“Steve. Buddy. Wake up.”
Steve jerks awake, wobbles on the bar stool he’s perched on. Blearily he peers around him. “Not asleep.”
“Could have fooled me.”
Blinking, Steve sways as the bar he’s sitting in swims into focus. The bar’s large enough to fit two pool tables with tables around the edge. The walls are wood-clad, the lighting low. In the background the beaten up old juke box is playing Western music. Breathing in, he smells beer, cheap whiskey and stale cigarette smoke. Or maybe that’s just him, he realises, scrunching up his nose as he sniffs at his plaid shirt.
The barman raises his eyebrows at him. “You might have missed your mouth there.”
Steve huffs as he pats his shirt back down into place. Normally he’d been insulted that someone was questioning his motor skills. But he and Corey – the barman – have got to know each other well during the last few weeks, since he started working as a labourer at a local ranch. Straightening himself up, he picks up his glass, tilting it side to side. Not believing his eyes, he holds it up to the light. “It’s empty.”
“It sure is.”
“It can’t be.”
Corey clears the bar area around him with moth-bitten old cloth. “You’ve had enough.”
Steve stares forlornly into his empty glass and mulls that over. “You sure?”
“This would suggest you have.” Corey holds up a near empty bottle of bourbon. “You need to call it a night.”
Steve closes one eye to focus better. “Uh, uh. I didn’t drink all that.”
Corey shrugs, pulling the bottle out of reach as he goes to grab it. “Yes you did.”
Steve grabs the edge of the bar as everything starts spinning. “Whoa. Who moved my chair?”
“Okay. That’s it, you’re done here—”
“No.” Steve’s hand shoots out, to stop Corey from pulling the bottle out of his reach again. It’s instinctive. Not malicious. But the fear on Corey’s face cuts through his alcoholic haze. “Sorry, sorry man,” he mumbles, raising his hands. “Didn’t mean anything…I didn’t…”
Corey studies him for a moment. Nods. “We’re cool.” Sweeping the bar with the rag again, he hesitates, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth. Seemingly coming to a decision, he grabs a clean glass for himself, puts it on the bar next to Steve’s. Filling them using the last of the bourbon, he raises his glass. “To Joe.”
Steve follows his lead. There’s a lump in his throat stopping the words coming out. He nods instead. Nursing his glass, he watches Corey swallow his bourbon in one large gulp. Corey’s an ex-Army Ranger who retired here to Montana like Joe did. There’re a lot of guys out here, just like them. Lots of memories. Lots of regrets.
Corey exhales loudly. It’s a rough sound, ripped straight from his soul. “I can’t believe it’s a year already.”
Steve watches the way the bourbon swirls and glints in the light as he tilts it. It’s a drink that doesn’t agree with him: even blindly drunk he knows that. It’s makes him feel maudlin, gives him dark thoughts. But it was Joe’s favourite. The one they’d shared in bars and dives around the world. So tonight he’s been drinking bourbon. And now the ghosts are walking, threatening the progress he’s made since he left Hawaii.
Since he left Danny.
Steve takes a sip of the bourbon, to ease the bitter taste there. Tonight his thoughts have mostly been about Joe, and Freddie and his parents. A race to see how quickly he can drink the bourbon to drown out the thoughts. But Danny’s been there, always. Danny, his biggest regret of all.
His blood is probably 50% bourbon now. He can’t feel his legs, his lips or his fingers. His brain still won’t shut the fuck up though. The urge to hit something – to inflict physical pain on himself rather that feel it – is almost overwhelming.
“Steve? It’s for you.”
Scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand, Steve drags his eyes away from the glass. Corey’s standing opposite him, offering him a phone. Squinting, his confusion grows. It’s his phone. “I didn’t…” He licks his lips, trying to get the feeling back. “I didn’t call…it didn’t ring….”
“I made the call.” Corey wiggles the phone, brings it closer to his face. “You been staring at this number all night. I figured…” He shrugs. “You know how this works. You gotta talk to someone.” He wiggles the phone again. ”He wants to talk to you.”
Automatically, Steve takes it. Then the name on the screen sinks in: “Danny.”
Since he left Hawaii they’ve talked a couple of times a week. He’s apologised to Danny several times and Danny’s brushed it off, like it’s nothing. Steve knows he needs that conversation (or so his counsellor keeps telling him) but right now the bourbon’s in charge and that never ends well.
Hands shaking, he goes to kill the call.
