Actions

Work Header

One Day More

Chapter Text

***

One day more
These men who seem to know my crime
Will surely come a second time

One day more
How can I live when we are parted?

One day more
Tomorrow you’ll be worlds away
And yet with you my world has started

One more day all on my own
Will we ever meet again?

— Les Miserables



***

Prologue – Demons

***

Danny watched the ocean, lost in the rhythm of the waves gently lapping on the shore.

A lukewarm beer sat untouched at his side, resting on one of the arms of the Adirondack chair he’d come to claim as his own over the years.

The salty breeze moving gently over his skin sent an involuntary shiver down his spine, promising some much-needed respite from the unusual heat that had risen the normally mild late summer temperatures to a scorching level.

He shifted in his seat, leaning his back against the solid wood, and closed his eyes.

Sometimes, against his better judgement, he’d find himself heading over to Steve’s place. Usually on the nights he knew Junior and Tani weren’t home. Walking to the backyard through the side pathway so that he wouldn’t have to step inside the house, he’d sit by the beach with a drink or just his thoughts, and then slip out quietly a few hours later.

It did him more harm than good, but he couldn’t seem to help it.

490 days, twenty-two hours and seventeen minutes.

That’s how long it had been since his best friend had left the island, driven by guilt and an overwhelming need to get away from everything that mattered to him.

Each one of those days had been hell, made worse by the fact that Steve had progressively withdrawn despite promising to stay in touch. After a few texts to let him know he had made it to the mainland and was on his way to the next destination, he’d started missing calls and ignoring messages until he had disappeared completely.

Danny missed him like crazy, and the lack of communication was as unsettling as the possible reasons behind it. Too many, the ones his mind had come up with. It wasn’t like Steve to stay off the radar like that during what was supposed to be a healing journey around the world.

There had to be something wrong, said a nagging voice in his head that couldn’t be silenced.

His eyes were steady to the horizon, his lips pursed as he wrung his hands nervously in his lap.

Had he caused it? Was this unsettling silence a result of something he’d done? He remembered voicing his concerns, but also openly supporting Steve even if he didn’t really agree with his plan.

Danny knew him better than Steve knew himself. He knew what he thought, how he felt and what he needed and this? This distance he had put between them? It was definitely out of character and for the life of him, he couldn’t find a reason for it.

The sky was a blend of reds, oranges and yellows shades as the sun gradually disappeared into the water. It was a magnificent sight but instead of soothing him, it filled him with a sense of dread and disquiet so he closed his eyes and focused on the sound of the ocean and the seagulls squawking in the distance.

The evenings were the absolute worst.

They used to be a time of reward after a harrowing day. A time to just sit, unwind and enjoy the simple pleasures of a meal or a good company. Now, they felt as empty and lonely as he was.

Sure, he had learned to feel joy without Steve. Short, fleeting moments, mostly related to something his children said or did, but there was always a tinge of sadness beneath as a reminder that his heart wasn’t whole.

No one on the team had heard from him either. Even Mary had only received a handful of calls. No details, no info on where he was or what his intentions were. Just that he was okay and that he loved her. Which, in Steve language, meant he was on a mission and that he was dead set on seeing it through. What that mission was, Danny had no idea. And he couldn’t blame Mary one bit if every one of those calls had upset her more than reassured her.

They were all at a loss, asking themselves what they could do to help and knowing at the same time that if Steve didn’t want to be found, no one would be able to.

Above him, the sky had almost completely transitioned from day to night, the yellow and orange tones giving way to purple and pink. Rubbing a hand across his face, Danny wondered if he too sat outside at night, enjoying those sunsets he loved so much. If he was safe, and had found at least some of the peace he’d been looking for.

But most of all, he wondered if he would ever see Steve again.

Despite having a family, a job, and a relatively fulfilling life, there was an emptiness in his heart that only his best friend could fill, and every day that went by without him brought Danny closer and closer to a breakdown he wasn’t sure he could bounce back from.

One more day, he told himself as he pursed his lips and got up, ready to leave.

He could hold on for at least one more day.

One day more.



***

Sitting on the porch in the twilight of yet another empty day, Steve looked at the snow.

The small, delicate flakes swirled playfully in the wind, dancing in the soft glow coming from the fireplace inside before falling on top of each other, covering everything in perfect white.

Some of them landed on his face and hands, immediately melting on his skin.

The sun had set about an hour before, leaving the darkness of the night and the silence of the woods as his only companions.

It would be five hours until daylight came again.

Short nights were a blessing to him. Less time to toss and turn in bed, more chances to keep himself busy during the day. It was one of the reasons he had ended up so far from home.

His breaths rose in white-puffed clouds, heading up towards the sky. Tilting his head backwards, he followed their path until they disappeared.

Would anyone care if he did the same?

The remote, off-grid cabin he had chosen as his shelter was surrounded by conifer trees. White spruces, black spruces, larches. They stood starkly against the snow, their limbs bent by its weight. And yet they rested stoically in place, forcing roots and branches to endure the pain, waiting for better days. It was a sad parallel to Steve’s own back and soul, weighed down by everything that had happened to him, only he didn’t know if he was brave enough to carry that weight anymore.

Behind those trees were the mountains, equally dusted in white.

Not a soul in sight, just a few animals and an endless forest.

He hadn’t picked out the place at random.

His fingers curled around the mug of steaming hot coffee that he knew would get him through the night. It was the only way to ward off the nightmares that visited him in his sleep. The warmth seeped beneath his skin, triggering memories of the place he used to call home. Of the sun on his face, the sand on his feet, and the family he had been forced to leave.

He missed all of them terribly, and feared that he might not be able to find his way back this time. Most days, he felt like drowning in his own despair. Alone. Alone and away from the life he had fought so hard to build.

He scratched his beard, the beard he had let grow way past the point of decency. Who was going to care about it anyway?

Danny always hated it, said it made him look older and sadder than he was.

But Danny wasn’t here now, and both adjectives fit him to a tee.

He was older and sadder than he had ever been.

Danny.

He had given up everything for him. Everything he had and everything he was, and it still killed him that the last time they’d seen each other had been so awkward.

Unable to share what was burdening his heart, he had tried to sell him the ‘I need peace’ lie, dodging his questions as best as he could. In the end, he realized, that had hurt Danny even more than his sacrifice.

But what else was he supposed to do?

He couldn’t risk his friend’s life after coming so close to losing him.

Sometimes, Danny visited him in his dreams. Wearing shorts and a t-shirt as if they were both still in Hawaii he’d sit with him for a while, say he missed him, and call him an idiot for shouldering this giant burden all to himself. Steve knew it was probably his subconscious needing to hear those words, but he treasured those dreams nonetheless.

Around him, the snow continued to fall.

Steve turned up the collar of his jacket against the cold air.

The warmth from the fireplace inside was inviting but he didn’t move from his spot, his gaze fixed on the night sky, asking himself why his life had chosen such a challenging path and why every time he seemed to have found some kind of stability, something would happen to make it all disappear.

Staring out into the darkness, he wondered if his friends missed him.

Did they even realize the real reason he had left or were they out there living their lives without sparing him a second thought?

He thought about her too, picturing her cold eyes as she laughed at him and the life she had sentenced him to.

Was there even a point anymore?

Steve McGarrett never quit, but during the long months he’d spent away from Hawaii he sure as hell had thought about it.

Part of him wanted to. Every morning when he woke up, after those few blissful moments before the memories came crashing in, he thought about throwing in the towel.

But he never did.

Releasing a sigh, he slowly got to his feet and dragged his weary body inside the cabin.

Maybe tomorrow would be different.

One day more.



Chapter Text

***

April 6th, 2020

 

“How’s Detective Williams?”

Duke Lukela’s brown eyes held all the compassion and the kindness that the police force veteran had learned through decades of life. His concern was genuine, the care he showed his peers one of the many reasons Steve had always thought of him as the man who best exemplified the meaning of ‘aloha’.

“He’s… better. Doctor says he can go home in a few days.”

“That’s good news.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it is. Where is she?”

“Still in Halawa. FBI is talking about transferring her to the mainland in a couple of days.”

Steve didn’t even try to pretend he cared. As far as he was concerned, the Feds could do whatever they wanted with her. Whether it was a supermax facility or a hole in the ground, he was okay with it as long as she didn’t see the light of day again. Ever. The woman had gone after what he held most valuable, hurting Danny —and by extension, him, in a way he had never hurt before. Not even when he’d lost his dad.

The last few days had been a blur of sleepless nights, bad coffee, and short drives home for a shower and a change of clothes; the only memories worth remembering the ones where his best friend was awake and relief had settled in his heart.

He had never left Danny’s side for longer than an hour. Two, tops, out of a sense of both guilt and devotion. You put him in there, the least you can do is suffer along with him, his brain constantly chastised him.

Duke’s call had surprised him to say the least.

Daiyu Mei wanted to see him.

She had asked for a meeting, claiming she had something important to tell him.

"Don’t go. She just wants to hurt you," Danny had warned from his hospital bed, the bruises on his face and the healing scar on his chest a painful reminder of what the woman was capable of. "You know she likes to get under your skin just like Wo Fat did. Nothing good is gonna come out of it."

They had stared at each other, long and hard, after the chase at the docks. He had pointed his rifle at her, but had been unable to shoot.

‘Go on. Pull the trigger.’

His left hand had squeezed the weapon’s handle, so hard his fingers had turned white. Jaw clenched, swallowing compulsively, he had watched the sneer spread onto his enemy’s face until he’d come to term with the realization that he would never murder someone in cold blood while they were standing there unarmed.

‘You have your father’s will. My husband said he’d never met a more principled man.’

Steve wasn’t sure what that said about him, but if he truly was his father’s son he only had one option left.

“I’m going to see her.”

Worry clouded the older man’s gaze.

“Steve, are you sure it’s a good idea?”

No, he wanted to say. Emotions were still running high, and the rollercoaster he’d been on during the previous week had aged him more than the last ten years combined. Shaken to his very core and unable to think past his partner’s well-being, he had no clue what Daiyu Mei could possibly tell him that he didn't already know.

The temptation to ignore her was strong. He had come full circle, learning everything he needed about his father’s investigation and murder. It was time to put everything behind. And yet there was a part of him that couldn’t dismiss her request, a secluded corner of his mind where the soldier, the cop — the man that he was — resided. That man simply couldn’t say no or tell her to go to hell.

Unable to trust his words, he eventually gave Duke a curt nod.

“Okay,” the older man sighed as he picked up the phone.

Thirty minutes later, Steve was standing outside Daiyu Mei’s prison cell in the correctional facility’s maximum security wing.

The grey walls surrounding him were as bleak as he remembered. No matter how many times he’d been inside Halawa, his mind always went back to the weeks he had spent there as a prisoner almost a decade before, accused of Governor Jameson’s murder and set as example by her successor’s zero-tolerance campaign.

Voices — angry, taunting, loud — layered on top of each other as he waited for the guard to cuff the prisoner and open the door. The other inmates were welcoming the distraction from their hollow existence and making no mystery of it. Steve could see bits of their orange jumpsuits and hands sticking out of the rectangle-shaped opening of the thick metal doors.

He almost jumped at the buzzing sound of the thick metal door sliding open.

The cell was a solid cube of concrete with no windows and no furniture of any kind. It was designed to isolate and disorient, to conceal the passage of time and make a person forget who they were. Steve doubted it would ever happen to someone like her. She had the mindset and the resilience to survive this and much, much worse.

When he stepped inside and the door closed behind him, sliding home with a loud thud, he took his first glimpse at her.

She stood in one corner, back against the wall, her wrists and ankles shackled up with chains. Her dark eyes seemed even darker in the dim, enclosed space as she studied him, her expression unreadable.

Steve took a step forward, remaining at a safe distance.

‘All this, for what, for what... money?’
‘For killing my husband.’
‘Your husband didn’t give me any choice!’

‘Don’t make the same mistake you made with your father, Commander McGarrett. Don’t allow a loved one to die because of your stubbornness.’

Her voice had haunted his dreams since she’d crawled out of hiding and threatened him with yet another loss, and he was beginning to doubt his decision to see her.

“What do you want?” he said instead, a mask of calmness on his face that reflected nothing of the turmoil stirring below the surface.

“You look tired, Commander. Something keeping you up at night?”

A muscle in Steve’s jaw twitched, and it was only self-control that stopped him from reaching for her throat and squeezing the life out of her. Those were the same words Wo Fat had spoken to him during a similar visit.

“I’m about five seconds away from leaving this cage,” he hissed. “You got something to say, say it.”

“I was right, wasn’t I?” she asked in a teasing tone.

“About what?”

“About Detective Williams being the person you care about most in the world. I realized it when you barely blinked at my request to give up the cypher, and I can see it in your eyes now. How’s he doing? I hear that was a nasty shot he took....”

There was something in her voice that sent a shiver down Steve’s spine.

His hands curled into angry fists at his sides.

“You don’t get to say Danny’s name. Not again, not ever.”

Daiyu Mei regarded him with an amused look and shook her head slightly. “At ease, Commander. I have nothing personal against your partner. He was just a means to an end. But I can’t promise you that it won’t happen again, and that’s why you’re gonna do exactly as I say.”

“You’re out of your mind if you think I’m gonna do anything else for you,” Steve replied in shocked disbelief. He turned around, expecting to see the guard standing outside the cell and listening in to their conversation, only to find out that the space was empty. The officer had either moved to the side or gone back to his post.

“You keep doing that,” she whispered darkly.

“Doing what?”

“Watching your back.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Are you threatening me?”

“Not at all,” she replied, unfazed. The restraints prevented her from lifting her arms and taking normal steps, but she still managed to move towards him looking menacing as hell. “Anyone who’s ever tried knows that threatening you is pointless. Threatening the people you care about, on the other end, will get me what I want.”

“What else could you possibly want?”

Steve’s patience was wearing thin. Nerves already frazzled, skin crawling with unease, he couldn’t wait to get out of there and back to the hospital, yet he knew that wasn’t going to happen until he found out exactly what she had in mind.

“I got nothing left...”

The words slipped out, unrestrained, and his eyes widened as he realized his misstep.

Never show weakness, or the enemy will use it against you.

“Oh, but there is so much more I can still take. Your sleep. Your safety. Your job. And finally, your life. I’m going to finish what my husband started,” Daiyu Mei informed him with a gleam of evil in her gaze that made Steve’s stomach twist in ways Wo Fat never had. “See, this,” she added after an ominous pause, nodding to the cell she was locked in, “is just a temporary setback. As soon as I get out of here I’ll go back to my business and that includes you, McGarrett. Your days are numbered. And whoever’s in my path, I’ll kill just as well.”

“What makes you think you’re getting out of here?” he laughed, though it held no humor whatsoever.

Her excitement quickly turned to irritation. “You’re asking the wrong questions. What you want to know is what you can do to keep your loved ones alive for as long as I decide to keep you alive.”

Steve moved nothing but his eyes, his mind racing while every muscle stayed rock still.

What the hell did that mean?

Mindful of all the ways Wo Fat had escaped even the most secure prisons, he had personally called in favors to make sure she never would. So what was she talking about?

“I’m done playing games with you,” he snarled, the anger he was trying to hide quickly working its way to the surface.

“Too bad,” she shrugged. “I haven’t even started.”

“I’m not afraid of you.”

“That may be true, but we all have our weak spots and your family — your partner, is yours, so if you care about him, about them, you’re going to do exactly what I want.”

“And what is that?”

“Resign from your job. Effective immediately.”

Steve flinched back as though reeling from a punch.

He had thought about taking some time off, a short break to clear his head and deal with his losses but giving up what he loved forever? That had never crossed his mind.

A disbelieving sound made its way out of his lips. “That’s never going to happen.” Hands on his hips in his threatening ‘Commander’ pose, he glared at her with the kind of withering look that had made countless men and women squirm during his career. “You’re bluffing. There’s no way you’re getting out of max.”

“Am I?” Unperturbed by the look and the confines of her concrete cage, Daiyu Mei leaned casually against the wall and cocked her head, mischief back into her features. “Ever been to the Marriott in Ventura? Nice hotel, newly renovated. Two blocks from the ocean. That’s where your sister’s staying for the weekend. With a work colleague, if I recall. They plan to enjoy the local seafood and get some spa treatments. Working mom like her, no man in the house, it mustn’t be easy. I’m sure she earned this R&R.”

Suddenly, the simple act of breathing air into his lungs became an impossible task.

Steve went still, fear blasting like a cold wind up his spine. He hadn’t talked to Mary in a few weeks, but she had mentioned an upcoming trip and how she was looking forward to some ‘me’ time.

“Her kid — your niece,” she continued, enjoying the way her words were affecting him, “is staying at a friend’s house. Now, I’m not the motherly type but I have to say she’s a cute kid, always happy and smiling. She wants to be a princess when she grows up. Imagine that.”

As much as he tried not to show it, the fact that one of her goons had dared to come close to Joanie made him physically sick to his stomach. He bit his bottom lip and swallowed hard against the nausea building up, bracing himself for more.

“Little Charlie Williams wants to be a policeman. Or an astronaut. He thinks you and his dad are real superheroes.” She paused for a moment, then said in a challenging tone: “Am I bluffing? Who knows. Are you willing to risk their lives to find out?”

Fueled by a fiery hot rage, Steve lunged for her before his rational side even processed the action, pinning her petite body to the wall.

“Shut up! You stay away from my family, you hear me?”

Despite the forearm pressing heavily against her throat, Daiyu Mei pinned him with an icy glare.
“Does your housemate still own that ’85 El Camino? Such a beauty. Would be a shame if something happened to it...”

Steve knew it would only be a few seconds before the guard opened the door and rushed back inside the cell, alerted by the commotion. It would take him just as long to kill her with his bare hands.

“You think because I’m behind bars that you’re safe? That any of them are safe? You’re a dead man, McGarrett,” she whispered, her breath hot against his cheek. “Don’t you ever forget that. But for now and while I’m in here, I’m going to enjoy stripping you of everything you hold dear. And if you think you can outsmart me, remember I have eyes and ears everywhere. One wrong move, one slip, and I’ll deliver one of their heads to your doorstep. You know I mean it.”

“What’s going on here?”

Even though he was expecting it, the sound of the gated door snapping open made Steve jump out of his skin.

The guard, a bulky Hawaiian man with arms that bulged against the sleeves of his uniform was standing behind him, his baton raised, ready to strike.

“Nothing,” he said, unable to hide the shakiness in his voice. “We’re done.”

“You look a little pale, Commander,” Daiyu Mei teased, raising a questioning eyebrow at him. “You sure you’re alright?”

“I’m done,” Steve repeated, flushed and out of breath, as he turned around and walked out of the cell, wishing he had pulled the trigger when he’d had the chance.

He thought he heard her say something else as the cell clanked shut again, but it got drowned by the drum-loud thud of his own heart.

***

He sat in his truck for the longest time, trying to calm down and convince himself that her words were just hollow threats. Heart still beating faster than it should, he replayed the conversation in his mind, horrified at the number of details she knew about the people he loved.

There was no way he could go back to the hospital right now. Danny would see right through his distress, and he didn’t have the words nor the strength to share any of it with him. His friend was already suffering because of him. This was his mess to clean up.

Leaning his forehead against the steering wheel he closed his eyes, exhaling sharply.

The last year had been a challenge to say the least, taking more out of him than he could give. The losses of Joe and his mother had cut deep, tapping into his very last reserves of strength, and he’d been struggling ever since.

There were good days, when he was able to distract himself and enjoy what normal people did. Outings. Dinners. Dates. And days when his head fogged up and just couldn’t focus, when thoughts got stuck and he felt like he was running underwater. Throughout all that, random moments of clarity when he could literally feel every emotion, so deeply that it left him physically and emotionally drained. Those were the hardest. Triggered by the smallest things like sports on TV, a phrase, or a smell, they came with nightmares and flashbacks, and no amount of running or exhausting himself made things better.

That’s when the idea of leaving had started to form.

Take a break before his PTSD took over and his brain stopped functioning. Before he screwed up at work and put his teammates in danger.

Focus on himself, do some traveling, and hopefully begin to heal.

Then Daiyu Mei reappeared into his life, threatening to destroy the family he had left.

He couldn’t risk that.

He couldn’t bear another loss.

Those thoughts, fueled by the very recent fear of what Danny had been through, set off a lightning-fast chain reaction that knocked him off his feet before he could even realize it.

Steve felt his chest tighten and the air grow tight inside the vehicle.

His breathing accelerated, his stomach plummeted and his head began to spin.

Air.

He needed air.

Cold sweat filmed his body, running down between his shoulder blades.

In the confined space, the vice around his heart seemed to tighten, squeezing his lungs and starving him of air.

The feeling grew, setting deeper and deeper.

Steve opened his mouth, trying to draw in oxygen and failing.

He was suffocating, right there on the leather seat of his bright red truck.

Shaky hands blindly reached for the door handle, fumbling with it until he managed to open the door and swung his legs outside. Dropping his head down, elbows on his thighs, he concentrated on taking long breaths in and blowing them out until he felt steady enough to function.

