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Hurricane Grace

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She was thirsty.

She flipped over, tucked her hair behind her ear, looked at the clock, realized she must have fallen asleep, at least for a little while, but now she was wide awake and needed water. Her dad had tried to talk her out of having so many fries with dinner, told her all that salt wasn’t good for her and wasn’t she always telling him that, but she’d just rolled her eyes and kept on munching. Even Steve had been on her side, reassuring Danny that a few extra french fries wouldn’t hurt her, not really. She wondered if Steve had any idea how much she loved it when he did that, sided with her in the silly, harmless little arguments she sometimes had with her father when the three of them were together.

Probably not.                                                           

And so Danny had indulged her, like he always did when they both knew there was no real harm done, because he only ever wanted to see her happy, especially now. And after all, it was just a few french fries.

She could just as easily have gotten a glass of water from the bathroom, she knew that, but when she saw that the lights were still on downstairs, she convinced herself it would be all right to go down and get a bottle of cold water from the fridge. As a special added bonus, it would give her another chance to kiss her dad and Steve good night. She’d been getting to do that a little more often lately, and she liked it, a lot. She’d always loved her room at Steve’s, from that very first weekend, when they’d come to watch over him after the infamous “hike” that had left him bloodied and broken from the fall. But now, with her mom and Stan waging a tense, if eerily silent, battle over the bombshell about Charlie, it felt like the safest place in the world to her, and isn’t that what home was supposed to be?

As she slipped quietly out of her room onto the landing, she could hear their voices floating up from below, hushed tones that meant they didn’t want to wake her, or didn’t want her to hear. She wouldn’t have spied on them, didn’t need to any more, but just as she was starting down, something Steve said to her dad stopped her on the top step, hand on the rail, just out of sight.

“I, uh...I haven’t wanted to...press you about this, figured you’d tell me when you were ready, but…you never really told me about the Amb…sorry...Melissa…thing. Do you wanna...talk about it? I know it…couldn’t have been easy…”

“I know, babe…I'm...sorry, I shoulda told you about it sooner, it’s…it’s just been…tough…for me to look you in the eye about all that stuff, y’know?”

“Hey, hey, c’mon now, Danny, don’t do that, OK? I don’t want you to feel that way any more, like you can’t tell me things. Not talking is what kept us apart for so long, right? I want us to be past all that, for good. You can always talk to me, about anything. You hear me?”

“You’re right, you’re right, I know you are, I’ve…I’ve just been avoiding the whole damn mess because, well, you know why…”

“Which is exactly why I think you should tell me about it now.”

“OK, OK…wow, whoever woulda thought it would be you trying to get me to talk, huh?

“Yeah, who woulda thought...”

“So, here it is, then…no, ‘easy’ is definitely not the word I would use to describe our little ‘talk’ but, to be honest, in the end, I’m not sure she was all that surprised. I used the ‘hey, I just found out I have another kid’ thing on her, which is a pretty solid hand to play when you’re explaining to someone why you’ve decided to rearrange your life, am I right?”

“I guess so, even if it was only…half the story.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll have to excuse me for not throwing in the “oh, by the way, while this has been interesting in its own weird, sliding-doors kind of way, I’m stupid in love with my partner” thing. Just didn’t seem to be the way to go in the moment.”

“Yeah, I know, I understand that. But, she’s gonna find out eventually.”

“Maybe, but, trust me, babe, this was not the time. She knew something wasn’t right, I mean, how could she not? I don’t see her for weeks at a time, and when I do see her I’m not really there, y’know? The whole thing was just so stupid, how I got myself into that in the first place. And for her, it was…she’s been through a lot for somebody her age, and I didn’t wanna hurt her, she didn’t deserve any of this, right? I’m the asshole here, not her…”

“C’mon, Danny, don’t be so hard on yourself. You were just…trying to…”

“I know what I was trying to do, Steven, we both do, but she was innocent in all of this…”

“Well yeah, except for the whole lying-about-her-identity thing…”

“Yes, yes, there’s that, I am aware, but...I still wanted to make it more about what’s going on with me, not so much about her, OK? Let her out of this as easy as I could. Once she gets used to the idea, we’ll go from there, although, truth is, I’m not all that sure how much more I really need to tell her. I have a feeling she’s just gonna pack up and move back home, all for the best, I guess, especially now, with the crazy-ass ex out of the picture.”

Steve’s voice dropped even further, more like a forced whisper, a tone Grace had heard her dad use so often, when he was worried or anxious or both.

“Yeah, that guy…God, Danny, it…it still scares the shit out of me when I think about what he did to you, how close I came to losing you…again…

Her dad’s tone matched Steve’s, but with an added layer of urgency.

“Hey, hey, hey, don’t think about that, Steve, OK? Huh? Just don’t. Don’t keep putting yourself through that. It was not your fault. Not, do you hear me?”

“In my head I know that, but…I just…I never should’ve let you take off like that, without you telling me exactly where you were going. Never. No matter what, I always need to know where you are. Isn’t that what you’ve always told me?”

“Yes, yes I have, thank you very much for listening to me, I appreciate that, you have no idea, but...now that we’ve both finally learned our lesson, I need you to stop beating yourself up about that, OK? Just stop. It’s over, I’m fine, and I’m here, with Grace, and with you, where I shoulda been all along. If anybody should apologize here, it’s me, OK? It…it kills me…to think about what you must have…what it took, for you to finally lay your cards on the table with me, after all this time, it just…damn it.”

“Danny…”

“And then what did I do, huh? What did I do?”

“Danny, don’t…”

“I took a walk, Steve, a walkaway from you, from you, the best thing that’s happened to me since Gracie was born, and after everything you said, back to…and…why couldn’t I just…shit…or maybe you shoulda just gave me a quarter so I could go buy myself a friggin’ clue, right?”

She heard him huff out a short, humorless laugh, take a deep breath, sigh it out heavily, like he was releasing the weight of the world.

“Jeez, babe…how…how am I ever gonna make that up to you, huh? Can you answer me that?”

“Shhh, shhh, Danny, Danny, come ‘ere, come ‘ere, just listen to me, OK? Listen. How many times do you need me to tell you this? I get it. You were scared. Hell, I was scared. I don’t blame you. I don’t. Besides, how long did it take for us to finally get here? Both of us. How long? But we made it, right? We made it. However we decide to play this out, we figure it out together, OK? That’s all I want, for us to figure things out together.”

“Which, if I had been paying so much as an ounce of attention instead of fighting you so damn hard, I would have known was what you were trying to tell me the day we met. Different context, I’ll give you that, but same general idea. Work with me here, right?”

“Ahh, so you finally figured that out, huh? After five years?”

