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Beneath the Trident

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Beautiful art work by neevebrody

***

 

A steady mist of water sprays Danny in the face, slowly soaking his shirt and pants. He grips the back of the leather seat, the speedboat bouncing nauseatingly along the water as Chin guides it closer to the yacht.

"This isn't an episode of Miami Vice, Steven!"

"If we wait on the Coast Guard, Carlton will get away," Steve yells.

"That doesn't mean we had to steal this ugly death cigar!"

"We borrowed it." Steve shoulders past Danny to gaze out at their target. "And it's called a Baja."

"It's a freaking racing banana!"

"Chin, see if you can get closer," Steve orders, ignoring him.

Steve narrows his eyes as if he's calculating crazy things like trajectory and impossible physics equations.

Danny hates that look. "What are you planning?"

Kono steals a glance at both of them before peering through her binoculars. "I can see Tyler. He's still alive."

Steve starts unlacing his boots, setting off one of Danny's warning alarms.
"No, no, no! You can't outswim a damn boat!"

"I hit the gas tank during the shootout on the docks," Steve says as he empties his pockets. "It probably has less than two or three minutes of fuel left. Chin's going to get as close to it as possible and you guys are going to distract Carlton and his men."

Chin doesn't bat an eye at the insanity while Danny's blood pressure doubles.
"And let me guess, you're just going to sneak onboard without Carlton noticing?"

Steve grins. "Exactly."

"And by distract him, you mean we have to play target practice?" Danny asks, pulling out his weapon.

"That's why I want you guys to stay at a safe distance."

Chin and Kono both listen intently, but neither tries talking Steve out of his harebrained plan.

"It's insane."

Steve pulls his shirt over his head and tosses it next to the rest of his stuff. "It's strategically sound."

"Nothing about this is sound! It's you jumping into the water to play Aquaman!"

"Carlton's connected to over a dozen drug related murders. He won't hesitate to kill a child."

Danny doesn't need reminding about what's at stake. He feels revolted at the thought of Tyler in the hands of that sleaze ball; it's the only reason why Danny hasn't handcuffed his partner to the fucking railing.

Steve hands over his Sig and Danny curls his fingers around the weapon in question. "What the hell?"

"Sea water will make it useless." And before Danny can open his mouth, Steve unsheathes a knife from his cargo pants, slipping the strap around his wrist. "But I'll still be armed."

"Looks like Carlton's yacht is puttering out," Chin says.

Steve nods as if the whole thing has gone according to his demented plan and he waits for Chin to get closer.

"This is really stupid," Danny hisses.

Steve studies the waves. "I'll be fine. You guys be careful."

Kono readies her weapon. "You too, boss. We'll keep Carlton distracted."

Chin steers them within ten meters of the drifting vessel and Steve dives over the side.

***

Danny doesn't have time to strategize a plan when Carlton's men take an exception to their presence – with Uzis.

Kono returns fire, popping up and down like a jack-in-a box, Danny covering her. Chin maneuvers the boat one-handed, the other gripping his Sig, his body hidden behind the steering console. A stray bullet could kill Steve or Tyler and shooting in the air isn't very convincing so Danny aims off the port bow.

He has no idea where Steve is, if the idiot is still in the water or onboard, and Danny continues squeezing the trigger. It's hard to see what's going on with all the bullets flying, but the five blurry figures from the yacht suddenly become four, then three.

"Chin, get us closer," Danny orders, sweat and water dripping down his face.

The Uzis are loud over the roaring motor, but Carlton's men aren't firing at them anymore. They're shooting wildly around the deck.

"Goddamn it, Steve," Danny curses, willing the boat faster.

He watches two more bad guys go down, one spinning around from the impact of a bullet or a knife; it's hard to tell before they fall overboard. They're finally close enough to spot Steve, who must have grabbed one of the goons' weapons as he aims his Glock higher to compensate for Carlton's height, Tyler tucked close to drug leader's chest.

Chin steers their boat along the side of the yacht and Kono touches Danny's shoulder. "We'll board on the count of three?"

He nods and the two of them scramble over the side of the yacht, Danny keeping an eye on the escalating tête-à-tête. Tyler squirms in Carlton's firm grip and Steve – his stare is cold as ice, his Glock unwavering.

Even after two years, Danny hates seeing Steve's face void of all emotion, like he's a freaking machine. Danny steps over the body of one of Carlton's goons, the guy's head twisted at an impossible angle.

"Don't come any closer!" Carlton yells at Steve. "I'll kill the little bastard."

Danny and Kono inch closer to the standoff while Steve starts talking to the little boy.

"Tyler, I want you to do what I say, okay?" The child bobs his head up and down.
"I want you to close your eyes."

A chill goes down Danny's spine and Carlton opens his vile mouth to yell something when Steve adjusts his shoulders and fires a neat hole in the middle of Carlton's forehead.

Tyler runs over and clings to Steve like an orangutan. Steve holds onto the scared little boy. "Everything's going to be okay, buddy," he whispers.

Kono and Chin secure everyone who is still alive while Danny stares transfixed at the juxtaposition of Steve and the little boy.

Steve rubs his hands up and down Tyler's back and he lifts up his head a fraction of an inch to peer over at Danny with this soft, muted expression. Like everything is right in the world, and damn him, because a guy who just took out five people shouldn't make Danny want to give Steve a freaking hug, too.

Tyler slowly extricates himself from his dripping-wet crazy rescuer and Kono takes the boy's hand and leads him toward their speedboat and away from the carnage surrounding them.

Chin takes that moment to walk over, hands on his hips, surveying the deck. "You guys might want to check your phones. I've got three missed calls from Governor Denning's office."

"Are you kidding me?" Danny demands.

"Hey," Chin says, spreading his hands wide. "Someone had to call this in to the Coast Guard and I figured he wasn't trying to find me."

Danny pulls out his cell, his hands shaking from the receding adrenaline rush. Yep, four missed calls. "Are we on CNN?" He looks up, but there aren't any news choppers in the air. "Whatever shit we're in, I'm sure it's your fault," he accuses Steve, jabbing a finger at him.

"We did good today," Steve says and has the audacity to clap Danny on the back.

***

Of course, Steve keeps an extra set of clothes in the back of the Camaro because causing large-scale destruction is a messy job. Not that anyone would notice a difference since Steve must own stock in black t-shirts.

Danny wrinkles his nose at his partner. "You smell like dead fish."

"No, I don't, and you wouldn't let me stop to take a shower."

"I offered to use the fire hose from the dock."

Steve gives him a death glare and Danny glares right back, not even bringing up today's reckless stunt because it'd only fall on deaf ears.

They barely take two steps into the waiting room when Denning's secretary rises from her chair and ushers them toward the door. "They're expecting you."

Danny frowns at the word they, sharing a confused expression with Steve.

"Gentlemen," Denning greets them as he opens the door. "Take a seat."

A high-ranking naval officer and a guy in a stuffy suit watch them enter. Steve straightens to full attention while Danny crosses his arms over his chest.

"First off, good work today on the Roger Carlton bust and safe return of Maki Kei's son." Denning pauses, working his lower jaw. "I expect a detailed report regarding the unusual methods used in the rescue later."

Danny resists the urge to kick Steve in the shin. Thankfully, it doesn't take long for Denning to get down to business, leaning back in his leather chair while the rest of them stand.

"Now for the reason why I called you both in. Lt. Commander Steve McGarrett, Detective Danny Williams," Denning says, gesturing at each of them. "This is Captain Dale Bishop and Special Agent Keith Bailey of NCIS."

Agent Bailey steps forward; he's short with a round middle and a receding hairline. "Two days ago, Lieutenant Commander Ryan Johnson's body was found in his jeep; it had run off the Honoapillina Highway and down a ravine. The crash has all the hallmarks of an accident, but we think it was staged." Bailey holds up a file in his pudgy fingers. "Commander Johnson suffered a skull fracture as a result of blunt force trauma. The ME believes Johnson was struck twice in the back of the head with either a tire iron or some other metal bar."

"I didn't read anything about this," Steve says.

"We had it withheld from Monday's paper," Bailey explains cryptically. "But we're releasing the story today and ruling it an accident."

Steve studies Bailey's face. "You want the killer to think he got away with it."

"Killer or killers." All heads turn toward Captain Bishop, a man in his early fifties with shorn white hair. "We think the latter. Commander Johnson was leader of SEAL Team Five."

Steve clenches his jaw. "He was a SEAL?"

Danny crosses his arms even tighter across his chest; the McGarrett intensity level just went off the charts.

"Yes, he was," Bishop answers. "Team Five arrived on the island four days ago to prepare for a joint exercise with a unit from the British SBS. Those exercises are to commence in nine days."

Danny resists rolling his eyes at yet another military acronym. "SBS?"

"British Navy's Special Boat Service," Steve rattles off.

"British SEALs?" Danny summarizes.

"Kind of." But Steve doesn't elaborate, his attention solely on Captain Bishop. "Was Johnson involved in covert ops?" There's not an immediate answer and he grits his teeth. "You guys called this meeting. If you don't read us in—"

"Johnson's unit was involved in several sensitive operations," Bishop says succinctly. "We'll provide you with the needed reports."

"Are you anywhere with suspects?" Steve asks.

"No," Bailey responds.

"Do you have an idea if Johnson's death is related to his most recent activities?" Steve presses.

Bailey frowns. "We're not sure."

"You're not sure?" Danny asks, perplexed. "Do you guys have anything to go on or we all here to see how many people it takes to screw in a light bulb?"

"NCIS has several ongoing investigations at Pearl ranging from large scale robberies of equipment, to drug activity, and weapons smuggling," Bailey explains, frustration etched in his wrinkled features. "The problem is we don't have the means to narrow down a suspect list, and if it does involve anything sensitive, we don't want to scare off any suspects with an official investigation."

"And what? You think Five-0 won't?" Danny snorts, incredulous. "We're not necessarily low profile."

"They want us to go in undercover," Steve says, obviously reading in between the lines.

Danny blinks.

Bailey picks up a briefcase from Denning's desk and rifles through it. "We've already run everything by JAG and we're preparing both of your covers. Detective Williams will be in a civilian capacity and we found an instructor's position for you, Commander—"

"No," Steve interrupts.

Bailey freezes, confused. "No?"

"No," Steve repeats. "If I'm going in, I'll replace Johnson as team leader. The only way to find out anything on Johnson is to get close to his buddies."

"But they'll know you're a cop," Bailey says, stating the obvious.

"Yeah, but I'll go in as a reactivated SEAL," Steve argues. "They're a man down. His spot needs to be filled."

"Undercover, but right out in the open," Bailey ponders, pursuing his lips. "Huh. That's actually a good idea."

And that's all the validation Steve requires before diving right into his next outrageous scheme.

"I'll live with the other team members. If his death's related to their previous deployments, I'll find out. And if wasn't, I'll be in a better position to investigate other avenues."

"Commander, you've been in the reserves for nearly two years," Bishop reminds him, throwing a bucket of ice water on the conversation. "I have no doubt you're in great physical condition, but you are by no means in SEAL shape."

"I can do it, sir."

"I'm not going to lecture you about the physical and mental demands of leading a SEAL team." Bishop steps closer to Steve, rigid shoulders to rigid shoulders. "But this isn't your monthly drill. You're talking about leading a team in rigorous training and conducting joint exercises with one of the most elite foreign Special Forces in the world."

"I wouldn't suggest the idea or jeopardize this case if I didn't think I was up to the task." Steve matches Bishop's stern tone of voice. "I know my capabilities."

"There is more at stake than you realizing your capabilities, Commander."

"Yes, sir. But being on a SEAL team means thinking on your feet and there isn't a better strategic position than replacing Johnson."

Bishop's seen plenty of action; Danny can read it behind his blue-steel eyes, the same rawness he often sees reflected in Steve's.

"I've read your file; not only that, I know Rear Admiral Davis who personally recommended you for this task." Steve remains at parade rest as Bishop studies him. "I'm willing to believe your self-assessment given the successful resolution of hostage situation earlier today." He nods at Governor Denning. "I requested the Coast Guard's initial report on the ride over."

Steve darts his eyes from the governor to the captain. "Thank you, sir. I'll need files on everyone in the team."

"We'll get them to you by the end of the day," Bishop says with a curt nod.

"Excuse me," Danny says, clearing his throat just in case Steve forgot he was in the room. "It's nice and all that you're going to play Rambo again, but I didn't hear anything about my cover. You know, because I'm your partner, and partners watch each other's backs in dangerous situations."

"It's going to be very difficult to create a cover that'll allow you to be close to Commander McGarrett during platoon training," Bailey says, grim-faced.

"And the joint exercises will be conducted on Niihau Island." Bishop frowns at Danny. "I'm not sure how we could insert a civilian in the middle of sensitive maneuvers."

Danny waits for Steve to agree with his military fraternity and give his usual spiel about taking care of himself. Danny won't have any of it, sick of Steve's go-at-it-alone mentality when Steve beats him to the argument.

"I think I have the perfect cover."

Danny can't believe his ears; he must have a wax build-up. "You what?"

Anyone not trained in the McGarrett handbook of expressions would miss the slight uptick of his lips, which guarantees that Danny will absolutely hate his plan.

***

Danny scrolls through online articles of various news agencies, CNN, The Washington Post, and Time Magazine, cursing Steve to the high heavens.

"Hey," Chin says as he leans against the doorjamb. "I've looked over NCIS's set-up for you and it checks out."

"Fantastic, because I'm no closer to being even slightly prepared for this madness." Danny tosses his pencil down. "Do I look like a freaking reporter for Rolling Stone?"

"Actually, if you grow a little scruff and let Kono pick out your clothes, you'll be fine." Danny rolls his eyes and Chin smirks. "Rolling Stone's done some pretty heavy exposés on Afghanistan and Iraq, gone to Mexico to cover the cartels. They even had award-winning stuff on the revolution in Egypt, which by the way, was your latest article. You have a bio on the website."

"I'm on their website?"

Chin walks inside and types in the magazine's homepage. "NCIS got the magazine to use one of their regular reporter's names and replaced it with your picture just in case anyone looks it up." He laughs. "You lucked out; you guys have the same last name."

"Arnold Williams." Danny releases a heavy sigh. "Arnold? The whole thing's still ridiculous."

"Having you as an embedded reporter covering SEAL training is a stroke of genius. It gives you access to Steve's team and allows you to stick by his side without drawing suspicion since you're specifically attached to him."

"Yeah, yeah, and I promise not to report names or locations, yadda, yadda."

Since he isn't actually filing a real report, the Navy brass didn't give a damn about what he might see or hear, although he'd been forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

"At least your cover's easy," Chin chuckles. "Act like a detective; ask questions and observe."

"Yeah, with a bunch of adrenaline junkies. Speaking of, have you heard from Steve? He dropped off these books." Danny waves a hand over his desk. "And told me he'd see me in a couple days when he picked me up."

"Ever heard of a pro boxer coming out of retirement only to return to the ring two days later?" Chin's expression is both a little awed and apprehensive. "The man has some preparations to do."

