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The Broken Road, Chapter One

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Once I'd talked Steve into resting, I took on the mission of finding him an ice pack for his eye. The medics at the base had cleaned him up and patched him up, but it was obvious since he was persona non grata there, and they were only letting him rest until they could get us on a plane out, they weren't going to fret over his comforts. I couldn't look at that fucking golf ball that passed for an eyelid another minute without trying to bring the swelling down. I knew he was in pain. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. I also knew they hadn't knocked him out the way he should have been knocked out with some really good drugs so he could sleep. They were keeping him alert to answer their questions, and when he didn’t, they weren’t about to reward him with a nice sedating pain killer to help him sleep. I dreaded the thought of him having to sit through a 15-hour plane ride back home. He should have been in a real hospital, drugged off his ass so he didn't have to suffer. It was a nice touch to have his own people torturing him after he'd already been through that at the hands of extremist psychos.

I finally found a nurse who gave me a couple ice packs and promised to come back with something else for pain. He was only dozing fitfully, so I figured the relief from the ice would be worth waking him.

"Hey, buddy, I got something for your eye," I said, almost whispering, casting a sideways glance at the two GI Joe's watching us. What we said to each other was none of their fucking business.

"Thanks." He didn't quite manage a smile, but he was looking at me again with that expression that said he couldn't believe I was there, and that he was glad I was. That look was worth flying into hell if that's where he needed me to be. I figured we were pretty close to the Earthly equivalent of that now.

I held the ice pack carefully against his eye, and he sighed a little. I had moved the stool around to the other side of the bed so I could block the view of our companions. 

"Try to get some sleep. I'm just gonna hold this here a little while to see if we can start getting that swelling down. The nurse gave me another ice pack. Anyplace special you want me to put it?"

He inclined his head toward the guards and whispered, "Up their asses." I had to work very hard not to let out a belly laugh at that one, and he managed a little grin for me. "My shoulder," he finally added, and I didn't want to dwell on how they'd sprained his shoulder. I hoped it was just a quick injury in the course of his final desperate try for freedom.

"You got it, pal." I positioned the second ice pack on his shoulder, over his t-shirt, and let it sit there. I used my free hand to stroke his hair while I kept the other pack on his eye, and I didn't even think about it until I was doing it. I just wanted him to relax, to feel safe, to know I was right there by his side. It seemed to be working, because he dozed off, looking more peaceful, like he felt better.

We were there almost two days from beginning to end. I don't know if they just didn't give a shit that we were there, if it took them that long to get the arrangements made to fly us back home, or if they were concerned about forcing Steve to travel before he was strong enough. His sleep was light and restless; he woke up startled more than once, looking panicked for a second or two until I squeezed his hand, rubbed his shoulder, or just made sure to get in his line of vision. He'd see me or feel me there and doze back off again. Nobody offered me a place to sleep, but I just took the liberty of sleeping on one of the empty beds for a couple hours here and there when he was sleeping quietly. 

The nurse made good on her promise to get us some pills for his pain, so that helped, too. She had mercy on me and brought enough food on his tray for two and a young medic must have thought I looked wilted because he brought me some coffee. A doctor checked on Steve the morning of the day we left - we didn’t actually get out of there until afternoon - and said it was safe for him to travel. Probably would be bad press to put a guy with Steve’s military credentials on a plane, injured, and have him die on the way home because the Taliban tortured him and the US didn’t give him adequate medical care. I’d have spent my life spreading that news, even if I had to do it from a prison cell someplace.

I’d helped him make the walk to the bathroom a few times, which he tried to do without leaning on me at all. I admire everything Steve endured for his military training, and all the crap he can withstand and keep going, but I've cursed that training at times, because it makes it so hard for him to just give in to being sick or hurt and let someone else be strong for him.

When it was time to leave, they brought us a wheelchair so he didn't have to walk all the way out to the plane which, of course, he objected to vocally. I understood it wasn't easy for him to be laid up in front of all these military guys, especially when he wasn't in a position of prestige, power, or even respect. He told me off about putting his boots on for him and tying them, but I ignored him and did it anyway. I could see the strain in his features and the labor in his movements. I've never been good at watching people I love in pain. The thought of how close he'd come to dying ate at my soul and made me realize, as if I needed help realizing it, just how much I love him.

"Ready to go?" I asked, bringing the wheelchair up close to the bed.

"I don't need a wheelchair. My legs are fine."

"Humor me," I replied, not waiting for his permission to slide my arm around his middle and give him some gentle support to stand. He swayed a little, but righted himself quickly. He sat in the chair without further comment. I wheeled him out to the plane, and I was relieved to see that it was a small jet with decent seats. I’d half expected they’d stick us in the hold of a cargo plane with some powdered eggs and a canteen. I didn’t care about fancy amenities, but Steve needed fluids to keep him hydrated and a seat that wouldn’t aggravate his pain. We didn't have flight attendants and plated meals, but there was some bottled water and packaged food that would get us through the flight. Maybe my being a civilian helped the cause. It's kind of ironic these guys are fighting and dying for our freedoms and our rights, and then having a civilian in the middle of all this with those very rights was keeping them in check for how they treated Steve, when they should have been respecting him as one of their own.

I wanted to kill those assholes for how they talked to him. For all his rebelliousness at times, he does take the chain of command seriously, and guys like them who have rank and seniority devaluing everything he's done for his country like that...I know it hurt him. Nothing like kicking someone when they're down. Fucking cowards. I don't care what kind of rank or medals those old fuckers had. There's nothing lower than stepping on what's left of someone's dignity when they've had the shit pounded out of them and been terrorized to their breaking point.

We were the only passengers, another thing I was grateful for. He reclined his seat, and I knew as he was staring out the window while the plane taxied down the runway, he was wondering where Catherine was, and if she was all right. I wasn't sure why that bothered me. Maybe because she'd gotten him into this mess, and she got out without a scratch. I know Steve would prefer it that way and, as a cop and a father, I am down with the whole "women and children first" principle. It was unchivalrous for me to be angry he got hurt instead of a woman. I should have been glad, too. I didn't want her to be hurt, obviously, but there was something deep inside me that would have preferred it to Steve going through what he did.

Maybe I was just the slightest bit unhappy that he was so worried about her that he seemed to have almost forgotten I was there. Then I reminded myself I'd gone there for him, not for me.

"She'll be okay, Steve," I said, touching his arm. He turned his head toward me and looked me in the eyes for a few seconds. He could do that now that the swelling around his eye was a lot better.

"Yeah, she's strong and she's smart," he replied, but I could tell he was still worried. 

I reclined my seat, too. I was exhausted now that I let myself feel it. He was safe, we were going home. I didn't need to be on full alert anymore. I didn't realize my hand was still on his arm until he shifted a little in the seat, though he didn't make an effort to move his arm or dislodge my hand, so I left it there. It felt good to have that connection to him, like a constant reassurance that he was alive. It might help eradicate the image from my brain that he'd come within a split second of his life ending on the downward swing of a machete, and that video would have been my last sight of him.

"These military planes are just as safe as commercial jets," he said as we were taking off. It wasn't the ascent of the plane that had my hand gripping his arm as if in panic. I hadn't realized I'd done that as the machete haunted my thoughts.

"Sorry." I withdrew my hand. "It's not the plane," I said without thinking. Now I'd put myself in the position of telling him what it was.

"It's okay. Sometimes I do stuff like that when I'm nodding off, too." 

He's smarter than most people I know. Probably the smartest guy I'll ever meet, though I sure as hell wouldn't give him that satisfaction. He knew it wasn't some weird falling asleep reflex action that made me squeeze his arm that way, but he let me have my escape.

I wish they'd never let me see any of that confiscated video. If I'd never seen the reality of those fucking maniacs restraining him, brutalizing him, it would have been okay with me. Now it was there, burned into my brain. That, and the image of that machete raised and ready to strike and the sound of terror in the strangled cry that came out of him right before the good guys busted in. He was so terrified; I wanted to somehow fix that, and I couldn’t. It unsettled me that even if I'd been there, and the way I could fix it would have been to take him in my arms and put my body between him and the machete and given my life for him, I would have done it without even thinking about it twice.