Four years, seven months, sixteen days to be exact, thank you very much, and yes, I learned that from you, don’t start with me. Talk about exact, you do know exactly what the next thing we have to figure out together is, right?

“Yeah, I know - Gracie.”

“Yes, Gracie, exactly.”

“Are you worried about that?”

“Am I worried about that? No, no, why would I be worried about that? Why would I be worried about explaining to my thirteen-year-old daughter that every time I lay eyes on her beloved Uncle Steve, all I wanna do is make out with him until his knees buckle, huh? I’m sure she’s ready for that. Who wouldn’t be?”

Two minutes earlier, she’d caught ‘stupid in love’ one-handed, twirled it around, set it down carefully right next to her heart. Now, she was just smiling, thinking that maybe, someday, she’d be able to figure out how she was able to stop herself from giggling out loud hearing her father talk about ‘making out’ with Steve. But then she let it go. She had more important things to focus on.

“I really think you should give her some credit, Danny. Doesn’t one of her girlfriends have two moms? Isn’t that what she told me?”

“Yes, yes, that’s right, you’re right, I should remember that. She’s stayed over there a couple times, even. I’ve met ‘em. They seem like good people.”

“Of course they are, or else Gracie wouldn’t like ‘em so much. And think about this, Danny, really think about it - the world is a totally different place for her than it was for us at that age, right? Who knows that better than I do? And I know you haven’t forgotten what a smart kid she is. Who knows? Maybe she’s already figured it out. Even if she hasn’t, I think she’ll be OK with it, I do. Tell you the truth? I never see her happier than when she’s here with us.”

“You really think maybe she’s already figured it out?”

“I’m not saying she has, I’m just saying...it’s possible. Trust me when I tell you it’s a terrible feeling, Danny, but…when you were stuck in Colombia, she and I bonded, more than ever, in ways you can’t even imagine. She clung to me like…hell, we clung to each other, and I made her promises and swore to God I’d keep ‘em, and she was so loving, and so trusting, and I just kept thinking about what I needed to do, not just for us, but for her, maybe especially for her. You know I’d have never forgiven myself if I hadn’t gotten you out of there, but the worst of it...was I knew she wouldn’t have forgiven me either. She was what kept me going, kept me focused. And now there’s Charlie too, and he’s gonna be fine, I know he is and...God, Danny...it's...it’s all I’ve ever wanted, to have a family, a real family, and now I finally have you, and Gracie and Charlie and I…I just can’t wait for all of us to be together, however we make that work, y’know?”

“I know, babe, I know, me too, more than my normally-overly-talkative self can ever say. I just hope I have somehow managed to finally convince you of that, that you know. I am so sorry for what I put you through.”

“You have, and I do, and there is nothing for you to be sorry about. Nothing.  Look at me, Danny, look at me…I’m here…right here, right in front of you. Do you see me?”

Seconds passed, she thought she might have missed it, whatever it was, but then she finally, barely heard Danny’s choked “yeah, babe,” over the pounding in her ears, her heart threatening to burst out of her chest.

This was really happening.

“That’s what I need you to know, Danny. OK? Tell me you get that.”

Her breath caught at the gentleness, the care in Steve’s voice, and she knew.

Her dad was safe, and always would be.

And so would she.                                                                                         

“I do, I promise. And…you’re probably right about Gracie, she’s a big girl now, bigger every day I hate to admit, so maybe I shouldn’t worry so much, hard as it is for me to shut down the over-protective-father part of my brain, it’s just that I don’t know how we’re ever gonna…”

His thought was interrupted by the sight of his daughter bounding down the stairs, maybe a little too energetically for 11 o’clock at night.

“Hey, Monkey, it’s late, what are you doin’ up?” Danny asked, straightening up, pulling out of Steve’s embrace, probably not quite soon enough.

She was wearing what he instantly recognized as that quirky I-know-something-you-don’t expression he’d seen maybe a dozen or fifty or a couple thousand times.

“I need some water. And it’s not that late.”

She barreled past them like a girl on a mission, headed straight for the kitchen.

Shit, do you think she heard us?” Danny whispered, figuring he probably sounded every bit as panicky as he felt.

“I don’t know. She did sort of have a funny look on her face.”

“I’ve seen that look. It always scares me...”

They both turned to look in the direction of the kitchen, unconsciously leaning into each other, just a little, bracing for what, if anything, was coming next.

They heard the refrigerator door open, rummaging that was more than just plucking a bottle of water out of the door, two thunks on the countertop, a drawer opening, closing, and what sounded like bottles opening.

“What is she doing?” Steve asked, not quite under his breath.

“I have no idea. All I know is, at this very moment, I am afraid. Very, very afraid.”

Grace came out of the kitchen holding three bottles, one in her right hand, two in her left. She kept the water for herself, handed the two already-open Longboards to Danny and Steve, delighted by but purposely ignoring the beyond-confused looks on their faces. She held up her bottle as if offering a toast, waiting for them to get the message. When the three bottles clinked together, she grinned at them before taking a drink that went on just long enough to add roughly thirty points to her father’s already-soaring blood pressure.

“So, can we repaint my room before we start bringing my stuff over here? It should be a brighter color. My room at step-Stan’s is pink, but I’m thinking blue for here, like the ocean.”

Steve and Danny silently, simultaneously, downed half their beers in one pull.

“Uhh...sh...sure, Monkey, as…as long as it’s OK with Uncle Steve,” Danny said, looking at his partner for confirmation, eyes stretched wide in a ‘what just happened here?’ expression Steve memorized and tucked into his ‘When I Need a Smile’ file.

“Sure, sure, of course it is, Gracie, it’s your room, we’ll do whatever you want with it, OK?” Steve said, throwing her a knowing, ‘give him a minute, he’ll be fine’ wink.

“Good. Blue, then. And maybe green for Charlie’s room. He likes green, just so you know. Don’t stay up too late. I wanna go look at paint colors in the morning. After you make me pancakes.”

She leaned in, kissed them both on the cheek, put her arms around their necks, pulled them into a mini-group hug, whispered “I love you” into their ears, waited for it to settle so they’d have no doubt, and headed for the stairs. At the last second, she stopped and turned back before going up, cocking her head to one side, right hand on her hip, the other still clutching the water bottle.

“Or maybe you should have another beer. You look like you could use one, Danno.”

After watching her race back up the stairs to her room, the little-girl giggle in stark contrast to the mature-for-her-years young lady she was so obviously becoming, Steve looked over at Danny and, try as he might, but OK, not really, just couldn’t help himself.

“Ohhh, so that’s what ‘aneurysm-face’ looks like. I think I finally get it now.”