Fear lingered.

Danny could be in danger.

Anyone associated with him could be in danger if what she had said was true.

Steve couldn’t care less about the threats to his own life, but he could count on one hand the people he had left and it was a number he couldn’t bear to see decreased.

So what the hell was he going to do?

Leave everyone behind?

Take that time off to pretend he had gotten the message, and then come back once assured that she was still locked up where she belonged?

The drive home was a blur. He didn’t really focus again until he heard his phone beep and realized he was sitting in his own driveway. It was a text from Lou, telling him he was on his way to the hospital and asking if he needed anything. Steve breathed in relief. It was exactly what he needed. Some extra time to compose himself and the knowledge that Danny would be safe.

It took him three tries to reply, his shaky fingers repeatedly failing to press the right letters. When they finally did, a sterile ‘Home. be back soon. Thx’ was all he managed to write.

With Daiyu Mei’s words still echoing in his ears, he got out of the truck on unsteady legs and a weariness that had nothing to do with age and was about to call Eddie to get some well-deserved love when he noticed an envelope propped against his front door.

His brow furrowed.

He looked around, almost expecting to see men in black overalls brandishing assault rifles, but everything was quiet.

‘You keep doing that. Watching your back.’

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he bent down to pick it up with hands that were just as shaky. It was light like a feather, but it might as well have been brick heavy.

Steve turned it around to examine it.

No name, no return address, no distinguishing features.

He reached for the keys on autopilot, with no recollection of stepping inside the house or punching in the alarm code, all his attention on the envelope and what might be inside of it. Standing just past the threshold, the door wide open right behind him, he opened it with a dry mouth and a sense of dread in his stomach, tipping it onto his palm.

A picture slid out of it.

A man in scrubs and a surgical mask, standing by Danny’s hospital bed, holding a syringe. About to inject his sleeping friend with god-knows-what completely unnoticed.

Steve drew his head backward with a gasp and almost dropped the picture to the floor.

What little color he had left drained from his face as he stared at it, panic stiffing his body and freezing his expression into a mask of shock and terror.

There was no need for the piece of paper that was attached to it. He knew exactly who had sent it, but he still read the message printed on it, his eyes wide with fear: ‘Consider this a warning. Next time he won’t be as lucky’.

It wasn’t just empty threats. Daiyu Mei was acting on her words barely an hour after they’d met. Underestimating her would be a mistake Steve really didn’t want to make.

He had given her the cypher without even blinking when the rest of the team had cautioned him to find another way. His heart had made the decision for him, the same heart that was now beating furiously inside his chest and that would much rather suffer from solitude than from the pain of losing someone else.

‘You think you’re capable of being done?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe.’

If leaving was what was going to keep Danny alive, then there was really no other choice.

It was only after he dug his cellphone out of his pocket and called the hospital to make sure his best friend was okay that he remembered what she had said to him as he was leaving her cell:

‘I’ll come for you, McGarrett. It’s your choice whether or not your partner and your family will go down with you’.

Chapter Text

***

April 6th, 2020

 

“You okay?”

Steve stood uneasily in the doorway of Danny’s hospital room, watching his friend wince as he shifted in his bed.

The doctor had reassured him that the wound was healing nicely, and that with a few weeks of PT there was no reason to think he wouldn’t make a full recovery. Still, every time he looked at him, his mind flashed back to the moment he had found him lying in a pool of blood, scaringly still and pale as a ghost. A sight that would haunt him for the rest of his days.

“For the hundredth time, Steve, I’m fine.”

Danny, bless his soul, had waved off his fears and concerns since he’d woken up from surgery two days before. With his unique ability to read him like an open book, he had recognized Steve’s guilt and tried to lessen it as best as he could.

“You sure?”

“What’s the matter with you, huh? Did something happen? What’d she say to you?” He raised his hand, gesturing for him to come closer. “Steve?”

“Nothing, Danny,” Steve replied as he stepped into the room and came to stand by the bed, his gaze fixing on the wiring poking out the top of his partner’s hospital gown. “She’s, uh… she’s not happy behind bars and wanted me to know that.”

“I bet she isn’t. Wherever she ends up, they need to throw away the key.”

“Yeah…”

“Seriously, what’s going on with you? C’mere, sit down. You’re too tall, my neck’s starting to hurt.”

Steve slumped into the chair, looking worn and weary and absolutely exhausted. Dark shadows had taken a permanent residence under his eyes, and the stubble covering his face was starting to look more like an unkempt beard.

“You alright? And don’t say ‘it’s my fault’, ‘cause I specifically remember telling you more than once that it isn’t.”

“I’m…” He chewed at his lip, forcing the words out of his body by sheer will. “I was thinking about taking that time off. Step back from Five-0 and leave the island for a while.”

“Okay…”

The pained look that crossed his friend’s features was only partly due to his injuries. It made Steve’s heart clench painfully in his chest.

Danny grabbed the remote, pressing the button to shift the bed upright.

“You think that’s what’s best for you?”

“I hope so. I think some distance will do yo— me good.”

Steve could tell Danny hated the idea just as much as he did but knew he couldn’t stop him so he was going along with it.

“It’s gonna be alright,” Danny said, patting Steve’s arm.

No, it’s not.
None of this is alright.

Steve nodded, unable to speak.

Silence stretched for a few, unbelievably long seconds, until Danny reached out and wrapped his hand firmly around his partner's wrist, squeezing it to get his attention.

“Hey. We’re not talking years, are we? You just need a little time for yourself, right? To heal, and then you’ll come back?”

The lump in his throat threatened to cut off his air again. Steve hung his head as waves of impotence and despair rippled through him. He hated to lie, especially to him, but this time Danny’s life literally depended on it so he needed to sell this even if he didn’t believe it.

“I don’t know, Danny…”

He wanted to say that even the thought of leaving him was unbearable, that his idea of a perfect day was being on the beach with him and the kids, that in every dream and even under the influence of drugs and hallucinogens he imagined Danny always by his side.

“Trust me, I wouldn’t leave if it wasn’t necessary,” he said instead, gripping the plastic railing and trying to keep his voice from giving him completely away.

“I know,” Danny replied with an encouraging smile, placing his hand on the one Steve had wrapped around the bed rail. “I’m gonna miss you.”

“I’m gonna miss you too, buddy.”

***

Present time – Alaska

 

Steve stood in the middle of his cabin, looking as lost as the day he had gotten there.

‘What am I supposed to do now?’ he had wondered, sounding both wrecked and afraid. He hadn’t been there a day and could already feel the loneliness setting in.

One year later, that loneliness had become a part of him like a fifth limb and he’d discovered that worse than knowing what was no longer his was the knowledge of what he still had. This space, this beauty, and nobody to share it with. This time, and nobody to waste away the hours with. This love in his heart, and nowhere for it to go.

In all of his adult life, Steve had never been truly alone. Whether it was Carlsbad, Annapolis, Coronado or a war-ravaged corner of the world, there had always been people by his side. Instructors, fellow sailors, team guys. Brothers he could rely on, family he had chosen to surround himself with.

He had gone from boarding school to the Navy and then back to Hawaii, never even having a place of his own. He remembered telling Junior about it once, when the young man had started looking for apartments. A bit of desperation must’ve slipped into his words because the subject had never been brought up again and up until he’d left, Junior was still living rent-free under his roof.

It was like quarantining from the world, denying himself even the basic human interactions that made life worth living. He lived off the land, relying on the fortitude, problem-solving, and survival skills he had learned during his training.

Paxson, the nearest town, counted less than 50 people and none of them paid him any attention when he wandered in to stock on supplies. It was a wild, raw area of Alaska with rarely any cell phone service, the perfect choice if you wanted to disappear and enjoy the quiet.

Or go slightly insane.

Birds chirped happily in the trees outside, the sound carried in by the wind through the open windows. Steve envied their freedom, their ability to soar freely into the distance and go wherever they pleased.

Fear had followed him to this remote location, feeding off the memories and the paranoia of having to constantly look over his shoulders. It was the reason he had stopped returning Danny’s calls and texts.

Once a month, he’d drive the fifty miles to the lodge along the Maclaren River to use their Wi-Fi and search the internet for news from Hawaii, always careful to employ the tools from his Naval Intelligence days and the tricks he had learned from Jerry so that he wouldn’t be traced.

He had burner phones that he sometimes used to reassure Mary that he was still alive. Having witnessed firsthand how devastating a death in the family could be, he didn’t want to add to her pain and did his best to check in with her regularly, even if it was just with a text.

It was also a way to let Danny know he was alive too, because he knew Mary would pass along the information to his friend. Steve longed to hear his voice, to be reassured that he was doing what was right, but had never dared to contact him.

‘Assume I know everything’, Daiyu Mei had said to him.

Steve had never stopped believing that.

According to the data he’d been able to access, she was still locked in a supermax prison on the mainland. He had picked up some chatter about a Chinese arms dealer showing interest in her business, but so far it had not led to anything concrete.

Still, his gut was warning him that he hadn’t seen the last of her and that something was boiling just below the surface, a dark sense of foreboding that led his every action and fueled his belief that self-isolating was the key to keep everyone safe.

Going off the grid had come with psychological tolls that were leaving a permanent mark on his body and mind. In the beginning, he had indulged into activities like kayaking, hiking and bird watching, but he’d gradually lost interest over time. Nowadays, his idea of fun was a drive to the 7-mile long lake nearby to fish for trout and salmon.

Nothing gave him joy anymore. He just went through the motions, spurred on by the sense of duty that had been drilled into him by the Navy.

But memories always had a way of sneaking up on him.

Every day, something he did or saw reminded him of Danny.

And every night, as he sat on the small porch to watch the sun set, he pictured his friend’s smile, the one that lit his whole face up and made his blue eyes crinkle.

It warmed his heart, giving him the strength to hold on.

‘You know, I’ve always taken sunsets for granted. Probably ‘cause I figured I’d see a million more. But just ‘cause you see something every day doesn’t make it any less special, huh? In fact, I think those are the things that you’re gonna miss the most in the end, you know?’

Turns out, what Steve meant was that he’d miss having someone to share the view with.

***

Present time – Hawaii

 

“I’m sorry, man, I just… it’s just one of those days.”

Danny stormed out of the rendition room, Grover right behind, and started pacing back and forth. Head down, shoulders tense, he did nothing to hide the anger and the disappointment he was feeling.

“I never let… I know better than…” his hand waved around, finishing the sentence for him.

“It’s alright, man, don’t sweat it,” Lou reassured him. “Happens to the best of us.”

He walked away a few steps, shaking his head, then turned around to face his friend, eyes still wild with rage. He prided himself on being a good detective, someone who didn’t let perps get under his skin. A professional who could detach himself from his feelings when the job demanded it.

And yet this case had struck all the wrong chords, pushing him to his limits and close to crossing a line that no law enforcement officer ever should.

Ray Beckett, the guy currently locked in the rendition room, was a criminal Five-0 had crossed paths with a few years before. Danny had lost it back then too, sending him to the hospital with multiple broken bones when it had become clear Beckett had buried a little girl alive in a twisted attempt to mislead the police.

A good lawyer and a flawed justice system had only gotten him five years and, to no one’s surprise, once out of jail he had started right where he’d left off, kidnapping another young girl but this time for his own sick pleasure.

Steve had been a supporting, steady presence that day, recognizing his need for vengeance and trying to protect him from the consequences of it at the same time. Seeing Beckett again had reopened old wounds and poured salt into the one that had never closed since his best friend had left him.

If it wasn’t for Grover’s timely intervention, Danny was sure he would’ve killed the guy.

“That shouldn’t have happened, man, I’m sorry,” he apologized, smoothing his hair back into place. “I just lost it in there, and I shouldn’t have.”

Body quivering with tension, he started moving again in an effort to relieve at least part of the pent-up pressure inside of him.

“No one’s blaming you, man,” Lou reassured him. “I was seconds away from hitting the son of a bitch myself.” He knew the outburst was a sign of the deep malaise that had been ailing his friend for months, and wished he could do something to help. “We all miss him, Danny,” he added. Even if their relationship wasn’t as profound, he cared a great deal about Steve too.

Danny’s shoulders slumped in defeat.

“I don’t get it, Lou. Why isn’t he calling or letting us know he’s okay?”

They had tried to track his cellphone for months with no luck. The device had been turned off shortly after Steve had reached the mainland, back at the beginning of his journey, and had stayed off ever since. The numbers Mary had gotten her texts from were traced back to burner phones that had been disposed of and there was no activity in his credit card statements, so there was no way to ping his location.

For reasons none of them could understand, their leader and friend didn’t want to be found, and his background and specific skill sets were making sure of that.

The two men shared a sad, knowing look before Danny’s phone started to ring, distracting them from their thoughts.

It was a number he didn’t recognize, one that his phone identified as being from Denver, Colorado.

Danny didn’t know anyone there, and tried not to get his hopes up that it could be the very person they’d been talking about.

“Hello?”

“Detective Williams? This is SAC Wilson with the FBI calling from the Colorado field office.”

A sense of unease settled into his stomach, clenching it with painful cramps. He searched Grover’s gaze, but the older man was as lost as he was.

“Agent Wilson. What can I do for you?”

“I’m afraid I have bad news.”

Danny stiffened as if struck.

Fear prickled up his spine, quickly turning into a cold chill running up and down his back. The worst-case-scenario list he had carefully buried into the deepest corner of his mind resurfaced with a vengeance, and the heart rate that had just settled down began to speed up again.

“Is, uh… is this about Steve? My partner?”

His fingers clutched the phone in a white-knuckled grip as he waited for an answer that could potentially change his life forever.

Lou moved closer, trying to listen in on the conversation.

“No. I actually tried to call Commander McGarrett, but couldn’t get a hold of him.”

It took a moment for Danny to process the other man’s words, and several more to will his stubborn heart to believe it. Body swaying slightly with relief, he rested his free hand on his thigh and bent forward to exhale the breath he had been holding.

“Yeah, he’s… he’s taken a leave.”

“I see.”

“Why? What happened?”

“It’s about an arms dealer you guys apprehended last year. Daiyu Mei.”

Danny felt his knees go weak and leaned against the wall as if he could no longer stand without support.

“What about her?”

“She escaped our custody.”

Chapter Text

***

April 9th, 2020

 

“There he is! What, you got lost or something? I was about to call Junior to give me a ride home.”

Danny was sitting on the bed, facing the door and looking all but impatient when Steve showed up at the hospital to take him home. A cane was propped beside him, no doubt courtesy of the hospital staff that had always gone out of their way to help them.

His shirt was buttoned halfway up, revealing the bandage covering the left side of his chest. Steve tried not to look at it, schooling his features instead so that the mask of calmness he didn’t feel would be firmly in place.

“I went to see the Governor,” he replied, dreading the discussion that he knew would follow.

“Why? Something happened?”

There it was.

Steve would’ve rather faced a firing squad than his best friend as he answered him.

“I’m leaving, Danny.”

“Yeah, you said that, but—”

“Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Danny repeated in disbelief, bracing both hands on the mattress. “Why? I mean, I can see you’re all kinds of traumatized but what’s the rush?”

Steve thought he saw him sway a little, but maybe it was him doing it as he reeled from the reality of their situation. “It’s the right time.” He had talked to the doctors extensively, questioning their decision to discharge him, listening to their recommendations and reassuring them that someone would be with him at all times. “And besides, you’re not gonna be alone. Junior’s gonna be at the house, and the rest of the team will take turns making sure you’re alright.”

There was no mistaking the look of disappointment crossing Danny’s face, and it killed Steve that he was the one causing him more pain, even if it was all for the greater good.

“I’m gonna ask Cole to join the team,” he continued before Danny could say more. “He’s smart and capable and he’s proved to be an asset for Five-0. Lou’s gonna be in charge until you get better, and then you’ll be in command.”

Danny stood up, surprising them both. Grabbing the cane with the sheer determination of someone who wanted to get their point across, he got to his feet and held up one hand to stop him. Later, he would regret the movement as it pulled at his healing incision but in the heat of the moment he barely paid it any attention. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on. Hold. On. I’m hearing all about this nice plan that you’ve got figured out, but not a single word about you coming back. What’s the deal, Steve? It feels like you’re leaving us for good.”

Steve was beside him in an instant. “Danny what the hell, man, sit down!” He wrapped his hand around his partner’s bicep, feeling the warm, solid muscle quiver under his touch as he helped him back down on the bed. Eyes studying him with concern, he waited until Danny was no longer breathing heavily for the effort to try and explain what was impossible to make sense of.

“It’s not— I don’t... I need time to think about this, alright? I need to clear my head and... and deal with some stuff, and then we’ll see.”

This time, Danny barely reacted to his words.

He was cranky and in pain and not taking the news well, and Steve wanted nothing more than to be able to reassure him but couldn’t. Daiyu Mei had threatened his life and proved that she could get to him whenever she pleased. There was simply no other way.

Sitting on the bed beside him he patted Danny’s thigh, splaying his fingers and resting them there hoping that the touch would both comfort and convey what was burdening his heart.

The hospital buzzed with activity around them. Doctors and nurses passed by the room as they sat, barely sparing them a glance. The elevators dinged, the PA system broadcast announcements nonstop, and voices overlapped in a cacophony of sounds that neither of them heard.

“Rachel’s going to bring Charlie over tonight,” Danny said after what could’ve been minutes or hours later. “Poor kid’s been desperate to see me. You better say goodbye to him, I don’t want to have to explain why his Uncle Steve left without a word. It’s bad enough Grace won’t get so lucky…”

Steve swallowed hard.

Grace.
Charlie.

The kids he loved as if they were his own. How was he supposed to explain evil, heartbreak and revenge to them?

He nodded, reminding himself that he was leaving for the boy too, to give him the chance to grow up with the best father he’d ever known. Uncles came and went but having a good parent, a good father figure, was like winning the lottery. He hoped Danny’s kids knew how lucky they were.

Forcing his face into another cheerful look he knew his friend wouldn’t buy, he stood up and waved down one of the nurses at the desk.

“What do you say, buddy, you ready to go home?”

“Yeah,” Danny replied with no enthusiasm whatsoever. “Sure.”

***

Present time – Hawaii

 

The phone felt twice as heavy and burning a hole in his pocket as Danny left the office in a rush after Agent Wilson’s call. The day was already a spectacular mess without the news that Daiyu Mei had managed to break out from jail — the same jail her husband had literally blown his way out of years before — and was now free to kill and kidnap as she pleased.

They should have expected it, right? An international criminal who had already escaped a Chinese prison and had unlimited money and resources on hand? It went without saying that she would at least try.

And yet somehow she had caught them by surprise.

Danny didn’t have the details. Lou had taken on the task himself, immediately alerting the rest of the team and undoubtedly already hard at work examining surveillance videos and prison logs to try and locate her.

Honestly, he didn’t even need them.

The how didn’t matter, and the why was clear enough to everyone.

What they could do to stop her was the question they needed to ask and if Danny had a say in it, he’d recommend a bullet to her brain to save the taxpayers decades of money for food and dental care.

He stopped walking, realizing that his legs had led him to his car.

Bracing his hands on the hood, he hung his head between his shoulders.

Just the mention of her name had brought back memories he’d tried his damnedest to forget.

The hood over his head as they grabbed him and forced him into one of their SUVs.
The shackles digging into his wrists.
The threats to his kids, which had riled him up the most.
The bullet tearing through his flesh and making it hard, so hard to breathe…

He needed to tell Steve.

As much as he wanted to respect his need for privacy and his quest for peace, his partner needed to know about this. And if the news was finally going to bring him home, Danny wasn’t going to complain.

He fished the phone out of his pocket and dialed Steve’s number, absently rubbing the scar on his chest as he waited.

Unsurprisingly, it went straight to voicemail.

Danny closed his eyes, exhaling loudly for a few moments.

He was angry and not ashamed to admit it.

Whatever the hell Steve was doing isolating himself from everyone, it needed to end. It wasn’t doing anyone any good, only driving an unnecessary wedge between them.

Danny had swallowed the feeling for too long. It was time to do something about it.

Turning around he leaned against the car, folding his arms across his chest.

Anger had saved his life more than once, not last the very day he’d been kidnapped. Beaten and chained to the ceiling, he had gotten mad enough to save himself, or at least free himself and try to escape.

This called for extreme circumstances, and Danny was willing to involve the team if he needed to. They had found Steve in Mexico when they had absolutely nothing to go with, they could certainly do it again. He’d start with calling Mary to see if he had recently contacted her so they could try and trace the number he was using.

It was purely selfish, but his gut and ten years of experience in all things McGarrett were telling him that it was the right thing to do.

Reinvigorated by his decision and the hope it went along with, he got into his car and pulled out his phone again. Better strike while the iron was still hot.

Leaning back against the seat, he couldn’t help remembering all the times they’d spent in there together over the years. The Camaro had seen it all, from the happiness of family times when his children’s laughter had filled the space to the arguments they’d gotten into just to rile each other up to the rage that had burst out of him during the darkest days.