I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew, I was startled by something and wide awake. I looked over at Steve, and he was running his hand over his face, then wiping it on his pant leg. He seemed out of breath.

"You okay?" I asked stupidly. Yeah, he looks fucking great.

"Just forgot where I was for a minute."

"You're with me and we're going home," I said decisively. I held my hand out, palm up, smiling at him, and after the barest pause, he put his hand there and held on with a little grin. Then he put his head back and closed his eyes. He was still holding my hand. When I relaxed again and dozed off, I was still holding on, too.

********

"Take your time, tough guy," I said, kind of teasing but mostly not. I knew Steve would take the steps down off the plane at normal speed if he had two broken legs and was carrying me on his back. Add to that, Chin was parked just outside the fence around the landing strip, leaning against the hood of the car, waiting to pick us up. It was dark outside, but there was enough lighting on the landing strip and where Chin was parked. Steve had already had enough of feeling weak and helpless in front of other guys. It wasn’t a role he accepted with any kind of comfort.

He didn't respond to my remark, and I took the cue and kept my mouth shut as I walked beside him to the car. 

"Welcome home, brah," Chin greeted, and they did a quick one-armed man-hug thing. I rarely let Steve off the hook with one of those. I want a real hug, because I know how good his real hugs are.

"Good to be back," Steve said. "Thanks for the ride," he added.

"Anytime," Chin opened the passenger door and I resisted the urge to hover over Steve and tossed our carry on bags in the back seat and got in behind him. "Are you staying at Steve's or going to your place?" Chin asked, looking at me in the rearview mirror. Before I could get my mouth open to reply, Steve answered him.

"You can go home and get some rest, Danny. I'm fine."

"Okay. We'll drop you off on the way, then," Chin replied, starting the car. 

"I guess that's settled," I said, and it came out a little sharper than I intended. Sometimes Steve's alpha male control freak shit gets under my skin. 

"You have Grace this weekend, remember? You're supposed to pick her up in the morning."

I sat there in stunned silence. Grace is the center of my universe, but even I forgot about the timing of things with what was going on. Hell,Grace would understand if I had to cancel or postpone or trade weekends for something like this. 

"How'd you remember that?" I had to ask. Chin flicked an amused glance at me in the rearview mirror. I could almost hear his thoughts: There they go again...

"You've been talking for weeks about surprising her with those concert tickets," Steve said. He sounded tired, but there was some humor in his voice. "You can't miss that, Danno," he added.

I had One Direction tickets. Good ones. I was considering slitting my wrists before the event itself, but I knew how much fun Gracie would have and, this way, she was going with me instead of a bunch of flaky giggling girls with that one who always leads the rest into some kind of trouble or worse, some thirteen-year-old Romeo I'd have to trump up charges for and throw in juvie later.

"I wasn't planning on missing the concert," I said. "As much as that thought tempts me." I wanted to apologize for my snippy retort, but it would have made more of it than it was. As soon as Steve was back on his feet, sparring with each other would be okay again. It's what we do.

"It's your big chance to be SuperDad. You'll have fun," he added, and there was something more than fatigue in his tone. It was a sort of sadness that seems to be there in his voice and in his eyes when he sees or talks about parents and children. God knows, he missed out on a lot of that in his life.

Chin pulled up in my driveway and I got out of the car, then grabbed my bag out of the trunk. I stopped by the partially open passenger window. Steve put it the rest of the way down.

"I'll call ya later," I said, touching his shoulder, smiling.

"Okay, but I'm all right, Danny. You don't have to worry about me."

"I know I don't have to. I enjoy it," I joked, and he smiled. "Thanks for the lift," I said, and Chin smiled, giving me a wave as he backed out of the driveway.

I think I was home about an hour before I couldn't take it anymore. I'd taken in the mail, taken a shower, called Rachel to let her know I was back and would be there to pick Grace up, although I asked her if it would be okay if it was a couple hours later than planned. She was agreeable to that, since I'd just gotten home from Afghanistan. Yes, I do need quite a good excuse to get a little slack from Rachel. I had the phone in my hand with my thumb hovering over Steve's name on the screen, ready to call him. I could recite the conversation without bothering. I'd ask him how he was doing, he'd tell me he was fine, I'd ask if he needed anything, he'd say no, and then I'd hang up and go to bed, and have nightmares about terrorists cutting his head off, and then wake up and think about how it felt to hold his hand on the plane.

If I closed my eyes and just stood there a minute, it was like I could feel that sensation of our hands around each other. It was a simple little gesture, but it reassured me he was alive and okay. Maybe it was me who needed him more than he needed me right then, but I had a feeling it wouldn't do either of us any harm to spend a little more time together.

So I stuck my phone in my pocket and got in my car and headed over to his place. I walked up to the door and reached for the knob, but then I thought even if it was unlocked this late, it might startle him to hear someone in the house, after what he'd been through. I had a feeling startling a recently-traumatized Navy SEAL wasn't the smartest thing I could do.

I knocked, and a couple minutes later, he opened the door. He hadn't showered or changed his clothes yet. He looked drained and weary, and his eyes were bloodshot. He almost looked as if he'd been crying, but I doubted that. Being punched repeatedly in the face can have that effect on a guy, too.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, though he didn't look altogether unhappy to see me. 

"I knew if I called you, you'd tell me not to come over, and I wanted to," I said bluntly.

"I'm all right, Danny."

"I'm not, okay? Can I come in?"

"Sure," he said, looking confused. Once I was inside, he shut and locked the door behind me. And set the alarm. "What's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" I repeated, wondering how much more would have to happen for him to figure out why I might not be okay. I paused. "I saw the footage," I admitted. I don't think he knew that I had. "And I can't forget it. I'm betting you can't, either, considering you were there."

"I'm sorry you had to see that." 

"Maybe it's supposed to be no big deal to you military tough guys, but seeing somebody almost cut your head off has me pretty freaked out." I wanted to suck the words back in as soon as I'd said them. He didn't need to be reminded of it; of course, that would be assuming it had somehow slipped his mind that he'd come that close to being decapitated on camera.

"I heard from Catherine," he said. Catherine and decapitation. Two of my favorite subjects.

"When's she coming back?"

"She's not," he said. "At least, not for a while. She's determined to finish what we started, so she's staying until she does."

"That's rough," I said. Not too eloquent, but I knew he was hurting about it, and for the second time that day, I worked hard not to be angry with her for causing him pain. "I know you have a thing," I added, and when he caught my eye, he actually smiled at that, remembering an old joke when he'd resisted my categorizing her as his girlfriend.

He sat in the easy chair and leaned back. I could have sat on the couch, but I sat on the ottoman instead, so I could be close to him. It was true I was there to make myself feel better, but he was in no condition to be strong for me.

"Do you want a sandwich or something?"

"I've gotta sleep pretty soon, Danny." His voice didn't sound very steady. He'd napped on the plane, but he needed some deep sleep in a real bed. Actually, that sounded pretty good to me, too.

"Hey," I said softly, touching his knee. "How about if I run you a hot bath and make you something to eat?"

"I don't take bubble baths," he grumbled.

"I didn't say anything about bubbles."

"I'll just grab a shower," he said, rubbing his eyes. "You can stay if you want."

"Yeah, thanks, maybe I will hang around if you don't mind. What about your shoulder? Do you need a hand with the shower?"

"I can do it."

"I'm here and I don't have anything else to do, so why not let me help you? You know it's gonna hurt trying to get your clothes off. It was no picnic just getting your jacket on before we left the base."

"Okay."

I followed him upstairs, carrying his bag with me. He finally gave up on the tough guy act for a while and sat on the bed and let me help him with his jacket, easing his arm out of the sling with a wince. 

"How'd this happen anyway?" I asked, wondering if maybe he wanted to talk about it.