“Shut up, you, do not make fun of me. Do not. I am just the tiniest bit freaked out over here, you got that? In a good way, mind you, at least I think, but still.”

“Wow. Leave it to Grace Williams to render her father almost completely speechless. I’ll have to talk to her about giving me some lessons. But see? What did I tell you?”

Steve watched Danny’s gears grind, waited for the shift, hoped that the man who’d spent the last four-plus years teaching him everything he never knew he needed to learn could just get there, sooner rather than later. This was huge, so huge, for both of them, and all he wanted was for Danny to be able to relax into it, finally, once and for all.

“Wow…I…I guess the world really is a different place for her, huh?” Danny said, with more than a little bit of wonderment.

Steve would have sworn under oath he heard the whoosh of an arrow whizzing by his head, the shlunk as it hit its target, the rattle of the shaft as it quivered in the center of the bullseye. Which let him relax, letting out the breath he didn’t actually remember holding.

“Yeah, it is. And aren’t you glad.”

Danny’s smile was as bright as any he’d worn in, well, Steve really couldn’t remember how long. It was gorgeous. He wanted to crawl inside of it and never come out.

“Babe, you have no idea,” Danny finally admitted.

“Yeah, I think I do,” Steve said, playfully toying with his next move inside his head, plotting and planning, mulling for just the briefest of moments, before deciding to go all in. At this point, he had nothing to lose, and a whole hell of a lot to gain.

“Soooo……whaddya say we, uh, head on upstairs?”

Confused Danny-face – that was a good one, too.

“We? As in, you-and-me we, together?”

“Yeah, together, what else would I mean?”

“Ooh, I don’t know, babe, I don’t know.  She’s known about this, what, all of 49 seconds now? Maybe I oughtta stay down here like always tonight, just until she has a chance to get used to this.”

“Danny, please, you saw her. She’s fine, she’s great, she’s up there thinking about paint colors and pancakes. Besides, do you really think she hasn’t already figured out that you sleep in my room when she’s not here?”

“Oh my God, Steven, do not make me think about that right now, or ever, I am begging you.”

“C’mon, Danny, it’ll be fine, trust me. It’s a different world for her, remember?”

Danny let out one of his patented I-know-you’re-probably-right-but-I-so-hate-to-admit-you’re-right-because-then-you’re-totally-insufferable grunts that Steve had grown to love, among so many other things.

“Yeah? You sure about that?”

“Yeah. I’m definitely sure about that.”

Steve didn’t think Danny was ever more adorable than when that steeped-in-Jerseyness brain of his was having a silent, raging battle with itself. He thought if he listened hard enough, he might actually be able to hear the swearing and the name-calling, the full-on ‘this guy is gonna give me a nervous breakdown yet’ tirade.

Just let yourself be happy, Danno. C’mon.

“Well…..OK then,” Danny finally said, heaving a sigh, raising his bottle. “Here’s to a different world, I guess. Starting tonight.”

Steve raised his to match, knowing he was grinning, wondering if he’d drifted all the way over into ‘grinning like an idiot’ territory, not really caring if he had.

“Starting tonight.”

They tapped their bottle necks, shook their disbelieving heads, smiled the same goofy smiles that probably had set this whole damn thing in motion in the first place, and drained the rest of their beers without taking a breath.

 

*****

 

She was angry.

She’d been so looking forward to going to Adam and Kono’s wedding, especially now that she, and not Ambelissa or whatever, would be her dad’s official date. He and Steve had brought her in on the discussion, agreed that they all needed to be on the same page, vowed not to say or do anything that might steal any of the happy couple’s thunder. It was only fair. Besides, finally getting to Point B was all that really mattered. The rest would happen when it happened, no rush, no hurry. She was anxious, but she understood, got on board and was fine with it. She was.

Until she showed up.

“Danno, Danno, what’s she doing here, with Uncle Steve?” she said almost frantically, tugging at the sleeve of her dad’s jacket. “Did you know she was gonna be here?”

“Yes, baby, I knew, but it’s OK, it’s OK.”

“What do you mean, it’s OK? It’s not OK. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Long story, sweetie. Short version? She just showed up yesterday, out of the blue. But don’t worry, everything’s gonna be OK. Remember what we talked about, none of us wanna rock the boat until after the wedding, huh? Remember that?”

“Yes, I remember, but…”

“No ‘buts,’ Gracie. It’s fine, really. Uncle Steve will take care of it, it’s gonna be fine. I promise you.”

Maybe, but this was not ‘OK.’ This was anything but ‘OK.’

She fumed, shifted her attention over to her handsome uncle and the admittedly gorgeous woman draped all over him, watched carefully, scrutinized every move, every glance, every gesture. She studied the body language that, to her, seemed as clear as the perfect blue sky overhead. Catherine was hanging on to Steve like she was under the very outdated impression that she had some sort of ownership claim on him, but it was Steve’s demeanor that Grace hoped was telling the tale.

There was no doubt that he was happy to see her, but it was in a polite, nice-to-see-you-again sort of way. Grace may not have been schooled in the ways of grownup relationship rituals, but she already knew the difference between ‘friend’ and ‘girlfriend,’ and this definitely had ‘friend’ written all over it. Catherine just hadn’t figured it out yet.

At least, that’s the story Grace told herself.

And the seating at the ceremony, it was wrong, just all wrong. Steve and Danny were supposed to sit together, with her next to one or the other, or maybe between them because of their agreement, although no one would have even given it a thought had the guys decided to sit together. They’d joked about being each other’s ‘dates’ for Aunt Deb’s wedding, she remembered, so it would have been fine. No one would have even blinked.

But instead, she and Danny were sitting behind Catherine and Steve, and Grace tried, she really did, to just relax and enjoy the wedding and how beautiful Kono looked and how happy Adam was. She tried not to glare holes through the back of Catherine’s head, Catherine, who’d turned back around to latch onto Steve after just a barely polite ‘hello’ to her and her dad when they first sat down. She tried, but her brain just kept screaming, screaming, so loudly she actually wondered if anyone could hear.

Why are you here?!

She knew she’d probably be grounded pretty much for life if she dared say anything to Catherine, but as the ceremony ended and Kono and Adam made their way back up the aisle to cheers and applause, she made up her mind that it didn’t matter. She’d take whatever she got, because she needed to find out just exactly what Catherine Rollins was up to and, if necessary, set her straight. That Catherine had abandoned Steve a year ago was bad enough, but if she had any thought about waltzing back into his life, especially now, now that Grace’s family was finally starting to pull together, well, she had another thing coming.

All Grace needed now was an opportunity.

 

*****

 

She was smart.

