much to move. After two days his body still felt like lead; his head foggy and his limbs too heavy to lift. "It was bad enough seeing my dad and thinking…" his voice hitched. "I don't want to see you now," Steve was barely able to shake his head. "You're not real either, you… you're not my Catherine. I wish you were, but you're not. You're just the drugs… go away…"

She didn't know what had happened to him, not exactly. The news had been on in the airport when she'd arrived, no baggage to collect, just walking, following the driver. Small snippets had greeted her eyes and ears, sound bites about Wo Fat and the head of Five-0. There'd been some sort of abduction, a fight, the death of one of the most notorious criminals in the world. And drugs, there'd been something about drugs. Her heart quickened again, chest feeling like it was being squeezed.

These were the results playing out before her eyes.

Her hand hovered above his, wanting to touch him, wanting to comfort him. But not wanting to cause him any more pain.

"Steve," her voice was a raw whisper as she remained seated on the hard plastic chair, "Rest," she wished for him, hoping that might help some small bit.

His eyes closed again, his breathing evening out a little as she kept watch.

"I'm not leaving you," Catherine repeated, "Not this time."

000

He opened his eyes again because sleep was too fickle lately.

Steve was so sick of sleeping anyway. It reminded him too much of the drugs that Wo Fat's creepy lady lackey had fed to him, over and over. He remembered the white walls, the enclosed room, and the strange old projector type movies playing out in his head. At least he thought that part was all in his head, but he still couldn't be sure. Of anything. Or anyone. Except for the annoying soft beep of a machine that was keeping him from sleeping. He really just wanted to be home.

The white room wasn't real. Suddenly he's sure of that. The other room, the one with all the pipes and the water and electrical - the torture room – that was real.

His eyes closed, trying to block it all out.

The only part he wanted to keep was his dad. His dad alive. His dad smiling to see him; his hero son home from the Navy. The son who helped save his life just in time. In that world, in that safe place with his father, he'd allowed himself to think about someone else; a woman with brown hair and the dark eyes to match. Steve had wanted the old movie version of life; what his parents had. He'd wanted marriage and two kids, playing on the beach, breathing the salty sea air.

But she'd stayed behind.

His eyes opened again.

She was still sitting on a hard plastic chair in his hospital room. Right beside him. She even looked at him with worry. Genuine worry.

She would, too. Steve knew she would if she was really there. "Go away," he whispered again. It hurt too much to see her. Hurt more than all his injuries. When were those damn drugs going to get out of his system? When. Wo Fat was dead. Steve couldn't let him keep winning. "You're not real," he repeated the words.

Her face hardened upon hearing his distressed tone. Worry replaced by something he couldn't be sure of. Maybe regret.

Regret was worse. It broke his heart.

He regretted leaving her. She hadn't stayed behind. He'd left her.

"I'm sorry, Cath," his words were barely louder than a whisper.

When they'd spoken on the phone afterwards - after things had gone pear-shaped in Afghanistan, after his safe return to Oahu - that's when his regrets had surfaced. Steve felt horrible. He couldn't argue with her. She could get around under the radar better if he wasn't around. That was true. That he didn't regret. He regretted leaving before even knowing if she was safe or not. That clawed at his stomach. That kept him up some nights.

Her face changed again, a smile. Like that happy smile in the airport when he'd surprised her. Tagging along. A worry wart. But she'd smiled for his company.

That smile that had lit her face had struck his heart. "You have nothing to be sorry about," she insisted.

"I wish that was true," Steve spoke to her anyhow, even though he knew she wasn't real. "I wish so many things, Cath."

"You need more rest," she didn't bother arguing with him. She was so tired, but relieved to see him. "Because the sooner you get better, the sooner you can get out of this place. And I can take you home, give you a nice sponge bath and put you to bed. And you'll have to do everything I say for several days."

He almost laughed. He would've laughed if she was real. "I'd like that," Steve allowed himself to sink further into the drug delusion. "And I can see my dad at home, too."

