United States Fleet Activities
Compared to the loud and packed twelve-hour-long flight, or even to the semi-quiet MTAC in Bahrain, this place is like a pit of dead silence. The sterile white walls are splashed with big spots of sunlight falling through the windows. There is only one door at the end of the hall, but Catherine can't bring herself to even go close to it. Her body is curled up on the floor, arms around her bent legs as she leans her head on the wall with a sigh, closing her eyes. Flecks of light dance on her skin, but she can't feel the warmth of the sun through the windows, fear and sadness filling her with too much cold, suppressing everything into numbness. The long corridor, which seems to have no end, overwhelms her petite figure, which appears to be like that of a tiny, fragile doll, about to crumble.
But she can't, not yet anyway. The streams of tears she shed on the flight here couldn't lull her to sleep, as all of the emotions are still bottled up, straining each neuron in her fatigued body. Guarding herself is not really Catherine's choice of facing and dealing with things - she prefers a worked out technique of getting it all out of her system, to regain rags of control.
This situation is different though, the aching wound that death caused cutting deeper with each thought about what he must be going through.
And her heart seems to be falling into pieces for both of them.
The echo of the Captain's words still resounds in her head, a dull, empty tone clenching at her heart over and over again. There's a part of her that is still fighting against accepting that... John McGarrett is dead.
A man who had become her family, who was more than just a father-in-law. He was a friend. One with whom she shared all those smiles upon his son's stubborn face; who fiercely debated with her the primacy of the Redskins over the Dallas Cowboys; the one who called her out of nowhere to ask for her coconut cookie recipe.
The randomness of memories coming back to her at that moment irritates her, as none of them are distinctively meaningful, though God knows they have had a few of those. It is, instead, just a chain of the simplest flashes, none giving the full picture and coming even a tiny bit close to mirroring her depth of feeling, a feeling like a part of her heart was being ripped out.
Appreciating small moments and keeping in touch with shards of everyday reality hold a great power, Catherine knows, especially being in the Navy, when every day has the potential to bring about a downward spiral. It builds stability, belonging, and the feeling of having a safe shore to return to at some point, be it the end of the day, the week, or several years. Yet, there is a voice that demands the remembrance of how great John has been, to praise more than just the delicious taste of his lime-honey chicken served with a broad smile on the lanai behind his house.
Cath's distress goes beyond the frames of losing a family member, in the tragic brutality of a complicated past that got back to haunt them. It also surges to the person who is somewhere within these walls, forced to brace himself instead of being able to mourn.
The routines and rules are not only for bureaucracy, they're also part of a tactic to provide at least a small opportunity to refocus, to unburden the body and mind of a troubled soldier. It's not only to serve for long term efficiency, but also as a form of stability to which one can hold on, for the first hours and days after a tragedy.
Yet, Catherine would love nothing more than to get him out of the briefing room and into her arms, trying to give him a feeling of safety and support, and definitely not expecting him to get a grip. They have found each other's embrace calming more than once, not only with the usual distress of their jobs. Some experiences turn their hearts inside out, shattering them to pieces, and the presence of one another appeared to be the only thing which grounded them. With the flash of Anton Hesse's face, the memory of the most gruesome nightmare comes back to her head, the one that only Steve's body protected her from.
Before her thoughts spiral down the hellish hole of fear and guilt, only adding to the grief of the current situation, the overwhelming silence is finally broken by the sound of an opening door.
She's up on her feet in an instant, eyes glued to the man exiting the room on the far end.
But it's not the silhouette she wants to see right now and an annoyed, impatient sigh escapes her lips, but it's a familiar posture, which she recognizes immediately, standing to full attention.
He dismisses her with a short wave of a hand, not even aiming for regulatory formalities before he strides to her and embraces her in a comforting hug. "I'm so sorry, Catherine," he holds her for a second more and pulls back, hands still resting on her shoulders, squeezing gently, "John was a great friend."
"Thanks, Joe," her voice is hoarse, barely audible. She realizes it's the first time she has spoken since reporting over thirty hours ago to the MTAC, hours of crying and suppressed sobbing having dried her throat to the point where she can only whisper helplessly.
Clearing her throat a few times, Cath motions towards the door and manages to ask in a more audible tone, "Is he-?"
"He'll be out in a few minutes," Joe offers a small, faint smile, which he is sure will not help to ease her anxiety, nor would it lessen her worry for Steve, even if he had mastered the most convincing, bright grin. Neither is he able to do that, being shaken by the situation himself. He has known them long enough to know that nothing can bring actual relief until they can see each other. "Only formalities," he assures her, "I left early, 'cause I want to arrange a flight to Oahu for the two of you."
