He smiles with giddy relief as Cath takes the seat beside him. She’s safe, she’s safe, she’s safe, a little voice in his head chants. They might not be a couple any more but he’s always worried about her. Having her sitting her beside him – after so much loss, so much grief – it’s a heady feeling.
His phone vibrates in his hand. Dragging his eyes away from Cath’s, he looks down. It’s another message from Danny.
‘Call me when you land.’
Cath’s hand curls over his, blocking the screen. “You’re supposed to be relaxing.”
She’s smiling at him, softening her gentle rebuke. Back when they first met, in the Navy, their time together had always been short and therefore precious. ‘You’re supposed to be relaxing’ had been a familiar rebuke back then.
Priorities have changed over the years. Sliding his hand from underneath hers, he manages a half-smile. “It’s Danny. He’s going to worry.”
“He always worries,” she says lightly as he starts typing, his thumbs suddenly clumsy on the phone. He just has time to type ‘Copy that’ then the Captain’s telling them to get ready for take-off. Watching the islands disappear beneath them makes his heart ache, painfully. He carries on staring out of the window long after the islands have disappeared.
“It’ll be okay, Steve.”
He nods. Decisive. “It’s not for long.”
She exhales. Loudly. When he drags his eyes away from the Hawaiian skies to meet hers, she shuffles in her chair, tucks her hair back behind one ear. “How about a drink?”
Drinks appear. And crackers. They talk like the old friends they are. They’ve always been good at picking up where they left-off from. It’s what their whole relationship was built on for a long time.
Gradually he lets Cath do most of the talking. He’s grateful for her company; he hadn’t been looking forward to travelling alone. But saying goodbye to everyone – leaving Danny behind – while necessary, was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. Coupled with the fact he’s barely slept in the last month, exhaustion is creeping up on him.
When he wakes up the lights in the cabin have been dimmed. It’s much quieter. Still half-asleep, he rolls his head to the right – and his heart rate soars. Cath’s not in her seat.
Pushing himself upright, he tells himself not to panic. They’re on a plane. There’s nowhere she could have gone apart from the bathroom. Getting a grip, he takes in the visual evidence that supports that; Cath’s left her headphones and holdall on her seat.
Idiot, he berates himself silently.
Slumping back in his seat, he rubs at his eyes tiredly. A quick glance at his watch tells him it’s 7pm back in Hawaii. Right now Junior will be cooking dinner. Danny will be grumbling at Junior’s technique but they’ll both know it’s because Junior wants to learn to cook to impress Tani, and Danny’s a big softie who will do anything to help his friends. Eddie will be bugging both of them, getting under their feet, drooling, looking like no one has fed him for days…
Worried, he looks around for his phone. Eddie’s on medication, he needs to take it with his food. Before leaving he’d written pages of notes for Danny explaining every quirk and creak in the house. But he can’t remember including anything about Eddie’s medication.
“I got us more drinks.” Cath’s back, a drink in each hand and a smile on her face. The smile slips as she watches him. “What are you looking for?”
“My phone,” he explains, giving up the hunt for the moment to rescue the drinks and allow Cath to sit down. “Eddie’s medication. I didn’t tell Danny about it. I need to message him and—“
“He knows Emma doesn’t he?”
He stops for a second. Considers that. “Well…yes…”
“So he can call her if he has any questions.”
“Relaxing, remember?” she chides, settling back down in her seat again. She raises her glass. “Cheers.”
Automatically he raises his glass too. “Cheers.” Unlike the first drink, this one has alcohol in it. The warmth is welcome as it slides down his throat. Glancing sideways at Cath, he frowns. There’s something about her posture that suggests she’s not happy. He forces himself to unwind a bit. To look grateful. He places a smile on his face. “Thanks.”
It’s not long before they’re getting ready for landing. Then they’re at LAX, gathering up their things, preparing to disembark. It’s at that moment his phone makes a reappearance: it had slipped down the side of Cath’s chair.
A few minutes later and they’re on the move and there’s noise, and people, so many people. Everything’s faster, much louder than Honolulu. His battered brain baulks at the sudden sensory overload. Hunkering down, he weaves his way through the crowd, Cath close behind him.
He’s so focused on getting out of there it doesn’t occur to him that he’s forgotten to ask Cath one very important question:
How does she know who Emma is?