"Some of it's kind of a blur," he said, but it didn't sound like he was trying to shut me out. He sounded exhausted and confused. "I think it was near the end. I don’t remember my shoulder being a big issue before that."

"Okay, we're gonna take this slow and easy," I said, starting to pull up his t-shirt. He worked with me with his good arm, letting his sprained shoulder stay still. I've been worked over myself, and it sure wasn't the first time he'd been banged up, but all the bruising on his body still bothered me. "How are the ribs?" I asked, knowing he had a lot of bruising there, too.

"Once in a while, they take my mind off my shoulder," he said. He caught my eye, grinning a little.

"That good, huh?" I teased, crouching to take off his boots. He didn't give me a hard time about it now. Of course, there weren't two military goons staring at us, either. I took off his socks and he stood with a grunt of pain.

"I can get these," he said of his pants.

"Just leave 'em on the floor. I'll pick everything up while you're in the shower." I went into the bathroom and started the shower, adjusting the temperature. Steve came into the bathroom, and I'm not sure what I thought he'd be wearing to the shower, but he wasn't wearing anything. He’s nice to look at, but I did my best to obey the rule of not looking in the locker room. "Yell if you need anything," I said. 

"I'm good, thanks."

I made a mental note to get back in time in case he had trouble drying off with twisting his ribs and his shoulder to reach everything, though I suspected he wouldn't let me help him. When I'd broken my arm in college, I'd almost thrown myself on the floor trying to do everything on my own rather than let my roommate help me. Of course, we were just roomies. He was a nice guy, but we weren't close. I couldn’t think of anything I wouldn’t let Steve help me do, or that I’d feel weird having him do for me.

I gathered up the clothes in the bedroom and put them in the hamper. I turned back the bed and didn't quite get around to running downstairs to get him a sandwich before I heard the water stop. I paused there in the middle of the bedroom, not sure what to do until I heard a string of muffled curses. He'd dropped the towel and was about to pick it up when I got there and did it for him. 

"I can manage," he protested. 

"Yeah, I can see that." 

I did his back while he feebly fought me by doing this half-assed one-armed drying job on his front. When he wasn't so tired, he'd figure it all out. For now, he was almost asleep on his feet, and that was as much his problem as his injuries. I'd put some clean shorts and a t-shirt on the counter, and he put on the shorts himself but let me help him with the t-shirt and getting his arm back in the sling.

"Do you want something to eat? I can make you something," I offered again. I could have eaten a horse right about then, so I knew he had to be hungry.

"I'm too tired, Danno." 

I knew from him calling me that right then that he appreciated me being there.

"I'm gonna get you something for pain," I said as he headed for the bed and sat on the side of it.

"Okay. Thanks."

I gave him a couple ibuprofen and he got into bed. I slipped a pillow under his arm to take any pressure off his shoulder.

"Do you want to ice your shoulder and your side for a while?" I offered.

"Not now," he said through a yawn. I didn’t push it. I’d work on icing everything for him after he’d had some rest.

"Okay." I covered him, and he opened his eyes, like he was fighting to stay awake. "Get some sleep."

"You mind hanging out here for a few minutes?” The question threw me. I never expected him to ask me in so many words, but I was glad he had.

“Is it okay if I stretch out on the bed for a while?” 

“Sure.” He already looked more relaxed. I stripped down to my t-shirt and shorts and got in the other side of the bed. I’m not sure my invitation extended to getting in the bed, but I was tired and I was staying over anyway, so it made sense to me. “Are you okay?” he asked. I remembered then that I’d told him I wasn’t. I doubted I’d have many times in my life to share his bed, but I was there now, and I couldn’t think of anything more okay than that.

“I’m fine now,” I said. You’re alive, and I’m with you. I thought hard about my next words, how he’d take them in that setting. Then I thought about how I’d have felt if I had to escort his dead body back home and I hadn’t said it more recently than...weeks ago? Months, maybe? “I love you.” I purposely didn’t hang “man” or “pal” or “buddy” on it. He was quiet a few seconds.

“I love you, too,” he replied.

We were both quiet then and, before long, he was asleep. I lay there and watched him in the shadows. I tried to remember the exact moment when I knew I was in love with him. Hell, I didn’t even like him when we first met. Enough so that I was probably colder to him than I’ve ever been to any other murder victim’s family. He was arrogant, pushy, thought he knew everything, and pulled rank on me within a couple minutes of meeting me and took over my crime scene. 

I know it had been a while. Dislike had turned to like, like had turned to friendship, and friendship had turned to love. Somewhere along the line, for me, it had turned into a healthy dose of lust, too. I suspect that may be what screwed up my love life. Not with Rachel - that was screwed up before I ever met Steve - but relationships didn’t seem to take for me anymore. Gabby's job came between us to some extent, but I was ready to find a reason to end it. It was true I didn't like the roller coaster ride of on-again, off-again for Grace, but she's a bright kid with her own mother in her life - she doesn't need my girlfriends to give her stability. 

Amber was a sweet girl, and we had chemistry, no doubt about that. I tried with her. The fact Steve practically shoved me into her arms didn't help. I didn't want her. I wanted him, and when he pushed me toward her and I tried, I really, really, honest to God tried, to take the hint and make a go of it...it made me sick inside. Steve was with Catherine and I was with Amber and the next thing you know we'd be marrying these women and reduced to the occasional Sunday barbecue together and life goes on and people drift apart. 

Technically, Amber broke it off with me, but I didn't blame her. I probably managed to bring it on with my crappy schedule and, after Steve and I were trapped together by that explosion, I was just forcing something with her I didn't feel, and trying to ignore what I wanted and thought I could never have.

Amber met another guy. He was closer to her age and was a junior executive who worked in a shiny office building and kept reasonably normal hours. I'm glad for her. Steve felt bad for me when she left. I think he felt guilty for encouraging me to take a chance, and then seeing me get hurt again. I should have told him it was okay, that I wasn't all that hurt, but I was. But not because Amber left. It was because she was gone and he was sympathetic to my situation but he didn't take that opportunity to declare his undying love or unrevealed simmering lust for me.

None of this made sense because I didn’t have sex with guys. As guys go, he’s a nice-looking one, but still... I figured there was something wrong with me when I started to look more forward to hugging him than I did having sex with Gabby or Amber. I like the strength in his arms holding me, and I can feel how much he loves me. He hugs me and he holds on like it feels good to him, too, and our whole bodies are pressed against each other...that's how love's supposed to feel, when you can't wait to be with somebody and it doesn't matter what you do...your heart does this little flip just looking at them.

He’s in love with Catherine.

I didn’t like that thought intruding on such a rare moment of togetherness.

Catherine’s in Afghanistan. She can live with knowing he was captured and tortured and nearly killed and not see for herself that he's okay. It's admirable she wants to save that boy's life, help his family, but what about Steve? Why isn't he ever someone's fucking priority? That stops now. He's my priority, and don’t look now, but I’m the one in his bed tonight, not her. 

So there. I can beat down an annoying voice in my head. 

“Danny.” 

“Hm?” Then I realized he wasn’t awake when he said my name. His hand was lying palm up on the pillow, so I slid mine into it carefully. His fingers closed around my hand. “I’m here,” I whispered, and he smiled in his sleep.

“Don’t go.”

“I won’t.”

He let out a little sigh and shifted a bit. I knew he had to be uncomfortable even with ibuprofen and his arm propped up. He pulled on my hand, like he wanted me to move over close to him. I didn’t want to wake him up all the way, or make him explain himself, so I went with it, hoping I read the signal right. It would hurt his side if any of my weight was on him, but I got as close as I could, until I could feel his breath against my cheek and his leg against mine. There was something else of mine I was worried he’d feel, at least by morning since it tended to have a mind of its own, but he had one, too, so I decided not to worry about that. He knew how they worked, and if he didn’t want to feel mine in the morning, he could kick me out of bed.

The next time I had a conscious thought, sun was streaming in the room, and we were still close, his hand still loosely around mine. He moved then, and let out a grunt of pain when he seemed to forget his shoulder injury and started to push himself up on that side. 