"I imagine it's like an alpha wolf taking over a pack." And Danny really, really loathes the thought.

"I don't think anyone on Steve's SEAL team is going to try to take him down, brah."

"But Steve's got to be the biggest bad ass on his team to earn their respect. I know that much."

"Yeah, he does," Chin concedes, his eyes thoughtful. "But you'll have his back."

"Not like I should. Not when he's doing…whatever he does," Danny says, frustrated.

"You'll have it where it counts." Chin must sense the anxious tension in the room and switches subjects. "How much arm wrestling did it take to get him to agree to some backup?"

"None." Danny smiles at that. Chin looks at him with a fond grin of his own and Danny snorts, shaking his head. "The jerk probably knew I'd kick his ass into next week if he didn't."

He basks in the silence, allowing the warmth to soothe away the growing itch of worry.

Chin moves around his desk and rifles through Steve's required reading materials. "This is quite a collection; I wonder if McGarrett's got notations in the margins?"

"I wouldn't be surprised." Danny inspects the books about SEAL Teams. "I don't know what he expects me to learn from these; it's not like I haven't been partnered with him for the last two years."

"You're only seen one tiny aspect he's allowed us to see. Besides, all the extra insight might be helpful considering the company you'll be keeping."

God, he could barely deal with one Steve McGarrett, let alone a dozen.

"I'm going to end up in five point restraints in a padded room."

"Maybe give one of those books a read; I'd start with this one," Chin says, pointing to the book at the bottom of the stack before leaving.

Danny snags the paperback and leans back in his chair. He traces the spine of the book right over the title, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, and suddenly, Danny's almost afraid to read it.

***

An annoying guitar riff drones for too long on the radio and Danny lowers the volume, stealing a glance at Steve. "I can't help noticing your uniform is green. Did the Navy run out of blue?"

"No, we didn't, but SOs wear these new digital greens ones." He gives Danny a sideways glance. "SOs are –"

"Special operators, those who conduct," and Danny air quotes with his fingers, "unconventional warfare, as in people who operate with less than a full deck."

Steve smiles, pleased. "You read the books."

"Yes, yes, I did. It's called preparing for an in-depth undercover assignment."

"And does that include dressing appropriately for the part?"

"A nice shirt and slacks are perfectly acceptable attire for a reporter."

"For Clark Kent maybe."

"You would know, Superman."

Steve takes an unnecessarily sharp turn and Danny grabs a hold of the door handle.

As they near the base, he mentally reviews some of SEAL Team Five's military records. There's a good chance Steve knows one of them, which bothers Danny because of the whole close-knit brotherhood thing. There are only about two thousand active SEALs and there's no denying the bond of belonging to something so elite.

"Have you worked with any of these guys before?" he asks casually.

Steve's hands tighten around the wheel and Danny makes a mental note of it. "Yeah, Master Chief Vega. We were on a special assignment together for a few weeks. He'll be my go-to guy regarding Johnson."

Danny will be sure to reread his file, because between Nick Taylor and Joe White, he can't afford to defer to Steve's opinion about any past naval buddies.

"The unit is a little different from the average. Normally, there's only two officers and a chief, but this one has three. Makes me think they were planning some changes."

"I don't have a clue what you just said."

"Each team has nine enlisted men and a master chief who's in charge of them," Steve explains, casting a look over at Danny. "The second officer is green; he's there to learn the ropes from his chief. The most ranking officer is the team leader; he and the master chief run the team together."

"Why does all that structure not surprise me?"

Steve doesn't answer and Danny stares out the window at the looming base, wondering how many days or even weeks the investigation might take. If anything, the timing for their assignment couldn't have come at a better time with Grace and Rachel in London for a couple of weeks to visit family.

As they turn down the exit, Danny thinks about the news articles and YouTube videos of journalists reporting in war-torn countries, and he steels himself in preparation for his role.

***

After arriving and checking a jeep out from the motor pool, they drive around for half an hour and then head out on foot.

Danny hurries after Steve's long strides and nearly bumps into him when he suddenly stops. "There's our temporary housing." He points at a small apartment building. "You should go inside and introduce yourself to the team; they know you're arriving."

"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute," Danny huffs, because is Steve ditching him? "What the hell?"

"It's easier this way; you should meet them first."

"Oh, I see." Danny stares at Steve's unconcerned expression, feeling set-up. "Is this like a baptism of fire or some crap?"

"No, it's called keeping our covers." Steve strides right up to Danny, invading his personal space. "We don't know each other, D, and we certainly wouldn't arrive together at such an important time." He gives him a hard pat to the shoulder. "They won't like you, but they won't bite."

"I hate you, you know that?" But Steve smirks, making Danny want to wring his neck. "And where will you be?"

"I've got to report to my CO."

Danny's not done yelling by a long shot, but Steve does an about face and marches toward an adjacent building.

"Right, I'll just invite the SEALS out for a beer. We'll trade stories and gossip about the latest ways to kill people using everyday objects. It'll be fun. Asshole," he mumbles under his breath, adjusting the strap to his duffel, and wanders over to his new quarters.

***

It's instinct to knock first before entering a house, but Danny changes his mind and walks down a hall and into a common room. About a dozen men laze about a large sofa and several chairs. The men appear to be watching TV, but Danny can feel every single one of their eyes tracking him.

Everyone is indistinguishable from one another. Guys in dark BDUs and t-shirts or camo; a few in cargo shorts and tank tops. A bunch of different Steves in various sizes.

"Um, hi, I'm –"

"The Rolling Stone reporter," one of the guys grunts from the sofa.

"Yeah, that would be me. I'm –"

"Here to follow us around like a lemming. You know not to print our names, don't you?"

Danny gives them all a frustrated glare. "I'm not going to print your names; I'm not an idiot." There are a few snorts and he bites his tongue, switching tactics. "Since I'm going to be around you guys for a while, I thought we'd –"

"Get to know each other?" Some guy who looks like an unkempt mountain man interrupts him. "We're not here to hang out or go out on a date. We're here to be more effective warriors. That's our job. We don't have time to stop every few minutes to explain things to a civilian."

"And it's my job to follow and stay out of the way," Danny says, trying for professionalism. "You'll still be nameless and faceless, but your story won't be."

"We don't have a story. We're ghosts," another in the group says.

"All right, let's ease up." A Hispanic guy with broad shoulders and several days of scruff walks over. "Don't worry, LT, I'll baby-sit." Mountain Man returns his gaze toward the TV and Danny follows the guy to the back corner. "Sorry about that. The men are just tense. It's been a bad week."

"I heard." Danny takes a moment to reel in his temper. "I'm sorry for your loss."

There's a curt nod, the only sign of emotion before the SEAL holds out his hand, a tribal tattoo peeking out from his shirtsleeve. "I'm Master Chief Louis Vega. Call me Chief, everyone else does."

Danny shakes hands. "Arnold Williams."

Vega wipes at his dark close-cropped hair; he looks older than everyone else, possibly in his early forties. "You've got to understand, Rolling Stone doesn't have a good rep with us. General McChrystal had to retire because of what your magazine printed."

Danny has vague recollections of that incident and he angrily thinks Steve should have, too. "I'm just here to watch and learn what you guys do."

"You can't just learn by watching what it's like being SEAL," Vega says before gesturing down the hall for Danny to follow. "There's only five rooms. All the NCOs bunk in the first three, Lieutenant Macke, and Ensign Torres share the one across the hall. You get the last one."

Danny drops his duffel on the first of two beds, the space reminding him of a cramped dorm room. "Tight quarters."

"You've never been on a boat, have you?"

"Like a sailboat?"

"Sub," Vega sighs. "These rooms are a penthouse in comparison."

***

Danny returns to the common room, but there isn't an open spot to sit down, not that he wants to with the warm welcome and all. Everyone half pays attention to a prerecorded basketball game before the lanky guy closest to Danny nods at Vega.

"Chief, you've served with McGarrett, what's the scuttlebutt on him?"

Everyone stops watching the game.

Vega looks up from texting on his cell. "He's hard but fair. Good instincts under pressure."

Danny's bullshit meter goes off, Vega's succinct answer eerily similar to Steve's tactic of evasion. Several men watch Danny suspiciously out of the corner of their eyes and he pretends to be interested in the point guard's layup instead of eavesdropping as they all start talking to one another.

"But this is a re-up, right? He hasn't been active in a couple years, been running a special taskforce."

"Yeah, but I doubt he's gone soft. Read something about him and a hostage situation in the paper yesterday morning."

"Didn't he kill the governor or some shit?"

"No, you idiot."

"Hey, Rolling Stone. You knowing anything? You're going to be like his shadow or something."

Danny blinks at the nickname, resisting the urge to say Steve's as certifiable as the rest of them.

"I only know what they tell me." But this is a chance to sell Steve to a demanding audience, although they probably know more about him than they let on. "McGarrett was involved mainly in counterterrorism operations before he went into the reserves. In fact, he killed one of the Hesse brothers before his transfer and arrested the other during his tenure as head of Five-0."

He reads everyone's body language; those names ring a few bells with this group. "Actually, a couple of weeks ago, he caught an international criminal, the guy who actually murdered Governor Jameson, so maybe that's why he's back, he got a taste for it again."

His answer sounds plausible enough, ending the discussion, but it makes Danny wonder if there's a shred of truth to it, if Steve might actually enjoy being a SEAL again.

Vega quirks an eyebrow at him and it takes a moment before Danny realizes he's clenching and unclenching his fists before quickly stuffing his hands into his pockets.

***

"Attention!"

The booming voice catches Danny off-guard but everyone instantly stands when Steve enters the room. His presence sets off a charge inside the room and Danny can't help admiring the resulting sparks.

"At ease," Steve announces as he strolls in.

The men comply, putting their hands behind their backs and mirroring Steve's guarded posture. Lieutenant Mountain Man steps forward. He's Steve's height with slightly more girth. Danny wonders how someone in the Navy could get away with such a thick, disheveled beard and head of hair.

"Commander McGarrett, I'm Lieutenant Paul Macke, sir." The burly man gestures at the rest of the men. "Would you like me to introduce you to your team?"

"Carry on, Lieutenant," Steve says.

Macke falls in by Steve's side and the two go down the line exchanging ranks and names.

Danny stands out of the way, observing the power play. Men straighten under Steve's weighty gaze, eyes challenging and accepting challenge. After several minutes of introductions, Steve follows his XO toward the hall where Danny stands.

"We're kind of short on space, so you'll have to bunk with Rolling Stone." Macke waves in Danny's direction. "Have you two met, yet?"

"Briefly in Commander Stanton's office." Steve nods briskly at Danny, returning his attention to his XO, the casual dismissal oddly grating. "I'll be sure to go over protocols with him tonight and I want a briefing regarding tomorrow's jump by 0700."

"Yes, sir," Macke replies before leaving.

"All right, Rolling Stone," Steve says with the slightest grin. "Let's go."

Danny keeps his trap shut, his cheeks burning red until he closes the door to their quarters. "Seriously, Steve, you too?"

"What?" Steve asks, aloof. "I think it's kind of cool."

"It's not cool, Steven, it's stupid!"

"It'll help you fit in."

"Fit in? With who, those Neanderthals out there?" Danny stabs his finger at the door. "Like Lt. Paul Bunyan? Because the guy hasn't seen a razor in weeks. I've got to admit, none of them looks like a SEAL to me."

Steve crosses those ridiculously thick arms over his ridiculously toned chest. "We're not supposed to look like anyone, Danny. We blend in. Lt. Macke and his men just got back from a month's long deployment deep in-country."

"In-country?" Danny scoffs, because does Steve hear himself? "This isn't a Vietnam movie. Returned from where? Because I couldn't read a damn thing between all the redacted parts of the files I was allowed to see." Steve's scowl flattens into a slab of cement and Danny spreads his hands out wide. "If you don't tell me, then what the hell am I doing here?"

"A country in the Middle East."

Steve's minimalist answer is reflective of his game-face and Danny should've expected his trademark secretive demeanor, but he'd hoped after recent events that his partner would be more forthcoming.

"That narrows it down. Thanks."

"Look." Steve sighs, dropping his arms to his sides. "It's sensitive information and I'm still waiting for a final report. I have no idea if it's relevant to the case or not, but once I read it, I'll clear it myself and we'll figure out together if there's anything worth pursuing."

"That's better," Danny concedes, recognizing Steve's offer as a positive, albeit, tiny step forward. "It'll be amazing how sharing information will aid our investigation."

"In the meantime, I'll feel out Johnson's personal life with his team, see if there were any problems with family or friends."

Danny sits on the bed and goes over a mental plan for tomorrow while Steve unlaces and pulls off his boots.

"I'll use my reporter card, see if I can find out where Johnson went when he wasn't playing SEAL, and try retracing his steps his last few days on base."

"And I'll pull his daily reports and get a timeline to work with, start tracking down witnesses to his activities the day he died."

"Having a starting place is good," Danny agrees. "We're flying blind at the moment."

Steve stows his stuff into a footlocker and starts unbuttoning his shirt.

"Um, it's still kind of early for bed, don't you think?" Danny asks, suddenly distracted when Steve pulls off his tee, revealing a set of dog tags against his chest. He's never seen Steve wear them before and Danny wets his lips, dragging his gaze towards Steve's unreadable face. "I thought your meeting wasn't until seven tomorrow morning?"

Steve sits down across from him. "It is, but there's a team meeting at 0400, then a workout, and a weapons drill before prepping for the night's HALO jump."

It takes a few seconds for Steve's words to register in Danny's brain. "HALO jump? At night?"

"Yeah." Steve grins. "So we better get a few hours' shut-eye."

Before Danny can complain about not being a robot that can simply power-down, Steve unbuckles his belt and shucks off his pants. All that tanned skin and lean muscle is a little distracting, like almost every other time when Steve randomly sheds his clothes. Danny manages to look away as Steve neatly stores his stuff inside the footlocker before wordlessly slipping into bed.

"I can sleep with the light on if you need it," Steve mumbles, closing his eyes.

Danny scrubs a hand over his face, wondering what the hell just happened. Right, he's on military time now, tomorrow's going to be a grueling day, and somehow, he has to shadow Steve while finding a way to question people about Johnson's activities. Sighing, Danny pulls out one of the books Steve gave from his duffel and climbs into bed to read a little before going to sleep.

 

***

The sun's not up at four in the morning; it knows better than to rise at such an insane hour.

Danny fumbles with the alarm clock, flipping the pillow over his head. "Shoot me now."

"I'll hit the shower first," Steve says, sounding too awake for the ungodly time.

Danny watches him pad across the room toward the hallway in his boxers with a towel draped over his shoulder.

"I'm taking more than three minutes worth of water," Danny hisses.

"The hot water shuts off after that," Steve calls over his shoulder.

Danny grumbles obscenities into the sheets.

***

He stumbles in and out of the bathroom, the shower doing little to wake him after only a couple hours of sleep. Danny shuffles in the line of the mess hall, annoyed at everyone else's alertness and the reconstituted powdered eggs slopped onto his plate.

