This chapter touches PTSD, therefore there might be some triggers. However it's a sort of an introduction to the core events, leading to Steve and Cath's direct encounter with Anton Hesse, which will be continued in the next chapter. And that one will be heavily triggering - I will add proper warnings!
Special thanks to wonderful Kit, who beta read and edited this chapter! You're wonderful!
Spots of sun speckle her light skin, a few sparkles caught in the blueish stone on her ring finger defuse, casting shards of rainbow on the black keyboard.
It still draws her attention, though she tries to stay focused on the data displayed on the screen. Being used to the closed, artificially lit work spaces, the sudden change of environment is distracting , tempting her to look up every few minutes. She absorbs the view outside the window, entertaining her mind with the vast palette of Hawaii's vibrant colours. Watching the waves crashing on the shore entices her to go and bury her toes in the warm, wet sand; feel the water splash around her ankles.
Catherine could easily do that - soak up in the sun and wait for Steve to return home.
But she scolds herself for the mere thought of the happiness that fills her stomach, because it's too soon to be carefree and joyous.
There are moments when a smile, not evoked by Steve, but by that dangerously sly, inhuman thought, dares to spread on her lips. Seemingly without a cause, but Catherine knows the reason behind it and hates how good she feels with it.
The mourning after John is still fresh. How could it not be, if they said farewell only three days ago. Yet, the growing feeling of lightness has been filling her body in unexpected moments, causing her mind to go into a spin of chaotic thoughts. The ones that evoke mixed feelings, scaring her with the amplitude of the awful satisfaction, at the same time combining with the darker guilt, which she feels both for the emotions, as well for the early bloom of them.
Knowing how close to the brim it brings her - not the feelings themselves, but stuffing them deep, hiding from Steve and sometimes from herself too; Cath turns to one of the most effective solutions. Action.
She very much enjoys her leave, despite the tragic reason behind it. However, she can't afford to spend it like a silly holiday. Especially not with the prospect of leaving in a few weeks, leaving Steve with so many unanswered questions.
Investigating deeper keeps her focused, averting the thoughts from bursts of relief and celebration for something so gruesome.
Cath's gaze slides down to her hands, resting atop the laptop's keyboard. The lovely glint on her ring finger pierces through her with a sudden thought.
She had promised herself to talk to Steve. Out of respect for him, their marriage, out of the need to avoid hypocrisy, for she had yelled at him for keeping his own distress from her. Mostly, she wants to do it for herself, because nothing has helped her with the long process of struggling with trauma like his support.
Her therapist would scold her, reminding that Cath herself is the sole reason she managed to escape the dark pit. And she knows that. Each day she starts with a look in the mirror to thank and encourage herself, to keep that belief in her own capacity.
There's no denying, however, that Steve played a huge part in her recovery.
Even if it annoys her therapist, Cath stubbornly refuses to diminish his influence. They've found a way to balance the coping, treating each other's presence as significant, but not crucial. How could Cath say it was all her own doing, when she had had his soothing voice pulling her out of the catatonic stupor? When it was his hand brushing away sweaty hair out of her face, while she was bent over and vomiting, because the smell of raisins triggered horror? It was his hand on the small of her back, keeping her from crumbling into pieces, when loud bursts of laughter scared her.
Cath can't let herself fall back into that and the wicked relief she feels now is a thin line away from all the fears evoking again, especially without the body of Victor Hesse, meaning the son of a bitch is still alive.
That gets her moving. It's a flash of motivation, which switches her attention back to the screen and files she got in a not fully approved way. The findings, however, are worth the little breach of protocol. It's not much yet, but with the information on Jovan Etienne's history, a strong suspicion forms, building a quite possible scenario. She just can't link it to John. The final puzzles that may have an answer to that, are probably in the confine of the red tool box. Steve has mentioned it, but haven't shown her the items inside of it yet. If it's for the still lingering, stubborn attempt at protecting her, or that he needs more time before opening that box, risking finding something uncomfortable, Catherine respects that.
At the sound of the door opening, she looks up Her gaze scans Steve's body, finding his face flashing all kinds of tiredness. The case, she doesn't know the details, had a strong impact on Steve. A boy's father was kidnapped, probably facing a death threat. A troubling reflection of a nightmare Steve's been through himself recently. She can only hope it ended well Having to relive that sort of responsibility so soon after John's death would be a torment.
"Hey," Steve greets her, corners of his mouth lifting in a faint smile. He leans in to kiss her briefly, casting a glance at the screen of the computer.
Cath hums at the fruity flavour and scent lingering on his lips, "Hi yourself. Hmm, someone's been drinking a cranberry lemonade." She notices his little wince as he sits down next to her, though his wide grin quickly covers any signs of discomfort.