The voice coming out of the phone is tinny. Tiny. But there’s no mistaking the worry in Danny’s voice. There’s no way he can ignore it. Stomach roiling, Steve takes the call. “I’m here.”
There’s a heavy pause. “Where are you?”
Steve parses the question, frowning. “I’m in a bar.”
“You don’t say.”
Steve blinks against the warm fondness in Danny’s voice. “You asked.”
“I wanna know where you are, you doofus. Give me a state, or maybe even you know, a city? I’m a detective Steve, not a mind reader.”
Steve stares at the phone, hoping for a clue. Coming up empty, he looks to Corey for inspiration instead. “He wants to know where I am.”
Corey raises his eyebrows, his lips twitching upwards. “White Bear Falls, Montana,” he says slowly, carefully pronouncing each word.
Steve repeats it, exactly.
There’s a snort at the other end of the line. Or maybe it’s a laugh. “You’ve been drinking.”
Steve eyes the empty bottle on the bar. “A little.”
Silence falls. Steve keeps the phone pressed to his ear. He’s sure he can hear Danny breathing. Closing his eyes, he listens to the steady, familiar rhythm.
“You okay, babe?”
Danny sounds such a long way away. A wave of loneliness hits him. Robs him of breath. “No.”
“You want to talk about it? I’m here—”
Danny’s interrupted by voices in the background. They’re familiar too. Lou. Adam. Tani. The loneliness grows, threatening to smother him. “You’re at work. I should let you go—"
“Don’t you dare.” Danny’s not asking. He’s telling. “Gimme a second.”
Steve tightens his grip on the phone and listens. In his mind’s eye he imagines Danny walking across the office. He can hear Danny’s uneven footsteps, the way he’s still favouring his injured side. He doesn’t miss Danny’s tired grunt as he makes it to his office, and drops into his chair. “You’ve got a case—”
“Which we cracked today,” Danny cuts in before he can wriggle out of the call. “You sound like hell, babe.” There’s a pause. “Montana, huh? Last time I checked, that’s not California.”
Steve rubs his palm across his mouth. Danny’s not accusing him of anything but it’s true he might have omitted his change of location in their last few telephone conversations. “I just…” He breathes, struggling for the words. “I wanted to be here, you know?”
Steve exhales slowly. He’d been on the verge of explaining but Danny’s tone is telling him he really does understand. Resting his head in his hand, he stares at the pock-marked wooden bar. “I miss Joe, Danny. I miss all of them.” Even drunk he can hear the tremble in his voice. Hates himself for it. They deserve better. “Why me, huh? Why did I make it and they didn’t?”
He listens to Danny’s breathing. The rough catch in his breath. “I know this isn’t what you want to hear right now but…I’m glad you made it.”
Danny huffs. Impatient. Frustrated. “I don’t know why we made it, okay? But we did. And every day, when I look at Grace and Charlie…and I talk to you…it reminds me how lucky I am.”
A giggle escapes; supressed raw emotions fighting to escape. “I make you feel lucky?”
“You heard me.”
“I left you, Danny.”
Another silence. Heavier this time. “You had to go. We talked about this.”
“No we didn’t.” The bourbon-inflicted fog lifts for a second. In it’s place is total clarity. “You talked. I deflected. I’m sorry, okay?”
“I know, babe.”
Steve covers his eyes with his hand. All he wants is to reach down the phone and hug Danny. There’s a lump in his throat that’s making it hard to breathe. “I’m so tired.”
There’s the squeak of an office chair moving. “Me too.” A pregnant pause. “Have you thought…how about a vacation?”
Steve drops his hand, frowns at the phone. “I thought…isn’t that what I’m doing?”
Danny makes a sound that suspiciously sounds like a tut. “You still talking to your counsellor twice a week?”
“Of course I am—"
“And you’re still mentoring those Vets in California—"
“I don’t see what this—”
“—and I bet you’ve got a job, right?”
“Sure. I’ve been helping Joe’s neighbours on their ranch. They’re seniors and—”
“That’s not a vacation, Steve.”
Steve shakes his head. The bourbon is settling in again. Panic is unfurling in his chest. “I like being busy.” Sitting around doing nothing, he can’t think of anything worse right now.
“Okay.” Danny sighs. “It was just a thought.”
They might be thousands of miles apart but Danny’s disappointment sits like a physical barrier between them. “Where would we go on vacation?”
Danny snorts. “Where does everyone dream of going on vacation?”