Steve grabs a mug of coffee and puts it on his tray. "Here, sunshine, this will perk you up."

Danny glowers at Steve when they sit across from each other and glowers again at the cheerful woman who takes a seat at the end of their table.

"Commander McGarrett, Mr. Williams?"

Danny's ears perk up at the southern accent, his caffeine deprived brain trying to place it. Tennessee or Kentucky maybe?

"I'm LTJG Rebecca Porter; I work for the Navy's office of public affairs. Mr. Williams, I'm here to answer any questions you have during your assignment."

Lieutenant Porter is a good-natured redhead with freckled cheekbones, her hair pulled back into a ponytail. She obviously has youth on her side to explain such an abundance of energy.

After droning on about something in a soft twang for ten minutes, she looks up at Danny with a sweet smile. "Do you have any questions, Mr. Williams?"

"Yeah. Does the Navy make its coffee out of sawdust?"

Lieutenant Porter is less enthusiastic about things during the rest of breakfast, and Steve, the bastard, has the audacity to lean back in his chair and smirk at him.

***

 

Danny's first day observing begins with team exercise at five in the morning, which is sadistic, but the real insanity is needing to ride in a jeep for a mile so they can go to the beach. What was wrong with exercising the few steps outside their quarters? Danny hops out of the jeep, suppressing a shiver in the chilly morning air, and watches ocean waves slap the jagged shoreline.

He's going to try learning team members' names today, place faces with the eleven sets of olive t-shirts and BDUs that wordlessly form three rows in the sand.

Steve walks a perimeter around his men, arms crossed behind his back, sporting the same level of intensity Danny's seen him use in the interrogation room.

"Let's get the blood flowing, gentlemen," Steve yells. "Give me one hundred push-ups and sit-ups then double-time it to the base of that cliff."

Steve drops down into the sand, grinding out push-ups, sounding off each one with his team.

Lieutenant Porter quietly walks up to Danny, sipping on a Styrofoam cup of coffee. "Come on, it'll take us a few minutes to drive over to the top."

Danny checks out the rocky slope at least two miles away. "And why are we going up there?"

"Because the boys are going to free-climb it."

"That cliff? The one that's forty feet in the air?"

"That very one."

"Without equipment?" Danny demands, thinking back to things like petroglyphs and broken arms.

Porter smiles, unconcerned. "That is the definition of free-climbing, Mr. Williams."

***

Danny has learned since his time on the island that scattered rocky hills and mountains are the norm around beaches, but not manmade freestanding walls.

He climbs out of the jeep and looks up. "What the hell is that?"

"The beginning of a new obstacle course." Porter takes another swallow of coffee. "The Seabees started building it this week, so right now, all you've got is a sixty-foot wall."

Danny stares at the layer of black cargo netting draped over it, biting his lip. "This is a bit more than early morning exercise."

"SEALs have to maintain an incredible level of fitness and endurance. I believe Commander McGarrett is trying to gauge his team's capabilities."

"Right." Porter stares at him as if he's the most naive man she's ever met. "Look, I get it,” Danny says. “There's no such thing as a day off for a SEAL. If you're off your game, then everything else falls apart."

"SEAL Teams succeed together or fail together.” Porter cocks her head at him. “But you and I both know that failure isn't an option."

Danny grimaces. "Yeah, there are no second chances in the heat of battle."

Porter's shoulders relax while Danny tries very hard not to think about the implications of their conversation.

One by one, sweat-drenched members of Team Five crawl over the crest of the cliff, each man barely taking a breath as they gaze up at the next obstacle. They don't stop or wait on orders, running full-tilt at it, reminding Danny of a quote from one of the books he skimmed.

The one thing all SEALs have in common is that we don't know the meaning of the word 'quit.'
He wishes he'd had enough time to read them more thoroughly.

Danny recognizes Steve attacking the wall with vigor, scaling it inch by agonizing inch. After push-ups and sit-ups, running and climbing, scaling the equivalent of a three-story building would be a bad time to lose arm strength. But that won't slow Steve down, or any of his men, because Danny has a feeling that even if they'd just ran a hundred miles, a mere wall wouldn't stop them.

***

Danny glances at a clock; this is when Grace would go off to school and he scrubs at his gritty eyes. Thanks to the perks of command, Steve has a temporary office tucked away next to their quarters, giving them privacy to discuss the case, but it's a revolving door of activity. Requests and need for approvals on various matters almost drown out Danny's thoughts.

Lieutenant Mache enters, a blue bandanna over his unruly hair making him look more like a badass biker than a SEAL. He comes to attention until Steve gives him the at ease signal. Standing at parade rest, Mache hands over a flash-drive. "Here is my strategy for tonight, sir."

Steve inserts the thumb drive, bringing up a series of maps and diagrams on his laptop.

Danny catches a few glimpses of the exercise and frowns. "That looks more complicated than jumping out of a helicopter."

"It's an underwater assault onto a Littoral combat ship," Mache answers.

"And that is?"

Mache looks over at Danny. "A small surface vessel intended for operations close to shore."

"You're going to jump out of a helicopter, then take a rubber boat out," Danny scans the screen eyes widening. "Eight miles before boarding a ship to –"

"To sabotage it."

Mache stands motionless like a scruffy mannequin.

"You make it sound so simple," Danny mutters dryly.

"It's not." Steve flicks his eyes at Mache; the lieutenant squares his shoulders. "And this plan is unacceptable. Take it back and tell Chief Vega and Ensign Torres to re-wargame it. Reevaluate the approach; there are several weak points during the breach strategy."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"I'll review the corrections after the gun drill," Steve says, dismissing him.

Mache takes away his flash-drive and stands at attention. "Yes, sir."

Danny gives a low whistle after the lieutenant exits. "Who pissed in your cheerios?"

"I will not approve a flawed plan."

"If there are mistakes, why don't you fix them?"

"If I make the corrections, then Lieutenant Mache won't learn anything." Steve powers down his laptop. "And if he doesn't learn anything, then Ensign Torres won't."

"Okay, makes sense." Danny nods, thinking about the military teaching structure and backtracking over the conversation. "Who's Ensign Torres again?"

***

Ensign Torres is short and squat with a thick neck. Danny has no doubt he could wrestle an elephant to the ground, reminding him of a young rookie he worked with from the Bronx.

Danny pulls up a chair across from him inside the locker room and sets down a tiny silver digital recorder. "Do you mind?"

"Nope."

"Okay." Danny clears his throat, trying to break the ice. "How long have you been a SEAL?"

Torres doesn't look up from his rifle. "Completed my platoon training three months ago when I was assigned to Team Five."

A baby SEAL then, but Danny knows better than to say those words out loud. "You just returned from a long assignment. Was it what you expected?"

"Nothing is to be expected, sir." Torres works a cleaning brush down the barrel with nimble fingers. "We're trained to handle any obstacles. Failure isn't an option."

Danny admires dedication and a winning attitude, but the whole military gung-ho mantra tests his limits. "You do know humans are fallible, right?"

"We're not allowed to be."

Before Danny can ask anything else, Torres jumps to his feet like a damn jackrabbit. "Commander McGarrett, sir."

Danny quickly rises to his feet in reaction as Steve strides inside and stands at parade rest, his gaze assessing.

"Your weapon, Ensign."

Torres hands over the rifle and Steve runs his fingers down the rail, inspects the barrel, the sight, and ejects the magazine, returning it. "Your left ring mount is loose."

"I'll reassemble it, sir."

"Did you ever present your rifle like that to Commander Johnson, Ensign?" Steve demands.

"No, sir," Torres barks, spine stiff as a board.

"Then don't start with me."

Steve hands over the weapon and Torres snags it, fingers curling impossibly tight around it. "Yes, sir."

Danny follows Steve out of the room and down the hall until they're outside away from everyone.

"Anyone ever tell you wearing that uniform makes you act like an asshole?"

Steve stares at him perplexed and Danny stares back, making Steve look at him with a raised eyebrow and a smile, a smile that screams Steve and not Commander McGarrett.

"No, you're the first person," Steve says, still grinning.

Danny almost sighs in relief from the familiar banter. "Then everyone else lied to you."

Steve snorts and almost pats Danny on the back before quickly pulling back his hand. "Come on, we only have ten minutes before the gun drill. Let's grab some more coffee."

Danny grins. "Now you're speaking my language."

***

"When you mentioned a gun drill, I imagined a shooting range." Danny climbs out a Humvee, scanning the rocky landscape. "This looks like Baghdad."

"Try Rigestan," Mache says, the sun glinting off his shades.

Porter stands next to Danny, her blue camo in contrast to everyone else's green. "Pearl's desert and tropical environments make it an excellent training ground."

Steve surveys the area with binoculars as the rest of the team exits their vehicles and starts unloading equipment.

"Ensign, radio Red Flag, tell them to ready the birds." Mache goes to the back of the Humvee and pulls out some body armor. "Commander," he says holding it up.

Steve slides through his arms while Mache helps arrange the body armor around his shoulders. Danny takes a step forward, stopping himself from taking over despite the fact he's never helped Steve into his vest before.

"Thanks, Lieutenant." Steve takes over, adjusting the rest of the tabs, never taking his eyes off Danny. "Will you help Williams suit up?"

"I can do it," Danny says testily, grabbing a vest before Mache can. "Thanks, but I've covered enough war zones. I know how to wear one."

Danny puts on the vest, automatically brushing his hand over his hip, but his service weapon isn't there and he reminds himself he's not going with Steve into this situation. It shouldn't needle him this much, forced onto the sidelines, pretending to be a civilian and not Steve's partner.

Mache hands Steve his M4 rifle and Steve patrol carries it, facing his men. Danny's used to Steve all Ramboed-out with double thigh holsters, his vest stuffed with extra clips of ammo and grenades. But the way Steve fills his military uniform simply radiates authority, making Danny's hands sweat.

"Vega, you're on point. Mache, take the M60," Steve orders.

Danny doesn't really hear what Steve says to his men, only watches as he commands obedience from them.

"You'll need to remain by the Humvee for your safety," Lieutenant Porter says, interrupting his thoughts.

Danny notices a large number of vehicles approaching in the background. "What's the objective with this drill?"

"To conquer it," Vega grunts, slipping on his goggles.

"Team Five must reach the checkpoint, taking out as many targets as possible while under fire." Porter grabs two sets of binoculars and hands one to Danny. "Each helmet is equipped with a camera so the team can study the footage later."

"Live fire," Danny repeats. "As in –"

"Real bullets. Real smoke, real enemy air support," Porter relays with enthusiasm. "Only special forces units use live ordinance for drills."

"What's the record for the drill, Jay Gee?" Mache asks her.

For a young officer dwarfed by burly SEALs, Porter doesn't bat an eyelash. "Twenty-four minutes and twenty seconds."

Danny pinches the bridge of his nose. It's like dangling a damn carrot.

"What do you think, sir?" Mache asks Steve eagerly. "How much will we shatter that by?"

They might not be a wolf pack, but the team just threw down the proverbial gauntlet.

"Don't you have your priorities wrong?" Danny asks, sweeping his gaze across a dozen faces obscured by black goggles. "This is an only an exercise."

"Mache, radio Red Bird One that we'll be commencing in three minutes." Steve readies his weapon and nods at his team. "The only point of a record is to break it."

"Yes, sir!" all eleven members yell back in unison.

Danny shoves in his earplugs, but they can't keep the blood from roaring in his head.

***

The noise is deafening despite his hearing protection. Danny's used to weapons fire, but not the concussive sounds of war. Because there's no mistaking what this is – a battle.

He peers through his binoculars, unable to spot the team between large clouds of smoke and dust. "Where the hell are they?"

"If you could find them, then they wouldn't be doing their jobs," Porter reminds him.

M4s rattle and heavier caliber weapons echo loudly in the canyon and he traces muzzle flashes to machine gun nests built into the large rock formations above the canyon.

The cordite in the air, the tracer fire, it's all too real. Helicopters hover above and fire along the three-mile stretch of rock and sand.

"Even the mortars are real," Danny hisses.

"Yes, but the pilots and crews are very careful."

"Careful? What about friendly fire accidents?"

Porter lowers her binoculars, unfazed. "These are highly trained men."

The whole valley fills with a haze from gunfire and smoke grenades that conceal the team's movement.

"What's the point of this again?" Danny snaps, wondering what the hell this really proves.

"There are over a hundred targets hidden throughout the valley: sniper nests, vehicles, all strategic positions that a team would need to take out in order to complete their objective."

Danny recalls mock-hostage situations with paper cutouts and a few computer simulations, but nothing like this.

"Red One, this is Joker One, we've reached the pick-up zone. I repeat, we've reached the pick-up zone," Steve says over the radio.

Porter clicks her stopwatch, her youthful grin wide. "We'll have to count the number of kill shots and study the film, but they beat the record by seventy seconds. Looks like Commander McGarrett hasn't lost his touch."

Danny is positive he's the only one not excited.

***

Danny wants to call it a day already, but it's only the middle of the afternoon and they eat lunch in Steve's office instead of the mess hall, away from prying eyes and ears. Danny pokes at his baked chicken and watches appalled as Steve wolfs his down in giant bites.

"Doesn't the military doesn't teach you manners?"

"I'm hungry," Steve says gleefully.

"Running around like a maniac must build up an appetite," Danny mumbles, but Steve is completely oblivious to his foul mood. "You know there are bones in that or do you just swallow them whole?"

Steve wipes his mouth with a napkin. "If the peanut gallery is done with today's commentary?" Danny rolls his eyes and Steve takes it as his cue to start. "Johnson got a divorce last year, but he didn't have any current girlfriends and he didn't know anyone on the islands."

"He wouldn't leave the base for personal reasons," Danny speculates as he sets aside his plate. "What about pleasure?"

"Not of the flesh as far as I can tell. He discovered a local bar off base, the Blue Ocean. He frequented it every day. Chances are he was there the night he died."

"Did any of his buddies ever tag along?"

"No, he liked to go alone."

"Huh, that sounds familiar."

"Leading a SEAL team is a twenty-four hour job. The weight is immeasurable." Steve pauses, staring off in the distance. "Sometimes, you just need time to decompress."

Danny leans in over the desk until Steve's forced to look at him. "Maybe if you guys would save some energy for the real battle, it wouldn't take such a toll."

"The more we train today, the less of a chance anyone dies," Steve snaps. Then he slumps back into his chair. "We need to go to the Blue Ocean, maybe tomorrow night."

Danny wants to argue, wants to yell at Steve that switching subjects and wishing a subject matter to go away doesn't work. But Steve's crossed that bridge already, gears grinding in the other direction, forcing Danny to reluctantly pick his battles.

"I talked to Lieutenant Porter after you guys shot up the desert," he says, returning to the case. "She's familiar with Team Five's schedule since their arrival because of the upcoming joint exercise. I set up a meeting with her later; hopefully, I'll find out more about Johnson's activities."

Steve nods, seeming more focused. "Good work."

"What about you?" Danny asks, curious. "Going to blow up anything else today?"

"No, we're going to study today's film on the gun drill to improve efficiency."