It felt appropriate that it would witness this too.

***

Present time – Alaska

 

There was fear, and then there was full-blown panic.

The gut-clenching feeling Steve had woken up with was more akin to the second.

He had slept fitfully all night, turning from one side to the other, unable to shut out the disturbing images and the dark dreams that had rolled through his mind like thunderstorms.

Dreams of being chased, of being caught, of watching Danny die.

Familiar, because he’d had them before, but laced with a sense of urgency and fright that could only be foreshadowing of more pain.

Something was wrong.

Steve was positive of it.

Over the years, he had learned to trust his instincts and rely on them so an hour later he was standing by the front door of the cabin, ready to drive south with his laptop to check his email and search for updates.

The floorboards creaked softly under his feet as he stepped outside in the chilly morning, moving rapidly towards his truck, the black coffee he had downed in a rush already burning through his stomach.

Thankful for the nonexistent traffic, he hit Denali Highway and drove the 50+ miles to the lodge in record time.

What he found once he sat down and started searching only validated his fears.

An email from Catherine with three exclamation points in the ‘subject’ field.

It was sent to a protected account he only used in case of emergencies or whenever he didn’t want to be traced. He had set a similar one for her too when she was in Afghanistan so they could communicate, and they’d been using it occasionally ever since.

Catherine had surprised him on the flight out of Hawaii, and he had learned that she’d been instrumental in decoding Doris’ cipher, which in turn had led them to Daiyu Mei’s location. Steve had debated whether or not to tell her about the threats the whole flight, eventually deciding to keep her in the dark about the real reason he was leaving. Nonetheless, he had asked her to keep an eye out and alert him of anything that might happen during his ‘sabbatical’ so if she was contacting him it meant there was probably bad news.

He didn’t know how bad until he opened the email and learned with wide, bewildered eyes about his nemesis’ escape.

Panicked thoughts started racing through his brain as he read Catherine’s words over and over and then did more searching of his own to get confirmation about it. It took him two hours, several cups of coffee and a breakfast plate he didn’t even touch to read all he could find about Mrs. Fat’s daring escape, the people they suspected had facilitated it, and how the Bureau had put together all of its resources to find her. Unsuccessfully, so far.

When he finished he switched off the laptop, leaned forward on the table and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.

‘This is just a temporary setback. As soon as I get out of here I’ll go back to my business and that includes you, McGarrett. Your days are numbered. And whoever’s in my path, I’ll kill just as well.’

The words she had said that day came back to haunt him.

She had made good on them, which made Steve wonder if she’d planned it all along.

Did she already know she was going to escape when he had visited her in Halawa?

Was he just a pawn in her sick game?

He felt an overwhelming urge to call Danny, to warn him about the danger, but that would be exactly what she expected, right?

‘I have eyes and ears everywhere. One wrong move, one slip, and I’ll deliver one of their heads to your doorstep. You know I mean it.’

He couldn’t risk it.

Even with all the precautions he had taken, the idea that his best friend could get hurt again as a result of his actions was enough to will the thought out of his mind.

This was his worst nightmare come true, and Steve was one more blow away from breaking.

With a heavy heart and an even wearier spirit, he left the lodge and got back into his truck, closing the door and locking it as if that alone could keep his fears and the rest of the world out.

There were phone calls he needed to make.

One was to Catherine. She had resources, could be discreet and knew him better than most. The other was to Agent Coen. The CIA had been interested in Daiyu Mei since she had escaped from Qincheng prison where she was doing time for trafficking illegal weapons. Maybe they were still keeping tracks on her. Plus, the man owed him big time for what had happened in Mexico and if he ended up getting hurt, well… Steve didn’t really care.

That left Mary. He hadn’t contacted her in months and needed to know she was okay, even if he could only do it via text.

Besides that, Steve had no clue what he could do from Alaska besides worrying and waiting for news.

Chapter Text

***

April 10th, 2020

 

“It was my father that brought me back here… and that kept me here. I mean, he’s the reason I stayed here.”

Even as the words came out of his mouth they felt foreign to Steve’s tongue, so much so that as he continued to explain he could barely make sense of them.

Yes, his father had been the reason he’d come back but there was so much more to the story, so many things he had found on the island that had convinced him to stay, so many people that had helped him become a better version of himself.

Above all of that was Danny, who had stuck around despite his life story, had given him a family and always made sure Steve knew that he was loved. Danny, who had left the comfort of his own home to move in with him after his mother’s death and urged him not to give in to Daiyu Mei’s demands even if it could potentially kill him.

Lying to him, going away, was the hardest thing Steve had ever done.

But this wasn’t about him. It was about convincing Danny that leaving was the best choice. About inflating the truth to paint a picture that would keep both alive. About believing the lie so Danny would believe it too.

“It’s gonna be okay, man. You know that, right?” he said when Danny looked away to stare numbly at the ocean, the sadness in his eyes too much to bear.

“You know, it doesn’t feel like it’s gonna be okay. It feels like… my main dude is leaving me. That’s what’s happening, you know?”

Steve’s heart shattered yet again at his best friend’s statement.

He had always thought Hawaii was it for him. That he would never leave. But a decade of tragedies and fighting crime on the island had tainted the love he had for it, so much so that — in order to heal — he realized that he needed to leave it.

No more reminders of the people and the things he had lost. Instead, a change of scenery and an opportunity to focus on himself. That had been his hope before Danny was kidnapped, before Daiyu Mei had screwed up his priorities and he’d had to put once again the safety of others before his own.

“It’s not goodbye forever,” he added, trying for levity, because even the thought of not seeing Danny again was too much to handle.

The reaction he got mirrored the same feelings. “Better not be a forever goodbye. Why would you say that?”

This time it was Steve who had to look away before he told his friend all about Daiyu Mei’s threats.

“No,” he muttered, too low for Danny to hear.

He was bad luck.

People got hurt just because they knew him and he didn’t want anyone — especially Danny, to be caught up in it any more than he already had.

“You got a phone, right?”

It was a stupid, blurted-out-in-the-spur-of-the-moment line that Steve wished he could take back the second he said it. Danny was barely out of the hospital, clearly still in pain, and the last thing he needed was a bunch of lies and bad jokes.

Slumped in the chair, a grimace of both physical and emotional pain etched on his face, he looked smaller and way more fragile than Steve had ever seen him.

The sight made something twist in his chest.

Had he been in his shoes, he’d feel abandoned too.

Steve couldn’t even promise him to stay in touch as it would put both of them at risk.

He just hoped one day Danny would understand.

Needing one last hug, one last physical contact that he could cherish and remember, he asked him to get up despite the discomfort and wrapped both arms around him, holding him tight.

The hug felt energizing, as if the love of one powered up the other.

A smile spread across his face and for a blissful moment, Steve forgot everything else. The world stopped still, his mind felt at peace and yet he was awake somehow, more alive than he had been in weeks.

This was where he belonged. Right there in Danny’s arms, in the house that over the last decade had turned into a home, on the island that had welcomed him back and given him a second chance at happiness.

Daiyu Mei was going to pay for this.

Even if it killed him.

“Hey. I love you, man,” he said with a certainty that even distance wasn’t going to decrease.

He did.

With all his heart.

As strongly and fiercely as he’d ever loved anyone else.

“Love you too.”

Danny’s voice cracked, and the smile that had curved Steve’s lips faded away. He watched him sit down in between winces of pain, unable to even look him in the eyes, and the knowledge that he was hurting him in a way he always swore he wouldn’t almost shattered his resolve. It took all of his willpower to turn around and leave, walk away from the only relationship that had ever mattered to him in hope that sometime in the future, they could see each other again.

“Don’t make me come looking for you…”

I wish you could, man, Steve thought to himself.

Danny had traveled to the most dangerous, remote corners of the earth to rescue him, and he had no doubt he’d do it again. Even through the grief of a separation, he was letting him know that he would be there for him if he needed it.

Struggling to put one foot in front of the other, Steve started to head back towards the house.

Doubt stopped him after a few steps and he looked back at Danny sitting in his chair.

Was this really the only way?

Would his friends have been able to help if he had told them?

‘No,’ the voice in his head admonished him. ‘Leaving is the only way to keep them safe.’

And with the heaviest of hearts and the most painful regrets, he did.


***

Present time – Hawaii

 

If they asked Danny how he had spent the days after learning of Daiyu Mei’s escape, he’d swear under oath that he remembered nothing but being at the office. A long, busy day that had stretched over 72 hours, marked by not enough food and too much caffeine, in which he and the team had examined every lead and considered every possible scenario under the sun.

Traffic cams, bank accounts, known associates.

The gray seat in the rendition room had been occupied nonstop, in rotation, by any Halawa prison staff that had been near her during her time there, bank employees and criminals of all levels, and every one of them had provided exactly zero information on the woman’s whereabouts.

At the end of the third day they were all hangry, frustrated and running on fumes.

Acting as team leader, Danny had ordered everyone home. While a few more hours weren’t going to make a difference for the case, they would do wonders for them. Yes, the FBI had launched its own investigation into the breakout but Danny, who had very personal reasons to wish her dead or locked up forever, wanted to do his own search and leave no stone unturned.

Steve would’ve done exactly the same.

The team had backed him up without a second thought, volunteering to pull all-nighters when they could’ve easily said no.

That was Five-0.

All for one, and one for all.

Exhausted beyond belief, Danny lay down on the couch and flung one arm over his eyes.

Ten minutes.

He only needed ten minutes or there was a serious risk he’d wrap his car around the nearest pole.

The sound of his phone ringing startled him after six.

Planning on just silencing it, he dug it out of his pocket and looked at the caller ID.

Mary.

Heart accelerating with alarm, he sat up and swiped to answer.

“Mary?”

“I got a text, Danny.”

“From Steve?”

“Yeah. You said you wanted to know if he contacted me, so… it came last night, and I probably should’ve called you sooner, but—”

“—Mary? Mary, it’s alright,” Danny interrupted her, unable to hide the impatience in his voice. Relieved at the thought that his friend wasn’t dead in some forgotten corner of the earth, he urged her to say more. “What’d he say?”

On the other end of the line, Mary sighed. “He said ‘be careful. Never let Joanie out of sight. I’m sorry, Mare. Love you.’ What the hell does that mean? What’s going on?”

Danny swallowed hard.

He knew.

Steve knew about the escape.

“Can you give me the number?”

“Danny, are we in danger? Do I need to take my daughter—”

“—Mary, please. Give me the number.” If Danny sounded desperate, he didn’t care. He reached for the notepad on his desk and tore out a sheet of paper, then grabbed a pen from the holder next to it. “I promise you guys are safe, and I’ll make sure it stays that way, alright?”

“Alright,” she finally conceded. “Here it is.”

Danny ran out of the office a moment later, holding the piece of paper with Steve’s number on it like a trophy. He locked eyes with Junior, who had just come out of Tani’s office, and nodded towards the smart table.

“We have a number for McGarrett.”

“We do?”

“Yeah. He texted Mary last night and warned her to be careful.”

Junior bit his bottom lip, nodding gravely as his fingers started flying over the virtual keyboard to set everything up for the search. “He knows about Daiyu Mei.”

“That’s my guess,” Danny replied, coming to stand beside him. “We need to contact LAPD and put a protective detail on Mary and her daughter.”

“I’m on it,” Tani chimed in before disappearing inside her office again to make the call.

Danny placed the sheet of paper on the table so he and Junior could both see it. While the kid tried to trace the number, Danny dialed it.

No luck.

“It’s a burner,” Junior informed him.

Damn you, Steve.

“I figured as much,” Danny replied, leaning forward and bracing both hands on the table. He bowed his head, taking a few deep breaths. “See if you can find out where he bought it.”

Contrary to popular beliefs, burner phones could be traced to a certain extent, especially with the resources that the team had at their disposal. Information like call logs, data usage, approximate location and text messages could all be tracked as soon as Steve powered it on again but even if he didn’t, they could link it to the store where it was purchased and the last cell tower it communicated with.

“Anchorage, Alaska,” Junior announced triumphantly a few moments later. “Ted Stevens International Airport.”

“Alaska?” Danny repeated in disbelief. He wasn’t sure what he expected, but his best friend and partner doing a rendition of ‘Into the Wild’ wasn’t at the top of his list.

“Do we know when?”

“April 17th, 2021.”

The two men exchanged a discouraged look.

So Steve had been in Alaska, but was he passing through the state or actually living in it?

“What about the last location?” Danny pressed further.

“Phone last pinged off a tower in Healy,” Junior replied, indicating an area on the interactive map he had moved from the tabletop to the large screen in front of them with a flick of his wrist.

Danny blinked in stunned silence. What he was looking at was a wild, remote area with barely any civilization in sight. Was this Steve’s idea of finding peace? Had he voluntarily chosen this place or was he forced to?

“When?”

“About three weeks ago.”

Hope started to set in that Steve could still be up there. It wasn’t much, but at least they had a lead.

“Tani, check with rental companies. See if anyone matching Steve’s description rented a vehicle around that date.”

“On it,” she nodded, all thoughts of going home forgotten.

“What do you think he’s doing up there, boss?”

Junior was, apparently, just as confused as he was.

“I don’t know, man. Doesn’t really make sense to me.”

Steve loved the outdoors, but over three months in Alaska was, in Danny’s opinion, more than any human could handle.

“Most of these roads are closed for half the year,” the young man continued, pointing to a white, zigzag line that ran through patches of green and brown. “And reception in the area is spotty at best.”

Suddenly, at least some of the radio silence started to make sense. Even if he wanted to, Steve probably had to drive miles to get a signal. It wasn’t something that could be done every day.

“Can you set up an alert or something so that we get notified if he turns the phone on again?”

“Already doing that,” Junior said back, eyes glued to the screen as he resumed typing.

The same voice that had nagged Danny for weeks was now telling him that there was more to it that they weren’t seeing, and that if this was just a regular vacation there was no reason why his friend wouldn’t keep in touch with him.

Especially in light of the recent developments.

Steve was aware of the danger and had contacted his sister to warn her.

Danny could only think of one other person his partner trusted enough to ask for this kind of information.

“Be right back,” he said, making a beeline for his office to make a phone call that would hopefully prove him right.


***

“Danny?”

“Yeah, uh… hi, Catherine.”

“Hi. I have to say I’m surprised to hear from you.”

“I know, and… I’m sorry to bother you, but… I need to know if you’ve heard from Steve.”

“Why? Is everything alright?”

“No, not really. Look, I’m sure you’ve heard Daiyu Mei escaped from prison, and I know Steve knows this so I’m thinking maybe you told him…”

“Why don’t you ask him directly?”

“Because… he hasn’t been exactly friendly lately. He stopped calling and replying to my texts and I haven’t talked to him in months. I don’t even know if he’s alive and… listen, Catherine, you know I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important. Have you been in contact with him?”

“I have. And he’s fine.”

“Good. That’s good. Can you help me get in touch with him?”

“I don’t know, Danny. I mean, if he’s not contacting you he might have his reasons…”

“Then tell him I need to talk to him, alright? Please. That woman messed with both of us and now she’s free and… I need to know that he’s safe.”

“Okay. I’ll let him know.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that, Catherine.”

“Goodbye, Danny.”

“Goodbye.”

***

When his phone rang an hour later and the number displayed on the screen came up as ‘unknown’, Danny’s heart leapt with anticipation at the thought that it could be Steve.

He turned off the stove that he was using to make himself dinner, wiped his hands on the dish rag he’d perched on his shoulder and took a steadying breath before answering.

“Hello.”

“Detective Williams. Long time, no see.”

A cold shiver ran down Danny’s spine. The next moment, it became a cold sensation all over his body as if someone had dumped an ice bucket on him.

“You...”

“Hope I’m not catching you at a bad time. I know you and your team have been working overtime lately…”

“What the hell do you want?”

“I see you haven’t lost your sass.”

“Listen to me, you bitch. You can’t hide forever. We got you once, we’re gonna get you again and this time, we’re gonna lock you up for good.”

Or kill you.

Danny was okay with that too.

“You don’t want to do that.”

“I don’t? Why the hell not?”

“My, my, so much anger… How are your children, Detective? Growing up too fast?”

His free hand raised of his own accord, curling into an angry fist.

“I’ve told you before, and I am telling you again,” he hissed. “Do not threaten my children. Ever, or I’m gonna kill you, you understand? And even your mother won’t be able to recognize you after I’m done with you.” She had crossed a line, and Danny wouldn’t rest until she was defeated. “The FBI can’t find you but I will. It’s just a matter of time.”

“If you hold your life dear — your family’s life dear, you’ll cease this line of thinking right away.”

“I’m not afraid of you.”

“That’s funny. Your partner said the exact same thing to me and look where it got him.”

Danny felt his self-control slip further and further away. “What the hell does that mean? What do you know about Steve?”

“I know he chose to leave to keep you and your loved ones safe. Don’t waste his noble sacrifice for nothing....”

Reaching blindly to his side, he found the kitchen sink and leaned against it as a cold vice settled around his heart.

“It was you?”

“Let’s say he agreed it was the best course of action to keep everybody alive.”

When Danny was angry — really, really angry — he never raised his voice. There was none of the shouting or yelling that people usually associated with him. It just deepened to a threatening low, the same low that he’d used on Rick Petersen and the CIA agents when two of the most important people in his life were in danger.

The tone that made it clear they wouldn’t get another chance to mess with him.

“You’re dead, you hear me? You’re dead.”

“I doubt you’ll hear from him it if you do, tell him I’m coming for him. Oh, and by the way: don’t bother tracing this call. You’re not going to find me. Have a good night, Detective.”

Danny stood by the sink, dumbfounded, long after the phone call ended.

Then he slowly lowered his body to the floor, put his head between his hands and allowed 498 days of grief to finally overcome him.

Chapter Text

***

Present time – Hawaii

 

The first thing he felt was pain. A deep ache seizing his lungs and heart.

Had Steve really left because of her?

Was he self-isolating to keep his family alive?

It made sense. Completely. Steve was fiercely protective of the people he cared about, and often shouldered their burdens in their place.

Then came the anger.

At Daiyu Mei, for messing with their lives.

At his self-sacrificing partner, for going behind his back and making such a big decision on his own.

At himself, for failing to see what was right in front of him.

He had noticed the change. Even from his hospital bed, he’d seen the fear in Steve’s eyes and heard the shakiness in his voice, both of which he had wrongly attributed to an ordinary post-injury concern.

It was indeed concern that had spurred Steve to leave but taken to an impossibly high level, and Danny was having a hard time wrapping his mind around the enormity of his best friend’s sacrifice. Giving up his life, his family, living in fear every single day was something he didn’t think he could ever do.

Sitting on the tiled floor of a kitchen that was now bathed in darkness, he tried the burner phone over and over with no luck.

After the last attempt, heartbroken, he let out an anguished breath and dropped his chin to his chest.

Outside, everything was silent. No traffic, no voices, no birds. The lack of sounds unsettled him, as if he had no business living a good life and enjoying a quiet night when someone he loved was out there, alone and struggling to go by.

His finger ran absently over the phone screen, causing it to lit up and display a picture of Grace and Charlie he had taken back when his life was easier and his only complaints were about pineapples and Steve's insane driving abilities.

He’d give anything to go back to those days.

‘I kind of feel like I've been protecting everybody except for myself...’

Son of a bitch…

Steve had ended up doing once again the very thing that had caused him pain.

Why didn’t that stubborn, stupid, big-hearted animal say something about the threats he’d received?

Why did he always feel like he had to take care of everything by himself?

They could’ve found a way to keep him on the island…

Drawing his knees up, Danny rested his forearms on them and tapped the screen again. Driven by nostalgia mixed with a longing for what was no longer there, he found the gallery and started flicking through the photographs of Steve he had taken over the years. Solo pictures, candid shots of him and the kids, random moments of happiness between friends that had no clue as to what was about to come.

Overwhelmed by the memories, he suddenly felt the need to be close to him, to be surrounded by Steve’s things in the one place where time seemed to have stopped and everything still smelled of him. He hadn’t been inside the McGarrett house in over a year, thinking his best friend had left him behind when it was just the opposite. Steve had put him front and center, choosing him over his own self.

Shaking his head, Danny pushed himself off the floor.

He knew he shouldn’t have doubted their friendship. It was too strong and too deep.

Despite the push and pull, the give and take, it had withstood a decade of challenges and hurdles, coming out stronger than ever. The latest events were just one more example of how much each of them had done and would do for the other.

Walking out of the kitchen and through the living room without even bothering to turn on the light, Danny grabbed his keys and headed out the door.

Only halfway through the drive he realized that Junior might be home and he’d have to explain his presence there.

The thought didn’t stop him. The kid missed Steve just as much and was too polite to even ask questions. Still, he breathed in relief when he pulled into the driveway and saw that his car wasn’t there and all the lights were out.

With wary, careful steps, Danny let himself inside and turned on the lamp by the door. His eyes roamed around the living room, noticing a few additions to the furniture and a new bed for Eddie under the staircase, and then stopped on the TV in the corner.