"A small cup," he chuckles, sitting on a chair and bending down to untie his boots. He can function in them for days, but if it's not necessary, he prefers being barefoot, especially around the house.
Steve looks up, when Cath snorts a laugh.
"Please. It's never a small cup of lemonade with you. You're like a little boy." The smile she flashes at him is gladly reciprocated, his eyes twinkling as she keeps on teasing him. "Slurping loudly and then needs to pee every few minutes," Cath says, bubbling in mirth when Steve pinches her calf.
Freeing his right foot from the boot and sock, he wiggles his toes, pressing the instep into the pleasantly cool floor. A smile remains on his lips, but fades as the memory of why he had that lemonade today fills his mind. Not taking his eyes off his foot, he says in a lower voice, "I took Evan, for a drink. His dad was giving a preliminary statement and needed to be patched up, so I thought I'd distract the kid for a moment."
There was no need for him to do so. An officer, who was at the scene, was taking care of the kid, who was also quite adamant about staying with his dad, for whichSteve couldn't blame him. At first he was about to ask Kono to check on Evan, as she has formed a bond with the boy, but something told him he should do it himself. Having just lost a father, it's sort of a relief to know that he helped save some other boy's dad.
"I'm glad it ended okay," Cath says softly, touching his shoulder and giving it a squeeze.
Steve sighs only and forces his other boot down, stretching both of his legs and wiggling his free toes. For a long moment he stays silent and Cath doesn't hurry to fill the quiet void, which he appreciates.
There's a sudden rumbling coming from his stomach, evoking their chuckles. Steve stretches his whole body, arms reaching up, up, causing his shirt to roll, revealing a stripe of skin at his belly. He smirks as Catherine unabashedly looks at it, letting her gaze travel up to his face.
"Grilled salmon?" Steve asks, standing up.
"Mhm, sounds great," she smiles, tilting her head when he kisses the top of it.
She's a little surprised, when Steve stays beside her, his hand on her back, rubbing soothing circles. Not that she minds it, his warmth and smell are causing that nice feeling of safety She leans into him gladly.
Steve's next words, however, freeze her.
"And maybe you can tell me not only what you found out," he pauses with his lips against her temple, "But also what's been bothering you?"
It's true she reads him so easily, like an open book, but with the frequency of it happening they both somehow forget, that he knows her too. He has noticed the short flashes in her eyes, a ghost of a thought that terrifies her, but she pushed it aside to focus on the funeral and helping him. The mind tricked her attempts, pouring the small symptoms into the tiniest of gestures, which Steve quickly picked up on.
The tendency to get lost in joyous thoughts, only to abruptly pull herself out of them, is what caught his attention most.
Whenever Catherine lets her memories wander to some happy events, or if she's imagining something concerning them both, she never hides it, beaming up at him and often letting him in, so they can enjoy it together. Now she seems to be scolding herself for such thoughts and Steve finds it alarming.
Cath takes a deep breath, closing her eyes for a moment. There's this tempting, cowardly thought of retreating, pushing it aside. A tiny voice that whispers nasty things Steve might think of her, if she admits it. But she's learned to deal with it some time ago, not letting the anxiety cut her from (his) help.
"Okay," she agrees, her voice slightly quivering.
As Steve straightens and turns to leave to the kitchen, she catches his wrist. She traces her fingertips over the blue vein, then places a little kiss over it.
"Thank you," she murmurs, lips tickling his skin, but the tender, vulnerable gesture grips Steve's heart.
"You know what?" he tilts his head, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear, "Come on. Move your butt, you're gonna help me make dinner."
Pulled by her hand, Catherine eagerly jumps up, a smile instantly forming on her lips as he keeps their fingers entwined, until she's fully on her feet. Taking him by surprise, Cath slips her slender fingers under the hem of his T-Shirt, tracing the path of inked skin low on his back. Standing on her tiptoes, she nuzzles his neck, chuckling with amusement at the sound of a small groan escaping Steve's lips.
"Not the kind of help I had in mind," Steve shakes his head, though his hands instinctively move down her arms and slide around her waist.
"Oh, my bad," mirthful tone vibrates against his shoulder, where she moved her lips, kissing along the fabric and down his arm, moist lips teasing his skin.
With a short, low growl, he leans down, nudging her cheek with his nose. When she looks up, he captures her mouth in a kiss. "Keep it up," he breathes between kisses, barely tearing his lips from hers, "And we won't make it to dinner."
Catherine bites on his lower lip, then nips along Steve's jaw. "Somehow," she mutters, tip of her tongue sneaking out to tease his lips, "We rarely... make it... to dinner..."
"And whose fault is that, huh?" Steve pulls back, quirking his eyebrow.