At first, she thought it would be best to sit herself as close to Catherine at the table as possible so she could keep an eye on her, hear what she was saying, watch her every move, distract her if she started leaning in to Steve in ways that she no longer had a right to. But then she thought, no, better to have Steve and Danny sit next to each other, with her and Catherine on either side of them, preventing Catherine from being able to monopolize Steve in conversation, because even she wasn’t rude enough to exclude Danny if he was sitting right there.

And so it went when the time came for them to find their table and take their seats. When she silently insisted on sitting to his right, rather than between him and Steve, she met her dad’s funny look with a raised left eyebrow and a smirk, but he got the message. Of course he did. They played this game in front of her mother all the time.

So far, so good.

The food was amazing, even if she wasn’t as hungry as she would have been had this threat to her newly-forming family not been sitting five feet away. Once in a while, though not often, Catherine would look over at her and smile, but it never lasted more than a second or two, her focus always immediately shifting back over to Steve. The talk was mostly polite chit-chat, never moving anywhere close to anything of any importance, certainly nothing remotely personal, and Grace wondered how long the three of them could really keep that up, when she was ready to explode.

But then there was that moment, as the salads were being cleared away and the main course was being served, when she saw Steve’s right arm move off the table, down to his side, hand resting on his thigh. A few seconds passed, just long enough not to be obvious to anyone who wasn’t paying attention, and Danny picked up his water glass with his right hand, a clever diversion, as his left arm casually drifted down, his hand brushing Steve’s under the table as if by accident, then a subtle shift to cover Steve’s hand with his own. It was only a few seconds, the expressions on their faces never changing, and yet that simple act spoke volumes, at least to Grace, welcome reassurance of everything she needed to know, and wanted to believe.

She knew Catherine couldn’t see, didn’t notice, wouldn’t have thought to look in the first place. A satisfied grin threatened to spread so widely across her face that she had to cover her mouth, afraid that someone would notice, ask her what was so funny, ruin the moment. But that wouldn’t happen, not today, no such moment-ruining events allowed.

Not on her watch.

 

*****

She was ready.

When the moment arrived, after the toasts and the first dance, before the cake-cutting and the bouquet-throwing, she was more than ready, ready as she’d ever been for anything in her life.

“If you handsome gentlemen will excuse me a minute, I need to visit the powder room. I’ll be right back,” Catherine said, running her hand across Steve’s shoulders as she rose from her seat. Steve shot Danny a look, but didn’t flinch. Danny polished off the rest of his wine in one go, shifted in his seat, loosened his tie.

“Can I come with you?” Grace asked with all of the innocence she could muster, and yes, weren’t those drama classes she’d insisted on taking at school last semester coming in handy right about now?

“Of course, Gracie. I think they’re over that way. C’mon.”

Grace stood from her chair and followed Catherine across the back of the dance floor toward the ladies lounge area. It was around a corner, out of sight from where the guests were sitting, which was perfect, and the short walk gave Grace just enough time to figure out the best way to get things started. It made sense for her to wait until after they’d finished their business, checked their hair and makeup, smoothed their dresses, and started back to the table. She’d planned to speak first, but it actually worked in her favor when Catherine spoke instead.

“We haven’t had much of a chance to talk, Gracie. It’s really nice to see you again.”

[Really? You could’ve fooled me.]

“What are you doing here?”

Catherine stopped cold, turned to face Grace, reviewed the instant replay, came up empty.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Grace?”

“What are you doing here?”

That Catherine was caught off guard was a given, but it was the look on the young girl’s face, the fire in her eyes, that robbed her of her balance.

“I…I wanted to come to Kono’s wedding. I wouldn’t have missed it.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“Well, no, I…I have some…some things to talk to your Uncle Steve about.”

“What does that mean?”

“It…it means that…he and I have some…things to work out between us. Gracie, I don’t…”

“But when that’s done, then you’re leaving again, right?”

Catherine studied the girl’s face, searching in vain for clues to a game she hadn’t agreed to play.

“Well, I’m…I’m not really sure. But…I…really don’t think we should be talking about this right now. It’s…”

“Why not?”

“Well…because it’s…it’s between me and your Uncle Steve.”

“But when it’s finished, whatever ‘it’ is, then you’ll go, and leave us alone.”

For reasons she probably couldn’t have explained at gunpoint, us caught Catherine just under the ribcage, sharp, lodged where she couldn’t quite get at it, took up an uncomfortable residence.

“Gracie, honey, I’m confused. What’s this about? I thought we were friends.”

“We were, but then you left, and I grew up a little more, and I started to see things and understand things, and you coming back here is just gonna mess everything all up.”

“I…I don’t understand. Mess what up, Grace?”

“You’ve been gone a year. You missed a lot. Things have happened. I know things now that I didn’t know before.”

“What things, Gracie? I don’t know what you mean.”

“It all started when you lost Uncle Steve, in Afghanistan.”

That one Catherine hadn’t seen coming. Her hand reflexively rose up and pressed against her stomach, as if she’d taken a punch. She’d had the wind knocked out of her before, but never like this. Her instincts kicked in, warned her that no, this was not a game, advised her to brace for battle.

She just had no idea what specific enemy was approaching.

Lost him? Gracie, no…why would you…how do you even know about that?”

“I know all about it. I told you, things are different now. Sometimes they tell me things, sometimes they wait for me to ask questions. When I do, they always tell me the truth. That’s our deal.”

Catherine couldn’t wrap her head around the seismic shift that must have taken place for Danny to start sharing this kind of unsettling information with his baby girl. She was left to guess that ‘baby’ was no longer part of the program, having disappeared, like jacks and stuffed animals and patent leather Mary Janes.

“Well…then you have to know I didn’t…lose him, Gracie. He was…caught. We were trying to rescue children, some of them were younger than you. I had to protect them. I had to believe Steve could take care of himself. There was nothing I could do, I had no choice.”

“Really? Wow.”

“I…I called your dad right away, Gracie, gave him Steve’s location, I did everything I could, you must know that part of it too, right?”

“That’s the point.”

What point, Gracie?”

“When Uncle Steve was in trouble, even you knew to call Danno.”

Catherine understood that there was purpose in that remark, but didn’t have time to process it. The girl was on a roll.

“But that wasn’t all. Who actually went after him, to make sure he was gonna get rescued, to bring him back home. Who did that, huh?”

“Now you sound like your father.”

Weak, as defensive moves went, but it was all she had.

Grace was having none of it.

“Nice dodge, but the answer is Danno.  Again. Because that’s what they do for each other.”

“Of course they do, Gracie, I wouldn’t argue with you about that. But why are you…”

“Then that night last year, when you called Uncle Steve and told him you were staying over there. Do you remember that?”