"No," Catherine shakes her head, eyes shifting to the door, looking at it longingly, before drifting back to Commander White's face, "Just for him."
"What?" Clear confusion displays on his face - it is very unlike Catherine to retreat, especially from a personal assignment of supporting her loved ones.
"I know my husband, Joe," she sighs, rubbing her face with both of her hands, but unfortunately it doesn't scrub away the frustration, "Right now there are two cases on his mind. His dad, and Freddie," the way she looks back at him leaves no room for arguing with her determination, "He can't deal with both at the same time, so I will stay with Freddie, until Kelly flies in. Then meet Steve in Hawaii."
"Understood," he nods shortly and turns his head, gaze locking on the door, "I will be there for the funeral, whenever it'll be possible to organize it. Now, excuse me, but I really want to schedule a flight for him. The sooner the better, knowing his low patience level."
"Yeah," Cath's eyes follow, staring at the same exact spot, wishing that the door would finally open, "I doubt he'll be able to sit and process. Not now. He needs answers first," shaking her head, she returns her focus to Joe, "Anyway, thank you."
"Not a problem," Joe leans over to hug her one more time, "See you soon, Catherine. Be strong, for both of you." With one last squeeze he walks away.
As he strides down the corridor, the echo of his boots rumbling rhythmically, leaving Catherine in a frozen stance, her whispered, delayed response merely sounds in her own ears, "I always am." She tries, which never comes easy, considering both their jobs, not only his assignments, but hers as well. But it's worth it, worth everything. Somehow the power of support in their dynamic shifts involuntarily - depending on the situation and the time, one of them taking the role of being the solid one, sensing the other's need to crumble into pieces. Granted, there were moments when stubbornness made them both rigid at the same time, but they've learned to respect that it's something they both need sometimes, too.
When, minutes later, the door opens and finally that awaited figure appears, Catherine knows she will have to be the strong one. Not in that exact second, with Steve's defense mechanisms still high and his tendency to push the feelings away, until the right moment to express them comes. Maybe it will be after John's funeral, or the night before it, or even a month afterwards, but she's ready to shelter him within her own arms.
Steve's body is tensed, but his steps are slow and slightly wobbly, like he has just come back from a twenty-kilometre march with full gear on. His gaze casted down on the floor, until he notices boots and he lifts his eyes up.
Seeing her is not really a surprise, but a part of him always takes her presence as something unexpected, like he is still stuck in a state of disbelief that he is lucky enough to have met her, to be loved by her. A faint, but powerful sparkle of light in the sudden darkness that tries to consume him.
Her body crashes into his, arms wrapping tightly around him, fingers gripping at his BDUs. Her soft voice trembles with his name, the sound muffled on his shoulder, where she presses her head. The way she leans into him seems to be a search for support, but it's actually the opposite - she pulls him in, bracing herself for him to lean on her fully, to crush into her with all of his pain.
"Steve," she cries quietly, however hard she tries to contain her tears, they spill momentarily when he wraps his arms around her, trustingly hiding his face in the crook of her neck.
His rigid body seemingly relaxes, but she knows it's not yet the state of letting his whole guard down, he still bottles everything inside. He stays quiet for a long moment, lips pressed to her sweaty skin as he presses himself to her petite body as close as possible. The tender touch of her fingertips combing through the curls of hair above the nape of his neck makes him shiver, tempting him to just let himself fall apart in her arms.
Closing his eyes, he inhales her familiar scent and slowly pulls back. "Ca-" he pauses abruptly at the sound of his own voice cracking helplessly. Tears prick the undersides of his eyelids, daring to probe the redness of his already tired eyes, and he lifts his gaze up, blinking the tears away.
"Catherine," her name finally falls from his lips, a pleading relief in a choked tone.
There's something in the sound of her name that brings instant calmness, which is why he loves saying it so often. Calling her, mentioning her full name in conversations, sometimes murmuring to himself, whenever darkness seems to be gloomier than usual, sending shivers down his spine as he listens and looks for any danger creeping in. It's a mere illusion, he knows, but as long as it helps him focus and keep moving on, he won't trade that technique for any other.
"I'm-" Cath shakes her head, tears streaming down her face, because ridiculously stupid as those words are, there is nothing else she can say in this moment, "I'm so sorry, Steve. So sorry."
