Disclaimer: Not mine

Twenty Three

The music was loud and the sun was in full force. The team had no problem with the last minute invitation and those who had plans gladly changed them. Frank had his daughters for the weekend, and Alexx brought her family along. Ryan and Natalia were alone, and Tom brought his girlfriend, who was in town for the weekend. Walter brought a date.

The chance to see Lieutenant Caine and Calleigh Duquesne in a domestic setting—with kids, no less!—was too tempting to pass up. Austin and Patti were happy to have kids to play with, even Alexx's teenagers, and they were glad to meet all of their honorary uncles and aunts. They had gone from being on their own to having quite a large family, and there was no shortage of attention to be had today.

Eric arrived late, unsure if he really wanted to be here at all. He was happy for the two of them, definitely, but it made him wish for a family of his own. Seeing Calleigh and H together with kids may very well be too much for him, he admitted, but he would try it, for them. There was no answer at the front door, so he walked around back and let himself through the side gate, which was open. He stood there for a long moment, watching his family laugh with each other. Currently, a bunch of kids were clustered around Frank, who stood at the grill, fork in hand as he teased them, a grin on his face. Natalia sat nearby watching them with a smile on her face. Frank said something that made her laugh, and Frank's head turned at the sound, as he grinned at her. When he turned back to the grill, there was no missing the wistful look on her face. Erik smirked. Huh. Frank and Natalia? Then he shrugged. She could certainly do worse, and had, he reminded himself. Tom with his unbelievably gorgeous girlfriend made him shake his head, and he looked for H and Calleigh, not finding them right away.

And then he saw why. They were in the far end of the pool, completely submerged except for their heads and shoulders. Their heads were together as they talked, a particular smile on Horatio's face that Eric couldn't remember seeing before. Calleigh's hands rested on his bare chest, and then she ran one hand up to stroke his face, while the other went to the back of his head to pull him in for a sweet kiss. Eric saw the sparkle of the diamonds on her finger, and he saw the look in both of their eyes when they pulled back a little. They were very much in love, he realized, even as he acknowledged that he had never seen that look on Calleigh's face before, and had certainly never put it there. He could do this, he realized. They were happy, and this was going to be forever for both of them. Besides, he was the closest thing to a brother H had left, and he owed it to him to be there for him. In the pool, Horatio kissed Calleigh again and then made himself back off, obviously with difficulty, as Calleigh was laughing at him and he was grinning back at her, another thing not often seen. Then he was out of the pool and wrapping a towel around his shoulders, striding toward the grill and pausing just long enough to playfully shake his wet hair in the kids' directions, eliciting loud squeals. His trademark sunglasses were nowhere in sight. Eric let the gate close loudly behind him as he stepped through it, a smile already on his face.

Horatio looked up to see Eric coming through the side door and smiled. "Good to see you, brother. Grab a beer."

Eric grinned back at him. "Hey, H. I'll do that." He looked around. "Wow. Nice place." Horatio handed him a beer and clapped him on the back. "I think I'll go give Frank a break."

"Yeah, yeah, go on."

Horatio was talking to Frank when he felt hands tugging on his arm. He smiled down at Patti. "Hi, there, sweetie," he said. "What's up?"

"We want to go in the pool again, Horatio." They'd had a serious discussion already about the pool and the hot tub, and the kids knew the rules. No pool without an adult. He looked up, verifying that Calleigh was still in, and nodded to them. "Go ahead, sweetheart. Calleigh's in there. You're good to go."

"I heard that, Horatio Caine," Calleigh called out of the pool. "Just what exactly did you volunteer me for now, handsome?"

"Just pool duty, beautiful, since you're already in the pool." She still glared at him with narrowed eyes as he held his hands out in surrender, grinning his innocence.

Frank, Eric and Natalia laughed at him. "I sure wouldn't want that woman pissed at me," Frank asserted.

"Trust me, Francis, neither would I," Horatio answered.

After half an hour in the pool with the kids, Calleigh looked up to see Ryan and Eric splashing their way in, complete with water guns, to the delight of the kids. "Okay, that's my cue," she said. "I'm out of here."

Passing Eric on her way to the steps, she paused as he stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Let's see that rock," he said, smiling, and Calleigh raised her hand, not quite knowing what to say. "It suits you," he said quietly. "And I guess he does, too."

