A/N Well, here it is, finally, the last chapter. Phew. I tried to wrap everything up in a nice, neat package. Hopefully, the resulting product is to your satisfaction. I will eagerly look forward to your thoughts.
A/N2 Thank you to all the reviews and alerts and the faves that I received throughout this story. I've been negligent in my duties and haven't responded to some of you. I apologize for that. Please know it wasn't an intentional slight on my part - just RL tearing me in all kinds of directions. Thank you for your continuous support!
The return to consciousness was much slower this time: a gradual, arduously sluggish trek through a thick, viscous mire of warm, sticky slime that clung to him tight and unrelenting, pulling him in deeper, the harder he fought against it. He clawed his way through, though. He was determined, if nothing else.
Smells came back first - the crispy clean scent of fresh linen, the sterile, antiseptic smell of a hospital. Yes. Hospital. He remembered.
Voices floated toward him. Hushed, familiar. Danny. Kono. They were here. They were safe.
"What did the doctor say?"
Danny. He sounded worried. He always worried.
"He said both lungs sound good. And his wounds are healing nicely. He's doing good, Danny, really. He didn't even rip any stitches, when he..."
"When he what? Kono?"
"He...," there was a note of hesitation in Kono's voice, and Steve fought unsuccessfully to unglue his eyelids to take a peek, but the damned things seemed to be made of lead. He wondered briefly what sorts of drugs they were pumping into him in this hospital to make it so incredibly difficult to wake all the way up.
"Why the HELL would he do that?" Danny's voice rose a few notches, and Steve frowned, realizing that he had just lost a few minutes of the conversation.
Gritting his teeth in frustration, Steve once again tried to force his eyes to open, pulling all of his available energy into that simple movement. He nearly whooped with joy, when he was finally confronted with a colorful gamut of shapeless blobs that gradually began to morph into something more recognizable. After a few more blinks to clear his vision, there they were before him – Danny and Kono – standing next to each other by the window, unaware as yet that they were being observed.
Steve frowned, noting the tension in Danny's posture, the hands that were gripping the edge of the windowsill hard enough to leave indentation marks if the material had been any softer. And somehow he couldn't believe that he was the cause of that tension. No. Something else was going on. Kono's flustered expression only served to prove his suspicions.
"He had a nightmare, I think," she began to explain, her fingers worrying the edge of her blouse. "He woke up screaming at someone to get away from-"
"Grace," Danny finished for her, his voice dull, hollow, as he swung his head sharply away from her, choosing to stare out the window instead.
"Grace," Kono confirmed, her hand hovering nervously above Danny's shoulders, which have become even more rigid, if that were even possible.
"She still hasn't said a word about what happened, you know," the blond grated out hoarsely, his gaze still fixed on some random point beyond the window pane. "Not to me. Not to Rachel. And she refuses to come here, to see him."
"Why would she-?" Kono frowned in confusion.
Danny shook his head mutely. "I don't know. Rachel...," he barked out a humorless laugh, fingers scraping against the white paint, "Rachel is convinced that it's all somehow Steve's fault. She thinks something happened at the hospital, something that Steve did that made Grace wary of him."
"Oh, god..." A wave of guilt and despair slammed into him, brutal and suffocating, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut, turning his head away from the window. Of course, Grace was wary of him. He failed to protect her. Failed to keep her away from that creep Castillo.
Kono's hand fell away, smacking audibly against the windowsill. "What? No. Danny, you know that's not possible. Steve-"
"I KNOW what Steve did, alright!" Danny spun toward her, hand cutting through the air in frustration. "And I don't think I could ever repay him for that. But... something's been bothering Gracie. Whenever I mention Steve, she ... she just shuts down." He ran the same hand through his hair. Once, twice. "Something else happened there, Kono. Something must have," he added, his voice quiet, resigned. "And I need ... I need to know what's going on with my little girl."
Kono nodded, swallowing nervously, as she threw a furtive glance at the man in bed. Steve appeared to still be sleeping, so she asked cautiously, "What are you going to do?"
He signed in response – a long, heavy sound. "Rachel is taking her to a child psychologist today. I'm meeting them there in," he checked his watch, "twenty minutes. I already called Chin to see if he could take some of my hours with Steve, but I was wondering if you could-"
"Of course, Danny," she cut in quickly, once again placing her hand on his shoulder. "I got no problem babysitting him a bit longer. You go."
