This is a quick story inspired by the events of this weekend, and dedicated to all servicemen and women.
Call of Duty
Detective Danny Williams dreamt of noxious fumes, mangled corpses littered the streets, and it was raining ash. He'd been here before, and he knew what was next. Colors bled into a soundless gray, peppered with the orange of fire, and Danny bent down, scooping up the child crying at his fallen mother's side. The sky cracked, like an upside-down earthquake, and the street was covered in a canopy of fire and molten metal. Danny ran, drowning in the wave of people fleeing for their lives. He saw it, with his own eyes, the second tower was falling in on itself. Not in slow motion, but in frenetic real time. He tripped over a discarded groceries and skidded on the pavement. He clamored to his feet as the wind howled in an unholy scream and as he tried to push people ahead of him.
As the second tower fell, he realized he'd left the child behind.
"Danno, wake up! HEY!" Steve shook his partner, brow furrowed. "WAKE UP!"
Danny was sweating, a little too pale, and muttering about forgotten children. Steve raised his hand, prepared to slap him awake, when Danny's eyes flared open and he bucked violently, nearly toppling over the chair from the unbalanced weight. "Danny, calm down. You're fine…wake up, brah."
He opened his eyes, scrabbling at the shadowed figure over him, punching and pushing for room to breathe, and to get away from the horrific shame of what he'd done. He stumbled over the cool porcelain tiles, but saw nothing but crumbling concrete and falling fire.
Steve had no idea what was happening; if his friend was sick or panicking or what. Instinct told him to give him space, and a few minutes. He hated waiting.
Danny caught watery glimpses of Steve's spartan living room, and the television airing highlights of the game they'd both fell asleep watching. He breathed through the fear swaddled him and nodded at Steve, signaling that he was okay.
"What the hell was that?" Steve bristled. Danny had scared him.
He ran a hand over his sweaty face and stood up, keyed up with residual pain and horror, and now embarrassment. "Uh, bad dream. I h-have it sometimes."
Steve's face tightened at the glaring understatement. Danny's hands were shaking. He was clammy and ashen. His chest heaved with anxiety. And he looked about two seconds away from throwing up all over the hardwood floors. Steve had dealt with his own PTSD enough to recognize it in others. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No, Steven, I do not. I'm fine. Thanks for the beers, and your hospitality, but I'm heading home. I need some air."
"Aww, you're so polite. If you think I'm letting you drive anywhere, you've lost it. You can stay or take a cab, but I'll arrest you before I let you get behind the wheel. And I'm not kidding."
Danny knew better than to push his partner when he had Stubborn Face and relented. On better days, he might have put up a fight. "Fine, Mom, I'll stay." He sank in the chair and rubbed his temples. "But I'm going to need something stronger than beer."
Steve got the whiskey and two high ball glasses without a word. He poured a thumb of whiskey for them both. "You're always running your mouth; I never thought you'd have secrets, too."
Danny wouldn't look at him.
"Years ago, I got separated from my unit after an ambush. I was alone in the mountains of Afghanistan for 90 hours. I'd been through hairier situations than that before, but that one shook me. Because the caves terrorists hid in the caves, and being in the open wasn't better. The nights were freezing and the days were blazing. It changed me…and took me years to get over. Some stuff we take with us. It's a part of the job."
Danny scoffed. "This wasn't a part of any job. This was…9/11."
Steve's stomach dropped. "What…you…were there?"
"Ground Zero." He confirmed. "I was there checking out an apartment. Rachel wanted to live in Manhattan. I had been on the job four years, just made sergeant, but you can't train for that. You can't prepare for that. I helped as many people as I could…but…"
"You survived it." Steve offered.
"No, I left a kid. He was screaming and his mom was…broken and still, so I picked him up…and ran. The second tower…was coming down, and people were everywhere. It was like the friggin' running of the bulls. And I got swallowed up. I fell. People were literally running over me and tripping too. I got up and tried to help others…I didn't realize until it was too late that I left the kid behind. I couldn't go back. I don't even remember what he looked like."
"It wasn't your fault."
"I left him there. Do you know what that means? I can say someone else may have grabbed him or he crawled into a building, but you and I both know what happened. I tried to find him for months…except I didn't have any information, no leads. So I'll never know."
"I know what it means," Steve cracked his knuckles and closed his eyes. "Danny, I was at the Pentagon."
Danny lifted his eyes and regarded Steve as they found a gruesome common ground, one that would probably unite them forever.
They clinked glasses and drank in memory of fallen friends and strangers.
They came for Steve in the middle of the day. Three highly decorated officers marched into the Five-0 headquarters, hats tucked under their arms, a sealed envelope with a Presidential seal in hand. Danny watched through the window as Steve saluted, back straight, arm tight at his sides, and read the contents of the envelope. He shook hands with them. The men left him to stand sentry outside of the room while Steve made a phone call.