He moved closer, as if drawn to it.

Knocked over during his fight with one of Daiyu Mei’s goons, it still sported a dent in the frame and a small crack on the screen.

That fight had been the beginning of the end.

He’d been kidnapped the day after, hospitalized for the following week and left alone shortly thereafter as a result of that bitch’s quest for revenge.

Danny swore he’d put her in the ground, even if it killed him.

Tearing himself away from the visual reminder of one of the worst periods of his life, he turned around and headed upstairs.

Steve’s bedroom looked just like he’d left it a year and a half before. Like he would be coming home soon and finish the novel that was still sitting on his nightstand. There were supplements on the dresser, a t-shirt hanging on the back of his bathroom door and a half-squeezed tube of toothpaste that no one would ever use again.

His neat freak of a partner had apparently missed a few details in his haste to leave.

Danny grabbed the t-shirt, one of the many blue ones Steve wore under his vest, and held it close to his heart. He wondered how the Alaskan climate was affecting him. The place was as different from Hawaii as it could be, it couldn’t have been easy for him getting used to it.

Swallowing against the lump that had taken permanent residence in his throat he moved over to the bed, carefully laid the shirt down and folded it. After the countless loads of laundry he’d done while he lived there, he knew where everything went and could put everyone’s clothes away in his sleep.

Maniac that he was, Steve had a separate pile for the t-shirts he used to chase suspects. They went in the second drawer next to the ‘office’ shirts, not to be confused with the ‘emergency’ t-shirts that he brought to work every Monday, which were stacked in a third pile on the right.

Details and behaviors that usually drove Danny insane but that he now wished he could witness again.

He ran his fingers over the smooth cotton fabric, picturing his friend wearing those same shirts he was touching and feeling guilty for being there living his life when Steve couldn’t.

I’m gonna bring him home, he promised silently. Whatever the cost.

As he lifted the ‘blue’ pile to put the folded t-shirt under it, he noticed what looked like a photograph at the bottom of the drawer.

He picked it up without thinking, gasping in horror when he recognized himself asleep in his hospital bed. Like a window into a time past, it took one glance to bring him back to that moment, and a second more to focus on the man in scrubs towering over him. A man that he’d never seen before.

Shaky fingers reached for the open drawer again to retrieve the piece of paper that was sitting next to it, and whatever doubt he had about the theory that Steve had left to protect them all was dispelled by the words written onto it:

‘Consider this a warning. Next time he won’t be as lucky’.

He took an involuntary step backwards, and when his legs connected with the bed he sank into it as if he’d been robbed of all strength.

His free hand gripped the neatly pressed sheets as a million thoughts and questions exploded like fireworks in his mind.

He should’ve realized something was wrong. Insisted that Steve waited.

He should have…

His memories of that week in the hospital were fuzzy, blurred by the painkillers he’d been pumped with, but thinking back to it he could pinpoint with enough precision the moment that things had shifted from normal McGarrett behavior to unusually fidgety and scared demeanor.

It was the day Steve had gone to visit Daiyu Mei in prison.

Whatever she had told him during that meeting had prompted his best friend to resign from his job and flee the island in a rush. And given the picture he was still holding in his hand, it wasn’t particularly hard to imagine what that discussion had been about.

Steve considered himself expendable, so any threat to his person would’ve fallen on deaf ears. Just like the day she’d kidnapped him, the bitch had used him and probably his family to get him to do whatever she wanted.

And Steve, trained to disregard his own needs and feelings for the greater good, had agreed without blinking.

Danny’s heart sank, waves of impotence rippling through him.

How many times had he wondered where Steve was, if he was deliberately ignoring him and whether or not he was responsible for it? And now that he almost had the full story, he found the knowledge more horrifying and devastating than the mystery itself.

Feeling like he’d been slapped across the face Danny pushed himself off the bed, tucked the picture and the note into his back pocket and left the room to head back downstairs.

There was only one thing he wanted more than finding Steve, and that was to nail the lid on Daiyu Mei’s coffin.

***

When he woke up the next morning, he felt his sore muscles cramp in protest at the awkward position he’d slept in. He blinked, trying to get the sleep out of his eyes, and glanced at his watch, seeing it was just past six in the morning.

He had no recollection of falling asleep on Steve’s couch, only the feeling of being stunned by reality and a powerful sense of guilt clouding his thoughts.

The last thing that had crossed his waking mind was that he’d travel Alaska far and wide if it meant finding where Steve was.

Groaning, he sat upright, rubbing his eyes.

He had managed a few hours of troubled sleep, filled with dreams of his best friend accusing him of not caring enough and letting him go. Those visions had rattled him, and he felt more tired and emotionally drained than he had been the night before.

As if on cue his stomach rumbled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours. He was running on fumes and he knew it. There was a long day ahead of him, and if he wanted to make progress and actually get some results, he needed to refuel his body whether he felt like it or not.

Shuffling into the kitchen, he headed directly for the coffee machine, moving on autopilot through the familiar routine that had marked his mornings during the months he’d lived there.

To anyone who didn’t know them, the McGarrett’s house looked like Steve’s and Steve’s place only, Junior’s presence always discreet and barely noticeable. Even after a year and a half of living there by himself, the kid hadn’t changed a thing besides moving a few things around here and there.

Like coffee mugs, which had been moved from the upper to the lower cupboard so that even people who didn’t have ridiculously long legs could access them.

Danny’s sleep-addled brain was grateful for that.

While the coffee brewed, he grabbed his favorite mug and set it on the counter along with the milk and a spoon to stir it. Only after the caffeine from the first cup was in his system he was usually able to start focusing on making eggs or any other kind of food that required attention.

He reached for the sugar, the last ingredient for his perfect cup of Joe, and noticed that the container was empty. Frowning, he opened the closest cupboard to look for more… and stilled when his gaze landed on a row of neatly arranged orange bottles lined on the bottom shelf.

Steve’s medications.

The sight gave him a jolt of adrenaline more powerful than any coffee cup could give him. Feeling suddenly alert, he realized that those meds could be the keys to finding him.

Steve needed those like he needed air.

He was bound to them for the rest of his life.

Wherever he was, he would need to regularly fill his prescriptions to make sure his body didn’t reject the liver. Failing to do so would result in his immune system attacking the organ and, if left untreated, to death in the span of a few weeks.

Why hadn’t he thought about it before?

Assuming Steve hadn’t employed his ninja skills to find a creative way to get those pills, they could use them to track down his location.

They had to.

Some of their leads just had to pan out.

He called Lou to tell him he’d see him at the office in 20 and to call the others, then gulped down his coffee, made himself the quickest plate of scrambled eggs he’d ever cooked and ate the bread he had toasted on his way to the Palace. His plan was to grab the change of clothes he kept in his car and take a quick shower while he waited for the others to arrive but they were all there when he got in so he quickly discarded it, hoping he’d get another chance during the day.

***

It was about three hours into it, while they were all deep in the search for their boss and their common enemy, that Junior drew everyone’s attention by announcing that the burner phone used to contact Mary had been turned on, confirming Steve was indeed in Alaska.

While the young SEAL flicked through the digital pages on the screen to ping his location the team drew a collective breath, relieved at the tiny bit of good news amidst the chaos that Wo Fat’s wife had unleashed upon them.

Danny felt their eyes on him.

Studying him, gauging his reaction, silently urging him not to waste another second and call the damn number.

He wanted to.

Badly.

But more than anything he wanted to jump on the first plane to Alaska, find him, and drag his sorry ass back home with the promise that he’d never pull another stunt like that. Hell, have the damn statement notarized if he needed to.

His gaze found Lou, who gave him a slight nod in silent support.

What if the call scares him away, he wanted to tell him. What if he thinks I ruined his life?

Those doubts only lasted a second.

Shoving the guilt and the paranoia to the back of his mind, Danny excused himself and headed to his office.

He was gonna do it.

Of course he was.

He dropped onto the couch, his back to the team and the rest of the world, and dug up his phone from his pants pocket. Fumbling with the ‘settings’, he blocked his number so it wouldn’t show up in case Steve didn’t want to talk to him.

It was a risk, but he was willing to take it.

Then he took a deep breath and pressed ‘dial’.

***

Present time – Alaska

 

Danny wanted to talk to him.

He was worried, and needed to know that he was safe.

Steve stared at Catherine’s email, mulling the words over in his head. Taken aback but not entirely surprised that his partner had resorted to calling her when he’d been unable to reach him.

His first instinct after learning of the escape had been to talk to him too.

Eager to find more news about Daiyu Mei to make sure she stayed as far away from Hawaii as possible, he had booked a room at the lodge so that he could have 24-hour access to the internet and didn’t have to drive to and from the cabin every day.

It had been a grueling two days, marked by endless hours of research and heart-clenching fear for his family’s safety. His limited resources had gotten him nowhere, and as much as he hated it he’d been forced to stop himself from digging too deep in fear that his research would set off alarm bells to the wrong people and compromise his location.

Delegating wasn’t his style but in this case, it was the only choice.

Still unaware of the true reasons behind his request, Catherine was using the Company’s resources to track down the former Mrs. Fat’s movements and had promised to call him every day through a secure line with updates.

Bouncing his leg nervously up and down, Steve glanced at his watch again.

Five minutes to their scheduled time.

Three until he could switch his disposable phone on.

He tried to distract himself by looking out the large window at the clouds rolling in over the blue sky and the cars driving through the highway. Sitting right in front of it, he could feel the cold, refreshing morning air breezing on his skin and relaxing his breath.

Under different circumstances, he would’ve appreciated the warmth and coziness of his temporary housing. Painted in earthy browns and rustic reds, the room had a decently-sized leather armchair and ottoman, sculptured wooden lamps and a nice bed with a frame made of rough-hewn wood, allowing him some of the comforts he’d been missing.

If only he could stop comparing everything to Hawaii…

Shaking his head as if he could get rid of the bad thoughts too, Steve turned the cellphone on and stared at it, willing it to ring. Waiting passively for the events to unfold had never been his strong suit and the frustration building inside of him was dangerously close to the tipping point.

He needed to know that his friends were safe, that his sacrifice wasn’t for nothing.

When the device finally came to life, he noticed that the call was coming from a blocked number but didn’t spare the fact a second thought, immediately pressing the ‘answer’ button and bringing the phone up to his ear.

“Catherine?”

For a few moments, there was nothing but silence.

His overactive brain was about to flood him with warning signals when he heard a sharp intake of breath and then, finally, a voice.

“Steve?”

Steve’s face blanched with confusion.

Every muscle of his body just froze, like his brain cogs couldn’t turn fast enough to take in what he was hearing.

It wasn’t…

The voice at the other end of the line wasn’t the one he was expecting, but one he had convinced himself belonged now only in his dreams.

It couldn’t be…

The life he had been living for the last year and a half, the slow-time bubble where colors were muted, sounds were muffled and emotions were dangerous enough to be feared, had pressured him into foregoing hope.

Expect nothing, and you won’t get disappointed.

Don’t get too close, and people won’t be able to hurt you.

This? This was too wonderful, too incredible to be true.

“Danny?” he asked hesitantly, eyes still wide with an emotion he’d never taken well. Surprise.

“Yeah, babe, it’s me.”

“How…” he swallowed, trying to lubricate a throat that felt too raw to function.

Leave it to Danny Williams to locate him when nobody else could.

“Mary. She, uh… she gave me this number. I tried calling it a thousand times since... you know. I was worried about you.”

Steve sighed.

Outside his room, gray clouds were moving in the morning sky, softening the sunlight and promising rain.

“I’m fine,” he said like he always did when things weren’t even half as bad as the situation he was in.

He was doing this for Danny.

For his sister.

For the people he loved.

“You’re an idiot,” came Danny’s immediate reply.

In spite of himself, Steve’s lips curved into a smile. Even being called an idiot was something he’d missed dearly. He pictured his friend huffing in annoyance, rolling his eyes with that fond expression on his face that always betrayed his true feelings and suddenly he wanted so badly to be there, to get back what he had lost the day he’d walked away...

“What?” he said when he realized that Danny was still talking.

“It’s been a year and a half, Steve. Don’t pretend you’re out there having the time of your life.”

The words sobered him up in an instant.

“You know?”

He had always taken into account the fact that Danny would eventually find out. Still, hearing it from the man’s own lips felt like a knife to the gut.

“Yeah. I know. I got a call the other day, advising me to ‘cease and desist’ all attempts to find her.”

“She called you?” Fear crept in Steve’s voice as he stood up abruptly and ran his free hand through his hair.

Danny, on the other hand, didn’t seem fazed by it.

“She did. I guess the bitch wanted to make sure I knew about it.”

Eyes downcast to the floor, Steve shook his head even if his partner couldn’t see him. Daiyu Mei liked to play games, taunt people with her power. Made sense that she’d get off on the knowledge that she had ruined lives.

“Hey...” Danny nudged him in a soft tone when he lost himself inside his head again.

“Hey,” Steve repeated. As much as the phone call felt like a balm to his aching heart, he couldn’t help worrying about the consequences of it. “Danny, you shouldn’t have called. This is an unsecured line. She can use it to—”

“I don’t care, alright? She wants to come after me, she can be my guest!”

“This is not the way!”

Didn’t he get it? That was exactly what Steve had been trying to prevent.

On the other end of the line Danny’s breathing was unsteady, and when he took a moment to gather his thoughts, Steve knew he was about to hear just how much his leaving had hurt him. “I had to find out from her, of all people. How do you think it made me feel, Steve? Huh? My best friend leaves claiming to look for peace, goes on radio silence for over a year, and then I find out it was all a ruse to protect us…”

The anger stirring beneath the surface tore at Steve’s heart. The last thing he wanted was to cause him pain.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly.

“You should’ve told me, man.”

“I couldn’t. Not after she—”

“I know. I found it.”

“You found what?”

“The picture.”

The details of that photograph were still seared in Steve’s mind, even if he hadn’t seen it in a while. Danny, vulnerable in his hospital bed. A syringe full of liquid that could’ve easily ended his life.

“You weren’t supposed to see it,” he whispered. Then, after a moment, “I couldn’t risk you getting hurt again because of me.” It was important that Danny understood that. Steve had based his whole existence on it.

“I should’ve made that decision for myself.”

There wasn’t accusation in Danny’s voice, just sadness.

“Come home. We’ll figure this out together.”

“I can’t. It’s not safe.”

“Steve…”

The struggle between his wants and needs and the path his kuleana had set for him to follow was the toughest battle he had ever fought. During the 499 days they’d been apart, Steve had accepted his duties and the sacrifices that came with them. Now, that very resilience was threatening to collapse under the weight of all the emotions that hearing his friend’s voice had unleashed.

Please, Danny...”

“Then I’m coming to you.”

“No!” he flinched in alarm, because that would mean certain death for the both of them.

“Listen to me, I will not let that bitch ruin my life. Our lives. I am a grown man and I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself and my family.”

“No one says you aren’t, but that didn’t stop her from hurting you…” He bit his bottom lip, closing his eyes against the onslaught of memories. Those moments were still as upsetting as if he was just reliving them. “You almost died, Danny, and I just— I can’t let this happen again.”

Danny cleared his throat. “Look, I am grateful, beyond words, for what you’ve done to protect us but you don’t need to do that anymore, alright? We can find another way.” His voice was raw, almost trembling, so when he took a moment to compose himself, it gave both the opportunity to do so. “Also, if I decide to, you know, take a vacation and freeze my ass off in Alaska with my so-called best friend she doesn’t really need to know, does she?”

“The weather’s actually not that bad here...”

“Not that bad, he says... Do you know what I hate more than the beach and the desert? The jungle.”

“There’s no jungle in Alaska, Danny. Look, this location is compromised anyway, I can’t stay here anymore.”

“24 hours, alright? Give me one day, and then we’ll figure things out.”

Steve stood silent.

Shoulders tense, back to the window, he tried to ignore the old fears running through his head to carefully consider his options. How had he become so different from the man he used to be? When had he stopped thinking clearly, using logic instead of his battered heart?

Wanting something so much and feeling it beyond reach was agony. A whole different world of pain that was worse than any torture he had endured.

“Steve?” Danny urged him when he didn’t get a reply. “Promise me you’re not gonna ditch this phone the second this call ends and disappear again.”

The sheer love coming out of his best friend’s voice was all it took for Steve to give in.

“I promise,” he conceded.

He heard Danny sigh in relief, and despite the insanity of what he’d just agreed to he found himself already smiling in anticipation of the next phone call.

“I miss you, buddy.”

“I miss you too.”

“Same time tomorrow, alright?”

“I’ll be there.”

Chapter Text

***

January 24th, 2021 — Nine months since the events of the finale

 

Steve stood by the bathroom sink, examining a day’s worth of damage in the small, cracked mirror above it.

A lone bulb hung from the ceiling, swaying slightly in the wind filtering in through the wooden cracks. If he rose to his full height he’d hit it, so he had learned to shift and bend his body to fit into the tiny space.

Bracing his hands against the porcelain edges, he did his best to ignore the haggard-looking man staring back at him as he considered how luck he had been not to have broken any bones. The nearest hospital was an hour and a half away and although he had steered Humvees through the Afghan desert in much worse conditions, he was glad to have dodged the drive and the kind of attention he would’ve drawn.

Bruises, swollen and red, were marking his legs and torso. They stung to the touch and throbbed dully. Scrapes, hot and itchy, spread in angry red lines across his face and arms, in dire need of cleaning and disinfecting.

On top of that, the headache that had flared as a result of the day’s events was thrumming in his skull, occasionally making him wince.

He met his eyes in the mirror, noticing the tightly furrowed brows and recognizing the haunted look that had become a permanent feature of his face, and quickly looked away, focusing instead on the meticulous and mind-numbing task of taking care of his wounds.

That morning, he had gone out for an impromptu hike.

The sun was out, the temperature was pleasant, and after three days of being locked in the cabin due to the incessant rain he felt like a caged animal in need of release. A boost of serotonin through physical exercise would get him out of his funk and lift, albeit momentarily, the heavy cloak of sadness off his shoulders.

That was how he stayed alive when depression hit and all he could see was darkness around the lights instead of the other way around.

Find a reason to get up.
Rinse, repeat.

Footfalls in sync with his heartbeat, he had hiked the path leading through the wild doing his best to lose himself in the majestic scenery. Step after step, the tension had slowly started to ease off, and the only sounds around him became the rhythm of his breath and the crunching of his boots against the rocky terrain.

Until he had lost his balance on a slippery rock while ascending a trail and fell off a ravine, ending up wedged between two rocks with a few bumps from the fall, scrapes and cuts from debris, and shaking hands from the unexpected, unpleasant experience.

It had taken him an hour to climb back to ground level, and the rest of the afternoon to limp back to the cabin. When he finally got there, cursing the shortness of the Alaskan winter days, it was almost completely dark.

Fueled by the pain his mood had plummeted, steering his thoughts towards something he’d never considered: what if he died without Danny ever knowing the truth? His little mishap had made him realize that even with Daiyu Mei not posing a threat he could get hit by a car, drown, get attacked by an animal and then what? No one would ever learn about his sacrifice and the real reason he had left.

Steve wasn’t looking for praises or a pat on the back, but after everything they’d been through he could never do that to Danny, leave him in the dark thinking he didn’t care. If he was never going back home and never seeing his family again, he owed his partner that much.

After patching himself up as best as he could and allowing himself some much-needed rest, he ate his dinner straight out of the can and sat down with a notepad he had found in one of the kitchen drawers, planning to write his best friend a letter to explain his reasons and ask for forgiveness.

He could leave it with Doris’ lawyer. The man lived on the other side of the world and was discreet enough not to draw any attention, or put it in a safe deposit box with instructions to be delivered to Danny in the event of his unforeseen demise.

The cabin was dark, the shapes of the furniture barely discernible in the yellow glow coming from the fireplace. Steve took a candle from the mantelpiece and lit it, placing it on the small table next to the pad.

It was all his tired eyes and splitting headache could take.

The flame flickered as he wrote, pushed by the breeze from the open window.

‘Danny,

I know I promised I’d never leave you another note but this is important so bear with me, okay?
If you’re reading this it means I am no longer around, and I didn’t want to leave things strained between us.

There’s something I need to tell you, something that might upset you but that I hope you’ll understand.’

***

Present time – Hawaii

 

24 hours. 1440 minutes. 86400 seconds.

It was all Danny had to come up with a plan or some kind of solution that would ensure both of their safety and Steve’s return home.

Reassured that his friend was unharmed and relatively okay, he walked out of his office to three pairs of inquiring eyes.

All it took them was one look to realize that the phone call had gone better than expected. Their boss, who had basically just gone through the motions for the past year, could now barely contain his relief. Tani smiled, Lou nodded in contentment and Junior tried — and failed — to hide his own happiness by rushing to the tech table and making himself available for anything they might need.

They asked questions that Danny answered as best he could, listened as he briefed them and assigned them tasks, and then got down to business, determined to make each and every one of those seconds count.

There was only one goal to focus on.

Bring their fearless leader home.

