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The Hoku

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Hoku-final3

Cover by Neevebrody

***

Steve breathed deeply, savoring the faint scent of salt, the air burning his lungs. The sky was a deep gray, always gray, but today sunshine broke through the clouds. It was a gorgeous sight. He scratched his stubble covered cheek, aware he needed a shave, but his straight-edged blade needing sharpening before it touched his face.

After a few minutes, he turned his head, studying the rows of large solar panels lining the sides of the deck. The last few days had been typically overcast, but today, the forecast called for clear skies. He'd take every minute; they couldn't afford to expend fossil fuel this far out.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"It's called enjoying the morning," Steve said, straightening. "You should try it sometime."

"I was." Danny stomped over, adjusting his suspenders over his sleeveless white undershirt. He sported an impressive bedhead and two days' worth of scruff. "That was until I rolled over and found a cold, empty spot."

"I'll leave an extra blanket in my place next time."

"We have a sixteen hour day ahead of us. I know sleeping-in is a challenge, but how about trying to be a little lazy, hmm?" Danny moved closer, shaking his head. He looked at his watch, mouth twitching. "Have you even checked the rads for today?"

"The wind's from the east this morning."

"Do you know what amount of absorbed rads is considered acceptable in a given year? See, while you pace and bark orders on the bridge, I split my duty between the engines and the solar sensors. That's hours, outside, on the freaking deck –"

"We both know it doesn’t matter if we're topside or not. Twenty millirems of radiation is the accepted maximum allowed in a given twenty-four hours.”

Low-level ultraviolet radiation was their biggest enemy; delayed effects from years ago. Even thousands miles away, they had to worry about the sky above.

Steve buttoned up his coat against a strong gust of wind. He eyed Danny in annoyance. "You're on deck without a weapon."

"I'm sorry; I don't sleep with one under my pillow."

"You should always carry one." Steve ignored Danny's indignant huff. He would never back down; the open sea was filled with people and things that would love to kill them.

But Danny continued staring at him with mock annoyance, tracing a hand over Steve's stubble with a soft smile. "I see a few more flecks of gray. It's nice."

Steve chuckled, running his fingers through his hair. "Matches the rest."

"Hints of silver, babe. Just hints."

Steve smiled and looked over Danny's shoulder at the ship. "Why don't you complete your equipment check and I'll see you during the afternoon briefing."

Danny's eyebrows rose and he stood at attention. "Aye, aye, sir."

Steve sighed. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, yeah." Danny flapped his hand. "You can take the sailor out of the Navy, but you can't take the Navy out of the sailor."

If only it had been that simple. "You should talk."

"Hey, I did my required bit. You're the one who stuck around for three more tours."

But Steve hadn't worn the uniform in a few years and he'd really didn't know how he felt about it.

Feeling Danny's weighty gaze, Steve pulled out his sunglasses and slid them on. "I'm going to conduct my morning survey. See you at 1300."

***

The Hoku was an off-shore patrol vessel with enough artillery to take out pirates or machines. Ninety years ago, when the world had been alive, she had been stacked with stealth tech and missiles. After being gutted and stripped down, she now helped hunt down the enemy deep at sea.

Steve knew all about reversals of fortune and the need to adapt or be left behind. He patted the bulkhead. "You're still a beauty."

It took a few minutes to walk the length of the deck and Steve used his flashlight to inspect for safety and sanitation, moving toward the stern. He looked up at the glass-enclosed wheelhouse and could barely make out the helmsman behind the ship's wheel, but he noticed the sun reflecting off the giant set of binoculars one of the lookouts used. He smiled to himself. Before they left port a month ago, they had a new magnetic compass installed. Chin and Danny had been ecstatic.

He walked around checking the gun turrets, noting a coating of oil on the outside of the long barrels. Every area of the ship was examined on a daily basis, but with a crew of eighty, everyone's duty roster was packed.

"A penny for your thoughts, keiki?"

Steve looked over at Mamo who slowly pushed a mop bucket onto the deck. Steve would tell him to stop, but he knew it'd fall on deaf ears. "What does that phrase even mean?"

"A penny was a coin made of copper. Worth very little," Mamo chuckled. He rested his hand on the butt of his sidearm; it was such a contrast to the innocent mop.

"I'm not sure how to take that," Steve said, shaking his head.

"It means generations ago, people must have been pretty stupid considering how rare copper is today." Steve chuckled and Mamo clapped him on the back. "It is good to laugh every once in a while. Even when contemplating things like who has to crawl inside those gun barrels to clean them."

Mamo stared at Steve through his good eye, the pale blue one drifting to the right. Steve wondered if the man was a mind reader. "I thought the scut duty could go to the loser of this week's poker game."

"You're a wise captain, Stevie."

Steve's comm beeped twice, signaling his immediate attention. He grabbed the end of his radio and clicked it three times in acknowledgment. "Sorry, I need to get to the bridge."

Mamo sloshed the mop into the bucket. "I'll have a good breakfast waiting for you and the crew."

The islands were far enough from the mainland that they were not heavily affected by the winds that carried long-term fallout. Regulations ensured all food was stored inside shelters. But most of their diet on the islands consisted of recipes made of beans, corn, macadamia nuts, grains, and pineapple. Staples with the most essential nutrients. If it weren't for Mamo's skills with zesty sauces and spices, most of their rations would be inedible.

"I'm looking forward to it," Steve said and patted Mamo on the shoulder before hurrying toward the bridge.

***

Steve climbed the ladder to the command deck, pausing inside the corridor long enough to write the time he'd spent outside into the weekly rad log. Unbuttoning his coat, he hung it with the others on a hook before walking onto the bridge.

He scanned the weapons station, eyes landing on Lori, who monitored her console like a hawk. She was a ferocious specialist with a sharp wit and a love for nineteenth century strategy. It made for good conversation during nights they both roamed the deck during odd hours when sleep eluded them.

Steve glanced at the communication stations, watching Chin who stood in front of Duke Lukela as he listened intently to his headphones. Steve had been given the rare opportunity to handpick his entire crew. Where most people saw age, he recognized years of invaluable experience.

Duke slid his headphones down around his neck. "We lost the signal to the underwater relay in Quadrant Fifty-Two.”

"The entire quadrant?" Steve demanded.

"Affirmative," Chin said grimly. "Lines A through Z."

The grid was a large surveillance system of underwater microphone arrays that could monitor for enemy vessels from facilities thousands of miles away. Since the microphones only produced electric signals when subjected to pressure changes caused by sound, it didn't violate the High-Tech Ban.

Steve looked over at Duke. "When did you first notice the disruption?"

"Ten minutes ago. I altered frequencies then pinged the main array. When I couldn't get a signal, I immediately informed Chin."

"And the surrounding quadrants?" Steve asked.

"Still functioning." Chin folded his arms over his chest. "I woke up Toast. He'll pull a double shift and take over monitoring for any possible threats to the ship while Duke continues testing the defense grid."

Steve nodded; the safety of the Hoku was their first priority.

Chin motioned at Steve to follow him toward a large bulletin board with a map of the Pacific Ocean. "This is the sixth interruption to the outer grid in the last three weeks."

Steve studied the map. "I think the governor was right about probable malicious activity."

"All six affected arrays are here," Chin said, pointing toward several red pushpins. "They're all points along the edge of the Northeast Pacific Basin." He shook his head, confused. "You'd think the navy would be on higher alert regarding such a possible threat."

"These arrays cover over two thousand square miles," Steve said, thinking out loud. "Dozens fail and have to be repaired on a daily basis." But those were the cables lining the Hawaiian Ridge. "The navy's main focus is possible threats closer to the islands. And Quadrants Fifty through Sixty are within six hundred miles of the mainland."

Chin's shoulders sagged. "No large ship dares patrol that near the coast, but the governor expects us to."

"The navy thinks big and reacts big. You know that," Steve said.

Pain flickered behind Chin's expression, his whole posture stiffening. Steve bit his lip, words failing him. The weight Chin carried sat firm on his shoulders no matter how hard Steve tried chiseling it away.

"This type of investigation requires finesse and speed," Steve continued, focusing. "Denning asked us to look into this because we're the only ones suited for the job. And we both know that the relationship between the civilian government and the military is tenuous at best."

Chin relaxed somewhat, his expression reflecting that he was back in the game. "If we examine the dates and locations when each array was disabled, we might find a pattern, maybe even predict the next target."

Steve nodded. "In the meantime, we'll set course for Quadrant Fifty-Two and investigate what might have caused it to go offline."

Chin's brow furrowed, his gaze drifting toward wheelhouse. "We're going to be awfully far away from the nearest naval backup. Do you want me to activate the radar?"

Lori glanced up from her station, ears perked before glancing back down at her display. Duke glanced over but quickly looked away.

"No," Steve said, ignoring the extra attention.

"Are you sure?"

Steve curled and uncurled his fingers when the muscles in his hand twitched. "I don't want to initiate Level Three Tech right now."

"We've got a lot of open sea out there," Chin said, pressing his point. "It might be our best tool for figuring out what's going on.

"I know we've been granted the use of classified equipment, but that doesn't mean I want to risk exposing the ship."

Chin cocked his head, undoubtedly piecing together Steve's thoughts. After working side-by-side for over a decade, it was as if the man had a sixth sense into Steve's mind.

His expression softened along with his voice. "Do you really think the machines might be responsible?"

Steve stared at the red pushpins, how they skirted the furthest edge of the defense grid. He balled his hand into a fist when the muscle twitching turned into a spasm. "I don't think we're dealing with pirates. They wouldn't sabotage the grid this far out, not to mention there aren't any populated islands to terrorize or ships to hijack."

Chin's inched closer to the map, studying it with the same intensity as Steve. He nodded to himself. "Given the distance, we should arrive in about two days. Do you have a plan?"

"Yeah," Steve said, feeling a familiar flash of adrenaline flood through his veins. He tapped his fist against his hip. "We'll send in our divers and see what the hell is going on."

 

***

Every inch of space of the ship was utilized to the fullest, but a small cargo hold had been converted into a gym and it was one of the most popular spots to disappear into for a few hours. Steve took the ladders down to the bottom level and found his quarry.

Kono circled the heavy bag, her green tank top soaked through with sweat as she unleashed a series of punches. The bag swung away then back, and Kono gave it a roundhouse kick while she balanced on her right J-shaped prosthetic. She gave the bag several furious elbows strikes before stepping away, chest heaving.

"You just gonna stand there, boss?"

"No, I thought I'd give you one of these," Steve said, grabbing a towel from a hook on the wall.

He tossed her the towel and she caught it one-handed, mopping her face. Walking toward a bench, she grabbed a thermos of water. "What's up?"

Steve crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow. "You don't know?"

Kono gave him a devilish smile. "You want me to dive and inspect what caused part of the grid to go down."

Steve shook his head. Controlling scuttlebutt on a small ship was impossible. "I figure we could meet after today's briefing and go over things."

"When were the last maps made of that area of ocean floor?"

"Three years ago during the last maintenance check."

"I'll need a level one computer to help me calculate my dive table and how many minutes I'll need to decompress before resurfacing." Kono watched him, waiting.

Steve gave a terse nod. "I'll authorize one for this afternoon."

"Are you accompanying me or –"

"I think you should partner up with Fong. Since we're dealing with an unsecured area with a possible threat, I want to remain topside."

"Then there's nothing to worry about," she said with confidence.

"Nothing to worry about?" Danny entered the gym, arms thrown out wide. "Are you kidding me?"

Kono sat down on the bench with an amused glint in her eyes. "We'd never kid around you, brah. We know you don't have a sense of humor."

"Oh, ha, ha," Danny snorted. "Keep pushing. We'll see what happens."

"Will I?" Kono rested her head against the wall, stretching out both legs on the bench.

Danny stabbed a finger at her, but Steve moved between them, Kono's smile growing wider. "Okay, before you get all bent out of shape," Steve said, holding off a Williams tirade. He nodded at Kono. "Do you need anything else from me?"

"I have Max adjusting my flipper prosthesis. I'll need to test it out before the main dive."

"I'll arrange for us to stop tomorrow morning," Steve said. "Will that work?"

"That's perfect."

Danny looked between them. "Can I talk now?"

"Since when do you ask permission?"

"Bite me, McGarrett." Danny turned his back to him. "I actually came down here to see if Kono could lend me a hand recalibrating the tenth and eleventh solar panels?"

"Sure. I have a few hours before it's my turn at the helm." Kono folded the towel over her neck. "I'll need to change first."

"How much speed will we lose if those are taken offline?" Steve asked, crossing his arms. He didn't want a delay.

"Maybe five knots."

"We're on a time schedule, D."

"I'm sorry, but if you haven't noticed, there are only a few hours of sunlight a day."

It was totally unacceptable. Steve held his arm close to his side when he felt the familiar twitch begin. "A loss of five knots will cost us six hours over the next two days."

"I think the arrays will still be broken when we get there." Steve glared, agitated, but Danny ignored him. "Don't give me that look. Do you think whoever is responsible is going to be still hanging around?"

"Or whatever is responsible," Steve insisted.

Steve watched Kono's shoulders tense.

"Steve," Danny said softly. "We haven't seen a drone in months. And the ones still functioning have very low-level programming."

Kono sat up, swinging both her legs around, her right one clacking loudly on the floor. She shook her head at Danny. "There are still hundreds roaming the ocean, gathering intel, and causing destruction to ships."

"And most have been eliminated." Danny looked back and forth between them, lips pressed together in frustration. "We've been pursuing more human criminals recently because they've been able to sail around more with less fear of an attack. There's even speculation that –"

"I don't care about speculation," Steve snapped, stepping closer to Danny, his heart thumping loudly in his ears.

Danny obviously wasn't about to voice his opinion on the matter. Instead, he held up his hands in the air, waiting until Steve noticed them, then he gently took Steve by the shoulders, slowly rubbing his hands up and down Steve's arms until his breathing slowed with the motion.

"Babe," Danny said quietly. "We're damn good investigators. We'll keep an open mind when it comes to theories. But let's see what the evidence tells us. Okay?"

Steve took a deep breath, nodding, and the quiver in his arm receded. "Yeah. Okay. I..." He clamped his mouth closed.

Kono stood up and slapped Danny on the arm. "Come on. You want my help with those panels, or what?"

"Yeah. I'll grab some chow and meet you topside." Danny gave Steve a pointed look.

"I need to prepare a communiqué for the governor before the briefing." At Danny's continued scrutiny, Steve exhaled heavily. "I'll also go through our records on all our recent arrests, see if I can find any group that'd have some kind of stake in sabotaging the grid so far away from the islands."

Danny gave him a half smile before walking away. But Steve still planned on conducting a thorough inspection of their EMP weapons.

***

Danny felt dirty and hot. His shoulder hurt from meticulously angling each solar panel, adjusting the mirrors, tweaking them and his old rotator cuff injury in the process. Kono didn't complain once, not even after the sixtieth tiny modification. He owed her a dessert of her choosing, anything this week. He wept at the loss of his powdered chocolate pudding.

Before he took a shower, he walked by his and Steve's quarters, and knocked on the hatch across from them.

He stood there, tapping his foot until Grace opened the door. "Hey, sweetie. I brought you lunch," he said, shaking a cloth bag. "Tomato soup and a chicken jerky sandwich."

Grace stared at the bag, contemplating, with a strand of hair falling in her face. Danny resisted the urge to fix it.

"I'm not really hungry," she said.

"It's made with real chicken," Danny teased.

Her eyes lit up and Grace moved aside in her version of an invitation. "Okay."

Livestock on the islands consisted mainly of poultry and cattle. The soil they grazed on was tested weekly for any miniscule radioactive particles. It didn't really matter, most of the population's main source of protein came from powdered milk and eggs. Meat was expensive and usually only consumed on the weekend. A chicken sandwich, even a dried salty one was a rare treat for a Tuesday.

“Dad?”

“Um, sorry,” Danny apologized for drifting away with his thoughts. He handed Grace her lunch. “Don't forget your daily vitamin when you're done.”

“I won't.”

Grace's quarters had a single bed, a set of drawers, and a tiny chair and desk, but she slept alone, and that type of privacy on a ship was priceless. He sat on the folding metal chair while she plopped down on the bed, digging eagerly inside the bag.

"How were this morning's lessons?"

Grace shrugged. "Okay, I guess. I have an algebra test tomorrow."

Grace was the only child on board the ship, which made life rough for her, not being able to socialize with others her age. But they did the best they could and three crewmembers donated ninety minutes a day to help with her schooling.

The eleventh anniversary of Rachel's passing was next month and Matty was serving his sentence for burglary by working at a metal factory. Grace was safer with Danny on the Hoku than on the islands.

He pushed down a wave of guilt and kept his tone upbeat. "If you want help with it, I could come by after dinner mess?"

"That's okay," she said, munching on the sandwich. "It's fractional equations. I'm good with those."

"As long as you take time to study and don't spend all day in the munitions room."

"But Catherine needs help with the ammo supplies. Don't you think I do a good job?"

"You put petty officers to shame, molding the ammo casings we need," Danny said proudly. "But your job is to study your schoolwork."

"If we run into trouble, we need to have as many extra shells as possible. It's not like we can get more."

Danny's heart broke into a million little pieces. It was a fact of life that his little girl helped out with the ship, but she shouldn't be aware of the dangerous nature of limited supplies while at sea. "That isn't your job to worry about."

Grace carefully put her lunch aside and she looked at Danny with the most earnest of expressions. "I need to pull my own weight."

Oh, no, no, no.

"Pull your own weight? Sweetie –"

"I'm thirteen." Grace stood up, brushing crumbs off her shirt, her head held high. "In five years, I have to go into –"

"No," Danny snapped. "We're not going to talk about that right now."

Danny hated the fact they were sending their own children off for obligatory four years' service, but with such a limited population they had no choice

"Danno." And his heart broke all over again when she used that nickname. "I need to pick which branch of service to enter in by next year. I was thinking maybe the Air–"

"You are not going to fly those death traps with wings. Over my dead body," he growled. The fatality rate for pilots during a possible mainland bombing was astronomical. "No arguments."

"But they make the most difference."

"There's no such thing. Ever. We all pull our own weight, no matter which branch. And that includes civilian life when we're done. From farmers that feed us to the hospital workers who care for us when we're ill. This is why you should study hard so you'll be prepared to do whatever you want after you complete your tour."

In the Navy was left unspoken. And if Danny had his way, once Grace finished basic training, he'd have Steve use his influence with the governor to have her placed on their team for her active duty. It'd be a huge challenge, but that's why they were called special favors. And given the reason for Steve's notoriety, they were owed a few.

Grace grew solemn, her lips stretched in a frown. The guilt nibbling at his bones started to a dig a trench inside him, and Danny started to apologize for his outburst when Grace looked up at him, her face shy and timid.

"May I ask a question?"

"Of course. Anytime." He smiled at her in reassurance, resisting the urge to grab her knee. Ever since she turned twelve, Grace had squirmed more at physical displays of affection. She was growing up too fast.

"Have you ever seen a machine? I've seen the sea drones. They look like big metal tubes."

"Well, yeah. The ones we encounter are built for the ocean. They're designed for functionality."

"I just...I've seen pictures...of the machines on the mainland. And..." She lifted up her head, the worry in her eyes belaying her true age. "Are they really going to try to kill us?"

"Oh, sweetie. No, they're not."

"But they've bombed us."

"And we do whatever we can to intercept their weapons, but yes, baby, some still get through and hurt people. But we keep building better systems and we patrol the ocean before they come near us."

"But they could...could they invade us with a big army?"

"No. That's why we sometimes bomb the mainland, to keep them from building up their numbers. It prevents them from launching any real big offensive," he said.

"That is what Steve did, right?" She had dropped the uncle when she turned twelve, too. "He fought the ones on the mainland? Everyone on ship says -- says it was really bad."

Everyone referred to it as the meat grinder, but the crew knew better to say that around his daughter.

Danny chose his next words carefully. "He was in a very specialized unit and he did very, very scary things. Things he doesn't like to talk about it."

"Is that why he sometimes yells at night?"

Danny froze, caught between too many trains of thought.

She rolled her eyes. "Please, Dad."

Danny groaned inwardly, wondering about the logistics of soundproofing the walls.

Grace actually smiled before her face went serious again. "It's just...Sometimes he seems...he gets so upset."

It was like getting sucker punched. Steve had issues, they were deep-seated and messy, and no matter how hard he tried to bury them, they were never truly hidden.

Danny wrapped his arms around her, not caring if Grace thought she was too old for giant hugs. But he relaxed when she squeezed back, hard. "It's okay. And it's okay that even Steve gets scared sometimes. So, you don't have to worry about a thing."

"I'm not worried," she said, pulling away. "Promise."

Danny gave her a kiss on the cheek and smiled, projecting a confidence that he didn't have a hundred percent of the time.

 

***

After another seven hours of duty in the engine room, Danny was filthy and soaked with sweat for the second time today. There were grease smears across his forehead and his shirt stank of solvent. But when the engines ran on fuel and the rest of the ship on solar, it doubled the required maintenance. It was nice and all that he could use a Level One computer to monitor temperature and oil pressure, but he really needed a level two CPU that could help with the analysis of the readings.

And hell if he could get Steve to budge on that. Maybe he could say it was needed for the EMP array? The man clung to his weapons.

Danny yanked down his suspenders, shedding his clothes all over the floor of his quarters, and walked inside his tiny shower, allowing his thoughts to drift for a couple of minutes.

With his paranoia of high-level technology, it was amazing that the governor had made Steve captain of the Hoku. Danny understood Steve's fear. Everyone did. Anything with a central processor involved complex algorithms, coding, and multiprocessing. And that made everyone scared shitless. Because that could lead to the really scary tech stuff like learning, communication, and perception.

It could make one's head spin. Things that used long-range signals, radios, radar, anything that could be synced-up, hooked-up, networked – the machines could track or eventually take over. Even the most innocent piece of tech could lead to disaster. Danny had heard the stories growing up, been taught all the precautions regarding High-Level Tech. But he couldn't walk on eggshells his entire life.

His water timed out and Danny forced his tired legs to move. Three minutes was too short, but they could only store so much recycled ocean water. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he searched the tiny bathroom shelf for something for his sore shoulder. Moving Steve's prescriptions bottles out of the way, he found something for inflammation and popped two tablets.

"You left all your clothes all over the floor."

Danny rolled his eyes at Steve's annoyed tone from the other side of the shower hatch. "I did it so I could just listen to you complain."

Walking out of the bathroom, he took in Steve's damp hair, the sweat stains to the front and down the sides of his t-shirt. His gaze lingered on how Steve's running shorts hung to his hips, accented by his thigh holster. "When did you have time to change and run around the ship?"

"Forty-five minutes ago." Steve brushed past, tapping his fingers against his thigh. "I knew you'd be annoyed if we put down anchor so I could swim."

"Are you serious? Of course I'd chew you out for swimming in those death waters."

"At two bits per billion, I don't think I have to worry." Steve started pacing. "And it's not like I swallow any of the water."

It didn't make Danny feel any better; there were too many scientific studies contradicting each other. They had bombed the mainland four times in the last ninety years, according to the navy. All that destruction, all the damage with very little time to heal in between.

With each bombing, virtually all radioactive debris and dust had climbed into the atmosphere, the heavier materials settling out. But the lighter particles penetrated high into the stratosphere, up to twelve miles in altitude, remaining there for years. Wind circulation and diffusion spread the material around the world. Into the ocean, the soil, damaging the ecosystem far more than the any initial blast. Experts still insisted more people died daily from poor nutrition and lack of medicine than from an increase in cancer-levels.

Danny never really trusted anything the government said.

He watched Steve pace around like a powder keg with a slow fuse. Steve went from the far wall, to the hatch, and back again, his right arm in constant motion, fingers dancing a jig on his thigh.

Danny was going to suggest Steve go to the gym; sometimes, a combo of running and beating on a heavy bag, or on people dumb enough to spar with him, helped calm him. Danny should have expected this, given their newest assignment.

"Babe, doncha think you might make better use of all that energy, huh?"

Steve froze mid-step, his eyes slowly settling on Danny's chest, his rapid breathing growing deeper. He licked his lips, curling his hand into a fist and pressing it hard into his leg.

That wasn't what he meant, but Danny couldn't help grinning at the sudden intense focus. He knew that look, loved knowing that he was the center of Steve's world at this very second. "See something you like?"

Steve moved lighting fast, hooking his arms around Danny's waist and kissing him. His hand slid over Danny's hip and roughly shoved his towel to the floor. Danny reciprocated the kiss with vigor and reached between their bodies to cup Steve's cock through his shorts.

His body shuddered. "Come on," Steve growled.

Gripping Danny's biceps possessively, Steve walked them backward the short distance to the bed. It was as if Steve's hands were electric conduits, creating waves of heat through Danny's pulse-points. "Your shirt's in the way."

Steve grabbed at the hem of his tee, but Danny couldn't wait, batting Steve's hands away. "Arms."

He obediently raised them and Danny helped work Steve's shirt over his head, tossing it to the floor. But he wanted more skin and he unfastened the gun holster and jerked Steve's shorts down around his thighs.

"Sit," Danny ordered, loving Steve's eager expression.

Steve sat heavily on the edge, eyes fixed on Danny's face with addictive focus. Danny knelt between Steve's legs and slowly pushed them apart, running his palms slowly down Steve's inner thighs, pressing his lips against the fine scars along the left one.

He felt a shiver run through Steve's body. "Danny," Steve said, his voice rough.

Danny couldn't erase what the navy did to Steve, what horrors the machines left on him, but that wouldn't stop him from trying. Danny ran his tongue alone the jagged, faded marks that ran from knee to pelvis, causing Steve's hips to tremble beneath his lips.

Danny could do this all night, kiss and map out Steve's body, learning it all over again.

Steve reached down, caressing Danny's face with his hands and drawing him to his feet. "Danny," he whispered, sweeping his hands through Danny's hair, his eyes dark and needy. "Please. God. Fuck me."

Steve always asked and Danny always said yes, happy to do what Steve needed, taking over the wheel for a while. But only here, in the sanctuary of their tiny bedroom. Away from the world.

Danny yanked open the drawer to their tiny nightstand and fumbled for the palm oil they used for lube as Steve watched wide-eyed and breathless. Danny smiled with excitement, taking the lube and squeezing some onto his hand. Steve inched closer, dabbing his fingers into the lubricant as they started to tremble.

Danny quickly covered Steve's hand with his own, calming the quiver. "It's more fun together," he whispered. And he wrapped both their fingers around his cock, slicking him slow and careful. The sensation of both their hands was such a turn on, his erection swelling with every stroke.

"Oh, yeah. Come on," Steve growled urgently.

"Patience," Danny teased, knowing the word was not part of Steve's vocabulary.

Steve scooted back a little and Danny crawled onto the edge of the bed with his knees, taking Steve's right leg and hooking it over his shoulder. He slowly slipped a lubricated finger inside Steve, watching Steve's beautiful face as he prepped him. It wouldn't take much. Steve was still loose from the previous night, but Danny added a second finger for good measure.

Steve made a wonderful noise in the back of his throat. "Now. Please, Danny."

"Okay," Danny breathed.

He pulled his fingers out and slid a hand under Steve's ass, lifting up his hips, slowly entering him. Steve groaned, huffing for air, shifting along with Danny. And fuck, it felt good, always so damn amazing, every second compounding the pleasure.

Danny braced a hand on Steve's shoulder, trying for the perfect angle.

Steve's breath hitched. "Oh, god, like that, Danny."

The words were music to his ears. His rotator cuff twinged from the effort, but Danny didn't care. The heat and sensation of Steve tight around him caused him to sweat, dots of color sparking behind his eyelids. Danny grunted, shifting with harsh long strokes, trying to make it good, make it last.

But Steve was wound up and eager, meeting Danny's thrusts with energy. It took monumental effort to slow things down, find the perfect motion as Steve muttered incomprehensible nonsense.

Time stretched and compressed; Danny had no idea for how long, his body curved over Steve as Steve's fingers dug bruisingly into his shoulders. They'd done this more often than not, rough and frantic; Steve lost somewhere where Danny couldn't touch.

He started reaching a point of no return, but he couldn't, not yet, not until he exhausted Steve into the mattress, given him what he so fiercely desired. So, Danny varied his rhythm, his climax hovering tantalizingly out of reach, Steve's cock flush against Danny's belly, hot and thick, and, so, so close.

Danny bent over and kissed Steve's throat, nibbled on Steve's shoulder, the buildup keeping him teetering on the edge.

Danny watched Steve push up on the mattress with both his hands, improving his leverage, sweat running down his chest and the faded scars on his shoulder. Danny arched into him, hitting a beautiful sweet spot, the shock waves coursing through his body.

"Now, please, Danny," Steve begged.

Balancing with one hand on the mattress, Danny wrapped his fingers around Steve's cock, sliding his hand up and down, running his thumb over the head. Steve gave a strangled, sharp breath, clenching even tighter around him.

Danny finally gave in, his orgasm overtaking him, Steve climaxing across his stomach and chest a few seconds later. Done in, he lay over Steve, wrapping his arms around Steve's shoulders, riding out a high of blissful pleasure.

He dug his hand into Steve's short hair, trying to bring them both back, Steve's breath hot on his neck.

After several long seconds, Danny finally shifted, pulling out. "Steve," he breathed, chest heaving.

Wrapping his arms around Danny's sweaty back, Steve looked up at him, the tension finally drained away from his face, his body relaxing into a rare beautiful exhaustion. "Danny..."

"I know," Danny whispered. "Me, too."

***

Steve woke up, his breath caught in his throat, chest tight. And like dozens of previous nights, he forced himself to lie still, wait it out, until his hammering heart slowly resumed its normal beat. After several painstaking seconds, his breathing gradually evened out as his eyes scanned the room. Everything was where it should be, the desk on the far wall, his oak armoire, the nightstand with his pistol.

His gaze landed on Danny sprawled out on his back, his hair all mussed up, his lips slightly parted as he dozed soundly. Steve resisted an overwhelming urge to crawl over him and nuzzle all that peach fuzz, lick his skin, channel all his need to go, go, go into early morning sex. But Danny wasn't some human sedative and he deserved to sleep.

With a heavy sigh, Steve quietly pulled back the sheets and got out of bed, mentally telling himself to slow down, relax, ignore all the restlessness in his muscles. Just breathe. Taking another breath, he grabbed a long-sleeved black shirt and cargo pants out of the armoire and walked inside his tiny bathroom so he could shower.

***

The leather chair in his office was well worn in all the right places and it made sitting for hours at a time bearable. He flipped through files on the biggest criminal organizations to see who had the wealth, infrastructure, and equipment to sabotage the defense grid.

The Tong were old school with roots going back hundreds of years. They had a variety of stolen navy vessels in addition to their own ragtag fleet. They used old, heavily armored ships to attack supply frigates and board them from a dozen small, fast corvettes to steal the cargo. While they were murdering thieves, they lacked the scope to go after the grid.

He shuffled additional files, his foot tapping impatiently on the floor. He pulled open his desk drawer to fiddle with whatever was inside and grinned at the rubber ball inside. A note was attached. Use Me. He knew Danny had slipped it there. Steve shook his head, a tiny smile tugging at his lips, and closed the drawer and continued reading.

Steve pored through the latest intel on the Triad; those bastards were more organized and skilled. They specialized in sabotaging shipping lanes with mines between the outer islands in order to extort protection money from people who couldn't afford heavy escorts. In recent months, they had grown bolder, attacking and plundering the settlements along hundreds of small islets surrounding the main islands.

But the navy was too thin and too occupied patrolling for the machines and international threats from Asia and Russia. Relations between those countries were strained, and often fringe groups and terrorists would attack navy ships in the Sea of Japan and the Bering Straits.

Denning was the first governor in years to recognize the growing non-military threat at sea, adding heavy resources to police forces with the Hoku as the flagship. In the last two years, Steve's crew had arrested over two hundred criminals, smashed up dozens of pirate rings, and weakened both the Tong and Triad. But staring at their intelligence, and at the map of the defense grid, Steve couldn't connect the dots.

There was nothing to be gained from destroying parts of the grid that warned of approaching vessels from thousands of miles away. Why sabotage something so far out? If it was a test to see if the inner island defense arrays could be taken offline, then why try? The Hawaiian Islands were always on alert for an invasion or machine attack.

A human enemy didn't make sense. Steve stood up, walking a circuit in his office. He thought better when he was moving, his blood pumping, refocusing all his hypersensitive adrenalin receptors toward the task at hand.

A knock at his door pulled Steve from his thoughts. "Come in."

Max Bergman appeared, dressed in his usual cardigan sweater and bow tie combination. He'd put on his white lab coat, which meant he was here on ship's business.

Steve sat on the edge of his desk, raising an eyebrow. "It's 0445, Max. It's kind of early for you."

"On the contrary, it is rather late. But I knew you'd be here, so I thought I'd come by with my quarterly reports before turning in." Max handed him a stack of folders. "Here are the crew's last set of physical evaluations in need of your signature."

Steve put them on his desk without looking. "I'll read them later."

"I included a copy of your physical that I'm required to send to Governor Denning, but it does not contain anything that we have not already discussed." Steve didn't feel the need to say anything and Max didn't seem to notice. "Also while I was here, I'd thought I'd ask how you were reacting to your newest medications, since I know you'll find a reason to cancel our monthly appointment."

Steve crossed his arms over his chest. "Everything's fine." Max peered at him through his glasses, somehow broadcasting his disbelief without saying a word. "When I say I'm fine, it means nothing new."

"Very well," Max said satisfied. "I still need a blood sample to evaluate all of your endorphin and epinephrine levels."

"Sure. No problem."

"By the end of the week, if that is good for you?"

"Yeah. I'll drop by on Friday."

Max began to leave, but he stopped in the doorway. "I noticed you're due for a refill on your Sildenafil. Has the switch from a weekly to a daily dose worked for you? Have you been able to have an erection when–"

"Max," Steve snapped. Max canted his head at him in curiosity. "I'm sorry," Steve said. "The switch to a daily dosage works fine. And there are no side effects with my other meds. Thank you."

Max nodded unperturbed. "Very good, Captain. I'm glad it is working."

"It has. Thank you again. And Max, you don't need to call me captain."

While protocol demanded it, Steve preferred things less formal. He'd spent twelve years wearing the uniform and addressing people by rank, but the crew aboard the Hoku was his team. His family.

"Apologies," Max said with slight tilt of his head. "It is habit."

"It's fine." Steve smiled. "Have a good night."

"You too...Steve."

***

Steve stood on the bridge of the wheelhouse; he loved it up here because wherever he turned, the ocean stared back at him. He crossed his arms in front of him to keep the thrum of energy running through him in check.

"All stop," Steve called to the helmsman.

"All stop, sir."

Chin studied the giant compass then consulted a chart sprawled out at a table to his left. "I've visually confirmed our position." He clicked on his radio. "Duke, ping the grid and verify our depth and distance from Quadrant Fifty-Two."

"Affirmative, we are over Quadrant Fifty-Two. Line C. Depth is one hundred and fifty feet."

Chin looked over at Steve, waiting on his okay for the next order. For the briefest of moments, Steve wanted to deny permission, but he gave a curt nod, crossing his arms even tighter over his chest.

"Helmsman, switch over to radar," Chin said. "Alert us to any suspicious activity."

Radar could locate objects five miles out, and while their use of radio waves could actually be detected, Steve would use whatever means necessary to protect his crew. He activated his radio to the engine room. "Danny, are we ready?"

"If we have to engage an enemy, we'll have full engines."

Steve switched channels. "Catherine, status?"

"Guns one through three are ready. The EMP array is at full power," she said over the comm.

"Copy that," Steve replied, then switched on the shipwide radio. "Attention, all hands. Sounding general quarters, man your stations, and stay on full alert."

***

Steve unlocked the metal door to the gun locker and put on his vest. Chin grabbed an EMP pistol and slid it into his hip holster. He handed the other one to Steve before scribbling both their names into the log sheet.

"Thanks," Steve said double-checking the charge on his pistol.

"Dude." Chin gave him a sharp smile. "I don't want Catherine to kick our asses. She's mean when it comes to paperwork."

"No, she's mean when it comes to protecting her ordinance."

Steve pulled out a rifle and waited until Chin slipped on a vest before he opened the door that led up to the deck. He didn't care if he was being overly cautious. The nearest navy vessel was over nine hundred miles away – they were the only authority out here.

***

Steve and Chin walked toward the bow of the ship where Kono and Fong loaded their gear onto the launch boat.

Steve nodded at Kalani, their boatswain mate, as he readied the winch that would lower the boat over the side of the ship. He was a hefty man with complexion darker than mahogany with large intricate tattoos down his arms. "The chop's eased up a bit, so we're good to go."

"That's what I like to hear," Steve said, standing off to the side.

Kono looked ready to go in her black and yellow wetsuit, her hair pulled back into ponytail. She meticulously went through her equipment, ensuring each piece of gear was in proper condition. She had six years of dive experience, four with the EOD unit, and two working on the Hoku. Steve loved diving with her; she had a grace under water with a keen sense of focus.

"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were going to jump in with me," she teased Steve without looking up.

"Sorry," Steve said embarrassed.

The ocean was one of the few things that could block out the world and sharing that kind of peace with another person was something special.

Chin clapped Steve on the shoulder. "Maybe when this assignment's over, we'll all go on a dive together."

"That sounds like a plan," Steve said fondly, but he couldn't allow himself the luxury of pleasant thoughts and he quickly focused to the task on hand. "Okay, your water temp is fifty-five degrees. The current's steady and we'll keep up with the drift curve."

Kono re-checked the gauges and gas mixtures of the oxygen tanks stowed inside the boat. "It's going to take us fifteen minutes to descend, about forty minutes to explore and thirty minutes to ascend. We both have high-PSI tanks, so we're set."

Fong put on his buoyancy belt and adjusted the mask that dangled around his neck. "Even the tank of nitrous?"

"That's all we need, you laughing your ass off at all the pretty fish."

Steve watched Chin fidget with a combination of wanting to help and give them room. Steve casually walked over and gave Chin's arm a squeeze until the tension in his shoulders eased. Chin gave him a grateful look.

Fong adjusted his headset and nodded at Chin. "Testing my radio, one, two, three."

"Copy that," Chin answered, clicking on the mic to his com. "I can hear you loud and clear."

Kono repeated the same procedure with her radio then took a seat on the boat, opening up a silver equipment box. She carefully removed her J-shaped prosthetic along with its harness and laid them next to her on the bench. Then she rolled a silicone stocking over her thigh, took a yellow cup, and attached it where her knee used to be.

Her swimming prosthesis was beautiful in its simplicity; a fin-shaped flipper connected to a folding joint. She took the leg part and slipped into the cup, securing it in place by clicking the limb supports around it like a belt buckle. Then she gave the swimming fin a playful bat and watched it flap back and forth.

Fong's eyes lit up. "Did you get it modified?"

"Uh-huh." Kono gave Fong a sideways smile. "It's pretty cool. Now I can lock the fin straight in place so I swim freestyle. Or check this out." She adjusted the folding joint. "It twists it at a ninety-degree angle so I can do the breaststroke."

"Awesome," Fong said. He practically beamed at her.

Chin cleared his throat. "You guys ready?"

"Ready to rock and roll," Kono said with a wink.

Steve signaled Kalani the go-ahead, and the big guy got behind the boat controls while Chin operated the winch and slowly lowered the small vessel until it touched the ocean.

Steve stood there, hand on his rifle, looking out at the water, and he waited; for what, he wasn't really sure. He never was.

***

Steve huddled around the communications station, listening to Kono and Fong's progress over the speakers. It was amazing how time stood still when you didn't want it to. Chin was inside the wheelhouse overseeing the helm, ready to execute any needed emergency maneuvers at a moment's notice.

"Making the final leg of our descent," Kono announced over the radio. "And we should reach the target in five, four, three, two, one. We're at the array. Will keep you updated as we inspect the lines."

Steve kept a watchful eye between Duke at radar and Toast, who monitored communications. He noticed the second Danny walked inside and make a beeline toward him.

Danny didn't say a word, his hands on his hips as he listened in on the dive. Normally, Steve would chew someone out for leaving their station, but Danny's engine crew was the best, and this was an investigation, not a naval mission. He needed Danny's ear, his presence.

"The lines seem intact, over," Kono said.

"Completely intact?" Steve asked. It didn't make sense. "No signs of explosions?"

"Negative."

"What about the microphones?" Danny asked.

"No visible damage." There was a burst of static before Kono's voice returned. "Checking line E."

"The easiest method of sabotage would be from some type of explosive device," Steve said, thinking about the heavily protected cables. "We're talking about massive visible damage."

Danny shook his head, obviously breaking things down like an engineer. "Those lines are miles long. Depending on what caused them to stop operating, we have no idea what the damage might look like."

"This is Fong; I think I've found something."

"Report," Steve barked.

"It looks like...like the lines were cut," Fong said.

"Do you see any tool marks?" Danny asked.

"None." Fong breathed heavily. "They look severed."

"They're perfect cuts, guys," Kono's voice came over the speakers. "Like with a laser."

"McGarrett," Duke said from his station.

But Steve held out his hand, his total focus on the radio. "Are you sure, Kono?"

"I won't be hundred percent until I bring some pieces back with us for examination."

Duke turned in his chair. "Captain."

"Bring more than once piece from multiple lines," Steve ordered. "I want a variety of examples."

"Steve," Danny said loudly, poking him in the side.

Steve looked sharply over at Danny, then over at Duke. "What is it?"

"Something very strange," Duke said, shaking his head. He sounded anxious.

"Define strange," Steve pressed.

Duke stared at his read-outs. "I'm picking up something on radar, four miles out. And it looks...it looks like it's coming from the air."

Steve leaned his hands on the edge of Duke's station and stared at the green blip. He activated his radio. "Chin, we have an unknown target at six hundred feet above sea level, I repeat, it's an airborne target. Coming in at the starboard side at approximately one hundred and thirty miles an hour. ETA..."

"ETA is eight minutes," Toast confirmed.

Steve dug his fingers into the metal console. "Can you clean that up at all?"

"No, sir." Duke shook his head. "We send out a pulse and it bounces back to give us speed and distance. But that's it."

It wasn't enough information. Steve had swimmers in the water and a crew to protect.

"There hasn't been a reported case of a machine aircraft in six years," Danny said in warning.
He stepped closer until their shoulders touching. "Could it be one of ours?"

Steve looked up at Danny and back down at the display screen, the blip inched closer.

"Do you want me to try to radio them?" Toast asked.

"Catherine, status," Steve hailed, switching radio channels.

"Target will be in EMP range at one point three miles. Guns in nine hundred meters."

They would only have seconds to react once the aircraft was within weapons range. Steve gestured at Toast to switch channels back to the dive. "Kono. With your given oxygen, how long do you and Fong have, including safety stops for your ascent?"

"We can stay down here an additional hour before we have to come back up."

Staying that long at those depths was too dangerous. "I want you to start your ascent at the planned time, but hold at three hundred feet until I give you the all clear."

"Roger that," Kono replied.

Steve straightened his shoulders. "Danny–"

"I can give you full speed in ninety seconds and emergency maneuvers in thirty," Danny rattled off not missing a single beat.

Toast spun around in his chair, eyes wide. "We've got an incoming message from the aircraft."

Steve monitored the radar, weighing his limiting options. If they responded, it would allow the aircraft to lock them on target.

"They switched to Morse Code," Toast reported. "They're identifying themselves as a Navy Blackwing."

Steve felt his jaw drop. A Blackwing? What the hell was one of those doing out here?

He glanced at Toast. "Are they using today's cipher?"