Her smile faded. Poof! It was gone. "Steve, your dad… he died over four years ago."

Same words Danny had said to him afterward. He knew it was true. But why did she have to say them now.

His eyes slid shut, "I know," Steve felt a tear break free. Felt the betrayal of it rolling down his cheek. "Damn it, I know that," he berated himself.

She reached out to brush the tear away.

"You feel real," he whispered.

000

Seeing him was one thing.

But listening to him talk about his dad broke her heart.

He was in and out all night as she stayed by his side. The plastic chair didn't bother her. The flour sack bed she'd slept on for the last five and half months hadn't bothered her. The twenty-four hour trip - three planes, two stops - hadn't bothered her. The fact that she hadn't showered in four days didn't bother her.

Hearing Steve ask to see his dad crushed her.

"I swear if Wo Fat wasn't dead…" her head shook, "I'd track him down and kill him myself," Catherine sighed.

"That I don't doubt," Steve replied.

She couldn't tell if he was talking to her as the figment he believed her to be, or if he was alert enough to realize she was there.

"There was a shift change, new nurse on duty is Lynn," Catherine decided to roll with the assumption that he believed she was real. "She left some more ice chips for you. They've still got you on the IV fluids but she said you could start with some mashed potatoes and Jell-O this morning."

Steve looked her in the eye, wishing they were her real eyes. Not just a memory. "Beef stew," he whispered.

"What was that?" she leaned forward, elbows on his bed.

"I'd like beef stew MRE," he repeated a little louder.

Her laughter took them both by surprise. It faded a little as she doubled over, forehead resting against the thin, beige blanket on his bed. Catherine was certain her laughter was more from tiredness than actual amusement, but she couldn't stop. "Beef stew MRE, of course," she gave herself the hiccups from laughing too much. Finally she managed to regain some control and made a move to stand, "I'll go see what I can find."

"No," he reached out, his fingers against her wrist. "Don't leave."

Catherine instantly settled back onto the plastic chair, "Okay," she quietly replied, not wanting to press her luck.

Steve wore a perplexed look as he regarded her, "Are you an angel?"

"Ha!" the response came swiftly from her lips, "Not even close, commander."

"Too bad," he kept hold of her wrist, "Because if you were I'd ask you to find the real Catherine and tell her to come home."

She just nodded, not wanting to insist she was the real Catherine. He clearly needed more time.

000

He opened his eyes again.

Steve felt like all he did anymore was drift from conscious to unconscious. Open his eyes. Close his eyes.

This time when he opened them he found that she was gone. Replaced by a rolling table. And a tray with a dish of fluffy, white mashed potatoes. And a bowl of shockingly orange cubed Jell-O. And his friend standing at the foot of his bed, grinning like a goofball. "Bout time you woke up, sleeping beauty," Danny quipped. "Here," he held something out for Steve.

It was a rectangular piece of blue construction paper.

"Grace is still in Las Vegas with Rachel and Stan," Danny relayed, "But, and I have to give her some credit, Rachel overnighted this for you," he handed the card over, "It's a little something Grace made. I talked to her on the phone yesterday. She'd seen some of the news and was worried about you."

The blue paper had a likeness of his big Chevy truck drawn on the cover. There was a smiling Steve in the front seat.

He opened the card and found a picture of Grace taped to the inside. Huge smile on her face, "Next time I see you I'm going to give you the biggest hug ever. Love, Grace." Steve propped the card on his rolling table, just behind the food tray. "Where'd she go?" he asked his friend.

Danny frowned, "I just told you, Grace is in Las…"

"No," his head shook, "Not Grace, I know she's with her mom and Stan like you just said. I meant Catherine. She was here all night with me," Steve watched his friend's eyes narrow with concern. "She was, Danny," Steve insisted for a moment, "I… I thought she was," he faltered.

