Spending Christmas hundreds of miles away from home was always tough for Catherine. On a daily basis she didn't have the time to be homesick, but on Christmas it was different. That particular year it was even more difficult, because a few of her friends had gotten leave to spend time with their families, with their loved ones, while she was stuck here without her close friends, without her family - nothing except for a sad phone call from her mother.
It was nice to hear her mom's voice and the laugh of her cousins in the background, but somehow Catherine wasn't able to enjoy it. Her thoughts were constantly drifting away to another part of the globe.
A secluded, dark, dangerous, and classified part of the globe. She had no idea where Steve was, and it had been over two months without a single word from him.
Usually, she was busy enough to minimize the amount of worried thoughts and desperate longing for him. But now it was different. And she realized that even though she missed her family, the only person she could think of was Steve.
Suspecting that misery would accompany her for a few days, Cath decided to put on a brave face and leave the sorrows for a long cry when she went to bed. She wasn't prepared for the sudden call to the Navcent, when Catherine's CO requested her immediate presence. Confused and a bit worried, she stepped into the almost empty central, but her CO dismissed all of her formal report and salute with an amused smile. He motioned towards one of the monitors and then left the room without another word.
Hesitating for a few seconds, she sat down in front of the monitor, narrowing her eyes at the blurred, dark screen. She was able to recognize it as insides of some sort of tent, with a faint light coming from the lamps. Someone came in. For a few moments all she could see was his silhouette and dirty camo.
As he sat down, she finally saw his face. Soiled, a little bruised, but with a warm glint in his blue eyes and that stupid smile she loved so much.
"Merry Christmas, Lieutenant."
His voice was a little raspy, but he spoke those words so gently, she felt her heart melt.
Catherine was barely able to restrain the tears prickling in her eyes. A soft gasp escaped her lips, before she replied with a shaky voice, "Merry Christmas, Commander."
She had no idea how many favors he had to have collected to do - it definitely mustn't have been something easy to arrange. Hell, it was impossible to organize, especially with him being on a black op mission.
"Steve," she smiled, shaking her head "How did you manage to do this?"
"What can I say, I'm a man of many talents," he grinned and Catherine laughed.
"Yes you are," she agreed. Her heart was still beating rapidly and she felt her stomach flutter with this silly, pleasing sensation.
"Hey, I almost forgot! I've got something," Steve disappeared from view for a few moments.
Before she could ask what it was, he was back. Smiling proudly, like he was about to show her an Olympic medal, Steve placed something on the table.
It was the smallest, tackiest and most crooked Christmas tree. Green artificial plastic embellishment, the size of a coffee mug, with tiny golden ornaments. It was probably the ugliest tree in the world, but in that moment, for Catherine, it was a hundred times better than any other.
"So, we have a Christmas tree," Cath smiled brightly. "Does this mean you're my Christmas present?"
"Yup," Steve nodded seriously. "No refunds."
"I wasn't planning on any," she tilted her head to the side. "Though I must complain about the lack of red ribbon. I like unpacking my presents."
Steve eyes darkened as his gaze slid to her lips, watching that sensual dance of her tongue over her bottom lip. Months without even hearing her voice were frustrating. Sometimes in the night his mind played tricks on him, making him smell that sweet scent of freesia and bergamot that unfortunately wasn't real, only deepening the disturbing feeling of longing.
Calling her on Christmas seemed like such a great idea. And he was happy to see her, only if for a moment. But it also evoked some kind of ache.
"Oversight," he said, smiling faintly. "I promise to make it up to you. We can have some late, second Christmas. Or unwrap each other without any reason whatsoever."
"There's always a reason," Cath winked at him.
Steve was about to reply, when someones muffled voice caught his attention. He turned his head and responded. Though Cath couldn't quite understand the words, she suspected what was it about. Her heart stopped for a moment, when Steve turned back to her.
"Cath," he sighed, looking at her apologetically, "We don't have much time left. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," she responded with a small smile. "I understand."
Her gaze slid onto the silly Christmas tree, then back to his face. "Steve," she said, leaning closer. She couldn't feel him through the screen, but it was an instinct to be as close to him as possible.
"Thank you," she said. "I mean it. Thank you. This is the best Christmas present ever. Well, second best, I think."
"Second best?" he raised his brow.
"The best one will be with you beside me," her beautiful smile made him grin like a goof. "With the red ribbon," she added with a mischevious smile.
"Ah, of course, the ribbon," Steve said, rolling his eyes.
He turned his head once again at more muffled words in the background. When he looked back at her, a deep sigh escaped his lips. He didn't want to end it so quickly, but it was a miracle they even had these few minutes for each other.
"Catherine," he said quietly, "This... We haven't spoken for so long and I just... I wanted... needed to..." The words seemed to be trapped in his mouth and he wasn't quite able to spit them out.
"I know. It goes both ways," she assured him softly.
It was all he needed. Steve was never too good with words and they never had time to touch upon these fragile, emotional matters. Words somehow were never much needed between them. He had difficulty with expressing them and Catherine never pressed him. She wasn't the kind of girl who needed flowers and mushy declarations. Besides, Steve's actions always spoke much higher volumes than any confession.
"I'll be seeing you soon, hopefully," his eyes glimmered and for a moment Catherine felt lost in this simple warmth of his affirmation.
"You better keep that promise," her voice quivered a bit, before she cleared her throat and said teasingly, "So after this amazing Christmas surprise, I'll be expecting some stupefying fireworks on New Year's Eve."
Steve laughed wholeheartedly. "Well, aren't you demanding, Lieutenant?" he snickered.
"Well, aren't you a man of many talents, Commander?" she quoted his own words.
"I doubt I'll be able to organize that," he said, scratching his head. "But we can work on a different kind of fireworks on your next leave."
"I like the way you're thinking," Cath agreed, smiling broadly at him. Her smile faded slightly when some annoying voice in the background signaled for them to end the conversation.
Steve smiled sadly, "I have to go."
"Okay," she nodded reluctantly. "Get your six back safely, sailor."
"Yes, ma'am," he served her his best, most charming smile. "See you, Cath. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Steve," she managed to reply before the screen went black and the connection was lost.
The small smile that played on her lips for the whole way back to her cabin turned suddenly into an open-mouthed expression of shock, followed by the widest grin ever. There, on the tiny table by her bunk, stood a small copy of the same ugly Christmas tree Steve had had with him. Catherine was sure he would never repay all those favors he had called to make it happen, but right now it didn't matter. She fell asleep quickly for the first time on a Christmas away from home, a tiny piece of Steve's presence beside her.