“Fuck,” he muttered. “Morning,” he looked over at me, smiling. He was still holding onto my hand, and I wondered if he’d just forgotten about it or if it meant something. So I squeezed his hand.

“Morning, Sunshine. I won’t ask how the shoulder is,” I quipped.

“It was okay until I moved.” He looked at me for a long moment, and then he pulled his hand out of mine. For a split second, I was crushed, until he reached over and touched my face with the back of his hand. There was a look of pure love in his eyes. It couldn't have been anything else. 

Fuck all this waiting. Maybe I was guilty of pouncing on him when he was injured and couldn’t get away as easily or break as many of my bones as he normally could if I misread him, but I went for it. I leaned over and kissed him. Right on the mouth. He kissed back. It took him a second, but never being a man of slow reflexes, not very long. His mouth was open and his hand was on the back of my head with his fingers sliding into my hair and he was giving as good as he got.

“Ouch, dammit,” he cursed, and then I remembered that it probably hurt to play smashface after someone had punched you repeatedly in the mouth within the last couple days.

“Sorry.” I recoiled, but he kept his hand on the back of my head. 

“I’m not. Just go easy this time.”

This time? So I was supposed to kiss him again?

“What’s wrong? Do I have morning breath or something?” he asked.

“Your breath’s great, babe. Really, really great,” I said, and then I kissed him again, gently, but still with plenty of tongue.

“I always figured you’d be a good kisser,” he said. I blinked a couple times. 

“You’ve thought about what kind of kisser I am?”

“I’ve thought a lot about you.”

“You could have said something.”

I’m not sure why that made him laugh, but if he wasn’t already injured, it would have tempted me to punch him.

“You didn’t say anything either,” he countered. Well, he had me there. I hadn’t.

“It’s a little hard when you’re all google-eyed over your girlfriend.”

“Hey, I love Catherine, but she’s not you.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means what I just said. How is that complicated?” he argued, easing himself up on his good arm, doing some kind of butt slide to get himself into a sitting position. I sat up then, too.

“You love her but she’s not me? I know she’s not me. Is it good or bad that she’s not me?”

“I love Catherine and if I can’t have you... I’ve been alone a lot of my life, Danny. I’m getting a little tired of it to be honest. I liked you right off, but it wasn’t exactly mutual, and I never got a vibe that you were interested in anything more, even once we became friends.”

“Then you need to adjust your radar.”

“I do, huh?” he asked, grinning again. 

“You think this is funny, don’t you?”

“Kind of. I mean, how long were we gonna go on before one of us said something? Were you gonna let me marry Catherine, be my best man?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. If I thought that’s what made you happy. You were gonna let me go back with Rachel.”

“Danny, that was years ago. Plus I was in prison half the time that was happening. It’s a little tough to romance someone when you’re on the other side of bullet-proof glass.”

“You would have romanced me back then?” I asked, finding myself grinning now. I liked the idea of Steve going for broke and fighting Rachel for my affections.

“Danny...I’m not real proud of this, but I would have never let you get on that plane to Jersey without telling you how I felt if I hadn’t been locked up. I know it would have been an awful thing to do to you, when you were finally getting what you wanted, but I don’t think I could have been big enough about it to let you go without telling you how I felt and finding out if it made any difference. Once I was facing life in prison, I realized it was even more unfair of me to say something. That’s why I was always kind of out of it when you visited me. Not very talkative.”

“I stayed here to be close to you, to visit you, to try to get you off the hook.”

“It wasn’t looking good for me, and you were still planning to go back to Rachel, to move across the country and be a husband and father. To not one, but two kids. What kind of man would I be to stop you from doing that so you could stay in Hawaii and visit me in prison once a month for the rest of our lives, even if you wanted me like I wanted you? Seeing you was good and bad at the same time. I always felt like our days together were numbered.”

“For what it’s worth,” I took in a deep breath because I realized the truth in the words I was going to say, and they almost surprised me. “If you’d asked me to stay, I would have.”

“What about Grace? If the new baby had been yours...”

“I’d have fought for joint custody like I did when Rachel was going to move to Vegas. I wouldn’t have let my kids go, but I wouldn’t have let you go, either. I’d have had to figure something out to keep all of you in my life.”

“Well, it’s not like a Navy SEAL with my skills couldn’t find work on the East Coast,” he said, smiling at me, touching my face again in a gesture that was so gentle that it seemed odd when he was mentioning his military skills. I leaned into the touch this time. I wanted him to know I loved it when he touched me like that. Like you touch a lover.

“You’d have moved to go with me?”

“You never asked me, but yeah, I would have. Even if we weren’t together like this.”

“If I’d been going back with Rachel?”

“You said yourself it didn’t last the first time. And if it didn’t, the crash was gonna hurt worse than it did before.”

“You were worried about me if Rachel dumped me again?”

“Real worried.” He took my hand and held it. “If you’d lost being with Grace again, and you had another child pulled away from you, and the marriage fell apart...it was killing me to know that could all happen and I’d be locked up and not able to be there.”

It had never occurred to me to ask Steve to pull up stakes and move with me so he could take a job in Jersey as...what? A cop? So he could be there for me if Rachel dumped me and I was alone again. I was in awe of him at that moment. Something still nagged at me, though.

“You practically pushed me at Amber. What the hell was that about?” 

He looked a little taken aback by the question. “I didn’t push you at her. You were dating her pretty steadily and it was getting hot and heavy.”

“She slept over a couple times, if that makes it hot and heavy.”

“You sounded so unhappy when we were talking about relationships and you said how you always saw the end of things. I wanted you to be happy and I thought maybe somebody like Amber could do that for you.”

“It wasn’t Amber I wanted,” I said honestly. 

“You wanted me. And who could blame you?” he added. I laughed at that. There was no point in raking him over the coals and grilling him for things he said or did when I wasn’t leveling with him, either. 

Though I really didn’t want to move, I knew we needed to put some ice on his shoulder and his side. 

“I’m gonna get you some ice and some pills. You’ve gotta be hurting this morning.”

“I’m feeling pretty good right now,” he said, grinning at me. God, I love that guy and his beautiful big grins.

I put together an ice pack downstairs and found some frozen peas in the freezer and returned to find my patient lying there watching me with that look he gets sometimes, like even before this happened, when he’d look at me like he loved me more than anything. He raised up with a wince long enough to swallow some pain pills and then relaxed back on the bed while I positioned the ice packs on his side and his shoulder. I was selfishly glad we needed to leave the t-shirt on to protect his skin from the ice, because I wasn’t sure I was up to seeing all the bruises on him again.

I got back in bed and just lay there with him for a while, close but not leaning on him. I stroked his hair and he took my hand and held on. What was going on with us was great, but I knew he still had a lot on his mind, a lot of bad memories and pain to work through. 

As much as I adore Gracie, I wished the timing wasn't what it was right then.

“Shit, I’m gonna be late. I have to pick up Grace in less than an hour.”

“We’ve taken our time getting around to this. It’s not like I’m going anywhere now.”

“How about going out with Gracie and me? Let’s take her out to eat, go to a movie or something. You feel up to that? The concert’s not until tonight.”

“Sure, I’d love to see her.”

“She said she made presents for us,” I said. “Rachel’s been meaning to thank you for getting Grace that loom thing so she can make all that rubber band jewelry,” I said, chuckling at the thought of Rachel trying to fit rubber bracelets and necklaces into her sense of style. Steve gave me a sort of wicked half-grin. “So if she made us something on it, you have to wear it.”

“I’ll wear mine if you wear yours.”

“Sounds kinky.”

“We’ll save that for later. Get going. I’ll be dressed by the time you get back here and we’ll take her over to Kamekona’s.”

“Can you manage okay alone?”

“Yeah, but it’s not as much fun.” He pulled me down for a kiss, and I did my best to hold him without hurting him. I was quickly getting addicted to his soft lips and that look in his eyes when we touched each other like this, in this new way. 