"Hey, don't sweat it," Danny shrugged it off, "Doctor said the drugs were going to take a while to completely get out of your system," he reminded, "I tried calling Cath but I couldn't get an answer. Chin's been trying, too, but… I don't know, maybe she had to change phones or…"

The room's door swung open.

A woman stepped inside. She wore a warm smile as her eyes fell upon Steve.

"I'm so sorry I didn't make it here sooner," Ellie's accented voice filled the room, "I was out of town, business on the mainland. I didn't even hear about what happened until…"

"It's okay," Steve cut her off, hating the sound of remorse he heard in her tone. "Thanks for being here."

Danny studied his friend for a moment, still rather worried about him. "Look, I need to get to work," he shot a pointed look at Steve, "The bad guys don't take days off, unlike some people I know around here," he gently teased the injured man. "You should eat something," he waved a hand at the tray, "And get some more rest."

Steve let his head recline against the pillow, "I'm sick of rest. I just want to get out of here. Last night Catherine said if I got…" he stopped himself, seeing that both people in the room were wearing confused looks. Although in Danny's case it was more concerned than confused. "I'll see you later?"

"Absolutely," Danny gave a quick nod and said goodbye to Ellie before he slipped out of the room.

She remained and walked toward his bed. "I wasn't sure what to bring you; you don't seem like the flower type so I figured…" Ellie shrugged, "Magazines."

He spotted the issues of Newsweek, Car & Driver. "Thanks," Steve was polite, though he had no interest in magazines at the moment. "You didn't need to come here for me, I'm sure you're busy with work. That business trip must've worn you out. Why don't you get out of here?"

"You trying to get rid of me?" she wore a guarded smile, placing the magazines atop his rolling table next to the food tray.

"No," his head shook a little, "No, you can stay if you want."

"Good," she smiled again, "I have a few minutes before my first meeting today."

He watched as she sat down in the seat Catherine had occupied all night.

000

She made her way down the long hall.

Her eyelids were heavy, droopy, but she fought the urge to completely close them. The cold water she'd splashed across her face in the bathroom had helped a little. But it was still a struggle. She squinted against the harsh fluorescent lights that reflected off the shiny white floors. The whole place was a vibrant assault on her exhausted senses. But she continued on, not about to leave him alone for any longer than necessary. After a quick bathroom break and one stop to make a special request she was on her way back to his room.

Catherine stopped short of opening the door.

A woman's voice from inside the room caused her to peer through the small window in the door.

Steve wore a look on his face that was halfway between a painful grimace and a smile. Catherine took a quick step away from the door and pushed her back against the wall. Her head rested against the hard surface and her eyes finally closed. She took a deep breath. Catherine couldn't hear any actual words that were spoken inside his room, for that she was grateful. But that laugh came through again. It caused her stomach to clench with jealousy.

"Don't be stupid," she whispered to herself. "You left him alone for almost six months, barely called, hardly texted," Catherine berated, "What did you expect."

Several more deep breaths were taken as she stood there. Waiting.

000

Danny was all the way back to his black Camaro in the parking garage when his left hand brushed against his back pocket.

"You gotta be kidding me," he lamented, pulling Steve's cell phone free.

"Pretty sure we're all way too tired to be functioning normally," Danny commented to himself as he turned back. He entered the hospital, took two lefts, passed the gift shop and the same get well soon balloon he'd seen for the last two days, took the elevator to the fifth floor, passed the nurses station and smiled at the cute red-head who kept ogling him. Finally he took the right turn that headed him down the long hall toward Steve's room.

"What the…" he slowed down when he spotted a figure leaning against the wall outside Steve's room.

She perked up, hearing the familiar voice. Eyes opened, standing up straight, Catherine pulled on a smile for him. "Hi."

"Hi?" Danny grinned, not wasting more than a few seconds before he wrapped his arms around her. "Geez, it's good to see you," he shook his head, still a little bit stuck in the land of disbelief as he stood back to look at her. He'd gone months in between seeing her before, back when she and Steve had still been mostly casual. Back when she'd been in the Navy, serving in the Gulf and unable to make it to the island for long periods of time. Back before she'd become a good friend to all of them - before she was part of the team.