"Efficiency? Are you kidding me? Didn't you guys have to show off and break the record? How much more efficient can you be?"

"We made it to the drop zone, but we didn't hit all our targets."

"So what?"

"We failed."

"They were fake targets, Steven."

"Today they were, but not the next time."

Danny can't believe his ears; it was a damn training exercise. His nostrils flare at the military's obsessive need for perfection, twisting simple mistakes into something unhealthy. He wants to smack some sense into Steve and remind him it's human to make an error. But a knock at the door interrupts his angry tirade and Lt. Mache and Chief Vega enter.

"We have the revised plans for the HALO jump, sir," Mache announces.

Chief Vega stands a few steps behind Mache, feet rooted in place. Steve takes Mache's flash-drive, but his eyes drift toward Vega who meets Steve's scrutiny full on. Danny can feel the tension between both men, a thousand words unspoken in just a few seconds before Steve quickly focuses on his laptop.

Danny feels like the odd man out as both SEALs stand there while their commander studies their battle plan. Danny thinks twiddling his thumbs would be in poor form, but thankfully, it doesn't take long for Steve to break the steely silence.

"The breaching strategy still has flaws." Steve turns around the screen. "Master Chief, did you take this back to Ensign Torres and wargame it again?"

"No, sir."

"Why not?" Vega doesn't answer fast enough and Steve's eyes go dark. "I asked you a question, Master Chief."

"I wouldn't let him, sir," Mache barks.

"Explain, Lieutenant."

Mache snaps at attention. "We were up against a tight deadline, sir. I felt there wasn't enough time for Chief Vega and Ensign Torres to revise things so I –"

"So you deprived Ensign Torres of a chance to learn from his error." Mache is stone silent and Steve nods at Vega. "Master Chief, take the plans back to Ensign Torres and ask him to consider the Zulu Baker approach."

Vega's expression remains stoic, but it's hard not to notice the slight glint in his eyes. "Yes, sir."

"Lieutenant Mache, I'm canceling the HALO jump for tonight until there is a satisfying strategy in place. In the meantime, you and I will review the film from today's gun drill with the team."

Mache grinds his teeth and looks from Steve to Danny. "Sir. Permission to speak freely?"

Steve rises to his feet. "Mr. Williams, why don't you follow Chief Vega for a while."

Danny doesn't need observational skills to know he should make an exit.

***

They walk down the hall and into the sunshine before Vega looks over at him.
"It's inappropriate for a CO to dress down an officer in front of a subordinate."

"What?" Danny asks, confused.

Vega snorts. "You looked ticked about getting kicked out."

Danny's eyebrows furrow. "I did?"

"Yeah, man."

"Oh. I thought it was over. You know, dismissed and all."

"Sometimes." Vega shrugs. "Depends on the officer. The LT wanted to state his case and Commander McGarrett allowed it. He's fair like that."

"Really? I thought maybe...I sensed an issue between you and McGarrett." Vega scowls at Danny; clearly, that subject is off limits. "Or maybe not. My bad," Danny says, quickly backpedaling. "Um, how many times do you usually rewrite one of these plans?"

"As many as it takes," Vega says. Danny should've guessed the answer. Vega steps forward, hands on his hips, years of combat etched into the lines of his face. "Success is the only option. It doesn't matter if we have to re-write it a thousand times. We'll work on it until it's right."

"Failure isn't in your vocabulary," Danny says, looking Vega directly in the eyes.

"Now you're learning, Rolling Stone."

***

Waves collide into the boulders, spraying white foam over the rocks. This isn't a surfing or sunbathing spot, not unless people want to crack their skulls open on the shore. The sun sets, a blurry reddish-orange glob across the horizon, swallowed-up by the darkening ocean.

"You don't have to stay out here, D. After this exercise, we'll be hitting our racks."

Shadows flicker across Steve's face. He looks calm, peaceful, eyes a dark liquid blue, and for a split second, Danny thinks Steve is the most beautiful thing out here.

"Thirteen hours and you're still going. The Energizer Bunny has nothing on you."

Steve frowns and rests a warm hand on Danny's shoulder. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Danny lies, unsure what's weighing him down. Steve's hand lingers as if he has no plans of removing it. Danny coughs, nodding at the equipment tied to some of the rocks. "Those are the itty bitty boats, huh?"

Steve slowly drops his hand and stares questioningly at Danny. "Yeah. The inflatable boat, small, and before you argue, that is what we call them."

Danny nods, because he's supposed to know these things, supposed to be prepared for his cover. He walks toward the large black rubber boats, his feet heavy in the wet sand.

"Six or eight men to a boat," he says, recalling bits and pieces. "The thing weighs almost two hundred pounds, and when it fills with water, it—"

"It weighs as much as a small car. Yeah. They're tough." Steve looks at Danny, his face half-obscured by the growing darkness. "But we're tougher."

Danny looks away, watches the seven-foot breakers, imagines trying to navigate over them with just a paddle. Imagines a wave picking up and slamming the boat down against the boulders, breaking the bones of those stupid enough to try to conquer the ocean.

"What's the plan?" he asks, voice rough. "Your jump was canceled, so you're taking these out for a little drive?"

"Ten miles out and back. The chop's rough; it'll be a good test."

"What if the ocean swallows you up, Steven?" Danny hisses, his throat clogged. "Swallows your boots, your paddles, and your stupid boat, and spits you out onto the shore?"

Steve folds his hands behind his back, voice unwavering. "Then my team and I will pick up our paddles and climb back into the boat and try again."

Danny bits his lower lip and stares up at Steve's bold determined face. "And let me guess. Then you'll do more push-ups?"

"Yeah. Then we'll carry the boats up the beach and back to base." Steve stands there obviously waiting for an argument, but Danny doesn't say anything, and Steve's voice goes quiet as he looks out into the distance. "Like I said, you don't have to stay. You should get some sleep; we have another long day tomorrow."

"I might not be wearing camo, but I'm still your partner. I'll go to bed when you do."

Steve gives him the slightest smile and the two of them stand in the dark and watch the sea in silence.

***

Danny wakes up, his brain muddled with images of tiny boats devoured by the waves. He notices the perfectly made empty bed across from him and glances up in time to see Steve pad inside in his bare feet, fresh from his shower.

Steve rubs his towel quickly over his damp hair, folding it neatly on top of footlocker. Flicking on the lamp, he sits in one of the wooden chairs in the corner. "The shower's yours."

Danny wants to bury himself under the covers but rallies his energy to sit on the edge of the bed all sleep-fuzzy. But he's unable to look away as Steve pulls out a roll of black tape and slowly wraps pieces around his dog tags.

"What are you doing?"

"Taping them," Steve says without looking up.

"I can see that. But why? Don't they have those things?"

"Things?" Steve asks voice quiet. He ghosts a hand over the rubber silencers around the tags. "If you mean noise guards. Yeah."

"So you're taping them..."

Steve cuts another strip of tape with his teeth. "To ensure they're completely hidden."

"Of course," Danny mumbles, not surprised at such paranoia. "You can't be a ninja if every inch of you isn't concealed." He squints in the low light, watching the last bits of silver slowly disappear and grinding his teeth at the wrongness. "Just doesn't seem right."

Steve looks over at him curiously. "Why?"

Danny sucks on his bottom lip, perturbed by his internal conflict. "They seem too important. I mean, they're part of who you are."

Steve avoids eye contact and carefully wraps the last layer of tape. "If they're around my neck, they belong to me," he says, squeezing the pieces between his long fingers. "But to the Navy…" His voice trails off. "They mean something else."

Steve drags his gaze back up, locking eyes with Danny, the two of them staring at each other in silence. Morbid images of a flag-draped coffin enter Danny's mind and he swallows roughly, forcing them away. The sudden anxiety is too much and Danny staggers out of bed to take a shower, unable to bear the weight of Steve's gaze or his own screwed up thoughts anymore.

 

***

Breakfast isn't horrible and Danny thinks he's succumbed to some type of mental conditioning. He piles in one of several jeeps with his newest best friends for morning exercises on the beach. Instead of walking along with Steve, Danny fiddles with a notepad and pencil and wanders toward Chief Vega.

Danny nods at the IBSs lined along the water's edge. "You guys going out again?"

Vega studies the ocean, resting his hands on his hips. "The commander wants us to tighten up our skills."

"Like rowing more in unison?"

Vega stares at him, his annoyance hidden by the hard lines of his jaw. There's little height difference between the two of them and Danny's broader around the shoulders, so he doesn't allow the man's thousand-yard stare to bother him. He's had a couple of years' practice of ignoring such a thing.

Steve strides over, coming to a stop in front of everyone. He's dressed in full gear like his team, olive shirt covered by a heavy tac vest, gun belt, ammo, and a shouldered rifle.

"We'll break into groups. Lieutenant Mache, you'll lead squad one, Ensign Torres, squad two. Chief, you'll be with me. On the LT's signal, we'll complete ten sprints up and down the beach, load into our rubber ducks, and go five miles out and return. The losing squad will have to double tomorrow morning's PT."

Steve nods at Mache, and the brawny man steps forward, shouting, "All right, knuckleheads, let's go!"

Danny watches all three squads scramble up and down the sand for ten grueling minutes before jumping into their IBSs and taking them to the sea.

He knows what this is, recognizes a test of speed and teamwork, and starts scribbling in his notepad. "And at six in the morning, Steve made his men race boats."

***

Danny doesn't stick around after the race ends. Lt Mache had looked ready to gut someone after his squad hit the beach last. It's hard enough getting these guys to open up to him, let alone when two thirds are pissed off about not winning. No, he knows when to make himself scarce when bruised egos are involved.

***

Danny watches unobtrusively while the NCOs prepare for an inspection of their quarters.

"Hey, Rolling Stone! You just holding up the walls or are you gonna help?"

Petty Officer Hunt is a young kid with a layer of peach fuzz covering his thick arms and head. Danny meets his sharp blue eyes and rolls up his sleeves. "Kick me over a bucket."

Hunt slides over a metal pail with a brush, and Danny wants to grumble about how good old-fashioned mops might prove useful, but he doesn't go off on someone the size of a building.

"Use circular patterns," Hunt grunts, smacking a stick of gum.

"Right. Like in the Karate Kid."

"Never seen that."

"What? You've never seen the…" Danny rolls his eyes. "That's a sacrilege."

"A sacrilege is if the Chief finds any sand we might've dragged in from this morning."

"And I thought you guys were above scut work?" Danny mumbles, dipping the brush into the soapy water.

"Discipline doesn't understand rank, man," Hunt says, focusing on his task with the same intensity of assembling a rifle.

Danny scours along the slab of cement, thinking of Steve as a young shiny new SEAL, one of the highest trained men on the planet, ensuring his CO could eat off the floor. Danny thinks about all of Steve's pristine bathroom sinks, the dust-free bookcases, and the freaking cleaning list, each chore scheduled for a certain day and his puffer fish face when things weren't completed on time.

Vega ambles inside a few seconds later, sporting a slight smirk. "Rolling Stone? You part of this inspection?"

Danny wipes the sweat at his brow with his elbow. "Guess I am."

A few of the other guys actually look over at Danny without giving him the death glare and he thinks this was a good idea. Pantomiming the postures of the rest of the team, he stands up with his hands behind his back and waits for the scrutiny.

***

Steve's not in his office and Danny hasn't seen him in hours and he wanders around their temporary housing, poking his head into a small office he's never been in before.

He finds Vega behind a small desk, soft reggaeton music coming from computer speakers. The squeak of the door makes him lift up his head from his laptop. "Can I help you, Mr. Williams?"

Danny leans inside the door, hooking a thumb behind him. "I was looking for McGarrett."

Vega flicks his eyes back down to his screen and resumes typing. "He's with Commander Stanton going over the mission briefing."

"That got approved?"

"It met with Commander McGarrett's expectations."

Danny forces himself not to smile at the familiarity with Steve's ridiculous ambitions. "I bet they're very high."

"The highest," Vega says as if speaking from experience. "There's no room for error."

Danny debates his next words since they're rooted in logic and common sense. "You know the real world normally doesn't always work according to plan?"

Vega's usual plank of wood expression breaks into real frustration, his scowl emphasizing a fine scar under his right cheek. "No, the real world doesn't." He closes his computer with a snap. "But we're expected to succeed when no one else can. If there's a single doubt, a single moment when we think we might fail – then everything will go to hell. We can do the impossible and it's the strength in our beliefs that allows us to accomplish what is demanded of us."

"Mind over matter regardless of the odds," Danny says, thinking about exploding buildings and ten-mile car chases. "Most sane people would consider such a mentality reckless."

"We're not most people," Vega states, matter of fact, like it's inconceivable to think otherwise. "We take an unattainable goal and break it down into manageable objectives. If a mountain blocks your escape route, climb it, or find a way around it. If you're outnumbered ten to one, find a way to make it five to one. Doubt's the only true enemy."

Vega's passionate conviction is a formidable force and Danny backs down from turning this into an argument. "Sounds like you've been doing this for a long time. Looking after your guys."

"That's my job. I train the green officers and make sure they don't get the rest of the men killed. Then get them ready to lead their own team one day."

Danny recognizes a rare opening and seizes it. "Commander Johnson was the team leader. Did the guys like him? Were there any issues?" Vega glares at him questioningly. "I've got no tape recorders on me right now. I'm just trying to get an idea about team dynamics."

Vega narrows his eyes. "Johnson was the leader of our team. A team who sweats and bleeds on each other, who depends on one another without question. You couldn't understand."

Danny balls up his fists, thinks of the bomb strapped to Chin's neck, of racing after Kono during an undercover heist, of flipping open the tarp to a back of a truck, his heart stuck in throat at locating Steve bloodied and bruised. And he has to stuff everything down, stomp out the fire brewing deep inside.

"I'm sorry," he says, unable to keep his voice steady.

Maybe it's the emotions painted all over Danny's face, or how his voice cracks on the apology, but something gives, and Vega kneads his eyes with his knuckles. "Johnson was a friend. And a damn fine SEAL. He was even up for a promotion."

"Really?" Danny asks, surprised, his adrenaline receding. "Like leading a bigger team?"

"No." Vega cracks open his laptop again, ending the conversation. "Counter terrorism. He was going to oversee Eastern European operations. A desk job."

That's why Johnson frequented the Blue Ocean Bar so often. He was about to lose everything he'd ever known.

***

Danny walks around outside, spotting Steve striding toward him with the darkest frown. Danny prays Steve won't run over someone unlucky enough to cross his path.

"Whoa, hey, hold up," Danny says, stepping in front of Steve. "What's wrong?"

Steve stops, only to start pacing in short jerky strides. Danny gives Steve room to burn off excess energy, checking for Lookie Lous. Thankfully, no one is around when Steve shifts back into neutral.

"It's been a long time since I've seen you so worked up, buddy. Want to talk about it?"

Steve rubs both hands across his face, still looking murderous, and drops his arms to his sides. "No, everything's fine. I...things are fine."

"Fine, he says," Danny snorts. "You don't look fine; you look ready to practice medieval dentistry on some poor schmuck."