Steve blinks, trying catch up with the conversation: he’d been holding his breath, expecting Danny to challenge him on his use of ‘we’. “Er…Disneyland?”
Danny, the bastard, laughs at him. “As much as I’d love to see your wearing mouse ears, Steve, can you see us at Disneyland?”
Steve rubs his temple. A hangover headache is already creeping up on him. “Just tell me—”
The panic flares. Bright white. Disappointment follows close behind. “I can’t. Not yet—”
“Maui or the Big Island.” Danny’s ploughing on, desperation mixing with hope creeping into his voice. “A week. You don’t have to come home.” His voice hitches. “Not yet.”
Hawaii. Warmth. Blue skies. The sea. Steve closes his eyes, imagines the sun on his face. “What would we…what would we do?”
“What would we do?” Danny laughs again. Soft. Fond. “Lie on the beach. Surf. Eat good food. Whatever we want to do.”
We. It sounds too good to be true. It probably is, the bourbon tells him. Rubbing at his face, Steve sighs.
His sigh is echoed at the other end of the line. The chair squeaks. Voices are being raised in the background. “I gotta go.” Danny’s voice is heavy with regret. “You want me to call later?”
Yes. Steve takes a breath. Tells himself to suck it up. “I’m good.” He tightens his grip on the phone, reluctant to let go.
“Right.” Danny hums under his breath. “Can you put your friend back on?”
Steve blinks, struggling to keep up. The bourbon really is starting to kick in. “’kay.” Looking around he realises the bar is nearly empty. Corey is busy clearing tables. Steve waves him over. As he waits for him, he picks up the phone again. There’s one more thing he needs to say. “Danny?”
Steve swallows. Takes a deep breath. “I love you.”
Danny laughs. Low. Deep. Warm like the bourbon sliding down his throat. “I love you too.”
Steve ignores Corey’s confusion as he thrusts the phone at him. Danny’s never talked to him with that tone of voice before. Heat is pooling at the base of his spine, mixing with the alcohol. It’s a heady mix.
“I’ll close up and give you a lift to the motel.”
Steve drags himself back into the present. The world is swaying gently. The bar is empty, he notes vaguely. It’s just him and Corey left. Mutely, he nods.
The world phases in and out for a little while. Then Corey’s back. “Let’s go, Navy.”
“’kay.” Steve gets to his feet – or at least he tries to. Corey grabs him as he staggers. Patting him on the chest, Corey acts as a crutch, steering him safely out of the bar.
The cold night air of Montana wakes him – briefly. Then he’s being bundled into Corey’s old truck. Hot air is pumping out of the heater, smelling faintly of horse shit and motor oil. Gradually he drifts off to sleep.
Steve comes awake with a groan. Someone is attacking his head with a jackhammer. His skin is flushing hot and cold and he feels sick. Slumping back into the pillows, he stares miserably at the water-stained ceiling of his motel room.
Back in the day, this is when Joe or Freddie would be making fun of him. Wafting breakfast burritos under his nose to make him turn green. They’d be relentless, not giving up even when he begged them. The silence in the motel room makes him feel lonely and guilty all over again.
The urge to sallow in his misery is almost overwhelming. Almost. The urge to use the bathroom is stronger.
Carefully he sits up. Looking down he realises he’s still dressed in yesterday’s clothes, including his boots. A vague memory of Corey steering him in here surfaces. Making a mental note that he owes Corey more than a couple of whiskeys, he swings his legs over the side of the bed.
Steve has a horrible moment when he thinks his going to lose the contents of his stomach onto the carpet. It’s not the carpet he’s worried about – it’s definitely been puked on before. It’s the thought of having to clean up that gets him moving and into the bathroom, with the furniture being used as support.
Switching on the bathroom light sends pain spiking behind his eyes. Squinting, he relieves himself. Washing his hands, he catches sight of himself in the mirror. Dark shadows under his eyes stand out in the stark overhead light. Three-days worth of beard growth makes him look even worse.
Annoyance with himself nudges at the dark cloud hanging over his head. Freddie and Joe, they deserve better than this. Grabbing pain killers out of his wash bag, he tips two into his palm and dry swallows them in one gulp.
Assessing the situation, he retrieves his toothbrush next. As the minty taste replaces the furry coating of stale bourbon, the night gradually comes back to him.
He freezes mid-brush, blinking. Parts of the evening are a blur. But he definitely remembers talking to Danny. That can’t be right, can it?