"Shit, Steve mentioned seeing you last night…" Danny remarked, "I figured he'd just been…"

"He didn't think I was real either," she nodded, swallowing hard.

Danny put a hand to her shoulder and squeezed, "What are you doing out here?" he wondered, "I'm surprised he let you out of his sight," Danny commented before realization sunk in again, "Oh, right… he doesn't think you exist. You gotta realize he's been through… well, hell would be putting it mildly," Danny could see she wanted to know more but didn't want to know. Didn't want to ask. He understood that feeling, but he ran down everything he knew for her. There were still holes Steve hadn't filled in.

A tear slipped free when Danny finished. She didn't bother swiping it.

"He's got a friend in there, I didn't want to interrupt," Catherine couldn't talk about what had happened any more at the moment. "Some woman," she shrugged.

"Ah, yes, that would be Ellie," Danny filled in the obvious blank for her. He wasn't sure how much or little Steve and Catherine had been in touch but she clearly hadn't heard about the woman in question, "They've become fast friends. Steve's already taken advantage of her," Danny chuckled before he realized what he'd said, "No," his eyes widened, "I didn't mean that they had been… she's a lawyer, Steve asked her for a favor and…" his head shook, "Not anything going on there that you should be worried about. Trust me."

Catherine smiled, "I do trust you. Danny…" she bit her bottom lip, "I'm so sorry about what happened in Afghanistan. I really…"

"Why are you apologizing?" he interrupted. "Steve's a big boy. He knew what he was getting in to. You called me, I got him out. That's water under the bridge," he dismissed.

His understanding caused her eyes to mist again. "Thank you," she whispered.

"Here, thought he might want that if you called," Danny handed her Steve's cell phone. "I really do need to get to work," he gave her another quick hug, "I just couldn't stay awake last night, had to go home and sleep. Makes me feel better knowing you were here with him."

She hugged him back, grateful for the friend contact. That was something she hadn't had for months.

Danny walked off.

Another laugh emitted from the woman inside Steve's room and Catherine tried to relax. But her hand clenched, tenser than she realized over the situation. Steve's phone sprang to life, the screen lighting up. It was her smiling face she saw staring back at her - his main screen an older picture of her in her Navy cammies.

Catherine smiled and took a deep breath before knocking on his door.

000

He listened but he didn't really hear.

Ellie was talking, somewhat nervously. She asked how he felt, what had happened. He didn't want to say, didn't want her to have to be touched by that part of his life.

Steve let her do most of the talking. She started telling him about her trip to the mainland and her client there who was an old friend she'd grown up with on Oahu. Her words rolled into some funny story about when she and this friend had been younger, the trouble they'd gotten into. Steve tried to smile and nod in all the right places, but he couldn't smile and wasn't quite able to pay attention. His mind was still drifting: reality into the past, fake reality into a wishful future.

"And then Allison decided she was going to get retaliation on her little brother by putting a spider in his bed and…"

There was a gentle knock at the door and his head lifted, eyes aimed at the heavy partition.

Ellie turned toward the door and watched a brunette woman enter. She smiled at the woman, "Can I help you?"

Catherine found it hard not to be at ease as the woman spoke, sincere, lilting voice. "Danny forgot to drop off Steve's cell phone, figured he'd want it here," she held up the phone in her left hand, her eyes slipping to the bed. She could see Steve was staring at her.

"Not again," he whispered. "I thought you were gone."

Ellie was confused by his words, but she aimed a smile at Catherine as she reached for the phone, "That was nice of you. Are you an orderly or…" she took in the woman's appearance, messy dark hair, boots, cargo pants that looked like they hadn't seen a washer in weeks, somewhat sad brown eyes and a stance that was military-like, straight back, shoulders squared. "You're not hospital personnel, are you?" Ellie finally guessed.