The time difference between Hawaii and Los Angeles mean it’s 11pm when they get to the hotel. His brain function is barely above that of a zombie as he checks in. Beside him, Cath doesn’t look much better. Tiredness makes them walk like drunk people as they head off to find their room. So when he opens the door it’s a moment before he realises that as well as one king size bed, there’s a sofa bed and it’s been made up.
There’s a pause. A long one.
Cath drops her bag on the floor. Her eyebrows raise. She smiles but it’s tenuous at best. “You were expecting someone?”
Suddenly his brain catches up. “It was for Danny…” He trails off as a shadow passes over her face. There’s a simple explanation but he can barely remember his own name. “Can we talk about this in the morning?”
Maybe it’s because he’s swaying on the spot from exhaustion, or perhaps it’s the begging tone that’s crept into his voice. Whatever it is, it works. “It’s okay,” she reassures him softly, as she puts her bag on the bed.
Without thinking, he picks up his own bag and puts it on the sofa bed.
The flare of hurt and disappointment in her eyes is impossible to miss. So is the tight, thin line of her lips. She doesn’t deserve this, his conscience berates him and he knows it’s right, so right. They’ve been through so much together. And she came to find him, on the plane. “Cath—“
She exhales loudly. It speaks volumes. Picking up her bag, she places it carefully on the sofa, next to his. Unzipping it, she pulls out her washbag. “I’ll take the sofa. You’re never going to fit on here.”
He hesitates, torn. But she’s got her head down, digging through the bag. Taking the hint, he retrieves his own bag and heads for the bathroom.
In reality he knows he’s been in bed for less than thirty minutes. The trouble is it seems so much longer. He’s got no idea if Cath is awake; he can’t see her in the darkness. But his guilty conscience is making him imagine waves of disappointment coming from the sofa.
The explanation about the sofa bed really is simple. This trip, he’s been planning for a while. Not all the exact details: it had been of a case of ‘one day’ rather than ‘when’. And Danny had been part of that plan.
They both needed a vacation, he’d decided. A chance to unwind. To kick back. Sure, Danny would protest but he’d get round it. He’d been preparing counterarguments in his spare time.
Then Joe had died. And his Mom. Then Leslie. It was time for that vacation. He’d been on the verge of asking Danny. Before he got a chance Daiyu Mei had attacked him – and Danny.
It had been while he’d been waiting for Danny to wake up, in the hospital, he’d realised his plan wouldn’t work. He’d been working so hard to keep his own grief at bay that he hadn’t understood how much he’d been relying on Danny just to simply function. Now Danny needed his support and he had nothing left to give. Unless he started dealing with his own issues – and quickly – he wouldn’t be there for Danny to lean on.
So he’d decided to come alone.
Lying in the darkness, he’s regretting his decision. Or at least he’s regretting how he handled things. Nervous – hell, he’d been scared – his conversation with Danny at his house hadn’t come out anything like he’d planned it to. Danny’s desolate expression is crystal clear in his mind’s eye.
I’m sorry, he whispers in to the silence. Closing his eyes, he promises he’s going to put it right.
He’s woken by the sound of someone talking. Struggling towards wakefulness, he chases the voice. It’s Cath he realises, but she sounds muffled. Opening he eyes, he understands why: she’s standing outside in the corridor and the door is shut.
Pushing himself up on his elbows, he listens. Experiencing a moment of déjà vu he frowns but she’s not talking Pashto, it’s definitely English.
Shaking his head in disgust at his own paranoia, he runs his fingers through his hair and sits up. Call Danny, his conscience reminds him. Squinting, he looks around for his phone. He finds it on the coffee table, next to the unmade sofa bed. Sliding out of bed he tugs on his jeans and tee-shirt and pads over to retrieve it. He can’t remember leaving it there but most of the evening is an exhausted blur.
Thumbing open the first screen he brings up the texting app. It’s still early in Hawaii but he texts Danny anyway. ‘I’m in LA’.
He’s not expecting a reply but a moment later his phone pings. ‘You ok babe?’
He stares at it for a moment. He can still hear Cath talking in the corridor. Danny should be asleep right now, out cold due to his pain meds. ‘I’m good. You?’
Another pause. Another ping. ‘I’m great’.
‘Liar’ he types, then deletes it. He doesn’t feel like he has the right to prod and argue; he’s the one who walked away. Outside Cath’s voice raises an octave, then goes down again. Frowning, he starts typing again. ‘Cath’s here’.
The reply is quicker this time. ‘Your Cath?’