For a moment Cath seems to ponder, making a serious face and humming, before she announces, "Totally yours."
A loud, joyous squeal resounds, when with a mock-outraged, "Oh really?!" Steve hoists her up and throws over his shoulder.
He carries her to the kitchen, finally setting her down. "This time we'll make it to dinner," he pats her butt, before opening the fridge, "Can't promise we'll make it back to the bed afterwards, though," he grins at her.
Assigned with cutting tomatoes, Catherine stands by the kitchen table, skilfully preparing the ingredients, while Steve takes his place by the counter, filleting the fish. They work in mild silence for a while, listening to the rhythmical, light beat of the ocean and each other's breathing. There's a thought in Steve's head, however, which he tries to put in words and spell out, but a part of him is hesitant. While the proposition he has is quite harmless, the more he thinks about it, the more significance it seems to bear.
Barely a few days ago they had a huge argument, folloed by a serious conversation, in which Catherine has pointed out her suspicions about him growing roots here. While the idea in his mind came only from an invitation he got from Kono and Chin, to which he had acted in happy eagerness, the meaning behind it can be too much.
"You know," he peers at Catherine over his shoulder, "There's a football game this weekend. The team from my high school is playing. I though we could go?"
He can't promise that this won't have any strong meaning to him. Casual game, treated only like a day spent with his team, could reveal a hidden streak, which will appear the moment he finds himself on that stadium, watching the players in red jerseys on the field. The palette of memories it for sure will revoke could pull hard on his heart.
"I'd love to," Cath's response is quick and sure, without the slightest hint of uncertainty or cold. She looks up from the tomatoes and smiles at him, sparks igniting in her irises, "Maybe someone will break all your records."
The carefree tone and mischievous sparkles in brown eyes melt away all the cold worry, that wrapped around his heart.
It's quite overwhelming, the relief he feels upon Cath's easy reply, to the point where he wants to smack himself for doubting her. He had promised to take everything into consideration and apparently the vow itself is enough for her. She trusts him, doesn't approach each of his ideas with reluctance and anger. And maybe, a brief thought crosses his mind, this place is growing on her too.
Too soon to consider it, Steve knows. She probably agreed, because spending the time together, doing simple mundane things, is something they rarely have occasion to do. Steve can't help, the hope that ignites and blooms within, little speckles of happiness cruising in his veins.
He's about to speak up, tongue already tingling with playfulness, cheeky grin spreading on his face, but one look cast over his shoulder flushes it all down.
It's a split second, barely one breath after she voiced her response, but the change on Catherine's face is clear. Her gaze is glued to the wooden board on the kitchen table, the hand holding the knife begins to tremble, while her left hand is frozen mid gesture, red tomato juice dripping from her fingers.
Steve moves in an instant, crossing the small space between them in two long strides. There's been too many similar moments in their lives, when one of them lost all connection to reality, being pulled back into one of the nasty remnants. The panic doesn't rise yet, but an acidic worry creeps under his skin, bringing up all the known facts and foreseeable consequences.
They were in the middle of a carefree conversation, none of the well known triggers appeared, and yet she flashed back to the nightmare from a few years. Which, Steve always understood, was a much worse hell for her than for him.
A bitter taste fills his mouth as he quickly takes a paper towel and wipes Catherine's hand, then the board, getting rid of all the red traces, which her mind tricked her to recognize as blood.
"It's all gone now," Steve speaks quite firmly, while his touch stays tender and careful, "You're safe now, Cath."
He tries to keep calm, provide the feeling of safety, not pushing her further into worry and fear. But it's hard to stop his own guts from clenching and twisting with rising terror upon the strength of the flashback she has just experienced.
There was a time, when they both were like cracked eggs, the tiniest touch and wave threatening to shatter them into pieces. There hasn't been a day, fuck, there hasn't been an hour, when some thought hadn't crawled back into mind, blocking out everything else, every shard of reality, or sanity. Nightmares coming at night were one thing, but the daylight has been so much worse. With all the people around going on with their lives, laughter echoing, sometimes rushing and accidentally pushing them aside. All those small things seemed to be too harsh, too heavy, so easily triggering the fear and in an instant blowing it to the size of a serious panic attack.
To be honest, while the flashes definitely had the strongest impact at the moment they appeared, they were never the hardest to cope with, even if it seemed so.
Posttraumatic stress disorder isn't all about nightmares and resurfacing memories. For Steve it's everything else that accompanies it. He wasn't able to focus, all the while having the awareness of being the leader, being responsible for his men. He tried, but he just couldn't control his mind at all times and the emotions were completely out of his grasp. Anhedonia spread through him like a poison, invoking nausea and irritation whenever he forced himself to activities he used to love before. He avoided swimming for four months, though at the same time he could spend hours in the shower, always feeling like dirt and blood are still clinging to his skin.