“I love you,” I said, and I hoped he heard the difference in my tone when I said it. He did, because his eyes got a little misty right before he hugged me with his good arm, and I know that couldn’t have felt all that good physically.

“I love you, too, Danno.”

“I hope you didn’t get too used to that being alone thing, because it’s over now. And if you don’t like me watching TV late at night, that’s just too damn bad because I’m moving back in with you. Or you’re moving in with me. I don’t really care.”

"Maybe I can find something besides TV that'll put you to sleep at night."

"I'm open to any and all suggestions."

“We’ll have to be on our good behavior until we tell Grace.”

“Then we’ll have to tell her pretty soon,” I said, kissing his bruised eyelid, finding another bruised spot and kissing it. 

“How do you think she’ll take it?”

“She’s a good kid. I think she’ll do fine. She loves you, Sexy Eyes.”

“What did you just call me?”

“I figured since you thought that was so catchy, it might make a good term of endearment for you.”

“What are you talking about?” He gave me his best WTF face, which I love because it makes his beautiful eyes go wide and then I can get a good look at whatever color they've decided to be at that moment.

“Riding in the car. You listen to some really corny crap when you get control of the radio, you know that, right? You made me listen to that song - wouldn’t let me turn it off.”

“So you plotted revenge against me for years just so you could spring it on me now?”

“More or less.” I kissed him again. 

"Fine, Boo Boo."

"You didn't just call me that."

"You get to use Sexy Eyes, I get to use Boo Boo. Get used to it."

“I gotta go, Yogi,” I said, getting up and yanking my pants on and throwing on my shirt, stuffing it in and buttoning it. “Be careful of your shoulder. We’ll be back to get you in a little while.”

“Okay. I’ll be here.”

********

“Is Uncle Steve okay?” Grace asked as we were heading back toward his place. I’d asked her how she felt about us spending the day with him, and she was happy to do that. She loves Steve like a second dad. Sometimes I think she loves him that much because I do, or because she knows he's always on my side. She has a good relationship with Stan, but I have to admit to being just a bit pleased that she has a better one with Steve.

“He’s gonna be just fine, honey. Just take it easy when you hug him. He’s got some sore spots.”

“Those people do awful things to their prisoners.” 

I hated that she lived in a world where she had to know that, but I also knew she was getting old enough that she was learning about this stuff in school, and I couldn’t just tell her “Daddy has to go far away to help Uncle Steve catch some bad men” anymore. She was a cop’s daughter, and she was old enough and sharp enough to ask some pretty specific questions if I tried not leveling with her. So I level with her to the extent I think she can handle at her age, and it's easier on everyone. 

I’d told her that Steve was on a special mission overseas and had been captured, and I was going over there to help bring him home. If I got killed while I was over there, it didn’t seem fair to her that I hadn’t at least warned her I was doing something dangerous. I hadn’t told her where it was until that morning, and then I told her she couldn’t share the details with her friends. Rachel thought I was wrong to tell her anything that was even a little confidential. I thought learning how to handle sensitive information was something she ought to know, given my line of work. You can’t teach kids when to keep their mouths shut about things if you never trust them with anything worth telling.

“Is he really okay?”

“They gave him a bad time, monkey. There’s no denying that. But he’s tough, and he got through it, and the good guys got there in time. That’s what we need to focus on. That, and being there for him now.”

“Did they arrest the men who hurt him?”

No, they stormed in there and killed everything that moved, with the exception of Steve.

“They got ‘em all, Gracie.”

“Good.” She was focused on her phone then, her thumbs flying over the little letters on the screen. “Jeff wanted to know how Uncle Steve was.”

“Jeff? Who’s Jeff again?”

“He’s just a boy in my class. He likes military stuff.”

That could mean he was an upstanding young man who wanted to enlist someday or a psychopath with assault rifles under his bed. Or, God help her, she was falling for a junior Steve McGarrett. 

“He likes military stuff, huh?”

“His older brother is in Afghanistan right now. His dad was in the Navy, like Uncle Steve.”

We were at a red light and I just watched her for a few seconds until she finished her text. 

“Do you remember we talked about not telling your friends where he was?”

“I didn’t. I just said you guys were home and that Uncle Steve was rescued.”

“Good girl.” Her phone made the little ping that she had an incoming text. 

“He wants to meet Uncle Steve sometime. Maybe we could all go someplace?” she asked hopefully. 

“Just so Jeff can meet Steve, right?” I winked at her, and she smiled. Steve had worked on me quite diligently on Grace's behalf to get me to lighten up about her growing interest in boys. I took some of his advice because I knew for all of it, he'd be the first one to string up any male of the species who looked at her inappropriately. 

“Well, he’s really nice.”

“I bet he is,” I said. “You’re really young, too.”

“My friend, Katie, goes out on dates.”

Your friend, Katie, might be pregnant when she’s fifteen, too, but that doesn’t mean I think that’s a good idea. 

“How old is Katie?” I asked.

“Thirteen.”

“Ah, an older woman,” I joked. Grace was twelve, due to turn thirteen in a few months. That broke the tension and she laughed.

“If you really like this kid, and your mother agrees to it, we can take him along sometime when we go out with Uncle Steve.”

“Cool,” she said, and the thumbs were going again. A few seconds later, she said, “Jeff says ‘awesome!’.”

“What a relief,” I mumbled under my breath.

“Danno.”

“You heard that, huh?” I smiled at her and she laughed. Might as well keep it light. This was just the beginning of an era when Steve and I would have to make it clear that we knew lots of ways to cause a world of hurt to any kid who didn’t mind his manners around my daughter.Keep your friends close and your enemies closer...

We pulled up in front of Steve’s house, and he was already sitting out on the porch, dressed, sling back in place. Now that we’d laid all our cards on the table, it gnawed at me how much I wanted to really make love to him. 

Grace got out of the car the moment it stopped, hurrying up to the porch to see for herself that Steve was still in one piece. She didn’t run, exactly, because that would have been beneath the dignity of her expensive sandals and the little cross-body purse she carried now instead of a brightly colored backpack, but she still didn’t lose any time. She gave him a big hug and I could hear their voices as I got closer. She was talking a mile a minute, asking him about the sling and about the eye and if he was really okay. She sat on the edge of the chair near his and started digging in her purse as I joined them.

“How’s it going?” I asked him, touching his good shoulder.

“Good. Better now,” he said, patting my hand briefly before Grace even noticed, watching her fondly. 

“I made you this,” she said, pulling out one of her loom creations. Somehow, she’d woven multiple rows of those weird little rubber bands into a bracelet that was different shades of green and brown. It looked like camouflage. “I can fasten it for you since your arm’s in the sling, but it’s easy to do when you can do it yourself,” she said, fastening it around his wrist, which he willingly held out for her.

“Grace, that’s really, really nice,” he said, and his eyes were filling. “I love it, honey, thank you,” he added, hugging her with his good arm. 

“Are you okay?” she asked, since he was brushing at his eyes when she moved away again. I ran my hand across the back of his shoulders lightly while I stood next to him.

“Yeah, I’m fine. It was just a really good surprise.”

“So what about me?” I asked. “I don’t rate one of these?” 

“I’ve got one for you, too, Danno,” she said, laughing. She pulled out another one that looked almost the same except it was in shades of gray. “It’ll look good with your work clothes,” she said, showing me the fine art of fastening it. At least it wasn’t neon pink and yellow or something. “I made them with guy colors.”

“You did a great job, too, monkey,” I said, kissing the top of her head. “It’s great.”

“You’ll really wear it?”

“It’s very sharp. Of course, I’ll wear it. And anything camo is going to make Uncle Steve happy.” I took my wallet out of my pocket and took out the two concert tickets, holding them up. “You don’t happen to know anybody who likes One Direction, do you?”

“Oh my gosh you’re not serious?” she shouted, standing, jumping up and down a couple times. So much for adult dignity. “That’s tonight!” she said.