Which other Cath would it be? he wants to type but restrains himself. ‘Yes.’ Hitting send, he starts typing again. ‘You didn’t know?’
‘No.’ An instant reply.
He’s still staring at the answer when it pings again.
‘Cath. That’s good right?’
He imagines Danny propped up in his guest bed at home, awkwardly hunched over his phone as he types. He hasn’t seen all the bruises and wounds on Danny’s body but he can imagine what the damage is. He’s been there so many times himself. Sighing, he types his reply: ‘Yeah, that’s good.’
The door to the room opens. Cath walks in. He’s always been attracted to men and women who are natural, are confident enough in themselves to not rely on pretty trappings as a crutch. Cath is no exception. Even without makeup and her hair piled messily on her head she’s still beautiful. The skinny jeans white tee-shirt extenuate her beauty even more.
A pang of regret sweeps over him. “Cath—” he starts, searching for the words he feels he needs to apologise.
“Peace offering,” she cuts in, waggling the brown paper bag she has in her hand. “Coffee and breakfast muffins.”
He opens his mouth. Hesitates. Closes it again. There’s so much he wants to say, needs to say. But his exhausted brain just wants to take the muffin and coffee for what they are. “About last night—”
“Eat,” she says gently, tapping him on the elbow with the bag. “Sit down. Come on.”
Coward, the voice in his head yells at him. Quashing it he sits down and takes a muffin.
Gradually they relax again in each other’s company. Switching on the TV they flick through the news channels. They talk, smoothly skipping between subjects, intuitively following each other’s thoughts. Eventually the coffees have been drunk and the muffins consumed.
“They were so good,” Cath sighs appreciatively, sliding further into the sofa cushions.
Humming his agreement, he mirrors her slide down the cushions. He loves cakes but it’s rare he lets himself have them. And this one had been particularly good: freshly baked and full of seeds and juicy pieces of fruit.
He’s still enjoying the moment when he realises Cath is watching him, speculatively. Speculation soon turns into action; she leads into him, gently places a kiss on his shoulder tattoo.
With a jerk, he pulls away. Instantly he hates himself. “It’s not what you think,” he stutters. Helpless, lost for words, he taps the side of his head. “I got stuff going and…I just can’t.” He swallows around the lump in his throat. “I’m sorry.”
Head cocked, she’s studying him. Intensely. It takes all his self-control not to recoil. Suddenly she’s sliding her arms around him. Before he can react she’s pulling him in for a hug.
He forces himself to relax. Muscle by muscle. Finally he lets himself feel the hug. His body responses, curling into it. But that’s as far as his body goes.
He’s not surprised.
It had started during his second date with Brooke. They’d had dinner, gone back to her place. Making out on the couch had led to an invitation to her bedroom. He’d been making sure Brooke was having a good time when he’d realised his body wasn’t on board. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested. It was more like his libido hit a brick wall – and his feelings were locked behind it. No matter what he did, he couldn’t quite get there.
Don’t worry, it’s me, he’d told Brooke as he’d held her afterwards. But deep inside he hadn’t wanted to believe it. When it happened again, he’d resorted to avoidance tactics, like spending Valentine’s Day evening with his team. When that didn’t help – and with hindsight, why the hell would it? – he’d started to lying to other people. Like Danny. There was a reason Danny hadn’t noticed he was dating. When his first night with Emma hadn’t been a great success either – at least not for him – he’d started cutting those dates short too.
His love life is a mess. He’s a mess. What he’s experiencing, he’s pretty sure it’s a symptom of PTSD. But knowing it doesn’t make it any easier to say it out loud. Or any less embarrassing.
Cath pulls away, dipping down to look into his eyes. “Whatever it is, it’s going to be okay,” she tells him, softly. “You’re not on your own.”
“I know,” he answers truthfully. Cath. His team. His friends. They’re all there for him. So why does he still feel so alone?
The second part of his plan is to rent a car. The third part is to drive to a ranch two hours south of Los Angeles.
Cath raises her eyebrows but seems to receive the information amiably. As they hit the highway, the mood in the car is upbeat, verging on happy. Glancing over at Cath in the passenger seat, he grins widely. He can’t see her eyes behind the shades she’s wearing but she’s humming along to the song on the radio, the corners of her lips curled up in an almost smile. She looks happy. Relaxed.
He’s never been to the ranch, or the log cabin they will be staying in. Lynn’s assured him though that’s he going to love it. ‘Horse riding, hiking for miles and no running hot water,’ she’d laughed as they’d chatted over a Skype call. ‘You’ll be in your element, Steve.’