It was hard. Hell, it was traumatizing. And the therapy at first seemed to only worsen his state. His therapist described it as if he was fighting the therapy with a renewed strength, for he hadn't been able to fight when they faced Hesse and his men.
Still, Steve always thought all of his reactions and symptoms were so mild compared to Catherine's.
God, how many arguments they had over it in the beginning. Sometimes he wonders how they made it through with all the pushing and pulling. Maybe because it was a mere drop in the ocean of the time they've spent together, completely lost in all the moments, when each other's presence brought safety and peace. Silent lunches in the mess hall, Cath's soft, reassuring voice reminding him not to blame himself. The short, but much needed phone calls, when she's been relocated. Then the hot, endless nights in Coronado, almost a year later, when they stumbled upon each other unexpectedly. It was the first time he felt truly rested, when waking up next to her.
He learned her symptoms, her triggers, which weren't that similar to his, though it might seem they would. The smell of raisins never concerned him, but he figured he was too out of it back then, to register all the details. Catherine was in full awareness and everything impacted her so much stronger.
The knife falls to the floor the moment Cath looks up at Steve, her other hand clasped between his. She blinks rapidly as the quivering spreads through her body. "I'm sorry, Steve," her voice is shaky and high pitched, "I'm sorry."
"Hey, it's okay," Steve's voice softens slightly, still holding the solid firmness, which is aimed to reach through the haze and ground her, "Remember, we promised not to be sorry for what's not in our control?"
Her brown eyes are clouded, pupils wide, but she slowly nods, trying to focus her gaze on Steve's face and not look around in panic. The flashback itself doesn't scare her, but the fact it came so suddenly after months of not having any. Catherine suspects what might be the cause, all the suppressed emotions and the freshness of death she never thought would make her so... at peace.
"It's Hesse," she whimpers, gaze dropping down, unable to face Steve while she admits to these awful, almost inhuman feelings.
Steve doesn't force her to look at him, but reaches for her other hand and holds it firmly, as if to prevent her from running away. His grip tightens on her trembling fingers, when the next words fall from her lips, quiet and soaked with guilt.
"Anton Hesse is dead and I am so happy about it."
Environs of Salhani, Lebanon,
The blast was sudden, nothing to warn right before it. No one acted suspiciously, there was no sound betraying an upcoming blow. The rustling of search and casual exchange of observations had been interrupted by the earpiercing noise, followed by a cascade of sounds and dust. Clatter, screams, shooting, it all mixed in a haze of headcrushing racket.
Or maybe it wasn't the sounds that filled Catherine's head with pain, but the bruises and cuts, rocks pressing into her skull, cutting her skin open.
Whatever the cause is, it increases the nausea and dizziness, which worsens with every passing second.
Catherine curls up on her side, but the movement doesn't help much, only makes her realize her whole body is sore. She hasn't opened her eyes and yet everything seems to spin. There's a feeling of endless rolling tormenting her head. Insides her stomach bubbles and threatens to come out, the bitter acidic aftertaste filling her throat and mouth.
Slowly, she rolls onto her stomach and braces herself on her hands. Tiny rocks and shards cut into her skin, prickling uncomfortably, but she grits her teeth and climbs on all fours.
Suddenly she stops, when the bitterness in her mouth intensifies and a choking burning pushes through her throat. She feels like vomiting, but nothing comes out, only some of her saliva. Keeping the same stance, Catherine waits and prays for the spinning to subside, so she can open her eyes. The noises now seem to be coming from so far away and she frowns, unable to recognize any voices. There's only the sound of a gunfight, but it also comes from far off.
Finally, she forces her eyes open and the sandy surface spins before her eyes, causing her body to lose its balance, the nausea increasing once again.
Cath, however, grits her teeth and taking deep breaths, tries to regain the control over her body. The few wet spots on the rocks right under her head are stained with pink, which she instantly recognizes as blood, but the amount of it in her spit suggests it's nothing internal. Probably only from the cuts on her lips. Licking them proves her right, as the stinging tingles her mouth. She can also feel a thin trickle on the side of her head, a few drops of blood dripping down her jaw.
It seems her whole body refuses to cooperate as she stands up, all wobbly, unbalanced. She has to close her eyes for a moment, when she fully straightens. Fortunately, when she opens them again, the surroundings aren't spinning so much anymore.
They do confuse her, though.
Catherine is facing a wide road, the sandy curve disappearing between rocky slopes. On her left is a high, grey wall of stone that seems to reach the sky, the sun brightly shining at the top. That's where the echo of shooting is coming from, momentarily reminding her of the people out there, the SEAL team she came with. As the spinning slowly ceases, she begins to put the pieces together.