Catherine took a small step forward. She kept the cell phone at her side but extended her hand to the woman, "Catherine," she introduced herself, "I'm… Steve and I are…" her words wouldn't seem to cooperate, "I'm an old friend," Catherine bit her lower lip.

"Oh, I'm Ellie," she replied, "A new friend."

Steve turned his focus on Ellie, not wanting to be tempted into thinking his vision of Catherine was real again.

But it seemed Ellie was clearly shaking hands with someone. And he was pretty certain Ellie was real. "Do you see her?" he asked Ellie. "The woman standing over there," Steve pointed, his will giving out, his eyes connecting with Catherine's brown-eyed gaze again. They swiftly flicked back to Ellie.

Feeling a little out of place all of a sudden, Ellie nodded, dropping Catherine's hand. "Yes, I see her."

"Do you know her?" Steve sat forward.

"I just met her," Ellie was rather thrown by his odd behavior. She hadn't known him long, but long enough to know he was friendly, level headed and confident. She'd never seen him so skeptical before. "She said she was an old friend of yours by the name of Catherine."

"Catherine?" he wasn't looking at Ellie any longer.

The sound of her name rolling off his confused lips caused Catherine's heart to ache again. "I'm here," she whispered.

He pushed the rolling tray away, his mashed potatoes having gone cold, the Jell-O melting a little. Steve groaned from the effort it took to sit up. He ached from head to toe as he swung his legs over the left side of the hospital bed. Two days ago he'd summoned all his strength to fight Wo Fat, to gain his freedom. Now he pushed with his weak arms to stand. He got to his feet with a great deal of effort, pain shooting through his tight muscles.

Steve summoned all his strength this time to cross the room in two short strides.

"Catherine?" he whispered, starring her in the eye, wanting to believe.

She nodded but resisted the urge to reach out to him, even though he looked like he might fall over at any moment. Catherine didn't want to startle him again.

There was nothing slow or effort-filled about his next movements; one arm going to her waist, pulling her in close; the other arm slung tightly across her shoulders. Steve clung to her, his head buried in the crook of her neck. His hand at the back of her neck, gently, slowly kneaded the flesh at her hairline. She closed her eyes, feeling his weight fall against her like a sigh of relief that coursed throughout his entire body. Catherine let her body sigh in relief as well.

His cell phone slipped from her grip as she hugged him.

Ellie watched the phone fall, her eyes quickly finding an excuse to look away from the couple. She bent down to retrieve the phone. A soft rubbery cover had saved it from breaking apart. But one of the buttons had obviously been hit because she noticed the screen was lit. Ellie glanced at the woman on the screen, dressed in Navy fatigues. Her fair skin. Her dark hair pulled into a perfect bun at the back of her head. Her smile as bright and lively as any Ellie had ever seen.

With a quick nod, Ellie understood. She placed the phone on the table that had rolled across the room. Then she silently slipped out.

"This is real," Steve whispered. "The drugs have worn off and you're standing here."

Catherine swallowed a lump in her throat and gently walked him backward, the two of them still stuck to one another. "Well, this is a bad dream for me," she commented, getting him to let go and sit on the bed. "You looking like death…" she sighed with her mouth this time. Catherine helped him scooch back against the bed and lifted his legs. She made sure he hadn't ripped out any IVs during his very short walk toward her.

"I would've cleaned up if I knew you were coming," Steve remarked.

That caused her to smile. Made her realize he wasn't completely lost. "I would've cleaned up if I knew I was coming."

"How did you know?" he wondered, "Danny called you."

"Nope," she pulled the beige blanket up over his legs, making sure he wasn't cold. "I didn't know anything. I was roused out of bed last night, or… I guess maybe it was the night before last…" Catherine wasn't sure any more how much time had passed. It didn't matter. "I was transported to the airport in Kabul and a car picked me up here. I didn't know what was going on until I saw you in this room, but I just got a call a few minutes ago when I went to the bathroom. Joe White wanted to make sure I'd gotten home safely."