"Affirmative. They're requesting us to acknowledge and switch over to radio."

It was the right code, but why hadn't the Navy notified them ahead of time? Why hadn't Denning?

"ETA?" Steve demanded.

"Four minutes," Toast said.

Steve tapped his radio. "Catherine, lock on that aircraft as soon as they're in range. Open fire on my mark."

"Roger that."

"Toast, give the target the frequency to our secured channel." Steve waited until Toast gave him the okay to speak. "Unknown aircraft, this is Steve McGarrett of the Hoku. Identify yourself and state your intent."

"This is Commander Gutches of SEAL Team Nine. Please clear a spot for us to land. We are here to conduct a special operation. Over."

Steve stared at the radio, mouth open in shock as everything started to buzz and hum loudly around him.

"Are we cleared to land, over?" Gutches repeated.

Steve shook his head and rubbed a hand over his face, thinking.

"Hoku, are we–"

"Roger. You are cleared to land." Steve licked his lips and switched channels. "Catherine, stand-down on weapons." He looked over at Toast who stared at Steve with a perplexed expression. "Radio Kono; let her and Fong know it's safe to return to the ship."

Everyone worked around in perfect synchronicity while he stood transfixed by the green blip, a chill running down his back.

Danny placed a hand on Steve's shoulder. "You–"

"I'm fine," Steve snapped, pulling away.

"The hell you are," Danny growled, gesturing at the radar display. "Tell me what the hell is going on? Do you know this, Gutches?"

"Wade Gutches and I served on the same SEAL team. We were part of..." Steve felt a bone deep pain in his hip. "We know each other."

"Okay," Danny drawled out, watching Steve with a frown. "And now we're letting them land their..."

"Blackwing. It's a classified special ops helicopter."

"Right. Awesome," Danny muttered. "And do you have any idea why a SEAL team is landing on our ship?"

Steve clenched his jaw as a flare of pain like tiny knives dug into his thigh. "The only reason they'd land under these circumstances would be...Would be to take over the Hoku."

 

***

Chapter Text

Danny barely had time to digest Steve's bombshell before the man tore across the bridge and went out the door.

"What the hell, Steven?"

But Steve didn't answer when Danny caught up to him at the weapons locker, and he didn't say a word when he shoved a rifle into Danny's hands while ordering a security team to meet them on the landing deck.

"Will you hold on a second," Danny growled, slipping on his vest.

But Steve was already geared up, slamming the locker door closed, and grunting at Danny to hurry up.

Danny chased after him up the ladders. "Damn it, Steve. We're not going to confront a god damned SEAL team. They have the right to seize any property, any asset, any person they deem fit. Those mother fuckers won't have a problem putting a bullet in your knee to prove a point."

"I was one of those mother fuckers."

"Exactly."

They were already topside, a four-member security team flanking them.

Danny grabbed Steve by the elbow. "If you don't –"

Steve whirled around, face pitched tight. "I'm not going to start a firefight. I know the law. But I'm not going to lie down and let them commandeer the Hoku without a show of force."

Danny gripped his weapon between his hands, struggling with his emotions, because all he wanted to do was kick each one of those SEALs in the balls. "I know. But you're the captain of this ship whether you like the title or not. And you can show these assholes that we mean business, but not like someone with a short-fuse."

Steve bit his bottom lip, breathing heavily in and out. "Agreed."

"Good." Danny swallowed, his shoulders sagging in relief. "Listening to reason is a wonderful thing."

"Yeah." Steve checked his rifle unnecessarily, eyes darting from his weapon to Danny's face. "Besides. It'll only take them a few minutes before they who the hot head around here is."

Danny wanted nothing more than to smack him upside the head, but Steve was so tense it looked painful. And Danny couldn't do a damn thing to help, to shield Steve from the one thing that he tried so desperately to hide from: his past.

***

The Blackwing sat on the landing deck while its rotor blades slowly came to a stop. Danny hated it and marveled at it at the same time. The onboard computer alone could be used to monitor a modern power grid instead of the cobbled together solar panels that each island neighborhood relied upon and often left many without power for days at a time. The military always took precedence, breaking all those pesky rules the rest of them had to follow.

He grit his teeth as the side door slid open and a six-man SEAL team swiftly exited with their weapons at ready. The team was dressed in black fatigues, carrying themselves with smug confidence. The commander, Gutches, exited and Steve's whole back went ramrod straight.

Gutches gave Steve a curt nod, and turned around as a petite woman with short auburn hair climbed out looking just as unconcerned about an armed welcoming party as the SEAL team.

"Commander McGarrett, I'm Jenna Kaye with..."

"Military Intelligence," Steve grunted, hands fisted around his rifle. At least it was pointed down. "And it's just McGarrett. I'm retired."

"But still kicking ass," Gutches said.

The rest of the SEALs all seemed inclined to agree, each team member moving closer, hands about to clap Steve on the back like they were all old buddies. Steve actually glared at them, broadcasting a fuck off vibe so hard that a few of them took several hurried steps back. Gutches just frowned.

"All right, McGarrett it is," Kaye said smoothly, sliding between Gutches and Steve. She smiled politely. "Why don't we go somewhere for a debriefing. Then we can –"

"State your purpose here, Ms. Kaye," Steve said, standing firm like a wall.

"I'd rather do that in your office."

Steve didn't budge.

"Perhaps you could indulge us just a little," Danny said, trying to break-up the tension. "You did land here in your," he waved at the helicopter. "In your super-secret and I bet highly computer-equipped bird."

"We're not here to indulge, Mr. Williams."

Danny smiled at Kaye. It was obvious she'd done her homework on them. "No, you're here to interrupt an investigation spearheaded by the governor of the Hawaiian Islands, the civil authority for over forty-thousand people."

Kaye took a step closer to Danny, her cool demeanor slipping. "And we're here representing the navy on a vital mission –"

"So, vital that you risked not only everyone on board this ship, but the two swimmers we have under the water while you did your swoop in and –"

"We had no idea you had anyone in the water," Kaye said, adjusting her glasses. "I apologize about putting your swimmers in danger, I had no idea."

Danny wasn't moved by her words. "You wouldn't have to apologize if you had notified us of your appending arrival."

"Like I said, we are here on a vital mission, one we need to expedite."

"And that means?" Steve asked.

It was the first time Steve had spoken up, drawing the attention of everyone on the landing deck. It didn't escape Danny how oddly quiet Steve had been the last few seconds. How still.

Kaye stood straighter. "It means that as of right now, SEAL team Nine, Military Intelligence, and your crew will be working on a joint mission."

"Joint mission?" Steve made rapid-fire eye contact with each SEAL, his expression unreadable.

"Yes, that's right. And if you don't mind?" Kaye moved back and within the ranks of the commandos, standing next to Gutches "I'd like you and I to go over some of the details."

Kaye waited, but Steve had engaged in some kind of awkward face-off with Gutches.

"Well," Danny said, clapping his hands. "This sounds like a lovely time."

"Actually," Kaye said, clearing her throat. "I need you to give Commander Gutches and his team a debriefing on the Hoku's security and holding cells, in addition to the weapons and defense systems."

Danny felt his jaw drop. Was she kidding? "You want me to play tour guide?"

"No," Gutches spoke up. "We need a detailed run-down on this ship's capabilities beyond schematics."

"Is this some kind of joke?"

"Danny," Steve said his voice clipped. "I'll fill you and the rest of the crew on our mission after the debriefing."

"It's a mission now, huh?" Danny looked between Gutches and Steve, unsure where to direct his anger.

Steve ended his stare-down with Gutches and looked over at Danny, his expression dark and flat. "Just go with Commander Gutches. I'll meet you when we're done with the debriefing and fill you in."

***

Danny would rather be anywhere than escorting a couple of SEALs around the ship. At least he'd been able to warn the crews in the engine room and the bridge about their impending visitors when the ops team broke-up to cover various areas. He could feel Gutches behind him, his heavy boots loud in the corridor. The man was older for an active Special Forces guy, and given the mortality rate of some of their assignments, late fifties was ancient.

"So the top speed of this ship is forty knots?" Gutches asked.

"Give or take."

"And the radar has a max range of five miles?"

"Don't you have the stats memorized?" Danny asked irritated.

"Stats are numbers printed on paper. I want reality."

"The stats are good. The Hoku is an amazing ship with an outstanding crew."

"McGarrett's ark," the other SEAL said.

Danny whirled around, standing toe to toe with the lanky guy. "You want to say that to my face?"

"Hey, cut it out," Gutches snapped. "There's no shortage of people who want to serve on the Hoku."

"McGarrett has every squid's respect," the younger SEAL grunted, standing tall. "Denning still hasn't earned ours."

"Yet, you need to commandeer the governor's flagship, don't you?"

"Jacks, enough." Gutches looked at his subordinate then back at Danny. "Just show us what we've requested."

"Sure. Whatever you want." Danny quickened his steps in a huff, gesturing in exaggeration. "And on your left are the ladders that lead to crew quarters. But you guys don't need those, right? Sleep is an inconvenience that you've found a way around?" He asked over his shoulder, the muted stares of the SEALs his only answer.

***

 

Danny rounded the corner to the weapons room and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Grace, terrified, shakily pointing a rifle at him.

"Grace? What the hell? Put that down, right now."

"I'm sorry," Grace said, fear stricken. She slowly lowered her weapon, eyes wide.

Danny glanced behind him, quickly putting himself between his daughter and the SEALs. Gutches and Jacks looked alert, but they hadn't drawn their weapons.

Heart hammering, Danny snatched the rifle out of Grace's hands more forcibly than he intended. "What the hell are you doing with this?"

"I heard...I heard the all hands on deck order."

"Which is your cue to find the safest part of the ship."

"But we were under attack."

Danny's heart dropped. He was supposed to protect his daughter from the evils of the world. Not shroud her in fear.

"No baby, we weren't," he said, trying to convey confidence when he was literately shaking with emotion. "And even if we were, that doesn't change the fact that you should have found someplace safe."

Grace wiped angrily at her face. "But–"

"No, buts. No arguing." Danny had to nip this in the bud. This was not okay at any stretch at the imagination. "Where the hell did you even get this?" he asked, giving the rifle a furious shake.

"Out of the weapon's locker." Grace pointed at the locker down the hall. "Over there."

"And who taught you the combination?" Grace stared at him like an animal trapped by its prey. "Who?" Danny demanded.

"Steve did," Grace snapped, her shrill voice grating on Danny's ears. "He taught me how to unlock the door and the proper way to handle and fire a weapon."

Danny felt his blood pressure skyrocket, his cheeks flushing from the pulse of anger coursing through him.

Grace must have sensed his impeding outburst because her defiance gave way to a desperate plea. "Please don't be mad. I wanted to learn. I need to know how to help if we're boarded by pirates, or if the machines–"

"Listen to me." Danny bent down, placing the rife on the ground, taking Grace by the shoulders. "We're safe. Nothing bad happened. Now, I want you to go to your quarters and stay there until I get back. Promise me."

"I promise," she said, folding her arms protectively around herself. Her eyes slowly drifted from his face toward the two SEALs behind them.

Sighing, Danny straightened, grabbing the rifle with one hand and wrapping an arm around his daughter's shoulders. "Grace this is Commander Gutches and..."

"Lieutenant Jacks." The younger SEAL nodded. "Nice to meet you."

Oddly enough, Jacks and Gutches didn't try to encourage Grace in the fine art of killing people, staying quiet. Would wonders ever cease?

Grace matched their silence, obviously in awe, or intimidated, Danny wasn't sure. "Listen, honey. Jacks and Gutches and their team are here visiting us for a little while. So, if you see them around you can wave hello, but leave them to do their jobs, okay?"

"Okay."

Danny gave her a hug and watched her quickly scamper down the hall. Running a hand through his hair, he took several deep breaths. He grabbed the rifle, then gestured for the SEALs to follow him without saying a word.

***

Danny escorted his charges into the cramped weapons room lined with large consoles and analog computer systems – the range keepers. Catherine spent all day ensuring the bulky things were accurate.

Directing gunfire during naval engagement was bonkers; calculating gun angles from both a moving ship and moving target was an art form. It took three range keepers to continuously compute a target's range, course, and speed accurately. The Hoku had digital systems, with long-range radar for precision target bearing and prediction in seconds. The advantages helped them out perform even multiple enemy vessels.

But during a machine threat, they had to do things the old-fashioned way. Spotters from the wheelhouse would relay data to the plotting room, and using the range keepers to solve the equations, Catherine's crew sent target solutions to the guys in Fire Control. He preferred working with engines.

Danny waited around and casually took a spot in the corner, idly checking the meteorological sensors.

Catherine looked up at him from her chair and held up a finger while she talked to two other gunners. "I want checks on the pitometer logs; I noticed they were off by three knots. Our accuracy will go down the drain if we can't track the ship's exact speed."

She pushed her headphones down around her neck. "I heard we have guests?"

"Yeah," Danny said dryly, hooking a thumb at the SEALs. "Gutches and Jacks."

Catherine placed a hip on the side of one of the plotting tables. "It's been a while, Wade."

"Three years," Gutches replied. "You're looking good."

Danny pointed a finger between them, surprised. "You know each other?"

"We go back," Catherine said nonchalant.

Nope. Danny wasn't going to let her get away with a one-word answer. "Oh, yeah?"

"I was one of the first gunners trained on the upgraded EMP array systems. It made me highly sought after during what?" She quirked an eyebrow at Gutches. "A dozen SEAL missions over the years?"

"Something like that."

Danny rolled his eyes at the both of them. Playing coy was not cute in his book, and Catherine picked up on it immediately.

"Steve and Wade testified on my behalf during my PRI hearing."

"Your PRI hearing?" Danny wracked his brain over various civilian laws, his face clouding in anger when he realized it had to do with Island procreation requirements.

"A few years ago, my town of Wailea suffered a massive fire, killing three hundred of the eight hundred that lived there." Catherine's expression darkened. "We lost over a third of our population but still had the same mandatory quota required of every town to produce a certain number of children–"

"The exception status you acquired when you re-upped in the navy was revoked."

Danny felt ill. Island population statistics were grim, and if you listened to the scientists and the mathematicians and the fear mongers about fertility rates, there wouldn't be enough people to fix their screwed-up world. The resulting birth initiative programs with their heavy tax penalties and ability to ruin careers was an ethical cluster-fuck.

"If it wasn't for Steve and Wade, I would have become a fugitive, because like hell would I –" Catherine cut off her own words, biting her lip, and shook her head. "Sorry," she said, standing, plastering on a forced smile. "You're here for some type of inspection?"

Danny was torn between wanting to offer comfort, or plow ahead with the company of strangers in the room. Gutches actually beat him to a decision.

"We want to verify your target bearing accuracy of your main guns and the range of your EMP array."

Catherine was as sharp as ever. "What for?"

"For a mission," Gutches said. He stood waiting.

Catherine glanced over at Danny, and he clamped his mouth shut, nodding for her to go ahead.

"All right." Catherine folded her arms. "You want the short or long version?"

"Thorough. Then we need to look at your holding cells," Gutches said. Jacks just stood there like the man's shadow.

Almost everyone on the ship had more than one duty; Catherine handled weapons and oversaw security. "Looks like we'll be spending the afternoon together then."

"Why the hell do you need to inspect the holding cells?" Danny demanded.

"We'll fill you in later." Gutches didn't even bother turning around. "Now Catherine, let's start with your range clocks."

***

Danny never wanted to continue his career in the military and he certainly never considered the Special Forces. While living on the islands felt like they were under constant threat, people adapted; they found normalcy amidst possible violence.

But those who chose to remain in the military gave up their lives to conflict. They hunted down and engaged machine threats and foreign hostiles. There was no shortage of enemies.

Danny was tired of death and war. He'd wanted to serve his required tour and return to a life of studying mechanical engineering. Help rebuild his tiny part of the world.

He stood quietly in the corner as Catherine answered questions regarding their holding facilities. Since they often arrested criminals, the Hoku had three cells that could accommodate up to four prisoners each. On the rare chance they apprehended more than twelve, they kept them secured on board their own vessel until back up arrived, or the prisoners were corralled into one of the Hoku's cargo bays.

"Cameras?" Gutches asked, walking around.

"One in each cell, and one in the hallway," Catherine said, leading them around. "Everything can be viewed from the bridge and from the small monitoring station in the hall."

As Gutches and Jacks checked out each cell, Danny watched, observing every detail. The number of times they studied the thickness of the bars, the complexity of the locking mechanism. Was all this secrecy for a seek and capture mission? For whom?

And the biggest, most nagging question of all, the one that sat like a stone in his gut. Why use the Hoku when a SEAL team had the endless resources of the navy?

***

Danny was hungry and, more importantly, freed from tour-guide duty. Mamo had found him some leftovers from yesterday's dinner, and Danny sat on a chair in a corner of their tiny mess hall, munching on gel-constituted meatloaf loaded with ketchup. He still wolfed it down.

"You eat that too fast and it's going to make an ugly reappearance," Chin said, pulling out a chair and sitting opposite. He grabbed a napkin, handing it over. "You've got a spot on your shirt."

"What?" Danny looked down at the red stain in annoyance. "Damn it." He hated doing laundry; scrubbing his clothes against a washboard always gave him blisters.

"How did your tour go?" Chin asked.

"Just peachy," Danny grumbled, dabbing the napkin in his water and blotting the stain. "How are Kono and Fong?"

"They're fine. I was grabbing some chow for them before the debriefing."

"Is that by invitation only?"

Chin snorted. "Well, Steve's still in with Kaye."

Danny didn't know whom that spelled doom for. "Yeah, well when I left Gutches and his pal, they were on their way to Steve's office."

"Wade Gutches?"

Danny let a piece of meatloaf fall from his fork. "Does everyone know this guy?"

"I thought he was teaching." Chin stared at some far spot on the wall in thought. "He and Steve served on the same SEAL team."

Danny knew Chin and Steve went way back, growing up in the same town. Chin was a family friend, and then later Steve served with him as they both traveled down the path of career navy. And now, years later, Chin worked alongside Steve on the Hoku.

It was a dull flicker of a light-bulb moment. Maybe Jacks' comment about an ark wasn't that far off the mark.

"Something tells me there's more to it than that," Danny muttered darkly.

"Steve and Gutches were each in charge of their own platoons on SEAL team Five."

An unsettling feeling lodged in Danny's stomach and he lost his appetite. "It was SEAL teams Three, Four, and Five that took part in the last mainland bombing operation."

"Yeah. I was a petty officer on board the Constitution working the helm during the op. We were there to provide firepower if needed. Three teams and two hundred men paddled out twenty miles to the shore in rubber boats." Chin fiddled with one of the other napkins, tearing off the edges. "Their objective was to take out all the machine surveillance systems with miniature EMP bombs. In and out in three days."

"Allowing our planes to fly over and drop nuclear bombs."

Even blind, the machines were able to destroy hundreds of planes with massive, superior firepower, killing sixty percent or more of those carrying out the airstrikes. But the military couldn't use missiles or anything with guidance systems or programming that could be altered and tracked. The only way to carry out the operation was with dinosaur planes and old-fashioned bombings. Practically suicide missions.

But only a nuclear explosion at a high altitude could emit a large enough pulse of energy. And it took dozens of nukes to flood enough electrons with the Earth's magnetic field to create a fluctuating electric current. Anything in range was zapped. Even if an electronic device was not plugged in, it was vulnerable as the EMP pulse radiated outwards through the air, enveloping everything in its path.

Chin sat back in his chair, looking at Danny with haunted eyes. "Between the EMP pulse produced by the nuclear explosions in the stratosphere and the ones donated over land, the wide-scale destruction would pummel the machines."

It was a limited strategy, laying waste all the way to the Midwest border of the mainland. But the machine population didn’t exist in just one place and the island military would never have enough man power and resources to invade and retake the mainland. But the bombings kept invasion fears to tolerable levels. It'd worked. Somehow. Until the machines built their numbers back up.

"But after decades to learn, the machines were prepared," Chin said his napkin a shredded mess between his fingers. "Their radar and satellite stations were heavily protected and the SEAL teams got bogged down. Three days turned into a week and our fleet was discovered and we took on heavy fire."

Danny had heard this tale before; everyone on the islands had. "But you guys stuck it out."

Chin crushed the remains of the napkin in his hand. He opened his mouth and closed it, swallowing. He looked away, clearly struggling with some decision. "No, we didn't."

Danny leaned closer, because he didn't catch that right. "What do you mean?"

"We didn't stick it out," Chin said, sounding gutted. "We lost six destroyers and multiple cruisers. Over a third of the navy's fleet." He didn't meet Danny's eyes. And Danny wanted to tell him stop; don't say anything else, but Chin seemed painfully determined, forcing out the words. Hands fisted and shaking. "And we...we were ordered to retreat..."

"No, you're wrong. You guys took a pounding trying to provide cover; you tried finding a way to send them backup–"

"We left them behind, Danny. The teams on the mainland were trapped for almost two weeks until Steve got a signal out that they'd taken out the radar systems."

It was all a lie. All the newspaper coverage, all the months of bar room, and kitchen table chatter about human triumph in the face of tragedy. How the navy's best had overcome the worst. It'd all been propaganda to improve long-term military enrollment.

"The navy...they left them behind?" Danny covered his mouth, unable to stop thinking about the puckered lines down Steve's legs, the rough patches of skin on his shoulder. "There were only eight survivors. Eight out of two hundred men. They were...they were decimated. They were..."

"I know that," Chin snapped. The horror reflected in his eyes left little doubt. "Wade and Steve were the only officers left. They made all the hard decisions, and it was Wade who, who took over when Steve couldn't."

Danny's brain was too stunned to process things. But he knew pain, knew guilt, and he moved out of his chair and crouched down in front of Chin and placed his hands on Chin's shoulders. "It wasn't your fault. Not a single bit. You hear me? It was the damned Navy."

Chin bowed his head, drawing a deep breath. "I know," he whispered. "And logically I know I couldn't have done anything. No one could. Not even the captain, but..."

"It still feels shitty and it still hurts." Danny squeezed Chin's shoulders and waited a minute before giving him a hug. "I'm so sorry. And I'm sorry for everything."

"Thanks, brah." Chin pulled back from the hug, looking wrung out. "I can't believe I even told you. That was stupid."

"Hey. Stop it. Maybe it was time, okay?"

"I just wish we could have saved more people. We lost so many ships and the guys on the mainland. They went through so much hell. Steve..."

"Was hurt very badly, but the navy had already screwed Steve up way before that op with their program," Danny growled, his anger boiling. He wiped a hand over his face, exhaling heavily.

Chin gave Danny a sympathetic expression, nodding, the two of them lost in painful memories.

***

Steve sat forward in his chair, his arms resting on the table. It took every last ounce of training to maintain focus and get what he needed. And ignore the fact that six strangers were roaming aboard, poking and prodding at his ship.

Kaye sat across from him, shifting slightly as she rubbed her hands over her sleeves against the harsh air conditioning. "You always keep it like an icebox in here?"

"I run hot."

She stopped rubbing her arms and laid her hands on the table. "How did you know I was in Military Intelligence?"

"You're not in fatigues or boots for one thing. Not to mention you're wearing a white shirt. You only wear white if you sit behind a desk." He waited on her reaction to the barb, but Kaye sat stoically. "Besides, the only civilian that rides along with a SEAL team is the one holding the leash."

"I'm well aware how touchy a situation like this can be. And I thought –"

"Maybe you could cut-out the bull and read me in on a mission that involved flying the max range of a Blackwing without refueling and superseded Governor Denning's orders."

Steve leaned halfway across the table and stared at her, but Kaye didn't flinch.

"In the last year, how many machine drones have you detected and destroyed?" She asked. "Wild guess?"

"Forty." Steve didn't need to guess.

"And the year before that?"

"Over a hundred."

"And those were all class three drones with basic detect and destroy programming?"

"Affirmative."

Level Threes were the most common weapon used by the machines. Mass-produced, limited programming, long torpedo-shaped drones that sought out heat signatures, usually a ship's engine, to target and destroy.

"And five years ago, before your bombing of the mainland, how many drones did your platoon encounter in a given year?" she asked. "Two hundred? Three hundred?"

"About that." His mission took him all over the Pacific, anywhere from the outskirts of Japan to the Marshall Islands. But Kaye was MI; she must have read Steve's record, knew every dirty little detail. Playing twenty questions was just part of the game. She nodded, studying him. "There were more Class Two recon drones in the mix. Clear spheres the size of a basketball, programmed to seek out and survey ships, specifically naval vessels."

"Records dating back the last ninety years show a very specific trend. Drone numbers increase with every year following the bombing of the mainland. Three years ago there was an estimated three thousand known drones in the ocean, and this year, it's suspected that there are less than five hundred." Kaye sat back in her chair. "Any theories?"

"There are tons of theories," he said sardonically, ignoring the curl of anger inside his gut. "My favorite is the one about them building giant transformers like in that old sci-fi movie, while some of the crackpots speculate that the last set of bombings neutralized the machine's capabilities from reproducing in sufficient numbers to pose a threat."

"I'm guessing based on your tone of voice that you don't buy that last one?"

"We've bombed the coastline stretching where the State of Washington used to be, down to Latin America. But haven't touched the remaining areas across two continents in over eighty years? Not to mention the rest of the world?" Steve shook his head, fighting the kick of adrenaline stirring inside him. "All we've accomplished is containment. We've far from eliminated them as a threat."

"And you don't believe the sympathizers? That they've gone underground or –"

"Created a machine utopia?" Steve snapped, pushing back images of scorched landscapes and crushed buildings. Miles of endless ash. "No," he said, licking his lips, throat tightening. "No robot cities, no..."

His mouth felt too dry and he opened his desk drawer and grabbed a canteen of water, downing half of it. Swallowing roughly, he screwed the cap back on, fully aware of Kaye's eyes on him. "What have you heard from our foreign contacts? It's not like this is a North or South American problem."

"Our contacts in Manila and the Solomon islands have been strangely sporadic at best and very evasive. We're still waiting to hear from anyone beyond the 170th latitude."

Over the last few decades, there'd been limited contact with people outside the Pacific. Those who survived did so in the most remotes part of the world, from the deepest desert to the most treacherous mountain areas. Only areas with the most challenging terrain and greatest distance from urban areas seemed to have flourished a little.

The type of long-range communications needed to stay in contact with other territories was damaged by everyone's use of EMP weaponry to keep the machines away. Not to mention such equipment violated the High-Tech Ban. It didn't really matter. Competition for fossil fuel, agriculture, deep water reservoirs, and technology created divisions instead of cooperation.

Steve's curiosity meter went in overdrive; he'd spent his whole life solving puzzles, engaged in some type of pursuit, chasing people, machines. His fingers twitched.

"And what does any of this have to do with my ship?"

"We think the reason there have been fewer drones in the ocean is because a new, more sophisticated type has appeared."

She placed a small laptop on his desk and typed a long password, clicking on a series of pictures. "Don't worry; this doesn't have any networking capabilities."

Steve studied the first image, squinting at the remains of a large fish, his mouth opening in surprise when he noticed its metal edges. He could feel his heart rate double. "Are these –?"

"Machines. This one looks like a three foot Ahi with perfect looking metallic scales and electronic eyes. Even the finlets between the tail are yellow." Kaye flicked her gaze between Steve and the computer, her voice tight. "It uses artificial intelligence and built-in sensors to avoid obstacles underwater, and responds to environmental changes."

Dawning horror made his chest constrict. "Normal tube-sized sea drones use very linear movement; our sonar operators are trained to look for unnatural, mechanical motion. If these behave like fish..."

"They get past all defenses." For the first time, Steve noticed fear in Kaye's eyes. "And they have. This one was captured two years ago. Since then, we've hunted down dozens more in the Northeast Pacific basin; some even look like lobsters and crawl across the ocean floor."

Fucking hell.

"Advanced recon," Steve whispered.

"That was our conclusion. They're outfitted with recording devices. Then six months ago, one of our EOD teams encountered a version in the shape of a tiger shark." Kaye sunk into her chair her voice sullen. "The team was killed when they attempted to follow it."

"Weapons?"

"A laser."

Steve closed his eyes against the memory of PO Bailey's screams in his head. He swallowed hard against the memory, burying it away.

Steve glared over at Kaye and his voice was venomous. "There have been new advanced drones that look like marine life, and this is the first I've heard of it? Not to mention the public we're supposed to protect?"

"And create mass panic?" Kaye retorted. "After two years, we still don't have ways to detect them."

"Why isn't there an entire Special Ops unit tasked with these new threats?" he demanded.

"There is. And as you're aware, the Hawaiian Islands face multiple enemies, including terrorist organizations from China and Russia. In order to combat such threats, we've had a number of operatives in deep cover within several militias."

Steve thought back to his first tour as a SEAL. "We used some of their intel after learning of a planned attack on the Aleutian islands." The promise of crude oil had made those territories a highly sought-after target.

"And that same network helped you rescue several of our nuclear scientists when they were kidnapped." Kaye fiddled with a simple silver ring around her finger. "What you might not be aware of is there is a highly classified subgroup of spies, some so top secret that only the Secretary of the Navy and the head of Military Intelligence are aware of their existence. Those we train to go to the mainland and bring back intelligence on the machines."

"The Ghosts. Yeah, I've heard of them." Steve had been offered to train in that program, but kept that info to himself. "They go in alone for a month at a time, conduct surveillance of machine operations, and return to select rendezvous points at sea."

"We use them more often as we prepare for a mainland bombing. But with this evidence of new advancements in drone technology…" Kaye looked up at him and gave him a wan smile. "As I said earlier, you could only imagine the alarm it would cause."

Her brow furrowed, clearly struggling with her thoughts. "Eighteen months ago we sent one of our best operatives to the mainland in hopes of gathering info on machine advancements," her voice quivered. "We didn't hear from him after he missed three rally points over the course of four months. After command evaluated his chances of survival, he was assumed–"

"Dead."

Steve knew all about the chain of command and their nine-point evaluation assessments. Knew what it was like to wonder if putting a gun inside his mouth was preferable to having his thoughts numbed, his damaged body forced to keep moving.

He grabbed his canteen and gulped down the rest of the water. "Go on."

Kaye looked down at her hands. "Seven months ago, some naval vessels, including their escorts, disappeared. No emergency signals, no trace of wreckage. Then six weeks later, some of our Special Forces units were doing recon of a possible shipment of stolen weapons when they were attacked by ships." She straightened in her chair. "By ships using machine tech."

"Machine tech?" Steve stuttered the words, tongue-tied.

"Laser weapons, precision fire power, and stealth from radar," Kaye rattled off. "And we've lost four more vessels since then. We didn't have any evidence of who might be responsible, until Lieutenant Jacks' team apprehended a suspected terrorist group operating out of Wake Island."

She didn't take a breath, relaying information like a burdened confession. "They discovered a ship hidden in a small cove being outfitted with high tech computerized guidance and weapons systems. Unbelievably advanced tech. When the team boarded and conducted a sweep, they discovered several communication records with a man. Wo Fat...Our lost recon operative."

It took a second for Steve to comprehend the depth of such a nightmare.

"You think this Wo Fat became a terrorist, gained access to machine tech, and is now using it against us?"

"Yes."

"To what end?"

"We don't know."

Steve stood abruptly, the back of his chair smacking against the wall. "What do you mean, you don't know?"

"We don't." Kaye held his gaze. "The sabotage to the grid is one of several you are unaware of. There have been seven in total over the last four weeks and we think we've found a pattern to all this activity that has been taking place."

Lies and secrets and deception. Steve's thoughts raced through his head as he paced in the corner. "And you want us to investigate and help hunt down whomever is responsible?"

"I want your crew to investigate, but the hope is that the Hoku with its technology – would make an appealing lure."

He whirled around nostrils flaring. "You want us to be bait?"

"I want you to help us hunt down what could be one of the biggest threats to the Hawaiian Islands."

"You want to put my crew in danger in the face of a possibly overwhelming threat?"

"Your crew was in danger when the Hoku hunted down the Tong and intercepted that cargo of stolen explosives. They were in danger when you pursued a gang of child laborers for two weeks straight until you were almost out of fuel. And they're in danger every day back home from a possible machine strike, or a terrorist bombing that kills people on almost monthly bases."

Kaye was on her feet, closing the distance between them, staring up into Steve's angry face. "Everyone on your crew is the best of the best. All trying to make a difference with the second chance you've given them." She looked Steve in the eyes. "Now why don't you call your senior staff and let's discuss what we can do to ensure that their home remains as safe as possible?"

 

***

It only took ten minutes for his team to arrive, each of them bustling inside the conference room with a sense of urgency. A group of strangers had boarded without permission, exerted authority that could not be questioned, and asked for something that had to be hard earned. Trust was not forged from under a heavy boot and a smile.

Kono walked in, searching Steve's face, but he couldn't give her any answers. Not yet. Catherine followed, nodding at him. Chin and Danny walked in together, both looking fatigued, Chin's expression taut. He and Kono took seats across the table from Steve. Catherine sat to Steve's right.

Danny slumped down in the chair to his left, his hair messy from obviously running his hands through it. Steve couldn't navigate the waves of hostility and annoyance, unsure if he was the target of Danny's ire or if it was just his general disposition over the whole FUBARed situation.
Steve didn't offer any reassurances because everything was about to get a hundred times worse.

Kaye entered the room carrying a leather briefcase. Wade pulled up the rear, his black fatigues reeked of cigarette smoke. Steve frowned. Wade caught the disapproving glare and shook his head, moving past him.

Kaye and Wade sat at opposite ends of the conference table, bookending everyone. Steve didn't say a word as Kaye slowly read-in everyone on the situation, watching his team's expressions devolve from shock to anger. He could practically feel Danny simmer to a boil beside him, but Chin spoke first.

"So, you think the attack on the defense array was made by this Wo Fat?"

"It is a strong possibility," Jenna said then slowly looked around the table, pausing at each person's face. "He's attacked our ships, stealing tons of valuable intel; kidnapped, maybe even killed our people."

Danny shook his head bewildered. "Okay, back up a moment. What do we know about this guy?" he demanded. "How long has he worked for Military Intelligence?"

"He's Chinese." Kaye opened her briefcase, pulling out a manila folder and sliding everyone copies of a two page file. "He lived in Mongolia and joined a well-armed militia when he was fourteen. Ten years ago, he was captured during a failed raid on a low-ranking naval supply convoy. We flipped him. Allowed him to walk in exchange for information on their operations."

"And you trusted him?" Danny asked sarcastically. He angrily scanned the dossier so fast there was no way he actually read it, tossing it hard across the table where it landed on the floor. He slammed his elbows on the table, leaning forward, seething, "There are over a dozen Chinese terror cells responsible for hundreds of island bombings. Killing and maiming thousands. Murdering children."

Kaye glanced down at the tossed folder, her expression wavering for a second before she calmly looked back up. "Wo Fat was a reliable source of intel that helped us prevent over a dozen major operations. Working with him saved countless lives."

Danny dismissed her with a wave of his hand. "Whatever helps you sleep at night."

Catherine glanced over Steve and Danny from her reading, then carefully flipped over the second page of the file, frowning. "Why was Wo Fat trained for deep recon missions if he was such a valuable asset?"

Kaye opened her mouth, but stopped herself, looking over at Wade for the first time. She nodded at him and he pulled himself even straighter in his chair. Steve noticed the left side of Wade's face twitched, and that his hands were curled tightly on top of the table.

"When Wo Fat wasn't working inside a terror cell for us, he was seeking information on the machine presence in Japan. He was very concerned about our lack of knowledge of the area," Wade explained. "As you know, the Japanese islands had been completely overrun by the machines, and the bombing campaign to keep the threat level to a minimum has been inconsistent given the political instability of most of the region.”

China had always been the military power behind the containment of much of Asia. But Steve couldn't remember the last time information had been exchanged between the governing members for the Hawaiian Islands and Chinese officials.

"And Wo Fat's intel?" Chin asked.

"Very useful," Wade replied. “He'd been deployed to Japan three times over a year, filling in the holes to our intelligence regarding the future capability of a machine strike.”

“But after the navy discovered these new sophisticated machine recon drones around the Northern Pacific area, he was sent as a Ghost to the mainland where you lost him?” Chin continued.

Wade crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes. There are only a few dozen Ghosts operatives and they will always be deployed to areas of the biggest threat.”

And the question of responsibility for this whole mess loomed heavily in Steve's mind as he tried to ignore the stench of Wade's clothes inside the small room. "Who was his handler?" Because that person had a lot of explaining to do.

"For the last four years," Kaye said, clearing her throat. "I was."

Steve hadn't seen that coming, but it made a certain type of sense. Guilt ate away your soul.

Kono stared at Kaye with a raised eyebrow. "Okay. So, maybe he flipped back or he's been playing us the whole time. But attacking the grid?"

Danny looked over at Kono, his demeanor slightly calmer than a few minutes ago. "Have you and Fong been able to examine the pieces of the line you brought back?"

"We positively identified that a laser was used to cut them," Kono said, but her enthusiasm was short-lived. "Unfortunately, since all the lines were underwater, that's all we could confirm."

"Could it be the result of a machine?" Steve asked.

"It could be," Wade said, carrying Steve's train of thought. "The new recon drones were designed for stealth and might have found a way to disable the defense grid; it could be signs of a preemptive attack."

"Which is why we need to capture Wo Fat," Kaye tagged in. "He was one of the last Ghosts deployed to the mainland. He might have vital knowledge regarding the machines' readiness."

"Because if the navy suspects there might be a preemptive attack, then they're going to plan another bombing of the mainland." Steve didn't bother phrasing it as a question.

Kaye looked around the room again her expression desperate. "Now do you understand why this is so important? Why the best options for capturing Wo Fat are to go after him or let him come after us? Why we need to take the chance?"

Steve stared past Kaye, past Wade, onto some far off spot in the distance, the tobacco odor in the room reminding him of the scent of smoldering flames.

"Steve?"

It took a second to realize he'd zoned out. Steve sat up, resting his hands on the table, feeling the smooth wood under his skin, and looked over at Chin, who had been trying to get his attention.

"I'm sorry," he said, embarrassed. "What are your thoughts?"

Chin folded his hands. "Even if the array was sabotaged by the machines, this Wo Fat might be our best option in finding out what they're planning. We'll still be doing our jobs. Searching for who or whatever is responsible for cutting the array."

Steve trusted Chin implicitly, enough to shore up the doubt in his head and give himself the needed kick in the ass. They'd been given a mission. This was why they all had accepted assignments on the Hoku.

"We'll use the additional location data from the arrays we didn't know were sabotaged and plot a new course where we'll most likely apprehend the target." He looked up at Wade. "I want a detailed list of all your team's weaponry and equipment."

"You got it."

"Everything, Wade. No surprises," Steve growled.

"Roger that," Wade said. "My team has outlined several strategies –"

"This is a joint mission." Steve glanced over at Kaye, daring her to argue. Part of him longed for a confrontation, but Kaye didn't give him a reason to unload, bowing her head in acknowledgment.

Steve stared at Wade, then at each member of his senior staff. "We'll plan things together. And we'll find out who is trying to sabotage the grid and stop them. No matter who or what they are."

***

Steve took a walk around the ship, still ramped up even after two hours of heated discussion over tactics and strategy. He bit his lip, furious; they'd actually discussed how to make the Hoku a more alluring prize. He pressed his hand over the bulkhead, fingers splayed, the thrum of the ship vibrating under his palm, channeling the vibes into something physical. His chest expanded in and out with every breath, his leg muscles quivering with the need to take off into a sprint and race his ship's decks. Looking up, he gazed at the Hoku's flag and smiled at the four pointed star against a backdrop of blue.

"If you're feeling up for a jog, I wouldn't mind a running partner later." Wade walked over, tapping out a hand rolled cigarette from a silver case. "I'd need to change clothes."

Steve regarded Wade, unable to gauge his level of his sincerity. "I was just clearing my head before heading back to my quarters."

Wade flicked his finger over his butane lighter, lighting the end of his hand-rolled smoke with the flame. He took a long drag before blowing out the smoke. "Maybe another time?"

"Yeah, maybe."

Wade stood around as if wanting to engage in something. But Steve didn't want to re-connect with Wade, and the admission made him sick to his stomach.

"Before you hit the rack, could you inform your corpsman that my team needs to store some contents in his cooler?" Wade asked, leaning his arms on the rail, looking out at the sea.

"Would those containers be of the classified variety?"

"Is there any other flavor?"

"And I told you during our meeting that I wanted a detailed list of all your equipment."

"Now I'm giving it to you."

Steve didn't want any of that shit on board his ship. "My ship's physician is very prickly about his stuff."

"Then I promise not to ruffle his quills."

Wade's attempted stab of humor failed miserably.

"Guess this means I won't have to double up some of my crew to free up quarter space."

Wade took another long puff on his cigarette. "Naw. You know how it is. Thirty minutes here and there. That's why they invented bedrolls."

Rolling his shoulders, Steve leaned back against the bulkhead. "And the headaches?"

"Still hang around." Wade shrugged then snorted. "At least they fixed the nausea."

Steve made a noncommittal noise. He didn't know why he bothered asking, not when he'd spent so much time burying everything about those days inside the biggest, darkest hole he could find.

Wade flicked his smoke into the air, eying Steve like he was some unruly green recruit. "We all volunteered for the program. No one held a gun to our heads."

Steve strengthened to full attention. "I never said that."

"Then stop acting like it. We're SEALs," Wade snapped his cheeks red. "You might not wear the uniform anymore, but it doesn't change who you are. You carried that trident. Led others through hell on Earth." He inched closer, reeking of nicotine and sweat. "But our enemy doesn't give a fuck about our determination or our willingness to lay it all on the line. Because they don't feel pain, or exhaustion, they don't know what it means to have a limit." Pulling himself to his full height, he stared at Steve. "Which meant we had to find a way to expand ours."

"My eyes were wide open when I submitted to the trials," Steve said his adrenaline surging. "I was the first in line for my meds and first in my group to learn how to cope with the effects."

"And you gained an edge that half the sailors in the navy would trade their left nut for. Unparalleled reflexes, stamina, and speed."

"No need to read me the brochure, I lived through it."

"Yeah, you did," Wade said. "And if it wasn't for the program, none of us would have ever made it off the mainland." He pulled the silver cigarette case out of his BDU pocket, the metal tarnished and dented. "So, who are you really mad at, Steve? The Navy or Commander White?"

"Fuck you."

"He would have been proud of what you've accomplished." Wade slowly opened the case and pulled out another smoke. "Your crew's success record is exemplary."

"Yeah? Funny how they would have never measured up to his standards."

Steve gave Wade a final simmering look and stalked away.

***

Steve was half toward the stern before he realized he'd stormed right past where he'd meant to turn and he doubled back, quickly logging his time spent outside, striding along the corridor and down the ladders. The metal stairs between levels were steep, and he grabbed at the railing when his foot almost slipped out from under him.

Slow down, McGarrett, he told himself.

He released his death grip on the rail, taking the rest of the rungs at a more cautious pace, carefully stretching out the slow tingle that started deep inside his thigh. Stepping guardedly, he made his way toward his quarters, planning to say good night to Grace, when he spotted father and daughter walking toward him. Even from here, he noticed Grace's dogged downturned expression while she walked, Danny's shoulders drawn up tense beside her.

"Hey," Steve called out.

Grace's head popped up, a smile spreading across her face. "Steve!"

In seconds, he was enveloped in a hug. He leaned over, eyes squeezed closed, basking in the unconditional affection. After a few seconds, she pulled back, and he ruffled her hair. "Sorry I missed dinner."

"It's okay. Danno and I had to have a talk."