“That’s right. And we’re going to be in the fifth row,” I said. She let out a scream that would put most slasher movie stars to shame and hugged me while she was still jumping up and down, which is kind of interesting that she’s such a force of nature that she had me jumping with her, despite the obvious laws of physics that would say she couldn’t make that happen. “Uncle Steve and I know a guy who got some VIP tickets through his company.”

Steve looked stunned. He’d had nothing to do with the whole process - I had overheard a guy talking to his wife on his phone while he was having a shrimp platter at Kamekona’s, telling her the great concert tickets his boss had promised were a bust, that they were for some “boy band called One Direction.” I approached him and offered to take them off his hands for a nice price, and he was happy. 

It wasn’t a big thing, but Steve had been through so much, and I wanted him to feel that he was half of a whole now, that I was gonna include him on things with Grace, even more than before. 

She hugged him again, too, and I had to remind her to watch out for his shoulder. Then she looked at the tickets she was now holding and frowned. 

“There’s only two,” she said. “What about Uncle Steve?” she asked me.

“The guy only had two, Grace. You and I and Uncle Steve are going go out today, maybe catch a movie together.”

“Who’s going to take care of Uncle Steve while we’re at the concert?”

“Gracie, I’m fine, honey. I’ll just put my feet up and watch some TV. I’m really okay,” he said, but I could see he was moved by her concern. I was pretty proud of her, too. She had something she really wanted, but she wasn’t going to just dump someone she loved who might need her.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“I’m sure,” he said. “Why don’t you and Danno stay over at my place tonight, and then you can tell me all about it when you get home from the concert?” He shot me a sideways look she didn’t catch, and I gave him a covert thumbs up.

“That sounds like fun! Can we stay up late and make popcorn?”

“I don’t see why not,” I answered, still looking at Steve, then looking at Grace again. It was a family moment, and I made up my mind I wasn’t going to start getting misty-eyed over it. 

********

Kamekona put on quite a spread for us and wanted to know all about my latest “adventure”. We told him some highlights in general terms, but we couldn’t really go into details, for security reasons and because Grace didn’t need to hear it. Danny was sitting there eating a fried shrimp, looking about as happy as I’ve seen him in a long time. I know being with Grace has that effect on him, but I was kind of hoping what was going on with us had a hand in it, too. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts with sandals. I was proud of the fact I’d actually gotten him to add sandals and a couple pairs of flip flops to his wardrobe. He’s the only guy I know in Hawaii who wears dress shoes more than he does sandals. I think he was yanking my chain, showing off more of the goods than he usually does, giving me a good look at his arms, legs, and a nice glimpse of his chest since the shirt was open a few buttons. For him, that was showing off some skin.

My arms were pretty bruised up, but with one in the sling it didn’t make the one that showed seem that bad. My legs were okay except for some scrapes on my knees and a couple bruises. So I had gone with a t-shirt and cargo shorts and sandals. It’s not like my face and the sling didn’t give away that I had some I injuries, and Grace has grown up around one or the other of us having cuts and bruises and messed up clothes, so she could cope.

I knew I was watching Danny even more than I usually do. I wanted to touch him, take his hand, whisper something filthy in his ear that would make him laugh. We needed to tell Grace in a better way than just doing something in front of her, so I settled for taking a fork full of the new honey glazed shrimp dish Kamekona had taken such pride in introducing to us.

“Try this. It’s great,” I said, and Danny looked a little surprised, but he tried it, looking in my eyes instead of at the fork or the food. Good thing I noticed that or my romantic gesture could have ended with him stabbed in the face with my fork. Well, the road to romance hasn’t always been smooth for us.

“Yeah, that’s really something,” he said, and his little grin was so damn sexy I wanted to have him right there. He turned me on from the moment he burst into my dad’s garage with his gun on me and my gun on him and us doing our little mating dance around the Mercury. I could have been talked into a cheap fuck with him right then. Falling in love with him was worth the four-year wait. But I was about done waiting.

“I’ll get another serving,” Kamekona volunteered, ambling back to the truck before I could object. It was good but we didn’t need more food. I’d put away a lot already, and Grace was winding down, too, having eaten more than she usually does. Danny had slowed down to picking at the remains of the platter, eating a few surviving popcorn shrimp.

Grace managed to find room for a shave ice, and Danny and I did a little damage to the honey glazed shrimp dish, with some help from our genial host. He commented on our bracelets, which thrilled Grace who offered to make one for him and they engaged in an in-depth discussion of color choices. They settled on the colors of his truck and logo, and he commissioned her to make a bunch of them so he could give them out as promotional items to good customers. She was ecstatic to begin her career as a jewelry entrepreneur, and the only thing cuter than that was the look on Danny's face while he watched her.

Only Danny’s daughter could have three grown men sitting around a table talking about rubber bracelets. She's a little powerhouse, just like her dad.

If she’d made me one that was bright pink, I’d have worn it. There was something about almost dying that had me thinking a lot about what mattered to me about living. Danny and Grace were at the top of that list. I’d had close calls before, but not that close. I didn’t like that thinking about that could get me shaking and sweating if I let it. I’ve gotten my ass kicked before, and I’ve defied death more than once (daily, if you ask Danny), but this was the worst experience I could remember, and the one time I’d been down to having no hope, even if only for a few seconds.

“Everything okay?” Danny’s voice and the warmth of his hand on my knee brought me back to the here and now, in the sunshine, with people I love and another chance at life.

“It’s great,” I said, and I would have given anything to kiss him. I settled for squeezing his hand under the table. His fingers curled around mine right away and squeezed back. Holding hands hadn’t given me that kind of a charge since I was in high school. 

Grace wanted to see the new Godzilla movie (she’s gonna make some guy a great girlfriend someday), and we were both on board with that, so we spent our afternoon in the movie theater cramming popcorn into already full stomachs and watching an updated Godzilla stomp on things. Grace usually sat between us when we took her to a movie, and this was no exception. I’m sure she was the only one in the theater who didn’t think we were a couple, since we took advantage of running our arms behind her seat, which meant we were pretty much holding hands (or each other’s forearms - it was a little awkward) through the movie.

I felt kind of crummy by the time we headed for my place. Everything was hurting, and I think I was still coming down off the adrenaline rush or something, because all I wanted to do was sleep, preferably curled up with Danny, but that wasn’t gonna happen, at least not yet. I felt a little ridiculous not wanting to be by myself. I needed to just go to bed for a while, and they were going to be heading out to the concert anyway.

“Hey, monkey, you think you can stay busy telling all your friends about the concert while I give Uncle Steve a hand upstairs?”

“Sure!” Grace seemed happy to be left on the couch, immersed in what was bound to be texting on a scale old men like us couldn’t keep up with. All the technical prowess in the world doesn’t measure up to an excited almost-teenage girl with an iPhone.

When we got up to the bedroom, I had to ask. “Why did you share the credit for the tickets? Those were major dad bonus points there,” I said. I sat on the bed and didn’t even fight him about helping me with my sling or my t-shirt. I liked the excuse for him to undress me, get close to me.

“There were enough bonus points on that one to share,” he said with a little shrug. “It’s not like you’ve never come through for her in a jam. You’ve earned some points,” he added, smiling. 

He didn't ask me if I was hurting; I'm sure he could figure that out for himself by watching me. He had some kind of sore muscle gel he very carefully rubbed into my shoulder. It had a cooling effect to it, and the combination of that and Danny's hands on me felt great. He produced another tube of something else and started putting that on my bruises. 

"What is all this stuff, Doc?" I asked, teasing him. I wasn't used to being fussed over like that. I could definitely get used to it quickly, though.

"Well, the stuff I put on your shoulder is for muscle aches, and this stuff is supposed to ease pain from bruising. Gracie and I stopped at the drugstore on the way here. I figured you Navy guys just bite on a rag or something when you're in pain, so you probably don't keep this stuff on hand."