When he and Lynn broke up it was on good terms. He’s kept in touch with her, even after she relocated to California. When things started going wrong, when the sleepless nights kicked in, he’d instinctively reached out to her. It wasn’t that he trusted her more than his Ohana but she was always very honest with him. And the fact she’s thousands of miles away probably hadn’t hurt either.
During their time together she’d once joked that her experience of working with troubled teens made her his ideal partner. They’d both had a few drinks, the comment was light-hearted so he’d forgotten about it until he’d been pacing around the house in the early hours. She was right: he was a troubled teen and everything that’s happened since is now balanced precariously on that unsteady foundation.
He’s still thinking about that as he pulls into a gas station. Once the car’s full again and everything’s paid for, he leans on the roof of the car and pulls out his phone. As he enters his password and flicks through his emails to check the directions to the cabin, Cath joins him.
She offers him her packet of candy covered peanuts. Dipping in he takes a couple and crunches on them as he works out where they are. “It’s four more clicks to the turning off to—”
“You sure about that?”
Raising an eyebrow he steals more candy. Slowly, he chews. “Are you questioning my map reading skills, Lieutenant?” Instead of responding playfully like he’s expecting, she looks guilty. “Cath?”
Chewing at her bottom lip, she meets his gaze. “We’re on vacation aren’t we?”
Not exactly, he thinks, but trying to figure out what’s going on takes priority. “Yes.”
“So don’t you want to stay somewhere special?”
He crosses his arms. “Where we’re going is special.”
She laughs. There’s an edge to it. “I know you.” Tilting her head, she smiles up at him. “I bet there isn’t hot water.”
His breath catches in his throat. He hasn’t actually told her anything about the cabin. It’s possible of course she really does just know him that well. Narrowing his eyes, he studies her. “What’s going on?”
“I’ve got a confession to make.” She stops, like she’s waiting for him to respond. When he doesn’t she smiles again but nerves are creeping in. “We’re not going to the cabin.”
“We are.” The words have come out louder than he intended. But he’s had enough of deceptions – of games - to last him a lifetime. “Let’s go.”
Cath grabs his forearm, squeezes gently. “It’s okay, I spoke to Lynn. She understands—”
“You did what?”
“This morning. When I went for breakfast.”
He looks down at the phone in his hand. Cath’s an excellent cryptographer, an expert in encryption. But he’s no slouch either. There’s no way she’s broken into his phone while he was sleeping. Growing realisation makes him clench his jaw. “Have you been…have you been tracing my calls?”
Part of him is still hoping it’s his own exhaustion and paranoia that’s making him see problems where there are none. So his heart plummets when she looks up at him from under her eyelashes, apology written across her face.
“I’m sorry, okay? I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“A surprise? That you’ve been tracking me—”
“It wasn’t like that—”
“Then what was it like, huh? Tell me how you think—”
“I was worried about you.”
Gobsmacked, he stares at her. “A normal person would reach out and ask—”
“We’re not normal people.”
Cath’s whispered, so quietly he can barely hear her. There’s no missing the self-belief behind the words though. She sounds so much like his Mom, it physically hurts.
“Get in the car,” he says quietly. Suddenly he’s got no energy left to argue. “You’re gonna have to tell me where we’re going.”
As they pull out of the gas station he kills the radio. They ignore each other as much as two people in a car can, apart from when Cath needs to give directions.
Eventually though he can’t ignore the questions clambering for attention in his mind. Gripping the steering wheel tighter, he exhales slowly. “Yesterday, you mentioned Emma. Have you spoken to her?”
Cath glances at him sideways. “Eddie’s vet? No, I haven’t spoken to her.”
“But you’ve got her details, right?”
Her silence speaks volumes.
More silence. “Jesus, Cath.”
“You would have done the same.” She sounds sullen. Resentful.
He flexes his fingers: the circulation’s been cut off. “I told you. I couldn’t wait for you anymore.”
“But you have.”
Shocked, he risks taking his eyes from the road. “Is that what you think?”
Crossing her arms across her chest, she’s stares fixedly through the windshield.
Taking the hint, he concentrates on driving. It’s difficult though. His mind is whirling. How the hell had come to this?
“This isn’t you, Cath.”
“Isn’t it? You seem to think it is.” She stops. Seems to regret her words. Blinking hard, she meets his gaze. “Do you trust me?”