Grace hadn't used that nickname in a while, and when Steve looked up, he watched a wave of fondness soften Danny's pinched features. Steve returned his attention to Grace, who stood there, hands clasped together in front of her as she twisted her body back and forth in antsiness.

"A talk, huh? Anything I can help with?"

He sensed Danny's agitation even a few feet away. The man was like a damn cactus when it came to Grace. Steve didn't blame his protective streak; he and Danny were in a relationship, and that relationship extended to Grace, but with fuzzier boundaries. But one thing was certain, Steve would die for her. Without question.

Grace looked between him and her father, clearly torn. "No, I should probably study."

"Okay," Steve said with a smile. "Big algebra test, right?"

"Yeah. Are we still going to go over my lesson on Friday?" she asked hopeful.

"I'm not sure. We're on a big mission right now." He gave her a light pat on the arm. "But I promise I'll do whatever I can to make it happen."

Steve enjoyed teaching Grace self-defense. It was an escape from manning the ship and a great physical and mental workout for a growing teenager who needed focus and an outlet for stress. When he noticed her look away in disappointment, he opened his mouth to say something more, but Danny wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Come on, it's been a long day."

The tension in the air was like electric charge. Steve backed off, watching Danny walk Grace to her room while Steve headed to their quarters, debating if he should escape into a shower.

***

Steve had enough time contemplating stripping out of clothes and facing Danny when the devil himself entered, shoving his suspenders down as he began pacing, which was odd, because it was always Steve who couldn't bleed enough energy.

"Is everything all right with Grace?" Steve asked.

"Is everything all right with Grace? I guess that depends on how you look at it," Danny said perturbed. "On the one hand, she lives with me, where we can share meals of reconstituted powder together. Not to mention she doesn't have to check the water supply for contamination, or worry about being robbed while walking to school."

Rubbing a hand over his forehead, he continued petulant. "There is the random naval battle at sea or visiting guests in the brig, but nothing like new sophisticated types of machine drones or SEAL teams with their super-secret helicopters causing mass panic and scaring my daughter enough to grab a semi-automatic rifle."

Danny crossed his arms, glowering. "Funny how she not only knew the combination, but how to load the weapon and unlock the safety."

Steve felt his stomach drop, but he stood his ground, confident in his decision. "This is a police vessel; she needs to know how to defend herself."

"She's thirteen years old!"

"I was nine when I –"

"It doesn't matter if you were five," Danny yelled, throwing his arms out in exasperation. "What matters is that you didn't ask me first." Steve stared, sullen. Danny stared back his chest heaving until he caught his breath. When he spoke next, he sounded exhausted. "You taught my daughter how to handle a deadly weapon. She pointed it at me, terrified out of her mind."

"I'm sorry. I..." Steve ran both hands over his face, nightmare scenarios spinning out of control in his head. "I went to say good night to her one evening and I found her crying in bed. She'd had a nightmare about the machines. I...I was trying to empower her."

He'd wanted so desperately to take away her fear.

"And you do that," Danny said, shaking his head in disbelief. "By teaching her right from wrong and showing her how to break someone's arm if they dare lay a finger on her without permission. But teaching her how to fire something that can tear holes into someone's flesh..."

"It's the reality we live in...but you're right," Steve admitted. "I should have asked first."

"Yes, you should have."

"I'm sorry. It's just..."

"Been a really shitty day? Yeah. It has."

Steve stood there, feeling beaten up and pummeled. All he wanted was to run or swim or...

"You can stop looking at me like that."

Steve blinked. He hadn't realized he'd been staring. "Looking how?"

Danny rolled his eyes and started to unbutton his shirt. "Don't give me that. Like you do right before we try to bust the springs of the mattress."

"Try?"

"Seriously?" Danny removed the rest of his shirt, hanging it on the back of the chair. He pointed a finger in Steve's direction. "I'm too tired for your shenanigans."

Steve knew Danny's blusterous act of annoyance was only surface deep. It had taken Steve months to feel comfortable around Danny about his need to expend energy. That sex was the ultimate physical release, an escape outside his own head. But unlike with most people over the years, Steve could give himself over to Danny, trusting him enough to fully let go. The ultimate form of intimacy on Steve's part. It was the rarest of gifts, one he tried not to abuse.

Steve began to take off his own shirt thinking maybe he still needed that shower as he felt a heat grow inside his belly while he watched Danny chuck out of his shoes and slide out of his pants. But it was more than arousal at seeing all of Danny's peach-fuzzed skin, the flex of beautiful solid muscle. More than the need to tackle him onto the bed, because yeah, he desperately just wanted to touch and feel Danny close to him.

Danny turned off the ceiling light, leaving the nightstand lamp on, and sat on the bed in his boxers. "Come here."

Steve quickly unbuckled his belt, shoving his cargo pants down. "Hold on a sec," Danny said, crabbing backward on his ass.

Danny lay flat on his back on the bed, and Steve crawled over him, his right knee perched between Danny's legs, Steve's breathing rapidly increasing.

Danny sighed, wrapped an arm around Steve's shoulder, and yanked him down. "What did I say about no shenanigans?"

Steve rolled with the motion onto his side, draping an arm over Danny's chest and resting the side of his head on the pillow under the crook of Danny's arm.

"You're such a doofus," Danny said, reaching over and tugging Steve closer.

Steve scooted over until he laid his head on Danny's chest, the length of their bodies touching. Then Steve closed his eyes, taking in the scent of sweat and the ship all over Danny's skin, and breathed deeply. It was soothing.

"Comfy?" Danny asked as he stroked his hand down Steve's side, sending tingles down his back.

"Yeah," Steve said.

"I bet," Danny mumbled. "You're a bundle of knots on a good day."

Steve didn't argue. And as much as he wanted to lose himself in the warmth of Danny's skin, he knew they needed to talk and unload in private what couldn't be shared with anyone else.

"Tell me what you're thinking about," he whispered.

Danny quit stroking and rested his hand on Steve's hip. "I don't know where to start?"

"How about with the words running through your head right now." Steve felt Danny's whole body tense, and he squirmed closer. "Just talk."

"I'm fuming over the fact if we didn't spend so much money on the military, maybe we wouldn't have a crime rate over 30% back home, and anyone who doesn't carry a gun wouldn't be asking to be mugged or killed." Steve kissed Danny's collarbone. "That maybe my daughter wouldn't have to grow up without a mom because some asshole could get top dollar for the soil she brought home for our garden. I told her, I told her a million times not to carry anything valuable home by herself. Take a friend. But no. She thought I was being too paranoid."

Steve held Danny; he didn't squeeze too hard, didn't interrupt Danny's thoughts with soft comforting words.

"I only had six weeks left on my tour, less than two months before I was home for good. Grace was only eighteen months old." Danny rubbed a hand over his face. "Of course you know this all ready."

"Doesn't matter," Steve said, softly nuzzling Danny's shoulder.

"It's just... I do this job for her. I became a cop because of Grace and I'd do anything to protect her." Danny let out a deep breath, but it did little to ease the tension in his muscles. "And I'm so pissed we're going to help clean up some MI mess after they botched up working with a murderer."

Steve bit his lip as he parsed out Danny's words in his head. "Military Intelligence has been operating in the shadows so long they're blind to everything but their agenda."

Steve's leg twitched and he dug his foot into the mattress to quell the appending tremor.

"Are you okay?" Danny asked. "I mean, it must not have been easy to see –"

"I'm fine."

"Steven." Danny turned onto his side and ghosted his finger over one of the faded scars down Steve's pec. "It's my turn. Talk to me."

But that was the problem: there were always too many thoughts, too many feelings, all jumbled and competing for attention. It was easier to block and ignore them.

"Stop over-thinking. Use words," Danny encouraged.

"Did you ever want to have more kids?" Steve blurted, having no idea where the question came from. He thought of Grace, of the sadness in Danny's face sometimes. With the island's low population, the pressure to produce children was great. "I mean did you and Rachel..."

"Yes...of course. Two or three. Maybe. I don't know." Danny stared curiously at Steve in the semi-darkness. "Why? Did you want–"

"No. I knew what I wanted to devote my life to," Steve said in a rush. "The Navy didn't care what I did outside the battlefield, who I took into my bed. As long as I accomplished my missions." He shrugged. "I donated to the procreation bank to avoid the fine for not having children."

He felt Danny bristle next to him. "Guess spending over a decade on a special ops team and getting injected with experimental meds wasn't enough."

"My choice."

"Steve–"

"I did what needed to be done." And Steve knew his anger was directed inward. That he was a liar. That his head was so messed up he couldn't keep his own feelings straight. "I'm sorry. I..."

"Don't be sorry."

But Steve felt a hesitation; he knew Danny too well, knew every inflection in his voice. "And?"

"And what?"

"There's something else," Steve prodded.

Danny heaved out another long breath. "It's just...sometimes it's okay to regret our choices in life."

Steve blinked.

"I mean," Danny continued. "Our feelings can be really confusing."

Steve squeezed his eyes closed. "I may never have planned on having a family, but I'll never regret being with you and Grace."

"Oh, for crying out loud. That's not what I was talking about." Danny pulled Steve until they were two tight lines of hard muscle and skin, hooking a leg around Steve's hips. "And I never, ever, doubted it for a second. Not once."

Steve shivered against the rush off emotion overwhelming him and he practically rolled on top of Danny, relishing the sensation of heat, sweat; of Danny's semi-hardness against Steve's thigh. He savored it all, every last bit, not kissing, not stroking, simply lying against Danny. Soaking him in.

"You know that I am not your human pillow, right?" Danny complained in affection.

Steve didn't say anything, pressing his lips against Danny's in response.

***

Chapter Text

***

 

A shiver went down Danny's spine and he pulled the covers tighter around his shoulders, but his skin crawled with goose bumps and he stretched his arm out, seeking out Steve's warm skin only to discover cold sheets. Sighing, he turned his head, popping open an eye and glared at the empty side of the bed.

Nine times out of ten, Steve wasn't beside him when Danny woke up, but it still sent a pang of disappointment through him. Steve slept little, and often fitfully, but one day, the two of them would spend a lazy morning tangled in each other's arms without worry. Squishing the pillow with his arms, he debated snoozing for another ten minutes before giving up. He was too cold to fall back asleep, so he forced himself out of bed.

When his bare feet hit the freezing floor, Danny cursed under his breath, reminding himself to ask Grace for some knitted cozy socks for Christmas this year.

***

The wind was rough from the east, the blast of cool air making him squint against the sharp bite in the air. He'd read studies that the temperatures in the area used to be five to almost ten degrees warmer a hundred years ago. It was tragic how something as simple as dust could have such a profound impact.

Danny needed coffee, maybe even a corn muffin; Wednesday was baked goods day. Oddly enough, the military and police always ensured their people had plenty of sugar, flour, and coffee during tours of duty.

He was debating the possibilities when he cringed at the sound of a herd of elephants and felt six sets of boots pounding the deck below as the SEAL team rounded the corner. He stared down, drumming his fingers on the railing, wondering if he shoved a bucket and a mop into their faces, if the Neanderthals would clean up all the scuffmarks they were leaving behind.

"Isn't it a little early for you to be up?"

Danny smiled at hearing Mamo's voice. It was before dawn, the sea a dark, endless ripple. "It wasn't exactly my choice."

"Hmmm. Yes, it seems many people have not been able to sleep." Mamo rested his large hands on the railing, peering down at the SEAL team as they jogged. "They have been out here for many hours." He watched, perplexed, the wrinkles in his forehead doubling. "And have not even stopped to rest. Very strange."

"Yeah well, they have a little pharmaceutical help."

Mamo looked at Danny, thoughtful. "More so than usual?"

It was a norm during long shifts in the navy to be prescribed uppers. "I'm not talking about your average Go Pills. More like dozens of daily meds."

Not to mention DNA mapping, gene therapy, hormonal cocktails. Danny grimaced at what had been condoned.

"That would explain how many laps they have done." Mamo shook his head in sadness. "It is not because of the body but of the mind."

Danny scrubbed a hand over his blood-shot eyes. "Have you seen Steve today?"

"He was out here earlier. But I believe he went below decks when he saw the others in his space."

Danny wondered if Mamo knew the accuracy of his statement. "He probably went to the gym so he could destroy the newest set of equipment."

"I suspect we will find him there for many mornings until this thing is over."

And that could take weeks. Pursing his lips, Danny stared out at the ocean wondering how long they'd have to wait for the monsters to come to their door.

 

***

Danny woke up in the middle of another night freezing his ass off, not surprised to find the other half of the bed empty again. Sitting up, he looked at the clock: 0300 hours. Each morning for the past three days, Steve had woken up earlier than the day before. It wasn't unexpected; if not for pure physical exhaustion, Danny wouldn't be able to call what he did sleep.

The ship lurched violently, almost slinging Danny out of bed. He reached for the weapon stored inside the nightstand drawer. Gripping the pistol, he waited for the alarm, or an all hands on deck announcement. Breathing fast, his heart raced as he listened for gunfire or explosions. Maybe screams.

But all he heard was the steady drone of the ship and he scrubbed a hand over his face, pissed at his paranoia. “Screw this cat and mouse mission."

The ship groaned again, dipping sharply, Danny's stomach sinking with it. They must have hit a fast-moving storm system. It would be impossible to fall back asleep during rough seas. Grabbing some clothes, he quickly changed and walked out into the hallway.

He stood in front of his daughter's door knowing that the number one rule was to always knock first. But it was the middle of the night and he didn't want to scare Grace. So, he cracked it open and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness until he noticed a curled-up lump sleeping soundly. Breathing out a sigh of relief, Danny quietly closed the door, secure that Grace hadn't been disturbed by the storm.

Thirteen or twenty-three years old, he'd never stop checking up on her.

 

***

Rough chop meant extra inspections. The Hoku could take a beating, pulling off amazing feats, but she was an older lady and Danny cared deeply for her.

"Come on honey, show me how tough you are," he said under his breath.

He grabbed his yellow ear-protection and entered the engine room, the rumbling and whine of spinning parts vibrating his teeth. The whole floor smelled of diesel, and heat wafted from the engines. Danny nodded at Polani, who was monitoring the pressure gauges.

With no portholes to provide light, there were flashlights clipped to chargers everywhere, so Danny snagged one as he walked by. The Hoku had a triple expansion engine with three high-pressure forward cylinders, each designed to balance power output. He studied over a dozen indicators, ensuring everything was at the proper level.

"You're obsessing again," Polani yelled over the noise.

"It's called being thorough."

Polani rolled her eyes.

"I'm going to check the Big Squeeze," he called out.

"Have fun," she said with a wave.

"I can feel the love from here," Danny said and laughed when she blew him a kiss.

The rear of the engine was connected to the propeller shaft, a heavy steel tube wide enough for him to fit. It was a chore that needed to be done twice a day and something he preferred doing himself. Opening the grill, he crawled inside on his hands and knees.

It was a good thing he was only mildly claustrophobic, especially when the ship shifted violently and he banged the side of his head against the metal interior. "Sonofabitch."

He stretched his arms, bracing both hands against the wall. "We done?" he called out, waiting until the ship stopped bouncing around.

Danny pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and crawled along inspecting the bearings supporting the shaft; the second layer of defense against the ocean bearing down on the cargo hold. By the time he turned around and crawled his way back out, he found Kono waiting on him.

"Um, hey," he said, wiping his hands down his pants. Kono had a shift scheduled with him later today as part of her duty rotation, but it was still hours away. "What's up?"

Kono leaned against the wall; she had a side arm holstered on each thigh. She talked to him through her protective headset instead of yelling over the noise. "Steve wants us to initiate Scenario Alpha-Bravo."

"He wants us to what? I thought we'd agreed to wait a week before we tried that? It's only been four days."

"He and Gutches want to take advantage of the storm. Said it would appear more natural if the Hoku looked like it was damaged by it."

"We've only hit a couple bad swells."

"I know, but –"

"Yeah, yeah." He was aware of how Steve's brain worked when it was all hyper-aware. This was not in Danny's playbook for the day. He exhaled, thinking a million different things. "It's going to take some prep to make it look like we're winged without hurting the engines."

"That's why I'm here," she said, tugging enthusiastically on the collar of her gray coveralls. Kono was always giddy about getting her hands dirty. It was a beautiful thing.

Danny folded his arms in thought. "We'll need to make a sudden stop and allow ourselves to drift while hiding the fact the engines have full power."

"We can't give off a heat signature that can be monitored."

"Thankfully, I know exactly how to do that."

Kono slapped him on the shoulder. "Like there was any doubt."

 

***

The Hoku's maximum speed was a forty knots; its cruising speed was twenty-five. The trick to faking a massive engine failure was to halt thrust without damaging the cylinders. Tricky, but not impossible. It was all about timing.

"Kono, send out the message."

"On it," she said, activating the ship's internal Morse code.

They didn't dare warn the crew to brace themselves via radio; there was too much fear about surveillance.

After she sent out the message, Kono stood by Boiler One and Boiler Two, and Polani manned the generators.

Danny signaled with his fingers. Three, two, one. He shut down the engines.

He braced for the violent shudder, but Danny was still almost knocked off his feet. Holding onto a console, he watched his gauges as pressure, volume, and power all drastically started to fall.

Polani and Kono monitored their stations quietly.

He slipped off his headset. "At zero power. Speed. Dead in the water."

An all hands on deck alarm blared over the radio, and emergency lights flickered.

Polani brushed her short curls away from her face. "I'll radio the captain."

The charade was on, a perfectly laid morsel of cheese in a trap.

Kono released a long breath, her hand brushing over her the butt of her weapon. "Now we wait."

"Yeah." Danny breathed, feeling ragged. "Fantastic."

***

One hour turned into two, then three. By hour five, Danny was ready to climb the walls.

"With the ship at full stop, this could be a good time to test the power cells," Kono suggested.

"No, they're fine," he said distracted.

Danny braced a hand on the bulkhead as gale winds rocked the ship. He started tapping his fingers against the walls. It'd been forty minutes since the last Morse code message from the bridge, and he was tired of giving fake status reports on repairs.

"Do you want me to request an update?" Kono ventured.

"No, I..." He paced a circle inside the engine room. He hated this silence, missing the constant engine noise. "I don't know what I want."

"Yeah, you do." Kono grabbed a wrench and started twirling it. "You want this whole thing to be over with so we can go back to chasing pirates and drones that can actually be detected by radar. Not to mention getting rid of the six unwelcome guests who keep taking over the gym, the mess-hall, and everywhere else I look." She crossed her arms, tapping the wrench against her bicep. "They're like giant walking walls."

"More like walking garbage disposals."

Kono pointed the wrench at him. "I almost stabbed one of them with a fork when he took three helpings of eggs."

"And they're always in the way. Not to mention obnoxious and infuriating."

Danny walked over to the weapons cabinet and unlocked the door to the EMP rifles. He gripped the weapon and looked down the long tube-shaped barrel.

Kono wandered over, eyes crinkled in thought. "It's pretty amazing to think that thing can mimic the gamma-ray pulse caused by a nuclear explosion."

"A very, very low-yield one, but yeah." Because the electromagnetic energy released by the real thing knocked out everything for hundreds of miles, not meters.

"Simple and jacked-up to the gills." Kono whistled in admiration. "Able to fry any electronics no matter the shielding."

A shudder ran down Danny's spine. He remembered the last time he'd come face-to-face with a drone, stuck in a small boat surveying the damage aft of the Hoku, Steve screaming in his radio while the torpedo-shaped thing streaked under the water toward him.

"Hey," Kono walked over. "You okay?"

Danny hurriedly stored the rifle and wiped his hands over his shirt to dry away the sweat. "I'm fine."

"Is that why you look like crap?"

"Excuse me?"

Kono pulled out a chair, crossing her natural leg over her J-limb. "This week's been pretty tense."

"That's an understatement." He looked at the radio again, biting his lip.

"Grace is in the safest part of the ship. Mamo escorted her to the safe-zone with some security personnel."

The safe-zone was a hidden compartment on the crew quarter's level with reinforced steel walls and supplies. The crew helped construct it when they'd learned there would be at least one child on board.

Danny hated that he could be read like an open book. "I know." He couldn't freak out every time they were pursuing an enemy; it was the risk he took.

"So, about Steve..."

"Kono." Danny rubbed at the tension behind his eyes. "Don't."

"When you care about someone who's hurting, there's no way of coming out of things unscathed." Danny looked up at her, surprised. "We'd do anything to take the pain away, heap it onto ourselves. Fight any battle, even the losing ones." Kono drew herself up, her face naked with vulnerably. "But, I'm reminding you that it's okay to take care of yourself. And to let others help shore you up. That's ohana. That's the Hoku."

Danny's chest welled with an overwhelming sense of tenderness, and he held open his arms.
"Come here, you." Kono tried to beg off, but Danny shook his head. "Now, Kalakaua."

Kono smiled and wrapped her arms around his waist just as an announcement came over the radio to resume normal ship operations. They both pulled away and stared at the radio; the ruse had ended unsuccessfully.

***

Danny pumped his legs, but too much lactic acid caused his calves to cramp. He tried to dig deep, find one final burst of energy to push him the final lap around the ship, but his muscles wouldn't have any of it. Fighting against a sharp pain, he slowed to a hobbling limp.

Wiping at the sweat pouring down his face, Danny grabbed the canteen strapped to his waist and gulped down the water greedily. He worked out daily, ran three times a week, but he should have known better than to jog with Steve when the other man was determined to run himself into the ground.

It was late, nearing dawn, but time only marked endless feelings of failure. Danny turned and watched the waves break against the bow.

He heard Steve panting as he ran over, slowing down only enough to pace around like some caged animal, bouncing his hand against his leg. It made Danny tired just watching Steve exhaust himself like an overcharged battery.

"Sorry,” Steve huffed. “I got into a zone."

“If it helps you think, run and zone away,” Danny said, waving off the apology.

Even after a few years of being together, it was painfully obvious that Steve wasn't always comfortable showing any hints of his chronic condition in front of people. It was frustrating. Steve's early post SEAL days had been especially challenging and Danny tried to be there for him in any capacity. But it was a slow, bumpy road.

"We all knew this investigation might take a while,” Danny reminded him.

Steve didn't look over at him as he wore away a path back and forth in front of Danny. "We're one of the most advanced ships on the ocean."

"Exactly," Danny agreed.

Steve glared. "We're alone."

"With weapons and a bad-ass reputation. We played dead for eight hours and nada. Nothing."

"It's been almost a week."

"We're talking about thousands of square miles, not to mention a big fat chance that no one sees or cares that we're out here."

"Unless they're waiting for us to become even more isolated."

"I didn't need that thought in my brain," Danny growled. "Thank you."

Steve stopped pacing and stared out at the waves while gripping the railing hard, his arms taking on the burdensome tremors. Danny gently stroked Steve's bicep to ease the quivering, but he stopped when Steve's whole body stiffened. Danny smelled the disincentive odor of cigarette smoke and didn't need to look up to know people were taking a break from the deck above.

"It's bad enough those guys have to always been in the way, but do they need to ruin fresh air?" Danny complained.

"It helps settle your nerves," Steve muttered.

"Tobacco's a stimulant."

"It's both." Steve pushed off the railing, blinking against the ocean spray misting his face. "It increases the heart rate, causing a rush, then calms the nerves."

Danny had never seen Steve light up a cig before, but he had no doubt that the man might have been a heavy smoker in the navy. It was a habit Danny had kicked himself once he'd gotten out of the service. Smoke breaks were rare moments of peace and camaraderie among friends. Though he was pretty sure Steve's need had been a result of all the chemicals that had been pumped into him during his tours.

"How many packs did you used to go through in a day?"

"I don't know, one or two." Steve folded his arms over his chest. "But none when I was on a mission."

"Ouch."

"Smoke can give you away in certain environments. I'd scrub my skin and only wore new fatigues. But if we were involved in an assignment tracking machines, especially the long missions ...” It started to rain; fat droplets splashed over Steve's cheeks. "I remember rolling forty or fifty cigarettes in a day. And when we were on the mainland..." He flicked water off his nose. "Now the smell makes me nauseated."

Danny reached out his hand, but a rumble of thunder caused him to look across the horizon. "Sounds like another front."

"We should check with meteorology, see if we need to take precautions."

Steve had his sights set on something new and Danny wasn't about to stop him. He knew when to pick his battles. "I'll come with you so I can advise the engine crew."

Steve started to take off, but Danny snagged his shirtsleeve. "If it's nothing serious, we go to bed. Capisce?"

"If it's nothing serious," Steve said, but his tone didn't bode well for their future sleep.

***

"That is one hell of a storm," Danny said, watching the large green blob barrel across the screen.

Gutches had magically appeared on the bridge and stood beside Steve, observing quietly.

Steve studied the radar screen like he wanted to punch it with his fist. "Got everything you need?"

Toast scribbled furiously on his notepad. "Yep." He quickly turned off the radar and spun around in his chair. "Looks like we're dealing with a storm-system twenty miles wide, spreading over two hundred miles across. Gale winds at 30, probable heavy sea rolls. And the thing is moving fast; it's almost on top of us."

"Duration?" Steve asked.

"At this speed, we're looking four to five hours." Toast tapped his pencil against his pad of paper. "But with the proper course, we might be able to weave through it in three?"

"Chin's shift begins in two hours; we'll have to wake him up."

"Wait, wait," Danny said, holding up his hands. "I thought we wanted the machines to find us? Why not use radar and kill two birds with one stone?"

"Because we're not actually in control of this situation," Steve said.

"Good point," Danny conceded. He needed coffee; it was obvious his brain wasn't running on all cylinders.

"Page Chin," Steve ordered. Toast grabbed the radio.

"Hold up," Gutches said, looking at the group, eyes on Steve. "Why not get one of my guys to monitor things?"

"Because there's no one better at reading sea temperature and wind measurements to predict the course of a storm than Chin."

Gutches held his hands out in surrender. "Just offering my team's services. It's your ship."

Steve all but said 'I know', nodding instead. Danny cracked a yawn and realized for the first time that he stank from his run. He grimaced, knowing there wouldn't be enough time to sneak in a shower before prepping for the storm surge.

***

The trick to smooth sailing during rough seas was simple; slow the ship's speed in order to ride up and over the waves rather than driving the bow into them. If conditions worsened, reduce even more speed, lessening the strain on the hull. But savage waters exerted powerful forces on a vessel, especially in rough weather.

Clad in a yellow raincoat, Danny stood on deck, rain and wind thrashing around him as he oversaw the metal shields expanding around the solar panels. He could monitor things from the safety of the wheelhouse instead of getting drenched, but he didn't trust stuff he couldn't see with his own eyes.

The Hoku shuddered, rolling from side to side and he grabbed on for dear life the railing that ran along the bulkhead. A gust of wind knocked back his hood, cold rain spraying him in the face; he couldn't feel his cheeks. But Danny watched in satisfaction as the last set of doors closed around the solar panels and he pumped a fist in triumph.

He sloshed through a river of water streaming around his boots as he headed for the engine room and fell down when the ship pitched violently up and down like a seesaw.

"Damn it," he growled, scrambling back up, his knees smarting. This storm was vicious.

It took longer than usual to make it back inside as he dripped water everywhere. He looked for the pen to log his time outside when he heard an emergency call over the radio in Kono's voice.

"We have a man down, request emergency medical assistance in stairwell C-31. I repeat, we have a man down."

**

By the time he changed out of his rain jacket and threw on some dry clothes, the emergency calls had ended. Danny raced down the ladders, his shoulder slamming against the wall when the ship lurched again. Ignoring the pain, he made his way down to the cramped sick bay, surprised to find Jacks and Gutches hanging out in the hallway. Giving them a curious look, he entered sickbay and stood off to the side to avoid the flurry of activity.

Danny swallowed down a lump in his throat when he recognized Chin on the steel exam table with three medical personnel hustling around, shouting orders. Malia looked over at him, her face a mask of concentration before quickly drawing a curtain around the triage bay.

Sucking in a ragged breath, Danny's eyes scanned the brightly lit room, his gaze landing on Kono who stood in the opposite corner, looking pale and shaken. He hurried toward her.

"Danny," she whispered, her eyes bright and wet.

"Hey," he said.

Kono didn't reach for a hug and Danny didn't try to give her one. But he stood within reach, offering comfort and strength, however and whenever she needed it.

"What happened?"

"I'm not sure." Kono listlessly stared at the curtain. "I knew he'd be called up to the wheelhouse because of the storm. I was on my way to meet Chin when I found him at the bottom of the ladders. He must have fallen during one of the swells. I...I think he must've hit his head."

"It looks like he was brought here quickly," he said, trying to be soothing.

"Lt. Jacks responded to the call first." She exhaled heavily and wiped at her nose. "He and Gutches helped Max's team transport Chin here."

"That's good. Max is the best and SEALs, they have extensive triage training, there's really no better."

"Those stairs are metal. If he fell all the way down..."

"Shhhh, we're not going to think like that. No what-ifs. Okay? We have a top notch infirmary with one of the best groups of medical brains the islands have to offer."

Kono pulled herself together and looked Danny in the eye, putting on a brave front. "Yeah. We do."

Danny gave her a reassuring smile as the ship pitched violently again, the lights flickering and casting odd shadows as people frantically moved behind the closed curtain.

***

The infirmary was nothing but white walls with stark lights, metal shelves crammed with instruments and equipment. Danny had no intention of leaving, but a part of him couldn't help worrying about the engines, or the ballast tanks keeping their center of gravity during the storm. And he hated himself for having his focus divided.

Steve made his way inside sickbay and stood between him and Kono, a silent statue of barely restrained intensity. No doubt he was trying to decide if there was something he could shoot or stab to help. But for all of Steve's simmering worry, he held onto Kono's hand, and that simple gesture lent silent strength.

And when Gutches stood in the door with Kaye hovering behind him, their presence somehow meant something, and Danny nodded at them in thanks.

After what felt like an eternity, Max stepped out from behind the curtain, rows of scanners and portable x-ray machines obscuring Chin from view.

"I know all of you want answers," Max began voice solemn. "So, I will be as precise as possible with the facts I have. Based on CT and MRI images, Mr. Kelly has a four-centimeter hematoma as well as two smaller ones in the left frontal lobe. This was caused most likely from striking his forehead on one of the metal rungs in the stairwell."

"What does that mean?" Kono asked quietly.

"There is pressure on the surrounding brain tissue rupturing some of the arteries. As blood spills into the brain, the pressure cuts off the supply of oxygen to vital areas." Max waited a beat, clearing his throat uncomfortably. "Which could lead to a stroke."

Danny took in a breath, keeping his voice quiet but steady. "And what can we do to prevent that?"

"We will pursue several non-invasive procedures," Max answered sedately. "Starting with the administration of diuretics to help reduce pressure inside the brain as well as anti-seizure medications to avoid any additional brain damage. But most importantly, we will use medications to regenerate genetic vascular pathways to heal the damaged arteries."

Kono nodded along, but as always, she was also the most pragmatic. "And if that doesn't work?"

Max didn't even beat around the bush. "Normally any rupture over three centimeters in size requires micro surgery to repair, but given that we have access to neuroscience techniques, we may be able to dodge such tricky procedures in less than stellar conditions."

"And what if you had a little help with that?" Gutches stepped further inside as the ship rolled hard. "My team might have something that could decrease the odds of needing surgery."

Danny had never seen Steve with such an expression of shock as he stared at Gutches. Danny didn't know what to make of it.

Kaye hurried into the room, planting herself into the middle of the group. "What Commander Gutches is trying to say, is that we may have some advanced RNA regenerative medications that could repair cells at the genetic level at a much faster rate than you're accustomed to."

"How fast?" Kono demanded.

"Very," Kaye answered.

"As in hours instead of weeks," Gutches added.

Max gawked. "That is amazing."

"It is highly classified and would require multiple non-disclose agreements with heavy penalties for any violation," Kaye reiterated, antsy.

She looked over at Steve obviously waiting for a reaction, but Steve stood like a statue, his hands clamped around his biceps in bruising fashion.

Kono moved into Kaye's orbit, not quite in her face, but close enough. "Tell me how."

"Wait a minute." Danny still hadn't gotten over the jolt from the last few seconds. "We have the ability to regenerate blood vessels in minutes?"

"Blood vessels, nerve endings, muscle tissue," Steve said his voice devoid of emotion.

Danny stared dumbfounded. He'd known from sources and talking to Steve a little bit about the secret SEAL physiological blueprint for combat effectiveness. Enhancing the body by altering a person's DNA with viruses and chemicals. Enhancements being the word wielded around like it was nothing.

"It works," Gutches insisted.

Kono glared at him. "How?"

"That's classified," Gutches said with a straight face.

"Tell me." But this time Kono stared at Steve, desperate. "Please. I need to know."

Steve unclenched his jaw enough to talk, but his voice was thick. "Depending on the type of injury, the site of the damage is injected with stem cells inside a mixture of blood clotting proteins and growth chemicals, promoting rapid regeneration of damaged nerves and tissues."

Max's eyes lit up with dawning realization his voice in awe. "There have been promising therapies for regenerating nerve growth by repairing proteins locally near an injury site within a nerve's axon. I've had excellent progress with many patients, including repairing a damaged spinal cord with such techniques." He fiddled his glasses, brow furrowed. "But the recovery took six weeks."

"But they fully recovered?" Kono asked.

"Yes, with full function." Max cocked his head in thought. "When nerves repair themselves after an injury, it is done with no control over the pattern of re-growth. But if you can induce growth faster, than recovery would be rapid after an injury," he said talking out loud. "Fascinating."

Danny still couldn't wrap his mind around all the implications. He looked at Gutches, side-eying Steve. "This therapy can do things like repair broken bones in days?"

"Hours," Gutches said not elaborating.

"Hours," Danny echoed in outrage.

"Don't sound so appalled," Gutches said, chastising. "This science has allowed soldiers to recover from horrific injuries without traumatic operations and long recovery times."

"Of course it has," Danny snapped, temper rising and exploding. "But fuck the rest of the civilian population."

Kaye moved in front of Danny before he could take another step into Gutches' personal space. "We have very limited resources, not to mention ongoing, highly expensive research involved in these techniques."

"Right," Danny spat. He felt his cheeks grow hot. "So, only those with super-secret status are granted the privilege of –"

"Enough! The both of you!" Kono yelled and looked over at Max, ignoring Danny. "Can you do it?"

"With more detailed instructions and explanations on how the actual therapy works," Max rattled off. "Yes."

"And do you think," Kono blew out a breath, her voice cracking. "Will it cause him any pain?"

"Again, I will need to learn more about the therapy," Max said. "But as long as Mr. Kelly remains sedated he will not be conscious to experience such a traumatic recovery."

Danny was hit with a sense of dread. "Wait a second." He swallowed past the bile in his throat. Danny glared at Gutches, his nostrils flaring from a strong whiff of nicotine. "This therapy, it was used during battlefield triage?"

"Affirmative."

Danny risked a glance over at Steve who stood with his spine straight, expression completely blank. Danny's thoughts drifted to the scars he'd stroked and kissed, wondering in horror if Steve had been subjected to such drastic measures.

 

***

Danny watched Steve stand in the corner, solid and unmoving, except for his eyes, which never stopped watching Kono, Kaye, and Wade as they spoke to Max. Occasionally his gaze drifted toward the curtain then toward the floor. Danny couldn't ask the dozens of questions running through his head.

What other secrets did Steve and Wade share? What possible unspeakable horrors?

Danny understood why Steve never talked about his time with the SEALs. But how else was he supposed to help if Steve never allowed Danny in?

Steve still hadn't moved an inch, or said a word, being very un-Steve-like as Gutches handed Max a black container from the cooler.

"If those meds have to be kept refrigerated, how were they stored during combat?" Danny asked. It was perfectly reasonable question for the moment.

"They're best stored near freezing," Gutches said, "but the injectors use ammonium nitrate to keep them cold."

"How resourceful," Danny muttered.

He glanced over at Kono as she sat at a table next to Kaye, opposite Wade and Max, the three of them engaged in intense discussions. It felt too cut and dried, a miracle treatment without strings attached.

"So, does this therapy. –"

"Works," Gutches repeated.

"Really?" Danny asked with a snap of his fingers. "Just like that?"

"No," Steve answered this time.

"But it's fast?" Danny was flailing. It was like walking a minefield; he sighed, frustrated. "I wouldn't ask so many questions if you'd use words that contained more than one syllable."

"It's as fast as a billion molecules repairing something the size of a city. It's…" Steve fought for words. "Not instantaneous."

Danny flicked his eyes toward Gutches, Max, and Kaye, biting down on his lip at Kono's hopeful expression. Decisions based on emotion were wrought with problems. Were they thinking of Chin or themselves?

"And if it only fixes the support beams and foundation?"

"You're alive when you should be dead," Gutches answered unconcerned. "The body has to fix the rest on its own time table."

"Right. I mean, who cares about pesky things like complications," Danny muttered because someone had to say it.

"It's only one treatment; Chin's recovery should be fine."

Anger shot through Danny at the insensitivity of Steve's words. Danny had expected to have to hold Steve back given his close friendship with Chin. This stoic coldness had thrown him for a loop, but Danny was distracted when Max rose to his feet and walked toward his desk, taking the medical container with him.

"We should talk to Kono, see how she's doing," Danny muttered.

Steve looked like he'd finally broken out of his self-imposed hold when Toast's voice came over Steve's radio, urgently requesting him to the bridge. Danny glared at him.

Steve patted his hand against the butt of his weapon. "I have to go."

"Tell them to wait," Danny growled, knowing he was being unreasonable.

The ship rocked hard and Steve grabbed a hold of the wall, planting his feet. "You know I can't."

And Steve was already out the door, Gutches quickly on his heels before Danny could yell at either of them.

"You don't have to stay."

Danny whirled around at the sound of Kono's voice. "What?"

"We're in the middle of a dangerous operation during a major storm." Kono leveled him with an unrelenting expression, showing once again her maturity during a crisis. "You have a job to do. Unless you can assist Max with a neurological procedure?"

Kono was right, but it didn't release the pressure valve inside him. "But someone should stay with you."

"Jenna said she would."

Danny shot a look at Kaye who tentatively lifted up her hand and waved at him. He crinkled his forehead at Kono. "Wait, it's Jenna now?"

"She's not a member of the crew; she isn't needed to run the ship." Kono lightly punched him in the bicep. "You are."

"Hey," he said, giving her a gentle tap to the arm in return. "So are you."

"Steve knows if he needs me I'll be there." She stood strong, head held high. "Until then I'm going to sit with Chin."

The Hoku shuddered again; this time Danny's name squawked over the infirmary's radio, paging him to the engine room.

"I guess I should..."

"Brah, get out of here," Kono said. "And mahalo."

***

Danny hunkered down between all the pipes of the engine room, watching the bank of dials flicker. Battling storms pushed the engines, he could feel the heat from Boiler One through his shirt as he walked by, the temp spiking over 200°F.

But his biggest concern was the big chrome water distillation system. The tank used engine heat to evaporate five thousand gallons of seawater into freshwater daily. It was their life's blood.

"Hey, boss," Polani yelled as she brushed past him, hurriedly unloading a toolbox. "I think we have a problem."

"I can see that," Danny yelled back. "Tell Simmons to get his ass in here, and page Levi; we need all hands on deck."

He quickly opened a supply hatch, grabbing a heavy orange protective coat, gloves, headphones, and a pair of safety goggles. By the time he suited up, one of the carbon filters used to purify the water as it collected into the supply tank started to smoke.

"Oh, no, no, no," he muttered, "come on baby, don't do this."

A second and third filter began crackling and Danny knew he was in for a long repair on zero sleep, not to mention he was still wearing his jogging clothes from his late night run with Steve.

***

Danny used the tiny laundry area next to the engine room to drop off his soiled coat and a mound of oily rags. He stank, his hair stuck up in all directions, and all he wanted was a hot shower. Opening the door to his quarters, Danny almost had a heart attack when he spotted a figure standing in the middle of the room.

"What the hell, Steven?"

"Sorry. I just got back."

"And you decided to just hang out in the dark?"

"I was thinking."

Danny stalked over to the nightstand and turned on the lamp. Steve squinted at the resulting light; his eyes were bloodshot with shadows underneath. Danny frowned. "What were you thinking about?"

"Too many things."

"That's not very helpful."

Steve walked slowly to one end of the room before returning to stand in front of Danny. "Max administered the treatment to Chin a little over an hour ago. He said there's already been significant progress."

"Does he know when –?"

"He'll have more information in the morning after he conducts additional scans."

It felt like a giant weight had lifted from Danny's shoulders; it was dizzying. "That's great news."

"I saw Kono and told her to stand down and get some sleep."

"Oh, so you talked to her after you ran off?"

Steve moved closer, his eyes dark with hurt. "I didn't run off."

"Okay, that wasn't fair. It's just..." Danny didn't want to do this right now, his head wasn't clear enough to have such an important conversation. But Steve just stood there like he did back in the infirmary, an unyielding mountain. "Damn it; don't make me the bad guy here just because I want to know what's going on with you."

"There's nothing going on with me," Steve growled, defensive.

"That's bullshit and you know it." The revelations from the infirmary still squeezed at Danny's heart, leaving him feeling bruised and helpless when all he wanted was to be trusted. "Please don't shut me out. Talk to me."

Steve pressed his hands over his face, muffling his words. "Danny."

Danny gently took a hold of Steve's hands and tugged them away from his face. "I've never pushed your boundaries about this; it wasn't my right. I hoped one day, maybe, when you were ready, you'd feel comfortable enough to tell me more about the stuff inside your head."

"It's not that," Steve whispered, slipping his fingers around Danny's hands.

"What is it then?" Danny whispered back his voice strained. "You gonna to tell me it's classified?"

Steve let go of Danny's hands, grinding his jaw, the tremor starting down his right arm more pronounced than normal.

Danny rubbed the rough stubble of Steve's jaw, gently kneading the muscle around his mandible in slow circles. “You know I could override the shower timer, let you go under the spray for ten minutes.”

Steve shook his head. “No, thanks.”

Danny frowned. "When's the last time you've slept?"

"I don't know."

The raw honestly made Danny's chest ache. It'd been almost been twenty-three hours since Danny saw his bed and he knew Steve had him beat by a long shot.

This time he couldn't pretend that he hadn't noticed the quiver, and his worry grew about what they'd all rushed to do in the infirmary. He gestured at Steve's hand. "You said that Chin –"

"This isn't caused from the same neuro-treatment Chin received. I would have told Kono upfront about possible side effects. And I would never allow the same thing to happen to Chin." Steve balled his hand into a fist, then opened it and held out his fingers as they twitched. "This is cumulative."

It took all of Danny's effort not to grab Steve's hand and hold it tight against his chest. "From too much or too many kinds of metabolic drugs?" he asked. Did every SEAL have this problem? Danny hadn't noticed anything with Gutches or Lieutenant Jacks.

"Too many chemicals and hormones too close together," Steve muttered.

He dropped his arm to the side and started to pick up his shoes from the floor.

"Wait," Danny said, moving over and touching Steve's shoulder. "Where are you going?"

"I need to go for a run. This thing with Chin...I..."

"You haven't slept in over thirty hours. Your brain is misfiring and telling your muscles they need to move, but you need to sleep, babe. You can't make informed decisions if you're fried."

Steve chuckled; it was a disturbing sound. "I was actually conditioned to maintain steady cognition with exercise to neutralize stress hormones."

"Well, tonight I think you should take one of your emergency prescriptions."

"Danny."

"I know you hate them." The irony of pushing pills on Steve wasn't lost on Danny, but physical exertion wasn't the answer this time. "You need more than three hours sleep." Steve was relenting, Danny could tell by the tilt of his head, how he exhaled softly. "You know I'm making sense. If something happens, I'll wake you up, and you'll be more alert because you actually turned off your brain."