Steve nodded, "He has his moments."

"He does," Catherine agreed.

The door opened and a young man in white stepped into the room carrying a small tray. He glanced at the previous tray, "You done with that one?"

"Yes," Catherine answered, knowing the potatoes were probably cold. He left the new one and took the old, then departed. Catherine rolled the table back over to Steve's bed and removed the blue cover. "Voila," she revealed a bowl of dark liquid that was actually steaming. "Not my best work, but the menu here is limited," Catherine picked up the spoon and handed it to him, "Beef broth. Closest I could find to actual beef stew," she smiled.

"You did this for me?" Steve felt better than he had in days.

"Nurse said you shouldn't try eating meat for another day or so," she sat down on the chair Ellie had vacated, "Because of your jaw."

He nodded slowly, scooping up a spoonful of broth and blowing on it.

She barely blinked and he'd consumed the whole bowl. "We should order you something else," Catherine reached for the menu beside his bed, "Get your strength back up."

Steve took the menu from her hand and placed it on the rolling table. "Later, I'm tired."

Catherine could hear it in his voice. "I'll let you sleep then," she stood, "I should probably go and…" she felt his hand grip hers. "Or… if you want I could stay a little longer," Catherine didn't want to push him either way. She let him take the lead. His grip tugged at her and he scooted over. "Steve, are you sure… I don't want to hurt you."

His hand squeezed hers again, worried that his words wouldn't be enough to convey how he was feeling at the moment. He waited a few seconds as she kicked off her boots then he pulled her in close, down onto the bed next to him, ignoring the pain in his side as she curled up beside him on the narrow bed. They lay that way for a while. Seconds ticking into minutes. His head against her shoulder, "Are you real?" he asked again.

"Yep, you're stuck with me," she assured.

000

Catherine heard the explosion, felt it shake the ground beneath her feet. She watched the pieces rain down; a hail of concrete.

She woke to find her heart racing. Her body tense.

A gentle warmth against her right side let her know Steve was still there. The images of her dreams faded as she listened to him moan in his sleep, if it could even be called sleep. He was murmuring, restless as his left leg twitched, fingers clenched tightly. "Hey," she whispered in his ear, "Steve…" Catherine didn't want to wake him, but she was worried. "I wish you could rest peacefully," she tried to encourage him.

"You're not my brother…"

His whole body trembled as he growled those words.

She held him closer. She kissed his cool cheek. She pushed a lock of sweaty hair off his forehead. "You're a bit of a mess, sailor."

Steve opened his eyes, "Missed you, too."

"No, I said…" Catherine chuckled, deciding not to correct him, "Missed you more," the words slipped out as she relaxed a little.

"What happened?" he whispered in her ear.

"Not sure, you were dreaming about…"

"No," he stopped her, head shaking, "What happened to you?"

Her body tensed again, "Nothing, I fell asleep with you. I've been here since…"

"I meant what happened in Afghanistan?"

She shrugged his question off, "I've been searching for Najib. You know that."

"Cath," his voice was softer, "I know something happened. Tell me."

"It's not… you were just…" Catherine sighed, trying to keep herself together. "It's not anything we need to talk about right now. You should rest. You need to rest."

"I'll rest after you tell me what happened," he bargained with her, "I can't relax, Cath. Not when I know you're upset. Just because I've spent the last few days drugged and…" Steve trailed off, stopping short of using the word tortured, not wanting to put that on her right now. "That doesn't mean you can come back and think you'll be able to pull the wool over my eyes. I know you, Catherine Rollins, better than you might realize."

She swallowed. "I'm only upset because of what happened to you and…" Catherine gave up, knowing he was right. She knew better than to try and lie. "I found Najib," she finally revealed. What should have been a grand triumph came out as a tiny whisper, "Three weeks ago, I found him," Catherine repeated. "I found him… he was… I found him."

A stretch of silence floated across the room. He felt something damp against the side of his head that was resting on her shoulder. A tear that had traveled all that way.