"More like I just got two root canals without Novocain."

"You actually require Novocain? You don't drill the holes in yourself?"

Steve rolls his eyes, his pinched expression smoothing away. Danny takes that as a win. "I heard you were meeting with your boss. You get chewed out or something?"

"Or something," Steve mutters, still sulky.

"I bet it's been a while since you've locked horns with anyone with authority over you other than Denning." Steve growls under his breath and Danny knows he hit the bull's-eye. "It's sucks when you're used to being in charge."

"I've lived under the chain of command for most of my life; it's nothing new. You suck it up and listen."

"Except when you think you're right and the other guy's wrong," Danny says knowingly. Steve huffs, looking away, and Danny doesn't act too smug at being right. "You guys argue about your battle plans?"

"We had a difference of opinion over them, yes." Steve looks like he's crunching gravel between his teeth. "Not to mention some choice words over the gun drill and my schedule for the rest of the week."

"Ouch," Danny says in sympathy.

"Some people get itchy when it comes to foreign joint operations. Especially when dealing with a recently reinstated team leader after a two year absence."

There's the rub and it's a bruising one, planting unnecessary seeds of doubt during a tough enough assignment. It makes Danny glad that he's nowhere near Steve's new CO. He might not be able to hold back his temper and ruin their covers.

"People with big egos always have something to gripe about, babe. This prick doesn't know you and he certainly doesn't know anything about your freaky ninja skills."

Steve's mouth curves into a slight grin and it makes Danny feel good he could put it there.

"Thanks, D."

Steve checks his watch and it only takes a split second before his smile vanishes, all signs of relaxation sharpening into corded muscles of his neck.

"You got to be somewhere now?" Danny asks, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

"Battlefield triage drills."

"Battlefield triage." Danny grimaces at the horrific thought. "I can't even say that with a straight face. Tell you what, I'll catch up with you later. I'll see if I can get a hold of Chin or Kono and get an update from their end."

"Good idea," Steve says all business, pulling out a pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket and slipping them on. "I'll meet with you before the jump."

And like a light switch, Steve easily reverts into command mode, without a single sign that 'practicing' stuff involving blood and guts bothers him in the least.

***

Danny pokes around the base, trying to establish patterns of operations and get a better layout of the area. He's familiar with the motor pool, the firing range, and places like the mess hall, but it's still a large extensive maze of buildings requiring a jeep and detailed map to get around.

Feeling slightly lost, he returns to his temporary housing when he feels a familiar vibration buzzing inside his pants' pocket.

Danny checks the hallway before shutting the door to his quarters and pulling out his cell phone. "Chin. Good timing, I was going to give you a ring soon. What's up?"

"I've got some news. Can you talk?"

"Yeah, I'm alone," he says, sitting on the bed.

"Kono and I went over the crash scene yesterday. Since the car accident was staged, we treated it like a body dump and went looking for a possible primary scene for the murder."

"There's nothing but woods between the base and the crash site."

"Exactly. We wanted to rule that area out first and backtracked more than a quarter of a mile to what appears to be some vehicle activity off to the hard shoulder near the second mile marker."

Danny scratches his eyebrow. "What kind of activity?"

"A heavy vehicle was pulled off to the side of the road. A large truck based on the tire impressions."

With a giant military base close by, that could be any type of transport or supply truck.

"Okay. Vehicles pulling off to the side of the road are probably a daily occurrence. Any connection to our victim?'

"Not sure," Chin admits over the phone. "But there were signs of a second vehicle off to the side as well. Looks like a jeep."

"Like Johnson's," Danny says, following Chin's line of thinking. "But everyone drives one around here."

"I know, but it rained the morning of Johnson's death so something happened that night."

"Yeah." Danny gives him that and stands up to pace, trying not to jump to conclusions. "Someone could have pulled over to take a leak or, I dunno, check on a tail light."

"Johnson did exit his jeep before he was killed. Either on the road or at another location. It's possible he could have stopped for some unknown reason and his killer followed him."

They were on the first path of many toward solving this thing.

"Are there any traffic cams we can check out?" Danny asks still pacing. "Any way we can get a glance of this mystery vehicle?"

"Nothing on the highway." And Chin sounds just as frustrated as Danny feels.

"So we may or may not have the possible murder scene?"

"We'll have the lab guys go back over Johnson's vehicle again with a fine tooth comb. See if we can find any evidence that can tie his jeep to this scene off the shoulder. Kono and I had to be discreet collecting evidence, not to raise suspicion."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Once we discovered the site, we drove to the other side of the woods, parked, and hiked our way through."

Danny can't help grinning at the mental image. "How very Steve of you guys."

"Speaking of," Chin teases. "How's the big Kahuna?"

"Oh, you know. It's like summer camp," Danny sighs sarcastically. "He's practicing battlefield triage."

It takes a beat before Chin answers. "Wow, brah. Sounds intense."

"Yeah. You could call it that, or perhaps deranged, gruesome, needless, or any number of synonyms, all meaning the exact same thing," Danny rants, standing and pacing back and forth.

"Things not what you expected?"

"No…yes," Danny slams a hand on the wall and rests his forehead against the smooth plaster. "It's not just the training, it's the not doing anything. I'm a cop, it's my job to investigate, gather evidence, crack some skulls."

"Undercover work is slow and tedious, you know that. The whole point is to earn the trust of those around you before you can gather any info, and that takes time."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Danny pushes off the wall, feeling antsy, like he needs to be in motion. "That's the reason why I hated narcotics."

"Hopefully, we'll wrap up this soon.

Danny glances around the cramped room, feeling as if the walls are closing in. "That would be nice."

***

He needs some fresh air, but Danny settles for splashing water on his face and bang-opens the bathroom door, startling Steve who's standing there, hands braced against the counter.

"Hey," Danny says surprised.

Steve straightens from his lean, staring at Danny's reflection in the mirror. "Hey."

Something about Steve's hollow tone niggles at Danny as he walks over and casually stands next to him. Steve's uniform shirt is unbuttoned, revealing a sweat soaked olive undershirt and dark stains on his BDUs. He washes his hands with a scary type of focus and shuts off the water, the tale-tell tinge of pink swallowed up by the sink.

Danny looks for any cuts or abrasions on Steve's hands. "You hurt yourself?"

"No. I still had blood under my finger nails."

Danny leans against the wall as Steve methodically dries his hands with a paper towel. "And this training involved –"

"Cadavers," Steve says mono-toned. "We practiced clamping down the femoral artery and that's hard to do without using the real thing."

"Last I checked, cadavers were drained of all their fluids."

"Not these. We weren't in a morgue or a lab. We were outside," Steve pauses, oddly examining each fingernail. "And the bodies…the Navy doesn't spare any expense. There was plenty of blood."

Danny has a fantastic imagination and it kicks into overdrive, images of Steve digging his hands into a dead body spurting out crimson, not red dye, but warm, thick blood just so he can practice. It makes him sick to his stomach.

"Let me guess," he says raspy. "You did this while bombs blew up all around you?"

"No, MP5 machine guns," Steve says casually, as if the whole thing isn't the stuff of nightmares. "The circumstances need to be –"

"Realistic," Danny grits out. He really hates how that word has become an excuse for sanctioned psychological trauma. "Yeah, I'm starting to get that."

"Working under such conditions is the only way to adapt and tune everything else out except the goal."

"Like a robot."

Steve turns around and steps closer, his skin hinting of sweat and Formaldehyde. "I'm not a robot, Danno."

Danny's back hits the wall, the light switch digging into his spine. He won't lie to Steve's face, no matter how much it hurts. "But you've learned to turn yourself off like one."

Steve inches closer, and Danny has to cant his neck to meet his gaze, Steve's breath warm against Danny's cheeks. "No, I've learned how to handle things under pressure."

And Steve turns to his and every other SEAL's default excuse, be it self-preservation or too many years of living on the edge to notice the difference between acting human and shutting down all together. Either way, Danny won't argue a losing battle, reeling in his need to rant and rave, finding the idea too exhausting.

"Look. I've talked to Chin; he and Kono have a few slim leads we should discuss," he says.

Steve still doesn't budge from Danny's personal space, his body unyieldingly stiff. He stares at Danny several moments. "We'll go to my office. I learned Johnson had a heated run-in with a supply officer that might be worth checking out."

"Okay, that's sounds good." Danny wiggles uncomfortably against the light switch. "I also heard that Johnson was getting a promotion involving a desk job. Might explain why he went drinking alone."

Steve's eyes darken and he looks away, his voice rough. "It's a tough decision to leave."

"You made it," Danny reminds him.

"Wasn't my plan," Steve says thickly, looking back up. "But I'm glad I did."

Steve just looks at him with such damned haunted, vulnerable eyes that Danny wants to reach over and pull him into a tight embrace. But fate intervenes and Steve's radio squawks loudly, the two of them flinching at the noise.

Steve looks down at his belt, backing away a few steps. "I've got to answer that. The HALO jump is in a couple of hours and we have an equipment check."

Danny pushes off the wall, wiping both hands through his hair. "That's fine. I'll meet you in your office in a few. I'm sure you need to, you know, shower first before you jump into the ocean."

Steve grabs the radio and Danny quickly takes the opportunity to get the hell out of there and actually find some real air to breathe.

***

Danny walks out of his shower, popping his back with a good twist. God, why couldn't this day be over? He and Steve had already gone over the bare bones of the case, discussing various possibilities. He'd called Lieutenant Porter who agreed to locate the supply officer Johnson had a fight with. Chin and Kono would have more facts on the scene soon, so he deserves some sleep, maybe even winding down a little before bed. But can he? No, he has to go on the jump with Steve.

Fuck his life.

Towel drying his hair, he wanders into his room and stares blankly at the black t-shirt and BDUs laid out on his bed.

"What are these?"

"They're called clothes," Steve says from the chair.

He finishes lacing up his boots and looks over at Danny in expectation.

"Yes, yes they are and these look distinctly...SEALish."

"SEALish?"

"Yes, Steven, SEALish. Like I might go break into the governor's mansion or jet off to parts unknown to raise havoc."

Danny turns his head so Steve doesn't see his grin, stepping into the BDUs and slowly tugging them up. He can feel the weight of Steve's gaze on him as he buckles his belt and slips the t-shirt over his head. Danny wonders what Steve sees, what he thinks about Danny dressed all in black, like he's part of Steve's deadly entourage.

When he looks over, Steve is standing right next to him, absurdly too close, smelling of clean, not even a hint of aftershave. "Here," Steve says, his hand brushing up against Danny's arm. "You'll need this."

Danny nibbles on his bottom lip, forcing his gaze at the heavy olive camo jacket gripped in Steve's fingers. "That's overkill, don't you think?"

"It gets near freezing at high altitudes."

"And what about you?"

Steve cracks his 'I've got a super-secret smile.' "I'll be fine. We gear up in five."

***

The locker area is silent except for the rustling and zipping-up of clothing. The tension in the room could crack ice, each SEAL focused and locked away in their own headspace. Danny doesn't have a role in the prep-work and he stays inconspicuously in the corner, eyes roaming around and landing on Steve.

Steve puts on a long sleeved black shirt, followed by a tac vest worthy of Danny's envy. It's an ultra-thin beauty lined with strike plates, the utility pockets stuffed with extra magazines, grenades, a radio, and another pistol.

Steve pulls out a six-inch knife from a leather roll case, giving it a slow twirl until Danny realizes that Steve's caught him staring. And instead of glaring or smirking, Steve perches his left boot on the bench in front of him and meticulously sheathes the blade next to his thigh holster.

Danny should pretend he'd accidentally zoned out, but he can't stop watching Steve out of the corner of his eye.

Steve sits on the bench and retrieves a paint kit from his locker. He flips open a mirrored compact and dips his fingers into a patch of dark green, spreading a wide stripe from the bridge of his nose down his left cheek and under his chin. Lines of black paint follow: streaks across his forehead, around the side of his eyes. Slowly, Steve vanishes under a mask of camouflage and Danny fights down the sudden heat under his skin.

Steve finishes painting-up his face, and he stands, slipping a dump pouch over his vest, carefully filling it with a gas mask and night vision goggles.

"Here, sir." Mache ambles over, holding up Steve's parachute pack, the heat under Danny's veins simmering.

Mache ensures the pack is on securely, handing Steve another rucksack with a small oxygen tank inside. Steve straps it over his chest, his whole body loaded down with equipment.

"How do you guys even move?" Danny blurts. "That's got to be about forty pounds of gear."

"Try fifty," Mache says, Torres walking over to help him suit up.

"We'll shed our chutes and O2 once we hit the water and stash them in our rubber ducks," Steve says. "Don't worry, when we board, we'll go in light and hard."

***

Lieutenant Porter joins them outside, her usual perkiness tempered to match the serious faces of the team. Steve's fast strides separate them a little from the group as Danny fiddles with the strap to his helmet.

"The point of the helmet is to protect your head," Steve says with a sideways glance.

"Really? I thought it was a fashion statement."

"Just leave it alone."

"It's digging into my chin," Danny complains.

Two large helicopters wait for them a few hundred meters away, the team splitting into two platoons for the mission. Steve leads Team One, Mache Team Two. Danny fidgets with his gloves to make sure they fit snugly.

"You'll be fine, Danno," Steve whispers. "She's a safe bird."

"I'm not worried."

"You look worried."

"No, I don't," Danny growls, checking to see if anyone heard him.

But Mache catches up to them, taking one look at Danny and clapping him hard on the back. "Don't fret, Rolling Stone. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. I know you've never been up in a helo, but –"

"Actually, I have. And that –" He points to the row of helicopters. "– is a MH-60 Seahawk. It's able to deploy aboard any ship and is used in naval special warfare insertions, search and rescue, and medical evacuations."

Mache grunts in admiration and Steve – Steve walks straight ahead, but he's beaming on the inside, the camo paint unable to conceal that from Danny.

***

His heart slams against his breastbone as it tries to jump into his throat. Danny sweats under his heavy coat, the perspiration chilling his skin in the unbelievably frigid air. He balls up his gloved hands, trying to calm his nerves. This isn't flying a few hundred feet on a short hop across the jungle; it's fifteen-thousand feet under the cover of darkness.

All six SEAL members sit quietly on opposite benches, expressions hidden by oxygen masks and goggles. But Danny can taste the adrenaline, can feel the team's energy like an electric charge.

One of the crew chiefs leans toward Steve and yells, "We're at ten thousand feet now, sir."

Steve rises and gestures at the other five. Torres checks Steve's parachute pack while Steve inspects the ensign's, everyone pairing off to test their equipment one final time.

Danny watches them get ready, his blood flooding with endorphins, forcing him to sit on his hands to keep from fidgeting.

The crew chief motions at the SEALs, moves over to the Seahawk's side, and opens the door. A burst of wind rips through the cabin, but the crew chief peers over the drop zone and gives a thumb's up.