He tells himself he’s not looking at her because he needs to concentrate on the road. The unquestioning trust that used to exist between them is tarnished. It’s been pushed almost to breaking point. Almost. Years of friendship is still worth something. “We’ll talk about it later.”
Lips clammed together in a hard, straight line, she goes back to staring through the windscreen,
The cabin is amazing. Two bedrooms, both en-suite. A huge veranda with rocking chairs, south-facing to catch every last ray of sun. A fully equipped kitchen that Danny would drool over. Scenery that reminds him of the green mountains on Oahu. On the way in he spied so many hiking trails. And there’s an outdoor jacuzzi. The gently bubbling water is steaming in the cool evening air.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Her hopeful tone strikes at his heart. He folds. “Yeah, yeah it is.” He looks around again, taking it in. “How much does this place cost?”
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to get your wallet out.” He mirrors her faint smile even though the familiar jibe hurts more than it should. “The CIA are paying.”
“No.” He’s already backing out of the cabin before the words are out of his mouth.
She raises a hand to stop him. “Hazard pay, Steve.”
“It’s a reward, okay? Some of the missions I’ve been on…” She trails off, flicks her hair behind her ear. “Extra pay. Three weeks of vacation time. That’s what I got.”
He tells himself to breathe. To calm down. To listen. “You’re on vacation?”
“I told you—”
“I thought you were here to help me.”
He takes another deep breath. “I’m not on vacation, Cath.”
Hands on hips, she glares at him. “It’s my first vacation for over a year. And I wanted to share it with you. Is that so wrong?”
No. Yes. “You manipulated me.”
All the fight goes out of her. She slumps. “I was worried you wouldn’t come if I asked you.”
Sadness overwhelms him. She’s probably right. He can barely look after himself at the moment. But that’s not really the issue: it’s the lies. The shadow of the CIA – of Doris - hanging over both of them. The truth hits him. He sighs. “This isn’t going to work. I should go.”
Cath sighs too. Her expression says she done. But still she risks one more throw of the dice. “You could come with me. You know after…when you’re back on your feet.”
Her tenacity, her loyalty, her bravery, are things he used to find attractive about her. In some ways he still does, despite his hatred of the CIA and the influence they have over her. So instead of telling her what he thinks about her offer to work with the CIA he opens his arms. She walks into them and they hug each other. Hard.
They pull apart. He smiles weakly at her. He’s spent too much time in the last year feeling angry. He’s lost too many loved ones. “Keep the car. I’ll call a cab. There’s a bus station in town.”
“No.” She takes a step back. Straightens. This is the Cath who fought beside him in warzones, who helped him bring Freddie back. “You stay. I’ll go.”
“I can’t do that—”
Gently, she places a finger on his lips. “Yes you can. You’ve earned it, Steve.” On tiptoe, she kisses him. Their lips barely touch. “See you around, sailor.”
“You can bet on it,” he replies but she’s already disappearing out of the front door, her bag slung over her shoulder.
Standing by the window, he watches her disappear down the gravel track. It crosses his mind to offer to drive her somewhere. The tense set of her shoulders, the way she’s got her head held tells him not to. Right now, she probably feels like all she’s got left is her dignity.
He knows how that feels.
He jerks awake. Adrenaline is coursing through his veins. Back muscles scream in protest as he moves too fast. Blinking, he struggles to focus.
His vision clears. He’s sitting in a rocking chair on the veranda of the cabin. A thick blanket is pooled at his feet. Kicking it away, he winces as he stretches his legs. The temperature is cool, early morning. The sky is a pure shade of blue, a promise of a great day.
A young man, in his late teens, is standing at the bottom of the steps. He recognises him: he’d been working in the office where they’d collected the keys for the cabin. As their eyes meet the young man acknowledges him with a nervous nod and leans down to put something on the steps. It’s a small white box.
“Thanks,” he says, silently urging his brain to work. There’s something urgent he’s got to ask. “Um…you were here last night, weren’t you?”
The young man tucks his hands behind his back. He’s almost standing to attention. “Yeah.”
“The woman who was with me—“
“She asked me to go buy them for you this morning.” The young man gestures at the mystery box. “Last night. When I left her at the bus station.”
The young man’s answered all his questions. They stare at each other. An awkward silence falls. Eventually it gets too much for the young man. With a last curt nod, he bolts for it.