[The halting, awkward “I love you, you know,” that she’d never quite been able to interpret, chose not to question for fear of the answer, convincing herself in the end it didn’t mean what she might have hoped. Yes, she remembered that night.]

“Of course I do,” was all she said, barely above a whisper, thrown further than she could have ever imagined, a few feet or a mile or two.

“He called us and asked us to come over to his house. When he told us what happened, I knew it was because he wanted us to keep him company, but then he and Danno went outside and sat in their chairs and talked for a really long time. That’s what they do when they need to work something out together. By the time they were done, when they came back inside, Uncle Steve was smiling and laughing again. That’s what talking to Danno does for him.”

“Well, sure, Gracie, I know that. Steve and your dad are always there for each other. That’s what friends do for…”

“That was the night I started asking more questions. They used to keep things from me, because they’re always trying to protect me.”

“You can’t blame them for that, Gracie. It’s dangerous work they do, dangerous situations they get into sometimes, they don’t want you to worry.”

“But I’m not a little kid anymore. I wanna know when they’re hurt or in trouble. And now they tell me, maybe not everything, but enough. You don’t know about the terrible things that have happened since you’ve been gone.”

“I…I know I’ve been out of touch most of the time, but…”

“Did you know that Danno went all the way to South America because of the man who murdered Uncle Matt? That he killed him?”

Catherine let out a startled, helpless gasp. This was worse than she could have imagined.

“Oh my God. Wh…why would Danny tell you something like that?”

“I already told you, we talk about things now. After it was all over, we talked about it together, me and Danno and Uncle Steve. They told me the man was threatening to hurt me, too, and that’s why he had to do it. It was horrible, but Danno wasn’t alone. Uncle Steve went with him, because he wouldn’t let Danno do something like that by himself for anything in the world.”

“Gracie, I…”

“And did you know they came to my school a few months later and dragged Danno away, right in front of me, and took him to some awful place and beat him up? Who do you think figured out how to rescue him and then brought him back home to me? To us?”

Catherine felt the knife slide in another inch.

“Of course he did, Gracie. If your dad’s in trouble, Steve will always be there. That’s his job.”

“He doesn’t just do it because it’s his job, Catherine.”

“Yes, you’re right, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I believe you. There isn’t anything Steve wouldn’t do for Danny.”

“There isn’t anything they wouldn’t do for each other. Not anything.”

“I know that, Gracie, I…I do.”

Catherine still had no idea where this was going, but she could see the pile of pointed remarks rising higher by the minute. Which is when, with what she would later remember was admirably elegant precision, Grace Williams came in for the grand slam.

Especially now.”

Catherine’s knees started to wobble. She tried to blame it on the heels, knew they weren’t the problem, really needed another drink.

“Especially…now? Grace, what do you mean by now?  What’s different? I…I don’t understand what you’re telling me.”

“Yes you do.”

“No, I really don’t.”

“I don’t believe you. Or maybe you just don’t want to understand.”

Catherine hadn’t had that much champagne, she hadn’t, yet her head felt as if it might spin off of her shoulders at any moment. What the hell was going on here?

“Steve and Danny have been through a lot together over the years, I know that, but…” she trailed off, weakly.

“It’s almost five years now. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember when Uncle Steve wasn’t watching out for us. And you know what? In all that time, he’s talked about Danno ten times more than he ever talked about you. I’m sorry if you think that’s mean, but it’s the truth.”

Catherine let the cruelty of that remark pass. She was still looping on especially now.

“Gracie, are you trying to tell me that…something has…changed…between Steve and…no, Gracie, no, that’s not possible.”

Grace didn’t bother to speak, just stared her down, as if merely waiting for the hammer to finish dropping.

“I’ve known your dad almost as long as Steve has. I know he’s had…girlfriends since he and your mom split up. I’ve met them.”

“You mean Gabby? She’s gone, she left a long time ago and she’s not coming back. And Amber? Or Melissa, or whatever her name is? Seriously? Do you see her here today? No, you don’t, because Danno finally figured it out. Besides, she was just kidding herself, and Danno, too. She was hanging on to him ‘cause he was safe and she needed someone to take care of her. Even I could see that.”

“But, your dad’s been through so much, Gracie. Maybe he needs someone to take care of him, too.”

“He does, but not her. She couldn’t even take care of herself. Besides, that’s Uncle Steve’s job. No one takes care of Danno like Uncle Steve, and no one takes care of Uncle Steve like Danno. And me. We take care of each other. Uncle Steve thinks it’s his job to save the world, but sometimes he needs somebody to save him. And when that happens, Danno will be there. Always. He’ll always save him, and never leave him.”

Catherine could only watch helplessly as Grace stopped, took a breath, and waited one exquisitely timed beat before coming in for the kill.

“Like you did.”

And now it was all the way in, twisting.

“It’s not all just bad stuff, you know. They have a lot of fun times together, too. Did you know Uncle Steve’s aunt Deb got married a few months ago? Who do you think he took to the wedding?”

“Gracie, I don’t think that really means…look, sweetie…”

“Don’t call me that.”

“OK, hon…sorry, Gracie, I…I don’t know where all of this is coming from, I really don’t, but, you have to understand, I’ve known Steve for a very long time. I think I’d know if he was capable of…feeling something like that for your dad. They’re…friends, best friends, maybe more like brothers, but it’s not like Steve is…”

“What? Different from who you thought he was? You’re the grownup here, Catherine, so how come I know things that you don’t?”

“What things, Gracie? What does that mean?”

“You know what we talked about in school a couple weeks ago? How it’s bad to put labels on people, because all it does is make them smaller. Well there’s nothing small about Danno or Uncle Steve. They’re the biggest men in the world. You should know that. When Danno was in trouble in South America, Uncle Steve came to see me. You know what he said? He said ‘your dad is the best man I know.’ You should have seen the look on his face. And then he hugged me and we cried together, and then he promised me he’d find Danno and bring him home. And he did. Because Danno isn’t just the best man he knows, he’s the most important man in the world to him. The most.”

“Grace, I’m not saying Steve doesn’t love your dad like family. He does. I know that. But I don’t think it goes any further than that. Do you even really know what that means?”

“I know that sometimes men love men and women love women and that it’s OK when that happens. My friend Marcie has two moms. I’ve had sleepovers at her house, and her moms are great. They’re fun and they’re interesting and it doesn’t bother Marcie at all. She loves them, and they love her, and that’s all that matters.”

“You’re right, Gracie, of course you are, and I’m not trying to tell you that that’s wrong, that’s not what I’m saying at all, I just think…it’s not like that with Steve and Danny. I think maybe you’re misunderstanding what you’re seeing.”