Frowning, he pats himself down. His phone’s not in his jeans pocket, where he’d normally keep it. Further investigation reveals it’s in the chest pocket of his shirt. Pulling it out, he finds a napkin wrapped around it. He’s about to throw it in the trash when he realises there’s a note scrawled on it. Jamming the toothbrush in the side of his mouth, he starts to read:
Danny. Maui on 26th
p.s he says you’re an idiot
p.p.s he’s right
Steve pushes open the door to the hotel room. His stomach is performing backflips. He’s had fifteen hours on airplanes to imagine this moment. To decide what he’s going to say to Danny.
The room’s empty.
Hours of nervous anticipation mixed with heart-sinking disappointment halt him. Mentally shaking himself, he steps in, closing the door. There are two queen beds, side by side, with huge pillows that are calling to his exhausted body. Swinging his kitbag off his shoulder, he dumps it on the bed and checks out the room.
Danny’s already been here. That’s obvious. There’s a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt hanging over the back of the chair. Running his hand over them he moves out to balcony. As he slides back the balcony door the heat hits him. His heart skips a beat as the sun touches his skin.
At the stopover at Honolulu he’d felt guilty. Maybe even panicked a little bit. His ohana had been only a short drive away. But the only thing he’d been focussed on was Danny. Now Danny’s not here he’s not sure what to do.
Looking around, he reassess the problem. If Danny’s changed, what’s he changed into? The mystery’s solved as he leans on the balcony. The room is four floors up, giving him a great view of the pool. Over in one corner there’s a pale pair of muscled legs sticking out from under a parasol. He recognises them instantly.
Grinning widely, he hurries back inside to get changed.
Steve weaves his way around the poolside. His heart’s beating so fast, it feels like it’s about to jump out of his chest. Approaching his target, he slows. He’s changed into boardies, a tee-shirt and slippahs. The tee-shirt had only lasted long enough to get him out of the hotel: as soon as the sun had hit him he’d taken it off. Now he’s not sure if he should put it back on.
Rolling his eyes at his own behaviour, he keeps walking. Danny’s seen him half-naked plenty of times. His brain trips on the use of the word naked. Then it blanks out totally as he makes it to where Danny is.
Danny’s stretched out on a lounger like a poolside pro. On the table beside him there’s a stack of books, a bottle of sun lotion and a tall cocktail glass, full of unidentified colourful liquid, topped with a paper umbrella and a fresh strawberry.
That’s not what’s grabbed Steve’s attention though. Danny looks good. All the time he’s been away, he’s been worried about him. His last image of Danny, down on the beach behind his house, has been stuck in his head. Sure, he’s still down a few pounds. He looks leaner. There are pink scars on his body that weren’t before. But stretched out on the lounger, wearing nothing but a pair of swim shorts and shades, the muscled strength of his body is accentuated. It yells challenge. It yells strong. It’s all Danny.
God, he’s missed him.
Danny slides his shades down his nose. Peering over the top of them, his eyes slowly travel over Steve’s body. Finally he meets Steve’s gaze. “Thought you’d changed your mind, babe.”
Steve clears his throat. Licks his suddenly dry lips.
Danny huffs. Long-suffering. “Get down here,” he orders, gesturing at the empty lounger beside him. “You’re giving me neck ache. I’ll get you a drink.”
Steve does as he’s told. It still feels strange to be here. In Hawaii. On vacation for a week. But Danny’s here and just his presence is enough to slow his heartbeat, to slow the rush of questions in his mind.
It doesn’t quite stop them. Danny made all the arrangements. So until he got here, he hadn’t been sure if it would be two rooms or one. Now it’s one the secret hope he’s kept hidden for so long is creeping to the surface, like a moth coming out of its cocoon.
“Your drink, sir.”
Steve takes the drink, smiling his thanks at the server. As they’re left alone again he peers suspiciously at the drink.
“It’s a pina colada,” Danny offers. He raises his own drink. “Cheers.”
Steve drags his eyes from the straw Danny’s sucking on. The way his Adam’s apple bobs as he drinks. Taking a sip of his own drink, he frowns at the flavour. “Is that…is that pineapple and coconut?”
“Don’t,” Danny mumbles around his straw, all his concentration on his drink.
Steve’s heart rate speeds up at the challenge in Danny’s voice. “I’m just saying. Pineapple and coconut, Danny. Back in the day—”
Danny makes an obscene noise with his pina colada, his cheeks hollowing as he sucks. “It’s Happy Hour. $3 off the house cocktails.”