All six SEALs creep closer to the metal edge, inches separating them from the helo and a sheer drop. Steve turns around with his back to the open door, grabbing onto Hunt's left and Torres' right wrists, all three of them locking arms in a circle. Methodically, they lower Steve out of the Seahawk backward. Feet planted on the metal ledge, his body hangs out mid-air, gravity tugging on his packs and rifle.

After a few heart pounding seconds, Steve nods, and Hunt and Torres march forward, the three of them disappearing over the ledge. Before Danny can register anything, the last three SEALs kick their rolled up boat out the door and leap after their buddies.

Danny lurches to his feet, Porter and the crew chief springing after him.

"I'm not jumping, too," Danny growls over the radio. "I'm not insane."

But he crawls on his hands and knees, his whole body quaking as he peers over the side, discovering nothing but the night sky.

"You can't see them," Porter says over the comm. "They're plummeting at a terminal velocity over a hundred miles per hour. They'll descend over their target in less than two minutes."

Steve had explained the jump to him, but knowing the details, knowing Steve will wait until the last possible moment to pull his chute and free-fall to escape detection. It's unbelievable.

He searches the rushing clouds, aware he won't see the chute, that Steve and his team are in the ocean. Dumping their oxygen, searching for their boat in complete darkness.

"We hear from them yet?"

"Negative. Give them a few minutes to regroup," Porter says over the radio. "We're all on the same channel."

Okay, good, that's good. He uses the handhelds to return to his seat, his hearing bombarded by the rotor blades and the blood pounding in his ears. He takes a few deep shuddering breaths and pops his ears.

"Holy shit," he mutters.

"Kind of cool, huh?" Porter asks with a smile.

Danny glares at her, but damn it, she's right, it was cool and terrifying, and he can't stop staring at the closed door to the helo. He thinks of Steve, waiting to hear his voice over the radio, verifying that the dope hasn't drowned.

"Bluebird, we've got a splash. We're waiting on Team Two and will proceed to the target," Steve's voice echoes over the noise.

Thank God.

Porter smiles. "Come on, Williams, we're heading back to base. We can monitor the mission from the ground."

Danny straps himself in with trembling hands, unable to calm his overwhelming adrenaline rush.

 

***

They hit dry land and Danny rips off his helmet and follows Porter into their jeep. His heart hasn't stopped going a thousand miles per hour and he peels off his jacket and gloves, wiping at his sweaty face.

It doesn't take long to pull up to a nondescript building and Danny hops out immediately.

"Hold up, you can't just go running inside," Porter yells, sliding out of her seat.

Danny goes inside, yanks out his credentials, and waves them at people's faces. Undoubtedly, Lieutenant Porter's sudden appearance by his side allows them into a tiny room packed with people and equipment. He stumbles to a halt, breathing hard, everyone glancing up at him oddly for the disruption.

Danny wants to glare back, but over a dozen heads return their workstations, speaking to each over the sporadic radio noise like nothing's happened. Danny's eyes dart between them and the large overhead screens glowing faintly in the room.

"How far do they have until they reach the ship?" Danny whispers.

"Eight miles," Porter answers, keeping her voice quiet. "They'll take the IBSs close enough to board."

"And do what exactly?" Because Danny hasn't had time to keep up with every crazy exercise.

"Gather intelligence and sabotage the ship without being noticed."

Danny turns his head toward a man in his late fifties with dirty blonde close-cropped hair and pale blue eyes. "Sabotage how?"

"By using a sophisticated incendiary device."

Danny will never understand the military's need to complicate things. "You mean a bomb?"

"Yes, but one that won't leave any forensic evidence behind, Mr. Williams."

"You know my name, but I haven't had the pleasure of yours?"

"Commander Stanton," he says, stuffing an unlit cigar between his teeth.

"Red Bird One, this is Joker One, we've got enemy patrol boats. Request satellite imagery, over?" Steve's voice comes over the speakers in the room.

One of the female communication officers looks over at Stanton who shakes his head. "Joker One, that's a negative. We are unable to pull up immediate imagery."

"Wait," Danny huffs. "Were there supposed to be patrol boats?"

"No," Porter answers smoothly.

Danny shivers from the steady blast of air conditioning and he glances around the room, every eye laser-lined on their computers.

"Why can't the Navy give them satellite intel?" Danny asks perturbed.

"Not every mission goes by the numbers," Stanton says, grabbing a headset.

Danny stares at the commander, nostrils flaring. He doesn't like having his own arguments thrown back in his face. Patrol boats use patterns, so all Steve has to do is sit back and—

"Red Bird One, this is Joker One, we're heading into the water."

Danny looks to the ceiling; of course, waiting would require patience. Stanton chews on his cigar, peering over one of the laptops.

Danny sidles toward Porter, bending close to her ear. "They're swimming toward the ship?"

"The IBSs are big enough to be spotted by the patrols. If they stay far enough away, the team can still sneak aboard."

"And what about the rubber boats?" Danny asks. "Won't they float away?"

"A member of the team will remain with the boats, feeding both platoons intel on the patrol locations." Porter glances over at him, confident. "It's a good strategy."

"Ed Harris over there doesn't think so," Danny grumbles at Stanton's deep frown.

Porter quirks her lips. "It's his job to throw wrenches in the works and evaluate."

Stanton scrutinizes the screens like a cranky schoolteacher, calling for the time every few minutes, his frown deepening with every response.

Danny stands there, watching the cogs rotate in some well-oiled machine, his heart slowing to the room's mechanical beat.

"This is Joker One," Steve calls over the radio. "We're boarding now."

"This is Joker Two, boarding as well," Mache's voice comes over the speakers.

Stanton flips his hairy wrist, checking his watch.

"Roger that, Joker One and Two," one of the communication officers replies.

Danny listens closely for more information, but the team goes to radio silence once onboard. He watches everything unfold on the big screens using thermal readings from satellites that work perfectly fine. Flesh and blood reduced to blobs of fuzzy green like a video game. It's disconcerting.

One group descends three decks while the other platoon systemically dodges the crew, searching for secrets. Two pairs of figures on deck three almost cross in front of each other, ten men running around an entire ship undetected. It's astounding. He can't help grinning, but his smile disappears after a look at all the focused blank faces around him.

It's just another day at the office, all the trained little blobs running around as instructed.

And after ten long minutes, both teams scramble toward each other, converging on the top deck before disappearing off the ship.

"The package has been delivered," Steve's harsh voice breathes over the radio.

"They're back in the water," Porter says.

"Okay," Danny says, relaxing. "All that's left is the pick-up?"

"After they find their IBSs and avoid all the patrol boats," Porter says with a smidgen of sarcasm.

"Forget I asked," Danny grumbles, hoping that's soon.

***

He flips over in bed for the hundredth time, nodding off and snapping awake again. Pounding his pillow until it's flat, Danny lies still, listening for sounds, trying to clear his head from too many racing thoughts. He blinks at the clock, groaning at the time. Four in the freaking morning and he's wide awake.

The door creaks open and Danny sits up. "Steve?"

"Hey, sorry. The debriefing ran late."

Steve sounds tired and he shuffles and sits on the side of the bed, groaning under his breath.

"You okay, babe?" Danny asks, flipping on the light to low.

Steve squints, blinking. "I'm fine."

"You just jumped out of a helicopter at a high rate of speed. And I'm sorry, but you're not immune to things like physics no matter how much you want to pretend. Your whole body must feel like hell."

"I'm sore," Steve admits, voice heavy. "But I took a long shower in the locker room and popped some Advil."

Danny nods, his brain still on overdrive. "Tonight was something else."

"All part of the job."

"I admit, it was pretty amazing," Danny says, surprising himself. "Crazy, but amazing." Steve doesn't say a word and Danny stares at Steve's hunched forward posture, like he might fall onto the floor. "We sleeping in tomorrow?"

"I've got a meeting with Stanton at 1100."

"That's not sleeping in."

"It's six hours of shuteye. It's enough."

Screw that.

Steve slowly unlaces and removes his boots and stretches his arms above his head, his back and shoulders popping. Then he rummages through a rucksack Danny hadn't noticed and pulls out a folder.

"This is for you. Slip it under your pillow and give it back after my meeting."

"You want me to sleep on it?" Danny scoffs, accepting it. He squints at the paperwork. "Hey, this looks like –"

"Johnson's final report on their last mission in-country."

Danny strokes his fingers across the sheaves of paper, the scent of black magic marker still fresh. "Thank you, I didn't think I'd get this."

"I said I'd share it with you as soon as I could."

Danny leafs through the stack, laughing a little. "This is actually readable."

"I only redacted the locations and names."

Something stirs in Danny's stomach, because a few months ago, he's not sure if Steve would have done this. "I'll make sure it doesn't leave my sight until I physically return it to you." He doesn't hear a reply and Danny looks up from the file and over at the next bed. "Steve?"

But Steve's sprawled onto his back asleep, all loose limbed, and a fondness sweeps through Danny at the sight of his Steve all conked out. Moving over, he pulls the sheet up, his hand lingering above Steve's tags. "Sleep tight," he whispers.

***

Coffee is a prerequisite for any morning, but the nearest source is the mess hall and Danny doesn't want to take the file outside the room unless he's meeting with Steve. But it's after eleven in the morning and he managed to sleep through Steve slipping out to go to his meeting.

"I need to tie a bell on him."

He moves over to the chair feeling like just like the wrung out towel hanging over it. Tossing the damp thing to the floor, he begins to read, eyes widening after several pages. Johnson's team had been inside Iran, covertly gathering intelligence on the county's nuclear program. It's not a shocking surprise, but he thought that was more the CIA or NSA's bag of tricks.

But apparently satellites and paid informants could only shed light on so much and nothing beats boots on the ground to observe security and map out compounds.

"Jesus," he mutters, running a hand through his hair.

Danny couldn't imagine hiding out in the mountains for weeks in such a hostile environment. And if the team been discovered?

He crinkles the file in his hand and forces himself to finish reading.

***

Danny takes his corn on the cob and rubs it back and forth over a slab of butter until every inch is covered. Grabbing the shaker, he sprinkles salt over it, his eyes flicking over at Steve who absently jabs his fork into his meatloaf.

Pausing with the dripping corn near his lips, Danny sighs and drops it on his plate. "What gives?"

Steve frowns cluelessly. "What do you mean?"

"What do I mean?" Danny can't believe how dense Steve can be. "I've just slathered my corn in butter and you haven't lectured me once about my diet of cholesterol."

But Steve is too wrapped up in whatever he's not talking about to notice Danny's heart attack on a plate. "Been thinking."

"About the case?" Danny prods.

"No. Well, yeah, that too."

There's more than one thing? It's like pulling teeth, but more than that, Steve honestly looks bothered about something.

"You're distracted. You're never distracted."

"Got a lot on my mind," Steve says defensively.

"And would that include the meeting with that hard ass?" Danny asks, fishing.

"Stanton's just doing his job." Steve shoves a forkful of meatloaf into his mouth and chews. "The SBS are top notch; he's ensuring that we're at our best."

No, that's not it. And here Danny thought they'd made some progress when it came to honesty in the last couple of weeks.

"I know you work with the most sophisticated radar in the world, but nothing beats my BS meter and you're lying through your teeth," Danny tells him.

Steve tries giving him one of his hard stares. "Then you might want to check your readings, because you're wrong."

"I'm wrong?"

"Yes, you are."

"Okay." Danny leans back in his chair, crossing his arms. "Then your meeting with your CO went well."

"It was satisfactory."

"Seriously?" Danny says in disbelief. "Satisfactory means I can read and understand a five-paragraph essay. That's satisfactory."

Steve looks around the mess before speaking in a whisper. "Meeting with your commanding officer doesn't normally include tea and crumpets, okay? It's about receiving constructive criticism and applying it correctly."

Danny closes his eyes, willing calm and serenity because he can't deal with Steve when he's evasive. "Okay. Fine. It was a normal meeting."

"Okay then," Steve says, blinking owlishly.

There's nothing like taking the fight out of a guy who enjoys confrontation.

"So, what's on the agenda for today?" Danny asks.

Steve looks confused at the quick change of topics and he busies himself by soaking up the last of the gravy off his plate with a bit of meatloaf. "We're conducting daylight HALO jumps."

"I see." Danny isn't terribly surprised. Stanton clearly found whatever flaws he'd been looking for. "And would this be over land or the ocean?"

"The ocean."

"And this is to –"

"Tighten our jumps and work on landing in the water so we can improve time."

The words automatically roll out of Steve's mouth like a well-trained sailor. Danny bristles. "And when you say jumps, you mean…?"

"However many it takes until we're perfect."

"Sounds kind of shitty."

"It needs to be done."

"Evidently," Danny mutters.

Steve leans on his elbows, stretching his upper body across the table until his nose nearly touches Danny's. "We never stop training, D. It's not a game or some punishment. It's the only way to remain in top form."

The clattering of utensils and other people's voices suddenly resonates louder as a silence settles between them. Danny hates the fact he can't really talk here, that he has to be constantly aware of prying eyes and ears.

Feeling twitchy, he reaches for his corn, but Steve snags the cob right off his plate. "Hey! What the hell?"

Steve ignores him, taking his napkin, rubbing off all the butter, and putting it back. "That needed to be done, too."

Danny thinks about throwing the corn at Steve's head, but Steve's less sullen than a few minutes ago and Danny knows they have little time to talk.

"By the way, I read the report this morning. I have it with me, so you can shred it or do whatever you're supposed to with classified documents."

Steve takes the file Danny gives him and slides it under his leg.

"Johnson's team didn't have outside contact with anyone. There were no altercations with other teams or locals. Noting that would warrant reprisals." Steve inconspicuously checks the tables around him out of the corner of his eyes. "All photographic and video evidence are accounted for. And I just found out from NCIS that none of the team's bank records show any signs of unusual activity. I don't believe Johnson's death had anything to do with their last mission."

Steve is the master of mentally pivoting and Danny takes his cue, refocusing on the case. "That leads us back to the base."

"Something happened in the three days after Johnson's team reported to Pearl that got him killed."

Danny massages his temples; there are too many what-if's. "And given his work schedule, that doesn't leave very many hours for opportunity. I'm meeting with the supply officer Porter told me had a loud argument with Johnson. I'll see if that leads to anything."

Steve looks equally as frustrated, and given his ratio of sleep to stress, it makes him look exhausted. "Johnson hung out with his team during most off duty hours except for the time he went to the Blue Ocean."

"Which we'll visit tonight," Danny adds.

"Yeah and maybe we'll –" Steve doesn't complete his thought, nodding at someone in the distance.

Danny glances behind him, spotting a few of the team walk inside. Mache the walking Redwood and Torres the Pitbull. Both men wander over and Steve waves a hand at the two empty chairs at their table.

"Sir," Mache says, sitting down. He looks over at Danny and nods cordially. "Food's not bad here. Heard we might get some local flavor later tonight."

Mache's trimmed his beard to something reasonable and he sits there shooting the shit with Steve while Torres sits quietly. Danny supposes this is all part of team bonding, and he looks over at Steve, seemingly relaxed, the wrinkles around his eyes smoothed away. He eats, listening to the conversations, thinking about Steve's face before and after his teammates arrived. And Danny chews way too long with every bite, hoping Steve, the damn expert in almost everything, hasn't committed a fundamental rookie mistake in undercover work.