Reluctantly, Steve put down his shoes, and Danny went over and pulled Steve into a hug, burying his face into Steve's shirt. "You'll feel better, I promise."

 

***

Danny wasn't sure what woke him up, but his eyes flew open as he listened for whatever might have triggered his alertness. They should have navigated away from the worst of the storm by now. He felt Steve jerk beside him, his breathing rapid, and Danny realized what had woken him.

Wiping grit out of his eyes, Danny sat up in bed, listening to Steve mumble. It'd been a couple of weeks since Steve had been plagued by nightmares; lately he hadn't slept long enough to be disturbed by one.

Even in the darkness, Danny could see Steve's face pinched in distress, the front of his hair mashed against his forehead in sweat.

"Steve," Danny called out.

He refrained from touching, knowing it could earn him a fist in the face. "Steve, babe, wake up," he said louder.

Steve's breathing hitched, chest heaving, yelling out.

"McGarrett, wake up, that's an order!" Danny shouted.

Steve made a loud choked noise deep in his throat; it was a sad, pitiful noise, ripping Danny's heart apart.

Pulse pounding, Danny risked laying a hand on Steve's shoulder, lightly squeezing. "It's okay, shssh."

But Steve was in a sedative induced sleep so Danny squeezed Steve's shoulder just a little bit tighter. The effect was instantaneous – Steve shot up screaming.

Danny startled, dropping his hand as if burned, his own heart racing. But Steve continued screaming, eyes blank and lost in the throes of something horrible.

"Steve, look at me," Danny said, trying to remain calm. "Listen to my voice, you're on the Hoku."

Steve stared vacantly, close to hyperventilating, his screams lost in his gasps for air.

Danny touched his back, pressing his hand against Steve's sweat-soaked t-shirt. "You're okay; you're okay," he repeated like a mantra.

With each okay, Steve's breathing slowed minutely, Danny's hand steady between his shoulder blades. "There you go. Breathe in and out."

Steve sucked in a breath. "Danny?"

"Right here." Danny sighed in relief at the recognition in Steve's voice. "Do you know where you are?"

Steve blinked and looked down at his chest.

"Steve?" Danny repeated.

"I'm..." Steve looked over at Danny, then at the walls, the ceiling, back to Danny's face. "I'm on the Hoku."

Danny rubbed Steve's back just a fraction. "I'm sorry I told you to take that prescription."

"My choice."

"I pushed."

"You always push."

Danny snorted because, yeah, he did. "The last few days have stirred things up, huh?"

Steve didn't look or speak to him. It was a familiar sense of being pushed away and Danny sighed, giving Steve's shoulder a squeeze. "Okay. Well..."

"I remembered being back on the mainland. Not sure which day, they all blend together."

Rarely was Danny lost for words, but they failed him now as he sat very still, resting his hands in his lap, waiting for Steve to lead the way.

Steve gazed off in the distance, the darkness shielding most of his face, his voice gritty from sleep. "The ground was crunchy, like walking on metal gravel. There were no buildings, or roads. Nothing at all. Not a single sign that there'd ever been a city. It's not like I expected to find skyscrapers, but everything was just dust. Endless dust. It still looked like dawn at three in the afternoon." He swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. "We had to wear special fatigues against radiation and filtered gas masks to breathe."

Danny's heart sped up and he tried breathing quietly, making as little noise as possible.

"Some guys in my platoon thought the machines bulldozed the remains of all the buildings." Steve snorted. "What would they need them for?" He started playing with the front of his T-shirt. "I figured the heat from fifteen kilotons of bombs melted everything in sight....Even through the filtered mask, I couldn't get the burnt smell out of my nostrils."

Steve started twisting his shirt between his fingers.

"We must have hiked twenty miles before we detected a source of electrical activity; the bastards were tapping into the river systems to produce hydro-power. We followed the power lines to these — guess they were underground compounds? Only things visible were the roofs."

He leaned his head against the bed-board.

"We were still searching for their surveillance facilities when we must have been picked up by one of their satellites, because the next thing we knew there was this horrible noise." Steve's mouth twisted into a scowl. "A sonic weapon of some sort. If we hadn't put on our protective headphones, it probably would have had deafened us."

"Sonic weapons?" Danny had heard of them, but didn't know the machines had used them.

"We don't think they'd perfected them yet, but even with the headphones, we could feel the shock-waves. We were forced to set off some of our smaller EMP bombs to knock out their satellites relays on the ground. But it didn't matter."

Danny grimaced. The whole team had been compromised; there would have been nowhere to run.

"With the satellites blacked out, we still had a small window of time to locate their ground radar and knock it out for the air bombing." Steve shook his head in misery. "After ten hours of searching we'd run out of luck."

"They found you," Danny whispered.

"They launched air gliders, dozens of them with thermal detection. And goddamned lasers." Steve took a shaky breath. "I lost my first six men." He rubbed a hand over his face. "We evaded the best we could, retreating into the mountains... But it was a deathtrap."

Danny touched Steve's arm and Steve jerked it away, shaking in anger.

"They shelled the mountain twenty-four-seven with thousands of pounds of ordinance. We were down there for days, moving and crawling through caverns while the ceiling and walls blew up around us."

"Jesus, Steve."

"We all got banged up, I got a pieces of rock lodged in my shoulder. Tore an artery." He kneaded the stretch of muscle below his collarbone. "Got it patched up and kept moving."

Nightmarish chasms and mortar explosions filled Danny's mind; fear gripped his chest at being trapped and hunted non-stop, knowing there was no escape, no backup waiting for them if they could hold out.

Guilt began gnawing away at him for pushing this. "You don't have to–"

"We kept going," Steve repeated, his voice thickening in anger, balling and unballing his fist.

When Steve paused, Danny took a moment to grab the soft squishy rubber ball he kept in the nightstand drawer and slipped it inside Steve's hand.

Steve rolled and squeezed the ball, his gaze elsewhere. "The machines sent these...we called them diggers."

"Diggers?"

"Like sea drones, except instead of tubes, they were articulated drill bits with legs. You'd think something that wasn't armed wouldn't be so scary. But they kept coming, dozens upon dozens. Drilling through walls, crawling under every crevice, hunting us down like scared underground rats. And you know what?" Steve asked, his voice guttural as he sucked in a breath.

"We never backed down because my CO ensured we were doped up to the gills. He kept tweaking and re-balancing our hormone levels so we didn't feel panic, and kept fighting, even when the odds were against us. We'd never give up because we were just as fearless as those damn machines."

Danny stared speechless, anger on an epic level flooding every inch of him. He wanted Steve to stop, he didn't want to hear anymore, didn't want these terrible truths inside his head.

Steve squeezed the rubber ball into a fist, looking like he wanted to punch something. "Do you know what it's like to feel so numb and detached from the danger around you that you don't flinch at the nearest explosion?" His hand shook. "That your ability to analyze a situation, give men orders, is compromised because you have no idea your mind's been roofied?"

Danny had never felt so helpless in all his life, trapped by not being able to do anything but listen. And he did, giving Steve his full attention, Steve whose face cracked with grief and anger at every horrible memory.

"After half the mountain was obliterated, we had no choice but to evac." Steve blew out a breath. "More machines were waiting for us. This time six-legged things. Metal frameworks with cameras and mounted guns. Fast. Able to scale any incline. They worked as a unit."

"Like animal packs?" Danny shivered, imagining freaky six-legged machines stalking him.

"The fear-suppressors would wear off in between injections – and those things, they... they scared the hell out of me." Steve sat up straighter in bed and for the first time he looked Danny in the eye. "Their weakness was the cameras; blind them, and they were useless. If you could get close enough. Took days of cat and mouse before we got them all. By then? Between the mountain and those six-legged things, we'd been whittled down to a couple dozen guys. Joe... My CO was killed. I was left in charge."

Steve didn't say a word for a while, staring off in thought, and Danny debated ending it there, but Steve continued, plowing through.

"The machines leaked chemicals into the water supply, nothing we did could purify it enough to drink. We figured it was only a matter of time before they did the same to air. So we decided as a team to search for their surveillance again."

Because it was only a matter of time. But Danny didn't give voice to the thoughts running through his head. "But you found the ground radar?"

"By accident." Steve snorted, wiping at his nose and mouth. "Most of us were healing from one injury or another when we stumbled across the facility. We set the charges, blew up the place, and radioed our success."

"Even though you knew reinforcements weren't there?" Danny growled, pissed. Because while Steve and his team were fighting for their lives, the navy had given up on them.

Steve cocked his head in confusion, like it was incomprehensible not to have notified the Navy. "Yeah. We had to let them know the mission had been completed."

Danny stared at Steve, wanting to smack the wall at such blind loyalty.

"I got hurt in an explosion during our retreat; my legs were filled with shrapnel." Steve held himself rigid. "We'd run out of almost all our sedatives...I...I think one of my guys punched me to knock me out." He pursued his lips. “The next thing I remember, I was waking up in the infirmary days later.”

But a punch wouldn't have knocked Steve out for days. Danny couldn’t fathom the idea that part of Steve's treatment might have still been ongoing while he was conscious. That Steve might have blocked it all out.

Danny felt like throwing up. He didn't know how to process what he'd just heard, how to cope, knowing he'd been entrusted with something so personal and terrifying, knowing he and everyone else on the islands had happily swallowed the lies they'd been fed by the military propaganda machine.

He wet his lips, curling his fingers around Steve's, intertwining them, the squish ball rolling onto the bed. “You're amazing, I can't even...”

Steve blinked owlishly at him and Danny snorted in disbelief. “Of course you don't know. Because you're you, but babe, I...you have to be the strongest person I've ever met. I can't fathom what it took to endure that and come back so intact.”

“Danny...”

“Don't Danny me. And please, please stop selling yourself short. You overcame astonishing odds, you endured physical and mental alterations and battled against...” Danny swallowed hard. “You are the same person who became a SEAL. You're a survivor. With a few cracks and dents under the hood, but Steve, I have no words...I...you mean the world to me."

Steve squeezed his hand, smiling shyly.

Danny couldn't take it and wrapped his arms around Steve's broad shoulders, pulling him close. Steve didn't immediately relax, but Danny didn't expect him to, and he only squeezed tighter. Steve tugged Danny down, draping Danny over himself. Danny burrowed into Steve's warmth, resting his head under Steve's chin. For a moment, he was going to tell Steve how sorry he was for what he'd gone through, but he knew it would be the wrong thing to say, so he kissed Steve's jaw.

Steve ran his hand through Danny's hair, whispering, "You mean the world to me too, Danno."

***

Chapter Text

***

Steve woke up without a start for once, and he allowed himself the briefest satisfaction of lying next to Danny, watching his golden-haired chest rise and fall before pushing the covers away.

"Don't get up yet," Danny mumbled.

"It's 0700, we –"

"Can lie here another ten minutes."

"No, we can't." Steve sat up, stretching, his back popping in all the right places. "Come on."

"Steven."

Steve sat on the edge of the bed, reached over, and brushed his fingers along the knob of Danny's wrist. Relishing the feel of soft fuzz and skin. "Thank you, for you, know..."

Danny pushed up to his elbows and looked at Steve with a fond, sleep-mussed face. "That's what we're supposed to do for each other."

Steve ducked his head and he reluctantly finished getting out of bed. "If you hurry, you can join me in the shower," he called over his shoulder, permitting himself a tiny smile of his own when Danny cursed him.

***

Steve finished putting on his boots before Danny and waited impatiently. "Come on, twinkle toes," he called out over his shoulder, opening the hatch, and walking into the hallway.

He didn't expect to find Grace sitting right outside reading a book.

"Grace, sweetie?" Steve squatted on his haunches. "What are you doing out here?"

Putting her book down, Grace slowly got to her feet. She looked frazzled in her wrinkled pajamas and uncombed hair. "I was waiting on you and dad to get up."

"Are you okay?" Steve waited for Grace to answer, but she stood timidly. He licked his lips knowing he was treading volatile waters. "Did you sleep out here?"

Grace's chin fell and she stared down at the floor when Danny came out and froze, upset, the narrow corridor prevented him from rushing toward his daughter.

"Grace? What's going on?" Steve stepped back, allowing Danny to come over and kneel in front of her. "Is something wrong?" Had the storm kept her awake?

"I..." Grace looked from Danny to Steve, then back to her father, clearly embarrassed. "I couldn't sleep."

"Okay, I'm sorry you couldn't sleep," Danny said softly, "but that doesn't explain why you camped out in the hallway."

"I would have gone to see Catherine, but she was working, and Kono..."

Danny rubbed his hands up and down her arms, his face a tightly composed expression. "Yeah, and she's probably sleeping."

"Because of what happened to Uncle Chin?"

Danny looked gut-punched. No matter how hard any of them tried, there was no shielding those they loved from the hard reality of life.

"I know you're worried about your Uncle Chin, but he's getting the best care."

Grace nodded pitifully. "I know."

"But sweetie," Danny whispered, "that doesn't explain why you slept in the hallway."

Glancing over at Steve, then to Danny, Grace lowered her voice. "I...I was going to knock on your door, but I heard," she paused, looking over at Steve.

Steve's chest tightened. Had he screamed during his nightmare? Had it been loud enough for her to hear?

Grace quickly averted her eyes, focusing only on her father. "I stayed in the hallway to make sure, to make sure you and Steve were safe."

Steve felt sick, his gut twisting in knots in realization that he'd contributed to her anxiety.

"Baby, that's our job," Danny said, trying to console her with a hug.

Grace wiggled out of his arms. "I can take care of myself."

"I know you can," Danny said with all the tested patience of parent with a young teenage daughter. "But we all have duties on the ship, right? And mine and Steve's job includes taking care of you."

"I don't need you to take care of me."

Sighing, Danny rubbed tiredly at his eyes, but his tone remained gentle. "I know you think that, and when things upset you, it's hard to tell me because talking about stuff that scares us is hard to admit." He rested his forehead against hers, stroking Grace's hair. "But I think people who do share their fears are the bravest people in the world."

Steve wanted the floor to open up and swallow him whole.

Grace lifted up her head. "Can I go visit Chin?"

Danny glanced over at Steve for help and Steve knelt down as Danny stepped back. "Gracie. Your Dad and I were going to visit Chin before going to work."

"Can I come with you?"

"He's probably sleeping right now, because that is the best thing for healing, but I promise as soon as it's okay, you can go." Steve was engulfed in a giant hug and he wrapped his arms around Grace, whispering in her ear, "And I'm sorry if I scared you last night."

Grace squeezed him even tighter, whispering back, "It's okay, I had you and Danno's back."

***

Steve strode down the corridor, unrelenting.

"Commander McGarrett?" Steve whirled around at the sound of his name. Lt. Jacks hurried after him, stopping in front of Danny. "Sir, Commander Gutches has been looking for you."

"First off, I don't wear the uniform anymore," Steve said tersely. "Second, tell Wade I'll meet with him after I stop by the infirmary."

Lieutenant Jacks was lanky, but all muscle, and he stood straighter under Steve's glare. "I was told to escort you back, sir."

Danny raised an eyebrow at that and Steve stepped closer to Jacks, imposing himself in the younger man's personal space. "I'll walk with you after I visit my friend."

There was no doubt that Jacks could get physical with Steve, but he relented, his spine ramrod straight. "I'll wait for you outside the infirmary when you're done."

Steve didn't say a word, spinning around and walking beside Danny down the hall.

***

All ship infirmaries smelled and looked the same. Sterile. Crammed. People in white coats hurrying about their tiny workspace. The lab and washrooms nothing more than cubicles; the surgery theater the size of a large closet.

Steve had spent a week living in a space only large enough to accommodate his bed and surrounding equipment as his carrier made its way home. His arms had been black and blue from blood draws, head spinning from all the neurological tests.

He hated that Chin was stuck in here, that the mission forced Steve to choose between attending to one friend and the safety of his whole crew. And maybe Steve selfishly didn't want to be reminded about certain things.

Max breezed over carrying a clipboard and greeted Steve and Danny. "I am happy to report that after bringing Mr. Kelly out of sedation he is awake and coherent."

"That's great," Danny said. "Is he..?"

"According to MRI and CT scans, there is only a point six millimeter bled, which is down from the point nine just three hours ago. And the original four centimeter bleed from yesterday." Max scribbled a few notes and put the clipboard down on a table, turning his full attention to them. "It is quite an astonishing recovery. At least ten to twenty years ahead of anything I'm familiar with."

Danny had that faraway look in his eye, the one Steve recognized when he thought of Rachel, of his days before hunting down high-seas criminals.

Steve cleared his throat, looking at the back of the infirmary. "You said Chin was conscious?"

"And talking," Max said. "He does suffer sporadic periods of dizziness and sensitivity to light, but otherwise he is doing very well. I have a battery of cognitive tests to do later in the day once he has rested some more."

Danny slapped Steve on the back. "Come on, let's go see our boy."

***

Steve stood at the foot of Chin's bed, Danny on the right side while Kono sat in the chair to the left. There wasn't a single inch to spare.

Chin's bed was slightly elevated, an IV was attached in his right arm, and leads and wires snaked out from under his gown. His forehead sported a bandage, his eyes and surrounding skin discolored and swollen, almost hiding the row of stitches from where he must have hit his head.

Steve squeezed one of Chin's feet. "It's good to see you awake."

"Mahalo," Chin said, sounding tired but strong. "I'm itching to get of here."

Kono shook her head; she looked exhausted. "Not until Max gives the all clear."

"When?" Chin asked, looking at her. "After he x-rays my head ten more times?"

"If that's what it takes," she said.

Chin blew out a frustrated breath and looked over at Steve. "What's our sit-rep?"

"We moved through the storm a few hours ago and we have teams working around the clock to take care of repairs.”

"And our next move?" Chin asked, rapid fire.

Deep inside, Steve's chest filled with pride. Chin Ho Kelly was one tough sonofabitch, his loyalty second to none. "Unknown. I should have an update later today."

Chin started to sit up. "If you need me," he said, but paused suddenly, squeezing his eyes close.

"Hey, now." Danny placed a gentle hand on Chin's chest. "Enough of that. Beds are for lying down."

"I'll call you when you've been cleared for duty and not a minute before," Steve added sternly.

Chin sighed, relaxing back against his pillow. "I'm sure with more sleep..."

"Hey, this isn't something you can brush off," Kono said, leaning over the rail. "We need to make sure there are no complications, no long-term side effects."

"Okay. I will."

"You stood by me when I lost my leg; thick and thin. Don't think I'm going anywhere."

Chin gave her a sincere smile. "Never doubted it."

The silence that fell was interrupted when the curtain was pushed back and Lieutenant Jacks appeared next to Steve. "I'm sorry sir, but Commander Gutches –"

"I told you to wait until I was done, Lieutenant," Steve hissed, eyes blazing at the interruption.

Jacks stood unflinching. "Something requires your immediate attention, sir. Something the commander did not want to communicate over the radio."

Steve mentally shifted gears. "I'll be right behind you."

He turned his attention toward Chin who was already waving him away. "Go, brah."

Kono started to rise out of her chair, but Steve shook his head. "Stay, but be sure to check intraship Morse code. We might need you to jump in at the helm."

"On it," she replied.

Steve didn't have to say a word to Danny as he followed him and Jacks out of the infirmary.

***

The bridge buzzed with energy, Wade hovering behind Toast, his posture taut with tension. Kaye stood behind him, listening and observing. Steve tried to ignore the sense of relief he felt from the rest of the communication's crew when he and Danny walked in.

"We've lost a dozen quadrants of the grid," Wade informed them.

Wade didn't move from his spot behind the sonar station, forcing Steve and Danny to take spots next to the burly man.

"All twelve at once?" Steve demanded.

"Affirmative."

"When?" Danny asked.

Wade glared at the sonar display like it would bend to his will and give him all the answers. "Six minutes ago."

"Damn it," Toast cursed. He turned around in his chair. "Quadrants one-sixty through one-seventy-two just went down."

Steve's hand twitched. "Distance to that part of the array?"

"Nine hundred miles," Toast reported.

"Time to course at maximum speed?" Wade asked, beating Steve to the next question.

"Um." Toast blinked, doing the calculations in his head. "Five hours and twenty minutes."

Wade turned to Steve. "We should plot a course."

Steve ignored him, walking over, and studying the map along the bulletin board. "That's only a couple hundred miles south of the Aleutian islands."

"Hot spots for terrorist activity," Danny commented.

Steve stared at Kaye. "Do we have any patrols in the area?"

"Negative." She joined them by the bulletin board, eyes scanning the different colored pushpins representing grid points and sabotaged areas. "The normal patrol took heavy mortar fire from these positions three months ago."

Danny's eyebrows rose in disbelief. "And we didn't send out reinforcements?"

"There are over half a dozen splinter militias fighting over a small set of tiny inlets with under thirty square miles of total land. It was decided our resources were better allocated elsewhere while they fought each other." Kaye dodged the criticism, expertly delivering Military Intelligence's strategic position.

Danny walked toward the bulletin board mid-way through her explanation. "If we set course for this part of the grid we'll be over two thousand nautical miles from the nearest reinforcements."

"We've always been on our own for this mission," Wade said. "Nothing's changed. The Hoku's EMP weapon can neutralize electronics in any direction for fifty miles. Not to mention her M242 cannon and two .50 caliber machine guns."

"Really?" Danny said astonished. "Huh. I wasn't aware of our firepower and I've been a part of this crew for over three years."

Wade glared at Danny with an expression chiseled out of concrete.

Steve ignored the mutual dick swinging as he stared at Wade, trying to analyze what he wasn't saying. "You're really depending heavily on the Blackwing's firepower."

Wade cocked his head. "We've already talked about this during our first meeting. There are only twelve Blackwings in existence; it's like deploying a miniature army in the sky. She has her own EMP and artillery weapons and her stealth is an unparalleled advantage."

"Yes, we're all aware of the plan," Danny quipped. "We play tasty bait while taking out major weapons as your team deploys all ninja-like and takes out whom or whatever is responsible for the sabotage."

"Yeah, pretty much," Wade said, cocky. Then he glared at Steve. "And you of all people should know what a SEAL team is capable of."

Steve didn't answer him as he broke down their strategy for the fiftieth time. Their combined firepower could take out a small fleet. Still. It didn't feel right. His hand twitched again and he gave his whole arm a shake to chase the tremble away.

And Danny wasn't done clashing with Wade by a long shot, unleashing all his frustration in a whirlwind with a mini-tirade. "You are aware we're a police vessel?" he growled.

Steve moved in front Danny, easing him off to the side, and away from the rest of the bridge crew. "Come on, let's go for a walk."

He knew Danny was wound-up over the mission, at the mounting strain on the crew, on Grace. They'd already suffered one injury. But most of all, Steve needed time to think because something was off, something big enough to cause the marrow in his bones to burn. He needed to test a hunch.

***

It was ninety minutes before they reached the target-zone. Danny was visiting Grace and Steve took the opportunity to leave the bridge and go down to C-Level. He met Catherine where she stood at the bottom of stairs dressed in gray BDUs. She always loved the comfort of military clothes.

"Hey," he greeted.

Catherine smiled. "I kind of feel like we should be rendezvousing in a supply hatch or something. It's not every day I get secret Morse code messages to go off and do spy things."

"I wouldn't want to risk getting locked in a supply hatch." Steve glanced up the ladder, scanning the closed hatch to ensure they were alone. "Were you able to sneak a peek at the Blackwing?"

"Yeah. It wasn't hard once I reminded the petty officer in charge of her that this was a joint mission and I was the Hoku's weapons officer." Steve quirked an eyebrow and Catherine chuckled. "I also might have mentioned a possible ass chewing for insubordination from Gutches if I wasn't allowed to conduct an inspection."

"And?" Steve pressed.

"Nothing's amiss." Catherine bobbed her head side to side. "It has rockets, machines guns, dual EMP arrays, and an impressive set of EMP bombs. It could take out a whole fleet."

Steve leaned on the rail, chewing on a paranoid thought inside his head. "And what about signs of nukes?"

Catherine stared at him in disbelief. "No. Should there be?"

"No, I just..."

"Have trust issues?"

Was he really was that transparent? "Yeah."

Catherine patted him on the shoulder, visibly more relaxed. "Never trust those who are used to keeping secrets. But as far as hidden weapons, that bird is clean."

Steve felt something inside him uncoil. "Thanks, Cath."

 

***

Kaye stood next to Steve on the bridge, a bundle of controlled nerves. He wondered how many missions she'd overseen on a razor's edge, waiting, feeling completely out of control behind a mask of confidence.

He walked over to where Duke listened to his headphones. Steve laid a hand on the back of his chair.

"Nothing unusual on sonar," Duke relayed.

"Keep an eye out for anything that looks like it could be tailing us," Steve warned. "A school of fish or dolphins."

"We should use radar before we get too close," Kaye suggested.

"We'll wait."

"If we wait, then the SEAL team has less time to launch."

"And if we encounter a machine threat, we can't allow the Blackwing in the air until we use the EMP or we'll knock them out of the sky." Steve ignored Kaye as she muttered something about paranoid captains under her breath. He radioed the wheelhouse. "Helm report."

"We have negative visual contact for any target," Kono answered.

With Chin on medical leave, he had Kono inside the wheelhouse as a third spotter along with two more experienced watchmen.

Steve rested a hand on the butt of his sidearm, eyes darting from Duke to Toast sitting by his radar station, waiting on Steve's next instruction.

***

"Distance, thirty miles," Duke called out. "All clear."

"Toast, switch to radar," Steve ordered.

"On it." Toast put on his headset so he could relay information to the helm. "Keeping an eye out for any ominous fish or squirrely aquatic life."

Steve crossed his arms, keeping tabs with the wheelhouse. His place was on the bridge, but all he wanted to be was out on the deck—where he could smell the salty air, see the ocean with his own eyes.

***

"We're over quadrant one-sixty-one; there is no sign of enemy vessels," Duke reported. "And nothing within twenty square miles."

"Negative activity in the air," Toast called out.

Steve radioed the helm. "Begin normal search pattern."

"Aye, aye," Kono said.

"Steve!" Duke called out his name in alarm.

"You've got something?"

"Quadrant two-twelve," Duke said breathless. "It just went offline."

What the hell was going on?

Steve leaned over the side of the sonar station. "Distance?" he asked his mind scatter-shot.

"Three-hundred miles."

***

Steve gripped the railing outside, his cheeks numb from the constant exposure from the wind, his knuckles white. After thirteen hours, they'd made zero progress. Every time they reached a site of sabotage, another part of the grid went down in another location.

"Want a smoke?"

Steve didn't turn around. "No, thanks."

"You know, I couldn't stand the smell for the longest time." Wade stood beside him and looked up at the sky. "It reminded me of the ash on the mainland. Even when we were back home, I used to stand outside trying to clear my nose and lungs of that burning metal odor."

"When we were trapped inside the mountain. It smelled like a mix of burning electronics and meat." Steve swallowed against a sudden need to gag.

Wade fiddled with one of his rolled cigarettes. "We've had five quadrants go down in thirty-six hours."

"Your stating of the obvious is pitch perfect."

"Based on the location, distance, and time for each incident, Jacks has calculated the next possible target. If we set sail at full speed, we'll arrive tomorrow, two hours before the saboteur."

Steve tapped his hand against his hip to keep the spider-tingles at bay. "We should be picking up these targets on radar."

"Unless they have a way to avoid it." Wade put the smoke to his lips. "But you've probably already guessed that."

"After the third quadrant went down without a single blip? Yeah, it was on the forefront of my mind."

"If we're not successful in tracking down who or whatever is responsible in the next forty-eight hours, I'm going to have to alert the Navy that we're facing an unprecedented threat."

Steve straightened. "And?"

"Given the escalation and possibility of a machine preemptive strike?"

Steve knew the answer in his gut.

Wade flicked his lighter, the orange flame dying in the wind. "I'll have to recommend that the navy go on stand-by for an immediate bombing of the mainland."

***

Steve didn't want to eat meatloaf in the mess hall like there was nothing wrong, that the navy might begin another campaign, risking thousands of lives and threatening their fragile part of the world again. Send more teams back into the meat grinder.

What if the machines had adapted in the last four years? What if they launched a counter attack this time? What if...

He sliced up his dinner with extreme prejudice.

"Excuse me, but I think your food is already dead; no need for all the violence."

Steve glared at Danny while scraping his utensils loudly against the plate. Danny threw his napkin on the table. "Now that's just uncalled for."

"I should be on the bridge."

"Which you've been terrorizing all day. Time to give the crew a break from your prowling."

Steve soaked up some gravy with a piece of bread. "Something tells me the bridge crew aren't the only ones who need some space?"

"Perhaps it was highly encouraged that I 'take a break for a little while'." Danny grabbed one of Steve's rolls and started buttering it. "And before you start giving me a lecture, may I remind you we're over two thousand miles from home without a clue of how long we'll be chasing leads. We've had two storms and days of overcast."

"Are we in danger of running low on power?"

"You'd know if you'd bothered to read my daily reports."

Steve scowled and Danny waved his roll around as he spoke. "No, we're cool. We have another three weeks before reaching levels of concern, but that includes a six day return trip home."

Stabbing at another piece of meatloaf, Steve brought his fork up to his mouth, looking over to the empty chair next to Danny. "Where's Grace?"

Danny looking over at the empty spot forlornly. "With all the double shifts it's been hard for the crew to squeeze in her studies, so Fong's giving her a chemistry lesson right now."

"Have you gone back over all the safety protocols for–"

"Yes. If she doesn't get escorted to the safe-zone, Grace knows four different routes to reach it, including where to go if any of them are cut-off. She has her emergency backpack with a radio, food, water, a taser, and yes, a knife."

Steve kept his mouth shut about her need to carry heavier firepower. But he couldn't remain quiet about the guilt burning a hole in his gut. "I'm sorry that –"

"My eyes were wide-open when I joined the Hoku. I knew the risks, not just for me, but for Grace. We could walk to the market for bread and die in a bombing, drink contaminated water, or be another crime statistic." Danny looked at Steve, his voice going thick. "Or we could live out here together and try to make a difference for our home."

Steve swallowed his meatloaf. He didn't have the proper words to respond, his desire to be sure Danny and Grace would always be safe, that they would never have to experience such fear again causing him to lose his appetite. He put down his fork and glanced over when he heard two chatty voices approach the table.

"Is there room for two more for lunch?"

Steve stood up immediately upon seeing Kono and Chin. "It's good to see you up and about," he said, giving Chin a massive hug.

Chin squeezed back. "You really think a metal rung could keep me from the wheelhouse?"

Steve pulled away, looking him up and down. "You cleared for duty?"

Chin squinted at the overhead lights. "Not yet. Max said I needed a few more days, but if you need me to–"

"I'll wait on Max's recommendation first," Steve said.

He pulled out his sunglasses from his shirt pocket and gave them to Chin, who nodded in appreciation, slipping them on.

"That's the first common sense thing he's said in a while. I'd listen to him for once," Danny said, getting up. He held open his arms. "Can anyone else get in on this action?"

Danny and Chin hugged while Steve brushed his shoulder against Kono's. "You okay?" he whispered.

"I've had better days, but yeah, I'm okay."

Steve gave her arm a squeeze before they all sat around the table. After a few minutes of chitchatting, he glanced at his watch, bouncing his knee against the underside of the table as he tapped his foot. Danny slipped a hand on top of his leg, resting it there until Steve relaxed.

Mamo came by with a tray of fresh baked cookies a few minutes later as if he had a sixth sense for camaraderie. "I know it's not Wednesday, but I figured everyone could use one of these."

"You are a god among men," Danny said, snagging an oatmeal cookie.

Chin grabbed one, his expression turning thoughtful as he looked across the mess. He raised a hand in greeting at someone. "Hey Kaye. There's an open seat over here."

Kaye paused, looking slightly baffled. Steve cast a silent look at Chin and Kono, both nodding at him. Steve would give Kaye extended courtesies based on their trust, but he would keep it at a safe distance. Not with the Military Intelligence credentials she carried.

Walking over, Kaye glanced at the chair next to Kono, hesitating briefly before taking the seat. Steve noticed she wore a pair of dark jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.

Kaye quickly placed a paper napkin over her lap, eyes straying to Mamo who stood by quietly, still holding the tray. "Um. Are those oatmeal?"

"Yes. Have one," Mamo said, piling a few on the edge of her plate. "Everyone should enjoy a treat every once in a while."

Kaye held onto the cookie between her fingers with a tentative smile. "I can't remember the last time I had one."

"Mamo always has the answer for what ails you." Kono brushed crumbs off her shirt. "And I think we all need a few minutes outside of our heads."

Steve looked at his watch, but Danny gently nudged him in the shin. Steve folded his arms across his chest and tried his best to smile as everyone chatted.

***

Steve put on his coat, checking his Sig before walking onto the deck. The wind was icy, whipping in from the Arctic. He didn't think to grab a hat, walking briskly to do a final inspection of the ship before sequestering himself on the bridge. They would be in radar range of any possible vessels in less than three hours, just enough time to burn off the familiar build-up deep inside – a churning of energy.

Even after a few years of adjusting to a non-stop feeling of restlessness, Steve had never gotten used to the tingling underneath his skin, the firing of his nerves, and his higher body temperature fueled by uncontrollable adrenalin spikes. Pills could only do so much.

Max had explained it in a nutshell once. His internal sensors had malfunctioned. Hormones such as adrenaline worked on a negative feedback system. It was like setting a thermostat – hit a certain temp and the heater would shut off. Adding drugs to the mix was like bringing a space heater into the room – breaking the feedback mechanism. He no longer had a normal baseline for regulating his adrenal system after being artificially manipulated for so long. He'd never be capable of a natural response to any level of stress.

Of course he knew there was more to his problems than physical, but he was still navigating those things. He couldn't live in the past. So, he enjoyed the cold on his cheeks as he walked aft, hand patting his EMP weapon through his coat out of habit.

Eyes scanning the bulkhead, he spotted a figure in a heavy dark coat leaning against the rail. Steve reached for his weapon. No one was authorized on deck right now.

"Do not move! Identify yourself."

Slowly, the figure turned around, Grace's face peeking out from under her hood. Steve exhaled heavily, his fingers uncurling from around his side arm. "Grace! What the hell are you doing out here?"

Steve was in front of her in five quick steps. "We're under an emergency order. Everyone should remain below deck while we're on full alert."

"I'm sorry," she said, shrinking in on herself.

"How did you get out here?"

"The security patrol walks by my quarters every twenty minutes. It was easy to slip away."

Steve's rested both hands on his hips in annoyance. Heaven help him and Danny as she got older. "Duly noted. Now do you want to explain to me what you're doing out here?"

"I wanted to see the ocean."

"Grace, we sail on the ocean. You see it every day."

"But not..." Grace glanced over her shoulder, staring. "Not so close to, you know..."

"We're four hundred miles away from the nearest inlet of the Aleutians. It's not technically the mainland."

"But Attu Island is part of the chain leading to what used to be Alaska. The machines..."

"Are more worried about Oregon and Washington State areas of the mainland."

"But they're probably nearby, or we wouldn't be out here searching for them."

"We don't know who we're searching for." Steve swallowed against a lump in his throat. "Are you trying to see a machine?"

Her eyes went wide. "No."

"Then why are you out here, sweetie?"

Grace's face crumbled, her breath hitching. "I don't know!"

Curiosity, fear, anxiety. It was a volatile mix for anyone living under constant threat, especially a young teenager. Steve felt completely out of his depth on how to help her, fearing he'd never know how.

He rested a hand on her shoulder. "Come on, I'll take you back in before your father chews us both out."

That earned him a brief smile and Steve steered her away from the railing, his hand-held radio squawking at him. "McGarrett," he answered.

"Steve!" Toast's voice yelled. "Our communication systems are failing. All internal coms are down and I can't get a hail out."

"You tried radioing another ship?"

"Negative. I used one of the dead channels to test the signal, but it's like we're being jammed. I'm trying to –"

"Toast, do you read, over? Toast?"

All he got was static; Steve grabbed Grace's hand. "Come on, we have to get below deck."

The general quarters alarm blared over the ship's loud speakers – prepare for imminent combat.

"Steve!" Grace shouted, pointing toward the horizon. "Look."

He whipped his head around, recognizing the tiniest glimpse of the forward aft of a ship a hundred meters away. How in the hell did it sneak up on them?

"Grace, run to the safe-zone and do not come out until someone gets you."

She looked terrified and Steve started pushing her forward when he spotted tracer fire, no – it was a laser.

The beam burned through the B-Level of the ship, right into the engine room. Steve froze in horror: a second laser beam struck the weapons room.

It felt like someone punched him in the sternum; Grace looked stunned, her body shaking.

"Run!" Steve yelled when he got over the shock. But she didn't budge and Steve took Grace by her shoulders. "You have to run to the safe-zone. Run and don't turn back!"

Grace started crying, but she obeyed, and ran like hell while Steve pulled out his EMP pistol.

He watched in horror as three small air-drones flew along the horizon only a few meters above the ocean. They were smaller than the ones he encountered on the mainland, most likely remote-controlled from a boat very close by.

Heart thudding against his breastbone, Steve waited until they drew closer, knowing his pistol had a limited dispersal range. The first drone flew within ten meters of the ship and he could see the sonic bomb secured beneath it. Steve fired at it, the pulse neutralizing all of its electronic functions, the drone nose-diving into the ocean.

But the others started to fly in other directions, dropping their sonic bombs over various parts of the ship. A piercing noise assaulted his ears, forcing him to his knees; the bones in his face, jaw, and skull felt like they were splitting to pieces.

No, no, no. The bombs had a quarter mile radius; their sonic assault would incapacitate everyone. Steve fumbled with his weapon, trying to set it on overload so the pulse would take out the rest of the bombs without harming the rest of the Hoku.

His vision began blurring bright white, then gray around the edges. Steve cracked the security settings and tossed the pistol as far as he could, the pressure inside his head reaching a crescendo.

Steve screamed as the pain lanced through his brain, not knowing if he'd taken out the last sonic bomb before he slumped over unconscious.

***

Danny hated Level Two Computers, they constantly needed updating with programs that didn't work or required a cipher to understand. It almost wasn't worth the paperwork Steve required to authorize its use. All Danny wanted was an analysis of the power fluctuations if they entered combat. But no, he was stuck behind a mass of pipes in the corner of the engine room, in a chair he couldn't tilt back because of a wall, hunched over a desk smaller than the one he'd had in grade school.

He tapped furiously on the keyboard when the general quarters alarm blared, the noise a muted annoyance through his ear protection. He jumped up, his legs trapped between the chair and desk before he shimmied his way out.

"Polani. Can you get on the horn and–"

Danny saw a burst of light and was flung backward, his elbow striking something hard as he landed on his back. He instinctively threw his arms over his face as a wave of heat rolled over him, bits of debris and hot pieces of metal peppering his skin and clothes, almost knocking off his headphones. A horrible noise followed like spikes through his skull and teeth.

Dizzy, he shoved his ear protection back on, blinking at the fire a few feet away. Chemical foam quickly smothered the flames and he coughed against the fumes and smoke, forcing his body to move.

"Polani?" Danny called out hoarsely.

Staggering to his feet, he searched for his crewmate, his elbow and head throbbing. He stepped under the frothy yellow spray, heart hammering when he took in the scattered remains of Boiler One.

"Polani!" He yelled again and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw her legs, the rest of her body hidden beneath several chunks of metal. His chest hitched in anguish.

He took a step toward her, but based on the blood volume all over the floor; she was gone. Danny felt sick to his stomach, because there was no time to mourn, not with Boiler One gone and the possibility of crippled engines. Grabbing the nearest flashlight, Danny realized he was sloshing in something wet. He waved the light onto the floor, a million thoughts whirling inside his head. It was seawater.

Pulse skyrocketing, he traced the running water to a hole in the bulkhead the size of his hand. My god. It wasn't just a hole, but a perfect circle.

"A laser."

They'd been attacked. Danny swallowed, thinking about the horrible pressure to his head. Carefully, he lifted up his left ear protection, his eardrums assaulted by a deafening noise. Sonic weapons.

The engine room had been taken out and the crew possibly incapacitated. He ran to the weapons locker, trying not to trip over random debris. Punching in the code, he grabbed an assault rifle, and strapped it around his shoulder, stuffing several clips into his pockets. Then he snagged an EMP pistol.

Okay, okay, okay. Think. The breach to the hull required repair, but based on the rate of flooding it would take six to eight hours before water volume became a real problem. He also needed to assess the damage to the engines, although propulsion didn't mean a damn if they were being boarded.

Danny aimed his weapon in the direction of the hatch, inching his way closer, scared shitless of what might be on the other-side. But it swung open before he reached it and a man clad in all black pointed a rifle at him. Danny didn't hesitate when he squeezed the trigger, several rounds striking the guy square in the chest and dropping him to the ground.

Kicking the rifle out of reach, Danny peered into the corridor. He could hear gunfire despite his ear protection; faint echoes like firecrackers miles and miles away.

The guy by his foot abruptly opened his eyes, his breath coming in a giant gasp. Danny kept his weapon trained on him while looking closer. There was no blood.

"Kevlar," he muttered. There was no time to zip-tie the guy's hands and legs, so he kicked the intruder in the head.

He had to find Grace, but he stopped mid-run telling himself no, he couldn't. As much as it pained him to admit, Grace was safer hidden away until the ship was secure. They had protocols for a reason. He quickly turned the opposite direction and headed for the bridge, the corridors awash in flashing red emergency lightening.

The engine room was in the belly of the ship, he needed to go up one level and all the way aft.

He kept his back to the wall, eyes darting up and down the corridor, inching closer to an intersection. The pressure inside his head suddenly eased and the change was almost disorientating. Breathing through his nose, he swallowed against rising nausea. Had the sonic assault ended?

He started to move again when he felt the barrel of a gun against the back of his neck. Danny froze. A hand removed his ear protection and forced him to turn around. He faced another guy dressed in black, a ski mask and goggles obscuring his face.

"You guys don't care much about wardrobe, do you?"

The guy kept his weapon pointed at Danny while he pulled out a hand-held device from his jacket pocket. He glanced at the device and back at Danny. "Looks like you're coming with me."

"Am I now?"

The bastard smiled.

Danny snatched the guy's wrist, simultaneously grabbing the gun barrel, rolling it against the guy's thumb and twisting it free. Then he slammed his right elbow into the guy's face. The goon stumbled back and Danny punched him in throat, knocking him unconscious.

Searching the floor, he found the device and a picture of himself staring back at him from the screen. He scrolled through several more pics including Max, Catherine, Kaye and a handful of others. What the hell? Why were there eight pictures of the crew and none of anyone else?

There was a load roar above deck, and he looked up at the ceiling in horror. It sounded like an explosion. Stuffing the hand held into his pocket, Danny made his way toward the ladders and started climbing.

Danny opened the hatch to the next level, peering into the corridor, and was overwhelmed by the odor of piss and vomit. Coughing, he moved down the corridor, his feet slowing when he discovered the bodies of four crewmen.

Danny was beside the first one in seconds, his hands shaking. It was Lonny, head of Supply and Carol, James, and damn. Webster. Based on the wounds and blood splatter, they'd been shot in the head and chest while lying on the floor unconscious. The attack had occurred during shift change; they had been killed going to their quarters.

His throat clogged up, and his pulse roared in his ears at such a coldblooded act. But he pushed all his emotions deep down and continued making his way down the corridor. The mess hall was nearby and he prayed it had not been considered a target.

He approached the next intersection, noticing a shadow move across the wall toward him. Danny squatted and waited for the person to cross in front of him. One shadow became two, and he backed away two steps, crouching as two men with goggles walked by. Slowing, the men paused to check the hallway and Danny sprayed their legs with bullets.