The truth came out much louder than the words she'd actually spoken.

"I'm so sorry, Cath," he finally whispered.

The fact that he knew what she meant without even saying it caused her to cry even harder. "I went there to find him, to bring him home to his parents," her voice grew angry, "I risked your life, Steve. I nearly lost you because… and I failed. I failed my friends, Amir, Farah… I failed that sweet little boy who beat me at rock checkers. I found his body twisted and bloody beneath the concrete, the rocks… all because they marched him into a government building with an IED that went off before he could run."

Steve closed his eyes for a moment. He knew that very same thing had happened time and time before to so many young boys and men.

He'd never even met Najib, but it didn't matter. He knew the boy through her eyes. That's what mattered. That's what broke his heart.

"You didn't fail them, Cath," Steve tried to assure her. "No one else would've done what you did for them. No one," he insisted.

She tried to believe that. But the haunting imagine of Najib's body caused her doubt.

"Three weeks. Why didn't you come home sooner?" he couldn't help wonder.

"There were four other boys taken about a month ago by the same faction," her voice regained a little strength. "I had a decent lead on them two weeks ago. I figured if I could…"

His head shook, "If you could save them it would make up for Najib's loss," Steve easily guessed, "You know it doesn't work that way, Cath. You can't save the whole world."

"I know," Catherine nodded, sniffling, "And my stupid thinking landed you in this hospital, could've gotten you killed. If I'd been here for you…"

Steve took her hand again, "I'm so glad you weren't here."

Those words caused her mouth to hang open a moment. She cocked her head to look at him, "I don't know how you can say that. The only thought I keep having is that maybe if I'd been here, been with you that night, maybe we could've fought Wo Fat together. He never would've taken you."

"But the thought I keep having is that he could've taken you, used you against me," Steve countered. "The way they used my dad." He swallowed hard, "I would've told him anything, would've done anything to save you from the pain of what they did to me."

Catherine sighed, "And he probably still would've killed us both."

He nodded.

"What happened to you?" Catherine asked, just as bravely as he'd asked her. Not wanting to know. Needing to know.

"You're a veteran of the United States Navy, Cath. And a very smart woman," Steve added, "You've been to war, you know what happens to prisoners. There's nothing I could tell you that would be any worse than what you've already been thinking."

She'd imagined some pretty horrible things as she'd watched him through the night, but guessed he'd endured even worse. He'd have to get it out at some point, but this clearly wasn't the time for it. She respected that. "This has been a very sucky year," Catherine breathed out.

His first smile in days was brought forth by her words, "Yes, it has." Steve's agreement was punctuated by a soft kiss that he pressed against her neck. "Ouch," he winced from the pain in his jaw. "Even kissing hurts," Steve realized.

"But you know what the good thing is about sucky years?" she kept her voice cheerful, even though she felt sick to her stomach to think about how he was hurting.

"I can't even imagine," he replied.

Her answer was simple, "They end."

He smiled again. "Yes, they do," he'd almost forgotten what a comfort she was in his life. "There was this place I escaped to when I was being tor… drugged," he avoided the word again, "Some altered reality where my dad wasn't dead. Danny and HPD showed up before he was killed. And in that reality I remember Danny asking if I was married. I told him I was seeing someone and that I hoped we'd get there one day."

She gently stroked his arm at her waist, "What does it all mean?" Catherine asked in a somewhat teasing manner, still too upset about the present to focus much on the future.

He brought her hand toward his lips and kissed the inside of her wrist despite the pain it caused to pucker. Steve pressed her palm against his chest, held it there, "I like to think it means that no matter what reality I'm in you're always there with me."

Catherine smiled, "I think that either makes you crazy or… in love."

Steve nodded, "Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two."

"I love you," she whispered, grateful to be looking him in the eye as she said it this time, not even an inch of distance between them, "That's as real as it gets."

"The real deal," he recalled Freddie saying, "I love you, too, Cath," his words were a promise. A belief. A lifeline.


The End