Steve blinks. Realises he’s staring. Averting his eyes, he sucks on his own drink. “It’s…it’s alright I guess.”
“It’s alright I guess,” Danny parrots, his exaggerated eye roll speaking volumes - and just like that they’re off and running, throwing insults at each other thick and fast.
Steve feels his body and mind relaxing into it. It’s like they’ve never been apart. Sure, they’re both deliberately ignoring any difficult subjects. No doubt, that will come later. But right now, this is what they need: their friendship. That and more pina coladas. They actually don’t taste bad, Steve decides, after the third one.
Yawning widely, he shimmies further down into his lounger. Around them fellow guests are disappearing, getting ready for dinner. It’s on the tip of his tongue to suggest they do the same. Then he realises Danny’s snoring softly, his shades resting wonky on his nose.
Leaning over, Steve carefully removes them. Putting them on the table, he settles back down. The flight is catching up with him. And he’s warm. God, it’s so good to be warm.
It’s when he drifting towards sleep it happens: Danny’s hand wrapping around his, dangling between the loungers. At first he thinks it’s wishful thinking. Holding his breath, he waits. Then their fingers are tangling, slotting together like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Opening one eye, he checks on Danny. From this angle, it looks like Danny’s still dozing. Only a tiny twitch of his lips gives him away.
Steve’s heart clenches painfully. It’s always heaven and hell being this close to Danny, being unable to explain what he wants. A memory flashes through his mind: Freddie with his fearless grin and his love for life, goading him. What, he wonders, would Freddie do?
Tugging at Danny’s hand he leans down and brushes his lips across Danny’s knuckles. It’s nothing. Barely there. It’s more than enough though to set his spine tingling. Then his brain takes over from his heart and he’s furiously back pedalling, making up an excuse in his head for what he just did.
Whatever the excuse is, Steve never gets to voice it. There’s a chuckle from the lounger beside him. Low. Deep. Warm like the taste of bourbon sliding down his throat. Just like in Montana, the sound makes the blood rush to his dick.
Steve bristles as the warm chuckle gets louder: it sounds like Danny’s mocking him. Opening both eyes, he readies for a fight. His stomach plummets, hits the floor, as Danny grins back at him. There’s no mocking. Only love.
For a second the part of him that doesn’t believe in happy endings panics. Wishful thinking, that’s all it is. Then Danny’s rolling on his side, leaning across the gap between them and he’s being kissed, hard and fast. Sucking in a surprised breath he blinks at Danny owlishly, trying to focus on his face. “Uh…”
Danny’s forehead wrinkles in a frown. “Uh? That’s all you’ve got?” He laughs, nervously. “Give a guy a clue, babe. I thought I was reading this right but if I’m not you’ve got to tell me—Oof.”
Steve’s grabbed Danny, to haul him in closer. To kiss him stupid, to prove without a doubt what his feelings are. Trouble is, he’s overbalanced, tumbling off his lounger. He’s fantasized how a first kiss with Danny would happen. He never imagined it would end up with him sprawled on top of Danny, his hand splayed just above Danny’s crotch.
“Smooth Dog, huh?” Danny’s laughing properly now, a belly aching laugh.
“Ow,” Steve grumbles, knowing it’ll make Danny laugh more. But what’s really got his attention are the way Danny’s eyes are flashing blue with laughter. Fuck he’s beautiful.
Their second kiss is sloppy and uncoordinated. Noses bump. Teeth clash. The angle is all wrong. Practising, it turns out, is fun though. It’s a while before they pull apart, breathing heavily.
Steve licks his lips. He tastes coconut, pineapple and strawberry. “Okay,” he breathes, his heart beating so loud in his head it’s almost deafening, “we...um…we need to take this somewhere more private. I mean…if you want to…”
“You’re a goof, babe,” Danny informs him, kissing him one more time as he swings his feet to the ground. “A giant goof.” Another kiss. “Love you. Let’s go.”
Steve’s body instantly misses the feeling of Danny’s body beneath him. He’s still nervous though, not used to feeling so uncertain. Then Danny offers his hand and he takes it, allows himself to be steadied, to be guided along.
As they step into the elevator and Danny’s hand slides down his back, coming to rest possessively at the base of his spine, Steve sends up a prayer of thanks to Joe and Freddie. To all the people he and Danny have lost. The guilt at surviving hasn’t lessened, it burns still in his heart. But those people, they made him who he is today. They gave him his strength and direction.
They brought him here, to Danny.