Calleigh smiled at him. "He does. He really does."

He studied her face. "You've loved him for a long time, haven't you?" There was no accusation there, just understanding, finally.

"Yes, I have."

"He loves you, too." There was no question about that.

"I know he does. I've very lucky," she said, her tone conveying the awe she still had of that fact.

"He's lucky, too, you know."

Calleigh just looked at him steadily. "If there's one thing this has taught me, it's not to give up hope. I gave up hoping a long time ago, and I shouldn't have. We wasted so much time, when we didn't have to." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished she could take them back, but she quickly realized that he hadn't taken them the wrong way; he understood what she was trying to say.

"I get it, Cal. There's someone out there for me. Now if she would just quit messing around…" His face quickly turned serious again. "Take care of him, Cal. I know he's not always the easiest man, but he's worth it."

Calleigh almost laughed out loud at that one. "Preaching to the choir, Eric."

"I meant what I said to child services. We're family, and any time you guys need help with the kids… I want to be their favorite uncle."

She looked over where Ryan had already initiated a water gun battle. "Well, you'd better get to it, then. Ryan's already got a good head start on you."

He grinned. "On it. Be happy, Cal," he said, kissing her lightly on the cheek, and swam off to play with the kids.

Looking up as she stepped out of the pool, she saw Horatio waiting there for her with a towel in his hands. Oh, Lord, he saw that. But he didn't seem bothered, more relieved, and she was glad.

"Hey," he said, wrapping the towel around her before folding her into his arms. "You okay?"

She kissed him lightly on the mouth. "Perfect now, handsome."

"Good. You want to eat? Food's ready." She took his hand in hers as they headed for the table. "Looks delicious." Before too long, Eric and Ryan had joined the rest of them, and the kids were seated at their own picnic table Horatio had added just for them.

Horatio looked around the table. "I wanted you to be the first to know. Well, after the kids." He smiled. The kids had been overjoyed when he'd told them this morning. He looked at Calleigh, taking her hand in his. He cleared his throat as everyone looked at him expectantly. "I finally got up the nerve to ask this beautiful woman to marry me today," he said, unable to look away from her beautiful face. When he didn't continue, the crowd got restless.



"Please say you said 'yes!'"

"What did you say?"

"What did she say?"

Calleigh smiled, holding up her left hand with the stunning ring. "I said yes, of course!"

That brought a flurry of exclamations and congratulations. "So when's the big day?"

Calleigh looked at Horatio. "We want to do it soon. We'd like to set a date, whenever you're all free. It wouldn't be the same without all of you there." Phones came out and a date was agreed on, and they were asked about a honeymoon. Calleigh and Horatio looked at each other. They hadn't discussed it yet, but he had an idea that he wanted to run past her.

Dinner had been enjoyed by all and Natalia and Calleigh were stretched out on lounge chairs, basking in the last rays of the day and watching the kids splash in the pool with the men, who apparently still had plenty of energy left. Nat had been enjoying embarrassing the guys with wolf whistles whenever they had emerged from the water, water dripping and muscles rippling, including Horatio, which Calleigh thought was particularly appropriate, since she thought he was looking mighty fine today in his new trunks and without his shirt for most of the day, feeling comfortable around his family. She had noticed the absence of his ubiquitous shades today, as well, as all shields were down, and his happiness was plain in the sparkling depths of his eyes. She was glad that he felt free to reveal the depths of his emotions today.

And then Nat blushed and looked at Calleigh. "Oh, crap, I was just playing around, Cal, I didn't mean anything…" She was suddenly nervous, and Calleigh just laughed. "Relax, I know." They continued to watch with smiles on their faces. The men were just too cute with the kids, and knowing they would be mortified to hear themselves being described with that adjective made it even funnier. "I think I used to have a little crush on him, you know," Natalia mused, and Calleigh laughed. "Honey, who doesn't?" Calleigh understood that very well. Horatio Caine was a different breed of man, especially to those of them who hadn't known that men like him existed. His caring, his kindness, his innate gentleness, his thoughtfulness, his gentlemanly manners and his selflessness and insight would appeal to any woman, she thought, as well as those soulful blue eyes and that magnificent body, but there was so much more to him than that, and she adored him for all those things as well as the things that he thought he had to keep to himself, that came out only when he was with her. He could be so passionate, rude, and wickedly funny at times, and so much of what others saw was a mask that he kept firmly in place to hide the very sensitive part of him that felt things very deeply, that took the weight of the world on his shoulders. She couldn't exactly fault people for seeing and admiring the very things that had drawn her to him in the first place.