He waits for him to disappear from sight. Then he gingerly levers himself out of the rocking chair. Pins and needles shoot through his feet. Wiggling his toes, he waits for the sensation to dissipate.
It hadn’t been his intention to sleep outside. He’d started the night in the luxurious master suite. Sleep had eluded him. His brain had churned back through his brief trip with Catherine. It had re-examined every sentence, every nuance. It had made him question everything he’d said. Feeling trapped, he’d dragged his exhausted body outside. Collapsing into a rocking chair, he’d watched the stars for hours, and breathed the fresh mountain air.
When sleep had finally come it was surprisingly dreamless.
Half walking, half staggering he retrieves the little white box. The smell reveals the contents, even before he reads the label on the box: it’s fresh pastries from the local bakery. His mouth watering, he opens the box. On top of the pastries there’s a strip of paper, the ripped off corner of an envelope. A message has been written in marker pen. It’s Cath’s handwriting:
Enjoy your vacation x
The word ‘vacation’ has been double underlined. Shaking his head, he resists his initial urge to devour the pastries in a few quick bites. Instead he heads inside to investigate the kitchen. It’s not long before he’s back on the veranda with a pot of fresh coffee and the pastries. Rejecting the rocking chair for the steps, he sits down and starts to eat. Slowly.
Twenty minutes on the plate is empty. The need to do something – to move - is overwhelming. His DNA won’t let him sit still. Back in the kitchen he finds inspiration – the label on the side of the box. It’s not long before he’s grabbing his car keys and heading out the door.
The remoteness of the cabin is a bit of an illusion. It’s on a ranch but it’s tucked away. As he drives out he passes a string of horse riders heading into the hills. Making a mental note to investigate later, he turns out of the ranch and heads for town.
The local town is a food lover’s heaven. His grin grows as he goes from store to store. He loves the food in Hawaii but on the mainland there’s even more choice. The display in the window of a deli catches his attention. Walking in, his stomach rumbles despite being full of pastries. It’s an Italian deli, full of smoked meats and cheeses. Reading the labels he realises it’s all the foods that Danny’s always talking about from his childhood but that he, Steve, has never seen. Excited, he turns to point them out to Danny – and realises he’s alone.
“Can I help you?”
It’s a shop assistant who’s asked him the question, probably not for the first time judging by her tone. Looking around he’s realises there are other people behind him. He’s holding up the queue.
“Sorry,” he mutters. On autopilot he gets out of the way. Somehow he gets out of the store. His heart’s thudding like he’s run a marathon. Catching his breath, his eye is drawn back to the window display. Digging out his phone he goes to take a picture. Then freezes.
There’s no way he can send it to Danny. It would be like rubbing salt into Danny’s wounds.
‘How’s Eddie’ he texts to Danny instead.
He’s not even at the next store when his phone pings. ‘Eddie’s good.’ A pause. ‘So am I.’ A longer pause. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Great babe. I’ll call you later.’
Rubbing at his eyes, he curses silently. Now Danny’s worried. Correction: Danny’s even more worried than he was before.
Puffing out his cheeks, he exhales loudly. Getting his bearings, he starts walking back to the car. There’s more of the town to discover but suddenly he’s lost interest.
Keeping busy – doing anything – becomes his obsession for the rest of the day. Checking out the hiking trails, introducing himself at the stables, going through the equipment in the kitchen cupboards, learning how the Jacuzzi works. Stopping means thinking. And he’s not comfortable doing that.
Eventually though, he runs out of distractions. There’s nothing left to do but sit on the veranda with a beer and think. By the time Danny calls, just as the sun is setting, he knows what he needs to do.
It takes several more phone calls and a lot of persuasion. But two days later he’s back at LAX, waiting at arrivals. As he watches Danny limp painfully towards him, he wonders if he’s made a huge mistake.
He can’t ever remember a time he’s felt awkward around Danny. Not even when they first met. He feels awkward now. From the way Danny’s standing, he’s feeling it too.
Standing face to face, they study each other, oblivious to the people streaming around them.
Danny shrugs, releasing the bag slung over his shoulder. He groans with relief as it hits the floor. “Steven.”
Reaching out, he grabs the bag and slings it smoothly onto his own shoulder. “Daniel.” He gestures back to roughly where the planes are. “Flight okay?”
Danny cricks his neck, stretching out abused muscles. “Being in the good seats helped. Thanks.”
He shrugs. It was the least he could do.
“So we’re on vacation, huh?”