He barely nods, gritting his teeth more tightly. The helplessness behind her words threatens to tear the last straw of hope he's holding on to - wishing for them to be able to keep strong through it, but the wound runs so deep it seems to shatter them both. And the worst is, he is not sure if he can protect her from it. Hand sneaking onto her neck, he pulls her closer once again, kissing her forehead as his thumb brushes gently on the inked skin on the back of her neck.
"Can we, uh," he glances around uncomfortably, the cold sterile walls evoking horrid thoughts of hospitals... and morgues. A thought he can't yet face, though he does everything to prepare himself for it. Wiping the tears from Cath's cheek, he tries to focus his gaze on her tired face, hoping for it to ground him.
"Can we go?" Steve's voice is quiet and hoarse as he asks, "Somewhere outside, please?"
"Of course," Catherine quickly straightens, reaching for his hand. In a flash she's ready to push everything aside, just to bring him an ounce of comfort, it's the least she can do. She bends to pick her duffel bag up, but Steve is quicker, throwing it over his shoulder while his other hand rests on the small of her back. That simple, gesture, that somehow is so natural for him, always makes her smile, though this time the corners of her mouth quickly fall down way too soon afterwards.
The fresh air, somehow soaked with a flowery scent as they sit down under a large cypress in the base's green area, pleasantly washes away the scent of sweat and oil they both have been smelling for the past long hours. Steve leans his back on the tree's trunk, closing his eyes as he takes a deep, calming breath. Sunlight streams through the green branches, but since he took that phone call everything seems to be greyish and lacklustre. And there's the chaos of sounds in the back of his head whenever he closes his eyes, a mix of Freddie's voice, his father's words and the echo of his own scream.
Cath's voice comes like a soft wave that disperses the havoc of sounds, "Freddie is fine."
Steve opens his eyes, their haunted look turning into a thankful one. Long ago he stopped trying to figure out how it is possible for someone to know him so well, knowing what to say, or when to say nothing. But he knows her well too, and it's easy to figure out that she tries to help him refocus, to make him realize not all hope is gone.
"They wouldn't tell me much," she sighs, opening the bag and withdrawing a slightly damaged package, "As I'm not his next-of-kin, but they will proceed with another surgery today - I think around now, actually."
Without a word Steve observes her moves, how her fingers are still trembling, but each gesture and grip is firm and not nervous. She opens the package, which as he suspected, contains basic provisions. "You should eat," she pushes a small goji bar into his hand and takes half a sandwich in her own. There's not a hint of question in her voice, if he even wants to eat, because she knows too well that he definitely does not, knows that his throat and stomach are tied in a knot. But he has to.
He unwraps the bar slowly, swallowing a few times as if to prepare his heavy stomach, hoping that the contents won't come back up right away. As he glances at Catherine, it looks like she prays for the same, munching slowly on the sandwich.
"Think one of the bullets went through his lung," Steve mumbles, before taking the first bite. Focusing on keeping it in his stomach and not throwing up at least keeps his thoughts away from the terrifying memory of seeing his friend's body pierced by bullets.
"Seems so," Cath nods her head, "But from what I've gathered, it looks like they will save his lung. Though, he might not be able to dive anymore."
She casts a quick glance at Steve, hoping the mention of his friend's probable disability to go back to SEALs won't add to Steve's long list of guilt and worry. Freddie had always wanted to become a SEAL, but it was never as deeply embroidered within him as it was for Steve.
"He will have a lot of other things to dive into," Steve's sudden snort, which is followed by a smile, surprises Cath and she looks at him questioningly. Swallowing another bite, he explains, "Bubba got married."
"Got what?!" Catherine almost chokes on her sandwich, quickly reaching for the canteen and washing it down.
"He and Kelly got married, like a week ago," he shakes his head with the same mixture of surprise and happiness as he had felt in the moment when Freddie had announced it to him for the first time, "She's pregnant."
Remembering that is bound to bring more burden later, thinking how Freddie almost got killed and would never have been able to even meet his baby, if the mission had gone even worse than it had.
For now, though, it provides a certain lightness, a streak of happiness and hope. If Cath's words come true, he will be all right and will soon be annoying Steve with complaints about his pregnant wife's cravings. And Steve feels like he will be most happy to listen to them.
Cath shakes her head, eyes dropping to the grass briefly as she mutters, "Wow." She takes another sip of water before looking up at him, "Well they owe us a wedding party. I'm going to tell Freddie that, they won't get off that easy."
"Yeah, and a stag party too," Steve squishes the colourful wrapper in his fist, not even noticing that he has eaten the whole thing without an onset of nausea, "Though, it probably won't be as epic as mine was," he winks at her.