Looking up and squinting her eyes, she tries, or hopes to see anything that's happening. At least to see some silhouettes.
That's where she fell from. Though she doesn't remember standing so close to the edge, but maybe the blast has been so strong it blew her further away and she rolled down the steep slope. A good thirty, maybe forty meters down.
Lieutenant McGarrett is going to yell, she expects it. After all, he didn't want Catherine to go with them in the first place, but she has been stubborn and listed all the logical reasons for why an Intel Ensign should tag along. Especially since this location had been reported abandoned for over a year now.
Well, not so abandoned after all, it appears.
For the SEAL leader to be able to let his frustration out on her, she needs to get back up there. Calling out for anyone would be the most stupid thing to do, considering she has no certainty who's up there. Instead of one of the American soldiers, she could drew the attention of the enemy and end up with a series of bullets in her body.
Mustering all her strength, she tries to climb up. Each movement causes a small hiss of pain, the tumble down the slope must've bruised her really hard. Gripping her scratched fingers on the rocky surface, she pulls her body up. It takes a lot of effort, her balance still shaky, muscles sore and as she stretches to reach to a higher rock shelf, pain surges through her left side, eliciting a strangled cry. Busted ribs, she concludes and grimaces, lowering herself slightly.
The higher she climbs, the harder it becomes, less surface to hold on to.
A curved rock, seemingly a solid part of the slope, which she uses as her next leverage, suddenly cracks and falls off. Catherine loses her grip and falls down rapidly, once again scraping her body on the grit.
Her hands are now scraped hard, light skin covering in tiny droplets of blood, which quickly cover her palm fully. The stinging from the cuts increases, yanking on the neurons with growing pain, any movement of her fingers causes a surge of twinge.
Cath glances up at the inclined wall, for a long moment calculating the chances of making it up, but it honestly doesn't seem possible. Especially now with her bloodied hands. At best, it would drain her of all her energy.
There has to be a way around. When they drove up there, she had noticed two other roads curving around the slope and the road ahead of her now has to be one of the tracks. Taking another look around, observing the slopes on the other side, she checks if there's anything suspicious. A glint that could betray a sniper, some shady movement. But there's nothing.
Keeping close to the left side, Catherine marches on, trying to set up a quick pace, but she has to slow down when the dizziness reappears.
The instinct to push herself, to force the faster tempo, or try climbing up again, rises the moment she realizes the sounds of shooting have ceased. There's no one yelling for her, no sound of engine, like suddenly everyone and everything had disappeared. Even if they evacuated, unable to find her, maybe classifying her as a casualty of the blast, she can't stop or turn around. Now she has to make it all the way back to the base, or to the nearest village.
It does seem suspicious, however, her brain providing her with the possibilities and scenarios she doesn't want to think of.
She keeps telling herself it's impossible for all of the SEALs are dead. The whole ordeal didn't seem like an ambush, more like accidental encounter with someone, who didn't expect them at the scene.
On the other hand, Catherine has never been out in the field. All the training she went through couldn't fully prepare her for an encounter of that sorts. Maybe if she hadn't fallen down, the training and instinct would kick in, she'd have taken out her gun and followed the lead. But she's kind of lost now, relying only on her common sense and survival skills.
And when she comes to a sudden stop, it becomes clear she will have to change the approach and adjust.
The road is blocked by a stacked wall of rubble. Big rocks and chunks, clearly a remnant of a huge explosion. Something tells her it was done purposely, cutting off one of the approachable roads. Quite smart, considering that Hesse's little base is protected by steep slopes on this side, which are very heard to climb. This means less unexpected attacks.
Catherine freezes for a second and then drops down, hiding behind a curve in the rock wall.
She reaches her bloody hand for the gun holstered on her thigh. It hurts like hell to clench the fingers around the metal and she presses her lips hard, almost biting them, to stop the cry of pain. The necessity is stronger than discomfort, though, and she pulls the gun closer, peeking at the sight that caused her to react.
There's someone hunched by the rocks. Grey shirt and dark pants, his hand on the rifle. But as Catherine holds her breath and watches him intently, he doesn't move an inch. Doesn't even take a breath.
Slowly, she reaches one hand to grab the small rock nearby and tosses it across the road, all the while having her gun pointed at the man. Awaiting his reaction. But he stays still. Deadly still.
Taking a deep, encouraging breath, she stands up and carefully steps closer. Rearranging the grip on the gun, because the blood on her hands makes it all slippery and unsteady, she flexes all her muscles to keep her arms from shaking. Trying to steady her breathing, Cath takes another careful step, avoids making additional noise. Though it feels like the echo of her pounding heart is resonating in the air with each loud thump.