Both men screamed, writhing on the floor. Danny strode forward and smashed the butt of his rifle against their skulls. He searched their pockets and found an odd-looking spark plug. Stuffing it into his front pocket, he located two more hand-held devices, both with the same pictures of the crew. Tossing them aside, he discovered a radio and began scanning the channels.

"This is Team Two and Three...encountering heavy resistance...sonic bombs have been neutralized."

"Use extreme force and capture your targets."

The second voice must have been the leader.

"This is Team Six; we have targets red and blue proceeding to rendezvous."

"Teams One, Four, Five, and Seven, report," the leader ordered. "I repeat Teams One, Four and Five, report."

But the only response was a burst of static and frantic yelling from someone else.

"....Five...heavy fire....can't...falling....ba...fuck...."

Okay, there were seven teams with only three in communication with the leader. Somehow, the sonic weapon had been disabled and some of the Hoku's crew was conscious and fighting back. Which team had Danny taken out? And how many of his people had been killed during the attack?

His mind strayed to Grace and his body shook at the thought of her terrified in the dark, clutching her backpack in a cramped little space. Then he thought of Kono and Chin, and fuck, Steve. Had he still been topside when this happened? Was he dead?

He gnashed his teeth, channeling his fear and rage into a ball of focused energy. Turning the corner, he headed down the corridor that would eventually go all the way to the bridge. He ignored the sporadic gunfire, searching for moving shadows, avoiding knee-knockers between each connecting five-meter section of the ship, the flashing of emergency lighting adding a sense of disorientation.

The corridor widened as he neared the mess hall, his mouth going dry. A dead body lay sprawled on its back and he allowed himself a tiny satisfied grin. It wasn't anyone from the Hoku.

He heard loud footsteps and Danny whirled and pointed his rifle in the direction of the noise.

"Danny?" a familiar voice called out.

Danny almost sunk in on himself when Mamo stumbled out of the mess hall, the front of his shirt stained dark. "Mamo?

"Keiki, you okay?"

"Mamo, what the hell?"

"Don't hear so well anymore," Mamo said, waving at ears. "Took my aids out when I started to get horrible feedback." He pointed at the dead body. "That one didn't expect an old man to be armed."

"You're hurt."

Mamo wavered slightly, looking down at his shoulder. "I've had worse."

Danny shook his head. "You sound like Steve."

Mamo laughed, then his whole body jerked once, then twice as gunshots echoed loudly in the hallway.

Danny screamed as Mamo slumped forward, collapsing at his feet. Fury pumped through Danny's blood and he aimed his weapon at the man who had a Sig trained at Danny's chest. It took everything not to pull the trigger. He couldn't risk orphaning Grace.

"Drop your weapon," Danny ordered the guy.

The man stepped forward; he didn't wear a mask or goggles. Danny took in his dark complexion, sharp chin, and perfect eyebrows. The way he oozed smug confidence. "Wo Fat, I presume?"

"How perceptive of you, Mr. Williams."

"Yeah, well. I'm a perceptive guy."

"Then you should lower your weapon."

"I think not," Danny growled, locking his arms in place.

Wo Fat wore black coveralls, boots, and a pair of leather gloves. He stared at Danny impassively.

A small explosion rocked the level they were on.

"Seems like your plans didn't go right," Danny growled. "Guess it's harder to murder people when they're not unconscious."

Wo Fat shook his head. "I have a deadline to keep, Mr. Williams."

Danny saw a flash of movement, then Wo Fat grabbed his wrist and twisted back until the bones snapped. A hot rush of pain enveloped his hand and fingers, his weapon clattering to the ground. He gasped, trying to suck in oxygen when he was punched in the sternum, knocking the rest of the air out of his lungs.

Doubled over, he threw out his left hand in a desperate attempt to ward of any further blows. But the rest of his body was slammed forward into the wall, his forehead bouncing hard against the metal.

He cried out as his right arm was pulled behind his back an impossible angle, Wo Fat unyielding behind him. Danny tried plowing an elbow into the bastard's belly, but it bounced weakly against flesh.

"You sonofabitch," he yelled, trying in vain to squirm away, his wrist a mass of white-hot pain. He'd never seen anyone move so fast. It was unfathomable.

"Be still," Wo Fat ordered.

The back of Danny's shirt was yanked away and a sharp pain like a million needles sliced into his skin and muscle, burying into his nerves, electrocuting his spine. He screamed against the wall.

Gagging, he was jerked to his feet by his shirt collar, Wo Fat's fingers digging into his shoulder.

"The pain you feel is a nerve implant which I control. Obey, and it'll hurt less."

"Fuck you," Danny slurred.

Another jolt engulfed his back. It felt like his muscles were being split open and flambéed, his legs trembling so badly only the pressure of Wo Fat's grip kept him upright. Danny wavered on his feet and Wo Fat dug his fingers even harder into his shoulder.

"Obey, or I'll make sure everyone left alive on this ship dies a slow excruciating death."

Danny rested his forehead against the wall to regain his equilibrium. "Yeah? Like you left anyone alive?"

"Some. But that can change."

Before Danny could reply, another jolt of electricity burned through his shoulders, his arms, rattling his broken wrist.

"Enough!" he yelled, feeling sick for sounding so weak.

The relief was instantaneous and Danny sagged back against Wo Fat, disgusted.

"Do as I say, and your pain will be kept to a minimum."

Danny nodded, trying to gather his strength. Wo Fat yanked him around by his shirt collar, frog marching him forward.

"Just so you know, I'm going to kill you," Danny said, regaining his footing.

Wo Fat only shoved him harder.

***

Danny cradled his throbbing wrist to his stomach, the constant jarring from being manhandled grating on his nerves. They headed topside despite the occasional burst of gunfire that seemed to echo everywhere.

"I'm going to take a wild guess and say this whole boarding thing didn't go as planned? I mean with the loss of some of your men and the whole sonic assault ending earlier than expected." Wo Fat squeezed Danny's neck, but that only made him talk louder. "I saw your most wanted list. I'm flattered really, recognizing true talent. But if you're planning to start a band, I play a mean French Horn."

He was met with silence, but Danny kept pushing, trying to gather every scrap of information. "I'm curious. Why did you destroy the engine room if you wanted to steal the ship? Kind of makes it hard to navigate if the engines don't work."

Still nothing.

But he was missing something, right at the tip of his fingertips. Danny thought about the photos, about his encounter with Wo Fat in the hallway. He'd known Danny's name.

"Someone had to give you the schematics of the ship so you knew where exactly to target your weapon. Someone had to give you our pictures. But why just the eight of us?" Danny stopped and jerked around to face Wo Fat. "What about the rest of the crew?"

"I have no use for them."

The implication hit Danny like a fist. He lunged at Wo Fat, but another jolt seized his spine, bringing him to his knees, all the muscles in his face locking up in spasms. His vision began to gray around the edges before the pain mercifully stopped and he was hauled roughly to his feet and spun around.

Wo Fat took a fistful of the back of Danny's shirt. "Do you enjoy pain, Mr. Williams?" he whispered, the tickle of his breath over Danny's ear causing him to flinch.

"I'm going to enjoy watching you in pain," Danny said woozily, shuffling up the ladders to the upper level.

He was forced outside. It was freezing without a coat, but the cold helped soothe the pulsing in his wrist and cleared some of the fuzz from being repeatedly zapped. But it was nothing compared to the shock of seeing the remains of the wheelhouse with all the glass blown out.

It felt like some had stabbed him in the chest. "You sick bastard."

Wo Fat shoved him again and it took all his willpower not to turn around and punch him in the face. He stumbled forward, Wo Fat's breath hot on the nape of his neck. He heard the faint sounds of more gunfire coming from inside the ship and Danny mentally cheered his crew on.

They were headed aft, probably wherever the boats used to board the Hoku were docked. As they walked, Danny noticed a body crumpled a few meters way, relief flooding through him when he recognized the black attire of one of Wo Fat's goons.

Wo Fat actually slowed his pace, gripping the back of Danny's shirt tighter. They passed a second body a few minutes later, then a third guy with his throat cut, the blood pool fresh. Danny was on alert now, eyes scanning for signs of his people.

They rounded the next corner, Wo Fat keeping Danny close until Steve stepped into view, aiming a rifle at Wo Fat's head. "Freeze."

"Steve," Danny blurted, unable to stop the relief flooding his body. Steve was alive.

"Steve...McGarrett. Is it?" Wo Fat dug his gloved fingers into Danny's shoulder until he visibly winced.

Anger flashed in Steve's eyes, his shoulders rigid. Danny could read Steve's body language; he was going to take the shot.

"If you kill me, you kill Mr. Williams." Wo Fat forcibly craned Danny's head at an angle for Steve to see. "I am sure you're aware about neural pain implants. I have one inserted between the second and third thoracic vertebrae of Mr. Williams' back. Kill me, and risk the chance I give him a fatal shock."

He rested his other hand on top of Danny's shoulder, obviously showing Steve the remote. But Danny wasn't some bargaining chip. "Shoot this asshole, Steven."

"If you don't lower your weapon, I'll kill him anyway," Wo Fat said icily.

"Don't listen to him!" Danny yelled.

"You have three seconds," Wo Fat threatened.

"Hold on," Steve said. "I'm lowering my weapon."

"Damn it, Steve," Danny hissed at him.

Steve ignored Danny, his eyes on Wo Fat as he carefully placed his rifle on the deck.

"Now get rid of it," Wo Fat said.

Glaring, Steve kicked the rifle until it skidded far out of the way. Two goons dressed in black came from nowhere and moved behind Steve, training their weapons on him.

"Convenient timing," Steve muttered.

"My security monitors my every move until they are required." Wo Fat nodded at his men. "And I'm sure they would like to avenge their fallen comrades."

"Wait," Danny yelled desperate. "What about your list? An engineer, a weapon's specialist, a research physician, and a couple techs," he babbled putting two and two together. "What about the skipper?"

"What about him?" Wo Fat stared at Steve. "I have no use for a damaged captain."

Danny fumed inside, hate coiling fingers around his gut. Steve didn't flinch, the embodiment of cool and collected. It was a neon warning sign for total destruction.

Steve craned his neck and Danny knew he was checking the positions of the goons behind him. Another round of gunfire echoed from somewhere and Steve capitalized on the distraction.

He dropped to all fours and swung his right leg back, sweeping it under both guys behind him. Steve bounced back up to his feet in seconds, unsheathing a knife from a hidden holster. While both men scrambled to get back up, Steve struck with deadly precision.

Danny watched as Steve jabbed his blade at an upward angle between the right guy's ribs, plunging it into the aorta. Then he pulled the knife out and flung it into the other man's chest. It was brutal and vicious and oddly satisfying to watch.

Danny must have made an excited sound because a shock caused him to see stars, his jaw snapping close and biting his tongue. By the time his muscles stopped seizing, he was shoved toward the ship's railing. Wo Fat slapped a handcuff around Danny's broken wrist and the other one to the metal rail.

Danny sunk to his knees, swallowing down a sob as he cradled his abused wrist, peering at Wo Fat through his half-closed eyes as he stalked toward Steve.

"Steve!" he yelled in a strangled voice.

But Steve didn't react to Danny's warning and Wo Fat was on him before he could grab his knife or one of the fallen rifles. Wo Fat circled Steve and Steve parroted him, his hands raised in a defensive manner.

"Did you honestly think you could take over the Hoku?" Steve growled.

"Who said anything about taking her over?" Wo Fat taunted. "You've already done exactly what I needed, and soon I'll have in possession what I came for. All that is left is the cleanup."

Wo Fat lunged forward, swinging his fists rapidly toward Steve's head, Steve blocking each one with his forearms. Wo Fat tried a side kick to Steve's right knee, but Steve moved forward, closing the distance between them, Wo Fat's leg uselessly striking Steve in the thigh.

But this wasn't the Wo Fat Danny encountered in the hall. The man who took him down was impossibly fast. "Steve! He's testing you. Don't be fooled."

Steve squinted at Danny and took three quick steps back, quickly getting out of attacking distance. But Wo Fat followed through, lashing out so fast Danny couldn't see his hands, striking Steve repeatedly in the face and head as Wo Fat punched faster than Steve could block.

Steve staggered back while elbowing Wo Fat in the side of the head, then punched him in the face. But Wo Fat grabbed Steve's left wrist, ducking under Steve's arm while twisting it sharply behind Steve's back.

Sliding his other hand to grip Steve's elbow, Wo Fat gave Steve's arm a sinister jerk, dislocating his shoulder. Steve screamed and fell to the ground, clutching his arm.

"Steve!" Danny yelled.

Wo Fat glanced at Danny coldly and kicked Steve savagely in his side. Danny screamed obscenities at him, knowing Wo Fat could easily kill Steve with such brutal force. Steve curled in on himself in pain, but rolled out of the way when Wo Fat aimed another brutal kick at his stomach.

"You're a sick coward," Danny yelled. "What are you juiced up on? Steroids? Uppers? Maybe some super-sized cocktail of hormones?"

Wo Fat cocked his head at Danny, then grabbed Steve by the ankle, and started yanking him across the deck.

"You better kill me," Danny raged. "Because I'm going to hunt you and tear you apart piece by piece."

Wo Fat dragged Steve over and let go of his foot, his leg unceremoniously dropping with a thud. "I highly doubt that."

Wo Fat hauled Steve to his feet and shoved him against the railing, pressing his right forearm against Steve's chest, trapping him in place. Steve's left arm was limp and useless by his side, but he managed to dig his right fingers into Wo Fat's wrist.

"See, Commander McGarrett is the outdated model of the perfect soldier," Wo Fat said, staring at Steve. "Biologically altered and dependent on chemicals. Mix too many and the body starts to malfunction."

Wo Fat slid his left hand down Steve's side, pressing against his ribs like piano keys. Steve flinched when Wo Fat found a sore spot, and he pressed harder, talking over Steve's grunt of pain. "Not to mention weak and breakable."

"And you're impulsive and reckless," Steve spat, breathing hard. "When the navy doesn't hear back from us...they'll bomb the mainland. Do you... really think you can match their firepower even with some machine tech?"

"They'll have to find me first, and second," Wo Fat peered over Steve's sweaty face. "I want them to bomb the mainland."

Steve stared at Wo Fat in confusion, a dawning look spreading across his features. He let go of Wo Fat's wrist and grabbed the collar of his coveralls and jerked open the front part, gazing in shock. "What the hell?"

Danny tried looking over, but he couldn't see a thing.

Wo Fat rolled his neck. "I'm the new model," he said, slamming his fist into Steve's abdomen.

"You sonofabitch!" Danny screamed.

Steve slumped forward, panting; Wo Fat's arm the only thing holding him place. "Time for a swim, McGarrett."

Wo Fat grabbed Steve under his knees, wrestling with his legs while shoving Steve hard in the chest with his arm. Danny screamed helplessly, his broken wrist trapped by the handcuffs, his body shaking in fear and rage. Steve struggled against Wo Fat, but the other man was just too strong.

Wo Fat lifted Steve's feet off the ground and started to give him one final shove, when a hail of gunfire erupted, and Wo Fat's body jerked as bullets riddled him in the back.

The shooting ended as soon as it had begun, and Wo Fat slumped sideways, Steve collapsing on top of him. Grace stood behind them, her automatic rifle dwarfing her small hands.

"Grace!" Danny screamed in shock. "Come here, honey."

Grace ran toward Danny, hugging him so hard it hurt, her tears wetting his face. "It's okay, it's okay," he whispered, holding her with his free arm.

"Daddy," she cried into his ear.

"Shhhh," Danny hushed her. He lifted up his head and talked as calmly as his quivering voice would allow. "Baby, I need you to give me the rifle, okay?"

She sniffed, shoving the weapon into his good hand, and stared at the other one still handcuffed to the rail. "Danno, your wrist."

"I'm just a little trapped, I'm okay."

Grace's eyes went big. "What about Uncle Steve?" She turned around as if ready to run over to him.

"Grace, don't. Stay right here with me."

She must have been too shocked to do anything other than listen. Grace huddled next to Danny while he got himself situated, awkwardly holding the rifle with his left hand and against his side. He looked over and found Steve conscious and searching Wo Fat's body. Danny almost cried in relief.

"Steve! Get over here you idiot." But Steve didn't move, so Danny shouted louder. "Steve!"

Steve finally looked over, his left arm tucked against his side while he stuffed the confiscated items into his cargo pants.

"Steve, please come over," Grace pleaded.

Struggling to his feet, Steve slowly walked over. "Gracie," he said breathless. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. But you and Dad are hurt."

Steve gave her arm a squeeze. "I'm fine," he said and moved toward Danny, eyes assessing. He frowned when he saw Danny's swollen wrist. "I think I found the keys to that."

Danny carefully held his hand still as Steve unlocked the metal bracelet. Stinging pain encompassing his whole hand, making him nauseated.

"Danny? Are you injured anywhere else?"

Danny sucked in a breath, risking a glance at Grace, not wanting to scare her. He shook his head, his expression tight. "Besides the wrist? No, just bruised from the explosion and you know, the thing in my back."

The thing Steve had some knowledge about, probably because it was some secret military torture device with wires wrapped around his spine. He tried to control the hysteria threatening to overwhelm him. He remained perfectly still as Steve ran a hand over Danny's face, down his chest, gently gripping Danny's forearm, turning it over. It was covered in cuts and small burns. He'd never noticed.

"I've got the remote to the other thing," Steve said, slipping the device into Danny's hand, his eyes a sea of calm and steadfast control. "I've disabled it, but you need to keep it in a safe place." He brushed his thumb over Danny's fingers. "We'll get that thing removed. I promise."

Danny held the tiny remote in his palm with trepidation, a cold sweat breaking out across his forehead. He could do this; he had to.

"What about your wrist, Daddy?" Before Danny could brush off the injury, Grace dug into her backpack for supplies. "We need to secure it in place so it doesn't hurt."

He was overwhelmed by her bravery, pride and sadness stabbing inside his chest. "What you did tonight was amazing. We're still going to have a long talk about disobeying all the rules, but you're the bravest daughter a dad could ever have."

Grace bit down on her smile as she set to work. He kept his cursing to a minimum as she bound his wrist between pieces of cardboard, securing them with gauze and medical tape. Danny bit down on his lip when the bones shifted, releasing a sigh when Grace added the last piece of tape.

"All done."

He looked down and found his wrist expertly bandaged. "Remind me to give Max some of my secret stash of chocolate for all those first-aid classes you attended."

"Now we need to help Steve," she said determined.

But Steve was doing his best impersonation of an eighty-year old man, hunched over, breathing heavily from standing. The first bruises had started to appear along his cheek and jaw.

"Hey, babe. We need to get you sorted out."

But Steve didn't say a word. He leaned on the railing and stared at the wheelhouse, his heartache clearly written across his face.

"Steve, I'm talking to you." Danny reached over, touching Steve's shoulder. Steve nearly jumped out of his skin, wincing from the movement. "What are you, deaf?" Steve couldn't look him in the eyes and Danny did a double take. "You were out here during the attack. You're the one who disabled the sonic bombs."

"I managed to bring down the first drone with my pistol. But the other two had dropped their load, so I set my weapon to overload. I think I took the last two sonic weapons, but I succumbed to the assault before I could do anything else.

"Can you hear at all?"

"Yeah."

"But?"

"There's a lot of ringing."

Danny almost launched into a lecture about being forthcoming with critical information, when Grace shrieked next to him. "He's gone."

"What?" Danny looked around while Grace hid behind him. But Wo Fat was no longer there.

Steve had his Sig out and was searching the immediate area. "I secured the bastard's ankles and hands with zip-ties."

"And he was just there just a minute ago when I looked over," Danny said, bewildered. "How did he move so fast?"

Steve's face filled with fear. "We have to go. Now." He looked at Danny's bandaged wrist. "We should switch weapons."

Danny reluctantly accepted Steve's sidearm and handled over the rifle. He couldn't shoot worth a crap with a broken wrist, but he wasn't sure how much better Steve could really fare. "We should set your shoulder."

"No time," Steve grunted.

"Steve, don't be so stubborn."

But Steve kept his left arm firmly against his side, struggling with his weapon's strap one-handed.

Grace walked over to him, resting a hand on his good arm. "You can't fight if your shoulder is messed-up."

Steve looked over at her, clearly struggling with the logic.

Danny stood beside Grace "Do you really think you'll have any range of motion if we don't?"

Steve sighed resigned, obviously having reached the same conclusion because his eyes searched the area before he put his rifle down, and started to lay flat on the deck. "Do you–"

"I know how to reduce a dislocated shoulder," Danny huffed.

He glanced around but there wasn't anything to elevate Steve's body so his arm could hang over. This wasn't going to be pretty.

Danny sat on his ass and grabbed Steve's left hand, lacing his fingers around his wrist a strong grip. He wanted to make sure he could pull Steve's arm away comfortably. "I have to stick my foot under your armpit."

"Just hurry."

Danny didn't bother replying to Steve's impatience, carefully pressing the side of his foot against the uninjured side of Steve's torso for leverage. Going slowly, he steadily pulled Steve's arm away from his body, carefully stretching Steve's arm and shoulder muscles.

Steve grunted, his body taut, sweat beading across his forehead. Grace kneeled down on his other side and started talking to him. Danny beamed in pride as he maneuvered Steve's arm at a further angle until he heard a pop.

Steve yelled, and Danny gingerly lowered Steve's arm, mumbling, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, under his breath.

Panting, Steve carefully got to his feet before giving himself or Danny a chance to recover. Steve wavered a little, Grace wide-eyed as she held him steady.

"Thank you," Steve said, wetting his lips.

"Yeah, well that's something I'd like to forget real soon," Danny grumbled, standing back up. He wished they had something to use for a sling.

Steve gestured at his rifle. "Grace, could you?"

Before Danny could reach over and help, Grace quickly grabbed the rifle, looping the strap over Steve's head and around his good shoulder. Steve gave her a grateful smile before bowing his head and taking two long breaths, locking himself away in that dark place Danny could never touch.

Gritting his teeth, Steve looked over at them. "Keep low and keep behind me."

Danny knew better than to argue about Steve taking the lead and gathered Grace to his side. "You need to talk to me, Steven."

"What's the status of the engine room?"

"Boiler One was destroyed. The rest of the damage is unknown. There's a five inch hole in the bulkhead."

"Casualties?"

"Five that I know of." Danny didn't mention names. There would be time to grieve later.

Danny kept Grace close to him, following Steve's lead. His heart pounded with their newest reality. If Wo Fat wasn't really after the Hoku then he would try to destroy her.

"Do you have any idea about any other damage to the ship?" Danny asked as the moved along. "Did you see the attack?"

"I saw the strike to the engine room," Steve stopped, his voice heavy. "And to weapons."

"They took out the Fire Control?"

Steve swallowed. "No, they took out the plotting room."

Danny's head reeled. Wo Fat hadn't destroyed Fire Control where they loaded the ammo into the big guns; he'd taken out where the crew calculated their targets. Where Catherine was stationed. But wasn't she part of Wo Fat's list?

"Shouldn't we...you know stop and see..."

"Our first priority is safety of the ship," Steve said through gritted teeth. "We have to get to the bridge. We can set off the EMP without the need for accurate plotting." He took a ragged breath. God he looked awful, his pallor graying with every minute. "We have to disable that damn laser or..."

"Hey, I know." Danny said, trying to back Steve's play. He hated these decisions, but that was the burden of command. "Come on, we need to get to the bridge first."

He looked over at Grace and saw her stricken face. She knew they were not going to check on Catherine. But when he went to hold her closer, Grace stiffened. "I'm okay," she said, wiping roughly at her face. "We have to fight the bad guys. That's why we're here."

***

Danny held his breath entering the maintenance bay, his left arm braced on top of his right arm, seeking out any signs of movement. He could feel Grace right behind him, but he kept focused, searching the shadows, his pulse loud in his ears. Steve kept to the wall, scanning the room, emergency lightning casting a glow in the air.

He breathed in the odor of burnt gunpowder and something else, a distinctive smell like iron. Danny knew that smell and his gut twisted as he stepped on something metal that skidded across the floor. He looked down at the floor and over at the walls, the entire place was littered with bullet holes.

Steve made a low noise in the back of his throat, and Danny watched him squat in obvious pain next to a body. Danny recognized the dark camo uniform, his gaze settling on Gutches' face, his eyes open and vacant.

Danny heard a small gasp and he hurriedly turned around, taking Grace by the shoulders. "I want you to watch the door. Can you do that? Make sure no one tries to sneak up behind us?"

She nodded and ran toward the door. Danny turned back around, his weapon at ready as he walked past Steve to secure the rest of the area, his heart heavy at the carnage in front of him. He counted five more bodies decimated by bullets, hundreds of shell casings scattered around in pools of blood. Swallowing, he turned around, and stood next to Steve, who closed Wade's eyelids with his fingertips.

"They didn't stand a chance," Steve said his voice wrecked. "The sonic assault knocked them out and they were slaughtered like animals. And I didn't...I didn't try to...”

It made perfect sense. The SEAL team would have been the number one priority to be taken out without mercy.

"I'm sorry." Danny said his throat tight. Steve had avoided Gutches' team the entire time and despite his reasons, they must feel cheap and hollow now. "I'm so, so sorry."

Steve whirled around, choking down the pain the movement must have caused him. "Is this how the rest of our people were murdered?"

"Steve."

"Tell me!"

"Yes. They never knew what hit them."

Biting down on his lip, Steve got a faraway look in his eye, one that set off a million of Danny's internal alarms. "Steve?"

But Steve didn't hear him, or he was too focused patting down Gutches' pockets, pulling out a radio, a data-drive, and some other type of hand-held device.

Danny glanced around the room, ensuring it was still secured, and double-checked on Grace, who kept peering over her shoulder. "You're doing a good job, honey. Just a few more minutes."

When he turned his head back around, he watched Steve pull out a small black leather case from Gutches' rucksack, holding it with all the trepidation of an explosive device. Danny's internal alarms were deafening.

"Shouldn't we keep moving?" Danny asked.

Steve clenched his mouth, the fingers holding the case smeared with Gutches' blood. The familiar report of gunfire rang out from the corridor running from the maintenance bay to the bridge.

Sweat poured down Danny's back and over the spot of the implant, causing all the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end. It took all of his will power not to claw the damn thing out. He held out his weapon, eyes darting between the entrance, Grace, and Steve.

Steve opened the black case, rummaging through its contents, and pulled out a medical injector.

"Steve, what is that?"

Steve rolled up the sleeve to his left arm. "Something to get me through so we can take the hallway," he said, pressing the injector to his bicep.

"What the hell?" Danny roared. "You can't have anymore chemical enhancers! You have no idea what it'll do to you."

"It's a specially designed pain-reliever for the battlefield, and I can't fight without the help," Steve said. The admission stunned Danny as Steve looked at him with such raw emotion. "I know I can't take anything that will promote healing, but this will numb the pain while keeping me alert. We've got to help our people, Danny. We can't let any more of them die."

Danny felt his face tremble, his eyes wet from unreleased grief. "Okay," he said thickly. "But no more chems. You're not risking yourself anymore. I won't let you."

"And I've always told you that I would do whatever it took to keep you and Grace safe."

Steve closed his eyes, a whole-body shudder trembling through him. But the pain lines around his face slowly lessened and he exhaled a heavy breath. Moving stiffly, he stuffed his pockets with extra clips pilfered from Gutches' vest. When Steve handed Danny some extra ammo, he could feel a renewed quiver in Steve's fingers.

Danny carefully wrapped his good hand around Steve's. "We have to take Grace with us. I'm not stashing her away somewhere."

Steve looked around the room, shaking his head. "We can't let her see all of this."

He quickly dug through Gutches' duffel, pulling out a clean t-shirt, handing it over.

Danny lacked the words to express his gratitude, knowing they would both do whatever it took to spare his daughter any further trauma.

Walking over to where Grace stood nervously by the door, Danny held up the shirt. "I want you to listen to me very carefully. I'm going to cover your head with this shirt so you don't get nightmares from what's here. Okay?"

Grace nodded without argument. Her silence spoke volumes and Danny took her by the shoulders in reassurance. "Once we get inside the ship, you have to do everything I say. Everything, Grace. I mean it. I say jump to the left, you do it."

"Okay, Danno. I promise."

Danny quickly kissed her forehead and pulled her close for a hug. She nearly squeezed the air out of his lungs. He wanted nothing more than to hold her forever and shield her from the horrors awaiting them, but Danny forced himself to break them apart, then he covered Grace's head so she wouldn't witness all the gore on their way to the bridge.

 

***

Chapter Text

***

Steve had expected the shakes, the stimulants from the injection hitting his over-aroused adrenal system. The bucket brigade of neurotransmitters to his muscles short-circuiting from too many conflicting command signals. At least there was no pain.

Even after four years, he'd forgotten how this felt, a burst of heat simmering under his skin, turning his cheeks and the tips of his ears pink. It ignited a fire in his belly, one that used to keep him going for days no matter the opposition, and for a few moments he couldn't breathe, his heart pounding so fast it felt like it was skipping beats.

"Babe?"

Danny's voice sounded miles and miles away, Steve's blood pumping hot and bright through his veins.

"I knew this was a bad idea," Danny said. "Steve!"

This was what Steve had to do, what he'd been trained to handle, how he'd survived two weeks in hell. The injection was a tool, his weapon.

Steve focused his thoughts on objectives. Priorities. The warmth inside his blood slowly cooled, numbing his panic. A pinching sensation replaced the horrible throb in his shoulder; a deep ache settled around his ribs. The range of motion in his arm was still severely compromised, but he could lift it enough to support his weapon.

"I'm good," he said his voice calm. "We'll move on your signal." Danny ground his teeth, and Steve stared at him unflinching. "The ship is unsecured and the bridge is the safest place for Grace."

Steve knew Danny's biggest weakness and had no problem exploiting it if it ensured his safety.

Danny took off the shirt covering Grace's face so she could see and kept her by his side. She was quiet and attentive, and Steve did everything in his power not to look at her. He couldn't afford to, not if he was going to keep her safe.

Danny moved in front of her, effectively blocking Steve's line of sight. "Grace. I want you to wait right by the hatch until I come get you."

She moved a little to the left, remaining inside. Danny walked over to the hatch, resting his left hand on the handle. Steve readied himself and nodded the go-ahead. Danny counted to three then swung open the hatch leading into the next compartment. Steve stepped over the knee knocker, counted the six men lining the corridor, and threw a stun grenade.

Stepping back into the maintenance bay, he averted his eyes as ten million candle lights went off. "Six targets," he relayed to Danny. "You take left, I'll take right."

Steve re-entered the compartment and shot the closest bad-guy in the head. Danny stood beside him, taking out two guys still disorientated by the flash-grenade. Steve crouched onto his haunches, using the compartment wall for cover as the last three bad-guys started shooting erratically at them. Steve kept low and sprayed their thighs with bullets. Based on the blood spray, he didn't need to stop and check their vitals.

He disarmed them while Danny searched their various pockets.

"All clear," Danny called out. Then he hurried Grace inside.

Steve rested his rifle against his right side, his left arm tingling with the sensation of ants under his skin. He tried to ignore Danny's pallor, the way he swallowed every few seconds, breath heavy. No. No. Steve couldn't give his emotions control. Even for Danny. Especially for Danny. Couldn't allow himself to stroke Grace's shoulder, give her a reassuring smile.

"Teams boarded and split up," Steve said, assessing, thinking like the enemy, focusing on the mission. "They entered the maintenance bay, took out Wade's team, and made their way toward the bridge." He took a deep breath, his side twinging. "You smell that?"

Danny sniffed. "Nitrogen and Potassium Sulfate. Explosives."

"Come on," Steve said.

All the metal walls surrounding the hatch to the bridge looked like they'd been used for target practice, every inch dented with bullets, the six-inch steel barrier securing the entrance covered in scorch marks.

Danny corralled Grace, who didn't utter a word, dutifully obeying her father's instruction. She stood close to the wall, eyes darting everywhere while Danny walked over to the hatch that led to the bridge.

"Looks like security protocols were enacted." Danny touched one of the holes, his fingers lingering over the deepest scar. "I wonder how many clips were used before those assholes tried blowing their way inside."

Steve's heart beat a non-stop staccato against his chest. He couldn't look at his wounded ship, not if he was going to secure her, so he checked both ends of the corridor, not trusting they were empty. Wo Fat wasn't stupid; he would have sent more than a six-man team to take over the bridge.

"Are we just going to wait out here all day?" Danny asked, agitated, glancing between Steve and Grace.

"Give me a sec." Steve adjusted his rifle so it hung over the back of his shoulder and began patting down his pockets. "Could you close both hatches leading to the bridge?"

"The bad guys can still open these from the other side," Danny mumbled.

"I'll help," Grace called out.

"Grace, damn it," Danny cursed. But she was already securing one of the hatches.

Steve went over to the electrical box mounted on the wall, pulling out his knife. But when he tried to lift up his left arm, the pinching sensation turned into a stabbing pain. Steve grunted, sucking in a breath, his arm flopping back against his side. Swallowing against nausea, he sheathed his knife and yanked out the wires instead.

Danny reached over, his fingers brushing against Steve's shoulder, but Steve stepped away, thinking only of his next goal, dividing it into manageable parts. He heard Danny sigh, but Steve pushed the sound out of his mind, wrapping the two longest strands around his fingers.

He walked over to the first knee-knocker. "Do you have any tape?"

"Of course I do. I'm an engineer; I can't live without carrying around a roll of duct tape." Danny squatted next to him, cutting several long strips with his teeth. "I know what you're doing and it's a terrifyingly bad idea."

"The bridge is the main target. They couldn't shoot or blow a hole inside. I bet a year's pay another team is waiting for us to get the security hatch open and lead them in."

"And if they're monitoring us, then they saw Grace and me close the doors. We probably have sixty seconds to set your little trap," Danny finished. "Here." Proving he was a mind reader, Danny reached into one of Steve's pockets and pulled out a grenade, then snatched one of the long pieces of electrical wire from Steve's fingers.

Steve's arm might not work quite right, but he still had full dexterity in his hands, and he taped the grenade against the wall, looping and tying one end of the wire around the pull-pin. Then he strung the wire across the bottom of the door for the first set of unsuspecting feet.

"Done," Danny called out. He waved Grace over. "I'll contact the bridge before we get blown up."

Steve wiped the sweat from his forehead while Danny used the emergency one-way radio to the bridge, Grace watching her father's every move.

"I repeat, this is Danny Williams, today's code is Bravo Whiskey Foxtrot zero eight niner three one. McGarrett and I need immediate access to the bridge or you're going to find parts of us all over the walls." Danny stared at the radio, breathing harshly. He shared a nervous look with Steve before pressing the call button again. "Tomorrow was supposed to be cheddar biscuits in the mess and last week's movie night was about that talking pig. So, if you would please open the –"

The heavy steel hatch swung halfway open, revealing the barrels of three assault rifles.

Danny held up his hands, wincing from the movement. "Hey, it's us."

Steve knew in his gut another team would be right behind them, and he hurried over, pushing Danny and Grace forward. "Close the hatch!" he yelled.

Duke and Toast quickly secured the hatch while Kono lowered her weapon in relief. "Damn it, Boss. You almost got your head –"

The sound of an explosion cut off Kono's words, a second explosion rattling the door a few seconds later.

Whirling around, Steve faced Kono, blood pounding in his ears. "Status report."

***

Steve held his left arm against his side, the crawling sensation inside his nerves sharper, burrowing into his shoulder. Digging his thumbnail into his palm helped him focus. He waited while Danny got Grace situated in a chair at the corner of the bridge, her eyes drifting to glance over at him.

And for some reason, Steve still couldn't look her in the eyes, keeping his mind centered on the bridge. He turned his attention to Kono.

She was a spitfire, rounding up personnel for the sitrep while ensuring all stations were still manned. The left side of her face was dotted with tiny cuts, her shirtsleeve had been cut away, and her arm sported several shallow lacerations and a bandage around her bicep.

"Propulsion is negative and all outside communications are still being jammed," she relayed.

"What about intraship communications?" Steve asked. "Have we heard from anyone else?"

Toast shook his head. "Nothing from Engineering, the Deck, Electrical, Science, or Cryptology. We've heard from Maintenance, Utilities, and Fire Control, but nada from the Plotting room."

"We've had contact with Chin from the infirmary," Kono said, the relief in her voice heavy. "He got holed up in there during his checkup with Max and his personnel."

"Was the infirmary attacked?" Danny asked. He glanced at Steve; they both knew Max was one of the intended targets.

"That was the impression," Kono said. "Chin couldn't talk long, but I overheard Max going over a recipe for some wicked explosives."

A grin tugged on his mouth, but Steve tucked away his feeling of pride for later. "What about control? What's operational?"

"Sonar and radar are still functional," Duke said. "Although we can't go anywhere, we still have the helm."

"And weapons?" Steve demanded. "We lost plotting, but can we still fire our guns and the EMP?"

Lori answered this time. "Not accurately, but if we had to, we could fire."

"Casualties?" Danny asked.

"McNeal, Gomez, and Ling were on their way to replace the shift at helm." Kono bit her bottom lip, her gaze drifting to the security door, a barrier she would have ordered in place. "We don't know where they are. When the wheelhouse was hit, we were all struck with flying debris. Mostly minor lacerations except for Corey; he got a face full of glass." She looked down at the floor. "We gave him something for the pain. He died a few minutes ago."

Steve had recruited McNeal and Gomez based on Chin's recommendation, and Ling...

His thoughts started slipping away and Steve locked them in a box, pressing the rest of his fingernails into his palm.

"Wo Fat boarded with seven teams. But I think they split into smaller units to cover more ground, leaving us between forty-two to fifty men." He glanced over at Danny. "We took out a total of five on deck and –"

"About twelve on level one and two, not to mention however many we just blew up out there," Danny said, turning toward the exit. He stared at the hatch, worry etching deep lines into his brow.

Kono cleared her throat. "Chin probably took out some, so that leaves anywhere around a dozen to around twenty hostiles left on board."

Duke looked over at Danny. "What about our casualty rate?"

"At least six confirmed with signs of more." Danny frowned, making an odd noise in the back of his throat. "And we lost Gutches' Team."

"Whoa," Toast said. "That's heavy."

Steve could practically hear the clock ticking down inside his head. "Our number one priority is securing the Hoku. Wo Fat came on board with the intention of abducting eight of our people."

Duke and Toast looked stunned, Lori and Kono livid.

"We also have a hull breach in the engine room." Danny checked his watch, the left side of his face twitching. "And based on the size of said hole and the rate and volume of seawater, flooding will become critical in the next three hours, and that's just the holes we're aware of..."

Steve looked at the bridge crew. "All right, we need to –"

The bridge shuddered, the whole ship lurching hard.

"Report!" But Steve knew they'd been hit again; he'd never forget the way it felt during the first strike. "Anyone!"

"Control, this is the helm. We have a visual from a fourth laser strike."

"Damn it!" Lori cursed. "We just lost EMP weapons."

Steve's mind started to whirl. Why take out the EMP now?

"Duke, can you get a bearing from that laser strike and track it back to the source?" By firing on them, Wo Fat's ship had given away its location.

"Plotting it as you speak," Duke said.

Toast spun around in his chair to look at Steve. "We're getting an incoming message from Fong."

"Put him on speaker."

"Sorry for breaking protocol, but I've got a line of sight on the landing deck and someone is stealing the Blackwing," Fong reported breathless.

"What?" Steve demanded, the news hitting him with whiplash force.

Wo Fat had been after the Blackwing the entire time. While pirates had ships, none of them had any type of aircraft. The navy kept tight control over all air power. But a Blackwing with its capabilities was like owning a virtual army in the sky.

He'd been so stupid. "Fong, how many enemy targets?"

"I...um...four men. It's hard to tell."

"Do you have a shot?"

"Negative. I'm not outside."

"We have to shoot him down. Wo Fat can't get that helo." Steve loomed over tactical. "Weapons status?"

Lori's finger danced over her control console. "We have them, but I need the target's present position and altitude, gun bearing, elevation, line-of-fire..."

"The Blackwing is in the air," Fong shouted over the radio.

"I've got the bird on radar," Toast said. "Bearing 50 degrees at 80 miles per hour."

"Firing guns," Lori announced. She waited, eyes flicking across her displays. "It's a miss, firing again."

Steve simmered in anger.

Danny wandered over, his broken wrist carefully cradled against his belly, his forehead marred by fresh bruising, tufts of blond sticking out in every direction. The sight sent a warm pang against the cold chill inside Steve's chest, forcing him to look away.

But Danny moved in front of him, looking ten shades of frustrated. "Um...what's going to keep Wo Fat from using his newly acquired, scary military attack helo on us?"

"You have to have the security code to activate its weapons." Steve breathed hard through his nostrils. "He might have found a way to hack into its navigation system, but Wo Fat screwed any chance of accessing missiles or guns when he killed all of Wade's team."

"Line of sight position correction by six degrees," Duke relayed. "Target's bearing is 80 degrees at 95 miles per hour."

"I'm still lacking wind and altitude," Lori growled pissed. "Firing guns."

It was another miss.

But with every scrap of data, there were dozens of missing pieces. Steve's hand started shaking and he curled his fingers into the tightest fist he could manage. They couldn't shoot down such a fast moving target without accurate plotting. He had to switch tactics. The Blackwing was too small, but maybe they could get lucky with something bigger.

"Use the flight path of the Blackwing and bearing of the last laser strike and plot out the position of the enemy vessel. We'll fire on Wo Fat's ship."

Lori stared at him as if he'd lost his mind, but she began making adjustments. "On it."

Toast shook his head in frustration. "We'd have a better chance with spitballs at this range. We can't possibly get a clear target without proper coordinates. Every degree we make in error equals fifty meters out there."

Steve locked eyes with his crew. "Wo Fat's ship won't risk firing on us with the Blackwing in the air. As soon as that helo lands, Wo Fat will take us apart with that laser. I am aware of the extreme inaccuracy without calculating ballistic factors, but if the 19th century British Navy could take out targets by coordinating all of their guns into a single targeted formation, than so should we."

"Steve," Danny said, drawing his attention. "I don't even think Wo Fat's ship is in guns' range. The hole in the engine room was five inches long. To burn through both bulkheads and still make a hole that size, we're talking 150 kilowatts of power fired at least." Danny's jaw dropped, his voice distraught. "Wo Fat's ship is at least twenty miles away..."

The Hoku's guns could only fire up to 1.5 miles.

"How is that even possible?" Lori asked.

Steve rubbed at his injured shoulder, remembering the popping sound as it was easily wrenched out of place. "Machine tech."

"Dude, you're talking super-advanced shit." Toast stared off at nothing, his brain working out scary concepts none of them could dare touch. "I can't even fathom how he got his hands on it. He'd have to have a free electron laser with a ship-based miniature particle accelerator."

Steve didn't have time for theories when they were sitting ducks. "And none of that matters if we can't figure out how to take out that damn thing. Now think! Guns are out. I need suggestions. Anything."

"We could jam their targeting system."

Steve looked at Toast. "Good. With what?"

"Sound waves, radio waves." Toast shook his head, tapping the floor with his foot. "But we don't have the resources."

"We can't move and we can't deflect a laser attack," Danny said, pacing. He froze. "Do we have any other forms of EMP?"

"The Blackwing has on-board EMP weapons." Steve quickly placed Wade's rucksack on the nearest console as he dug through it. Where was it? "I want ongoing position reports of the Blackwing; tell me the second it looks like it's reached its destination."

He pulled out the handheld computer he'd been searching for and powered it on. "Toast, did you hack Kaye and Gutches' computers like I asked?"