"Thanks," he nodded, also casting a quick glance at his partner. "I'll...uh... I'll call when I ..."
And Danny left, carefully closing the door behind him, while Kono turned back to the window and stared out at the city below, lost in thought. Neither of them aware that their conversation had been overheard; neither of them noticing the silent tears that slipped from underneath their friend's tightly closed eyelids, dripping soundlessly onto the pristine white fabric of the pillow.
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"They've been in there almost an hour already," Danny huffed out, pacing nervously in front of a large antique wall clock, whose pendulum swung solidly back and forth, clicking off seconds with annoying indifference.
"Wearing a hole in that floor won't make them get done any faster, Daniel," Rachel retorted, her voice tight with anger and worry. "You just hope that whatever your partner did hasn't messed our daughter up so badly that she will need therapy for the rest of her life."
He whirled to face her then, fury at her words making his cheeks hot. "We've been over this, Rach. Steve hasn't done anything to her other than risk his own life to protect her!" he hissed, taking a sharp, threatening step in her direction. "You know as well as I do how much he cares for Grace. How can you even say such a thing?"
Instead of a reply, she stuck her arm out, pointing at the thick oak door with a simple brushed metal sign that read "Leilani Naihe, Ph.D.". "Easy," she added, the word rolling off her tongue - bitingly cold, hateful.
And Danny didn't respond. Couldn't. Because, yeah, that right there – their little girl sitting inside a psychologist's office for the past forty minutes – was proof enough that something did happen. Doubt flared again, like it did every time he looked at Grace's broken, tear-filled expression, like it did that fateful night at the hospital, when he was trying to keep his partner from bleeding out on the cold, grey floor. He pushed it back again, absently rubbing his hands, as though in Lady Macbeth's fashion he were trying to clean off some phantom traces of his friend's blood.
The heavy wooden door opened suddenly, the petite, thirty-something doctor smiling at both of them, as she motioned for them to come in.
"Mrs. Edwards, Mr. Williams, would you, please, join us?"
They did, walking inside her office with hesitant trepidation, as though they were humbled worshippers, setting foot inside a centuries-old gothic cathedral with its sky-high vaulted ceilings, tall stained glass windows and frightening shadows cast onto the dark stone walls by rows of flickering candles.
The first thing they saw was their daughter, sitting with her knees drawn high on a cushioned leather chair in front of a small coffee-type table that was covered with blank sheets of paper, crayons and children's books. An identical chair stood on the other side of the table, facing her.
Grace looked up as they entered, a tentative smile playing on her uncharacteristically pale face.
Danny made a move toward her, but Dr. Naihe stood quietly but firmly in his path, gesturing both of them to the nearby sofa instead. "Why don't you both take a seat," she offered gently, while she herself settled in the remaining chair. "Grace and I spent some time talking," Dr. Naihe continued, throwing her charge a quick look, as if asking her permission to continue, "and Grace decided that she was now ready to share with you what has been bothering her for the past few days."
Grace nodded slowly, her face growing a shade paler still, as she readied herself. "I hurt Uncle Steve," she managed finally, her voice trembling with poorly controlled emotions.
Whatever else her parents might have expected her to say, this wasn't it. Frowning in confusion at this abrupt admission, Danny opened his mouth to reply. His ex-wife beat him to it.
"I understand that you are upset that these bad men hurt...," she stumbled awkwardly over the word 'uncle', earning herself a glare from Danny, "...Uncle Steve, but it wasn't your fault, Sweetheart. They were just –"
"No, you don't understand," Grace interrupted, glancing desperately at the psychologist, a silent call for help.
"Perhaps," Dr. Naihe chimed in, fixing the two other adults with a hard, cautionary stare, "you should let Grace explain."
Biting down nervously on her lower lip, the 9-year-old raised a tremulous gaze to her parents' faces, as if evaluating their readiness to listen. His mouth slammed forcibly shut, hands held still in his lap, Danny sat ramrod straight, waiting for his little girl to start speaking again and hoping that his ex-wife would have enough sense to keep her mouth shut this time.
"I know that Uncle Steve got hurt because he was trying to protect me," Grace began, her tone slightly condescending, as though she were speaking to a group of little children. "If I had stayed hidden like he told me to, he never would have gotten hurt as bad as he did."
Danny's eyes widened slightly at that admission. "So Steve realized that something was wrong and told Gracie to hide. Good for him! But why did she come out?" Grace's very next words put an end to his musings.