With each step it becomes clearer the man is dead, but she can't afford being careless at the moment, having no back up. It might as well be another trap. The first thing she does, when she reaches the body, is to kick his leg, prepared for any sudden movement. But the body lays motionless, even as she does it for a second time. Quickly, she grabs the rifle and yanks it away, the man's fingers slipping off it without any resistance. Carefully leaning over him, gun in one hand still pointed at him, she checks his pulse.
Catherine secures the rifle on her shoulder, then rolls the body over onto his back, to check for any other items she might find on him. What strikes her the moment she looks at his face is his ethnicity. He's definitely not Lebanese. A Caucasian male in his early thirties, with tattoos on his neck. It becomes clear, the encounter wasn't with a Hezzbollah's cell, but with Hesse's men. She's about to reach into the pocket of his vest, when a raspy voice calls out to her suddenly.
"Drop your weapon!" perfect American accent, with a soft hint of specific drawl, resounds in a harsh tone, then repeats the command in Arabic.
In an instant, she turns around, gun now firmly held in both hands as she aims at the source of the voice. He's on the other side of the road, sliding down the rocky barricade, BDUs covered in dirt and dark blotches, but it's still quite easy to recognize the pattern and familiar equipment. It takes a second for Catherine to make his face out, the lines of his jaw and cheeks, now stained with blood and dirt, blue eyes looking at her sharply.
The recognition falls at her with an abrupt wave of relief.
"Lieutenant McGarrett," she breathes out, tremors filling her body once again, though this time provoked by the sudden burst of security. Which is a bit naive, the logic tells her, as they are both apparently wounded and there's no sign of the team coming to get them.
Foolishly maybe, Catherine lowers her arms, the gun almost slipping out of her grasp. Her heart thumps louder, harder, when McGarrett doesn't do the same, still aiming at her.
Cath finally notices that he is squinting his eyes, looking at her suspiciously, meaning he hasn't recognized her at first. After long seconds, he groans and lowers his weapon, at the same time leaning his head back on the rocks.
"Jesus, Rollins," he cusses, but she's not sure if it's at her, or more at himself. The fact he had difficulty recognizing her, means either she's more bruised than anticipated, or he's the one seriously damaged.
Catherine takes quick, small steps towards him, hovering over his helplessly slumped body. His head lolls to the side, eyes on her, watching with growing curiosity.
"Sir," when she addresses him, he looks clearly surprised, "You're wounded." Cath's gaze is focused on his stretched out leg, upper thigh soaked with blood.
"Yeah," Steve groans, clenching his eyes shut, when Catherine drops to her knees, the sun blocked by her silhouette shining directly on his face, "Got shot. Just a scratch."
"Doesn't seem like a scratch," Catherine frowns and shoots him a pointed look when she assesses his wound. After a moment, she realizes her slip and instantly apologizes, "Uh, sorry Sir. I meant, um, Sir, I can take a look at it."
"It's fine, Rollins," Steve sits up slightly, though it feels like using so much energy in that one simple move. "I can take care of it, but the aid kit is somewhere up there," he motions to the high steep, "So we have to improvise."
In any other circumstances he'd have a blast, improvising and adjusting always provided a surge of fun. He likes creativity, it always came to him quite easily. But the current situation is far from one to enjoy, especially feeling the exhaustion and pain straining at his neurons.
He shifts his clouded gaze back at Rollins, taking in her appearance, or more like assessing her equipment. "Give me your scarf," Steve orders and Cath doesn't even hesitate a second, quickly yanking at the thin layer of fabric she took to cover her month in the sandy, dry air.
"Fortunately for us," Steve mutters, while rolling the scarf and twisting it high around his thigh, "It's past noon, so it should become more bearable. Then again," he groans, tying a tight knot, "We should find a shelter, before it gets dark. I doubt we can make it to the base before dusk."
Catherine can't help the quiet, slightly quivering question that slips out of her mouth, "Sir? What about the team?"
A lump forms in her throat and she swallows heavily, when a shadow comes across McGarrett's face. His eyes darken, a hard, dangerous glint piercing through blue irises. "Don't know," he rasps out, "But I will find them. Each and every one."
She only nods, not voicing all the questions about how he intends to find them. Does he think they're all alive? Will they climb up that steep over and over, until they reach it? A sense of duty and loyalty she understands very well, she's ready herself to go to the furthest to help find them, but Cath realizes that for Lieutenant McGarrett it's more. A higher stake, proded by haunting guilt, because they are his friends, his brothers and he is responsible for them. There's no option of not getting them back.
Instead, Cath asks about another problem they're facing, "Sir, if I may ask, where's your equipment?"