"Affirmative."

Steve ignored Danny's eye-roll. "Give me Wade's password."

Steve listened as Toast rattled it off, fully aware that Wade changed it every other day, but he always cycled between the same select few passwords for everything. He keyed in the code and the operating system for the Blackwing booted up. Bingo.

Danny walked over to him. "What are you doing?"

"Remember when I said you needed the right security code to access the Blackwing's weapons system?"

"Yeah."

"Well, if a mission ever went FUBARed, there was a built-in self-destruct so it wouldn't fall into enemy hands." Steve risked a sideways glance to Danny, who looked both shocked and impressed.

"You're going to blow it up?"

"Not yet." Steve entered one last bit of instruction and allowed himself a small spark of satisfaction. Wo Fat was going to get a lesson on the Trojan horse. "But I do have remote access to its EMP weapons."

Duke sucked in a breath. "The Blackwing has reached its destination."

With a vindictive sense of pride, Steve triggered a massive burst from the helo's array. He stared at the readout screen. "Gamma yield at point two tons."

Toast whistled. "That should fry every electronic on board. Damn military always has the best toys."

Danny turned the computer screen in his direction, studying the readouts, his eyes wide. "Good thing for us that the law of physics ensures that EMP waves are unidirectional, or we all just became sterile."

Steve didn't give it much thought. If they sailed any further, the Hoku's hull would protect them from any immediate gamma rays, the yield within acceptable combat range.

"Actually, I'd prefer if they weren't; then we wouldn't have to depend on detonating nukes at high altitudes." The only way to achieve a large enough EMP pulse was through nuclear detonation in the stratosphere. He tried not to think of how many warheads had been set off over the last ninety years. "Duke, are long-range communications back online?"

"Negative. But I'll keep trying."

Steve radioed the wheelhouse. "What's the status of the enemy off the bow?"

"All three boats are still docked."

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose and winced when it hurt. His hand began trembling again and he felt a familiar squeeze ball slipped between his fingers. Steve opened his eyes and gave Danny a small grateful smile, wondering if Danny had always kept one in his pocket. Steve could still breathe and move without much pain, but he appreciated the gesture.

"Okay,” he said addressing everyone. “There are still an unknown number of hostiles scattered throughout the ship and an unknown number of wounded and missing crew. We have critical areas of the ship in need of immediate repair and an enemy ship within twenty-five miles of us." Steve looked around at everyone. "Toast, I want updates on the position of Wo Fat's ship and estimation when it might be operational with limited capabilities."

"On it."

Steve turned to Kono and Danny. "We have to secure the Hoku as efficiently as possible."

Kono waved a hand between them. "You guys don't look in the best shape for close quarter combat."

"And you're not going to win any sparring contests," Danny said, raising an eyebrow. He sounded worn to the bone.

"In all seriousness," Kono said, "we're dealing with the entire ship. Not to mention all of our people barricaded in their respective departments. Even if you both didn't look like you've gone a few rounds with King Kong, that is one hell of a feat even without a ticking clock."

Steve thought of the ship and its catacombs of compartments and hatches. He squeezed the ball in thought. It wasn't like he could stun everyone at the same time. Or could he? "Patch me to the infirmary."

It was against protocols to use intraship coms during a crisis like this, but it was less risky than using the radios. And he couldn't afford the delay of using Morse code.

"Chin, this is McGarrett," he said, rattling off today's code so Chin knew Steve wasn't under duress. "Do you think you can navigate between compartments on your level?"

"Maybe. Depends which compartments still have unfriendlies."

"I need you and someone else to go to the chemical supply room and grab all the chlorine used for the water purification system."

"The fifty gallon drums?"

"Affirmative."

There was a long pause before Chin answered, but it was obvious he read Steve's mind. "The ship's central ventilation system is a few compartments down."

Steve turned around so he wouldn't have to face Danny when he relayed his next orders.

"I want you to dump all the liquid into the in-take vents and set the fan motor as high as it can go. We'll contact all departments to close their vents. If we're lucky it'll spread throughout the ship in minutes."

Liquid chlorine turned into gas upon exposure to air.

Chin didn't miss a beat and Steve loved his loyalty. "How long do you want the exposure?"

"Ten minutes. Then we'll wait another five minutes then coordinate a deck by deck sweep with anyone on the crew who is able to join us."

"I'll radio you when I'm in position."

"Roger that." Steve turned around to face Danny who looked like he either was about to hit Steve in the jaw or stroke out. "We need a fast, effective way of incapacitation.”

Danny threw open his arms. "And if some of our people get exposed?"

"Then Max will treat their temporary symptoms instead of zipping them into body bags."

Danny breathed hard through his nostrils, a myriad of expressions darkening his face. He looked over at the hatch exiting the bridge. "Okay, yeah. You've got a point." He ran his good hand through his hair. "But I want us to talk to Grace before we leave."

Steve licked his lips. "We'll do that now while Kono coordinates with the departments on our course of action."

***

Grace clung to her father, the two of them talking in hushed tones at the far side of the bridge. They were about to head out to clear the rest of the ship of Wo Fat's men, and Steve tried to remain at a respectful distance away, giving them space.

But once Grace was done hugging her father, she tentatively walked toward Steve. Unsure if he had scared her earlier, Steve crouched, taking things slow. But as soon as Grace saw him reach out toward her, she ran over and gave him a fierce hug, surprising him.

"Please be careful," she whispered in his ear.

Steve suppressed a grunt of pain, hugging her back, allowing himself to feel just how far her small arms could reach around his back. A wave of affection warmed his bones. "We'll be back before you know it."

He broke away from the embrace, locking the moment inside him. Kono wandered over and helped strap his weapon over his shoulder, and Danny looked at him with a resigned expression of doom.

"All departments have reported in saying they have secured gas masks and are ready," Toast told them.

Steve picked up a radio. "Chin, you have a green light."

Even if Wo Fat's men were listening in; they wouldn't be prepared for what hit them.

***

Clearing the decks was an easy task when most of the enemy was curled up on the floor gagging and coughing.

Steve breathed heavily through his gas mask. "Freeze!" he shouted. "Touch a weapon and it'll be the last thing you do."

"So, pretty please, touch one," Danny growled through his own mask and went to work securing two more assholes.

"I don't think those zip ties are tight enough."

"For once, I think you're right." And Danny yanked on the plastic restraints with his good wrist even tighter.

"We've got two more bogeys," Steve said, radioing an update.

"Copy that," Kono replied. "My team will come to you and scoop them up."

"Bogeys, really?" Danny took point down the passageway. "You've been watching too many of those old World War II movies."

"We need to keep moving."

"Where to next?"

Steve took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes closed against the poker in his side. "The Plotting Room."

***

Steve breathed through the gas mask, trying to ignore the unpleasantly sweet rubber smell. He'd always hated wearing one, the sensation of heat and staleness building inside the mask, forcing him to breathe the same air in and out. He curled his fingers around his rifle, eyes darting around in search of movement. His chest tightened, saliva filling his mouth.

"Hey?" Danny whispered. "You okay?"

"I'm fine."

"I doubt the definition of fine is breathing like a steam train."

But Steve kept moving even as the air started to smell like dust burning off a radiator. No, he shouldn't smell much with the mask's filters. But they hadn't encountered any more of Wo Fat's men in the last ten minutes, and the lack of distraction was causing Steve's thoughts to shift, his senses to overcompensate.

He took the next corner, biting his lip between his teeth. There was blood on the floor, splatter on the walls, and a trail of drops leading away. Like the bridge, the hatch to the plotting room was dented, the surrounding walls and ceiling covered in burn marks.

"Looks like the radio is busted," Danny said, looking at the remains of the control box. He started pounding on the wall. "Hello? Anyone in there? Catherine!"

Danny stared at the hatch, sliding a hand over the watertight seal. "Seems like it's been welded shut."

Steve glared at the hatch in confusion and took over pounding. "Catherine!"

"Steve is that you?" he heard her reply.

His heartbeat doubled. "Yes! Damn it, Cath. Why haven't you radioed in?"

"Because the comm was destroyed in the attack, and I wasn't about to use an unsecured channel or the portable."

"And the door?" Steve asked, breathing heavily.

"Let's just say, some real nasty assholes really wanted to get inside and I took exception to their rudeness."

Steve looked back at the bloodstains. "I can tell. Can you get out?"

"I welded the door shut, not to mention there's a breach in the hull,” she said from behind the hatch. “But I can get her open again. I'd stand back."

Danny pointed at Steve. "I can see why the two of you got along so well."

Ignoring him, Steve got on his radio, trying to enunciate through his mask. "Kono, status report."

"The rest of the ship has been cleared and all prisoners have been rounded up and secured. Oh, and Chin said it should be safe to remove our masks."

"Thank goodness for that," Danny said, ripping his away. "Damn things are hot."

Steve yanked his off, relishing the freedom. "Kono, we need to–

"Regroup in the infirmary. Max's orders."

"Max's?" Steve shook his head. "Max has more severe casualties to—"

Danny stepped on Steve's foot. Hard. Steve glared, but his annoyance faded when he studied the bruise along Danny's forehead, thinking about the neural implant inside Danny's spine, anger burning through his being at the thought of Wo Fat touching Danny. Hurting him.

He activated his radio. "We'll be there soon."

***

 

Steve stood as out of the way as possible, shoving himself into the right corner of the infirmary. He almost pulled out the squeeze ball he had stuffed in his pocket. Max's staff was small, but efficient. Malia oversaw the day shift, Max the night shift, with five support personnel between them. All seven doctors and nurses worked like a well-oiled machine prioritizing and caring for patients – except there were not many people to treat. Wo Fat's men had been brutally efficient; most crew members of the Hoku caught in the corridors during the attack had all been killed.

Sixteen in all, not including Wade's team.

Chin walked in, his steps falling short when he saw Steve and Danny. "Whoa. You guys all right?"

"Never better," Danny mumbled.

But now that the ship was semi-secured, Steve could see how Danny's body bristled with nerves. How he folded and unfolded his arms over his chest, his eyes roaming around as he moved from one foot to the other.

Chin wasn't buying it, and he looked at Steve with a raised eyebrow. "You're holding your shoulder like my uncle after he scored his game winning touchdown then got creamed in the end zone."

"I'm fine." Steve moved away from the wall he was leaning against and gave the man an appraising look, noting the fresh bandage at his temple, the lines of fatigue across his bruised face. "What about you?"

"Other than one hell of a headache?" Chin shrugged. "Better than how you two look."

"Excellent job on holding off Wo Fat's goons and clearing out the halls," Steve told him.

Chin frowned. "I don't remember passing out, but by the time I woke up, a group of Wo Fat's men were already in the passageway. I couldn't reach the weapons locker, but I had my piece on me and tried slowing them down." He shook his head and gestured toward Max and Malia. "Those two whipped up some pretty impressive chemical explosives. It gave us enough time to get the security hatch in place."

Steve was so proud of his crew, but they had even bigger challenges to conquer. "We have to get operational," he implored. "We have to destroy Wo Fat's ship."

Chin pursued his lips, thinking. "We still have the boats he used to board the Hoku."

"No," Steve said with a shake of his head. "Don't touch them. They might be sabotaged."

"You think he'd do that?" Chin asked.

Danny snorted, cynical. "I wouldn't put anything past this guy. The word sociopath doesn't begin to describe him."

Steve stared at Danny, remembering the look in Wo Fat's calculated eyes, his confidence when he had Steve against the railing.

"You saw something, didn't you?" Danny asked, watching him. "When you ripped away the front of his coveralls. Something freaked you out. I mean other than having your shoulder separated and almost dying."

Steve didn't say a word, his brain too wrapped up in images of wires and metal, and the smoldering odor of scorched earth. He tried taking a deep breath, but a pain shot through his side, clearing his head of the nightmarish imagery. He opened his eyes to Danny's worried face.

Danny wanted to say something, his lips twitching in need, but Max wandered over, oblivious. "Ah, gentlemen. I'm so glad you're here." He nodded at Danny. "If you could come with me?"

"Um. No," Danny said wide-eyed, taking two steps back. "I'll just, you know. Wait. I'm sure there are people with more pressing injuries."

"I assure you, nothing is as pressing as a neural implant," Max said, completely earnest.

Danny glared at Steve, but it had been his number one priority to inform Max of Danny's injury.

Danny stared at Max, flustered. "Wait, so you know about this, this torture device? And the first time I hear of one is when some asshole puts it between my shoulder blades?"

"I am familiar with the design, but I have never seen one up close." Max adjusted his glasses, peering at Danny with a little too much enthusiasm.

"Hey, hold on now. Back off," Danny growled. "I'm not some gerbil for you to experiment on."

"I wasn't..."

"Yes, you were. I saw the gleam in your eyes and I am not some new toy to play with."

"My eyes do not gleam," Max said, sounding perplexed. "And your wrist also needs to be examined and properly set."

Steve placed a hand on Danny's shoulder, feeling the tremble of anxiety under his palm. "Go with Max."

"Me? What about you?" Danny moved away, jumpy. "Wo Fat used you for his own personal anatomy lesson. Let's see which bones I can snap, huh?"

"Actually Steve, I want you to go with Malia so she can begin your blood draws and set you up for a series of x-rays," Max said, turning his attention toward him.

Steve shook his head. "I can go later."

"Given your history, I think it prudent that we fun a full chemical analysis of your blood work."

Max stood there waiting and Danny glared at Steve, knowing Steve had no room to argue.

Chin cleared his throat. "Maybe I should leave and –"

"No, we can go over all our status reports while I'm being examined," Steve said, trying to reel things in when everything else felt like it was spinning out of control. "We can't waste anymore time."

***

Steve lay on the exam table while Malia drew the x-ray scanner over him. Chin stood out of her way while he communicated back and forth with the various teams. Steve hated the idea of being flat on his back, unable to move, his injuries more noticeable with the fading influence of the pain medication.

Malia finished the last of the scans, resting a hand on Steve's arm above where she had drawn blood. "I know you've been running around, but please try to lie here and give your body time to acclimate as the drugs from that injection finish wearing away."

Steve nodded, lost in thought.

"Mahalo," Chin told her as she left. Malia lingered a moment, giving him a wan smile before leaving.

Steve had asked for the identities of their KIA, aware that he was exposing himself to vulnerabilities. But Steve had needed the intel to strategize their defense, the weight of everyone's names crushing him. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Mamo's face staring back at him.

But he couldn't mourn their dead, not when dozens of others were still alive, ready to defend their home.

"Have you heard the latest status on Wo Fat's ship?" he asked his voice rough.

"It hasn't moved."

"It's a chess game now," Steve said. "They have propulsion and we don't."

"We both have guns, but we're both out of each other's range." Chin moved closer, resting a hip on the end of the exam table. "Wo Fat might escape while he can."

Steve shook his head. "We can't allow that."

"If you're worried about the Blackwing, isn't there a self-detonation?" Chin asked. "We could blow it up before he discovers and disarms it."

"Blowing it up will not take out his ship."

"But it will prevent a very high-tech, classified helicopter from getting into enemy hands." Chin waited, watching Steve's face. His voice grew quieter. "I know you want revenge for what he did, but we might have to save ourselves and retreat."

"Retreat isn't an option."

"Steve. What is it? I've never seen you dismiss sound strategy. It's not like you to allow grief to cloud your judgment. Is it what Wo Fat did to Danny? Because we've got the best docs around. They'll find a way to remove the implant."

"I know they will. It's not meant to be permanent."

Although Steve was vaguely familiar with the devices, he'd never used one. They'd been experimental and used only by Force Recon Black Ops Specialists. The idea Wo Fat possessed such classified tech made the anger he'd so carefully locked down begin to burn again. But Wo Fat had machine tech, not just trinkets, but a laser capable of sinking any naval vessel.

"You're doing some serious thinking over there," Chin said.

"What if he has more than one laser?"

"Do you think it's possible?"

"A laser like that, with its optics and required power-supply, has to weigh how many thousands of pounds? How did he get it, Chin? How did he obtain one let alone transport it? And if got his hands on something as powerful as a laser..."

"Then what else does he have?" Steve bit his lip and Chin keyed on it right away. "What is it?"

Steve was surrounded by white sterile walls, surfaces that reeked of antiseptic, but all the chemicals in the world couldn't conceal the hint of burning metal. He shook his head. "I don't know."

"I think you do."

"I..." Steve tried to sit up and yeah, that was a bad idea; his whole body was stiff with pain.

Chin helped, wrapping an arm around the middle of his back, easing Steve up until he was in a sitting position. Chin kept his hand in place, supporting him.

Steve closed his eyes, rallying his reserves; thinking back to his encounter with Wo Fat, remembering what he'd seen. "I thought I was having some type of flashback," he admitted quietly.

"When?"

"When Wo Fat tried to kill me." Steve turned his head toward Chin. "Wo Fat punched faster than anyone I've ever seen. And the force he possessed?" Steve licked his lips. "He almost took my head off."

"You think he's part of an enhanced soldier program like ours?"

"Not like ours." Steve closed his eyes, focusing on what his mind had tried to protect him from, what had triggered him. Bundles of red and blue strands. "Wo Fat had... he had dozens of these wires going into his chest." He swallowed against the sight of copper and circuit boards. "And they were moving under his skin."

Chin didn't say a word, head bowed. "He's modified machine tech into some kind of biological enhancements?"

"He said he was the new model." Steve stared at some spot on the floor as horrible things started clicking in place. "Danny was right. He didn't need the Hoku; he needed more expertise in weapons and science."

"And the Blackwing was a bonus."

"No, he knew about that bird just like he knew who exactly was on board. Do we have a complete roll call of the crew? Do we know who's missing?"

"Kono's finishing one as we speak. Hold on." Chin pulled out his radio. "Kono it's Chin, over."
He waited several beats, looking over Steve before her voice squawked loudly in the tiny room.

"This is Kono; I was just going to contact you."

She sounded tense and it only made Steve more anxious.

Chin must have sensed the same infliction in Kono's voice, his brow pinched with stress. "I'm with Steve. Do you have a complete roll call of the crew?"

"I just double-checked it and everyone is accounted for except for one crew member."

"Who is?" Steve asked, staring at the radio in Chin's hand. Dreading the answer.

"We can't locate Jenna Kaye."

Steve felt like he'd been kicked in the chest. "Are you sure?"

"We've scoured the ship. We can't find her."

Chin took a deep breath and Steve looked over at him in sympathy. He'd sensed Kaye and Kono had started becoming friends. And now...

"Kono, can you return to the infirmary ASAP?" Chin asked.

"I'm on my way."

Steve shook his head, angry with himself. He'd made too many mistakes, his judgment completely off the mark during this whole thing. "Jenna Kaye was on Wo Fat's list."

"Why do think he kidnapped her?" Chin asked confused. "Like you said, Wo Fat needs science and weapons people. Why grab an analyst?"

Steve looked up at Chin and his heart slammed against his ribcage at how hugely this thing had exploded in their faces. "Wo Fat said he wanted us to bomb the mainland. He was counting on it." He swallowed against the lump in his throat. "Who else would have the intel on such a classified operation other than a high level member of Military Intelligence?"

 

***

Danny didn't want to be examined, he didn't want cold hands touching his back, but he sat on the exam table, trembling, his skin covered in gooseflesh.

"Would you like me to turn up the heat?" Max asked tentatively.

"No."

Danny should have changed into one of those stupid gowns, but it was easier to remove his shirt, because this wasn't going to take long, it couldn't. Not with the destruction of the boiler, the untold damage from the explosion, all that shrapnel and fire, all of Polani's blood.

Something brushed by his neck and Danny flinched, jumping off the table with a raised fist.

"I'm sorry," Max said, both hands up in the air. "I should have warned you."

"No, I'm sorry. I'm just stressed." Danny slowly sat back down on the table, watching Max's latex covered fingers, trying to steady his breathing. "Can we hurry this up? There's no point poking me if we can't prevent the ship from sinking or, you know, if we all get blown up."

"It is my understanding the hull breech is being repaired as we speak, and the one in the plotting room was already repaired by Ms. Rollins and her team."

The idea that someone from the deck, or lord forbid, maintenance, could be touching his engines made him shudder. Maybe Levi was in charge, he better, because Donnie was too OCD about conductors and...

"Danny?"

"Huh?" Danny glanced up at Max, who frowned at him. "What were you saying? Are we done?"

"If you could just lie down on your stomach, I'll run the scanner over you."

Danny eyed the door, and for a few seconds, he thought about bolting because what was the point? What could Max do for him right now? It was deactivated, right? This...this fucking thing in his spine. He even had the remote; no one was going to shock him again.

He hopped off the table again, fingers digging into his pockets, yanking out ammo clips, a pocketknife, and the thing, the spark-plug thing he'd yanked from one of Wo Fat's men.

Max made an appreciative 'oh' sound, his hand reaching for it. "May I?"

And that's when it hit Danny, the spark plug shape, the filaments. He felt his cheeks drain of color. "Is this...I mean...?"

Max carefully wrapped his fingers around the device, no, the implant. "This will be very helpful." He cradled the device like it would disintegrate if jostled, and carefully carried it to a small table before walking back over. "And the remote?"

Danny's gaze flicked to the implant and swallowed. "Those wires; do you think they're wrapped around my..."

"Technically the wires are fiber optics without their protective polymer coating. And they are more than likely wrapped around the nerve fibers of the dorsal and ventral roots of the spinal cord. Based on the insertion area of your back, I'd say between your C4 and C5 vertebrae. Maybe even..."

"Okay, okay," Danny said, throwing a hand up, heart pounding. "Enough. Could we just avoid the dissertation on how screwed I am."

"You are not screwed." Max stood there unflappable. "While intricate, I have worked with far more complicated and sophisticated bio medical technology. You need not worry."

"You sound very confident."

"Why would I not be?"

Danny had to smile at that. Max matched his grin and slowly opened up his palm. "Now, if you would allow me to have the remote. I will examine it and the other implant and figure out the mechanism behind them. After I study the scans, I have no doubt I will work out a plan to remove the implant safely."

Danny hesitantly handed it over, then he sat back on the exam table and lay on his stomach. Giving himself a mental pep talk, he craned his head at Max. "I'm ready."

***

Danny hurriedly pulled a shirt over his head, the fabric scraping the fresh bandage over his back. A precaution, Max had said, to protect against an infection. Along with a shot of antibiotics. Oh, and there was nothing else to be done about the implant, not until Max played mad scientist. This was fine by him. He didn't want to think about it anymore.

His mind began racing. How could he get propulsion operational? What were the mathematical equations for running with only one boiler; what were they going to use for fuel? Had the solar panels been damaged during the attack?

What if they couldn't return to Oahu before they ran out of supplies? Would Grace ever see the beach again? What if Wo Fat –

And when he walked out of the tiny exam room, he watched in silence as Max helped wheel a gurney with a body bag inside their makeshift morgue, a tiny freezer normally used to store chemicals. Danny stood there until he caught sight of Steve, who also watched the gurney as if at attention, eyes dark and flat.

"Hey," Danny said, walking up to him. Steve's arm was held close to his body by a pale blue sling. "That looks comfy."

The muscles around Steve's mouth twitched.

"What did Malia have to say?" Danny pressed.

"I'm fine."

"Don't give me that stoic machismo, because I'm not in the mood."

"I have two cracked ribs and I might require shoulder surgery for tendon damage around my rotator cuff."

"Surgery?" Danny said, surprised.

He couldn't imagine Steve being cut into again, forced to take more meds, endure more physical therapy.

Danny opened his mouth to ask more questions, but Steve had already switched gears, looking at Danny with the type of concern he loathed. God, they were both so damn prickly.

"What about you? What did Max–?"

"He's going to examine the implant I took off one of Wo Fat's men. And I'm betting when we're done scouring the rest of his goon squad we'll find more." Danny shrugged, trying to seem more confident than he felt. "So, you know. He'll have plenty to tinker with."

But Steve saw right through his act. "Max will figure it out. Neural implants are not–"

"Meant to cause permanent damage, only designed to inflict pain and submission," Danny rattled off, irritable. "Yeah, I've heard the speech." He held up his newly casted wrist. "At least I get this cut off in six weeks. Hopefully, we'll all be around then."

One of Max's assistants began wheeling in another body bag and he couldn't help wondering how they were going to fit them all in such a tiny space.

"We're meeting in my office to go over strategy," Steve said curtly, his eyes on the gurney before he looked over at Danny, expression hard like granite. "We won't allow Wo Fat to harm anyone else."

***

Danny had nightmares like anyone else. Snapshots of holding Rachel's bleeding body while screaming for help that never arrived. Cradling Grace after a bomb tore through the local Farmer's Market. The dawn sky filled with incoming missiles and mushroom clouds. He'd wake up screaming from things he'd never witnessed.

He could add images of Wo Fat with wires and tubes. Eyes that glowed in the dark, legs with metal joints, fingers made of steel, snapping Steve's neck with a cold smile. More fuel for the stuff that kept him up at night. He and Steve could lie next to each pretending to sleep.

Most of all he thought of Grace sitting on a chair in the bridge, brave-faced and quiet as everyone hustled around. Probably eager to volunteer for any menial duty. It killed him knowing he couldn't be with her right now and had to be down here in the weapons room instead.

And for an inexplicable reason, whenever he tried to think or something else, anything to clear his head, his mind drifted to this time last year when they'd been docked outside the Marshall Islands during emergency rudder repairs. Most of the crew actually had slept on the beach. Danny and Grace made fun of Steve's meticulous castle building, and later that night, at the most perfectly isolated spot near the cove, he and Steve had amazing sex under the stars. It had been one of the most invigorating experiences of his life. He'd do anything to re-live that slice of heaven again.

Such thoughts were inappropriate at a time like this, selfish. Just now, Kono had finished going over the list of repairs, and the amount of work left to be done was overwhelming. They were not in danger of sinking, thank God; all hull breaches had been sealed. But the EMP array had been irreparably damaged, and they'd lost all targeting radar.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to focus on Catherine's report.

"Not only did we lose weapons radar, but all our range keepers were hit by the laser strike," she said, arms leaning on the table. "We can't compute firing solutions."

"Can we aim by sight?" Kono asked.

"Yes, we can," Catherine said with enthusiasm. "We can set up a series of spotters inside the remains of the wheelhouse, each armed with a laptop for distance measurements. I'll pull the gyroscope out of storage to help with the orientation of targets, and with the use of radar tracking from the bridge, I can get us accuracy."

Her enthusiasm seemed to bolster everyone's spirits in the room. They were all ex-navy, they all understood Catherine was talking about numbers ranging only between twenty and thirty percent. They'd miss twice as much as they'd hit. But Danny knew those numbers would bury anyone's ability on Wo Fat's crew. There was no way anyone aboard that sociopath's ship had the passion, the heart, to obtain such skill.

The uplift in morale settled into a sphere of hope and determination. Chin looked around, obviously waiting for the right moment to speak. "I still don't understand why the plotting room was hit. We can still fire all our main guns. Why not go with the main batteries?"

Catherine sat back in her seat in thought; Kono folded her arms in front of her chest.

"It means Wo Fat's intel isn't complete," Steve said, breaking the silence.

"He had a list of specific targets," Danny said, thinking out loud, ticking things off with his fingers. "He had to have access to personnel profiles, not to mention information on SEAL Team Nine and the Blackwing."

Kono scanned everyone seated at the table "Maybe he had or still has eyes and ears on us?"

"Or we have a leak."

Danny whipped his head in Steve's direction. He must have undisguised brain damage, because Danny did not hear the words that just came out of Steve's mouth. "We don't have a leak. No one on this ship would ever betray this crew, and even if they did, and I mean in a hypothetical situation, they wouldn't be able to transmit any intel to an enemy vessel without detection."

"That we know of." Steve had that look, the one where he pondered every worst-case scenario as if they were all happening at once. "If we're dealing with machine tech, we have no idea the type of surveillance that could be in use."

Danny snapped his fingers. "Which would have been taken out by the Blackwing EMP burst."

"Um, could we go back to that?" Chin asked, drawing everyone's attention. "Wo Fat's ship has been compromised. We have a window to—"

"We've already discussed this," Steve interrupted. He held Chin's gaze. "We can't let him escape. He has Kaye, which means he has vital intelligence about our bombing capabilities."

But Chin was ever the pragmatist. "And we still don't know why."

"No, we don't," Steve said in concession. He leaned back in his chair with a grim expression. "But we do have several of his crew."

Chin worked his jaw in thought and Catherine glanced between both men. "Interrogation can take time we don't have."

The tension in Steve's body was visible in every harsh line of his body. "We can't create a plan of attack without any intel. We'll have to get creative."

"I can be creative," Kono said, looking at Steve almost in challenge.

"Are you sure?" Steve asked, watching her face.

"I can do it."

And by creative, they meant something far darker. Danny bit his lip knowing the mental toughness needed to crawl inside a person's mind and manipulate it. Kono was more than up to the task, but Danny wasn't sure he wanted to see her go there. Or anyone he cared about.

Steve nodded. "Okay. We'll need a few more people. I have an idea. But it's intense."

"We don't have time for anything else," Kono said. She nodded at Chin. "Want to back me up?"

"You got it."

"Has anyone thought about contacting the navy about the crazy madman?" Danny asked, waving his hand at everyone. "Give them a head's up?"

"We can't," Chin told them. "Our intraship coms work, but our long distance communications are still being jammed and we have no idea how or why."

Danny watched Steve, who didn't react to the news. He must have already been briefed, his ten-mile stare speaking of plans and maniacal things Danny wasn't sure he was prepared to handle.

 

***

Everyone filed out of the meeting, mission critical regarding their duties. But Danny noticed Steve hanging back in the passageway, gesturing at Catherine to remain behind. Danny lingered, slowly wandering over toward the impromptu meeting.

Steve flicked his gaze toward Danny, unfazed, talking to Catherine in clipped, hushed tones.

"We need to find out about those ships Wo Fat attacked and members of the crews who had been previously abducted. And we need as much information possible on Jenna Kaye. We can't rule out the fact that she could have been the source of intel."

Catherine cleared her throat. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Steve said, bleak.

"Do you think, perhaps, you might be jumping to conclusions?" Danny held his thumb and pointer finger close together. "Just a little? We're talking about a member of Military Intelligence."

Steve's nostrils flared. "We've been out maneuvered almost every step of the way. And she's the only one Wo Fat managed to grab, and somehow our communications are mysteriously still being jammed. So, no. I'm not taking any chances."

"Okay, okay. Take a deep breath." Danny laid a hand on Steve's arm, just enough to draw attention. "Look, I trust your instincts and skills. I also know Wo Fat has a ton of high tech weapons and anything to do with the machines really winds you up.”

Danny watched Steve open his mouth to argue, but Danny gently squeezed Steve's bicep. “But that doesn't mean I'm not backing your play. You're right, we can't leave any stone unturned.”

"Then why are you still standing here?" Steve demanded.

"Why am I…?" Danny looked over at Catherine for help, but she shook her head. He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure, I'll just wave my magic wand and repair something that's going to take days."

Steve normally buoyed Danny's confidence with a quip or dare, but this time, he pinned Danny with a haunted, raw expression, and it scared him. "We don't have days. We might not even have hours."

***

Danny stood in the middle of the engine room, the air reeking of smoke and charred metal. He'd poured three years of his life into this place, ensuring every little thing hummed in harmony. It broke his heart to see it all so broken.

Boiler One was destroyed from the laser strike, the resulting explosion damaging Boilers Two and Three. Together, they generated the steam to drive the turbines, creating the energy to turn the ship's propeller. If one went down, the other two compensated. Except all three were toast.

Thank goodness they still had electricity. The solar panels were connected to a generator, which provided power for the ship's electrical systems.

Levi walked inside, his hair matted to his forehead with sweat. "Some mess, huh?"

"Yeah," Danny sighed. But they couldn't dwell on the bad, and he clapped Levi on the shoulder. "You guys did a great job cleaning things up and patching up the breach."

"We just finished pumping all the water out." Levi pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his face. "I let everyone have a thirty-minute break."

"No, that's good." Danny walked over to Boiler Three and frowned at the giant holes and gutted compressor. "We might be able to weld this back together."

"But the attemperator's busted. If we can't regulate how hot the steam gets..."

"Yeah, it'll burn up the control system and probably blow everything back up again."

Danny studied the broken boiler, trying to find the upside, the thing he could cling to, his heart sinking upon further inspection. "And there's like three giant cracks in the furnace, there's no way it will hold enough steam pressure." But failure wasn't an option. Their survival depended on them. He was an engineer; this was what he did: pull off miracles. "Maybe if we cobble together parts from all three?"

"Cobble what, man?"

"I don't know," Danny said, frustrated. "Maybe raid the supply room for spare parts and make this into a low-pressure steam boiler."

Levi got a look, the kind that screamed, this is so nuts, but it could work. He crouched on his haunches, a wrinkle forming across his forehead. "Go from three boilers to a single low-yield one?"

"Better than dead in the water."

Levi stroked his scraggly beard. "You're talking about intricate, tedious, machine work."

"Yeah," Danny replied, looking down at his busted wrist. "Too bad, I'm a righty, huh?"

"We still need your expertise, boss."

"You mean my hot air."

Levi snorted. "That too."

***

A broken wrist couldn't keep Danny from helping, or from trying to help. He supervised and offered suggestions, searched for parts, lifted and worked on things he shouldn't. And after an hour his wrist throbbed so badly he had to bow out, his pride hurting as much as his body. All he wanted to do was to pitch in when his crew needed him the most.

Furious with himself, he was storming toward the infirmary in search of a pain pill when he noticed Steve in the corridor, stalking back and forth, days of stress making him look a little unhinged.

"Hey," Danny said. "What's up?"

Steve stopped pacing, but he was still a bundle of nerves, his left arm snugged tight against his body, his right arm in constant motion, fingers curling and uncurling.

"I'm waiting for Kono and Chin."

Danny watched Steve's fingers and he patted his pocket in search for one of the soft squeeze balls he carried around with him, but couldn’t find one. He let out a frustrated sigh. “Why are we waiting on Chin and Kono?"

"For the interrogation."

"Interrogation? Where? In the infirmary?" Danny laughed. But he quickly realized Steve wasn't joking. "What kind of interrogation are we talking about? Because if you need to start it in the infirmary, I'm not sure I –"

"The most effective form of interrogation is psychological."

Danny narrowed his eyes, aborting the beginning of an argument, aware Steve couldn't be reached that way. "I was just going to grab something for my wrist. I'll stick around for backup."

"Are you sure? What we're doing is a little unorthodox."

Danny thought of Grace, of all the bodies piled inside their makeshift morgue. The life he'd worked so hard to build for her. "I think the last few hours call for something unorthodox."

***

Danny stood in the corner of the infirmary, staring at instrument trays covered with wires, circuit boards, and various fuses. Even the shelves had been stocked with hard drives and parts from power supplies. The lights were dimmed from their usual brightness, two main examination spotlights replaced with green light bulbs.

He cocked his head at Steve, bewildered, but Steve didn't say a word, his posture stiff. Max walked over clad in scrubs and a surgical mask, hands clasped behind his back.

"What the hell is going on?" Danny demanded.

"Wait for it," Steve answered cryptically.

Danny was about to tell Steve what he felt about waiting when the doors burst open with Chin and Kono wheeling a gurney with a man strapped to it.

"What the hell are you doing?" the man screamed hysterically. "You have no right to –"

"Shut up," Kono hissed, setting the brake to the gurney. "You lost your rights the moment you boarded the Hoku."

The guy craned his neck, strands of sweaty dark hair falling in his face. "You talk big for such a little thing."

But despite the bravado, the man was sweating like a stuck pig, stinking of fear.

Kono smiled evilly; it was a chilling sight. "Little thing huh?" She grabbed a roll of copper wire and began wrapping it around her fingers. "They say the nervous system is nothing but electrical impulses. Millions of little sparks jumping across axons and microscopic fibers."

"And we all want to improve those, right?" Chin picked up a scalpel, pressing the blade menacingly along the prisoner's forearm. "And once we replace your nervous system, you won't feel a thing."

The prisoner whipped his head in Chin's direction, his arms straining against his wrist restraints. "Replace my nervous system? What? No," he hissed, yanking harder. "You can't do that."

Danny looked over at Steve confused. Steve raised his chin, sounding unapologetic. "We might have given the prisoner a combo of sodium pentothal and something with a hallucinogenic effect."

"A hallucinogenic effect." Danny's eyebrows rose. "Wow. Why stop there?"

"Fear is the biggest motivator for extracting information. Pain and torture have proven to be vastly ineffective."

Steve's words rolled right off his tongue without inflection and it chilled Danny to the bone. He hated it when Steve did that, shut himself off. But Danny didn't have time to digest how uneasy it made him feel before Chin started rolling the tray of surgical instruments closer for the prisoner to see.

Chin looked at Kono, giving her a gleeful smile. "Well, before we take out all his nerve endings, he will feel things during surgery."

The prisoner started jerking his body side to side. "What surgery? What are you freaks gonna do to me?"

Kono grabbed a pair of gloves, stretching the latex over her hand until it snapped. "We're going to carve out your heart through your chest. Of course we'll need to crack open your ribs first. Might use a circular saw for that, not sure." Kono quirked an eyebrow at Chin. "What should we remove first? His heart or his brain? Ooooh, maybe start with his eyes first."

Chin hummed contently to himself. "I thought maybe the brain, right, Max?"

Max inched closer and peered down at the prisoner, his surgical mask obscuring most of his face.

The guy began screaming.

Danny flinched. "I can't believe Max agreed to take part in all of this."

"He didn't, and I didn't ask," Steve said without hesitation. "He's there to monitor the patient's vitals. I did ask him to change into his surgical scrubs though.” Steve's Adam's apple bobbed up and down in a swallow. "I'm doing what has to be done."

Kono picked up a silver medical drill, flicking it on, the horrible high-pitched whirring noise grating to the ears. "We need to make few holes in his skull for the wires to go through."

"You're all nuts!" the prisoner screamed.

Chin tsked, shaking his head. "Everything will have to be done without anesthesia."

"Of course," Kono said, using the same enthused tone of voice. "We have to establish a baseline. We don't have Wo Fat's research for comparison."

"What research?" the guy snapped.

"Wo Fat's research into machine tech," Chin said, leaning over the prisoner's face. "If we knew more about it, we wouldn't need to experiment on you."

"I can't tell you, he'd kill me."

"But he can't kill someone who isn't really alive." Kono brought the drill closer to the guy's sweat slicked face.

The prisoner hiccupped, trying to move away from the spinning drill bit. "What do you wanna know?"

"Your name for starters," Kono demanded.

"Sang Ming."

"Okay, Sang Ming." Kono held the drill higher. "Why is Wo Fat sabotaging the defense grid?"

"As a test."

"A test for what?" she demanded.

Sang Ming huffed through his teeth. "To see if he could shut it down."

"Why?" Chin growled, tag teaming. "What good would it do?"

"Because, man, if he figured out how to shut that shit down, he could shut down the one around the islands."

"Why does Wo Fat want to shut down the inner island defense grid?" Chin yelled.

Sang Ming clamped his mouth closed.

Kono put the drill down and raised the head of the gurney until Sing Ming was more upright. She ran the tips of her fingernails over a swirl of dark tribal ink on his neck. "That's an interesting tattoo. It's a Triad symbol, right? Representing the territory around Guam?"

"Yeah," Sang Ming said, swallowing. "Whazzit to you?"

"Around six years ago, I worked for the EOD." Kono leaned on the railing, predatory. "Then one day, my team was sent out to disarm a string of mines released to wreak havoc on the local fishing industry for not paying protection money. These were families just trying to feed their kids, knowing half their catch was too toxic to eat." She hovered over Sang Ming, her voice rich and oddly sultry. "See, these mines were shoddy and crude, which actually made them more dangerous to disarm. The plan was to blow them up."

"Yeah?" Sang Ming said in a singsong voice.

"Yeah," Kono repeated in a whisper. "Until one of them went off, setting off a daisy-chain. I wasn't even in the water when everything exploded. But it didn't stop the blast from tearing through my patrol boat or all the shrapnel from going through my leg."

Danny knew the history behind Kono's injury, but he'd never heard her speak about it so bluntly. Chin stayed in character, but his face shimmered with anger and guilt.

Kono slowly pulled on the fabric of his BDUs, revealing an old metal prosthesis instead of her slick carbon fiber limb. She must have switched limbs for the charade. It was crude with metal joints and an odd series of springs. "Sexy, isn't it? Not being able to feel your foot bounce off sand or dirt. Experiencing ghost pain in the middle of the night because your body forgets the limb is missing." She ran her fingers down the steel extension. "And how cool is it to remove your leg when you crawl into bed?"

Steve stepped forward like he was going to charge ahead, but stopped himself, eyes darting between Kono and Sang Ming.

Kono let the fabric of her BDUs fall back into place. "I kind of hope you don't talk. Think of all the fun we can have, removing your limbs one by one."

Sang Ming jerked and twisted back from her, panting like a horse. "Get away from me! You're loco."

"Yeah. I am," Kono said. Quiet. Menacing. "So tell me, why does Wo Fat want to shut down the inner island defense grid?"

Even drugged and scared out of his mind, Sang Ming had moxie. "Do you really have to ask such a stupid question?"

Kono nearly took the bait, a flicker of anger crossing her face before she took a step back.

Chin continued playing things smooth, but Danny could see the tension in his face as he fought hard to keep his emotions at bay.

Clearing his throat, Chin set his sights on Sang Ming. "Even if he had an army, he couldn't invade the islands."

"No one said anything about invading." Sang Ming snorted. Then he settled against the gurney, seeming calmer. Almost smug. "But imagine all those large settlements. All the spoils."

Danny sensed Steve wanting to pace. Could almost smell the fury radiating off his skin.

"That's why he wants the navy to bomb the mainland," Chin said. "It would leave the islands largely defenseless. But he'd have to know that we'd hit back? Use all our resources to hunt him down."

Sang Ming stared defiant.

Chin's face clouded over with thunder. "Does he have a plan for that, too?"

Sang Ming gave Chin an oily smile.

"He knows," Steve whispered. "The bastard knows."

"Take it easy," Danny said under his breath.

Steve did no such thing, crossing his good arm around himself as if to physically hold himself back. Danny felt caught between two erupting volcanoes as Chin banged his hand on the gurney's railing.

"You think this is a game? Huh?" Chin threatened. "Want me to leave you alone with Kono? Because I will!"

Sang Ming whipped his head between Kono and Chin in fear, but he remained silent.

Chin didn't let up, slamming his hand on the railing again. "Does he have a way to warn the machines about the bombing? Does he plan on leading our people into a slaughterhouse?"

Maybe Chin's question hit to close for home or something flashed in Sang Ming's eyes, because Steve bolted from his spot, grabbing the front of Sang Ming's shirt and yanking him against his restraints. "Wo Fat has a plan for the bombing, doesn't he? Does he have a pipeline to the machines, huh? Can he communicate with them? Is he working for them?" He yanked even harder. "Is that how he got all that tech? They give it to him?"

Danny was next to Steve, grabbing him by his good shoulder. "Come on, let's go."

It was like corralling a tree. Steve wouldn't budge. Danny didn't want to be forceful, not with adrenaline masking Steve's recent injuries, but the man was behaving out of control.

Luckily, there were cooler heads in the room and Kono parked herself beside Steve, hip checking him. Steve let go of Sang Ming, gaping at Kono wide-eyed. It was the perfect distraction.

"We're leaving. Now," Danny growled. And he grabbed Steve by the arm, steering him away while he was still too riled up to react.