"Rag, knuckle, fallen tree branch, whatever's handy," I replied. There was nothing mean-spirited in his joke. He couldn't possibly have any mean intent when he was making me feel so much better. Now he was just rubbing my back where there weren't any injuries, massaging my good shoulder and my neck. He was kneeling behind me on the bed, and I leaned back against him. He caressed my head and kissed my cheek, then moved to sit next to me on the bed. It was getting a little stuffy in the house, the way it does in the hottest part of the day. Even with the air on, it was warm enough that I’d rather sleep in just my shorts. I guess he notices what I sleep in, because he helped me with the sling again, not adding a shirt into the mix. While we sat there, he kissed my good shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“How long do you think Grace’ll be texting?” 

He arched his eyebrows, then chuckled a little. 

“Until I give her a last call to get ready for the concert.”

“Think it’s safe to lie down with me for a few minutes?”

“Sure. It’s not like we’re going to do anything anyway right now, so what’s she gonna see? Besides, she’s better at knocking than her father is,” he joked. 

“Soon, we’re gonna do something.”

“Do not talk dirty to me when my daughter’s downstairs and I can’t do anything about it.”

“You thought that was talking dirty?” I leaned close and whispered in his ear. “Next time we’re alone, I’m gonna strip you naked and suck your dick until you scream my name.” I sat back. “That’s talking dirty.”

“I’ll get you for that,” he said, shifting where he sat. “Damn you,” he added.

“Self control, Danny.”

“Self control, my ass. You’re a fucking sadist.”

“Do you realize you just said ‘control’, ‘my ass’, ‘fucking’, and ‘sadist’ all in the same sentence?”

“I’m gonna kill you before you have the chance if you don’t knock it off right now.”

“If you killed me, think about how boring your life would be. Assuming you could manage it.”

“Lie down and be quiet.”

“Is that how you talk to all your sex partners?” I did lie down and, despite our lively sparring session, he carefully tucked a pillow under my arm. Then he took off his shirt and stretched out next to me and put his head on my shoulder - the good one. 

“Only the ones who don’t know when to shut up,” he teased, kissing my chest.

“I love you,” I told him, smiling when he looked up at me.

“Now that kind of talk is okay. I love you, too, Sexy Eyes.”

“You’re really going to call me that now?”

“Every chance I get, babe.” He ran his hand gently over the part of my chest that wasn’t banged up. I rubbed his shoulder, urging him closer. I knew he'd be careful of my side, and he was, but I wanted to feel his skin against mine, even if we couldn't do anything about it yet. 

Someday I'd clue him in on just how well I remembered that old conversation. I'd been flirting with him at the time, making him listen to a song called "Sexy Eyes" all the way through, but it quickly became apparent that Danny was either immune to flirting, or he was just immune to it from me. Or maybe I’m just not a good flirt. I’m more the direct type, but that’s risky with other guys, and it was a minefield with Danny, because I valued his friendship and our partnership so much. If some random guy got pissed because I made a move, chances were good I could take him on without breaking much of a sweat. If Danny reacted badly, I had a lot more to lose.

“Are you asleep?” he whispered. 

“Yes, deeply,” I replied.

“Cute.”

“I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Just a lot of random stuff.”

“Liar.” Danny raised up on his elbow, and I missed the feel of him against me. “What’s wrong?”

“I wasn’t thinking about...this,” I said, gesturing at my banged up body. “I was just thinking about us. Reminiscing, I guess.”

“If you want to talk about what happened, I can handle it. Just because seeing that footage...freaked me out, doesn’t mean you can’t talk to me.”

“There’s not a lot to talk about. You saw enough to know the highlights.” Part of me did want to talk about it, see if that would disarm it a little in my memory. A little while before Danny left with Grace to go out for the evening wasn’t the time. It wasn’t the time to dump my fears and my memories on him, and it wasn’t time for me to open that can of worms and then stew on it alone all evening.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay here while we’re gone?” He looked worried. Danny often looks worried, and I suppose a lot of the time it’s my fault. At least, that’s what he tells me.

“Positive. I’ll just sleep anyway.” I rubbed the soft skin on his back. “Why are we spending all this time talking?”

“Because Grace is downstairs and I don’t have time to get into anything more interesting.”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

“I can do that,” he replied, and we spent quite a while at it. Kissing him was like eating a peach. Soft, sweet, juicy, and fuzzy at the same time. I liked the contrast of his soft lips and prickly stubble, a lingering trace of the sweetness from the overpriced box of candy bar bites he’d eaten in the theater. In the rare encounters I’d had with guys, I hadn’t done much kissing. It wasn’t tender and romantic, it was pretty much all business - about scratching an itch with no women available, or because you happened to run into a gay guy or one who swung both ways, and hit it off... Once I’d started moving up the ranks, I left that behind. They can pass and repeal whatever laws they want, but the military is still pretty draconian when it comes to sexuality. Guess they forgot about Alexander the Great and all the Greeks and Romans - some of history's greatest warriors - who were screwing each other in their spare time.

Danny was, and is, the love of my life. I wanted the whole package with him. 

“I gotta stop.” He flopped back on the bed. “I’m getting way too into this,” he said, looking at his watch.

“We’re gonna take a couple days off next week, maybe go someplace.”

“That’d be nice. I better go check on Gracie and get ready to go. We can go back to my place if you’d rather just get some sleep tonight.”

“Come back here,” I said, taking his hand. 

“That settles that, then,” he said, smiling, leaning over for one last kiss before he got up. 

“You’ve got a nice ass,” I said, watching him put his shirt back on. He had a bit of a wedgie from lying around in bed with me.

“It’s not like you haven’t seen it before.”

“Yeah, but I couldn’t really get caught staring at it.” I didn’t tell him that I’d noticed him looking at me in the bathroom the night before, even though he’d done his best to pretend he didn’t notice anything about me a “buddy” isn’t supposed to notice.

“So that’s how this is gonna go now? You lewdly ogling my ass?”

“I’ll probably start walking behind you most of the time.”

“Dick.” He laughed. I was still smiling long after he’d gone downstairs.

********

Grace had a blast at the concert. Since a lot of the audience was a head shorter than me, and I didn’t much care about the whole thing, I offered to take a lot of pictures for her so she could just dance around and have a good time. I did photography duty as promised, making sure to get lots of shots of the one guy she thought was the cutest. I felt like a creepy old man by the time it was over, but listening to her squeals of delight all the way home as she scrolled through the photos was worth it. She was wearing the t-shirt I got her over her clothes, had the scarf with the band logo I also got for her tied around her neck, and I knew her cell phone use was going to skyrocket as she chose which photos had to be sent to which friends and texted all of them with a full concert report. I figured a way to convince her that Steve could do without a One Direction t-shirt, so she got him a key ring with a guitar on it instead. He owed me. Big time.

When we pulled up in front of Steve's house, it was only dimly lit with the lamp I'd left on in the living room. That shouldn't have worried me, because if Steve fell asleep upstairs, he wouldn't be up turning on lights. We'd been gone about five hours by the time we went to the arena, got Grace's goodies at the souvenir stand, found our seats, and suffered through the boy band musical event of the season. I think the guys who opened up for them were even younger and danced in greater sync than the headline act. I was actually looking forward to the next corny radio station Steve made me listen to in the car.

"Hang on a second, Grace," I said as Grace got out of the car and started toward the house.

"What's wrong, Daddy?" she asked, frowning, stopping midway up the driveway.

"Nothing. Just wait for the old man, huh?" I joked. It wasn't worth panicking her, as long as she didn't run ahead of me. 

The lock was undisturbed and when I opened the door, the house was still and quiet. The alarm was still set so I disarmed it and suggested to Grace that she go into the kitchen and get a soda while I checked on Steve. When I arrived upstairs, I expected him to be in bed asleep. I didn't expect him to be sitting up in the bed, knees drawn up, covered in a fine sheen of sweat. He aimed his gun at me when I walked through the door.

"Whoa, it's me, babe," I said quickly. The room was in shadows and I wasn't sure how much he could see. It would be awful enough if he shot me by mistake, but unthinkable if he did it and Grace found me that way.

"Danny?" His voice seemed small and weak, fearful, a bit disbelieving. His eyes were haunted, and he was shaking.