***

Present time – Alaska

 

When Steve woke up the next morning, he did it gradually to the sound of robins singing outside. The birds were Alaska’s most common species and their sounds could be heard throughout the entire day, sometimes even at night in places like the lodge where there were streetlights nearby. Over time, he had become accustomed to the way their song changed with the seasons, from a string of powerful and clear whistles in the spring to a more subdued tone in the fall.

His eyelids flickered open to the unlit room and he stared up at the ceiling for a confused second before reaching for the switch on the wooden lamp beside the bed.

It was 7:35 am, the latest he had woken up since his self-imposed exile.

For the first time there was no buzzing in his brain, no panic-induced thoughts or racing heartbeat. He had slept without interruptions or dreams, giving his body and mind a much-needed chance to recover, and felt ready to face the day.

As he sat up and scrubbed a hand over his face, he thought about the phone conversation with Danny the day before. It had lit a light in his heart, a spark of hope that had been missing for so long it was as foreign as it was welcome. Even if there was no guarantee that today would be better there was an eagerness, an anticipation of good things to come that Steve wanted to embrace with everything he had.

Dragging himself to his feet, he padded out to the window and opened it.

The air smelled like rain but the sky had cleared, revealing patches of soft blue between the clouds. He closed his eyes and breathed it in, feeling his lungs expand and his chest rise to images of waves gently rising over golden sands and soothing ocean sounds.

Being homesick was something he had never gotten over.

Before his father’s death, when he was still a soldier, settling in Hawaii had only been a passing thought. A decade on the island had changed that, turning it into the only place he knew he’d ever call home. A place of community and comfort, where he could see himself growing old surrounded by family and friends.

All the things he loved belonged there, far out of reach, and talking to Danny had only exacerbated the nostalgic feeling that, like a silent grief, had set deep roots inside his heart.

He hadn’t moved on, and didn’t think he ever would.

People, on the other hand, did, and one of his deepest fears was that upon his return — if he was ever coming back — he’d find that everyone he cared about had settled to a life without him. The inevitability of the old ‘out of sight, out of mind’ adage.

Letting out a deep sigh, Steve moved away from the window. He pulled a clean shirt and underwear out of his backpack and carried them to the bathroom along with the shaving kit he had gotten from the front desk the night before.

It felt like a good day to shave.

He had just gotten dressed, ready to get breakfast, when he realized that in his spur-of-the-moment decision to stay at the lodge he hadn’t considered his meds, forgetting to pack them.

Shit.

Despite Danny’s complaints that he didn’t value his life, he had dutifully followed the post-transplant regimen and all of his doctor’s orders. Not a day had passed that he hadn’t taken his meds, even during the worst times when even getting them without leaving a trail had seemed impossible, so the idea of skipping a day was immediately discarded.

The cabin wasn’t that far.

He could drive there and be back in time for Danny’s call.

Nodding to himself, he grabbed his keys and jacket, paid the girl at the front desk enough for the rest of the week and got into his truck. With the nonexistent traffic, even driving under the speed limits — something he had learned to do to avoid accidents and attention — would get him back in a few hours.

He passed only two cars during the drive. A battered station wagon that had clearly seen better days, and a dark gray Chevy Suburban with a rental sticker barcode on the driver’s side.

In retrospect, the tinted windows on the SUV should’ve raised some alarms but Steve was so focused on his mission he barely paid the detail any attention.

When he arrived, the cabin and surrounding woods were as quiet as ever, and yet the sense of being watched itched across the back of his neck as soon as he got out of his truck, making him nervous. He did a quick recon of the area, found out nothing had been disturbed and got inside, heading straight for the kitchen counter and swallowing his meds.

The sound of a gun being cocked changed the rest of his plans.

***

Present time – Hawaii

 

“What’s wrong?”

This time, Danny had made the call from the smart table, right in the middle of the office. Eager to talk to Steve and confident that he would like the information they’d dug out, he had dialed the number as soon as the clock on his cellphone had switched to their scheduled time.

The rest of the team was busy verifying their leads, both at HQ and out in the field, so it was Lou Grover that had glanced at his friend from his desk and noticed the pursed lips and the way he seemed to be holding his breath as the seconds ticked by. When Danny’s free hand curled into a fist and almost hit the glass surface, the older man knew it was time to get up and find out what was causing his distress.

“Steve. I can’t get in touch with him.”

Lou glanced at his watch. “He’s not answering?”

“Worse,” Danny replied, a concerned frown on his face. Steve was always on time, his precision even annoying to anyone who didn’t share his military training. “Phone’s turned off.” His jaw clenched as he tried yet again to dial the number. “Something’s wrong, Lou. I can feel it.”

“Maybe he’s late. Lost track of time somehow…”

He could feel the fear in his chest waiting to take over. “He gave me his word. Promised me not to disappear again. Steve’s a lot of things but if he says he’s gonna do something he’s gonna do it. I’m telling you, something happened. I need to get out there.”

Grover’s eyes widened. “Out where? Alaska?”

“Yeah. I need to make sure he’s alright.”

His tense muscles were the mirror of the anxiety coursing through his veins, the clenched jaw a clear sign that he was bracing himself for something he didn’t like but was going to go through anyway.

“Danny, it’s not safe—”

“He did this for me, alright? For all of us. I can’t leave him out there knowing he might be in danger!”

“How are you gonna do that? Daiyu Mei’s probably already tracking your phone, you can’t just jump on a plane and leave!”

“I know,” he sighed.

The two men shared a knowing look, their thoughts going in the same direction. The last two times they had rescued Steve, it was the military that had backed them up. Now, with Joe White dead and McGarrett out of commission, those connections had been severed.

“But we still know someone who can help.”

And help she did.

Upon learning the details of Steve’s solo mission, Catherine arranged a safe way to get Danny out of Hawaii, complete with ID and financial support, less than two hours after his phone call. Whether it was the Navy she was relying to or the CIA, Danny didn’t care. He just packed a bag and drove where he was told to.

It took him nine hours to get to Anchorage. After that, it was adrenaline, rock music and the chilly night breeze that kept him awake as he drove the 4 ½ hours to the place where Steve was supposedly staying. Lights on full beams, he pushed the car over the dark, rain-washed highways until the first lights of dawn revealed a scenery that was intimidating as much as it was breathtaking.

No wonder his friend had chosen it to disappear.

Danny, a city boy down to his very core, wouldn’t last two days out there.

Stifling a yawn, he left the warmth of his rental car and walked to the lodge, using the short distance to stretch his cramped muscles.

The team had insisted on coming to assist in the search. Junior, more than anyone else, had demanded it in an uncharacteristic way, claiming he knew how Steve thought and how to find his way into the wild. The kid’s argument was compelling, but Danny knew that in order to pull his little stunt off he had to travel alone. Two team members leaving at the same time would draw a lot more suspicion than one detective who regularly flew to and from the mainland. If Daiyu Mei’s people were indeed surveilling him, his absence wouldn’t hopefully raise enough red flags to put them on his tail.

Even Catherine, on assignment far away from home, had told him she was available for whatever he might need.

Danny had thanked everyone and hoped things would go down smoothly. It was highly unlikely, but his therapist had been drilling into him not to dwell on the negative and this sounded like a good opportunity to practice.

He rubbed his hands together to try and warm them and entered the lodge.

It was way better than he expected, the lobby and reception area looking clean and comfortable for a place in the middle of nowhere.

It was still early in the morning so no one was around. Danny walked up to the front desk and rang the bell on the counter. A few moments later, a middle-aged man with more wrinkles on his face that he’d ever seen came out of a side door, headed towards him.

Wearing jeans and a red plaid shirt, he adjusted his baseball hat and gave him a strong handshake before introducing himself as the manager. With his weather-battered skin and equally rough hands, the man looked like someone who had lived and loved but also struggled and known pain. Nevertheless, he appeared to be gentle, wise, even kind. His inquiring eyes peered out from under the brim, studying Danny when he pulled out his cell phone and showed him a picture of Steve, asking if he’d seen him. He listened to his reasons, confirmed his suspicion that the stranger he’d seen around over the last year wasn’t there voluntarily, and decided to trust the anxious, fast-talking blond who seemed genuinely worried for his friend. After giving him the room key and the directions to find it, the manager watched him hurry down the alley and wondered in a curious, thoughtful way what was really going on.

Feeling restless and out of place, Danny wasted no time locating the room and letting himself in.

There wasn’t much, but Steve’s backpack was there along with a few toiletries and some spare t-shirts, so wherever he had gone he clearly meant to return.

That only confirmed his suspicion that something — or someone — had messed with Steve’s plans.

He looked around, searched the backpack for clues then came to stand by the window, gazing wistfully outside.

Where are you, Steve?

The man had to have a place somewhere. Knowing him, it was probably a little hut in the woods which, unfortunately for Danny, Alaska was full of.

He just had no idea where to even start looking.

And the damn burner phone was still stubbornly off.

On his way out he stopped at the front desk again, mostly out of need for a human connection than an actual necessity. The girl who now sat behind it, laughing at something on her cell, looked barely out of her teen years. She reminded him of Grace, with the long chestnut hair and the way her cheeks dimpled as she smiled.

Danny smiled too, nodded politely, and asked for a map of the area.

It resulted in a 20-minute chat about the weather, trout fishing, and John, the mysterious man who had left in a rush the day before after paying in advance for the rest of the week.

John was Steve, who had predictably booked the room under a fake ID, claiming to be from Montana.

Danny went along with the act, backing up the story and even adding a few details to it.

Shelly, the young woman, told him that her dad had sold John his truck the year before, and that she was pretty sure the handsome guy lived near one of their properties because he had walked there to retrieve the vehicle. She pointed it out on the map, along with a few cabins in the area where she thought he might stay.

Grateful, Danny didn’t have the heart to tell her that Steve could walk for hours and hours without even breaking a sweat and accepted the information as the first real lead he’d gotten on his best friend’s whereabouts. She was apparently the daughter of the guy that had greeted him before, and had been instructed to help him in any way she could.

Bless the locals and their insight into life and human nature.

He clutched the map in his hand as if it was the most precious of treasures, thanked her profusely and left the lodge, headed north.

***

When his partner first came into view, three long hours after he had left the lodge, Danny barely recognized him. It was the shirt that made things click in his brain, the familiar shades of blue under a winter jacket that always made his eyes stand out.

A heartbeat later, he was sprinting up the stairs to the front porch and kneeling next to him, hands hovering over his slumped frame, unsure of where to touch, then sliding against his neck to check for a pulse.

“Steve!”

Chapter Text

***

Danny hated running.

Jogging, strolling — even walking, at times. Anything that had to do with physical exertion was something he tended to avoid.

Those few times Steve had convinced him to hike, he had only agreed to it to make him happy. Showing him around the island, sharing tales and secret spots John had taken him to before their whole worlds had imploded was important to Steve as he grieved over his dad’s loss and, even if he would never admit it out loud, Danny enjoyed it too.

The light in his best friend’s eyes and the smile on his face had been worth every damn step.

Today he was hiking for Steve too, driven by the same concern that had gripped him after the missed phone call. A feeling that hadn’t faded one bit since he had left Oahu.

He had already checked two of the cabins Shelly had marked on the map, and both were abandoned. That left three more. It was going to take him all day to cover the area, with no guarantee that his search would be successful.

Grateful to be old school and able to read a paper map without the aid of government satellites, Danny crossed the second spot with a black marker and moved onto the third. It was only a few miles away, but he would have to park off the road because the cabin was only accessible on foot.

Figured.

As he drove the short distance, he thought of what he was going to say to Steve when he finally saw him. For a man who had no problem showing emotions and articulating his thoughts, Danny was at a loss to find words that were adequate to express the gratitude he felt for the huge sacrifice his friend had done on his behalf.

His heart leapt as he suddenly spotted two vehicles in an area where there should be none. The same general area where he was supposed to park his own.

Coincidence? He didn’t think so.

He checked the Heckler & Koch he’d safely strapped to his side and hidden under his jacket. With someone like Daiyu Mei, you could never be too careful.

Leaving his rental some distance away so that it wouldn’t be noticed, he moved slowly and quietly towards the first car. It was a gray Suburban, sleek and shiny like it had just come out of a dealership. It looked empty, but he couldn’t be 100% sure because the windows were tinted. Still, he believed that if there were armed gunmen inside he’d be already dead so he walked right past it and to the second one, a dark green pickup stationed a few dozen feet ahead.

If the first vehicle screamed out-of-towner, the truck was definitely owned by a local. Or by someone who had bought it from a local. It blended perfectly with the landscape and had a lived-in feel to it that suggested it had been used for more than just driving around.

Danny wished he’d asked the girl what kind of vehicle her dad had sold ‘John’, but his gut was telling him that he was looking right at it and that he was in the right place.

The keys were in the ignition, the driver’s side window rolled down halfway. At first glance, there was nothing inside that reminded him of Steve. Danny didn’t let the small detail discourage him. After a year and a half, it was entirely plausible that his friend had bought stuff he wouldn’t recognize.

Everything around him was silent. Not that he was expecting gunfire or something that would alert him of their presence. He was 24 hours too late, after all. For all he knew, they could all be dead by now.

All except Steve, his mind immediately supplied.

He looked around, trying to spot the cabin.

There was a path to his left leading through the woods. It was wide and well-beaten, a sign that it was regularly walked on.

After a quick scan of his surroundings to make sure nobody was there lying in wait, Danny headed towards it. He trekked through the slick, muddy trails for a good ten minutes until the forest gave way to a small clearing and an old cabin came into view.

Breathing heavily after the fast-paced walk, he stopped to wipe the sweat off his forehead as his eyes zeroed in on the cabin.

Two things he noticed simultaneously.

A slumped form near the bottom of the stairs leading to the entrance.

And another one propped against the wall next to the entrance, equally unmoving.

Drawing his gun out of its holster, Danny slowly approached the first body. Even from a distance, he could tell that the man was dead. His neck was bent at a weird angle, sightless eyes wide open but staring at nothing. A few feet from him, a semi-automatic weapon that, along with the black clothes and the ninja look, left little to no doubt that he was one of Daiyu Mei’s hitmen.

Good riddance, Danny thought to himself, a disdainful look on his face.

He kept moving, looking up as he inched forward.

When his partner first came into view, three long hours after he had left the lodge, Danny barely recognized him. It was the shirt that made things click in his brain, the familiar shades of blue under a winter jacket that always made his eyes stand out.

A heartbeat later, he was sprinting up the stairs to the front porch and kneeling next to him, hands hovering over his slumped frame, unsure of where to touch, then sliding against his neck to check for a pulse.

“Steve!”

He was lying in a half-sitting position against the wall, eyes closed, chin dropped to his chest. Despite the gray pallor of his face, on closer inspection he seemed to be breathing, albeit with obvious effort. Loosely gripped in his right hand, a Glock 19 that Danny remembered as one of Mrs. Fat’s weapons of choice. He had killed four of her goons with a similar gun before…

He shook his head, focusing on his partner’s unconscious form.

Steve’s raw, red wrists told him that he had been tied up long enough for the restraints to mark his skin. And judging from the nasty bruises, the black eye and the split lip, during that time he’d also served as their personal punching bag.

Danny felt anger coursing through his veins and quickly pushed it away. He would think about revenge later.

“Steve, wake up...” he pleaded, patting his best friend’s cheek. He breathed out the words, much like he had done that day in the basement of the dry cleaner where Wo Fat had taken him. “Come on, wake up. I did not travel to this godforsaken place just to find your dead body in the forest…” His hands ran swiftly and purposefully over the unconscious man, searching for injuries. “It’s me, buddy... Please wake up.”

That couldn’t be the end.

A five-minute conversation over a disposable phone could not have been their last.

Danny needed to thank him, to apologize, to bring him back to Hawaii so that they could grow old together.

It couldn’t be the end…

***

There was a hand on the side of his face, tapping gently but insistently.

Touching his neck.

Gripping his shoulder.

Probing his aching torso.

Steve’s upper lip twitched in pain and he protested feebly, trying to shove it away.

A voice tugged at his wavering consciousness.

Danny?

He stilled, hoping it would speak again.

“It’s me, buddy... Please wake up.”

His heart skipped a beat.

It was Danny, and he sounded scared.

Was he hurt?

Daiyu Mei had threatened to do that, to hurt his best friend again. The image of Danny chained up, beaten and covered with blood still haunted him to this day. He had taken her men out but knew that there were more coming and he needed to warn him—

Steve peeled his eyelids open, pushing himself to full awareness. The same hand that had beckoned him to come back from the darkness was now resting on his chest, and when he looked up the first thing he saw was Danny’s blue eyes staring back at him. Seconds passed, his brain taking him in, struggling to comprehend that it wasn’t just a figment of his imagination, an image he’d conjured up to ease the pain. He was real.

“Danny… ‘R-really you?”

It came out wrong. Too hoarse, too quiet, and a bit desperate. How was he going to help him if he could barely say his name out loud?

He lifted his hand, driven by a sudden urge to touch. Rested it briefly on Danny’s bicep before raising it even higher, high enough to cup his cheek. As he pressed it there, against the flushed skin and the bristly stubble, Steve finally allowed himself to believe that what he was seeing was true.

He wasn’t alone anymore.

“I’m here, Steve. I’m right here,” came the immediate reply. “I got you. You just breathe for me, alright?”

Steve tried.

Features marked by the pain that each inhale caused, he allowed himself one brief moment of happiness for having his partner back at his side before letting the fear of their predicament take over him again.

“She’s coming,” he whispered, grabbing Danny’s wrist with his right hand to convey the urgency he felt and trying to get up.

It was just a matter of time.

After the initial surprise of finding four heavily-armed men inside the cabin, he had tried to fight them with everything he had. Outnumbered, and slightly off his game after 18 months of inactivity, he’d lost the first round, ending up tied to a chair between the bed and the fireplace.

The memories of those first few hours were hazy. He recalled being punched to the stomach, gasping and doubling over in pain, the fight against his restraints, the stars flashing across his vision as their fists moved up to hit him in the face.

His head snapping harshly to the side.

The metallic taste of blood filling his mouth.

He had pretended to pass out after a while. He needed a break, and thought he could use the time to his advantage. The wooden chair they’d sat him on was old, and with the right pressure it could break exactly where he needed it. So while the man in charge was on the phone and the others took turn surveilling him and the perimeter, Steve had freed himself and lunged after them, showing no mercy.

The details of the fight were blurry as well. What he knew for sure was that they’d done real damage. It hurt to breathe, to sit, and even to lay still, which meant he had cracked, possibly broken ribs. His stomach was clenching painfully and he kept swallowing convulsively against the bile in his throat, an obvious sign of concussion along with the dizziness and the blurred vision. And those were just the injuries that were bothering him the most.

He wasn’t sure how long he had laid there, drifting in and out. His whole body ached, and he felt like he’d been run over by a truck. Still, he pressed his lips together and tried to get to his feet.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, where are you going? Stay down. Please. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but you’re hurt.”

A groan escaped him as he made the effort.

“H-help me up, Danny. Please.”

He blinked a few times, waiting for the trees around him to stop spinning.

“In a minute,” Danny cautioned, both hands on his partner’s shoulder to push him back down. “I’m not done.”

There was the scared tone again, the one he only heard when his life was in danger.

Steve leaned his head back and closed his eyes, focusing on taking slow, measured breaths so that his injured ribs would hurt less. He felt Danny’s hands move around his chest and arms before carefully unbuttoning his shirt to press on his midsection for signs of internal bleeding.

He knew what his friend was going to find: marks, bruises, but nothing life-threatening.

It was only when Danny leaned him forward to look at his back that he lost what little composure he had regained and let out let out a loud, pained gasp.

“Sorry, sorry, I know it hurts, but I needed to check. Just… look at me, alright? Focus on me.”

Sucking in a breath, Steve tried to shift to a better position.

The distress that the movement caused was instantly displayed on his face.

“What, what’s wrong? Tell me what you need,” Danny asked, lowering his head so that their eyes were leveled. “Talk to me, man, I’m here to help.”

Off the top of his head, Steve could think of at least a dozen things he needed. None of those was going to help him stay alive though, so he focused on the most pressing task at hand which was getting the hell off the damn floor and leaving the cabin.

“I-I just need a minute...” he groaned, squeezing his eyes shut to block out the pain. When he opened them again a few seconds later, it took him a moment to focus properly on his partner’s face.

Danny, of course, picked up on it immediately.

“You don’t need a minute, you need a damn hospital!” His hands kept moving, lifting one of the legs of his dark blue jeans to find the source of a rather large bloodstain over his left calf.

As soon as he touched it Steve hissed, instinctively pulling both knees up to his chest. Now that his concussed brain was focusing on it, he remembered one of the shots hitting him in the leg. It was a through-and-through, so he’d packed it and dismissed it as a minor injury, but it seemed blood was still seeping through the bandage.

“No… no hospital. We got to go. This place is compromised, we can’t stay here any longer.”