***

"What the hell is the matter with you?" Danny seethed. "No, don't answer that. It was a rhetorical question. Because the last time I checked, busting in on an interrogation was not only stupid, but it can derail any process made. Didn't you see Kono and Chin playing that fool?"

Steve seemed only capable of making pissed off expressions. But Danny was angry too, angry and hurting, his wrist was killing him, and he was worried shitless about his daughter, who was literally trapped on the bridge for her own safety. And the key to making sure she and everyone else would survive to see another sunrise was completing a mindfuck on some terrorist.

"I mean seriously, could you stop being some half-cocked alternative version of yourself?" Danny continued ranting. "Can we have the capable of making a good decision McGarrett on board with the rest of us?"

Steve opened his mouth, but nothing made it past his lips, his words locked, or lost somewhere.

"You've got to hold it together, babe."

"I've got it together, Danny."

Steve stood tall as if to prove it, his good arm pressed hard against his side, the other one held immobile. Danny hated having to watch how hard Steve fought to keep everything physically battened in place.

"Really? You have it together?" Danny waited for an answer he knew would never be forthcoming. He sighed shaking his head, his voice softer. "Is that why you think Wo Fat is in cahoots with the machines? Like maybe Wo Fat and the machines had a swap meet or something?"

"I don't know," Steve growled, utterly frazzled. He rubbed a hand over the thick stubble of his face, fingers quivering. "But tell me, Danny. How else did he get his hands on so much...?" He shook his head as if to rid it of all his terrible thoughts. "How did Wo Fat..."

"I don't know how," Danny said, feeling ragged. Lord, he wished he did. But if Steve was right. God. He didn't want to believe it. “You do realize your theory scares the crap out of me?”

“Yeah, well, it scares the hell out of me as well.”

But before Danny was brave enough to postulate more on things, Chin and Kono exited the infirmary.

Chin leaned his back against the wall, his eyes closed tightly. And Kono walked over to the opposite wall, looking ten years older, her gaze drifting off into space.

All of Steve's earlier prickliness softened as he looked over at them. He walked over to Chin. "Hey. You okay?"

"Yeah." Chin blinked away his fatigue, the bruising on his face making him look hollow-eyed. "Just you know...a headache."

Danny took the opportunity and stood next to Kono none-to-subtly. She was on to him in seconds. "I'm fine."

"Did I ask? Nope. I just thought I'd lean my shoulder on this finely crafted wall. Maybe even close my eyes a second. I don't know about you, but I need a moment." Danny looked at her until she was looking back at him. "It's okay to take a second for yourself."

Kono took a deep breath, the lines of her face smoothing out with a second exhale. "Okay. Maybe you're right."

"I know I am," Danny said playfully, then added softer. "And you did great in there."

Kono bumped her hand against his and the two of them glanced over at Chin and Steve, who had just finished talking.

Danny smiled and nodded at Steve, who looked over at Kono and Chin. "Do you guys need a few more minutes?" he asked.

"I'm ready," Kono said.

"So am I." Chin brushed off the concern like an expert and dove right into his report. "Sang Ming said Wo Fat obtained intelligence files from the last naval vessel he boarded three months ago. Among the files were the schematics and details on all the Hoku's crew. That's how he knew where to hit us and whom to target for abduction when he discovered we were deployed when the defense grid was attacked."

"And you were right," Kono said, looking at Danny. "According to Sang Ming, Wo Fat is in desperate need of human resources. People with engineering, science, biology, weapons, any type of high-tech training. We were like one-stop shop."

"What about the Blackwing and the SEAL team?" Steve asked. "How was he aware of them?"

"Apparently one of the people abducted from the naval vessel was an analyst for Military Intelligence," Kono explained. He was able to provide Wo Fat with an accurate response scenario if he kept attacking the defense grid. Based on his analysis, Wo Fat continued his attack on the grid hoping the navy would send out a special forces unit in response, but instead he got something better."

"Us," Danny said like some bad punch line. He couldn't believe how easily they'd walked into a trap.

"Not only the Hoku, but the Blackwing." Chin folded his arms. "The two main goals were the abduction of our people and the helo, but if Wo Fat's teams were able to successfully take over the bridge, the third goal was to take over the Hoku and use her for parts."

Danny bobbed his head back and forth. "This is why he targeted the plotting room and not weapons."

"Exactly," Chin said with a nod. "He knew exactly what to strike to cripple us, but not destroy anything vital that he might want."

"But most importantly," Kono said. "He knew if Gutches or Kaye was unable to update the navy with a status report then the navy would assume the Hoku was destroyed…"

"Then the navy would have no choice but to bomb the mainland." The military could never take a chance that the disappearance of their ship was part of a machine attack. Steve's eyes darted around wildly. "And now that Wo Fat has Kaye, he has everything he needs to know about such an operation."

Danny felt his face pale. "Which leaves us with the next move against a guy who probably has a huge tactical advantage over us?"

"The last thing we learned was that Sang Ming doesn't know how or where Wo Fat has obtained his machine tech. No one on his crew does." Chin glanced at Steve. "And he has no clue what his plans are if a bombing operation commences. But he does believe in one thing – Wo Fat won't try to retreat; he'll try to finish us off as soon as possible."

"Which means we have to hit him first," Steve said practically vibrating with intensity. "And hit him without mercy."

***

Chapter Text

***

 

Steve walked outside, re-tracing the steps he knew by heart, scanning the patched-up holes in the hull, his gaze lingering on the scorch marks left over from the laser, scars that would forever be imprinted in his brain. He wandered aft, stepping around the remains of the EMP array scattered all over the deck. Despite the steady wind and the salt tinged-air, he swore he could smell...

He stepped on a large piece of metal and bent over to pick it up, a pain in his side causing him to hunch over. Taking a couple of shallow breaths, he waited for the pain to ease, pressing a hand to his immobilized shoulder when it began to throb in unison. He slowly stood back up and stared at the empty helo pad, his thoughts wild.

"If we blow up the Blackwing, would it cause enough damage to Wo Fat's ship?'

"The self-destruct is only meant to destroy the helo."

"What about using it as a chain reaction? Can it trigger the other on-board weapons?"

Gun battles were out of the question, not without engines. No, they had to go old school. Subterfuge. The Blackwing was the key, but not the way Wo Fat would anticipate.

Steve heard a crunch and he spun around, wielding his EMP pistol right in Chin's face. "Damn it," Steve breathed, lowering his weapon. "Sorry."

Chin lowered his hands in tandem with Steve's pistol. "It's fine. I think we're all a little jumpy."

Steve holstered his weapon, hand resting where it was secured by his hip. He knew Chin, could read the stiffness of his body language, the way his lips thinned into a frown.

"What's on your mind?"

Chin bowed his head and took a deep breath. "It's about the offensive."

Steve squinted at Chin as he looked at him silhouetted against the setting sun. The counter attack relied heavily on tried and true maritime tactics; send a small team of divers to plant explosives onto the hull of Wo Fat's ship. Simple but deadly.

"What are your concerns?" Steve asked.

Because Chin had sought him in private. After their meeting. Whatever was bugging him was either sensitive or personal.

"You've got Max and Malia doctoring the explosives in the limpet mines we're going to use."

"We can't take any chances that the explosions won't be powerful enough to rip large enough holes in Wo Fat's ship."

They were going to plant a dozen mines underneath the most vital parts of the hull. If they could detonate all twelve at the same time, the devastation might be huge enough to capsize Wo Fat's ship or, at the very least, give them enough time to finish them off from fast-moving boats.

Chin walked toward the railing and started drumming his fingers against it. "I understand why we have to destroy Wo Fat. I'm not denying that."

"But?"

"He still has Jenna."

Steve felt the sharp pang of guilt start to gnaw away at his insides.

"We have no idea if there's a leak," Chin said matter-of-fact. "And if we do have one, we have no proof Jenna's been feeding Wo Fat intel."

But Steve wasn't sure, not after he had Catherine dig into Kaye's case files, discovering a giant red flag. "Her fiancé was one of the analysts Wo Fat abducted recently, and she didn't bother to share that with us; in fact, she took great pains to conceal it from us."

"Which proves nothing."

"It's motive."

"Yeah, to get him back. Not to betray us."

"We don't know that," Steve insisted, raising his voice.

"No, we don't." Chin moved right into Steve's personal space. "And we're condemning her to death without proof. And the last I checked, we were in the saving people business."

Steve's guilt reached fever pitch, anger flushing his cheeks as Chin's words hit home. Because hadn't that been part of Steve's recruiting pitch to those he'd wanted to join the Hoku? To help others.

"You know what will happen if he escapes? If he goes through with his plans?" He didn't like the call that had to be made, but Wo Fat was too much of a threat. "We don't have a choice."

"No. This time the choice is ours. Not the navy's, not some paper-pusher calculating odds from a thousand miles away," Chin gritted out. "Ours."

Steve knew Chin was a hundred percent correct, but fear blossomed inside Steve's chest every time he thought of Wo Fat. An all-encompassing black hole swallowed him up, his chest so tight that it hurt to breathe. But he kept a straight face, kept it blank and still while everything raged out of control inside.

Flashes of six-legged metal machines and dust covered cliffs, the sound of clank, clank, clank as metal legs climbed over rocks, his breath hot inside the mask as he ran out of places to hide.

"Steve?"

He blinked up at Chin's worried face, Steve's chest rising and falling as if he'd just completed a sprint, his fight or flight adrenaline burst giving way to the horrible pain in his ribs.

"We can't let..." Steve licked his lips, giving his head a shake to clear away all the images in his head. He tried breathing the salty air into his lungs, but all he could smell was old rubber. "We can't let him get away with using machine tech. We can't allow anyone else inside the meat grinder."

"And we won't," Chin said his expression bleak. "I'm not saying we shouldn't try to kill the bastard or blow him out of the water. But we don't leave our people behind. Let's find a way to do both."

Steve dry swallowed, letting Chin's words rush over him and sink into his bones. He nodded, not trusting his voice, feeling like the biggest hypocrite.

Chin looked toward the ocean, the wet breeze dampening his face. "I still think using the limpet mines is the best way to go. It's riskier because we need divers to attach them, but I don't think even Wo Fat can do anything against the law of magnetism."

"Yeah," Steve said, finally finding his voice.

"We'll figure out a way," Chin said, gripping Steve's good shoulder. "I have faith, because I have faith in you."

Steve felt his chest tighten again, but in a good way, with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. He felt such relief that Chin could reach through all his barriers and navigate through the spider webs of paranoia to find the good that still lurked inside him, lost and struggling to find its way back.

His breath might have hitched but Chin didn't hesitate, pulling Steve close, giving him a gentle squeeze, quick and full of confidence and affection. And Steve wrapped his good arm around Chin, fierce and determined, praying he could pay back the faith his crew had in him.

Steve would figure out a way to destroy Wo Fat's ship, he just needed to figure out how to grab Kaye first.

***

Steve tried not looming over Toast as he sent out the Morse code message. Apparently, it wasn't enough.

"Will you stop it?" Danny grumbled and started steering Steve away from the paddle-keyer. "Let the man dash and dot in peace."

Steve jerked out of Danny's grasp. He wanted this done in private to reduce the amount of anxiety in the bridge crew, but the captain's ready room was small and he had little space to maneuver.

Chin stood in the corner watching Toast from a distance, his shoulders held stiffly. "I think this was a good call."

Steve lived by his gut, learned to trust it even when all logic told him otherwise. But this time, the number of lives at stake was unfathomable. He risked a glance at Danny, who gave him a nervous smile in return.

"Whoa," Toast said licking his lips. He flicked his eyes anxiously at Steve. "We're getting a reply. Fuck. I need a cigarette." He began scribbling down the incoming response, his scrawl unreadable.

Danny began prowling around the room restlessly, preventing Steve from doing the same. Sending an ultimatum to Wo Fat was a gutsy move, especially since it was a swipe at the man's ego.

Toast wiped at the sweat at his brow. "Um...okay. So, yeah. Wo Fat agreed to the exchange."

"He'll trade Kaye for the security codes to the Blackwing?" Steve asked, confirming they were all on the same page.

"Yeah," Toast said, wiping at his forehead.

Too easy, too easy, too easy, Steve's brain screamed.

"What's the catch?" Danny asked, reading his mind.

Toast began fiddling with his pen. "Screw a cigarette, I need a beer. Maybe a shot."

"Toast," Steve growled. "What else did Wo Fat say?"

"He said we have to meet him by boat in eight hours. He'll send the coordinates."

Steve felt like kicking something.

"Okay, so the exchange is going to take place on the ocean, not on his ship," Danny said, voicing Steve's thoughts. "We won't be able to carry out the attack we planned."

"No," Steve agreed. Things were changing and shifting at a thousand miles per hour. "But we can provide a needed distraction for Kono's team to plant the limpet mines."

"That is assuming Wo Fat doesn't plan on killing us," Danny added.

"Oh, he's going to try." Steve had no doubt. "He probably thinks we'll be easy pickings."

Danny rolled his eyes. "And he'd be right."

"We'll modify the plan," Steve said, looking at Chin and Danny. "Find a way to grab Kaye, take out Wo Fat, and blow up his ship."

"You make it sound so easy."

"Not easy," Steve said, staring at Danny. "But what's necessary."

"Necessary, huh? Not sure if I like the sound of that." Danny gave them both a weak smile. "But life isn't full of easy choices."

Chin nodded solemnly. "The choices we make define who we are. And we have to live with them."

Steve made sure Chin and Danny had his eye, trying to make it count. "Then let's make sure they're the right ones."

***

Steve didn't need to radio Kono; he knew where to find her. Prepping all the dive equipment.

She'd changed into a tank top and shorts, the steel prosthesis replaced with her normal J leg. He watched her stow all the needed oxygen tanks onto a platform, knowing if he offered to help, she'd glare at him.

But he did wander over and offer several six-inch knives from one of the lockers. "I think you should have more than one of these."

Kono breathed heavily, wiping at her face, strands of hair sticking out from her ponytail. "You thinking nets or enemy swimmers?"

Steve chewed on his lip. "He might lay out nets to prevent an approach or snag normal mines. But I wouldn't put it past him to have people in the water."

"Too bad we don't have spear-guns." Kono studied Steve's thoughtful face. "Do we have spear-guns?"

"No. But remind me to sign off on some for future missions." Steve didn't voice some of the doubts plaguing him.

Kono grabbed a water bottle and took a long drink. "You need to work on your poker face. If we all survive today, I think we should have some extended shore leave. Preferably, somewhere tropical."

"Duly noted," Steve said with a smile.

"Have all the mines been primed?"

"Max has added the needed chemicals to increase the blast radius. If we plant them in the right points, they'll pack a big enough punch."

Kono tightened all the straps securing the oxygen tanks to the pallet. "And if something goes wrong?"

"Cath's putting together some pretty impressive rocket launchers. And if those don't do the trick, we'll have enough hidden firepower on the boat to finish the job."

Steve didn't elaborate on how many hidden explosives he'd have on-board as a possible last resort, and Kono didn't ask. Whatever happened, they'd disable Wo Fat's ship enough for the Hoku and the rest of the crew to limp away until they found help.

"And what about Wo Fat?" Kono asked.

Steve rested a hand on his pistol. "We'll see how much the machine part of him enjoys EMP weapons."

 

***

Steve entered his quarters and pulled out the trunk he'd kept under the bed, rummaging through the few remainders of his life. Photos, documents, random mementos. His fingers wrapped around a small soft leather case, squeezing it tightly when it began shaking in his hand. For a second he thought about shoving it back inside, stuffing it away and locking the trunk for another year or two, or ten.

But tomorrow was as uncertain as the world itself, and Steve stuffed the case inside his pocket and put the trunk away before he changed his mind.

 

***

Steve knocked lightly on the hatch and waited until Grace opened it. She beamed at him. "You're just in time for the picnic." Grabbing his hand, she began tugging him inside. "Come on."

He allowed her to drag him inside, where he spotted a red polka dot blanket spread across the floor. Grace plopped down next to Danny, who sat there cross-legged, a napkin perched on his knee as he dug into an actual wicker picnic basket and pulled out sandwiches.

"Don't just stand there, Steven. Pull up some floor."

Steve stared, befuddled, before sitting across from Danny.

Grace eagerly dug through the basket, pulling out a loaf of crusty bread. "Do you want a sandwich?"

"Um. I'm not hungry."

"You really should eat," she said, tearing apart her bread.

"Yes, Steve. You should eat," Danny parroted, fixing him with a look as he loaded a blue-rimmed plate with food. "I saved a sandwich for you."

Steve couldn't wrap his mind around the tranquil setting compared to the turbulent hustle and bustle feel of the rest of the ship. He watched Danny tease Grace for getting margarine on her chin, his eye crinkling as he smiled, Grace whining and rolling her eyes as he dabbed at her face with his napkin. But it was obvious that she didn't mind, and was soaking up her father's affection like a sponge.

Steve watched, taken by the warmth and love between them, his throat thick at the gift Danny was giving her. Precious moments to cherish.

"Aren't you going to eat?" Grace asked.

Steve gave his head a shake, staring down at his food, and he could feel Danny's gaze on him, soft and fond, and yeah, Steve could lose himself in having a picnic in the middle of Grace's room.

His stomach growled greedily as he finished his sandwich and Danny chuckled. "Not hungry, huh?"

"Here." Grace dug through the basket. "I saw some cookies."

And the three of them ate, Grace making fun of all the cookie crumbs Danny got everywhere.

Grabbing the plates and used napkins, Grace cleaned up and sat back down on the floor looking ten times more serious than seconds before. "You're going after the man who attacked us."

Danny fidgeted where he sat, looking for all the world like he wanted the floor to swallow him up. "Yes, honey. We are."

"Can't we just leave?" she asked, looking between them.

"No, sweetheart, we can't," Danny said. "The bad man –"

"His name is Wo Fat," Grace interrupted, her face screwed up in anger. "You can say his name; I'm not a baby. I shot him."

"Okay, you're right. You're not a baby and what you did earlier today was... It was the bravest thing I've ever seen." Danny looked at the floor as if seeking guidance before giving Grace his full attention. "Wo Fat has some very advanced weapons that we were able to knock out. But we don't want him to escape so he can use them on more innocent people."

"Can't we...can't we bomb him," Grace begged, voice cracking. She sounded and looked every bit of her vulnerable age. She looked at Steve when it was obvious Danny wouldn't give her the answer she was seeking. "Why do you have to go after him? Why can't the navy or somebody else?"

"Because we can't radio for backup," Steve explained, trying for calm when all Grace did was tear his heart apart. "And we don't have any planes to bomb him with and our guns are out of range, so yes, we have to go after him."

But she was still looking at him with those large brown eyes, and Steve wet his lips, pulling out the leather case from his pocket. Clearing his throat, he pulled the silver chain from inside, revealing his old dog tags. He heard Danny make a low noise in his throat; saw Grace's body go perfectly still.

"Do you know what these are?" Steve asked.

"Your tags," she said in a whisper.

"Then you know how important they are to me?"

She nodded her head, solemn.

He held them up and carefully slipped them into her palm, closing her fingers with his own. "For the longest time I kept these hidden inside a trunk. And now..." Steve didn't have the words to articulate his feelings; they were still too bruised, too complicated. "Would you please keep them safe until your dad and I return?"

Grace squeezed her hand around them. "I'll guard them until you both come back. And maybe one day, they won't make you angry anymore."

Her words were like dull spoon to his chest, and he felt all the air leave his lungs as he squeezed his eyes tightly against the flood of emotion rushing through him.

"Come on, honey," Danny said. "Let's clean up."

Grace started to pick up the mess, but stopped, rushing over and engulfing her father in a bone-crushing hug. "I love you, Dad."

"Oh, baby. I love you, too." Danny wrapped her up in his arms. "I love you so very much. Don't you ever forget that."

"I won't. I love you and Steve," Grace said, sighing against his chest. "And I don't want anything to happen to either of you."

Danny held onto Grace, opening his eyes and looking at Steve. "Nothing will. I promise."

***

Steve knew they only had six hours before the rendezvous with Wo Fat, six hours to finish prep work, load equipment, and mentally prepare for their deadly op. And maybe that was why he wanted Danny to come with him to their quarters. So the last few hours – quite possibly the last of their lives – wouldn't totally be consumed by the mission. They could be spent together.

Steve had devoted his life to service, to duty, but right now, all he wanted was a tiny bit of selfishness. Some moments for himself and Danny. Just in case.

And Danny had to be on the same page as Steve, because Danny looked at Steve with such want, such need, some tight knot inside of Steve came undone. Danny was alive, and for this very moment, he was all Steve's.

"Danny," he said voice desperate.

"Yeah, I know."

Danny helped remove Steve's sling, and he was gentle, so very careful unfastening the straps around his chest, freeing his arm.

Normally removing clothes was a nuisance, barriers to the greedy need to touch. But there was more to this, and instead of stripping as fast as Steve normally needed, encouraged, they took precious seconds, going slow.

Danny's good hand worked the buttons of Steve's shirt, baring his chest, Danny's breath warm over Steve's skin as he methodically removed his cargo pants until Steve was completely naked.

Danny's lips curved mischievously. "You animal. Going commando all day."

Steve didn't say a word as he slid Danny's suspenders over his shoulders, hands ghosting over the bruises on Danny's chest, his belly, working open his pants, undoing each button, one by one. Teasing his finger down Danny's fly until Steve began tugging at the hem of Danny's shirt.

"I've got it," Danny said, taking over.

Danny pulled his shirt over his head, the fabric catching on his cast for a second before he stood there tentatively clutching the tee in his hands. There was a rare glimpse of hesitancy in his eyes.

Heart pounding with nerves, Steve reached out and pressed his hand to Danny's chest, across his collarbone. "It's okay," he coaxed. "We can do whatever you want."

Because Steve knew what it was like to feel damaged, knowing the implant was still inside Danny's back. And Steve would do whatever it took to erase the memory of Wo Fat's mark. Even if it was only for a little while. Giving Danny control again one last time.

"What do you want?" Steve asked.

Danny traced a finger down Steve's cheek, along his jaw, then using the other hand, he brought Steve in for a kiss. And Steve went with it, kissing Danny, long and languid and deep, working Danny's mouth open until they were lost in each other.

Steve slid his arm around Danny's neck, drawing him closer, until the only thing that mattered was the play of mouths and tongues. Steve's pulse ran like a hummingbird's as they kissed each other.

Danny finally pulled away, breathless, hands gripping Steve's biceps. "Bed."

Steve almost stumbled when Danny let go, his head spinning, dots dawning across his vision.

He fumbled around for a second, making his way over toward the mattress, crawling across the top cover, grunting against the pull to his ribs, the ache in his shoulder. But they'd done this before, navigating intimacy while one of them was busted up or battered.

"Lie down for me, babe," Danny told him.

Steve turned around, carefully lowering himself onto his back, watching Danny slide off his pants. Danny crawled one-handed onto the bed, keeping his casted wrist up in the air. He straddled Steve's legs, his erection tenting his boxers, the bulge rubbing against Steve's thigh. Danny leaned over Steve, kissing and sliding his tongue across his hurt ribs.

Steve ran a hand through Danny's hair, loving the feel of Danny over him, against him, the amazing warmth of his body. He let Danny set the pace, enjoying the way Danny's fingers caressed Steve's skin, making him shiver.

"You like?" Danny asked, breathing heavy.

"Yeah."

Danny kissed the hollow of Steve's throat, moaning when Steve scraped his fingers across both of Danny's erect nipples. Encouraged, Steve pinched them between his fingers, Danny gasping in pleasure.

"So, it's going to be like that?" Danny said teasing.

His mouth drifted downward over Steve's belly, outlining his pelvis and scars with that talented tongue, Steve shivering and bucking with every spark of sensation.

"I want to fuck you," Danny whispered, his mouth brushing the hairs by Steve's aching cock. "Let me fuck you, Steve, please–"

"Yes, whatever you want," Steve said in a rush.

He'd do anything Danny asked, but it was more than that. Steve always was the one that begged, that needed to escape, lose himself completely. Tucked away in their own tiny hideaway away from the world. And it took years to trust anyone to see him that needy and vulnerable, to give himself over.

But now it was Danny that needed Steve. And he smiled at Danny, beaming a happiness Steve rarely allowed himself to express outwardly.

Danny returned the smile with an ecstatic grin. Steve wanted to capture Danny's look, his feelings, right there, and covenant it forever.

Danny gathered what he needed from the nightstand drawer, almost dropping the palm oil, rolling his eyes at himself. Steve lay back down and watched Danny squeeze the oil onto his palm.

Danny slowly slipped a finger inside Steve, millimeter by millimeter, Steve panting for breath. But he kept his eyes open, memorizing every one of Danny's amazing expressions.

"You should see how beautiful you are," Danny said. Then he added a second finger, making Steve's toes curl.

Danny leaned most of his weight on his good hand, planting it by Steve's right side, resting his right hand lightly on Steve's arm. Then Danny kissed Steve while slowly pushing into him. It hurt a little, and Steve closed his eyes, breathing deeply, in and out, willing his sore body to relax.

Danny moaned, sliding deeper into him, there, right there.

"Is it good?" Danny asked, eyes wide in worry as he started to thrust.

"God, yes," Steve grunted, still trying to control his breathing.

He felt sweat trickle down his neck, the desire to give in and come overwhelming. But he wanted to savor it, every last drop of pleasure, memorizing every grunt from Danny's throat. Steve could hold onto this forever.

But Danny was determined to drive him crazy, experimenting with angle and depth, and it was careful and loving, hitting the perfect combination, Steve's cock twitching against his belly.

"Fuck," Steve said, voice low.

Danny reclined back, his pelvis pushing back and forth, a teasing slow grind. And yeah, that was it, Danny hitting an amazing, sensual glide.

All of Steve's breath rushed out and he tried to find his control, breathing through everything—all his want, all his need to make things good, make them perfect. His eyes rolled back in his head.

Danny panted steadily over him, and yes, and Danny was still moving in a hard, steady pace, and it was perfect, God, each jolt, each thrust. "Danny. Danny–"

Then Danny clumsily wrapped a hand around Steve's cock, squeezing him with every thrust. Steve was so sensitive, that was all it took, his cock jerking between them, splashing come on Danny's belly and Steve's thighs.

Danny continued thrusting, bending over Steve, his eyes a brilliant blue. "Yeah, God, Steve." And Danny dipped down, kissing Steve on the lips, breaths rapid and heavy. "I...God, I love you, Steve. I love you."

Danny made a noise, a beautiful, beautiful sound, and Steve realized he was coming. Steve crooked his arm around Danny's neck and held him tight, reaching up to press the heel of his hand against the tense, pulsating place on Danny's temple.

"Easy," Steve murmured soothingly, and rubbed his face against Danny's. "Easy, Danny."

He gazed up at Danny's face, which seemed on the verge of cracking under the strain of too-huge emotions. "I'm sorry..." Danny said in a harsh, wrecked voice. "I'm sorry. Steve, I–"

Steve smothered the apology with his lips, then pulled Danny on top of his good side, wrapping both arms around his waist, careful of his back, holding Danny in place. "It's okay, it's okay, I–" and he fought his fear, pushed it down, his voice trembling. "I...I do, too," Steve said, stroking Danny's hair, words spilling out of his mouth. "I do, too."

***

 

Danny's body hummed with a post-coital high and anxiety-fueled adrenaline. And unlike the methodical way in which he'd stripped, he quickly threw on his shirt, tugging on his pants and sliding his arms through his suspenders. All he wanted was to re-live the past hour, his skin still tingling, his brain shell-shocked over the words he never used.

Danny was a realist, knew how guarded Steve could be, and that was okay, it was fine. Danny had accepted this about Steve a long time ago. Action not words. Because you could never take them back. But like healing, everything evolved with time. He had faith.

Except all the sands of the hourglass might have already slipped away. Steve changed into his BDUs and Danny helped him with his shirt, holding it open as Steve slipped his left arm through the hole and buttoned it.

"You ready?" Steve asked, grabbing his pistol from the nightstand drawer.

"No," Danny gritted out.

Steve holstered his weapon and stood there, looking lost, like he didn't know how to handle Danny when he was too busy disappearing behind his barriers.

Licking his lips, Steve ducked his head. "We've got to go. I...I wish..."

"Yeah, I know." Danny exhaled heavily, knowing he needed to get his head in the game. He rubbed a hand through his hair. "You're right. We've got people waiting on us."

Steve started for the door, but Danny was ahead of him, grabbing the sling from the floor. "You forget something?"

But Steve was already in the passageway.

***

"You do know not wearing your sling does not, in fact, make your injury go away," Danny said, starting in on Steve because he could.

Steve ignored him as he geared up inside the weapons locker, systemically pulling out large boxes of weapons and inspecting them. Awkwardly. Because the idiot had to move everything with his good arm, his left one pressed against his middle.

"Here," Steve said shoving a M14 assault rifle into his hands. "You should grab some grenades."

"We're going to be over water."

Steve stared at Danny like he'd grown two heads. "I was talking about the flash-bangs," but his gaze trailed toward the box of mortars.

Danny rolled his eyes and opened the left locker and began pulling out their tac vests. "You get way too gun happy."

Danny took four vests off their hangers, piling them on the bench just as Kono and Chin filed in, deep in discussion.

"And if we get in the middle of a firefight," Chin said his forehead creased in worry. "Your team's not going to have a rally point."

Kono spoke as she punched in the code to her locker. "What makes you think we couldn't provide backup? If you're engaged in any type of firefight, my team could counterattack. Maybe even plant a few mines under Wo Fat's boats."

Danny listened to them discuss the dangers of Kono's team being left defenseless if things went to hell. Wo Fat's ship could be a mile or more from the rendezvous point.

They were going to have to keep Wo Fat occupied, and that was something Danny didn't want to dwell on.

"I've been thinking about a way to buy us some more time," Steve said, grabbing his vest and wincing. Danny kept his mouth shut. "Maybe even a way to incapacitate Wo Fat and his men, or at least give us enough of a surprise to take them out or severely weaken his position."

That had Chin's rapt attention. "And did you figure something out?"

"No," Steve admitted. "But I asked Max and Cath for help with it two hours ago."

***

Danny did a systems check of the Mark V, their special operations craft. It could carry a fully equipped eight-person team in high seas, armed with .50 caliber machine guns and twin powered engines. He loved the tiny craft; it was maneuverable and fast. They'd used them for everything. Land assault, fast speed chases, surveillance.

He revved the engine, listening to it before checking the fuel levels as Kono and Fong loaded it with the diving equipment. Danny nodded at Fong, giving the wheel a pat before he climbed out to meet the cavalry as it arrived.

Max and Catherine were talking animatedly, all hands and rapid-fire conversations. Chin and Steve walked alongside them, obviously trying hard to keep up with the two chatterboxes.

"As I said, a pyrotechnic charge produces a subsonic deflagration," Max explained. "Not a supersonic detonation, minimizing the blast effects.

Catherine quirked an eyebrow, somewhat amused. "I'm aware of the chemical properties of pyrotechnic compounds. But we can't risk incapacitating the rest of the team."

"Agreed. This is the reason for the aluminum, to increase the flash effect and not the decibel level of the detonation."

"But the delay..."

Danny sighed, impatient, striding up to Steve. "What are they carrying on about? I thought you said we'd have a distraction?"

"We do," Steve said in his usual cryptic manner.

Danny glanced at Catherine and Max, but they were both still yammering. "Doesn't sound like it." Steve looked like he was about to launch into an explanation, but Danny held up his hand to cut him off. "You know what? I don't want to know. Surprise me, because then I won't distract myself by thinking about anything insane concocted by those two."

"They've created a flash-bomb," Steve said anyway.

Danny threw up his hands, looking over at Chin. "Didn't I just say I didn't want to know?"

But Steve kept talking, oblivious, or ignoring Danny outright. "When I give the signal, we'll have thirty seconds before one hell of a fireworks display. Enough to incapacitate Wo Fat and his men and give us an advantage."

"Really?" Chin asked impressed. "A flash bomb?"

Steve actually grinned like some giddy kid. "With a remote."

"A remote, he says." Danny stared at Chin because he couldn't seriously be the only one who had a few issues with this whole thing.

Chin cocked his shotgun. "So, what you're saying is we're doing this exchange by the seat of our pants."

Steve bit his lip. "We have no way to anticipate what Wo Fat will do. We'll be on open water with zero cover. All we can do is prepare for anything and have every tool at our disposal to react accordingly."

Sometimes Danny forgot how long Chin and Steve had known each other, Chin going along with Steve's brand of thinking without hesitation. "Then I'd like to know a little more about the arsenal that's being loaded."

Danny listened carefully, noting where the rocket launchers were being stowed and now there twenty pounds of pyro. Seeing how many secret compartments Steve had installed for hidden ordinance since Danny's last inspection.

Steve patted each shoulder of Kono's four-person dive team after they carefully stowed away their underwater backpacks filled with mines. Fong gave him a nervous smile. Kalani, their ever-faithful boatswains mate, simply nodded at them.

James and Tabar followed dressed in full tac gear, manning their stations inside the Mark V. It was a skeleton crew, the barest to get the job done. Steve's orders.

Danny felt the knot in his stomach tighten. He looked at Steve, trying to ingrain his image in his head. Steve looked over, his eyes softening from their laser focus. But Danny didn't have any words; he'd used them all up earlier.

Mercifully, Catherine walked over, her face serious. "This is going to work."

"I have no doubt," Steve told her. He rubbed a hand up and down her arm. "If something happens, you get the Hoku and the rest of the crew out of here. There's an inlet two miles away that you can limp the ship to for repairs."

"Steve."

"I'm serious, Cath."

"So, am I," she said just as fiercely. "We'll see you guys after the mission."

Catherine strode toward Max, who remained oddly out of place, observing.

Danny, however, was a little preoccupied by the serious bit of intel Steve had just dropped without much thought. "When were you going to tell me about this secret inlet? Because, the last I checked, there wasn't one on the map."

"It's only thirty acres and unregistered by the navy." Steve watched the final loading of supplies, seeming preoccupied. "But it's been used as a re-fueling point."

"What happened to that area being a hot spot for terrorist activity?"

"Given Wo Fat's operations, I'd say it's a safe bet he's wiped out all competition," Steve said unconcerned.

"Great. Fantastic. Do you have any other pertinent information to share? You know, things we might want to know before embarking, or are you just going to spring something on us at the last second?"

"No, that's it."

"Really?"

"Yes, really."

But Danny didn't know if he believed him.

***

The Mark V was fast, cutting the distance between them and the rendezvous point within minutes. Danny's hands were damp with sweat, the front of his vest soaked from spray. He watched trails of water run down Steve's cheek and flick off into the wind, hand braced on the helm as the boat bounced against the waves.

Danny took in the tac vest stuffed with ammo, shoulder holster for the Sig, thigh holster for the EMP pistol, hell, even a place for Steve's k-bar. And the flash-bangs dangling from his vest.

"You took more chems, didn't you?" Steve's only reaction was a swallow. "I said no chems and you agreed."

"And we also agreed about doing the right thing. I can't do my job if I can't function at my best."

Danny glowered, pissed, aware of Steve's pigheadedness regarding his ability to fight.

"Do you think I like using them?" Steve growled. "I hate feeling like this. Like my nervous system's been hot-wired. But if we're going to rescue Kaye and take out Wo Fat, then I'm going to use my whole arsenal."

And the subject was slammed closed. Not that Danny had time to argue, not with Wo Fat's ship looming in the distance. He stared at it with a rare and vicious hatred.

"Looks like a Frigate," Chin commented from behind them.

Danny studied the war ship and wondered where the hell it came from. "If he's looking at engaging in combat with maneuverability, that's the best type."

Frigates were larger than patrol vessels like the Hoku, mini destroyers that were fast, but mostly known for stealth. Add in machine tech, and Danny could understand how it could go undetected by radar. He grabbed some binoculars, studying her large guns, rows of solar panels, and EMP arrays.

Steve stood next to Danny. "Frigates have less armor."

"And their hulls are not suited for open-ocean work; they only have a single shaft."

Which meant Kono's team just got a little extra luck.

Danny located the small vessel approaching, one comparable to the Mark V, a fast assault boat. He counted two large caliber guns, a grappling gun, and a small EMP array. They were pretty evenly matched.

Steve stepped toward Kalani. "Slowly inch off the acceleration."

Kalani nodded, slowly easing things up.

It was dangerous as hell, but they couldn't go to a dead stop and tip off Wo Fat. Kono zipped up her cold-water resistant wetsuit. Chin didn't move from his post, ever diligent, but he nodded at her, the message obvious. Be careful.

Kalani decreased speed until he reached the slowest they could go without being too noticeable. Kono gave the signal and dove into the water with her heavy backpack of mines, Fong and other members of her team following.

They were less than half a mile from his ship, which meant it would take Kono's team ten minutes to reach their target and at least fifteen minutes to plant the mines – if they were lucky. Then another ten to return to the Mark V.

Danny had no idea how they would be able to stall Wo Fat that long, which meant they'd have to kill the bastard.

"Main guns on target," Tabar shouted over the engines.

Danny gripped his rifle and adjusted his earwig. Kono's team would remain on radio silence unless it was an emergency. His mic was a tiny wire under his shirt collar. Unless Wo Fat was inches from any of them, he wouldn't notice the communication devices.

Steve moved closer as their ship moved alongside of Wo Fat's boat. "Keep our bearing steady and slow to three knots."

They were within twenty meters from the boat. Danny could make out the six-man crew, all heavily armed. He spotted Wo Fat with Kaye beside him, his hand gripping her arm tightly.

"Full stop," Steve ordered. "Let's see if he'll come to us."

Only ten meters separated both boats. Danny glanced at his watch. Kono's team had only been swimming for five minutes. They waited, gun to gun. If any of them took on heavy fire at this range, the casualties would be high.

Wo Fat brought a bullhorn up to his face. "You have three minutes to move alongside our vessel."

Before Steve could say a word, Kaye seized in agonizing pain, Wo Fat keeping her upright in his iron grip.

"Stop it!" Steve yelled uselessly.

Kaye stopped seizing and wobbled on her feet, Wo Fat pulling her closer. He brought the bullhorn up to his mouth again. "Now it's two minutes."

Danny felt his body tremble in rage.

Steve nodded at Kalani. "Bring us alongside the enemy vessel."

Their boat settled parallel to Wo Fat's boat, four of his men training their weapons on them, but Steve kept his rifle at ready, his eyes fixed on Wo Fat. "Everyone remain calm," he said under his breath, his voice echoing in Danny's ear. "We want to give Kono as much time as possible."

Waves bobbed both boats up and down out of synch. Wo Fat stood by the railing of his ship, keeping Kaye close. "Remove your tac vests."

"Negative," Steve said.

Wo Fat cocked his head. "Why don't you ask Mr. Williams how pleasant it is when I up the charge level of the neural implant?"

Danny risked a look at Steve, but kept silent; he would not fall for Wo Fat's ploy, staring at him defiantly.

Wo Fat kicked Kaye in the back of the knee, forcing her to kneel. He pulled out a pistol and pressed the barrel to the side of her head. "Or maybe I'll just kill her right now."

"Enough!" Steve shouted. "We'll remove them."

Steve began unfastening the tabs to his vest, Chin following suit. Danny began taking his off, the feeling of vulnerability making his chest tight. He laid his vest on top of Chin's, the cold air making the hair all over his arms stand up.

"Now come aboard," Wo Fat ordered.

Danny wanted to smash his fist into the asshole's smug face. He hadn't told them to leave their weapons behind knowing full well that without their vests, not only had Wo Fat stripped them of their body armor, but of all their extra ammo and grenades.

"Red One, this is Kono. We're planting the first set of packages."

Steve's face didn't reflect Kono's news and Wo Fat didn't give any indication he was aware of the radio transmission either.

Chin remained stand fast cool and covered Steve as he climbed from one boat to the other. "Go ahead," he told Danny. "I've got you.”

Danny climbed over the railing of Wo Fat's boat and pointed his weapon at Wo Fat's chest, wishing he could send a bullet through it. He heard Chin clamber over, landing beside him, his rile aimed at the two men covering them from the small wheelhouse.

The rest of Wo Fat's men stood manning the heavy guns still pointed at the Mark V.

"Welcome," Wo Fat greeted them. "Now tell your boat to turn around and go five hundred meters in the other direction."

"No way in hell," Steve growled.

"Do not test my resolve."

Danny gripped his rifle tighter. First their vests, now their hidden pyro distraction. They were being systematically stripped away of all their defenses.

"Let her go first," Steve said.

"Of course." Wo Fat shoved Kaye in Danny's direction.

Danny caught her, but Kaye quickly recovered, leaning on Danny for only a few seconds before regaining her composure. She looked up at Danny with a mix of regret and anger, her eyes burning with the need for vengeance.

Kaye quickly stood on her own beside Danny, her head held high in challenge.

Steve pulled out his radio and ordered their boat to move. He watched the Mark V start to move away and stared at Wo Fat. "Now give me the remote to her implant."

"As soon as you give me the security code to the Blackwing."

Steve shook his head at Wo Fat. "Remote first."

Wo Fat opened up his palm, offering up the device. "Would you like to take it from me?"

"I'd like you to fulfill your side of the exchange," Steve snarled, stepping closer to him. "Or is that concept difficult for such an enhanced solider to comprehend?"

"The security code," Wo Fat insisted, curling his fingers around the remote. "Or I'll send such a high voltage jolt through Ms. Kaye's spine; it'll snap it in two."

Steve stared, stalling for time. Danny could practically hear the gears in his head moving. The only leverage they had was the code.

Danny kept a calm exterior, trying to give Kono and her team more time.

Wo Fat tilted his head at Steve, his gaze slowly panning toward Danny. "Perhaps I should change frequencies and see what happens?"

"They don't work that way," Steve countered. "One remote to each device."

"So, Mr. Williams still has his?" Wo Fat smiled.

And before anyone could move, or breathe, Wo Fat slid his thumb over the remote. Jenna screamed and Wo Fat tossed the remote in Chin's direction.

Surprised, Chin let go of his weapon and caught the device. But he froze when two of Wo Fat's men aimed the end of their barrels only inches from his head. Threat crystal clear.

Danny let his M5 dangle from its tether to grab Jenna, holding her as she went to all fours, screaming. He watched helplessly as Wo Fat grabbed the barrel of Steve's rifle and ripped it out of Steve's hands.

Steve quickly drew his Sig from his thigh holster, but Wo Fat's reflexes were unparalleled.

He pulled out a hidden taser gun and fired, two electrodes attaching themselves to Steve's chest, sending a current of electricity through him. Steve jerked several times before dropping and writhing on the deck.

"You bastard!" Danny screamed at Wo Fat.

The implant was still on, sending continuous impulses into Jenna who began convulsing. Danny couldn't help two people at once and tried keeping her still so she didn't injure herself, powerless to help her or Steve.

"Stop it!" he screamed.

Wo Fat slowly released the trigger to the stun gun and Steve slumped onto his side, his breathing ragged.

Wo Fat looked between Chin and Danny. "Give me the security code to the Blackwing or watch them both burn from the inside out."

"Okay, okay," Chin shouted. "Just let me turn this one off," he pleaded holding up the remote to Jenna's implant.

"Very well," Wo Fat said.

The two goons lowered their rifles and Chin quickly switched off the remote, Jenna sagging in Danny's arms unconscious.

"You have five seconds," Wo Fat warned and held up the taser gun. "Or I'll send another nine thousand volts through the commander."

Chin rattled off the code while one of Wo Fat's men scribbled it down in a notebook. Wo Fat nodded at his guy. "Relay those numbers to Anton and let me know the result."

Wo Fat stood poised and calm, the taser gun clasped loosely in his hand. He held Chin's fiery gaze without trepidation. "I warn you, do not waste my time with subterfuge. You will not like the consequences."