"I know I shouldn't have come out, but this man... he was telling Uncle Steve that he was going to shoot him, and I got scared. I... I screamed and–"
"It's okay, Gracie," Danny soothed, daring to shift slightly forward on the couch to move another inch closer to his daughter.
She shook her head. "No. I made it worse." She took in a shuddering breath, letting her legs drop down to the floor. "That man... he wanted to know who I was. Uncle Steve told me not to say anything, and the man hit him with his gun." Grace looked up, her tear-filled eyes briefly locking with Danny's. "He hit him so hard, Daddy. And then he told me he'd do it again, if I didn't give him my name."
"So you did." It wasn't a question, but Grace nodded anyway, swallowing down tears in tandem with her father.
Dropping her gaze once again to her lap, she continued brokenly, "H-he forced Uncle Steve and me into the hallway, and he wanted me to walk with him, s-so Uncle Steve wouldn't ... so he would behave." She swallowed convulsively again, bringing her hand up to wipe at her tear-stained cheeks. "He grabbed my shoulder," she continued, her voice dropping to nearly a whisper, "but Uncle Steve... he wouldn't let him take me. S-so... so the man pointed his gun at him a-and..."
Grace broke off, shaking her head frantically, and Danny was already rising off the sofa, anxious to go to her.
The therapist's soft "Go on, Gracie," stopped him short, and he froze in mid-movement, watching his daughter uncertainly.
"It's alright, Detective," Dr. Naihe nodded toward him, motioning for him to sit back down. "It is important for Grace to finish telling her story."
He complied, albeit reluctantly, settling himself down on the very edge of cushion, his fingers digging painfully into its smooth dark surface. Beside him Rachel shifted awkwardly, her posture stiff, trembling.
"I didn't want him to shoot Uncle Steve," Grace murmured finally, her voice further muffled by her arm, as she wiped it angrily across her eyes. "So I... I hit his leg, the one with the stitches. I pushed on it as hard as I could, so he'd ... so he'd let me go."
Her voice dissolved into long, soul-shattering sobs, and Danny could stand it no longer. Moving forward before anyone had time to react, he dropped down onto his knees before her, pulling her sob-wracked body into his arms.
"I hurt him so much, Daddy," she hiccupped wetly into his shirt. "I di-didn't mean to... I j-just ... I didn't want him to get shot... A-and the doctor said his leg ... that he'll need–"
"Uncle Steve is going to be okay, Sweetheart, I promise you," Danny soothed, holding her close, even as his own heart clenched painfully in his chest at the thought of the terrible choice his little girl was forced to make. "Damn you, Castillo!"
"And he knows why you did what you did. I'm sure of it."
"Is that what's been bothering you?" he interrupted, pulling back a bit, his hand slipping under her chin, forcing her to look up at him. "That's why you didn't want to go see him?"
She sniffled, giving him the tiniest of nods. "I didn't think he'd want to see me after..."
"Oh, Monkey." Pulling her swiftly back into his embrace, Danny whispered urgently in her ear, "You did what you did to protect Uncle Steve, right?" He felt her nod against his chest, her breath hitching slightly. "And what did Uncle Steve do after you hit him?" The question was soft, gentle, but he still felt Grace stiffen in his embrace.
"He ... he got me away from that man and pushed me into the elevator. And then–"
She broke off again, and Danny was glad for it. He already knew what happened next, and he didn't need his daughter rehashing that scene again – for her sake as well as his. Instead, he pushed on with his plan.
"So he protected you, just like you protected him before." Feeling her nod again, he queried cautiously, "Do you think he would have done that if he was angry with you?"
Grace looked up at that, her tear-filled eyes growing wide, as she considered the question. "N-no," she stammered finally, "but-"
"Uncle Steve loves you very much, Monkey," Danny murmured, running a gentle thumb across her wet cheek. "Almost as much as Danno does. You know what was the first thing he said when he woke up?"
She shook her head, watching him expectantly.
"He asked about you. He wanted to know if you were safe."
Grace drew another unsteady breath, watching him carefully, her lower lip squeezed firmly between her teeth. "Danno?"
"Do... do you think I could visit Uncle Steve?"
He smiled, throwing a brief triumphant look at Rachel, who merely pursed her lips in response. "I think your Uncle Steve would like that very much."