"Steve, what's going on? Was somebody here?" I asked, my mind racing to Grace downstairs, wondering if I'd been too calm about the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.

"Nobody’s here. When it got dark..." He threw the gun on the bed. "I almost shot you." The words were pushed out and almost without sound.

"You didn't. It's okay." It wasn't, really, but we could worry about that later. For now, I couldn't stand the terror in his eyes and the fine tremors running through him. He looked almost as he looked in that horrific video. I should have never left him. I should have given the tickets to Kono and asked her to take Grace for a girls' night out. It wasn't his fault, it was mine.

"Where's Grace? Is she okay?"

"Yeah, Grace is fine. She's raiding your fridge right now, and probably texting most of the Western Hemisphere about the concert." I sat next to him on the bed, easing my butt into the small space between him and the edge of it, both our backs against the headboard. "C'mere, babe. It's okay. I'm here."

"I had a nightmare. I think it was a nightmare. I woke up and I wasn't sure."

"I should have been here." I pulled him close, trying to be careful of his shoulder. I pulled up a corner of the sheet and covered him. I knew he wasn't shaking from the temperature, but I'm not an expert on psychological trauma and I didn't want him to go into shock or something.

"It's not your fault. I shouldn't freak out over a nightmare."

"Shh. Take it easy and try to relax. You want to talk about it?"

"Not really. You know what happened. I dreamed I was back there. There was no way anybody should have come there for me."

"The important thing is they did, and you're alive. Thank God," I muttered against his hair. "It's okay. I know how scared you were, babe. I can't even imagine it. I'm so sorry you had to go through that."

"It's over. Why do I feel like this? It's like PTSD. Danny, I can't have PTSD. I know guys who have PTSD, and some of them are really fucked up. I can't lead the team if I'm jumping at shadows."

"A couple days ago you were being tortured and threatened with death by lunatics. Just because you have a nightmare doesn't mean you have PTSD or that there's anything wrong with you that time and feeling safe for a while won't cure. Now you're scaring yourself of being scared."

"All the guys who were in that...place are dead. I'm thousands of miles away. I know this."

"Did you ever have a nightmare when you were a kid that was so real, that when you woke up, you had to find some way to prove to yourself it didn't happen?"

"No. I mean, maybe for a few minutes but once I was awake and looked around I knew the difference. Tonight was the first time...I wasn't sure..."

"I did. I had a couple. One was about this really gross, creepy looking guy with a weird mouth inside a casket - "

"This is supposed to make me feel better? What the hell was that about?"

"I'm not gonna talk about that one because it'll give me nightmares tonight, and one of us having them is enough."

"Yeah, but you planted the mental image and now you won't tell me the rest of it."

"Just let me tell the story, okay?"

"So tell it. Who was the guy in the casket?"

"I never did figure that out, but it's the other dream I want to talk about.

"I can't wait. Maybe you should just let me take my chances with PTSD."

"You don't have PTSD. You had a bad experience that scared the shit out of you because guess what? You're just human like the rest of us. Now do you wanna hear this story or not?"

"I want to know who the guy was in the casket."

"I don't know, okay? I didn't know then, I don't know now. This isn't about that. I had another dream. I dreamed I'd somehow gotten stranded on an island somewhere - "

"That wasn't a dream, it was a premonition. You are stranded on an island."

"You're funny. A real comedian. Do you want to know about my dream?"

"I wanted to know about the other one, but okay. Tell me about the island one."

"I was in middle school, probably about eleven, and I had this dream that I had somehow gotten stranded on an island someplace. Conditions couldn't have been too bad because it wasn't like I was starving or being chased by bears or anything. I was just...stuck someplace, away from my family, and I was there for like...years. The dream really started when I got back. Everything was different, my parents were older, my brother and sisters were grown up. I remember the first meal I had when I got home was a burger and fries. I guess I hadn't had that in a while."

"So far this doesn't sound too traumatic."

"At first, it wasn't. But I started realizing that everything had changed. My life, the one I'd had before, was gone. My friends were grown up and gone, my family was different, my folks were older, and nobody really had a place for me in their lives anymore."

"Okay, that does sound pretty awful."

"And then I woke up. I was terrified. I finally got a look at the calendar on my wall so I could see it was still the same year. But then I thought maybe that didn't matter because someone just left my stuff the way it was when I disappeared. I shared a room with Matty, but he was staying over at a friend's house, so he wasn't there, and that seemed off because it was first light, and trust me, none of us ever got up thatearly unless it was Christmas morning."

"So what did you do?" Steve looked up at me from where his head rested on my shoulder with those big, sincere, beautiful, bizarre color-changing eyes of his and my breath caught in my throat and I fell in love with him all over again. "Danny?"

"Huh?"

"What did you do, when you woke up?"

"Where?" I leaned down and kissed him. Long, hard, passionate with lots of tongue.

"I like where this is going."

"Unfortunately it can't go anywhere. Gracie is still downstairs and she's bound to run out of people to text eventually."

I noticed Steve wasn't shaking anymore. He was slumped bonelessly against me, and he looked content. I stroked his hair and kissed his forehead.

"What did you do about the dream?"

"Does it matter?" I asked, kissing him again.

"It does to me. I want to know how this turns out now."

"I was lying there in bed, panicking for a while, trying to figure out what was real and what was part of the dream. Finally, my mom started hollering for all of us to get up and get ready for school. I was like Scrooge on Christmas. I ran out in the hall and my sisters were there, getting to the bathroom before me so I had to wait, and my mom was on the stairs, looking pretty as ever, same age as she was when I went to sleep the night before. I just remember hugging her and telling her I loved her. She was pleased about that but figured I had gone insane or had a really bad dream."

"That's nice," Steve said, smiling. "I can picture your mom's reaction to that," he added, laughing softly. I kissed his forehead again, just because I could. Stroked his hair some more, too. I'd loved him for so long and now I could touch him when I wanted and he liked it. 

"The point is, nobody did anything bad to me, but out of nowhere, I had this crazy-ass dream, and it haunted me until I could find something to hold onto that was real to prove to me it didn't happen. So don't be afraid of a nightmare, or because you feel scared or shaky. You have a reason for that, and it'll get better. I'm gonna make it better for you, babe."

"You already did."

"Even better than this. We're gonna take a little trip, you and me, somewhere nice. No interruptions. Lots of sleep and lying around in the sack together and maybe a little nature. I know you like nature."

"Yeah, I like nature," he replied, chuckling. 

"Are you okay, Uncle Steve?" 

Grace's voice froze us both. Steve was cuddled up against me, head on my shoulder and we were laughing quietly together like two people in love do sometimes. He had the sheet over him, but it didn't totally cover his bare shoulders. When in doubt, tell the truth - I guess that's Steve's motto, and it usually serves him pretty well.

"I had a really bad dream, honey. Danno's just sitting with me until I feel better."

"Can I sit with you, too?" she asked.

"I think that would make me feel better even faster," he said, smiling. His bad shoulder was resting against me, so he extended his good arm toward Grace and she happily climbed up on the bed and sat next to him. 

"Daddy took some great pictures at the concert. You wanna see them?" she asked hopefully. I didn't want to wear him out, but Grace seemed to be good medicine for him

"Sure. Did you have fun?"

"It was amazing!" she gushed. Steve had this little smile on his face the whole time she scrolled through the pictures on the phone's screen. 

"That guy's your favorite, huh?" he said. She blushed and giggled. "Unless he's Danno's favorite," he added, and she giggled even more at that. 

"No, I asked Daddy to take lots of pictures of him. He's so cute."

"Yeah, he is," Steve said. She was focused on the screen, but he was looking at me. It wasn't lost on her.

"Not Daddy, silly."

"Thanks a lot, monkey," I teased, laughing.

"Oh, come on, Danno's cute, don't you think?" he persisted, and she laughed. I'm sure at that moment, Grace didn't read anything more into our situation than what Steve told her, but I had a feeling she'd handle it just fine. 

TO BE CONTINUED...