"You don't know the definition of consequences," Chin growled.

Danny checked on Jenna, watched her chest rise and fall before slowly getting to his feet. He flicked his gaze from Chin to Wo Fat, both men engaged in an intense stare down. He finally looked over at Steve and found him slumped on his back, staring blearily at Wo Fat despite his body twitching. Danny breathed a sigh of relief. Such a shock would have knocked out a gorilla.

Wo Fat slowly drew his attention away from Chin and looked down at Steve, seemingly amused by his incapacitation. "I'm sorry I ran out of implants, commander. You have an incredibly high tolerance for pain." The ends of his mouth quirked up. "Or perhaps you enlisted in some more pharmaceutical help?"

"We all use the weapons given to us, don't we," Steve said his voice ragged.

"And soon I'll have a new one, thanks to you."

Wo Fat knew exactly how to twist the invisible blade.

"And for what?" Steve demanded, incensed. He tried sitting up, but he simply didn't have control of his muscles, his limbs shaking too badly to lift himself up. "So you can attack and plunder the islands? For such an elite model, all you are is a common thief. Did you steal the machine tech, too?"

Wo Fat's nostrils flared and Steve's face took on an expression of stunned horror. Danny felt the color drain from his face, his stomach feeling like an empty rotten pit.

"You stole the machine tech?" Chin asked, appalled.

Wo Fat was a cold unapologetic bastard. "You can't steal something that doesn't belong to anyone."

"You have some gall," Chin seethed, ignoring the assault weapons still aimed at his face. "Where did you steal it? Not the mainland?"

Wo Fat didn't say a word. One of his henchmen walked over and whispered into his ear, and Wo Fat nodded. "It would appear your code worked. I'm quite surprised, to be honest."

"Red One, this is Kono, we're encountering... something...something strange.”

Danny felt his pulse skyrocket. He stared at the ocean in horror, his imagination going wild.

“Red One. I think...Charlie, are those fish? Damn, they look like perch...Red One! There are machine drones in the water. I repeat. There are underwater aquatic drones in the water.”

Wo Fat had drones? Did he re-program them? Kono's team wouldn't stand a chance against them.

"Now for one last piece of business," Wo Fat began. He turned toward Danny. "I want to know what you're using to jam my long distance communications and I want you to deactivate it."

It was like one bomb after another. Wo Fat couldn't get a signal out either?

Danny watched Steve slowly flex his fingers. After the shock he was given, it would take several minutes for him to regain any mobility.

"Red One, the aquatic drones are retreating... Wait. There's another set emerging from the reef. There's...Class Twos. I repeat there are Class Two drones. There's hundreds of them!”

Danny watched Chin's composure begin to slip at the sound of Kono's frantic call, his jaw clenching in anger.

“Red One, we only planted half the packages. I repeat, we've only planted half the mines.”

Wo Fat glared at Danny, oblivious to the chaos occurring underwater. “Don't make me ask you again. What are you using to jam my long-range communication?”

"What the hell are you talking about?” Danny blurted, angry. “We're not jamming your communications."

"Don't play coy with me," Wo Fat snarled. He held up the taser gun. "I told you about the consequences."

Steve's eye went wide and his uncoordinated fingers tried ripping away the electrodes from his chest and failing. His look of anger and fear were like a dagger to Danny's heart.

Enough. Just fucking enough. All of Danny's resolve and fortitude came spilling out from too much pressure and too many cracks. His fury had nowhere left to go.

"Yeah, you told us about the consequences," he snapped at Wo Fat, his face burning hot. "Because you're a coward who gets off on torturing people. And even then you can't do it yourself, you have to use remote controls or stun guns or whatever gives keeps your hands clean. Or excuse me – your machine tech-enhanced hands, because you can't even hit someone without help."

Wo Fat stared at Danny.

"He doesn't know," Chin said, snorting in disbelief. He glared at Wo Fat his voice venomous. "You really thought we were the ones jamming your long distance communications?"

Wo Fat's eyes darted from Chin to Steve, and then settled on Danny. "Your attempts to trick me are annoying."

"Annoying?" Danny spat. "That would require you to have a personality."

Wo Fat turned to his henchman. "Tell Anton to begin firing on the Hoku.”

Steve's eyes went wide, face frantic. “Kono, is your team at a safe distance?”

Danny knew Steve was playing one of the few cards they had left.

“Copy that,” Kono responded.

“Then blow up the packages,” Steve growled.

Wo Fat whirled around to face Steve. "Who are you talking to?"

Steve held Wo Fat's glare. “The other part of my team.”

Wo Fat jerked his head around, scanning the sea just as several explosions went off, sending water into the air and waves rocking into the boat. Wo Fat stared out at his ship as smoke and flames began billowing out from the bow. The damage looked extensive, but it was far from a catastrophic blow.

Steve took the moment of distraction and pulled the electrodes from his chest, his hand shifting toward his EMP pistol. He glared at Chin and Danny. This was their moment.

Wo Fat whirled back around to face them just as Kono's panicked voice came over the comm again.

"Guys, the drones...they're surfacing!"

"Oh my god," Chin blurted.

Hundreds of silver spheres burst out of the water, shooting into the sky above Wo Fat's burning ship, countless drones shifting position until they orbited all points above, purple beams of lights coming out of each one, scanning all points of the ship.

Chin's lower jaw slowly dropped and gaped in horror. "You really did steal the machine tech, didn't you?"

It was surreal watching Wo Fat's composure slip away, shock marring his face.

But nothing could prepare anyone for the hundreds, maybe thousands of red lasers that began striking Wo Fat's frigate. The explosions were ear-splittingly loud, gigantic sonic booms. Glowing balls of fire spilled out of the bridge and weapons towers, sheets of metal ripping apart and falling into the ocean. Thick plumes of smoke filled the air, eerily reflecting the striking lasers.

Wo Fat's face screwed up in a morbid caricature of himself as lasers burned through his ship like Swiss cheese, decimating it.

Steve nodded and Chin pulled out a weapon from his ankle holster and fired twice, his bullets striking both his distracted guards. A third goon grabbed one of the grappling guns and Chin put a bullet in the guy's shoulder, but the goon kept firing, screaming manically, forcing Chin to leap overboard to avoid the strafing bullets.

"Chin!" Steve screamed.

Enraged, Steve pulled out his EMP pistol, holding onto it clumsily with both hands as he aimed at Wo Fat's chest. He squeezed the trigger. Nothing.

Wo Fat glowered at Steve, and Danny took in Wo Fat's coveralls. The man wasn't stupid. They were probably lined with anti-EMP material. Fuck.

Wo Fat stared defiantly while his ship blew apart behind him.

"What the hell did you do?" Steve demanded. "Did you think they wouldn't notice the theft of their tech? Were you so obsessed with your master plan you didn't notice their surveillance?"

Wo Fat responded by raising the taser, his eyes going wide when he noticed Steve had removed the leads. Steve took advantage of the distraction, nodding at Danny before clumsily tackling Wo Fat, shoving his shoulder into Wo Fat's midsection. It was a desperate move, but Steve managed to catch Wo Fat by surprise, knocking him down and falling on top of him.

Steve fumbled unsheathing his k-bar and plunged the knife into Wo Fat's right thigh with a trembling arm. Wo Fat made a guttural noise of pain and he kicked out with his good leg, his boot catching Steve in the face. Steve's head snapped back and he slumped onto his side, stunned.

Danny couldn't allow Wo Fat to get in another blow and he launched himself at him, knowing how insanely fast the bastard was, how guns and EMP weapons were useless against body armor and inhuman reflexes.

He slammed into muscle and bone, keeping Wo Fat from getting up. And Danny jammed elbow after elbow wherever he could. Into Wo Fat's head, his face. He was furious and full of rage. For Kono, for Chin, for the deaths aboard the Hoku. For Steve. For endangering them all by screwing with the machines.

This was it – life and death. Danny knew if he made one mistake, one screw up - and it was over.

Something caught Danny in the jaw, a sharp pain through his face, his skull, making him dizzy. Then a horrible pain flared in his broken wrist and Danny was gasping, bright white stars in his vision, breath caught in his chest.

He was on his back, coughing, choking for air, his casted wrist a blossom of pain.

Wo Fat struggled to his feet, blood soaking his pants. So the bastard could bleed. He was human.

"I think it's time to remove that implant now, don't you?" he whispered over Danny.

Danny watched Wo Fat pull out his own knife, fear spiking in his gut at the thought of being butchered. "You're a sick sonofabitch. Your crew's dying when you could be fighting back."

"Oh yes, my crew." Wo Fat knelt over, holding the knife inches from Danny's face. "Once I invade the islands, I'll get another.”

Danny noticed Wo Fat's left eye twitch, readying for the attack, but Wo Fat froze, head snapping up, deep lines furrowing his forehead as the drones flew over their position. Wo Fat slowly stood, moving toward them, his arm dropping to his side, blade forgotten.

Danny lay on his back, rooted in place, unable to tear his gaze from the metal spheres, petrified. His whole body trembled with adrenaline. Dozens orbited above them, trading positions, almost as if aligning in a pattern.

Purple reconnaissance beams shot out from each one, converging together over different points of the small boat, one, two, then three focusing over Wo Fat, their color intensifying.

"Danny! Move!"

It took a second to recognize Jenna's haggard voice, but it was enough to jolt Danny out of his stupor. He quickly rolled away, clambering to his feet, his attention split between Wo Fat, Jenna, Steve and the ocean, with no sign of Chin or Kono and her team.

And his heart pounded as the purple lights faded, replaced by red lasers, slicing into Wo Fat where he stood, burning dozens of holes into muscle and bone, his screams of pain horrifying as they cut him into ribbons.

Danny stared in horror, his gag reflex kicking in at the smell of charred flesh. And he kept staring when the drones flew over his head, too shocked to move, to scream when the purple beams began crisscrossing his body.

Then something crashed into him, shoving him into the deck. He struggled against the weight until he recognized Steve's black shirt, his hands, the scent of Steve's skin.

"What the hell?" Danny said, muffled into Steve's chest.

But Steve didn't move, covering Danny's body with his own, and sonofabitch, Danny knew what Steve was doing, the self-sacrificing idiot, but the cold sting of water under Danny's back and soaking his pants overrode his anger.

"Steve." Danny slapped at Steve's arms. "We're sinking. Let me up."

Finally, after ten more impossibly long seconds, Steve climbed off him. Danny rolled onto his hands and knees, gasping for air, water pooling around his legs and hands. He scrambled to his feet as the boat quickly filled with water from the damage left over from the drone attack on Wo Fat.

Steve swayed on his feet, obviously still dealing with the after effects of the stun. "Come on," Danny yelled, grabbing Steve's arm. They only had minutes; maybe seconds before the ship sank.

"Danny!"

Danny looked up and found Chin soaked and wet, dragging a half-conscious Jenna hell bent on fighting him every step. Danny almost sagged in relief. Chin Ho Kelly, badass extraordinaire. No wonder the rest of Wo Fat's goons hadn't shot them all.

"Let me go!" Jenna yelled, trying to squirm away, but she flagged against Chin's shoulders. "He's the only who knows about Josh."

But all that was left of Wo Fat were bits of clothing getting washed overboard with the waves.

"Wo Fat's gone and all his secrets with him," Steve said, breathing harshly. Jenna stared at Steve, raw with grief. "We came for you and we're not leaving without you." Jenna stared at Steve, then back at the spot where Wo Fat had been as gallons of ocean rushed through the holes, pushing the water level up to knee high. Another horrific explosion ripped through Wo Fat's war vessel, causing everyone to flinch.

The drones in the sky began spreading out into another, larger pattern. Danny felt Steve stiffen beside him.

"They're looking for machine tech," Jenna said, sounding drained. "They don't care about us."

"The implants?" Steve demanded.

"Man made," Jenna said, reminding him.

Danny hauled Steve toward the railing. "Come on, come on." Their boat was racing toward them but it wasn't close enough. "Damn it."

"We've got to jump."

Steve was right, and Danny hated him for it. Danny looked over at Chin, then at Jenna, who was still wobbly on her feet.

"I've got her," Chin said. Then he nodded toward Danny, gesturing toward Steve, who was looking just as unsteady.

"I can swim," Steve insisted.

There wasn't a choice. Danny waited for Steve to jump first, following him closely into the water.

It was like getting hit in the chest with a baseball bat. He gasped for air as the cold seeped right into his bones. His limbs went numb, and Danny began flailing harder in response before his instincts kicked in and he scissor-kicked to keep his head above water.

Danny gasped for air. He saw Chin out of the corner of his eye, helping Kaye stay afloat. Danny searched the ocean around for Steve, his heart a trip-hammer in his chest when he didn't spot him. His body shuddered, his head dizzy from shock and exertion.

He took as a deep a breath as possible, preparing to dive under the waves, but something shot through the surface, Steve's head popping above the water, Kono behind him.

Danny treaded water, relief filling his chest, a wide grin across his face at the beautiful sight of the two of them.

"I think...you lost someone," Kono panted.

She lifted Steve under his armpits, exerting considerable strength. Steve for the most part allowed the hefting until he kicked and bobbed on his own. Kono released her hands from around him, but kept close by.

Steve panted for air and flipped over onto his back to float. "Thank you," he said between rapid breaths.

Kono patted his shoulder. "Anytime boss."

Swimming with a dislocated shoulder and cracked ribs did not go hand in hand. Neither did getting tazed. Or having a snapped wrist. Danny craned his neck in search of their boat. It was one or two minutes out. Okay, that they could do.

Danny had been so preoccupied with Steve he hadn't noticed the rest of Kono's team fanning out around them. Fong came out of nowhere and swam closer to Chin and Kaye. "She can lean on my shoulders if you're tired."

"You've been swimming for miles." Chin shook his head. "I've got this."

"I'm not some beach volleyball," Kaye said.

But it was obvious her muscles were still made of taffy.

"Too bad," Chin said. "Beach volleyballs can still float."

Somehow that drained some of the tension in the air. Kaye chuckled weakly. It was a stress induced, high-pitched sound, but it was infectious, and Danny snorted. Steve even laughed a little.

They bobbed up and down with the waves while the last of Wo Fat's boat went under and his warship split apart and was swallowed up by the sea, never to terrorize a soul again.

Danny stared up at the sky and watched dozens of silver spheres join dozens more, completing a search pattern. Purple beams crisscrossing the sea in a perfect grid. And for a moment, Danny was seized by panic. The Hoku.

"They're only interested in machine tech," Jenna said, leaning against Chin's shoulders. Steve watched her, but Kaye was a tough cookie and didn't back down from Steve's gaze. "Wo Fat ...got the machine tech from Japan."

"How do you know?" Steve asked sounding worn and brittle.

"Because one of the reasons we sent him there was to verify our suspicions that the machines had either abandoned the area or had somehow been eliminated." Danny felt his anger reach fever pitch. "Military Intelligence suspected the machines no longer occupied Japan?"

"There was evidence that supported the fact. Yes." Kaye took a deep breath, looking utterly spent. "But we don't know why."

"And being the opportunist sociopath that he is, Wo Fat took full advantage, since Japan wasn't the navy's primary focus. Then things went pear-shaped when those new drones were discovered. The navy got paranoid and sent Wo Fat to the mainland, but he used the mission to disappear." Danny didn't need top-secret clearance to figure out this puzzle. The plan had always been to recapture Wo Fat and use him for intel. "Let me guess. MI had hoped to steal some tech?"

"We're always on the look-out for any advantage to win the war."

Steve bobbed up and down over the waves in steely silence. Danny continued paddling in exhaustion, too tired to analyze any of it. "Maybe we should just focus on staying alive?"

He swam behind Steve and gently rested the side of his hand against Steve's neck, could practically feel Steve's rapid-fire pulse, feel the tension as Steve watched the drones overhead.

"They're not interested in us, remember?"

"Yeah," Steve said, sounding unconvinced.

But it'd been Steve who shielded Danny with his body when he thought the drones might have detected the implant in his back. Danny wrapped an arm around Steve's waist. Steve didn't relax one bit, his gaze locked on the drones as they slowly inched away in the sky.

Danny slowly exhaled. "Our ride is almost here," he said, watching their boat approach.

***
Tabar and his beefy arms helped haul Danny out of the water. He stumbled onto shaky legs, but managed to stay on his feet and help drag Steve out after him. It was a parade of wet bodies. Kono followed, ensuring the other two members of her team were safely aboard. Chin and Fong climbed on board, both helping Kaye.

"We need blankets," Kono called out.

"Chin's been in the water the longest," Steve told her, giving her shoulder a squeeze before hobbling past James and his armful of emergency blankets. He made a beeline for the helm, his gait uneven.

Kalani handed Steve a set of binoculars without being asked. "The drones have already flown over the Hoku without incident."

"What are their locations now?"

"They went on a northwest bearing at a high rate of speed. I lost track of them when they moved out of range."

Steve searched the sky despite the report, scanning endlessly, his arms shaking with the effort. After a few minutes he slowly lowered the binoculars and looked at Kalani. "Continue toward the Hoku, but maintain radio silence and keep it slow and easy."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Do you honestly believe we could appear threatening to a bunch of highly advanced drones?" Danny asked. Because watching Steve being Steve drained the last of his reserves.

"I'm not taking the risk."

"Yeah, well neither am I." And using the last of his energy, Danny marched over and wrapped one the blue wool blankets over Steve's shoulders. "Come over here. Now."

He manhandled Steve toward the row of seats where Chin and Kono sat together, both cocooned inside their own blankets.

"Come on guys," Kono said, scooting away from Chin. She patted at the space between them. "There's plenty of room."

Steve sat next to Chin, the two of them exchanging exhausted looks. Steve reached out and patted Chin's knee and nodded at Kono in pride. "You did good."

"Mahalo." Chin looked over where Wo Fat's ship used to be, his gaze traveling toward Jenna huddled across from them as James checked her out. He looked back over at Steve. "We all did."

Steve swallowed thickly.

Danny plopped down next to him. Kono scooted closer to Danny, their shoulders touching. He huddled between her and Steve, their wool clothed bodies helping warm his waterlogged bones.

But he still shivered, and Kono turned, wrapping an arm across his chest, and rested the side of her head on his shoulder. "You know, I was the one in the water longer. You're supposed to be keeping me warm."

"Oh, sorry. I wasn't aware of that obligation, Ms. I'm Wearing Protective Scuba Gear."

Fong dragged himself over and sat in one of the seats across from them, followed by the rest of Kono's diving team. He wrapped his hands around a thermos and blew across. "There's hot tea."

But Danny didn't have the energy to get up; he'd rather enjoy Kono's weight snuggled against him, her strong arm around him grounding. He leaned against Steve, snaking his plastered wrist over, and wrapped his fingers around Steve's hand, trying to ease the minute muscle tremors.

"You okay, babe?"

Steve squeezed his hand back.

"That's not a real answer."

Danny waited for one, but Steve pushed himself up into a more upright position. "Jenna. Do you know if the Navy's launched the recon aspect of the bombing?"

Jenna pulled the blanket up around her as James inserted an IV into the top part of her wrist. "I know the SEAL teams have already been sent out. Wo Fat was monitoring their transports."

Steve's face fell, his features creasing in despondency. He licked his lips, voice crestfallen. "They've already arrived on the mainland?"

"I don't know." Kaye bowed her head. "I don't think Wo Fat planned on alerting the machines until they had eliminated the radar facilities and the air strike had begun."

"Why?" Kono asked, anger bleeding through her voice. "Once the radar's knocked out, they have to know what's coming."

"Air formations. Bombing patterns," Kaye said, staring out at the ocean, her voice growing smaller. "Every scrap of intel that would help the machines target and eliminate as many planes as possible. Not to mention the positions of all our carriers and destroyer escorts."

"All so he could attack and plunder the islands?" Kono shook her head. "Doesn't make sense."

Kaye took a shaky breath, huddling within her blanket. "Wo Fat wanted to see the islands fall and most of all military wiped out."

“But why?” Kono implored.

"He thought all governments used the war to maintain control over their populations. If everyone was afraid of the machines, then the military would continue being the governing body.” Kaye shook her head. “He wanted chaos and power. It was the rantings of a paranoid psychotic."

Danny watched Steve's face, watched him thinking hard about Kaye's words. But Steve looked up at him and whatever was running through his mind he must have tucked away for another day.

"When we arrive at the Hoku," Steve said breaking the silence. "We'll use the Marc V and our other two boats to tug her to the inlet for repairs."

"Is there a reason why we shouldn't do the repairs at sea?" Chin asked.

"Because it's been the machines jamming our long-range communications," Jenna supplied. "Then we don't want to be in any type of cross-fire, if..."

If the bombing of the mainland had begun.

Danny sank in on himself as the reality of the next few days hit him hard. There might not be any way to stop what had been set in motion.

***

Chapter Text

***
The first sound Steve heard once they docked with the Hoku was the screeching delight of Grace running over. He watched Danny practically leap over the railing, enveloping her in bone-crushing hug. Grace buried her face into his chest as her whole body shook.

Danny didn't let go, mumbling nonsensical reassuring words, the two of them an inseparable force. It made Steve's chest and heart ache in all the right places. That this moment, this love between father and daughter, was possible.

He watched Kono and Chin stop and take it all in. Fong and the rest of their rescue crew smiled as they began unloading their gear.

Steve waved them off, letting them know it was okay. Go take it easy, they could unload stuff later.

Kaye lingered for a second, giving Steve a nod before James accompanied her inside.

Checking his side arm, Steve headed toward the door when he heard his name called.

And before he could react, Steve was almost barreled over, arms encircling him in the fierce grip. "Where are you going? Don't leave."

It wasn't like he'd have a choice as Grace practically anchored him in place. "Okay, okay," he whispered in her ear, resisting the urge to pick her up. "I promised we'd be back, didn't I?"

Somehow that earned him an even bigger squeeze, and Steve swallowed a grunt, his meds long since worn off.

"Honey, give Steve room to breathe, okay?"

Grace lowered her arms, her elation softening to the most sincere expression. "Is he dead?"

It was such a brutally direct question.

"Yeah, he is," Steve told her. "We don't have to worry about him ever again."

Grace kept her hands on his shoulders while hesitantly glancing around the ship. "And are we safe?"

He kissed her hair while peering over her head at Danny. "We will be."

***

Steve stood inside the shattered remains of the wheelhouse overseeing as the three Mark Vs slowly tugged them toward the inlet. It would take another six hours to reach the tiny cove. He heard footsteps approaching and his hand ghosted over his sidearm, but he didn't pull it.

Chin walked over, a clipboard in his hands. "I've got the latest inventory of fuel and provisions from Supply. We should probably go over things before creating the next duty roster."

With some of Wo Fat's men on board, they had more mouths to feed. "Cath wants to put the prisoners in charge of digging the latrines for the camp. I think we should add chopping fire wood and recycling duties."

"I think those are all brilliant ideas," Chin said with a smile.

Wo Fat's crew was a haven of intel, but they would have to tread carefully in order to get accurate information. Interrogations were not as high priority as repairs and survival, but while they had cut off the head of the beast, Wo Fat's network was still intact. Ships. Machine tech. Kidnapped civilian and military personnel were still missing.

"How's Jenna?"

"Max plans on removing the implant later today. In the meantime, she's recording all her observations and everything she can remember from while on board Wo Fat's ship."

"Ever the Intelligence officer," Steve said. "Good. It'll come in handy for later." He really did hope Josh was still alive.

A harsh gust of wind shook the framing that still remained of the east wall of the wheelhouse. The structure wasn't sound enough to be out here, but Steve needed a moment to collect himself. He rubbed at his aching arm, the muscles tight from supporting his bad shoulder, clenching his teeth against another flare-up of sharp tingling sensations.

He caught Chin watching him out of the corner of his eye. "I should probably find my sling before Max reads me the riot act."

"You sure that's the only thing?"

Steve glanced down at his fingers. They'd been acting worse, twitching off and on so much the last couple hours, he'd stopped paying attention. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he looked up at Chin. "Have you heard anything from our transmissions?"

Their long-range communications had mysteriously returned only an hour after returning to the Hoku. The machines had completed their agenda. It made his stomach twist.

"I've tried all security channels, but Jenna said the navy would be very suspicious of the validity given the timing and circumstances."

"Tell Duke to keep trying."

Steve couldn't give up. Not after witnessing the magnitude of the machine's capabilities. Again.

"Hey," Chin said, getting Steve's attention. "One day at a time, remember?"

"Yeah." Steve gave Chin a forced smile and looked down at his watch. "Max said he would remove Danny's implant around 1800 hours."

"I'd be glad to come with." Chin began following Steve as they exited the wheelhouse. "Did Max say how complicated the procedure would be?"

"He said he'd figured out how to use the remote to remove the implant safely without surgery. But he's giving Danny a mild anesthetic just in case."

"Now that's the best news I've heard all day," Chin said, clapping Steve on the arm.

***

Steve waited outside the exam room, making a circuit back and forth while Chin and Malia chatted in the corner. Malia slid her fingers into Chin's hand, prompting the most bashful grin from him. Steve looked away to give them a moment, his own smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Another wave of pinpricks ran along the nerves of his arm and he began pacing again, hoping to distract himself, not that his mind wasn't running a mile a minute.

The door to the examination room opened, followed by Danny sweeping out like a thunderstorm. His eyes lit up at seeing Steve, his voice dripping in sarcasm. "What? No lollipop?"

But the crinkles around Danny's eyes and mouth spoke volumes of his relief.

Steve released a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "It worked," he said, his heart thudding loudly.

"Never doubted it, babe."

There was a cough behind them and Max strolled by, eyebrows arched sharply. "Actually, on the contrary, Mr. Williams expressed the opposite of this sentiment as I removed the implant."

"What happened to that whole doctor and patient confidentiality?" Danny asked with a wave his hand.

"Just separating fact from fiction, which as you well know, is an important part of my job." Max looked over at Steve and Chin, his face beaming in enthusiasm. "It was very fascinating to observe the filaments retract from the vertebrae. I'll need to run more extensive scans to ensure there is no lasting damage to the nerve endings, but –"

"Yes, it is and it is now over." Danny gave Max a slight bow. "Thank you. But if it's all the same, I'd like to leave."

"By all means. As I said, I'll arrange for additional tests later, but in the meantime," Max set his sights on Steve. "I have series of blood tests with your name on it."

Steve started to beg off, but Malia had quietly stepped closer, the two physicians flanking him.

Steve never skipped out on any required medical tests; he'd accepted them as the norm a long time ago. But right now he was feeling a little cornered. "Is this some kind of united offensive?"

"No," Malia said gently. "This is called friends looking after one another. Come on. It's just x-rays and blood work. You'll be back on duty in half an hour. Promise."

"I'll even wait in line with you for the MRI." Chin tapped at his head. "They want another look up here."

"Thirty minutes, huh?" Danny said cajoling. "There's nothing to be done while we're being tugged away. And if I recall, it was really nice the last time we docked at an island for repairs."

Steve almost rolled his eyes, but Danny was trying, and the sensations in his arm decided to spike like tiny little daggers in a biological act of betrayal. "Yeah, okay."

Danny gave him genuine smile. "And unlike you, I'll have a lollipop waiting for when you're done."

***

Steve pulled his coat around himself tighter, careful of his sling, eyes scanning the Hoku docked in the shallow end of the cove. She bore scars and holes and some of her crew would never return to her decks, but she stood defiant, her flag still waving as the sun disappeared behind the ocean horizon.

Danny walked toward him, his hair all mussed up from the wind, with three days' worth of chin scruff speckled with little bits of gray. He looked amazingly rumpled.

"Hey," Danny greeted, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his pants. "You know, you make me tired just watching you think so hard."

"The first person I ever picked for the crew was Mamo. He was at my graduation for the SEALs and he was one of the first people to take me in after I returned from my last mission. He'd seen it all."

"And he was very proud of you and he was even prouder to serve by your side."

Steve nodded and rubbed at his eyes, a headache throbbing behind them.

Danny gestured at Steve's face. "Did Max give you anything for that?"

"No, it's just the last of the chems from yesterday. It'll go away soon."

"About those..."

"Max said I didn't take enough to cause any permanent harm."

Steve knew Danny meant more, and it wasn't a discussion he wanted to have, if ever. But that didn't stop Danny from standing there, forcing the issue with his loud silence.

Steve scratched at his stubbled cheek. "I think after the last week, I understand more about the choices my COs made. When we were on the mainland. I mean...why we weren't told –"

"No. Stop right there. There are no comparisons between situations. Today you made an informed, but stupid choice in a combat situation regarding your physical health. But it was your decision. Your eyes were wide open. You understand?"

Steve bit his lip at the level of manipulation involved during his time serving and his willingness to turn a blind eye to it. Because Danny was right, there would always be a mission, a need, and those willing to...

"Hey," Danny said, and tugged at his free arm. "Come here. I, for one, am exhausted. And there is a tent and a bedroll with our names on it. So, why don't we build ourselves a fire and enjoy the stars."

Half the crew preferred to make camp whenever they were near dry land.

"You are aware that this isn't the Marshall Islands?" Steve asked.

"What gave it away? The cold ass temperature or the rad readings we have to take every six hours? "

Steve pulled Danny over, capturing his mouth for a kiss before pulling away. "Did anyone ever tell you you're a real smart ass?"

"No, never." Danny held Steve close, face softening. "Grace wanted us to sleep outside and I'm willing to give her whatever she wants if it helps her deal with this whole thing."

"We could build the fire together." Steve thought about what was in the galley, realizing they didn't have marshmallows. "Maybe roast some nuts."

Danny pressed closer, slipping his arms under Steve's coat, rubbing his hands up and down Steve's back. "You're something else. Grace and I are really lucky."

Steve couldn't fathom Danny's words. The weight of their meaning hit him square in the chest. Because after this nightmarish week of so much death and destruction, of trying to survive just to see the next minute – of ensuring everyone around him would be alive tomorrow – he'd made it through.

His mouth went dry, feeling the impact of what was right before his eyes, the moment when hope and fear had become reality. Steve could stop fighting, stop running for a few minutes, because his crew was safe. He could laugh with Chin and Kono during movie night, bet Catherine that he could hit a target a mile away even though she'd beat him. Try to out-fish Duke out on the aft.

But what struck him dumbfounded, made him light headed with the sheer beauty of reality was Danny standing right in front of him. Alive and whole, smelling of sea salt, eyes crinkling as he stared at Steve.

Grace could hug her father, and Steve, Steve could touch and –

"No," Steve said dizzy with the emotions threatening to overwhelm and sweep him away with the waves. "I'm the lucky one."

And Steve kissed Danny, felt tears stinging his eyes as Danny's arm tightened around Steve's shoulders, pulling him closer, holding onto him like he would never let go.

Steve held on even tighter, drunk on the hard warmth of Danny's body, the scratch of rough stubble. Breathing heavily, he felt a familiar fire in his belly, a warmth spreading through his chest, spreading under his skin, flooding him with emotions that were too big to contain.

"I...I love you, Danny. You and Grace. When I saw those drones scanning you and realized I'd never told you...that I..." Steve clamped his mouth closed and clenched his jaw, the world spinning out of control.

"Hey, hey, hey." Danny ran his fingers down Steve's chest, face flushed, eyes wet. He held Steve's head between his hands. "I know, babe. I know. You show me every day. You show me, I promise. Shhhh. But, yeah, it's nice to hear the words."

"Nice, huh?" Steve let out a breath, sucking in wonderful oxygen into his lungs. Heat sizzled though his veins. He nipped at Danny's mouth. "I know some other nice things."

Danny chuckled, still cradling Steve's face. "Do I need to go back to slipping Valium in your water?"

"You put sedatives in my water?"

But Steve knew Danny was pulling his leg. This was nice; their ragging on each other was familiar, safe too.

"Um, guys?"

Steve turned around, still holding onto Danny as Kono made her way over. "Sorry for, you know. Interrupting. But..."

"I need to go over security protocols with Catherine," Steve said with a sigh, the other part of reality and responsibility sinking in.

Danny disentangled himself from Steve, clearing his throat. "And I need to re-check the designs for the low-steam engine."

Steve watched him amble away into the distance, feeling the weight of Kono's gaze on him. He looked over at her with a raised eyebrow. "What?"

"Nothing," she said coyly, taking his elbow and walking with him. "That looked pretty serious."

"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

She punched him in his good shoulder. "I'll get it out of you one day."

"Maybe."

"Well, in the meantime, why don't we plan that dive together?"

"You do realize I have one good working shoulder?"

"Yeah, so?" She snorted, crossing her arms. "And are you gonna let that stop you?"

Steve shook his head, aware he was talking to one of the strongest people he knew. "No. I won't."

***

Danny's head was a wonderful, warm weight against Steve's good shoulder. He watched Danny's chest rise and fall, listening to him mumble and sigh between breaths. He could do this forever, Danny's biorhythms almost lulling Steve's to a reasonable, even level.

He couldn't sleep though, not yet, not without something strong to counteract the burning levels of go in his system. Max had a moratorium on all his meds for the next forty-eight hours, so Steve went over the Hoku's dimensions in his head, the mathematics involved with how much fuel would get them back to the Islands, and when his head was clear enough, he tuned out everything else except for the beat of Danny's heart in the night.

But he wasn't the only one awake, and he watched a familiar silhouette by the fire through the opening of their tent. Eyes straying to Danny's head, Steve carefully extracted himself, Danny snuggling against Steve's pillow.

With a fond smile, Steve quietly made his way into the chilly night air.

Grace looked over from her spot near the fire. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."

"I wasn't asleep," he said walking over.

"Aren't you cold?"

Steve laughed. "Not really." Grace nodded as if she understood, and he found a seat with the fewest rocks to sit down. "Wha'cha thinking about?"

"I wasn't thinking about anything."

"Normally when most people can't sleep it's because they can't stop all the thoughts in their head."

Grace stared at the fire. "Dad wouldn't let me take a weapon into my tent."

After the last couple of days, Steve wouldn't patronize her about being too young to handle one. "Why do you want to sleep with a weapon?"

"You do."

"I keep one near me so I can protect those I love." Grace stared harder into the fire obviously very familiar with the feeling. Steve watched the flames with her. "A weapon can make us feel more in control, but it can't make our fear go away."

Grace looked at him. "What can?"

"Nothing makes it go away." Steve moved closer to her, trying to wrangle a lifetime's worth of feelings. "Fear is a really scary emotion, but we can't let it define us. We can recognize what makes us afraid and can keep it in our sights so we know how to fight it."

"But what if you can't fight it?"

"Then we show that we're not afraid by living our lives, honey," Danny said in a sleep-fogged voice. He wandered over with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

"Going to school, reading books, eating, cleaning, doing chores. Everything we do without thinking about the machines is a win."

"But we go after them sometimes. And we go after people like Wo Fat."

Danny draped part of his blanket over her shoulders. "We chase after the bad guys so that other people can go about their day a little easier. And maybe go to sleep feeling a little less afraid." He gave her a small hug. "You still okay with that?"

Grace nodded vigorously. Danny smiled at her. "You want to go to sleep or stay up a little while longer?"

She glanced behind at her tent, licking her lips. "Do you think maybe...?"

"What is it?" Danny asked.

"Could I bring my bedroll inside your tent?"

Danny glanced at Steve who nodded at him. "Of course you can. It can hold four people, there's plenty of room."

"Thank you, Danno." Grace looked over at Steve. "Thank you."

Steve fussed with her hair and Grace looked up at him. "I, um...still have your tags. Do you want them back?"

Her smaller fingers began tugging at the silver chain around her neck, but Steve gently squeezed Grace's hand. "Not yet, sweetheart. You keep them for a while longer."

"Are you sure?"

"I am, but I promise I'll ask for them back when I'm ready. Deal?"

"Deal," Grace said, kissing him on the cheek.

She got up and hurried inside her tent to grab her stuff, and Danny scooted closer to him, but Steve beat him to the punch. "I'm fine."

"Liar. You've got that brooding look again and you had it before you allowed Grace to keep your tags."

"Just thinking about something Kaye said about Wo Fat."

Danny made an annoyed sound. "Wo Fat was an insane psychopath."

"Who also worked for MI for years."

"I didn't say he wasn't smart."

Steve couldn't help thinking about the bombings over the years, growing up in a culture of endless war. "But what if..."

"No," Danny said, holding up a finger. "No what ifs. This world is filled with too many of those."

It was impossible for Steve not to analyze or factor every possibility. "And if we're bombing the mainland right now?"

"Then we hope for the best. We have one job and one job only." Steve looked over at Danny's relaxed face. "We live, babe. Every day. To the fullest. And if we do, we honor those who sacrificed everything so we could."

***

They were still anchored off dry land, but that didn't prevent them from having burials at sea. It was only appropriate to re-board the Hoku to say goodbye to everyone they'd lost.

Steve and Chin stood out of the way as Max performed the ceremonial washing of Mamo's body, bearing witness to his body's purification. Mamo was popular, and normally the tiny room would be crammed with crew, but they had to bury over two dozen fallen, and everyone on board would share in such an honor.

Max finished rubbing the last layer of salt over Mamo's skin before bowing his head and stepping away. “He is ready for the “nalo no hoi nu wahi huna.”

Chin solemnly walked toward the table with a large swatch of cloth made of fresh bark. “This will be the last time you are clothed and we shall cover you with nature. So you shall return with her to the sea.”

Steve lifted Mamo's feet so Chin could form a pa'u around the lower half, then Steve moved, doing his best with a sling to help fold the cloth around Mamo's upper half in a Kikepa.

Chin rested a hand on Mamo's bare shoulder. “I love you Anakala, but now you can rest with your beloved Sophie and ride the waves to every corner of the earth.”

An emptiness filled Steve's belly, raw and heavy. He felt an arm slip around his back and Steve leaned into Chin's weight. “I'm going to miss him.”

“He'll keep an eye on us like he always has,” Chin said fondly. “All we'll need to do is look up at the stars and we'll feel his smile upon us.”

***

The crew gathered in the mess hall for a feast. Steve watched Kono and Fong proudly wheel out a beautiful giant grouper on a layer of seaweed and kelp. Fong carried the large platter to the center of the table, nodding at Kono. “The one who speared the fish gets to carve it.”

Duke whistled his appreciation and Toast poured the wine in everyone's cup, filling Steve's glass with a generous portion. “This is from my special stash,” he said. “Only the best for ohana.”

Toast went to Grace's glass and Danny’s hand covered it with a slight glare. Grace rolled her eyes and Toast gave Danny a little salute before taking his seat.

Kono waited a moment, all eyes in the room slowly settling on her face. She licked her lips. “We're here to remember, to celebrate, to say aloha to all of those who are not with us tonight. And what better way than to eat and drink?”

“Hear, hear,” Chin said, holding up his glass.

“So, tonight, we'll dine, and tell stories, and celebrate those we loved.” Kono took the knife and began slicing. She looked over at Steve. “Would you like to tell us how you met Mamo?”

Steve twirled his drink, thoughts subdued, but warming with sentiment. “Actually, I'd like to hear about the time you two decided to make homemade explosives out of baked goods and tinfoil.”

Kono's somber face lit up a little. “Yeah, that was a fun night.”

**

Steve stood with a lei of simple white flowers, head bowed. Danny stood beside him, hands clasped on top of Grace's shoulders.

Kono and Chin huddled together to their left; Max, Duke, Lori and Catherine to their right.

All casketed remains had been brought on deck, each placed securely on a stand, with feet extending over the side of the launching. The first sixteen caskets were covered by the flag of the islands, the last six with the naval emblem for the members of SEAL Team Nine.

Kalani read scripture for several minutes then closed his holy book. Serving as the only active member of the navy, Jenna took two steps forward, dressed in full dress whites. She gave the hand salute to the six caskets, rendering them honor, then nodded at Catherine.

Steve stared ahead as Catherine and two others fired three volleys into the air from their rifles as Duke lifted a horn to his lips, playing taps. Steve swallowed against the lump in his throat, the familiar notes made his breathing heavy as he forced his emotions deep into chest. He felt Danny slip a hand into his, squeezing it tightly and Steve gave him a faint smile in gratitude.

Steve listened to Kalani give the final prayer as everyone took turns and walked by the caskets, Danny lingering at Polani's. “You were the finest grease monkey I've ever worked with,” he whispered.

Grace followed him as the walked by each of their fallen, their ohana. Steve watched his crew bid farewell, some leaving flowers and photographs, some a few letters. Steve waited until last, resting his fingers on each wooden surface, taking a moment to say each goodbye individually.

When he reached the last one, he joined the others, and watched the caskets as they were launched into the sea.

“So much loss,” Kono said, brushing at the moisture at her eyes.

Chin moved beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “So much life.”

“It's up to us to honor what they did,” Steve said, looking over at Danny.

“And we will.” Danny gave him a small smile, taking Steve's hand in his. “It's what we do.”

“Actually, we might be able to do something in their name very soon.” Jenna cleared her throat as she smoothed her hands over her jacket. “I received a private communication, on my, um...”

“Not so secret radio in your quarters,” Chin said, crossing his arms. Jenna looked at Chin then back at Steve, but Chin shook his head. “We discovered it the other day, but I haven't been monitoring anything in the last couple hours.”

“Did you receive a signal?” Steve asked, urgent. They hadn't been able to reach any ships in a few days.

Kaye looked up at Steve's intense gaze. “Yes. The navy is sending a vessel here, it should reach us in less than a week.”

“What about the bombing?” Steve felt his heart rate skyrocket. “Did they -”

“The navy's waiting on the signal from the SEAL recon teams that have been sent in.”

“It's been days, those teams have been --”

“Doing their jobs, just like you and I. Like your crew,” Jenna said, looking from Steve to Danny, to Chin and Kono. “And that ship is on its way to get a debriefing from the both of us. If we can show them that Wo Fat was responsible for the destruction of the defense grid and that the machines are not preparing a preemptive strike...”

“We could stop the bombing.” Steve couldn’t believe it. Didn't dare hope. But he looked at Kaye, clinging to it.

Kaye met his gaze, confident. “I think we could.”

***

Steve stared out at the sea, his arms resting on the railing and looked up at the millions of stars up in the sky, watching the brightest one flicker back at him.

“Looking for the Big Dipper?”

Steve smiled at Danny's voice. “No, something else.”

“And did you find it?”

“I think so.”

Danny rested his arms next to Steve's and watched the waves lap against the shore. “You can discover a lot out here.”

The naval ship was two days out and the repairs to the Hoku were still on their way. Yet time felt at a impasse.

“It's warmer inside,” Danny coaxed. He sighed when Steve didn't move. “Let me guess, you've already planned your speech to the navy about Wo Fat and prepping your argument to the governor about investigating Japan.”

It still amazed Steve how well Danny knew him. “If there's even a chance that there's no machine presence there, we can't allow the military to keep it quiet until they deem it fit otherwise.”

“Because the last week wasn't a fun enough adventure,” Danny said, but there was no real bite in his words, his gaze lingering at the sky, then the solar panels, the broken wheelhouse. He took a deep breath. “But that's why we all joined the Hoku. And her captain,” he said his voice rich with conviction. “So, we could try to make a difference.”

Steve didn't know what to say, his throat thick, his heart a quickstep in his chest. Despite the latest sorrows, the fear of what might lie ahead, he counted himself lucky. Savoring this moment, living for every new one.

And he draped an arm around Danny, pulling him over until they were enveloped around each other, Steve's cheek against the pulse point of Danny's neck, Danny holding onto Steve like he might never let go. Words unspoken.

***
A/N: After a year of writing and editing, I can finally say: fini~

Thank you for taking this journey with me.

poster

Poster by: Ignem-feram