An impromptu game of water volleyball had sprung up suddenly, and Calleigh got up to retrieve the net they'd bought from its hiding place in the storage space under a bench, taking it over to the pool and receiving a very wet kiss from Horatio that had all the men hooting and Calleigh blushing as she returned to her chair. "Damn, girl," Natalia said approvingly. "That man really has it bad for you."

"He certainly does," she replied smugly. She looked over at Nat, finding her attention caught for a long moment, and Calleigh smiled when she realized it was Frank who had caught her eye. Well, well, she thought. It's about damn time, and then laughed. It was what the others had said about her and Horatio.

"He's so cute with his kids," she mused to herself, catching herself and blushing when she felt Calleigh's grin. "You know, you may be a little slow," Calleigh teased. "That man has had a crush on you for ages."

Natalia's surprise was genuine. "Oh, no, you've got to be mistaken. He's never…" She broke off and looked at Frank again, and then back at Calleigh. "You think?"

"Uh… yeah," she said forcefully. Hmmm… Frank Tripp may be just what Natalia needed. She knew her friend had sworn off men for a while now, after all the mistakes in judgment she had made in the past. She didn't trust herself any more, and Calleigh didn't blame her, but she couldn't go wrong with Frank. He was the exact opposite of the type of man Natalia usually went for, in both appearance and character, and Calleigh thought that was a very good thing. As blunt and gruff as he could be, she knew that Frank had a very big heart, and was very protective of those he cared about.

Looking at Natalia, who was looking confused, she smiled kindly. "Frank's a good guy," she said quietly. "Don't you think you owe it to yourself to see if there's anything there?"

Natalia sighed. "I know he's a good guy." He would never intentionally hurt her, she knew that much about him. "He's so good with his kids. But I'm not exactly mother material." That surprised Calleigh, but she said nothing. "I think you're wrong though. I have never had any indication that he sees me as more than a friend." Calleigh smirked. That was so Frank. Leering and innuendo wasn't his style, and Calleigh thought her friend may be an idiot for not realizing that treating her as a good friend was the way he showed her that he cared about her. Calleigh couldn't blame her, though; it wasn't as if she had a lot of experience with good men. Calleigh could certianly empathize. And then one came along and changed the game completely. And then, as if he'd read her mind, Frank looked up from the game suddenly, his eyes searching, and then they fell on Natalia, as if feeling her eyes on him, and a grin lit his face.

Natalia felt that look to her toes. "Ohmygod, is he blushing? Am I blushing?" Natalia giggled and buried her face in her towel as her face went hot, and Calleigh couldn't hold back her laughter. "I rest my case."

The game wound down and people starting leaving. They all had to work tomorrow, and the kids had school. Austin and Patti had already taken Frank's girls into the house to watch a movie as they wound down, and Frank was making noises about rounding them up when Horatio looked at Calleigh, his eyes dancing with humor. "Care to take a walk on the beach?" Calleigh was still amazed at how this man could read her mind. "I'd love to, handsome." She looked at Nat. "Would you mind watching the kids for a little while?" and then she turned to Frank. "Can you guys stay just a little bit longer?" Horatio bit back his chuckle at her innocent expression. He was the only one who saw through it, as far as he knew.

Getting their cheerful acquiescence, Calleigh took Horatio's hand. "Thanks, you guys, we'll be back soon." She smiled as Horatio leaned over their kids on the couch, letting them know where they were going. As they walked out the door, Natalia turned to Frank with a grin. "That gives me an idea. You don't happen to have your camera on you, do you?" Frank frowned. "I think so. Why?"

"Well, I thought maybe I could stalk them and take a couple of pictures of them on the beach, the sun setting… who knows? If I caught something good, it would make a great wedding present." She had no idea what made her smile at him suddenly. Maybe it was a test, maybe she just wanted to see it she would actually get a reaction. She didn't know. "We could blow it up and frame it, give it to them from us."