He can’t help himself: he shrugs again. “Something like that.”
Danny tilts his head. Pins him to the spot with his gaze. “You know we live in Hawaii? The most beautiful place in the world.”
A grin is creeping up on him. This is what his soul has been missing. “You want to go back?”
Danny’s lips twitch. “I’m just saying. They have hotels and—“
“I’ll book you a ticket right now—“
“Do you know how much that seat cost—“
Danny laughs. It’s a beautiful sound. “Fine. Fine. C’mon. Show me this damn log cabin you won’t stop talking about.”
He’s just getting into his rhythm. Suitable retorts are piling up in his mind. But it’s obvious Danny’s flagging. Hefting Danny’s bag up on his shoulder – it feels like he’s bought everything but the kitchen sink – he takes on the role of protective rear guard as Danny limps his way through the terminal.
They don’t talk on the drive back to the cabin: Danny’s asleep most of the time. He’s got dark circles under his eyes that seem more pronounced than a few days earlier. The bruises on his face have turned yellow. The memory of finding Danny covered in blood explodes into his mind. His vision blurs. Blinking it clear he concentrates on the road. This is a good idea, he tells himself again. He’s not the only one who needs to get away, to make time for himself. Find peace. Even if it’s just for a short while.
Danny wakes up just as he’s driving onto the ranch. As they pull up outside the cabin, he whistles under his breath. “I thought you were lying about how nice this place is. This isn’t your normal idea of a good time, babe.”
The comment catches him unawares. “But you still came.”
Danny meets his gaze. His expression is unreadable. “We just gonna sit here,” he asks into the heavily loaded silence that’s fallen between them, “or you going to invite me in?”
He doesn’t get a chance to answer. Danny’s swinging the door open, grimacing as he struggles to his feet. Then Danny’s off and moving, leaning heavily on his walking stick
Turning off the engine, he gives himself a moment. Takes a deep breath, to release the nervous tension in his body. Then he grabs Danny’s bag from the back seat and follows him in.
Danny’s already in the kitchen. He’s running his hand reverently across the granite work top.
Despite his nerves, it’s impossible not to smile. “You like it?”
Danny glances back over his shoulder at him. “Do I like it?” he replies, sounding distracted as he starts opening cupboards. ”What do you think?”
“I think we’re gonna have a lot of fun in here.” He closes his eyes in despair. His desperate need to make everything right between them is making him talk gibberish. His embarrassment isn’t helped by the look Danny’s giving him: part-mocking, part-fond. “What I mean is—”
“—you’re an idiot,” Danny finishes for him as he limps past, heading for the bedrooms. “Or ridiculous. Yeah, definitely ridiculous,” he continues, his voice turning muffled as he disappears into a bedroom. His walking stick taps, taps, taps on the wooden floor. Another high-pitched whistle. He sticks his head back out. “Have you seen the shower in here?”
“I have.” He could fit his truck in it. Several times over. The rain-head shower is to die for. He gestures towards the back porch. There’s a jacuzzi too.”
The news has the effect he’d been hoping for. Danny’s out there in the blink of eye. He’d set the timer for the jacuzzi before he’d left for the airport. It’s bubbling gently, wafting warm air in the chilly night air.
Danny groans appreciatively. His eyes flutter closed for a moment. The tense, painful set of his shoulders eases slightly. Opening his eyes again, he looks around the cabin. Finally their eyes meet. “Is this your way of apologising, babe?”
He wraps his arms around himself. “Is it working?
Danny sighs. Weary. “You don’t have to. I told you on the phone. I understand why you left.”
He nods but it’s impossible to miss the hurt in Danny’s eyes. “I just figured…” He swallows his original answer, goes for something less heart-shattering instead. “I figured you wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to have me waiting on you hand and foot.”
Danny scratches at his chin, like he’s considering the offer. “I like it. I’ve always wanted my own minion.”
“Yeah. Minions. Little guys. Yellow. Run around in circles.” Danny illustrates with a twirl of his hand. “Talk nonsense. Cause chaos. Minions.”
He pulls himself up to his full height. “I’m too tall to be a minion.”
“You got something against short people?”
“Just the one.”
Danny shakes his head in mock-sorrow. “Ten years and this is all the thanks I get.”
“You love it really.” Rolling his eyes because he knows that’s what Danny’s expecting, he raises a hand to get the conversation back on track. “Are we going to argue all night? Or are you going to stop pretending you don’t hurt like hell and go use that Jacuzzi while I get us dinner.”