"Finding a bunch of snoring, drunk SEALs in the living room was truly epic," her snort evokes a grin on his face, a flash of a second when everything else disappears as the happy memory fills his mind, "On the other hand, Sam cuddling my leg was definitely something."
They smile at each other for a moment, until the reality creeps back in, slowly erasing the levity. Danger and unknown have always been a part of their lives. However hard it is so often, neither of them regret anything, and definitely not the two most important things - the Navy, and each other. Sometimes, missions going awry, or a lack of information about the other one's whereabouts, aren't the trickiest of obstacles they have to face. Yet, they overcome them, fighting hard for each other, as it seems there is never anything more worth fighting for. Side by side they faced a few nightmares, but haven't been prepared for this one.
For a parent's death by the hands of someone who they were supposed to capture.
Catherine is the first to burst the faint bubble of distraction, clearing her throat, before she speaks, "Joe will arrange a flight for you to Oahu. I'm going to stay with Freddie, until Kelly comes."
"Thank you," he reaches for her hand that plays with the canteen cap, squeezing her fingers gently.
He has never been too good with expressing his feelings, many people wouldn't understand his need to be alone for a few days, especially after a tragedy like this one. Others always have the tendency to look at it from their perspective, taking his behaviour as an act of pushing away and shutting down. Granted, he did that sometimes, but never when it comes to Catherine. His body and mind just switch to a certain mode when he's with her, so easily stripping him of all the defence mechanisms, and right now he needs himself focused and solid for a few days more.
Entwining their fingers, Cath brings his hand up to her mouth, kissing it softly, "It's the least I can do."
"You do so much more, Cath," his fingers reach out to cup her face, a gesture into which she gladly leans, closing her eyes for a moment. When she opens them again, Steve's sure there's a new flash in them, a shimmer of a terrifying emotion, which she tries to blink away.
It's something different than grief and pain, a shadow which raises his worry, but he feels like it is not the time or space to be asking about it. Catherine's body language suggests that she tries, just like him, to suppress some emotions.
"I spoke to Freddie's dad," she says. It has never ceased to amaze him how much better she is at quickly changing subjects than he is, although everyone around thinks that it's his doing most of the time.
She continues, "He said Kelly will be here around 1900 tomorrow, so I should be on Oahu the day after. Maybe I'll even catch a night bird."
Steve pulls her close, until she's sitting beside him, half pressed to his body, head almost resting on his shoulder. "Never imagined the next time I'd be able to see you would come in such circumstances," he whispers, fingertips dancing above the knuckle of her ring finger, caressing the simple ribbon of her wedding ring. "It was supposed to be happy. I wanted to surprise you in Bahrain after that mission." When Freddie mentioned that he believed Kelly and him would be as happy as Steve is with Cath, he wanted to stupidly reply that it's not possible for anyone to be as happy as she makes him.
"Well, instead of a Halwa, we'll eat some malasadas," she turns her head slightly to look up at him, offering a small smile.
"You always get powdered sugar in your cleavage," Steve's chuckle is faint, but for a brief moment it seems to take the heaviness in his chest away. It comes back quickly, wrenching his heart as the sudden thought clouds his mind. Last time they ate Hawaiian malasadas, they weren't alone and the face of their companion comes back, reminding him of another hard step that needs to be taken.
"Catherine," he swallows hard, gripping her hand tighter, "I should call Mary, but... I'm not sure if-"
"I'll call her, Steve," she clasps his hand between hers. Over the past two years the relationship between Steve and his sister got better, she'd even dare to say they had made huge progress, but the grudges and fear are still there behind their gestures, or rather the lack of them. Somehow Mary bonded with Catherine, though God knows how rough that road was, opening up to her and seeking her support when Steve withdrew, feeling helpless and afraid to worsen her state.
"It shouldn't be like this," Steve's voice cracks and he hangs his head low, chin resting on his chest as he tries to restrain the tears threatening to spill out.
"No, it shouldn't," Catherine murmurs, her own eyes watering once again, "All we can do now is honour your dad's memory. And find the people responsible for it."
He nods, slowly lifting his head up and clearing his throat, the lump still in it, choking his words. It's hard to determine exactly when the job became personal, at which point the mission of hunting down the Hesse brothers turned into a mutual game of cat and mouse, but it seems to spiral down at a rapid pace, getting out of control. Whether the first boundary was crossed six years ago in that small, abandoned shed outside of Salhani, or two years ago on the border of Afghanistan, the longer it takes, the more he is convinced there's something else at stake than the IRA's gun dealer's vendetta.