“The only one who’s misunderstanding what they’re seeing is you.”

Catherine would have sworn she felt the Earth tremble, threatening to heave her up off its surface, only to have her crash back down in a muddled heap. She’d seen Naval officers who weren’t this intense, this focused, this…sure of themselves. And that was what had her so rattled – the certainty of it, like Grace was merely speaking truths that should have been self-evident.

“I know how important they are to each other, Gracie, I do, but…maybe you’re just…seeing what you want to see?”

“Don’t treat me like that. I’m not making this up.”

“I’m sorry, Gracie, but…is this what you want? Really?”

“What I want is for Danno and Uncle Steve to be happy.”

“And…you think they’d be happy…with each other?”

“They already are.”

Catherine could see the train on the tracks, headed straight for her, poised to mow her down, not a damned thing in the world she could do to stop it, even if she tried.

“Things have changed. You just weren’t here to see it. I heard him, Catherine. He said it.”

Catherine had never been more afraid to ask a question in her life, went ahead with it anyway, not stopping to think about whether or not she could handle the answer, because ‘could’ or ‘couldn’t’ was no longer relevant. That much she could see.

“Who…said what, Gracie?”

“Uncle Steve. He told Danno that all he’s ever wanted was to have a real family. And now he has one, with Danno and me and Charlie. With us.”

And there it was.

Family

She had no answers, no questions, nothing to do but lay down her useless, empty weapon and surrender, defeated, without knowing when or how the battle had even begun.

In an odd, alternate universe sort of way, it actually explained everything. Steve’s distance since she’d been back, the deflections when she’d tried to talk to him, or get close to him, why he’d spent the night downstairs claiming ‘restlessness’ and not wanting to ‘disturb' her, because surely she must have been ‘exhausted from all the travel.’

And back further, before she’d returned, even before she’d left, if she was being perfectly honest. So much.

So, so much.

And really, could anything other than ‘alternate universe’ possibly explain Danny’s arrival on the scene at that very moment?

“Hey, Monkey, there you are. What are you two girls gabbin’ about over here, huh?” he said, his disarming smile and Catherine’s throbbing head having no business existing in the same airspace, and yet they did.

“Nothing much, we were just talking. Think about what I said, Catherine,” Grace said, tossing a perfectly nonchalant “see ya later” over her shoulder as she started to walk away.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hey kiddo, what’s…”

“It’s fine, Danny, let her go,” Catherine managed, grabbing his arm, as much to prop herself up as to keep him in place.

“OK…so…what was that about?” he asked, more slowly than probably any other sequence of words he’d ever assembled.

“I don’t…I think you need to ask her, Danny. And I need to talk to Steve.”

“Wow, that sounds ominous.”

“I don’t know what it is, Danny, but you should talk to Grace.”

“About…?” he asked, not sure he really wanted to know.

“Let’s just say she’s been…explaining a few things to me…about your…relationship… with Steve.”

Danny grimaced, spun a quarter turn away from her, bent slightly at the waist, hands on his hips, looked briefly skyward because he didn’t know where else to look, then down at his shoes, waited to get his sea-legs, straightened up, chose in an instant to look her in the eye because yeah, no, it wasn’t supposed to have gone down this way, but he owed it to Steve, owed it to himself.

“Oh.”

As his eyes met hers, she could see it, right there, steady and secure. It was unmistakable. How had she missed it? Grace was right, she was only seeing what she wanted to see, what suited her. She stared, defenselessly, as her brain flashed ‘Reality Checks are a Bitch’ in multi-colored neon across her mind’s eye without her consent.

“Oh? Is that it? Just, oh?” she asked quietly, without a trace of defiance, which would have been pointless, like Scotch and Coke, or a Decaf Espresso Macchiato. This was a done deal.

She watched the color come back into Danny’s face, wondered if she had any color left on her own, doubted it, unsure of when, if ever, it might return.

“Look…Cath…I, I know you and Steve probably still haven’t had much chance to talk yet…”

“No, we haven’t. What’s going on here, Danny?”

She had no idea why she was questioning him about this. He didn’t owe her anything.

Not a thing.

“You need to talk to Steve, Catherine. I…can’t…”

“You can’t what, Danny?   What is it?”

She already knew, couldn’t imagine why she was pressing him unless, as she was beginning to suspect, she was actually starting to short-circuit, if her sudden interest in ridiculous coffee-house concoctions was any indication.

It was as plausible an explanation as any.

“Cath, go talk to Steve, please,” Danny said, palms together in front of him, as if begging for his very life.

“Do I really need to?”

“Yes, yes you do, you absolutely do, because it is not my place here. We just…”

We.

"We didn’t…”

We.

“I can’t speak for him. I won’t. For once, I’m keeping my mouth shut. Talk to Steve, Cath, please. I’ll go look for him, too. If I find him, I’ll send him to you.”

Send him to you.

And wasn’t that an interesting turn of phrase? After all, hadn’t she, in a way, sent Steve to Danny? Or maybe she was giving herself too much credit. Maybe she had nothing to do with this. Maybe she wasn’t as smart as she thought she was.

Maybe the Earth had tilted off its axis.

She took in a shaky breath, let it out, then another, in and out, now a little calmer, a little steadier. She looked at Danny in a way that felt especially peculiar, wrapped in an alien emotion, something that bordered on but didn’t quite cross all the way over into fondness. He’d won, she knew that now, a battle he never even knew he was fighting. Or maybe he did, she didn’t know. She didn’t know anything.

Not a damned thing.

 

*****

 

Poor, sweet, oblivious Steve was just grinning at him when Danny found him standing at their table by himself, eyes a little too bright, glass of champagne dangling precariously from two fingers, everyone else already on the dance floor.

“Hey, Danno, have I, uh, told you how great you look in that suit, ‘cause if I haven’t…” Steve started, just low enough that no one else could hear.

“Thank you very much mister double-oh-seven, I appreciate that, but right now we have a problem.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“You need to go find Catherine. Now. We’ve got another Mr. Pickles situation here.”

“A what?”

“Cat, bag, out,” he listed on three fingers. “Hurricane Grace, to whom I will be speaking at length about this at a later time, apparently decided what she thought Catherine’s place should be in all this and just finished putting her in it.”

“She…she did what? Oh my God.”

“My thoughts precisely, among many others, trust me. Now go, Steven, before this gets any worse, if that’s even possible. Try the beach. I think I saw her headed in that direction.”

“OK, OK, I’ll find her, I’ll talk to her. Don’t worry, Danny, it’ll be all right, I promise.”

“I know, babe. Just go.”