There's only one service gun beside him, no trace of the rifle all of the SEALs were equipped with. Neither his sat phone, nor the vest are on him. A suspicion grows in her, but she'd rather not even imagine the possibility, which might incline the whereabouts of the rest of the team.
"Got stripped of it," Steve huffs, annoyance and disappointment clear in his voice, "The blast knocked me unconscious. When I woke up, I guess minutes later, I was in the back of a rusty car. My rifle gone, the vest too. The asshole was trying to take the thigh holster off, when I kicked him and sent him flying through the door of a moving car." He takes a breath, trying to lengthen the intakes of air, "Struggled with the other one, the driver got shot while we were fighting for the gun. Car totalled on the side... I crawled out of it, before it burst in flames. Went after that one," he points to the dead man on the other side, "He managed to hit my leg, before I put him down."
The way he describes the situation is too chaotic for Catherine's liking, but she doesn't voice her worries about his slipping consciousness. He'd have to deal with a full detailed report after they reach the base. For now it's less important how he lost his equipment, but more how they're going to make it with the few items they got.
"How'd you get here?" Steve eyes her up and down. It's a small relief to know that at least one of his people is alive and unharmed. Well, at least not severely harmed. He notices her bloodied hands, now probably even more sore, after holding the gun.
"The blast knocked me down the slope."
She shrugs, as Steve winces, glancing at the hard, steep wall and the chain of rocks at the bottom, which could easily kill, if your head bumped into them on an impact.
After a moment of silence, McGarrett takes a deep breath and stands up. It doesn't go unnoticed, that he weavers slightly, closing his eyes for a second. Catherine doesn't say a thing, knowing that feeling too well and understanding the need to push worry aside, for they have to block any discomfort to make it to their destination.
"We could climb it," Steve motions the barricade of rocks, "But the safer road for now is down there."
Catherine nods and hands him the stolen rifle, even in his state he's not only a better shooter, but her hands need some time to heal. They head down the road, keeping to the side, where rocks cast a faint shadow. Their pace is steady, but slow and Cath can't help but notice the discomfort Steve must feel with each step. She's not a surgeon, but his wound is more than a graze.
Neither of them talks. Though it could help the tension and fear, it would use more energy and cause distractions, which they can't afford. Every step of the way, they observe the surroundings and listen to any sounds that might indicate oncoming danger. A part of it is kept in hope to stumble upon someone from their unit, to find themselves in a known group and regain the sense of safety.
With time, Catherine's gaze keeps flicking towards the Lieutenant more and more frequently. The pace of his steps has decreased, the limping more obvious, as well the grimace on his face, which he tries to suppress. It's not like the ache isn't numbing Cath, she tries to grit her teeth and not wince whenever the pain surges through. Palms only throb, but the rest hurts whenever she takes a deeper breath. One of her ribs is probably fractured, but hopefully she could avoid the cracked bone tearing her lung.
Though the rational part demands being clear about wounds, for it's stupidto hide serious injuries or alarming signs from your team, especially in the middle of nowhere. While hiding it spares the unnecessary drama, it puts everyone at risk, because if someone suddenly collapses, the rest isn't prepared for it and it puts everyone in danger.
There's only two of them now and while Catherine has seen his wound, she's sure McGarrett hadn't told her everything about his state. Whatever happened in that car, or before he got dragged into it, had to make an imprint on his physical state. Which, obviously, he tries to overcome.
And she didn't tell him anything either. Stupid, she screams at herself, but keeps her mouth shut, unable to voice it. Part of her simply wants to be tough, they're in enough trouble now, no need to burden the leader with a few cracked ribs. Especially when he marches with a hole in his leg. Knowledge about an injury changes the approach. She should inform him there's a possibility she won't be able to perform all of the tasks, instead of endangering them both.
She's about to open her mouth and admit to it, when McGarrett's hand grabs her by the elbow, stopping their march. Cath looks at him startled, then follows his gaze. They slowly descend the far left side of the valley to find a small house on the brim of a sunburnt forest.
It's little more than a shack, with a well a few yards away and a small animal hopping in the shadow by the west side of the building. No vehicles nearby, no movement or suspicious activity can be spotted.
McGarrett's grip on Catherine's arm tightens, but not because of the tension or alert. With the sweat drizzling his face and slight wave in his stance, she instantly understands he's trying to avoid falling down on the ground. The shack can be too dangerous to be in, especially if a family lives there, but they both need a little rest and water.
On Steve's sign, they squat down behind the rocks on the opposite side, scanning the surroundings, looking for any oncoming threats. For long minutes, stretching into half an hour, nothing happens. Only one person leaves the house. Soon after, another one follows.
They both tense, awaiting the appearance of a man, or worse - men, armed and posing a threat. Time passes as Steve and Cath keep still, the only movement being shivers, whenever a trickle of sweat rolls down their backs. Nothing happens, though. Two females, one clearly younger than the other, get the water from the well. No one else emerges from the house.