“Alright, alright, but I need to redress this wound,” Danny said, sliding a hand onto his thigh and giving the tense muscle a gentle squeeze before getting to his feet. “Let’s get inside.” He placed one hand under Steve’s elbow and the other on his back as he helped him to his feet.

The floor under him tilted ominously and Steve stilled, allowing his body to adjust to being upright.

Danny moved closer and put an arm around his waist. Steve drew in a breath, then looped his own arm across his partner’s shoulders so he could lean into him.

His gaze landed on the crumpled form at the bottom of the stairs.

Danny followed it.

“Who’s the dead guy, Steve?”

“She sent them...”

“Them?”

“Three more... inside.”

Turning his head, Danny stared at him with a mix of awe and disbelief. “You took four armed guys by yourself after being beaten and restrained for hours?”

“I was angry,” Steve deadpanned.

“I bet you were, buddy.”

His SEAL training had kicked in when pain and exhaustion had threatened his resolve, yet during all that time it wasn’t himself he’d thought about. Flashbacks of the house on Kapule Avenue, of the trail of bodies they had followed from the entrance to the basement, had reminded him of the brave man he’d left behind and he had drawn strength from it, using it to free himself just like Danny had done.

“I had a... great teacher,” he added as an acknowledgement of his partner’s strength.

“It’s more like the other way around but thanks, babe, I appreciate it. I’m just impressed, is all.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Steve’s lips. “You are?” he asked sheepishly.

Danny patted him on the back. “Come on, SuperSEAL, don’t let it go to your head.”

Hunched in on himself, his free arm clasped tightly around his ribcage, Steve let the smile linger on his face as they shuffled their way inside the cabin. His shoulders were tense, his face pale and glistening with a thin sheen of sweat but he gritted his teeth and kept moving, intent on getting them as far away from Daiyu Mei as he could.

She was not going to hurt Danny again.

He would make sure of it, even if it cost him his life.

***

“You okay?” Danny inquired after a few steps.

His meticulous examination had revealed nothing potentially fatal. Multiple contusions and lacerations, fractured ribs, probably a few bruised organs on top of an obvious concussion. It didn’t look like Steve had any internal bleeding or would require surgery of any kind, although the swelling on the left side of his face had him concerned that there might be a cheekbone or an orbital fracture.

“Unless there’s two of you helping me out then no, I’m not really okay.”

“...right. Stupid question.”

Careful to avoid the three bodies lying in a heap inside the small space, he maneuvered them towards the bed, sitting Steve down on it.

Hands on his hips, he studied his friend for a few seconds.

Now that the worry had faded a bit, he started to notice details that he had missed before. To put it mildly, Steve looked like a washed-out version of his former self. Gaunt, pale, his features hardened and lined by both worry and the elements, he was carrying the weight of his decision on his shoulders that showed just how hard life had been for him lately.

It was like something had broken inside of him, something that would remain broken long after his skin and bones were healed. A sadness, a heaviness, an unyielding sorrow that had robbed him of his once easy smile.

The rustiness in his voice, that Danny had initially attributed to the pain of his injuries, suggested he hadn’t talked to anyone in a while. Its flatness, the lack of warmth and intensity, that Steve had choked down all emotions during the time he had spent alone.

Danny knew what despair and solitude could do, how they could mess up the most resilient of souls, but it still unnerved him. He wasn’t used to seeing it on his best friend’s face, and it broke his heart to think that Steve had had to deal with all of it alone.

“What?” Steve asked. He had obviously caught him staring.

“No, it’s just… it’s nothing. I just pictured you with a beard, is all,” he replied, staring at his friend’s clean-shaven face.

“I had it. Just shaved it yesterday after our phone call.”

Danny nodded, feeling his heart clench painfully in his chest.

He looked around, surveying the space around him.

Even before the mess caused by Mrs. Fat’s goons, the place was more akin to a shed you put your garden tools in than an actual lodging.

Shaking his head, he resisted the urge to yell ‘What the hell is the matter with you, this is no place to live in!’ and focused on finding the first aid kit to change the bandage on Steve’s leg and clean some of the cuts on his face and hands.

“I’m sorry I missed the call,” Steve said, pulling him away from his thoughts.

“Not your fault,” Danny shrugged. He found the dark green pouch with the medical supplies, walked back to where his partner was sitting, and started to tend to his wounds.

A heavy, brooding silence descended on them.

It remained unbroken until Steve spoke again several minutes later.

“I missed you, Danno…”

It was half-pained, half-whispered, as if he was afraid to admit it out loud because it hurt too much.

Danny’s hands stilled.

He lowered them down and heaved a deep sigh. “I missed you too. I thought you hated me at first, and then I started thinking you were dead.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“I thought you were fucking dead, Steve,” he repeated, letting out some of the frustration he had been feeling. It was neither the time nor the place, but Danny Williams was famous for always sharing his emotions right when he felt them. “How long were you going to wait to reach out to me if I hadn’t found you?”

There was no heat in his voice, only sadness. Seeing Steve again was the one thing he had wanted all along, yet now that they were back together he found himself struggling with the consequences of those 18 months of separation and a stubborn throat that was starting to close up under the onslaught of too many feels.

“I don’t know,” Steve admitted, hanging his head. And then, in a lower voice, “I just wanted you to be safe.”

The reply, so honest and full of meaning, left Danny speechless.

Life hadn’t been kind to Steve, and yet his generous and selfless soul had survived all these years. He was soft-hearted and tough enough to stay that way despite the many challenges he’d had to face. The bravery that single act took impressed and moved Danny at the same time.

“Stay still,” he urged him as he finished wrapping up his calf.

There was so much he wanted to say, so many feelings that were battling to be heard. He fought hard to keep them down, afraid that if he let them out they would completely overwhelm him. Considering Steve’s poor physical conditions, it was up to him to get them out of this mess and he needed his head clear to do that so he kept his focus on the job at hand, planning to acknowledge those feelings at a better time.

Once satisfied that the wound was no longer bleeding, he looked up to meet his partner’s gaze, and the emotions he had failed to voice moments before flowed now effortlessly from his eyes to Steve’s, conveying loudly and clearly all the gratitude he felt.

It was a long, profound moment that charged the air in the small cabin with something very akin to electricity, reinvigorating them both. Danny’s hand lingered on Steve’s thigh, the other reaching for the last antiseptic wipe in the emergency kit.

Ever the practical one, Steve was once again the first to break the silence.

“Enough with the nurse duties, I’m fine.”

“Oh, yeah? So what were you doing out there, enjoying the breeze?”

“Resting my eyes.”

“Resting y—” Danny shook his head in disbelief. Some things never changed. He put the wipe back into the pouch and stood up. “Let’s go, Bear Grylls.”

Steve smirked at the comparison, but it soon turned to a grimace when he started to push himself up and the pain from his injured ribs flared up. His breath hitched and he paled, unconsciously reaching out a hand towards Danny for support.

He caught it, holding it firmly in his own until his friend was ready to let go.

“My truck… keys,” Steve wheezed, pointing to a spot on the ground.

“No offense, babe, but if I have to be chased by a psychopath, I’d like to have an actual chance. My rental’s up the street. Can you walk?”

“Yeah,” Steve nodded.

Not that he would’ve shared it otherwise.

Steve was a badass.

Danny had never underestimate his best friend’s abilities, especially in a crisis. Even if he bitched about it, he had the outmost respect for the highly trained and specialized soldier who could get himself out of almost any situation and always, always had his back.

If they were about to be attacked, there was no one he’d rather have beside him.

***

By the time they made it to Danny’s Jeep Cherokee, Steve was completely exhausted.

His leg hurt, the cracked ribs made breathing a challenge and he felt like he was going in slow motion while the rest of the world moved at high speed. It was discouraging to realize he was no longer that man who had completed dozens of missions in worse conditions than this.

Sinking into the passenger seat, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, gathering all the strength he had left. He heard Danny rummaging in the glove compartment, the pop of a plastic lid getting opened, and then felt a slight pressure on his shoulder.

“Here, take these.”

Next thing he knew, there were two ibuprofen pills in his right hand and a bottle of water in the other.

Steve eagerly accepted them, giving his partner a tight smile.

Danny had murmured comforting words to him the whole way, and was now looking at him with concern written all over his face. As much as he hated to be considered weak or helpless, it felt good to have someone care after so many months of solitude.

“Thanks,” he said softly. It was meant for the pain pills, and so much more.

“Did, uh… did the bad guys say anything about Daiyu Mei?”

“She’s probably not far. Those guys, they were supposed to meet her somewhere. I heard one of them saying they were going to hand me over to her.”

Nodding gravely, Danny exhaled a sharp breath. “So I led her straight to you…”

“Don’t say that,” Steve immediately replied. While it was entirely plausible that the woman had Danny’s phone under control and could’ve easily traced his position, the last thing Steve wanted was to add more guilt to his best friend’s shoulders. “It’s not your fault, Danny. She wants to come after me, let her. This thing has dragged on for too long. It’s time to put an end to it.”

“I’m sorry, Steve...”

Like the ones he had spoken before, Danny’s words of apology were about a lot more than his latest misstep.

“You have nothing to apologize for.”

Danny nodded again, his lips tight in a long, grim line. He reached for the glove compartment again, pulling out a holstered weapon that Steve immediately recognized.

“Cole wanted me to give this back to you.”

Steve stared at the P226 for several seconds before taking it into his hand. The sidearm had been his trusted companion since his early days in the Navy, an extension of his own hand that had saved his life more times than he could count. It said a lot about his mental state that he had left it with someone he’d barely gotten to know.

“Is he still leading the team?”

“No. Actually, he never did. Lou stepped up until I got better, and then I took over.”

Five-0 was a part of him too, the legacy he had left to the people of Hawaii, and he couldn’t imagine anyone more qualified than Danny to lead it.

“One day you’re gonna have to tell me all about it,” he said wistfully, imagining the two of them back in Hawaii and drinking beer on the chairs by the beach.

Danny’s lips curved into a smile. “I’d like that.” He let out a long, heavy sigh and started the engine, pulling out onto the road. “Let’s get out of here, alright?”

Steve slowly turned his head towards the window, giving one last look at the place he had called home. A place that, if they were lucky enough to leave, he hoped he’d never see again.

His brain was still processing the fact that Danny had materialized in front of him, a literal savior coming to rescue him in his time of need.

North Korea
Afghanistan
Hawaii

Danny had always come for him.

Suddenly his decision to leave, to abandon him, didn’t seem as smart as it originally did.

Going through life with Danny was easier. Even the challenges that life threw at him didn’t feel as hopeless knowing he was by his side.

In that moment, as he moved on from one of the darkest periods of his life, Steve swore to himself that he would never run from his family again. He’d break the habit his mother had passed him and try to lean on people instead of pushing them away.

“My stuff’s still at the lodge,” he said, thinking back to his hasty departure from the motel. Those events felt far, far away, like they’d happened a lifetime ago.

Resting his elbow on the bottom of the window, he leaned his head against his hand, rubbing at his temple. The ibuprofen had started doing its job, dulling the pain to a more manageable level. He wouldn’t bet on winning another fistfight, but he no longer felt the sharp pain shooting from his ribs and could almost breathe normally.

“I got your backpack in the trunk,” Danny replied. “Anything else you need we’ll go back for it once it’s safe.”

They didn’t have a plan, or an exit strategy to leave the state. They were just driving as fast as they could, destination unknown. The Alaska Range Mountains rose majestically in the background as they descended towards the Susitna river and the southern side of the Clearwater mountains. At this speed, they’d reach the upcoming bridge soon. It usually appeared without warning, so Steve made a mental note to tell Danny about it. He also hoped that Daiyu Mei was nowhere near them. With a length of a thousand feet and a narrow deck, it was less than idea for a confrontation.

Dark gray clouds were rolling in, adding to the air of urgency permeating the air. Steve was positive their nemesis would catch up with them soon, and his sluggish brain was already at work trying to find a way to prevent that.

Phone, he reasoned.

She could trace their phones.

He hadn’t turned on his burner in over 24 hours, but Danny’s cell was probably still on. Most areas of Denali Highway had no cell service but all she needed was one cell tower and, since he had left Hawaii, his friend had surely passed many.

“The team know where you are?” he asked.

“Of course they do. They know exactly where I am because that’s what you do when you’re planning a mission. You don’t go completely dark, you tell your friends so they can help!”

Point taken.

Steve kept his gaze straight ahead, to the steep and barren road stretching in front of them. Of the 135 miles that made up the length of the highway, only the first 21 were paved. The rest was just sand and gravel. It was advertised as one of the most spectacular drives in the world, but also one of America’s most thrilling, perfect for drivers who were seeking adventures — or wanted to engage with a killer.

“I’m sorry, Danny. I just wanted to protect you. Keep you and the kids safe. Mary and Joanie too. She — she was keeping tabs on all of you guys and I couldn’t risk… I can’t lose anyone else…”

He’d keep apologizing for as long as his friend needed him to, until he made it very clear he had only left him out of love.

Danny pushed the gas pedal a little closer to the floor.

“Should we call them? The team? I mean, maybe they can get a trace on her or one of her associates.”

“Or she could trace you. If she hasn’t already.”

“Right,” Danny frowned. “Right. I’m sorry, I didn’t think…” His hand waved in Steve’s general direction as disappointment clouded his face.

If there was one thing they both longed for, it was for this nightmare to be over.

Steve wasn’t sure he’d rather face her right then or go back into hiding to buy them some time. He wasn’t firing on all cylinders, and the fear that that might lead to Danny getting hurt again was overpowering.

Glancing out the window, he realized they were still pretty far from any populate area and gave himself a few more minutes to think about it.

Fate, as is always the case, just laughed and made new plans.

Ten minutes into their journey back to civilization, they spotted another Chevy Suburban coming from the opposite way.

One look at the dark vehicle, and they both knew it was time to get ready to fight.

Chapter Text

***

Danny kept glancing sideways as he drove.

Partly out of concern, because Steve was clearly hurting and he wished he could do something to help, and partly out of wonder at having his best friend by his side again.

The last time they had been in the same vehicle was the day Steve had brought him home from the hospital. So much had changed since then, changing them as a result. Other things hadn’t. The weariness in his partner’s gaze was the same; the way he was holding himself together —in this case, literally— achingly familiar.

It was more than that though, Danny noticed.

When he was unaware of being looked at, the expression on Steve’s face reminded him of the first few months after they’d met, before he started to chip away at his hard military backbone.

He could only imagine what those eighteen months had been like.

People leaving him, being taken from him, was the one thing Steve truly feared.

Danny understood.

The irrational fright that he might disappear again under his very eyes was the reason he kept checking the passenger’s seat every few seconds.

Flexing his hands on the steering wheel, he looked out at the trees swaying in the distance.

The stretch of road they were on was quiet, no sounds besides the crunching of the Jeep over the gravel and the rustling of the wind. It was built atop a glacial esker, skirting the southern nose of the Clearwater Mountains, and as he drove he could see the scenery slowly change from forest to tundra and taiga. It felt like they were the only people on the planet, like there was no life on this forsaken land and no other human beings around them. Even the gorgeous views felt empty, somehow, serving just as a reminder that they were on their own, far away from any real help.

He had no clue where he was going, no ideas on how to silence the alarm bells in his head warning him about what lay ahead. It was just the two of them against a die-hard criminal and her army of goons.

Next to him, Steve was equally tense. Jaw set, laser-focus gaze on in full mode, he was undoubtedly looking for a way out of their mess. Even injured and emotionally fragile, he had a commanding, comforting physical presence that helped ease Danny’s rapidly-growing anxiety.

“How long ‘til we get to town?” he asked.

“About five miles. Then it’s nothing again for forty more.”

“Fantastic,” Danny muttered under his breath.

They were really on their own.

For a brief moment, he thought about calling his children and telling them that he loved them, wondering if he’d ever see them again. The image of a sign he had read at the beginning of the highway came back to his mind. It said:

Travel beyond this point not recommended

If you must use this road, tell someone where you are going

In their case, would it make a difference? Would the team even be able to find them if they died out there, with decades-old spruces and dry riverbeds as their only witnesses?

“Slow down.”

Steve’s voice brought him back to the present.

“What?”

“Slow down. You should keep under 50.”

Danny turned to look at his partner, eyebrow quirked. “Since when do you worry about speed limits?”

“These roads are dangerous, Danny,” Steve stated with a dead serious expression on his face that, considering his history of breaking every rule of the road ever written, would’ve been hilarious if they weren’t being hunted by a psychopath. “Limit’s there for a reason. Keep your window closed and drive slowly.”

Unable to decide if it was better to die in a car accident along a bumpy and dusty road or at the hand of their enemy, Danny nodded and eased his foot off the gas.

Suddenly, his attention was diverted to a dark blur coming from the opposite side.

“Steve…?” he called, eyes widening at the sight of a Suburban speeding toward them.

Steve sat up straighter, eyes fixed on the vehicle that was all too similar to the one they’d left behind at the cabin.

“I see it.”

Danny had a brief flashback of the day he’d steered his rental to avoid a collision on Waianae Valley Road, of Joanna’s lifeless blue eyes and the desperate ‘Come on!’ he had shouted to the heavens. As his heart started to beat faster, he said a silent prayer that this time the outcome would be different.

“Is it them?”

The question hung in the air as both cars got closer to each other. They knew the answer to it, but no one dared to voice it out loud.

Steve reached for his weapon, loading the chamber and then resting it on his thigh, trigger finger extended on the frame.

Danny could tell the ibuprofen had started to kick in. His partner seemed more alert, and a functioning SEAL was exactly who he needed at his side to increase his odds of survival. It partly quelled the fear that was constricting his throat.

As the SUV got closer, they were able to get a look at the people inside and their worst fear came to life: Daiyu Mei, a smug expression on her face, was sitting in the passenger seat.

The two friends looked at each other.

This was it.

Their chance to fight for their freedom and get back the life that had been so harshly sidetracked the day she’d separated them.

They nodded in sync, a silent ‘let’s do this’ gesture that acknowledged and renewed the commitment bonding them together.

A moment later, Danny stepped on the gas pedal.

In response, the driver of the Suburban swerved, crossing over into their lane. The move left little to no doubt about their intentions.

“They’re gonna hit us…”

His gaze darted to the ravine looming on their right side, poorly protected by a weathered guardrail. With little time and room to veer out of the oncoming vehicle’s way, there really wasn’t much to do to avoid the collision.

Steve raised his gun, realizing immediately after that even if he killed all the car’s occupants he wouldn’t be able to prevent the impact. Out of the corner of his eye, Danny saw him lower his weapon back, bow his head and briefly close his eyes.

“Hang on to something!” he yelled, slamming on the brakes to try and turn the Jeep so that it would only hit the front. Later, he’d recognize that the split-second decision had saved both of their lives.

“Danny, don’t!” Steve said equally loud, eyes wide with a fear he only showed when the people he loved were in danger.

Danny couldn’t tell if his friend was worried that he was putting himself in harm’s way to spare him or disappointed because there was nothing he could do to stop the car from hitting them. Either way, there was no time to explain.

He jerked the steering wheel to the left.

“I’m sorry, Steve, I can’t stop this!”

The tires made a low, crunching sound as they turned on the gravel.

A few yards away the Suburban gained speed, ready to hit.

Danny felt Steve’s hand on his arm, offering silent support. His stomach clenched and he held his breath, waiting.

Time seemed to stop, each second stretching painfully long.

Then the blow came.

The front left side of the Jeep took the brunt of the impact and the vehicle slid towards the guardrail, hitting it with its opposite side. The protection, albeit damaged, surprisingly withstood the pressure, preventing the car from falling into the ravine.

The screeching sound of metal against metal filled Danny’s ears as his arm instinctively stretched towards the passenger seat, overriding the rational side of his brain that knew it would not protect Steve in the slightest. He felt himself being strained against the seatbelt, then falling back against the seat.

“You okay?” he asked when everything stilled, frantically looking around to locate the Suburban. “Steve?”

“Yeah,” came the tense reply.

Steve’s face was locked in a grimace of pain, undoubtedly caused by the hit jarring his damaged ribs. Nevertheless, he quickly schooled his features and tightened the grip on his SIG, eyes roaming over his partner’s form to search for injuries.

“You?”

“I’m fine.”

Behind them, Daiyu Mei’s SUV sat in the middle of the road, its driver blinking and shaking his head as he recovered from the crash.

Despite feeling a bit dazed, Danny had the presence of mind to use that lull to their advantage. He noticed that the airbags of the Jeep hadn’t deployed, which meant the car still worked and they still had a chance. Without wasting a second he brought the engine back to life, rear ended the Suburban just because he could, and drove away before they even acknowledged it.

Even Steve caught up with it a few seconds later.

“Go, Danny, go!” he urged as the car jumped forward, turning in his seat to keep an eye on the Chevy. Together, they watched it make a slight U-turn and head straight for them again, engine roaring.

Simultaneously, a volley of gunfire started spraying the Jeep.

“Fuck!” Danny cursed, ducking in his seat.