Danny bobs his head from side to side, conceding that perhaps he, Steve, has got a point. Grabbing his bag he limp-taps, limp-taps to the second bedroom. Pausing on the threshold, he smiles mischievously. Raising his hand he clicks his fingers. It’s a perfect impression of a customer getting a server’s attention. “Get me a beer. A cold one.”
“On come on. Really? Are you going to do that all week?”
Danny’s grin grows as he disappears from sight.
“You know I can kill you in your sleep, don’t you?” he yells, just loud enough to be heard through the walls.
The answering yell is even louder: “Bring it on, babe.”
Danny’s laughing, he can hear it in his voice. The sound settles him, lets him smile too. Heading for the kitchen he starts preparing their dinner. When he hears the bedroom door open, the tap of Danny’s walking stick, he ducks into the fridge to grab a cold one. Finding a tea towel he flips it over his forearm, French waiter style, and heads outside.
Outside, he stops. Hesitates. Danny’s in the Jacuzzi, head back, eyes closed. The water’s only just above his waist, exposing the bruises and healing wounds that litter his bare chest. That’s not what’s grabbed his attention though. That’s made his breath catch in his throat. It’s the look of absolute bliss on Danny’s face.
Torn, he quietly turns on his heel.
Turning, he finds Danny’s opened one eye and is watching him with a relaxed, slightly loopy smile. When Danny waves at the beer and makes grabby hand motions, he hands it over. Mesmerised, he watches as Danny take the first sip, notes the way his Adam’s apple bobs in his throat, how his eyes close again and his face relaxes into bliss. Butterflies flutter in the pit of his stomach. He licks his suddenly dry lips.
“Where’s your beer?”
Caught out, he flinches in surprise. Danny’s watching him, pinning to the spot with a gaze that’s drilling right through him. There’s no where to hide. Everything he feels for Danny is written on his face, he can feel it.
He’s had years of experience of quashing his true feelings for Danny. Well-honed coping mechanisms start to kick in. There’s been enough lies, a voice whispers in his head. Gathering up his courage, he holds Danny’s gaze. Let’s him look. Let’s him see.
Danny’s eyes narrow. He takes another long drink of his beer. As he lowers the bottle, he smiles. Slowly. It’s like watching a flower unfurl in the morning sun. Colour rushing into his face, a blush on his cheeks. He looks shy, and fond, and nervous. But mostly Danny looks happy. Like he’s just been given the best Christmas present ever.
Understanding dawns. The pieces of the puzzle click together in his head.
“Oh.” The word has slipped out, unbidden. He ducks his head, embarrassed at his own gaucheness. Behaving like a love-sick teenager is not how he’s ever imagined coming out to Danny. Involuntarily he takes a step back.
Danny – his Danny – rolls his eyes at him. “Get in here.”
There’s a brief moment when he considers running away to cook dinner. His legs have other ideas. Suddenly he’s heading for his bedroom. Frantically he digs through his bag for his swim shorts. On the way back through the kitchen to grab a beer he hesitates, trips over his own feet. Nerves are making his stomach flip, like he’s on a roller coaster ride.
The nervous sensation increases as he lowers his body into the warm, bubbly water. Danny’s sitting opposite him, his eyes closed again. Taking Danny’s lead, he closes his eyes too. His body responds to the warm water, muscles un-knotting. For the first time in a long time, his body stops running. Sighing softly, he opens his eyes again.
They are drawn instantly to the marks of violence on Danny’s body. His stomach lurches, painfully this time. This week he’s planning with Danny, it’s not going to offer a miracle cure for either of them. It’s certainly not going to wipe out ten years of suppressed grief and loss. But in his heart, he knows this is where this journey was always destined to start.
Danny’s the person he’s always found peace with. No matter what’s been happening in his life, those snatched moments have been there. The beach. His couch. His kitchen. Danny’s always been the one who’s given him that. Often at cost to himself.
This week, he’s going to make sure it’s all about Danny. They’ll explore the town and eat themselves silly. In the evenings they’ll sit on the porch, drink beer and put the world to rights. And later, when it’s just the two of them in the dark together.... His heart skips at the thought.
The future he’d been so anxious about has taken on a whole new look. Sure, he’s still going to need time away from Hawaii. Time away from Danny. There are friends here in California who can help him work through the issues he has: he needs to stick with that plan. It’s going to take time. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s going to be worth it. He’s sure about that now.