***

Waiting around to speak to the supply officer reminds Danny of the lines at the DMV. Slow and long. By the time it's his turn at the counter, the guy behind the counter shakes his head at him. "Sorry, it's time for my break."

"Listen Petty Officer Payne, I just need –"

Payne holds up his hand. "I spend all day providing people what they need and as of sixty seconds ago, that ceased being my job until I return. Now you'll need to wait outside."

"Your name actually suits you," Danny mumbles under his breath. He knows when the asshat returns there'll be another line and he'll have wait again. "Hey, hold up," he yells. Danny goes out the door, chasing Payne outside. "How about fifty bucks. Does that buy me a few minutes?"

Payne does an about face. "You should have mentioned money earlier."

***

They stand outside the supply office while Payne lights a cigarette. "You've got five minutes, buddy. So hit me."

Danny waves the smoke away, pulling out a pad and pen. "Did you know Commander Johnson?"

"Commander Johnson?" Payne gives him the blankest look. "The guy that missed the curb?"

Danny grits his teeth. "Yes, the officer who died in a car accident."

Payne takes another drag. "No, I didn't know him."

"You never met him?"

"I meet over a hundred people a day," Payne says, exhaling. "Don't mean I know 'em."

"True," Danny says with a smile. "But didn't you guys have some kind of encounter?"

Payne crushes his cig under his boot. "What the fuck does Rolling Stone care about some pissing match between a bottom feeder and a SEAL?"

"Because your story isn't about how great and amazing SEALs are," Danny says, waving his hands around exaggeratedly. "It's about a loud-mouth going off on a guy just trying to do his job, am I right?"

"Damn straight!" Payne yells, pulling out another smoke. "I spend my whole fucking day approving and rejecting bids on goods. Evaluating usage of ammo and weapons, assessing future provisions, prepping upcoming quality inspection checks, shipping –"

"Exactly," Danny says, cutting him off. "Real nose to the grindstone stuff. Without you –"

"Without me, people like Johnson couldn't get the amount of ammo he needs. Did he think it was easy requesting an additional ten thousand rounds just because his guys use so many?" Payne bitches. "I have budgets, I have –"

"Wait, wait, wait," Danny says, already feeling an impeding aneurysm. "The argument was about ammo?"

Payne glares at him like Danny's a schmuck. "Sure was. He went through my weekly allotment in a day and demanded that I sign the request for more. But he didn't have Commander Stanton's signature and I wasn't about to –"

"You didn't give him the amount of ammo he requested because his paperwork wasn't in order?"

Danny can't believe his ears.

"Do you know how many times I hear that excuse?" Payne demands, offended.

"What happened when you didn't approve his request?"

"He went off on me, threatened he'd go over my head," Payne says, gesturing wildly, spreading ash everywhere. "And you know what I told him?"

Danny doesn't care, but he's too dumbstruck to say otherwise. "What?"

"Go ahead. My tour is up in four weeks. I've already got a real job lined up. What was he going to do? Have me written up? Get me kicked out?"

"Then what did he do?" Danny asks, because there has to be more to it. Why else would Porter or even members of Team Five mention it to Steve?

"Then what did he do?" Payne actually looks confused, lighting another cigarette. "He slammed his hand on the desk and went straight to my supervisor."

"That's it?" Danny blurts.

Payne has the gall to laugh. "Um, yeah. What else did you expect?"

"I don't know," Danny hisses, realizing what a colossal waste of time he's committed. "That's why I'm interviewing you, to get the real story."

"There's nothing else." Payne snorts like Danny's uncle with emphysema. "Dude, you don't know anything about scuttlebutt, do you? It's worse than high school."

Danny's interviewed enough suspects to know when someone is telling the truth and it's annoying as fuck because he's just wasted two hours and a bill on a fat lot of nothing.

"Yeah, so it would appear," he mutters, stuffing his notebook back into his shirt pocket.

***

Danny has a couple of hours before Steve finishes his HALO jumps. It might be work related, but he can't wait until they head out for the bar. But in the meantime, he'll interview some of the mess hall staff, see if they saw or heard anything worth following up on.

"And maybe I'll spin my wheels again," he mumbles annoyed at himself.

***

The Blue Ocean is not the rowdy, swinging-by-the-rafters type of place Danny expects. All the walls are ultramarine and covered with nautical equipment or pictures of ships. The mahogany bar has brass accents and they serve all their drinks in mason jars.

Steve nods at the end and they both take a seat, Steve gingerly lowering himself into the last stool. Danny notices the slow movement but doesn't say anything.
Instead, he grabs a bowl of peanuts and snacks on a few, giving Steve a long sideways glance at his black tee. "You know what I don't understand? You've practically lived in cargo pants and t-shirts your whole adult life. Why is it you wear them on your down time?"

"Are you, Mr. I Wore a Tie for a Year, asking me about my wardrobe choice?" Steve mocks.

"Since you were obsessed with mine for so long? Yeah, I'm asking."

"They're comfortable."

A middle-aged woman with wavy blonde hair and large gold loop earrings comes over and gives them both a grin. "What can I get ya fellas?"

Steve holds out a couple of fingers. "Two Longboards."

"Sure thing, sweets." She wipes down the bar with a rag before setting down two ice-cold ones. "Want to start a tab?"

Steve pulls out a credit card. "Sure."

Danny can't stop the laugh that bubbles up from his throat. "Wow, buddy, you remembered your wallet."

Steve gives him a wicked smile. "I'll get a receipt so you can pay your half later."

Danny returns the smile, the tension he unknowingly carried in his shoulders easing. "You're such a cheapskate."

"Didn't want you to confuse the situation," Steve teases.

Danny presses the bottle to his lips, forcing himself to let that drop and take a slow pull, the beer harsh down his throat. Steve takes a large swallow of his own beer, wincing as he flexes his shoulders.

"You still sore?" Danny asks, trying to hide his concern.

"I'm good," Steve dismisses.

"Good, huh?" Danny thinks to last night, at the wind ripping through the helicopter, and watching Steve leap with enough gear to take out a small island. "How many times did you jump out of a helicopter?" Steve doesn't answer, downing the rest of his drink. "Uh-huh. Yeah, you're good."

"Want another one, sweets?"

The bartender has the worst timing ever and Danny takes another swallow of beer.

"Actually, I thought you could pour a buddy of mine's favorite," Steve tells her. "Gin straight up. Tanqueray No. 10."

The bartender's perky mood dissolves into a frown. "You guys were Ryan's friends?"

Danny straightens in his stool, casting a swift glance at Steve.

"Yeah," Steve says in genuine solemnity.

"Sorry to hear what happened," she says with a shake her head. "He was a real doll."

"Did you work when he came in?" Danny asks.

"Yep. I've been covering for a few folks who've been on vacation." She gestures at the stool next to Danny. "He always came in, ordered his Tanker, and sat there all quiet like."

Steve glances at the empty stool, the empathy for Johnson obvious in his downcast expression. "He was trying to work some things out," he murmurs.

"Yeah, you could tell," the bartender says, frowning. "I didn't pry; most of the guys on base come here to get away."

Danny glances around at the décor. "Yeah, I could see how this wouldn't remind them of their day jobs."

Steve shoots him an annoyed look, returning his attention back to their witness.
"Did any of our other buddies ever meet him here? Or did he make friends with anyone at the bar?"

"No. He was kind of the loner type. He even had some local interest if you know what I mean. Girls who like sailors, but he wasn't interested."

"Really?" Steve asks. "You sure? He was a looker."

"Sure was, much like you sweets," she says with a wink. "But he just enjoyed the quiet. People around here know to take a hint." Turning around, she pours a shot of gin and leaves it next to Steve's elbow. "I'm Lydia, by the way. Just holler if you need anything."

Danny swirls his bottle around when Lydia is out of earshot. "Doesn't sound like he ran into any trouble here, and according to my interview with Payne and some of the mess hall staff, Johnson didn't get into a beef with anyone on base."

"No, he didn't." Steve rubs the palm of his hand across his temple, seemingly frustrated by the lack of progress. "And there wasn't any trouble with anyone on the team."

"You sure?" Danny asks. He knows how tunnel-visioned Steve can get regarding SEALs.

"I'm sure," Steve snaps, fingers tight around his beer.

Dealing with Steve in defensive mode is like banging his head against the wall because Steve's loyalty a wonderful thing, but it often leaves him exposed and vulnerable.

Danny sucks on his bottom lip, fumbling for a neutral topic. "Did you get your perfect jump today?"

Steve loses some of the fire behind his eyes. "We improved our time by two minutes."

"In the air?"

"No. We landed in the water in a tighter group and were able to shed our equipment and get into our ducks faster." Steve nods at Lydia for a second round. "We thought Vega injured his ankle, but the docs cleared him."

Lydia plops down two frosty beers and Danny curls his fingers around the new bottle, thoughts straying to the file. Reading Johnson's last mission opened a door to Danny's curiosity, and given the nature of the case, it might be the only time to talk to Steve about it.

"When you were serving," he says his voice gravely. "How many missions did you go on?"

"I didn't keep count." Steve says, taking a long swallow.

Danny highly doubts that. "What about in a year? Ball park?"

"When I was Afghanistan," Steve pauses, thoughtful, his eyes drifting toward the bar. "It was non-stop. Hundreds. When I completed my tour, I switched to special operations."

Danny doesn't pretend to understand the horror of war, but he wants to understand Steve, even if it's like walking across a minefield.

"Special ops. Like counter terrorism stuff?" When Steve doesn't answer, Danny pivots. "How many of those did you do?"

Steve stops burning holes through the bar with his glare and looks up at Danny, lips pressed together. "Maybe a couple dozen a year. Depended on the length. Some missions lasted for weeks, others a few minutes."

Danny honestly didn't want to know about the ones that lasted only minutes.
"And you never went home?" he asks, partially aware of the answer.

Pain flickers behind Steve's eyes, but he locks it away from one blink to another. "I lived on whatever base I was sent to train or where I ran operations from."

"Sounds kind of lonely."

"I didn't have time to be lonely."

But it had to be, with no cards or phone calls from loved ones. No one telling Steve they couldn't wait to see him during his leave or the holidays. Danny knows that's where Steve's streak of self-sacrifice stems from; always thinking others had more to lose than he did. It was wrong then and Danny has worked hard to show Steve that it's wrong now.

Danny thinks of Grace. Of sisters and brothers. Matty. Mary. One sibling who can't go home and the other still slowly finding her way back.

"And the guys who had families?" he asks.

"They returned when they could," Steve says, unable to hide the regret in his voice. "I worked with other agencies then; some of the missions only required two or four-man teams."

"That how you met Vega?" Danny blurts. His curiosity still burning.

"I served with him for a few weeks when I was a lieutenant."

Danny thinks again of a young, eager Steve with shorter hair and even a more gung-ho attitude. "Like one of the young officers he had to train?"

"No. I wasn't green." Steve swirls his beer. "I'd been out of platoon training for a couple years, but it was one of my first special assignments."

"One of those two-man jobs?"

"Four."

But Steve's tongue isn't that loose and he drifts off, staring off at nothing, lost inside the steel fortress behind his thoughts.

"You're a good SEAL, Steven, but don't forget you're also a good cop." Danny lays a hand on Steve's shoulder. "And I know what you're doing out there is real. That these exercises are some intense shit and you feel really close to your team. But remember, it's all part of the job."

Steve's muscles tense under Danny's hand. "I'm lying to them."

And there it is, right under Danny's nose. He should have known. Steve's Achilles' heel is painfully susceptible.

"No, you're gathering intel so you can find the person responsible for their CO's murder." Danny squeezes Steve's shoulder, letting his fingers linger. "It's another covert op and these men – they'd want the person responsible for the death of their friend brought to justice."

Steve scans the various pictures on the wall, snapshots in history, moments of honor. Danny drops his hand and Steve looks up at him, the guilt written in the crinkles between his eyes.

"You know deep inside what I'm saying is true," Danny tells him. "It hurts to keep the truth from people, but it's the right thing to do."

"Not always, D," Steve says, swallowing the last of his beer, staring at him. "But I've done far worse."

Danny isn't sure if he ever wants to know Steve's darkest secrets. "Some stuff you carry around with you until the pain becomes permanent. Either you let it go or you bury it. But this isn't one of those of those times, babe."

Steve nods grim-faced but doesn't say a word.

***

Danny bolts awake, hand automatically reaching for a weapon before he realizes he's not at home. Steve is up and on his feet by the time Danny scrubs his eyes, the noise that woke him louder and persistent.

"Commander McGarrett, sir!"

Steve jerks open the door and Danny's caught between staring at who is on the other side and how the light pours over Steve's defined shoulders and back.

"Lieutenant Mache, report," Steve demands.

"Commander Stanton wants the team ready to move out in five minutes. The Chief's getting everyone together, sir."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Steve says. "We'll be ready in two."

"Yes, sir."

"Wait, what the hell is going on?" Danny squints at the clock; it's only three in the morning. They've only had a few hours' sleep. "Fuck me."

"Come on, Danno, let's get moving."

By the time Danny rolls out of bed, Steve's pulled on his BDUs and thrown on an olive shirt. "Snap, snap, D."

"Snap, snap?" Danny glowers at Steve who is already lacing up his boots. "Oh my god, I hate you and all your SEAL insanity," he growls, hurrying to put on some clothes.

***

He's cranky, exhausted, and chilly. Danny slips on a light jacket that Steve hands him, and okay, the whole anticipating that he'd be cold is freaky and kind of nice. But he'd rather be in bed. What the hell are they doing out here?

Danny moves around, gravel crunching beneath his boots. The team exits their vehicles and forms a line, Steve standing proudly at the end.

Commander Stanton strides up to him, gnawing on his cigar. "Commander McGarrett. I need your team to sweep five miles of road, identifying and disarming the four IEDs hidden along it. I want you to use the modified versions of the Wolverine detection system."

"Yes, sir." Steve folds his hands behind his back. "Have they fixed the modulation issues with the Wolverine system?"

"I don't know, Commander," Stanton says with a smile. "That's why we're testing it tonight."

"Aye, aye, sir." Steve quickly faces his men. "Vega is sitting out tonight to give his ankle rest. Everyone break into four teams, Hunt and Torres, you're with me. Everyone suit up and move out."

***

Danny stares open-mouthed at the odd black model airplane that Torres unpacks from a metal case.

"She's ready to go, sir," Torres says after inspecting it.

Steve pulls out a set of binoculars. "PO Hunt, the map please."

Hunt ambles over, the younger man towering over Steve by several inches, and unrolls a laminated map. "Here you go, sir."

Torres and Hunt, elite sailors snapping to and obeying all of Steve's commands, send a tingle down Danny's spine.

"Ensign, I want you to fly the drone right over here." Steve traces a finger over the line representing the road. "Drop your sensor load from 18A to 18D on the grid."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Intrigued, Danny keeps quiet as Torres pulls a large remote control out of the case. Walking over to stand next to Steve, Danny can't help the smile that escapes when the drone speeds down the dirt road and launches silently into the sky.