The conditions of the road made it impossible to go past a certain speed and, if the clouds above were any indication, the unpaved highway would become even messier soon. Their chances of coming out of this cold, unforgiving state alive were looking direr and direr.

Unless…

Unless he could control another crash.

It sounded like one of those crazy ideas taken straight from McGarrett’s playbook, and yet the only one that made sense. With virtually nowhere to hide and considering his partner’s poor health, going on foot was an option they needed to avoid until absolutely necessary.

As bullets continued to whizz around them and Steve did his best to fend off the attack, Danny threw caution to the wind.

This was no time to be scared.

“I have a plan!” he announced, voice loud over the noise surrounding them, seconds before a shot pierced the back window.

“You have a plan?” Steve repeated, using the seat and its headrest as a shield and trying to hide behind it.

“You’re not gonna like it.”

Another bullet smashed the rearview mirror, inches from Danny’s arm.

“Just do it, Danny, whatever it is! They’re getting closer!”

He nodded, hoping his grand idea to stop the other vehicle wouldn’t cost them their lives.

“Hang on!”

His foot slammed on the brake pedal and he wrestled the wheel for control, holding tightly to it as the Jeep stopped abruptly in the middle of the empty road. Images flashed across his mind —his family, friends, snippets of his life playing like a fast-pacing slideshow.

He saw Steve nod his approval, heard a faint “Love you, buddy,” whispered from the other man’s lips, and then the Suburban was there, slamming into them head-on at full speed.

The Jeep groaned as the back window imploded, showering the insides with tiny slivers of glass. The back wheels lifted a good foot off the ground and, as the airbags deployed and the Chevy’s front end crumpled like an accordion, both vehicles finally came to a stop.

Danny only had time to think that he might have overestimated his plan before everything went black.

***

A pained groan shattered the silence pressing in on him and Steve blinked, disoriented.

His face was pressed into the airbag, the acrid smell of burnt-chemical filling his nostrils.
He coughed, and the pain in his ribs stole his breath away.

Grappling with the airbag, he managed to push it to one side and leaned back into his seat, taking a moment to compose himself and check all limbs for damage.

There was shattered glass on his clothes and a round, dark hole on the dashboard in front of him where lead had pierced plastic.

Someone had crashed into them.

He remembered feeling like a weight had been thrown on him.

Daiyu Mei.

Danny had stalled the Jeep to stop her deadly chase.

Danny.

“D-Danny?” he called. There was fear in his voice and panic in his features, a feeling close to absolute terror of what he might find as he turned to look because he had promised, he’d promised to himself that he wouldn’t let anything else happen to him, especially not now that they were back together.

His partner was still strapped to the driver’s seat, head leaning against the window. A trail of blood was running down his cheek from a cut near his hairline, and he seemed to be unconscious.

Steve reached out to curl a hand around the other man’s shoulder.

“Danny? Danny, you alright?” he asked, willing him to awareness. “Wake up, man, we gotta go!”

He looked back at the mangled remains of the Suburban, at the dark figures slumped in the seats that he knew wouldn’t stay out for long.

If they wanted to survive, they needed to leave.

Danny stirred, frowning in confusion. “Go? Where?”

“We got to get out of here, come on!”

“Steve?”

“Yeah. Come on, partner, let’s go!”

He fumbled with his friend’s seatbelt until it came undone, then brought both hands up to cup his cheeks. “Danny, look at me. We need to leave. Now.”

Danny nodded as mental alertness finally set in. “You okay?”

“I’m alright. Can you move?” He was still looking him over, cataloguing every cut and bruise on his skin. Thankfully, there seemed to be nothing more serious than that.

“Think so.” While Steve got rid of his own seatbelt and grabbed the SIG that had fallen between the car seats Danny tried to start the Jeep, this time with no luck. “Damn,” he muttered. “Steve, we gotta walk.” He pulled the door handle, trying it a few times before it actually allowed the jammed door to open. “They still alive?”

“I’m not sure. But if they are they’ll be on our asses soon.”

A rush of cold air hit them as they stepped out into the crisp morning, sending shivers down their spine.

Unsteady on their feet, both friends glanced towards the other vehicle, noticing that the occupants were still down for the count. Searching each other’s gaze, they shared a relieved look, hoping that the crash had been severe enough to incapacitate them for a while —or permanently, if luck was on their side.

The force of the impact had crumpled the front end of the Suburban, thrusting at least two feet of metal back into the car. Steam plumed from the radiator, mixing with the smell of coolant hanging in the air. As they looked, small flickers of yellow started to appear from between the twisted metal.

“Come on, Danny, let’s go,” Steve urged, clutching Danny’s shoulder as he felt the growing heat coming off the vehicle. He knew exactly what that meant.

“Where?” Danny replied, waving his hands in a sweeping movement to emphasize the lack of hideouts and civilization. It was just scattered evergreens and brightly colored bushes, with misty mountains silhouetted beyond them.

Steve pointed to a geologic feature that looked like a buildup of rocks on the sides of what had once been glaciers. “There.”

The moraine, commonly referred to as ‘Crazy Notch’, was the reason the highway closed in the winter due to the difficulty of clearing it of snow. He had explored it before, intrigued by its history and its open, isolated summit that provided stunning views in all directions.

Danny’s eyes widened, and he looked at him as if he’d lost his mind.

“Did you hit your head in the crash? How’s climbing up a mountain gonna help us?”

“It’s not a mountain, Danny. And I don’t see any other place. Do you? That’s our only chance. It will give us tactical advantage if they’re in pursuit and we’ll be able to see them coming.”

“And they will see us! The tallest plant around here is like, fifteen inches!”

Moving closer, Steve put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “There’s no place to hide around here, buddy. Trust me, I’ve been here before. Crazy Notch is our best option.”

“Crazy Notch?”

“That’s what it’s called. The hike is actually quite beautiful. I’ve done it before.”

“Of course you have,” Danny replied, shaking his head as he rested both hands on his hips. “Crazy Notch… sounds like the right place to die.”

“No one’s dying,” Steve said firmly.

“You don’t know that.”

“I do.”

The fierce determination in his voice was hard to miss, and Danny could only nod in acceptance.

“Can you even make it up there?”, he asked, noticing the way he was favoring his right leg.

Steve bit his bottom lip, all-too-aware of his injuries and the challenge he was about to face. “I have to.”

Danny sighed. He didn’t like the idea —or the situation— one bit, but they didn’t have time to argue and he knew Steve was right. There was nowhere else to go.

“Steve?”

“Yeah.”

“Promise me that we’ll survive.”

“I can’t do that, Danny,” Steve whispered, heart aching with regret for not being able to spare his friend all of that.

“You don’t have to mean it. I just need to hear it.”

Steve needed to hear it too.

After all the sacrifices he had made, he wanted to believe that there was still a future for them, that there would be more sunsets, more weekends, more chances to live the life that they deserved.

“We’re gonna be alright,” he said with all the determination he could muster.

Danny gave him a tight smile. “Thanks.”

Steve watched him turn around and look back towards the car as if there was something he had to do. He was about to tell him to hurry up when Danny shook his head, zipped up his jacket, and nodded towards the road ahead.

“Lead the way.”

Adrenaline kicked in as they moved away from the crash site, feeling the hard ground crunch beneath their feet. The cold temperatures made it tougher to walk, putting added strain to their hearts and lungs, but they gritted their teeth, breathed through the discomfort and kept going.

A few minutes into their trek, they heard a loud boom and turned to see smoke rise towards the sky. The Suburban had exploded, hopefully bringing Daiyu Mei and her acolytes right where they belonged.

Keeping a steady pace, they followed the highway as it curved east then continued along a dirt road half-hidden among the bushes. Crazy Notch, with its 1000-feet long rounded ridge top, was less than a mile away.

A pond sat to their left, its calm waters reflecting the gray of the clouds above. The two partners stopped long enough to catch their breaths and wish the liquid was safe enough to drink before resuming their trek.

When the road split in front of them, Steve pointed right towards the ridge.

The wound in his calf and his injured ribs were hindering their progress, and a feeling of guilt slowly started to crawl its way inside of him. He pushed it back down, counting on the fact that their enemies didn’t know their way around like he did. That would hopefully work to their favor, giving them the advantage they needed.

“You sure it’s the right way?” Danny asked, noticing that they were heading south and back towards the highway. “Steve?”

“What?”

“We’re looping right back where we started.”

“We’re not,” he reassured him. “Look.”

A quarter of a mile ahead, a 75-foot-high slope rose against the sky, awaiting them.

Steve glanced at his watch.

They’d made good time, covered a lot of distance. He had suffered in silence every painstaking and lightheaded step of the way, and all he wanted was to just collapse right then and there on the dirty road. The pain that had slightly abated thanks to the ibuprofen he’d downed was now back with a vengeance and his entire body throbbed, seeming to pulse along with his racing heart.

Despite all of that, his resolve was absolute. It was the last segment of their hike, and he had climbed higher and far more dangerous mountains than that. Mulling some thoughts over in his head as they walked, he had decided to ditch the original plan to get to the top of Crazy Notch in favor of the less intimidating slope that stood before the ridge. It would work just as well while saving them some time.

At some point, he thought he heard voices in the distance and instinctively quickened his pace. He wasn’t naïve enough to think their enemies had all perished in the explosion. Things like that didn’t happen in real life. More than likely, they were already in pursuit.

Beside him, Danny was uncharacteristically silent. Steve could tell he was worried and didn’t blame him one bit. He himself was feeling like his whole nightmare was coming to light all over again. Here they were, once again being chased, his best friend’s life in danger because of him. Daiyu Mei was trying to kill them both and if she did, his sacrifice would have meant nothing in the end.

“I can hear you thinking,” Danny said suddenly as if he’d been reading his mind.

It would have been scary if he didn’t know him so well.

Steve tilted his head towards him, debating whether or not to tell him the truth. “This is my fault…”

The blond let out an exasperated sigh. “Didn’t we clear that already?”

“I’m serious, Danny. You should leave me right here.”

“To go where? Huh? We’re in the middle of nowhere!”

“I could stall them,” Steve tried, looking totally and utterly miserable. “Give you time to—”

“Stop it, Steve, alright? I’m not leaving and you’re not running out on me again. I get why you did it the first time, okay? I do, but we’re not having this conversation again. We’re in this together, you and me. Until the end. Got it?”

Steve’s whole body deflated and he nodded shakily. Despite being terrified of Danny getting hurt again, he knew at the same time that his partner was right. They were stronger together than apart.

“Yeah,” he finally acknowledged.

“Good.” Danny glanced at the rising ground before them. “Besides, I knew I was gonna come rescue your ass since the day you left.”

A small smile curved Steve’s lips. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Let’s say over the years you’ve become predictable, Steven,” Danny smirked, patting him on the back. “Let’s go, we have a hill to climb.”

Their animate discussion had brought them at the foot of the slope. The two friends looked at each other, nodded to renew their resolve, and began the ascent.

Steve kept his head down as they climbed. Despite Danny’s reassurances, there was still a part of him that remembered in vivid details the conversation with Daiyu Mei in Halawa and the many ways she had threatened everyone he held dear. Those dark thoughts had been ruling most of his awake moments and were refusing to abate.

A couple of feet ahead, Danny wiped the sweat from his eyes. The whole slope was thickly grown with bushes nearly as tall as him, and forcing their way up against the branches pushing back down was proving to be a dreadfully slow and arduous process for both.

The shrubs were all wet and, much to Danny’s aggravation, soon the two of them were soaked.

“We survive this, I am never climbing again,” he stated, emphasizing his words with a hand gesture. “Ever. Not even stairs.”

Steve smiled through the pain that was constricting his chest. “Almost... there.”

True to his word, they made it to the top of the slope soon after that.

Releasing a weary breath, Steve collapsed to his knees at the sudden fatigue that, combined with the pains he had been fighting to ignore, took hold of him as soon as he reached flat land. Chin falling against his chest, he closed his eyes and struggled to catch his breath, willing his body not to succumb to the exhaustion threatening to claim him.

“Steve?” Danny was there in an instant, putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Hey, buddy, you alright?”

Eyes slightly wide and betraying the surprise at the way the climb had winded him down he simply nodded, raising a shaky hand to let his best friend know he needed a moment to pull himself together.

“It’s alright,” Danny murmured, rubbing soothing circles on his back. “You’re alright…”

Despite the pain, Steve’s only thought was to keep them safe. “Check… see if they’re coming. I’ll be… t-there in a sec.”

Knowing they had no time to waste, Danny reluctantly left his partner’s side to do as instructed.

Ahead of them rose a hilly area, all densely covered with bushes. After that, an open spot made up of tundra and rocky ground. Steve watched him walk up to the edge of the slope, scanning the ground below for signs of their enemy.

Elevation had indeed its advantages. Above all, it gave them the time to prepare. That was his first thought when he heard Danny’s voice announcing that three dark-clad figures were quickly approaching the foot of the hill they’d just climbed. Two men, and a woman at the head.

He sighed.

They had counted four people in the Suburban, so the crash and subsequent explosion had only killed one.

Hopes suddenly dashed, Steve quickly got to his feet.

He was nowhere near fine or combat-ready, but all of that didn’t matter anymore. It was time to fight. Daiyu Mei was there, and the only way she was leaving was in a body bag. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

“What do we do?” Danny asked as he jogged back to where he was standing.

Despite his rumpled appearance, the messed-up hair and sweat-dampened clothes, there was an unwavering loyalty and confidence in Steve’s abilities in his eyes that no other human being had ever showed him before.

Steve intended to repay that trust even if it killed him.

He checked his SIG, frowning as he realized that he was short on ammo.

“What’s wrong?”

“I only got three bullets. You?”

Danny’s hand went to his hip, searching for the familiar weight of the weapon at his side.

Only it wasn’t there.

Puzzled, he lifted his jacket and shirt, checking to see if he’d put it elsewhere. He felt each pocket, patted down every part of his body, and still couldn’t find it.

Then it dawned on him.

“Shit! Shit… Steve, I’m sorry. I had it in my lap while I was driving and the crash must’ve thrown it somewhere. I just didn’t— Stupid… so stupid!”

The horrified expression on his friend’s face betrayed the utter desolation he was feeling. It broke Steve’s heart. If it wasn’t for Danny’s driving skills and presence of mind, they could’ve both died long before they made it up the hill.

“It’s alright, Danny,” he reassured him. “Hey... hey! It’s all good, buddy. Here, take mine. I’m a SEAL, remember? I can kill people with a fingernail.”

That might’ve been true if his ribs weren’t fractured and he could count on the speed and agility his younger self possessed in spades, but he’d rather die trying than make Danny feel like he had failed.

His weak attempt at humor was quickly dismissed with a firm shake of the head. “Absolutely not,” Danny said back. “You’re in worse shape, you need it more than I do.”

Not bothering with a reply, Steve thrust the SIG into his partner’s hand and walked as quickly as he could towards the edge. He needed to see for himself how close their enemies were and what he could do to stop them.

Using a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, Daiyu Mei and her men were approaching the slope from different sides. The high ground gave Steve and Danny cover from below, both in terms of being detected as well as being hit. It also gave them mobility, making it harder for the criminals to pinpoint their exact location. Those advantages, however, were partly neutralized by their lack of fire power, and it took some effort and a few creative solutions to defeat the two males before they reached the top.

By the time the second thug fell in a heap on the hard ground below and the two friends jogged back to their safe spot on the flat esplanade, she was standing on the opposite side of the slope, gun leveled in their direction.

She had used her own men as a diversion to sneak up on them while they were busy fighting.

The climb hadn’t bothered her one bit. In fact, she had barely broken a sweat. It wasn’t a surprise considering how easily she’d leapt between the shipping containers at the docks during their last confrontation, surprisingly agile for a woman her age. Even the crash hadn’t slowed her down, the only signs of it a bruise on her temple and a few dirt stains on her pantsuit.

A frown briefly crossed her face as she looked around. Clearly, the open space and sparse vegetation wasn’t what she expected. Steve, who was instead very familiar with the place, hoped he could use that to their advantage. He motioned for Danny to stand behind him and aimed the gun his friend had slipped back into his grasp at the woman’s chest. They only had one bullet left and he wasn’t taking any unnecessary risks.

Her disappointment quickly turned to delight as soon as their eyes met.

“Well, isn’t this nice?” she sneered. “The three of us finally together…” Her gaze slowly traveled from Steve to Danny and stopped there, staring as if to challenge him. “I have to confess that was my original plan, back on the island. Get both of you, have him watch while you suffered… and eventually kill you, just like he killed my husband.”

Steve’s arm rose to the left, urging his partner not to give in to the threats she was clearly eager to carry out.

Danny, who had no intention of hiding and stayed right by his friend’s side, completely ignored him.

“You know, for someone who’s about to die you look remarkably at ease.”

Daiyu Mei smiled the wry, amused grin of someone who was about to squash a bug under their foot. “I see you haven’t changed. You still have quite the mouth, Detective.”

Steve wanted to kill her right then and there, use his last bullet to send her straight to Hell, but he was afraid she’d shoot back and hit Danny, who was stubbornly refusing to take cover.

“You leave my partner alone,” he warned. “I’m the one you want, right? Well, here I am.”

“Always the protector… Did he tell you what he did?” she asked, eyes still trained on Danny to gauge his reaction. “How he left everything behind just so you and your family could live?”

“I know what he did,” Danny replied without missing a beat. “And I respect him a hell of a lot more because of it.”

Weapon still leveled at her chest, Steve listened to the exchange with increasing worry. His partner was a trained negotiator, but sometimes he didn’t know when to stop. All it would take was one well-placed shot to silence him forever.

He couldn’t let that happen.

His vision blurred for a moment and he nearly lost his balance. The physical effort of the climb and fighting her two henchmen had knocked the wind out of him and exhaustion was once again threatening to pull him under. Tapping at his very last reserves Steve squared his shoulders, schooling his features into a stony mask of anger.

“You look a little worse for wear, Commander. I see life in the wilderness hasn’t treated you well.”

“And who do we have to thank for that?” Danny spat, challenging her once again.

If looks could kill, she would be dead just from the intensity of both men’s stares.

A look of pure hatred crossed Daiyu Mei’s face. She glared at Danny, shifting her aim towards him.

“Move away from him.”

“Why?”

Now.”

Steve’s eyes widened, betraying his fear.

He briefly glanced into his partner’s eyes, wanting to offer him support, only to find out he couldn’t give him the reassurance he needed. As hard as it was to admit it, his empty magazine gave her all the power. All they could do was comply with her requests and wait for the right time to strike.

Sending him an apologetic glance, he nodded slightly and tightened the grip on his SIG, following Danny’s movements as he slowly started to move forward.

There were so many things he wanted to say to her, so much anger for the situation she’d put him in, the people he’d hurt as a result and the time he had irreparably lost.

Exhaustion gave way to rage, a fury so deep he felt it burn from the inside.

“You’re not gonna get out of here alive,” he hissed.

With a flick of her wrist, Daiyu Mei motioned for Danny move even closer. Then, satisfied to have separated them, she turned her attention back to Steve.

“We’ll see about that.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to finish what I started. Took my men a long time to find you, but then your partner here made a phone call and all I had to do was follow. Two birds with one stone.”

Steve did his best to ignore the guilt plastered on his friend’s face, focusing instead on how to get their enemy close to the 30-foot-deep ravine that was ahead of them. He remembered crossing it, and having a hard time getting back up. If he could manage to get her near it, they might have a chance at overpowering her.

“Put your gun down,” she continued.

“I’m not putting my gun down,” Steve replied, carefully and deliberately raising his arm to point the SIG at Daiyu Mei’s head. “You wanna kill me? Do it now, but let my partner go.”

Arms outstretched at his sides, Danny tried to voice his dissent. “Steve…”

Steve held out one finger to silence him, and took a step forward.

She instinctively took a step back.

“I’m done hiding, and I’m in no condition to run. You want your revenge? Take it.”

“That would be a little anticlimactic now, wouldn’t it?

Clearly, she had no desire to rush things. She was enjoying the confrontation too much and seemed to want to savor every moment.

Whether that was a good or a bad thing, they’d find out later.

“I should’ve killed you when I had the chance,” Steve whispered darkly, his gun trained unwaveringly on her. “This time I’m not gonna stop.”

“Then why are you still hesitating?” she taunted him.

Out of all the enemies he’d fought in his life, Daiyu Mei was probably one of the most dangerous. She was smart and ruthless and quick to spot her opponent’s weaknesses. He gauged his distance as he stared at her, his expression hard and cold, and how to trick her into moving right where he needed her.

His leg was throbbing, and he wasn’t sure how long he could keep up his act if even the occasional gust of wind threatened to knock him to the ground.

Even so, he advanced a few more steps.

Again, she retreated.

Unconcerned by the weapon leveled at him, Danny followed his partner’s lead and got closer as well.

Daiyu Mei glanced at him briefly. The fact that he wasn’t armed made her wrongly dismiss him as non-threatening, or at least Steve hoped so. The truth couldn’t have been farther from that, and she realized it a moment later when they finally got their chance.

A shot rang through the air, startling them all.