When Steve emerged from the office, he was dressed not in his navy whites, but fatigues. His salt-and pepper hair had been shaved off and he wore a black beret with a navy logo. He wasn't the laidback leader of the Five-0 taskforce, but one of the most elite soldiers in the world, ready for battle. Danny knew from the pomp and circumstance that whatever the military needed Steve for, it was probably the most treacherous work. He walked out of his office and followed Steve out of the building.
"I'm being called up for a mission. I'll be gone for a two months, at least. No, I can't tell you where I'm going. I called the governor, and Five-0 is in your hands 'til I get back. I need you to go to my house and get all of the stuff from my father's toolbox and take it to your house. I need it safe, okay?"
"Yeah, sure, anything." They powered to the exit, the soldiers leading the way.
"Tell Chin and Kono goodbye for me. And try not to talk them to death, all right?"
Danny laughed nervously as they approached the black hummer parked outside. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, unsure of what to say. "You gotta do something for me, Steven, and it's very important," he implored.
Steve lifted his eyebrows, expecting some rye joke or ridiculous request. "What's that?"
His eyes glittered with sobering emotion. "Come back."
"Always do, brah," Steve smiled, flashed some weird surfer gang sign and climbed in the car.
Danny had all but moved into Steve's house. Grace liked having the space, and the ocean mere feet from the house. He thought Steve would have been tickled at seeing Grace's pink tutus and Barbies scattered all over the floor. It was ridiculous, but Danny missed his friend and being in the house made him feel better. But the longer he was gone, the more he worried.
CNN was white noise as he cleaned up the dinner dishes. Grace was passed out on the couch, exhausted after a day of swimming and surfing.
"Breaking news…The pentagon is reporting the death of Osama Bin Laden following a raid on a compound outside of Abbattobad, Pakistan...President Obama will address the nation shortly. Details are scarce, but we can report that Navy SEALs successfully infiltrated the compound, killed Osama Bin Laden…"
The plate he was holding shattered in a musical pop of porcelain. His heart skipped a beat as he stepped over the broken glass and staggered to the television. He saw the wretched face of the man who ordered the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the White House, and the words "DEAD" beneath them. It took him another half an hour to truly realize what that meant, that he was crying. The horror of that day, and the ones that followed, were still there, fresh and raw, and the faceless cries of the child he'd abandoned rang clearly in his mind. But there was a since of finality, of the justice that he'd dedicated his life to pursuing.
Ever the detective, the pieces fell into place, and Danny dove for his phone and dialed Chin Ho. "Dude, I know where Steve is."
The soldiers descended on Five-0 again, four days later. This time they strode into Danny's office and swept him away to the tarmac of a private airport. Danny sat and waiting anxiously as the plane landed and Steve emerged, thankfully on his own two feet, but barely so. He was dressed in the same outfit he'd left in, but the bulky muscles had given way to a leanness that wasn't healthy, and his sun-kissed tan had darkened to overexposure and blistered skin. Steve's face was thinner, his lips were dry and he seemed almost strengthless.
It was silent the entire way home.
Danny took Steve's duffel from him and hauled it into house. "Welcome back, dude."
McGarrett flopped gracelessly onto the couch, throwing a hand over his eyes. He felt husked out and numb from the mission. Danny hovered. "Do you need anything? Water, tea? A six-foot sub? An intervention for your obvious eating disorder? What happened? Did one of the other commandos say you looked fat in your fatigues? I think he was just kidding, princess."
The corners of Steve mouth turned upwards. "I can't believe I actually missed you."
"Me too. I was running out of grenades to scare bad guys with. Are you really okay, Steve?"
"Nothing some sleep and a few steaks won't fix. I'm just jet-lagged and…worn down. It happens."
Danny Williams had never been subtle or shy about asking questions he wanted answered. He was proud of himself for lasting more than an hour. "So do you get part of the $25 million reward on Osama's head or was that just a really mean government joke?" Steve chuckled tiredly. Danny piled a bunch of pillows on end of the couch and motioned for Steve to lie down properly. He dropped a blanket over Steve after he'd toed off his boots and settled in the chair beside the couch. "Are you going to buy one of the small islands and build your own private Guantanomo?"
"Nah, I'll probably spend it on a muzzle to shut you up. Lemme sleep, Danno."
It was all the confirmation Danny needed.
Danny was gone when Steve woke up, but steaks were defrosting in the sink and Grace's toys were still scattered around the house, so he knew he was coming back. Steve stumbled outside, into the setting sun, needing to breathe in the water and walk on the beach. He was too weak to swim, but the ocean air was medicine enough. He pulled it into lungs, dug his toes into the sand, and felt better, felt proud.
And there, tethered to the shore of his private beach, was the transparent fiberglass kayak Steve had coveted for months. White painted rocks had been carefully arranged to spell out "Thank You" and tiny American flags were decoratively staked around the beautiful boat.
Heart warmed by love and gratitude, Steve found himself laughing.