Us. Holy shit. That made his heart stutter for a second. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? And that smile… just for him… it made him suddenly warm all over. Damn it, he was probably blushing like a kid. His face felt hot all of a sudden. "Sounds good," he said, not recognizing his own voice there for a second. Fuck! What in the hell was wrong with him? And she was still looking at him expectantly. What the hell for? Oh hell, the camera. He had to go look for the beach bag he'd brought, and he handed it to her, wishing suddenly that he was a different kind of man. He wanted very much to say something that would put that smile on her face again, but he had no idea what to say or what to do. He just stood there as she smiled at him warmly. "Thanks, Frank," she said, grasping his forearm lightly as she walked past him. "I'll be right back."

Frank thought that his jaw had probably hit the floor, as fried as his brain was from just that brief contact of her skin on his. His mind was in a jumble, and there was nothing else to do but sit back down with the kids and bask in an entirely unfamiliar but not at all unwelcome haze. Just outside the back door, Natalia felt as pole-axed as Frank had looked. She had to laugh at herself. Calleigh had been right. There was most definitely something there. But she was going to need to do some thinking. She couldn't go into this unless she was serious. She couldn't do that to him. She wouldn't.

Hurrying quietly down the stairs, she caught up to the lovebirds easily, as they were walking slowly, arms around each other, bare feet slinging sand carelessly. This stretch of beach was nearly deserted, and the colors that the setting sun was infusing into the horizon were breathtaking. She snapped off pictures quickly, knowing that the more she got the better chance it was that she'd catch something that would turn out truly great. She had to smile, seeing them like this, unable to let go of one another for even an instant. It was obvious that the connection they had found was something very special, and very rare. She knew there would be obstacles, of course. There always were, in real life, but she hoped the two of them could find some happiness, finally, together. She hoped the same for herself. Taking a few more snapshots, she finally went back to the house, climbing the stairs slowly with hope in her heart, vowing to take the time and make the effort to see if there could be something lasting between her and Frank Tripp.

Calleigh and Horatio stopped walking, knowing it was time to turn back. They needed to get their kids ready for bed, as tomorrow would come too early, and it would be a big day, their first in a new school. Calleigh turned into him, smiling at the absolutely incongruous look on his handsome face. He looked so much in love at this moment, his often-hard features completely transformed, that it was impossible to keep from kissing those lips, so she didn't even try. Lifting her arms to curl around his neck, she pulled him close, kissing him softly, tenderly, hoping to convey even a fraction of the immeasurable emotions she felt swamping her right now for this man. She wanted him always to know how very much she loved him, wanted him always to know that what they had together was worth fighting for.

Horatio looked down at her, her beautiful features even more stunning tonight, illuminated as they were by the dying light, still unable to believe this was now his reality. In a few minutes, this amazing woman would return with him to their house, where they would tuck their children into bed, and turn in together. And she wanted to start working on a baby as soon as possible. A baby, with him. He almost laughed out loud at the total improbability of that line of thinking. He could see it, though, Calleigh's body changing with his child inside her, and he knew it would only make her more impossibly beautiful to him. He saw them walking down the beach just like this on another peaceful night after a long day, a small laughing child dancing in between them, a mini Calleigh who was the best of both of them, and it suddenly didn't seem so improbable. He smiled into her eyes, knowing that she wanted this future together as much as he did, loving her for the light and love and hope she had brought to his life just by being a part of it.

"I love you, Cal, so much," he breathed, still holding her eyes while he held her body close to his, knowing that those words were so woefully inadequate to express everything he felt for her, but wanting to say them anyway. Calleigh smiled back at him. "I love you, too, handsome, forever." He kissed her again, long and slow and sweet, and they walked slowly back to the house, hand in hand, both in complete accord that they had everything they needed, right here, right now.

A/N: This is the end of this one, but in the process the next one has started writing itself, so we'll have to see how far it goes. Needs a little work but it should go up soon. Thanks to everyone for reading and for reviewing. This was a lot of fun to write. Apologies to all the angst lovers, but for this one I thought they'd been tortured enough and needed a little happiness. I will miss this amazing show, but I so enjoy all the wonderful Ducaine fic by such amazing authors, and through fic these beautiful characters will live on. :) Lori