He watched Steve run off, ran his hands to smooth his hair because, priorities, shook his head in utter disbelief, tried very, very hard to be angry, because he really was, or, at least he really should be. But he couldn’t help himself, he couldn’t, as his lips quirked up into just the tiniest of smiles, betraying what he was really thinking.

His baby girl was growing up to be a little bit of a bad-ass.

 

*****

 

It didn’t take long to find her, just a hundred yards down the beach, staring off into the ocean, a gentle breeze tousling her hair, ruffling her dress. She was beautiful, no one could argue with that, intelligent and quick-witted and kind and generous and everything he could ever want, or might have once thought he wanted, except for one thing, one very important thing. The one thing that made all the difference.

She wasn’t Danny.

He approached her slowly, ducking his head, not knowing where to start, or how he’d finish, only that he owed her, owed her this conversation and probably a hell of a lot more. He only hoped he could find a way to handle this without hurting her, without her hating him in the end. She still meant something to him, was still someone to him. That she wasn’t the one wasn’t her fault.

His either, for that matter.

Now he was close enough for her to know he was there, or that someone was, but she didn’t turn, just kept staring out, studying the ocean. A wave came in and out, and then another, before he finally found his voice...soft...plaintive...

“Cath...”

“Is it true, Steve?” she asked, still not turning to him.

“Cath, please, can we talk about this?”

“Just answer me, Steve. Is it true?” she asked again, firmly, but with no malice, because again, no point.

The pause alone was enough, all she really needed, even before the quiet but unmistakably certain ‘yes’ that sealed the deal.

She dropped her head, brushed her foot against the sand, let the word sink in.

Yes

“Do you love…sorry, that’s a stupid question. Are you…in love…with him?” she asked, trying to keep the incredulousness out of her voice, automatically assuming she’d failed.

Now it was Steve’s turn to brush the sand, hands in his pockets, looking up and outward, hoping for guidance.

“In more ways than I can count.”

He knew that kind of honesty was risky, but he couldn’t justify sparing her the truth, not now, not when she was asking, because maybe it would help her make sense of it, or maybe it wouldn’t. He didn’t know.

“Does he make you…happy?” she asked, finally turning to him, looking into his eyes for the truth, finding it instantly, no search required.   It was like watching a sunrise on the horizon, all the promise of a new day, one that she wasn’t a part of, and never would be.

“Yeah, Cath. He…he really does.”

His expression was disorienting and beautiful and broke her heart, caught her short, tossing all of the pieces off the board, the game having changed without warning, rulebook nowhere in sight.

“Then…I guess that’s all I need to know, isn’t it.”

She started as if to move past him, back to the reception or who knew where else, but Steve stopped her because he knew she needed more, and so did he.

“I just didn’t have a chance...”

That wasn’t true.

“I didn’t know how…”

Closer. 

“I’m so sorry…”

“Don’t do that, Steve, don’t. Don’t apologize. Don’t apologize for being happy, ever. Not to me, not to anyone.”

He held her gaze, tilted his head as if to ask why, why was she being so kind? He hadn’t known what to expect, how could he, but it wasn’t this.

“I…I don't know what to...just...thank you,” was the best he could do.

She could see the relief wash over him, tried to let a little of it wash over herself as well. There was no reason to make this any more difficult for him than it already was. She had nothing to gain from that, she knew it, game over, but still…

 “Can I just ask you…one thing?”

 "Of course you can. You can ask me anything, any time. That hasn’t changed. It never will.”

She knew the question she wanted to ask, but was so completely confused by it, by what it revealed about her, that she could hardly get it out.

“How could I have not…known, Steve? How could I have not seen, that you…that you might want to be…with a man?”

He was ready for that one, because it was the same question he’d asked himself a hundred times since that day, four years, seven months, twenty-three days ago, the chance meeting that had ended up bulldozing his carefully crafted foundation into a twisted rubble. The saving grace was that, eventually, finally, he’d become brave enough to accept the answer.

“That’s just it, Cath. Not ‘a man.' Him...Danny...I fell in love...with Danny.

Grace’s rebuke about ‘labels’ echoed in her ears, and all at once it made perfect sense. Of course it did.

It was standing right in front of her.

And blindsided though she may have been, blind she most definitely was not. She’d seen the spark between them, maybe even a fire of sorts if she stretched her imagination. Everyone had seen it, but she didn’t think anyone, especially her, had ever thought it burned so hot, or so bright, that it would come to this. She began to wonder how long they’d kept it to themselves, knowing but not acting, wanting but not moving, and her heart started to ache and she couldn’t, she had to stop herself from following that path, because what was the phrase? That way madness lies? Madness, and self-recrimination and sorrow and regret, and she couldn’t make this about any of that, because it so clearly wasn’t.

“But…how did you…know?” she asked, as much to save herself as to gather information, but did it really matter?

Yes, it did.

“I couldn’t...breathe.”

That one she hadn’t been expecting, wouldn’t have thought of, was most unprepared for.

“You…what do you mean?”

She could see his mind go to work, had seen him like this countless times, when they were on a mission or working a case. She watched the pins drop, his eyes focus, his head straighten, his shoulders square up. He looked ready, even if she wasn’t.

“Last year, when you called, and said you weren’t coming back, it was probably the biggest favor you could have ever done for me.”

“A…favor?”

“Yes. See…that night, I…I called Danny, and I asked him and Gracie to come over to the house. I just needed to clear my head and get some perspective, and Danny is…”

He trailed off, left the door open for her, to see if she knew enough to walk through it.

“Always there for you.”

 She did know enough.

 "Yes. But…that night, I…I realized something. I figured out that, without you, I’d…I’d be all right. That I could still breathe.”

 “Of course you could, Steve. No one would expect you to just curl up into a ball, least of all me. That’s not the Steve McGarrett I know.”

“But see, that’s the thing, Cath. This year alone, forget all the other times, this year, just a few months ago, I almost lost him. Not once. Twice. Once to Amber’s crazy ex-husband, and then again a few weeks later when he let himself be dragged off to a South American prison rather than fight, because he was trying to protect me. Me, and Gracie. That’s who he is, Cath, that’s what he does. Everything he does, he does to protect the people...he loves.”

The people he loves.

The puzzle pieces began floating in front of her, seeking out their counterparts, linking themselves together, to show her the picture, clearer, sharper.

“And when you thought you might lose him, you…you couldn’t...”

You couldn’t breathe.

“It was like, I couldn’t get any air, my lungs just wouldn’t take it in, or hold it in, I was suffocating, like I was dying. The second time was the worst, because I was the one who needed to get him out, it was up to me, and I had to keep going, had to keep fighting for him and dealing with the scum that had put him there in the first place, and every second that my mind wasn’t occupied with what I had to do, it kept sliding over to ‘what if I fail him?’ and ‘I can’t lose him’ and ‘what would I do without him?’ and ‘I haven’t even told him.’