Her eyes flicked towards the sound.

The distraction was all Danny needed to dive towards her, knocking the gun off her hand and jabbing an elbow into her ribs. Daiyu Mei doubled over, groaning from the impact, giving him the opportunity to slam the same elbow into her back.

Eyes widening in alarm, Steve watched with growing horror as they started fighting, feeling every bit of the tension and the intensity of the struggle. Gripping his SIG with both hands he moved it from side to side, desperately wanting to pull the trigger but having no clear shot to do so. His heart was beating furiously into his chest, and every damn second that went by felt like the longest of his life.

In front of him, Danny continued to strike. Face twisted with rage, he drove his fist into Daiyu Mei’s nose and was rewarded with the satisfying crunch of bones breaking. She stumbled, disoriented, her feet sliding on the concrete as she backed away. “I’m gonna kill you!” she snarled through tear-filled eyes, her words muffled by the blood running down her face.

“Not today,” he countered, taking advantage of her temporary loss of vision and driving another fist into her gut.

Like a cornered beast with nothing to lose, Daiyu Mei lunged back at him, desperate to hit. Danny caught her arm midway through the motion, twisting it behind her back. Growling through gritted teeth, she pulled her left leg back and struck out, hitting him in the knee. Danny grunted, swinging another punch towards her head. She blocked it, countering with an upward cut to his jaw.

“Danny!” Steve called out in a panic as he saw his best friend lose momentum. Everything was happening so fast he had a hard time keeping up with the action.

Oblivious of the pain and everything else around him, Danny tackled his opponent to the ground, slamming her against the rocky terrain. They rolled around, trading blows for what — to Steve — seemed like an eternity. Then, after landing a particularly hard punch that left her down on all fours, struggling to breathe, Danny finally managed to wriggle out of her grasp and lunged for the weapon, aiming it back at her.

Steve saw his opening and did the same.

As she rose to her feet, two shots went off simultaneously.

Two bullets, fired from different angles but with the same determination, both equally lethal, found their way to their intended target, hitting Daiyu Mei square in the chest.

She staggered backwards, heaving in a startled breath as blood started to gush out of the wounds. Mouth open in disbelief, she stared at them with an incredulous look until she accidentally reached the edge of the slope and lost her footing, falling right down the ravine.

The last thing Steve saw before she disappeared from sight was her outstretched arm trying to grasp at one of the bushes nearby.

After that, there was only silence.

Empty gun still trained as if he was expecting her to climb back up, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing his heart back to a normal rhythm. A few feet from him, Danny peered over the edge, nodding his head in content. He was sporting a blackening eye and a large, purple bruise on his jawline, but there was an unmistakable glint in his eyes and a victorious grin on his face.

“You alright?” Steve asked.

They were both covered in sweat and breathing hard from stress and exertion.

“Yeah,” Danny reassured him quietly.

Proud didn’t even begin to cover how he felt. Danny had singlehandedly fought and defeated their nemesis while all he could do was stare.

It had been impressive.

And incredibly stupid.

“What the hell was that? Are you crazy?”

Danny’s grin widened. “It worked, didn’t it?”

Steve stared at the ravine below. “Yeah. Yeah, it did.”

Suddenly, his arms and legs seemed to give way and he felt himself falling. Blood started rushing in his ears, drowning every other sound, and as his heart rate increased again and his vision grayed around the edges he hit the ground with a thud, unable to speak or move.

‘She’s dead… She’s finally dead,’ his mind kept telling him.

Steve opened his mouth to gulp in a lungful of air, desperate to stop the way his head was spinning and his breath faltering. As he let that thought sink in, all the feelings he had kept bottled up for eighteen months — the fear, the grief, the loneliness — came crashing down on him with the force of a thousand bombs. He had been afraid for so long, struggling to keep it together, and now he didn’t need to anymore. Emotions came pouring out of him, strong and unrelenting, and he was caught up in the intensity of the moment, powerless against the flood that threatened to sweep him away.

“Hey... you with me?” he heard when the roaring finally subsided and his breathing slowed down from next-to-impossible to shallow, pained spurts. He looked up, rubbing his eyes and squinting at the daylight to bring Danny into focus. His friend was kneeling down in front of him, both hands on his knees, worry etched in every feature.

“You’re hurt...” he breathed as he stared at the multicolored bruises on his partner’s face.

“Nah, it’s nothing,” Danny shrugged. His shoulders visibly relaxed as some of the tension eased away and he dropped to the ground next to his partner. Much to Steve’s surprise, he leaned all the way back and laid on the damp soil, closing his eyes.

“Danno?” he called.

Danny smiled at the familiar nickname. It reminded him of home, of Grace, of all the good he had in his life. “Yeah,” he replied, a hint of a smile on his face.

He looked over at Steve, relieved that he was alive. They were hurt, bone-tired, giant messes of scars and unresolved issues, but they were back together. As partners and best friends they had fought and survived, always being there for each other.

Steve smiled back. A genuine smile, probably the first since before Danny had been kidnapped. He felt completely spent, but at the same time also relieved. There was a levity to his soul that he hadn’t felt in years, and a dizzying rush of freedom coursing through his veins.

“Thanks for coming.”

“Well... Eddie missed you, so I didn’t have much choice.”

Steve’s smile turned into a grin at the snarky comeback. He knew better than to start laughing, so he just nodded gratefully and tipped his head back, looking at the sky, inhaling deeply.

There were clouds above them, slowly drifting by in the wind, but the rain had thankfully held off. The setting, the glorious view, everything felt so peaceful as they sat there side by side. For some reason, it reminded him of home.

This? Reminds you of home?” Danny replied when Steve voiced his thought out loud. “Really, Steve? We’re literally sitting on rocks, it’s cold, I haven’t seen the sun since I got here, and this reminds you of Hawaii?” He tiredly rose to his feet and held out his hand. “You sure you didn’t hit your head?”

Steve accepted it, allowing his friend to help him to his feet. “’M good.”

His face creased in pain from the pull on his ribs, instantly betraying his statement, and it took him a moment to feel stable enough to stand without assistance.

Their eyes locked, and it felt like peering into each other’s souls.

They saw the love behind their gazes, burning with the kind of flame that never dies, and felt the pull of a deeper, more meaningful connection. An overwhelming urge to feel, to touch, to offer and receive reassurance.

Stripped out of their respective roles, on top of a forsaken hill, they were just two friends getting back together and celebrating life. Through danger and discomfort, difficulty and fatigue, they’d held on and kept going, not for themselves but for the sake of the other.

Steve’s breathing became softer; the pained, pensive look quickly melting into another smile. Hoping that his eyes would make up for all the words stuck in his head, he leaned in and wrapped both arms around Danny, letting out a soft sigh when he felt the other man clasp his hands around his lower back. His discomfort receded to a dark, remote corner of his mind and he just enjoyed the warmth of his best friend’s body wrapping like a blanket around him.

They leaned into the touch, desperate for affection after everything they had been through and the months they’d spent apart, hearing their respective hearts beating and finally feeling safe.

Danny’s hug was warm and protective, strong enough to let Steve know that nobody else would ever hurt him if he could help it but not to cause pain. It grounded him, reassuring him that he was loved and that every ounce of his best friend’s being was dedicated to it.

It was the most comforting feeling in the world, and it gave him the hope he needed.

He clung firmly to it, cherishing every second. Danny’s fondness seemed to seep into his own skin and if he started to breathe a bit unevenly, his injured ribs weren’t the reason.

Time lost meaning for a while as they stood there hugging each other until behind them, someone cleared their throat.

They quickly pulled away, fearing it was another one of Daiyu Mei’s thugs, and stared in surprise as the man they’d come to know as the lodge manager walked towards them, gun in hand. This time, he was wearing a police uniform: light blue shirt with dark blue cuffs and pocket flaps, blue pants with yellow and red stripes and a baseball hat with the words ‘State Trooper’ embroidered on it. Judging from the patches sewn on his shirt, his rank was Sergeant.

He stopped a few feet from them, calmly holstered his weapon, and studied Steve with an inquiring gaze.

“Your name isn’t John, is it?”

Steve looked down sheepishly for a moment, chewing his bottom lip. “Lieutenant Commander Steve McGarrett,” he then said, extending his hand. “This is my partner, Detective Danny Williams.”

Danny did the same, shaking his hand firmly. “You, uh… what? Double as law enforcement?”

“I actually do. Sergeant Ben Miller. My wife manages the lodge. I help out when I can.”

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” Steve apologized. “I didn’t want to cause any trouble.”

Hands on his hips in a guarded but relaxed stance, the older man nodded. “Seems to me that whatever trouble was following you has been taken care of.” He paused, an amused smirk crossing his features. “I made sure to solve one of those problems myself. “

As his words registered in Steve’s brain, he realized that the shot they’d heard, the distraction that had made it possible for them to survive, had come from his gun.

“Yes, Sir, thank you. How’d you find us?”

“I received this weird phone call from a Lou Grover in Hawaii asking me to make sure you two were okay.”

Feeling his heart burst with pride at what his team — his family, had done, Steve smiled as well.

“That’s my team, Sir. We care for each other.”

“I can see that. You guys alright?”

Danny heaved a dramatic sigh.

“I’m gonna file this under ‘Things I don’t need to experience again’, but I’m glad I came here.”

He smiled fondly as he said that, earning a nod of approval from the State Trooper and a pat on the back from Steve.

“You’re a good friend,” Miller commended him. “Now, let’s get out of here. I’ll give you a ride to the hospital and send someone to take this trash out my land.”

Steve limped hard as they started to head down, the adrenaline that had driven him and sharpened his focus starting to fade from his bloodstream. Danny noticed and slid in next to him, putting an arm around his waist. “Sergeant, can you recommend a good place to eat?” he asked to divert the Trooper’s attention knowing that his partner didn’t like to show weakness. “I’d kill for a burger right about now.”

“I know just the place,” Miller replied, getting the hint and looking away. “And if memory serves me, the Commander is still paid up through Sunday. I’ll tell my wife to cook her special. You guys will love it.”

“Sounds great. Thank you, Sir,” Steve replied, grabbing his friend around the shoulders with a relieved sigh.

“Oh, and Steve?” Danny added as they shuffled their way to the Sergeant’s truck, softly enough so that only he could hear, “Next time you decide to go and save the world, I’d like to be advised.”

Chapter Text

***

“I’m having a deja vu moment,” Danny declared as he sat on Steve’s bed back at the lodge a few hours later.

After getting checked out and released from the hospital, they’d been given a ride back to the motel where Celeste, Miller’s wife, was waiting with the most delicious food Danny had tasted in a while.

Stomach full, medications already kicking in, they had retreated for the night with the promise that they would be back for her breakfast in the morning.

Dragging their weary bodies from the dining area to Steve’s room had taken longer than they both expected, and as he sat on the comfy mattress Danny thought he could’ve slept right then and there, upright and fully clothed.

Steve was in the bathroom, getting ready for bed. The whole situation reminded him of the time he had traveled to Washington DC after Doris’ death and they’d ended up sleeping in the same room despite his partner’s early protests.

The one thing those two moments had in common was Danny’s fierce determination to be there for his friend in his time of need.

“What?” came Steve’s muffled voice from the half-open door.

“I said I’m— never mind,” he shrugged. “You coming out of there anytime soon? It’s late and I’m tired.”

Steve appeared in the doorway, looking at him with a mixture of annoyance and amusement. “Don’t you have your own room? Bathroom, a perfectly good bed? I distinctly remember Sergeant Miller arranging that while we were driving back.”

“Too far away,” Danny muttered through a yawn.

“Danny, it’s two doors down.”

“Can’t move. Too tired.”

If he was being too obvious, Danny didn’t care. He had almost lost him again, they’d both almost died, and now that they were safe — together — he was reluctant to let go. Steve would just have to deal with it.

As it turned out, his best friend felt exactly the same.

He walked out of the bathroom, wearing only a pair of sweatpants and a towel around his neck. Hair still damp from his shower, he came to sit on the edge of the bed right by Danny’s side. His whole torso was littered by deeply colored bruises, a stark reminder of what they’d been through, and Danny’s chest tightened as his mind conjured up the woman’s face and replayed her taunting words.

“I’m fine, man,” Steve reassured him despite still looking worn out, placing a hand on his thigh. “We’re both fine. We survived.”

Danny sighed. “I know. I just…”

Don’t wanna leave
Can’t stand to be apart

“Yeah. Me too.”

Without adding another word, Steve went to grab a t-shirt from his backpack, put it on with some effort courtesy of his injuries, then tossed the covers aside and slid into bed. A moment later, Danny kicked off his shoes and did the same. Between the jet lag and the day’s adventures, he felt like he hadn’t slept in days.

He laid there on his back, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling and listening to Steve breathe until he heard him speak from under the covers.

“We’re okay, you and me. Right?”

Danny smiled to himself. After so many months of solitude, of feeling sad and incomplete, they finally had the chance to start again and make new memories, and he didn’t intend to waste even a single second.

“Yeah,” he replied, closing his eyes. “Yeah, we are.”

They were both asleep a moment later.

***

Steve woke up sometime the next morning to the warmth of his partner’s arm on his chest.

Eyes still closed, he felt the weight of it pressing on his cracked ribs but made no attempt to move. Instead, he smiled to himself. Personal space had been a relative concept for them since the day they’d met. The lack of it casual, at first, prompted by Danny’s natural ease to show affection, and then yearned for and sought after.

A small touch could fix a bad day, he had learned.

A hug or a pat on the back always lifted his mood like nothing else could.

He hadn’t fought Danny’s idea to sleep in the same bed, just like that night in Washington DC two years before, because he didn’t want to be alone. He never wanted to experience that solitude again, or the emptiness that had filled his days. The silence that had almost suffocated him. All of that was in the past now.

Carefully snaking an arm from under the blankets, Steve grabbed his watch.

6:43am.

He tucked the same arm under his head and sighed contentedly. Nobody had ever really asked him what he wanted but if they did now, he’d answer that he wanted to feel exactly like this.

Comfortable.
Relaxed.
At peace.

Danny was still out, breathing deeply, his lips slightly parted. Steve could feel the heat coming off of him, and it made him think of all the times they’d fallen asleep on his couch back home, sitting side by side, and he’d pretended to be dozing just to enjoy the moment.

When Danny moved to turn to the other side, mumbling something unintelligible that made Steve’s lips curve into another smile, he quietly rolled out of bed and padded to the bathroom.

Fifteen minutes later he was showered, dressed, and had taken his first round of meds. Figuring he’d give his friend some extra time to get over the jet lag and the excitement of the previous day, he scribbled a note that he’d be back in a few and limped out of the room.

Outside, Alaska treated him with one of the most beautiful sunrises he had ever seen, or maybe it was his lifted spirit that made the air fresher and colors brighter. Everything around him seemed to have an energizing quality that made him feel thankful and alive.

He met Ben Miller, who had just finished his breakfast and was on his way to work, and got the much-needed confirmation that Daiyu Mei was really dead, that they’d recovered her body and it was safely stored at the local morgue until the Feds came to reclaim it and dispose of as they pleased. Hearing the words that finally put an end to his nightmare felt even more invigorating, and the handshake that the two men shared soon turned into a hug that meant both ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’.

‘You’re a long way from home, son,’ Miller told him before they parted, and Steve realized that yes, he was, and that it was time to come back.

Next, he called Lou to personally thank him for saving their lives. Emotions ran wild as the two friends caught up with each other after a long time. Steve learned that the team had been tracking their movements through Danny’s cell phone and that, upon realizing they were in trouble, had sent the local authorities after them. Right before the phone call ended, Lou made him promise that enough was enough, and that he’d be on the first plane home. Steve agreed before the older man even finished his sentence.

When he came back to the room, energized and with a newfound appetite for food and life, Danny was awake and getting dressed.

“Hey,” he greeted him with a smile.

Danny hissed as the t-shirt he was struggling to put on brushed against the bruises on his face. “Hey. You left me a note.”

The sleep-mussed hair and the scowl on his face reminded Steve that his partner was not a morning person. Never had been, never would. The thought brought back a new wave of memories of domestic moments that they’d shared over the years. He couldn’t wait to have more.

“Yeah, I left you a note. I didn’t want you to worry.”

Danny’s eyebrows shot to his forehead. “You didn’t want me to worry? Why, that’s really nice of you, Steven, considering you left me worrying for the last year and a half!”

“Danny…”

“What? I don’t remember getting a letter when you left for this little adventure.”

Steve rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly uncomfortable. He hadn’t thought about the letter in a while.

Even half asleep, Danny caught on to the mood change immediately. “You did? Oh my god, you did! You wrote me a letter, didn’t you?” He dropped the flannel shirt he was holding on the bed and sat down, staring at him in disbelief. “You son of a bitch... I can’t believe you! Where is it? Why didn’t I get it?”

Steve walked up to the window, gaze focused on the view outside. “At the cabin. I wanted you to know the truth in case something happened to me.”

“Can I read it?”

“Danny, I don’t... I don’t know.”

Sensing his friend’s discomfort, Danny waved an almost dismissive hand to put an end to the awkward conversation. “Alright, forget about it. I already know everything I need.” He really didn’t need to read the words. In his heart, he already knew them. Picking up the discarded shirt, he put it on and started tying his boots. “Speaking of, do you want to go back there? You got any more stuff you need to grab before we leave?”

“No,” Steve answered firmly. He didn’t want to see that place ever again. “Anything I need, I’ll buy when I get home.”

Home.

It felt so good to say the word and realize that, this time, he was really going back.

“Alright. You hungry?”

“Starving,” he admitted with a grin.

“Then let’s go eat this delicious breakfast we were promised.”

***

“Steve?”

“What?”

“Are you really coming back?”

“What do you mean, Danny? We’re sitting at the airport, aren’t we?”

“I mean, maybe it was kind of a lie but you said you needed peace. Do you still need that? Because now you say you are but maybe in a month or two you’re gonna decide you need to leave again…”

“I won’t.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because even if I do, this time I won’t be alone. You say it all the time, after all. Can’t go anywhere without my backup, right?”

***

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have started our descent into Honolulu International. From this moment, all electronic devices must be turned off. Please make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened and that your seats and tray tables are in the fully upright position. All carry-on items must be secured under the seat in front of you or in the overhead lockers. Thank you.”

The flight attendant’s calm, reassuring voice came over the intercom, informing all passengers that they were about to land. A moment later, the airplane tilted slightly to the left, starting to turn.

Steve lifted the window shades to catch a glimpse of the world beneath them.

The blue of the ocean filled his eyes and slowed down his rapidly beating heart. He couldn’t wait to be in it, to be one with it, to swim until his muscles cramped. Le’ahi, better known as Diamond Head, sat with its iconic silhouette next to it along the Honolulu skyline, just beyond Waikiki.

As the plane descended, more details came into view: small cars heading down one-way roads, neatly lined houses nestled between the golden sand and the green trees, and the tall buildings of downtown Honolulu.

Feeling his ears pop, Steve opened his mouth to release the pressure. He couldn’t tear his gaze away from those views, but he did it long enough to turn towards Danny and give him a smile.

A mixture of fear and hope had followed him the whole way back from Alaska, along with questions he had still not found an answer to.

Was he ready to go back to work? Be a leader again and ask his friends for the same trust that he’d betrayed by not informing them of what was going on?

Had he really put all his demons to rest? Gotten past the traumas of losing too many people he cared about?

How could he start this new chapter of his life if the baggage he was carrying was the same, if not heavier?

‘It takes courage to forgive yourself. Put the past behind you and move on.’

He had said those very words to Lincoln Cole, trying to shake the young man into acknowledging and getting over his traumas.

Did he have enough courage to do the same?

As he stared outside, pondering over that, he felt Danny’s hand on his forearm. The gesture brought back memories of another flight, of another hand interlacing with his, of his fingers curling around it in a desperate attempt to soothe the despair and the loneliness he was feeling.

He had latched onto Catherine as his life spiraled down and he was forced to abandon his home. At that time, it had helped not to be alone, but even as he’d returned her affection he knew it would never be more than that.

Now, eighteen months later, he was holding onto someone else, hoping that this second chance at life that they’d been granted would mark the beginning of the healing they so desperately needed.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Local time is 11:09am and the temperature is 73 degrees. For your safety, please remain seated with your seat belt fastened until the fasten seat belt sign is turned off. You may now use your electronic devices. Please make sure…”

Steve took a steadying breath, closing his eyes and drowning out the voice as he centered himself.

He was home.

Around them, passengers started to get up, ignoring the crew’s advice and crowding the hallway to retrieve their luggage and line up for the exit. The two friends remained seated, gaze locked, feeling the weight of such a special moment.

Danny’s hand was still there, lingering on his arm.

“You ready?” he asked softly. His eyes said ‘I’m here’, ‘We’re fine’, and so much more.

Steve believed him.

If there was something he had learned over the last decade, it was that family didn’t have much to do with blood but everything to do with heart. And his heart, with every beating fiber of it, was telling him that he was right where he belonged.

“Yeah.”

I am.

THE END