Hands folded casually across his chest, Steve stood leaning against the hood of his truck, watching the silver Camaro pull up toward him. It had taken him three long, difficult months of physical and emotional recuperation to get to where he was now; to where, apart from a dull pain in his left leg that made itself know whenever he worked himself too hard and an occasional nightmare that ripped him, sweating and screaming, out of the warm, tangled cocoon of his bed sheets and sent him tumbling out into the cool night air, seeking the ocean's cooling soothingness, he was pretty much back to his old self.
He thought back to that day at the hospital, when he felt like his whole world was crashing down all around him, when he overheard his partner's strained confession that Grace was traumatized by his actions. He never had as strong of an urge to die, to disappear off the face of the earth as he did then.
He put on quite a show for Kono's benefit, convincing her that he was fine and that she could take a break from watching him lie around and do nothing. He gave his best performance under the circumstances, yet Kono still looked unconvinced. And only the knowledge that Chin would be coming in for his shift in a little over two hours and the fact that she was nearly dead on her feet after spending over six hours at his bedside helped Steve win his argument.
As soon as he was certain that she was gone, he began his arduous task of getting out of bed. He needed to get out, he knew that much. He couldn't imagine facing Danny again – the silent accusation, the cold hostility he was sure he'd see every time he'd look into his partner's eyes was too much for him to bear. He supposed Danny wouldn't want to be around him either (not that he blamed him).
He didn't really have a plan. His clothes, the ones he was wearing when Castillo kidnapped him, were ruined. But if he could just "borrow" another set of scrubs like Castillo had and then hail a cab home... well, he'll figure out what to do next once he'd get there.
...It had taken an obscene amount of effort and time to cross the seemingly small and insignificant distance from the bed to the door. By the time his clammy fingers closed convulsively around the handle, he was drenched in sweat, his entire body trembling with pain and exhaustion. Drained to the very core, he leaned on the door weakly, letting his forehead drop against the polished wooden surface with a dull thud. He needed more time. Time for the nauseating pain in his left leg to go down to a manageable level. Time for the world around him to stop spinning. Time for his body to regain enough strength to be able to push forward once more.
That was how Danny found him some twenty minutes later, when he unexpectedly pulled the door open, depriving him of his only support. The shorter man grunted in surprise, as Steve pitched forward, collapsing gracelessly onto his partner's unsuspecting frame.
Danny was furious, ranting angrily at him, as he hauled his still disturbingly weak body back into bed. The sharply huffed out phrases, "What the hell do you think you were doing?" and "Are you certifiably insane? No, don't answer that. Of course you are," drifted into his pain-muddled consciousness, and he attempted to justify himself, to explain his own disjointed thoughts: about Grace, and failure, and broken trust.
Danny stilled at his gasped out words, his face going rapidly from confusion to shocked realization. A moment later he was out the door, muttering something about birds of a feather. When he returned seconds later trailed by Grace, it was Steve's turn to frown in confusion. He fought to sit up, only to be pushed (surprisingly gently) back down by his partner.
"W-why?" he wheezed stupidly, staring up at Danny's face, as he tried to make sense of this unexpected turn of events. "I th-thought Rachel and you..."
The blond merely shook his head in exasperation, even as he nudged his daughter toward him. "Because, my impulsive eavesdropping friend, you can't believe everything you hear." Looking down at Grace, he smiled at her encouragingly. "Why don't you explain to your Uncle Steve what you told me, while I go find his doctor - we need to make sure he didn't make things worse for himself with that stunt of his."
Steve opened his mouth to object that he didn't need a doctor, even though the throbbing pain in his body had lessened to only a slightly bearable level. But then, suddenly, Grace was curled next to him in bed, her little arms going carefully around his neck, and his heart hammered wildly inside his chest, as he felt her warm breath against his ear.
"I love you, Uncle Steve. I'm so sorry I hurt your leg. I didn't want that man to shoot you. Please don't be mad at me."
His eyes widened in surprise at her rushed, jumbled confession, and he once again looked at Danny, silently asking for an explanation. But his partner shook his head again. "I'll let you two sort this out, while I go track down somebody with a medical degree."
Steve blew out a long sigh, shaking himself back into the present.
"You got it?" he asked, as soon as his partner pushed his door open, his blond locks blowing about wildly in the wind.