She could only hope someone felt that way about her someday. She could only hope.

“And you couldn’t breathe…”

like you could when I left…

“And I couldn’t breathe. Not till he was home, safe, with Gracie. And…with me.”

Catherine’s eyes stung. This was not the Steve McGarrett she knew, not one she was sure she’d ever met. It was stunning and heartbreaking and exhilarating and she had no idea, no clue, what to do with any of that.

“So, none of this actually started until after I stayed behind in Afghanistan?”

That wasn’t the question.

“No, Cath. We were never…together…before that.”

She told herself she didn’t need that confirmation, knew that Steve was too honorable to have ever behaved otherwise, but she was happy to have it nonetheless. If ‘happy’ was a word she could even work into this situation at the moment.

“So, it hasn’t really been all that long then, right?”

She watched his face change, could see the thought register, wished she’d played poker with him more often.

“But in your heart, it has been, hasn’t it,” she said, a statement of fact, not a question.

All of his color came back in a rush, and then some.

“For him, too?” she asked.

His face lit up, like the very idea of that made him happier than he ever thought possible.

“Yeah, definitely for him, too, maybe even sooner for him. Funny thing is, mister heart-on-his-sleeve actually struggled with it more, not so much with what he was feeling, but with burying it all because he couldn’t figure out how we could ever make it work. And I was doing the same thing. It was so strong, so powerful, I think we were actually…afraid of it. It took us both forever to own up to everything. Believe it or not, I was the one who cracked first. Who woulda thought, huh?”

She knew there was a joke in there somewhere to be made at Steve’s expense, but she swallowed it, because he was almost, almost smiling again, and she’d pay good money, and a lot of it, to keep that smile in place. He deserved it.

She smiled back, felt the speed of the rollercoaster finally start to slow as it rolled to the finish, pulled up next to the loading platform, bars up, everybody out, ride’s over.

She let the silence of the moment linger, giving her, and probably him, too, a chance to retool, recalibrate, search for and hopefully find a new way forward that wouldn’t involve ‘goodbye forever.’ She hoped he didn’t want that, either.

“He bought me a guitar, y’know.   A couple months ago.”

A classic out-of-left-field remark if she'd ever heard one. And wasn’t Steve’s amusement at what must have been her very puzzled look just too charming?  

Yes, she was going to miss that.

“I…I didn’t know you…played.”

“I know,” he said, with an expression that told her everything she'd ever need to know, her final, ultimate realization.

Danny knows you.

And I don’t.

Steve took one more look at the ocean, indescribably beautiful even for paradise, and rounded the final turn, headed for home.

“So, you gonna be headin’ back to D.C. then?”

And she knew from that, drink up, lights are flashing, last call.

“Yeah, I think so. Not much to hold me here.”

And there went Steve’s smile.

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Steve, that didn’t come out…I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know, Cath. It’s OK.”

They stood there, just being for a moment, two old friends, forever changed, forever the same. She loved him, she always would, no regrets, but it was time to go.

Time to move on.

“Walk me back to the party?”

“Absolutely,” he said with a warmth that reached into her soul, and she had to give it to him, he’d done it, somehow managed to make her believe that even if they never saw each other again, it would all be fine between them, and that’s what she loved about him, and what was probably near the top of the long list of things Danny loved about him, too. She’d briefly, mistakenly, thought it was her job to make him feel better, but this was Steve McGarrett. She should have known better, and maybe she did.

She threaded her arm through his, leaned into him, just slightly, but not as much as she had earlier that day, because she already knew where the new boundary was, and chose to honor it. She wondered if they would ever be even this close again.

Probably not.

They walked along in surprisingly comfortable silence, got more than half way back before spotting Danny and Grace standing together out near the water, not far from where the steps led to the sand, pretending to look at the ocean with a studied, completely unconvincing casualness.

“I guess they just wanted to make sure I hadn’t drowned you,” Catherine said, as playfully as the moment would allow.

“I hate to tell you, but, I think you’re probably right,” Steve said with a gentle, easy laugh.

“Oh my God, Steve, look at Danny’s gun hand.”

Danny wasn’t wearing his piece, of course, but he was on the case, hand poised at the ready nonetheless.

“Yeah, well, like I told you, he’s all about protecting the people he loves,” he replied, completely unable to stifle a huge ‘just look at my guy over there, would ya?’ grin.

“Her, too, I can now tell you from personal experience,” Catherine said. “You guys are gonna have your hands full with that one. She’s a force of nature.”

“I know. She gets that from her father.”

It wasn’t the tone of Steve’s voice that brought the lump to her throat, although it might have been enough. It was the expression on his face as he gazed down the beach at two of the three most important people in the world to him.

All he’s ever wanted was to have a real family.

And now it really was time, time to let him go, time to let him be with the people who made him smile, who let him be who he was, or who he’d always wanted to be, a happier man, a better man. She loved him too much to ever begrudge him that.

“No point,” she said softly out loud to no one, smiling ruefully, taking her arm back, turning to face him.

“What?” Steve asked.

“Nothing. It was…nothing.”

She reached up, stroked his face with the back of her hand, hoping that simple gesture could convey her hopes and wishes for him, because just as surely as she was standing there, if she tried to use her words now, she’d break, and neither of them needed that. Besides, she only had two words left for him now anyway.

Only two.

“Aloha, Steve.”

He took her hand, squeezed gently before leaning in, pressed a feather-light kiss to her forehead, pulled back without the hug she might have once expected, looked over her shoulder at Danny and Grace, then back at her, and gave her all he had left.

“Aloha, Catherine.”

He held on just a second longer, let her go, watched as she turned and made her way up the stairs, back to the party, back to her life, the one he was no longer a part of, because now he had his own, the one that was still pretending to play on the beach, less than half a stone’s throw away.

“Hey!” he called out to Danny and Grace, not so much wanting their attention as suddenly needing it.

Grace waved happily, and Danny pointed at the stairs where Catherine had been with a questioning “everything OK?” shrug.

Steve knew the answer, hoped he could deliver it in exactly the right way, because it had to be right, had to be perfect. Because this was it.

This was for the win.

He made sure he had Danny’s eye, then took his finger and pointed it at himself.

Danny cocked his head, furrowed his brow, waited.

Steve raised his arms, pointed his two index fingers, and drew a huge heart in the air.

Danny smirked as only he could, looked down, shook his head before bringing it back up for the finale.

Steve waited, took his time, felt the sun on his face, heard the music waft in from the party, finally raised his arm.

And pointed at Danny.