"We have to move," Steve decides with a resigned huff, too well aware of the fact that their approach won't be the one they were trained to. And the valley doesn't provide the kind of terrain they could sneak through unnoticed. It's going to be the two of them, wounded, almost unarmed, versus the open, unknown plain.
Mustering all the shards of strength left, trying to push through the haze that heavily clouds not only his thoughts, but also his sight, Steve leads the way. It's against all he's been trained, but having Rollins beside him is the only way for them to make it. For him to make it, without falling down. The blood loss weakens him, but he's been injured before and still managed to get through. This time, however, there's another change in his body, one that increases rapidly, scaring Steve. He's got a fever and it's worse than the wound in his leg. Steve always reacted badly to having a fever, even as a kid.
So he makes sure the distance between him and Rollins isn't big, providing himself the assurance of leaning on her, if needed, and following her gaze, which right now perceives more than his blurry vision.
The women freeze in fear when they approach. The older shields the teenager with her body, both curled as if expecting to be pierced by bullets.
The sound of Cath's cracked voice gets to Steve and he can make out some of the broken sentences she forms. Wetting his lips with his tongue, he speaks up, unsure of how strong his voice sounds, but definitely better at speaking Lebanese Arabic. Their state doesn't gain trust, for sure. Two wounded soldiers in the middle of nowhere, uniforms covered in dirt and blood, none of the glorified American dream atributes. The time seems to drag on forever, Steve sways on his feet, Catherine's pleading voice resounding over and over again.
And suddenly he feels a gentle push. Opening his eyes, he notices the silhouettes are moving. It's Rollins, who nudges him forward, her fingers gently grasping his arm as she leads him to the small house, following the women.
She makes him sit on something, low and not really soft. The movement causes him to grit his teeth, to stop the groan of pain, as his leg throbs, when he stretches it.
The cold, fresh splash of water hits his face and he groans in relief, nearly leaning into the unexpected touch of soft fingers at his cheek. It's brief, lasts merely a second, but he can't say he doesn't like it.
The second splash of water awakens him somewhat and Steve's able to reach for the tin basin filled with liquid and splash more of it on his face, rubbing away the tiredness, blood and heat. Then his lips touch the cup he's given and he gulps it all down.
While filling the cup with more water, Steve shifts his gaze to look at Rollins. She's standing before him, all tense and guarded, as if she's the one protecting him from anything that might suddenly attack. A frown creases his forehead, when he notices her posture. Catherine keeps her left hand to the side, holding the cup only in the right one.
With a sigh, Steve downs the rest of the water, never tearing his clouded eyes from her, when he asks a moment later, "Arm or ribs?"
"It's no-" she starts, but he interrupts her firmly.
"Arms or ribs?" it comes out not only of concern, because in his state and in those circumstances there's not much he could do to help her out anyway, but he needs to know her injuries to take into consideration when deciding about their next move. Fractured ribs mean she's got limited moves overall and can't press into surfaces, risking the lung puncturing. If it's the arm, it limits her gun or knife operating, but nothing more.
Casting her gaze downwards in mild embarrassment, Catherine opens her mouth to answer him, this time honestly, when a sudden commotion ensues.
The girl barges in, sputters quick words at them, which Catherine doesn't fully understand, but judging by how quickly Steve jumps up, almost screaming from the pain shooting through his leg, she understands it's bad.
The doors are quickly closed and they are ushered to the other room. For a moment they watch in confusion as the girl is struggling with the tall, open cabinet, stacked with small jars and tin cans, but when the faint sound of engines reaches them, they understand instantly.
Pushing aside the wooden furniture reveals a small, hidden chamber, one that can barely fit two people their size.
Steve peeks through the window, cursing at the cloud of dust in the distance, surrounding the oncoming column of vehicles. With only one rifle, two guns and considering their wounds, there's no way they can openly defend themselves and two civilians. They can count only on luck at the moment and prayers.
Complete darkness falls, when the girl pushes the cabinet back to its place, closing Steve and Catherine inside the small space, filled with stuffy, moldy air and their sweat.
Cath's heart rate increases, it seems to be thumping so loud, that she presses a hand over her chest, hoping to muffle the sound as if it can be heard not only by her. A quick glance at Steve, to check his demeanor, is futile. She can only make out the lines of his profile in the darkness. Soft gasp bubbles out on her lips, when his hand touches hers. Not accidentally, it appears, because he holds her trembling fingers within his.
They can barely make out the faint sounds of conversation outside the hut, lead by the older woman and whomever came in those cars. Other than that, it's utter silence.
Until suddenly the door bursts open...