Instead of a response, Danny reached back into the car, pulling out an ordinary-looking, dark-fabric backpack. "Just so you know, if HPD comes knocking on my door for stealing the evidence, I'm pointing them straight to you."
Steve smirked, nodding his thanks, as he pushed himself away from the car and motioned toward a black helicopter that stood waiting for them a few feet away.
"You absolutely sure you wanna do this?" Danny asked, giving the seemingly harmless machine a dubious once-over.
The former SEAL rolled his eyes, shaking his head in mild annoyance. "You've asked me this before, Danny. What makes you think the answer is going to be any different this time?"
"I don't know," Williams responded with a shrug. "Maybe I was hoping you'd come to your senses."
His mouth pulled in a tight line, Steve took the backpack from his friend's hands and walked over to the chopper, pulling the door open and sliding into the driver's seat. Through the windshield he watched as his partner threw his hands up in frustrated resignation and walked briskly toward him.
"I have to do this, Danny," he whispered, once the blond detective lowered himself onto the seat next to him with an exaggerated groan.
Relief washed over him like a tidal wave, when he felt his friend's warm hand land on his shoulder in response. "Start it up, Super SEAL, before I change my mind."
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A little over forty minutes later they were hovering over the brilliant blue waters a few miles north of Kauai. The ocean was perfectly calm, safe for the mild, nervous ripples and mist churned about by the helicopter's blades.
This was it. The place that a few months ago nearly became his grave.
Steve stared before him at the innocuous-looking, gently fluttering surface, unable to quite hold back a shudder that ran through him as he remembered waking up on the missile-torn floor, soaked in that same ocean water. The memories of pain, exhaustion and a feeling of utter helplessness washed over him in an instant, and he slammed his eyes shut, pushing back the torturous onslaught.
His partner's hand squeezed his shoulder again, warm and anchoring. "You okay, babe?"
He nodded not quite trusting himself to speak. Reaching behind him for the backpack, he pulled it into his lap, motioning for Danny to take over the controls. With his partner holding on to the stick, he reached into the bag, pulling out his own ruined vest with the word "Revancha" painted across its front and a pair of blood-covered handcuffs. After a moment of hesitation, he pulled open his door and tossed both items down, watching them disappear in the softly churning waters below and desperately hoping that at least some of his memories would drown with them.
"Feel better?" Danny asked softly after a few moments. Upon receiving his silent nod, he added, "Good. Then how about turning back before we run out of fuel? 'Cause, you know, I really don't feel like taking a swim in the ocean in the middle of nowhere."
He turned to him then, grateful for the distraction of levity. "Don't worry, Danno," he smirked, "if you go down, I'll be going down with you."
"So... what: if I die, you die too?" Danny stammered, his face slowly beginning to take on the color of a pale beet. "Is that supposed to reassure me?"
Fighting a futile battle against a full-blown grin that pulled insistently at the corners of his lips, Steve responded in a voice too choked with held-back laughter to be steady, "Together forever, Danno. To infinity and beyond!"
"No, no, no, no! HELL NO!" The Jersey native threw up his hands, going into a comfortingly familiar rant mode. "There is ABSOLUTELY! NO! WAY! I am spending my well-earned eternity stuck with you, Mr. SEAL-Freaking Lightyear!"
Steve fell back into his seat, his shoulders shaking with laughter that soon made its way past his lips, echoing, joyful and carefree, through the small cabin. "Thanks, Danny," he gasped out finally, when he managed to catch his breath, hoping that his friend would understand that he meant "for being there, for helping me through".
And Danny did. Slapping him gently on the knee, all pretense of irate ranting gone, he nodded, "Anytime, babe. Anytime. I'd say thank you for saving my baby's life... and my sanity in the process, but I don't think a simple thank you would be enough for what... for what you did." He broke off, swallowing down a thick lump of emotions that threatened to choke him.
Steve responded by taking his right arm off the controls and wrapping it tightly around his partner's shoulders. "Ohana, Danny," he murmured, making sure to catch the smaller man's eyes.
Danny managed a small nod, once again swallowing thickly. Then giving a small cough to dispel the sentimental awkwardness of the moment, he poked the former SEAL lightly in the ribs, whispering hoarsely, "Now take your gargantuan paws off of me, sailor, and get us back on dry land. I can't wait to get the hell out of this death-trap and kiss the ground."
Steve gave him a mock salute, his face splitting into a wide, shit-eating grin. "Aye-aye, Captain."