Steve lifts his binoculars to watch, his eyes drifting toward the map Hunt holds open for him to study. "Don't overshoot the target, Ensign."

"Yes, sir," Torres answers, guiding the drone. "I'm bringing her back around."

Danny can't see or hear a thing in the darkness, watching kid-like for a sign of the drone. "What's it going to do?"

"Drop hundreds of tiny sensors to the ground," Steve says, observing.

"You serious?"

Steve averts his gaze for a millisecond before adjusting his binoculars. "The drone's loaded with sensors smaller than your fingernail. Inside each one are molecules that react in the presence of trinitrotoluene vapor."

Danny shakes his head; Bill Nye has nothing on Steve. "You mean TNT?"

"Yeah."

"Dropping sensors, sir," Torres reports.

Steve watches, fingers curling tightly around the binoculars. "Good job, Ensign. Right on the mark."

Torres nods, taking the praise in stride.

Steve looks over at Hunt and Torres, eyes landing on Danny last. "Let's move out."

 

***

Danny does a double take at the weapon in Steve's hands. "What the hell is that?"

Steve brandishes a long rifle fitted with a lens instead of a muzzle and a freakish scope with a large rectangular display screen. "Something that uses infrared."

"Like a laser gun?" Danny asks incredulous. Because leave it to Steve to have a freaking space gun.

"Yeah, something like that," Steve says hiding a smile.

Hunt sits behind the wheel, driving the Humvee at a glacier pace, eyes pin-balling between Steve and the bumpy road. Torres' shoulders brush against Danny's as he squeezes closer up front to watch.

Steve points the rifle out of the passenger side window, steady as a rock, blues and greens swirling in his view screen. "By aiming at the area with infrared light, the sensors feed information to the receivers built into the gun."

Danny presses against Torres as he peers at Steve. "Do the explosives look purple or something?"

"Actually, is it's the absence of fluorescence that warns us of explosives," Steve says, focused completely on scanning the ground with the laser.

Steve's veins must pump with ice water, easily ignoring the energy inside the Humvee.

"That's incredible." Danny's heart thumps wildly. "How come this isn't used more widely?"

"Because it's classified and it's still in the testing stages." Steve nearly leans out the window. "I used one of the first models a few years ago. The sensors gave off too many false positives; I hope they've improved things."

Danny stares at the back of Steve's head in stunned shock. "They sent you out with experimental technology?"

Steve doesn't turn around. "We can't use dogs in coverts operations and we need something when going into certain types of enemy territory."

Danny grips the passenger seat a little harder. "And the bombs we're searching for tonight. Are they real?"

Steve doesn't answer, training his rifle, eyes narrowing at the readings. "I've got a large area of black ten meters on the right. Petty Officer Hunt, stop the vehicle. Everyone file out behind me."

Danny adjusts his body amour, his shirt glued to his back from sweat. He doesn't intend to stay inside the Humvee. "You said the sensors were unreliable?" he asks.

"We're still tweaking them."

"Tweaking?" Danny scoffs in a hitch pitched voice. "Yeah, that sounds safe."

"That's why we have the fly paper," Steve says with assurance.

Danny refrains from asking what the hell that means, eyes glued to the ground, careful of every step.

Hunt carries a giant roll of something out of the Humvee with a scary kind of poise. Kneeling, Steve studies his scope, reviewing a road that looks like every other inch, filled with dirt and rocks.

Steve holds up a hand, everyone freezing mid-step. "I've got almost zero florescence approximately two meters in front of me, spanning…three meters across."

Staring out at the road, Torres juts out his chin, his shoulders bunched in knots. "I've only used fly paper once in training, sir."

"Okay, Ensign, that's fine," Steve says, evenly holding Torres' gaze. "Just walk me through the procedure."

"We should spread out the film about twice the size of the target area and stretch it carefully across the surface," Torres explains, relaxing minutely.

"Affirmative," Steve says voice steady. "I'll lead you through the rest."

Torres, a mere stranger a few days ago, nods, completely trusting in his commanding officer. And Danny watches in pride as Steve works with Torres with total patience.

Studying the tiny screen, Steve scans the ground with the infrared. "Take five steps forward." Torres obeys, Steve guiding him. "Move three steps to your right…now stop. Keep your feet in place. The IED is located less than a meter in front of you. PO Hunt, you and Torres carefully lay the sheet of film over the area."

Torres bends with his knees, Hunt taking the other end, both men slowly spreading the cyan blue sheet in the air and carefully allowing it to float down to the ground. "Fly paper applied, sir," Torres says.

All the hair across Danny's arms stands on end in exhilaration.

"Now we'll wait," Steve says. "Why don't you explain to Mr. Williams how the fly paper works, Ensign?"

"Like the sensors, fly paper can detect TNT in very small concentrations," Torres explains, never taking his eyes off the film. "If there's no explosive vapor present, the film remains blue when exposed to ultraviolet light. If explosive molecules are present, a dark circle identifies the threat."

Danny blinks. That's the longest string of sentences he's ever heard Torres use. "And how long does it take?"

Steve adjusts the controls to his laser. "About six minutes."

"And how do you disarm it?" Danny asks, his heart thudding harder.

"That depends." Steve aims a purple light over the film. "Our Humvee's equipped with radio frequency jamming devices which disrupt the cell phone signals used to trigger IEDs."

"We also have microwave-pulsing devices that fry the electronics of IEDs," Torres adds as a black area slowly appears in the film.

Danny stares in awe at the deadly smudge in the far right corner of the flypaper.
"And if it's a landmine or just a plain old bomb?"

Steve clips his rifle to his neck sling and stands next to Hunt. "Ensign Torres will disarm it."

***

Danny drags his feet out of the Humvee, feeling done-in from too much adrenaline and too little sleep. But he helps unload equipment for half an hour and changes in the locker room with everyone else, his vest stinking of sweat.

"I can't wait for a shower," he grumbles. "Maybe breakfast before crashing."

Steve removes his gun belt. "You might have time for both before the morning drill."

Danny feels like banging his head into the locker. "We're not going back to bed, are we?"

Steve shrugs off his own vest, which, in McGarrett, means no.

Before Danny can bitch, Commander Stanton strolls into the locker room. "Good work tonight," he tells the team and looks over at Steve. "Although, Commander, your squad finished last."

Steve's locks his jaw in place, his face all hard lines to match his body. "I wasn't aware it was a timed assignment, sir."

"What mission isn't?" Stanton says. But Steve stands unflinching, Stanton's expression equally neutral. "Are you ready for our debriefing?"

"Yes, sir." Steve closes his locker and follows Stanton out.

Danny waits until both are gone before muttering, "What an asshole."

Hunt snorts behind him. "You gonna put that in your article?"

"Maybe, I might slip it in after the section about using gadgets from Star Wars to track down fake IEDs."

"Everything about that bomb was real except the detonator," Hunt reminds him.

Torres finishes changing in silence and quietly walks away, disappearing out of the locker room.

Danny looks at Hunt quizzingly, the guy sighing. "Just after Torres got his trident, he was out on maneuvers with his first platoon and they were ambushed. During the resulting firefight, their Humvee hit a roadside bomb, killing three of his teammates."

"Jesus," Danny mutters. "He didn't look fazed at all."

Hunt stands to his full scary height. "He wasn't supposed to be."

And Steve had deftly reinforced that idea tonight as both a leader and a teacher. Never barking orders or giving Torres shit for taking his time. Such compassion and competence is rare and it sends another tingle down Danny's spine.

Hunt slowly loses his serious face, his lips curving. "If you thought the stuff we used tonight was cool, let me show something else."

***

Maybe scrubbing with floors with Hunt earned Danny some brownie points and he follows him out of the locker room and across the hall.

"Stanton's a real hard ass, huh?" he asks casually.

"We work with different base commanders all the time," Hunt says, opening the door into the supply room. "If it's for a mission, they mainly function in a supporting role and make sure we have everything we need for the job. But if we're training, then sometimes they'll have a more hands-on approach. McGarrett's got a real good rep, but he's been in the reserves and Stanton's going to bust his balls a while."

"You guys know each other's reps?"

"It's a small club. McGarrett's is…interesting." Hunt grins devilishly. "I hear he's one of the best, but he has a habit of making up the rules as he goes."

Danny wishes he had a tape recorder so he could play this on repeat in the Camaro.

"Based on what I've seen of him, that doesn't surprise me. What about Johnson's rep? I was originally supposed to shadow him. I mean, I'm just curious about the stuff I won't hear."

"Like what?" Hunt asks, popping a stick of gum.

"I dunno. Did he have a secret love for cooking or was he a hot head sometimes?"

"He loved things that went fast," Hunt says all smiles. "Motorcycles, cars."

"He was a real adrenaline junkie?"

"Dude, seriously? Of course he was. But he liked fly-fishing and he actually listened to classical shit. Bach and Beethoven." Hunt rubs a hand nervously over his shorn orange hair, his voice quieter. He frowns. "He always wanted to go to the London Symphony."

Danny's face falls, knowing how hard these guys have to work to hide their grief. "The secret life of SEALs, huh?"

"You mean like the fact that there's more to us than our ability to obey orders?"

Danny feels like a total prick, but Hunt gives Danny's shoulder a shake. "You really need to loosen up," he snorts.

Hunt points at a stack of equipment lined up in the middle of the room. "We pull out the gear we'll need the night before and do an inspection check in the morning." Making his way around cases of weapons, he picks up a large black container. "This is really cool, dude. You're gonna love it."

Hunt looks like an overgrown little kid, reminding Danny that the big bad SEAL is only twenty-five.

Hunt drags out the large container, entering in a digital code and pulls out – a robot. "This is the Cheetah," he says excitedly.

The Cheetah is the size of a cat with four articulated legs and a metal body made of exposed wires and moving parts.

"It's a pet cyborg?" Danny asks in awe.

"Nah, man," Hunt laughs. "She can search for bombs, climb over objects, and race across the battlefield in the middle of a firefight, sending us live intel."

"Can she transform, too?" Because Danny wonders if he can steal this thing. Grace would love it.

"No, but she can reach twenty-five miles per hour." Hunt grabs a large remote control that requires both hands. "Watch this."

The Cheetah purrs to life, its four legs working in tandem to run past Danny in quick jerky motions, and he can't help busting out into the biggest grin. "That's freaking amazing."

There are several crates in the Cheetah's path and it just jumps over them.

"Holy shit!"

"She's just getting warmed up," Hunt grins ear to ear. "You should see what she can do outside."

"I want one."

Hunt laughs. "Oh, yeah?"

But suddenly Danny's cop instincts kick in, and he looks around, unable to shake the feeling of being watched, spotting Steve sulking by the door.

"PO Hunt, that is not a toy; secure it now," Steve orders.

Abashed, Hunt straightens to full attention. "Aye, aye, sir."

Hunt quickly collects and stores the Cheetah and stops in front of Steve. "I'm sorry, sir."

Steve's voice is kind, but firm. "Do not show off million dollar pieces of equipment unless you have the money to pay for them, Petty Officer."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Hunt says and hastily leaves.

Despite his cool as a cucumber appearance, Danny noticed the stress in Steve's words. "What was that all about, Steven?" he asks, knowing exactly the problem. Steve doesn't handle understated emotions very well.

"What was what?" Steve reflects, striding over and practically glowering over Danny, hands on his hips. "PO Hunt was out of line."

Steve practically simmers next to him, the silver chain of his dog tags emphasizing the flexed muscles in his throat. Danny bites down the urge to grab the damn thing between his fingers and yank Steve closer just to see his reaction.

"Out of line?" Danny mocks. "Is that what you call it?"

"Yeah." Steve steps closer. "That's what I call playing around with classified equipment."

"Playing around?" Danny flings his arms out, pissed. "It was a demonstration, a bonding moment."

"A bonding moment, really?"

"Yeah, bonding," Danny growls back. "Or are you the only one allowed to connect with any member of your team?"

Steve inches closer. "The last I checked, I don't own an exclusive on bonding with others."

This isn't the bathroom, Danny's not trapped by the wall, but he doesn't actually move away. "That's really good, because believe it or not, finding similarities with another person, sharing anecdotes, and relating on a human level aren't your strongest skill sets."

"Really?"

"No, in fact, I can safely say they require improvement." Danny's breathing hard, Steve even harder, and Danny can't take it anymore. "Are you too stubborn to admit that you were jealous?"

Steve's eyes grow large and he nervously looks around the room. "I wasn't jealous."

"If that wasn't jealousy, Steven, what was it?" Danny asks, his boots touching the tips of Steve's. But Steve doesn't answer right away and Danny looks up at Steve's face, wanting to brush his fingers across the unshaved stubble. "You're never at a loss for words, babe."

Steve opens and closes his mouth, swallowing, his whole body visibly shaking from his internal struggle.

Danny reaches over to touch him, but Steve takes two steps back, eyes crestfallen. "I...I can't do this, Danny." He inhales sharply, wiping his hands over his face. "I just...I'm sorry."

"Wait." Danny's heart skips a beat. Fuck. He didn't mean to do this. Not here, not now. "Steve, wait –"

"I've got to go," Steve interrupts him, voice cracking. "I've got the morning drill and Stanton has a rescue op set up for us later today."

"Yeah, okay," Danny says, trying for normal. He doesn't want Steve distracted while doing something dangerous. "Go do your thing. I'll just…I'll see about a hunch I have."

"Okay. Good. Um… I'll see you later," Steve says and hustles out the door.

Danny watches Steve disappear and kicks the crate in front of him three times until his foot hurts. Because, god, what a fucking mess.

***

Danny's restless, functioning only on caffeine and nervous energy. He's glad he's skipped tagging along on the next exercise, not after whatever the hell happened in the supply room. No, he can't think about that now. Taking a break won't hurt his cover and he'll feel more useful following another idea. He needs the distraction and Steve needs to keep his mind focused on whatever crazy thing he's doing.

Lieutenant Porter comes over at and sits across from his table with a large cardboard box.

"Hey," Danny says with a charming smile.

"I must admit, Mr. Williams, your request for these files has me intrigued." Porter pulls back some of the hair that has fallen in front of her face. "Is there any reason why you want to read the military police's files from this month?"

"Because while I was here, I got an idea for a second story about crime on military bases, and before you jump to conclusions," he says, holding up a finger, "it will be a flattering piece on the challenges of policing a community of military personnel."

Porter taps a finger on the end of box. "You'll need to sign another set of forms giving us explicit permission to vet your article since the original documents pertained only to the exposé regarding SEAL Team Five."

"You sound like a JAG lawyer," Danny teases.

"Don't flatter yourself." Porter stands, smoothing out her uniform. "Have fun. Call me if you need anything else."

Pulling out the first file, Danny takes a deep breath. This whole thing is a shot in a dark, but maybe some incident might spark a new lead, or a pattern of criminal activity might emerge. He honestly doesn't know. If Johnson's death wasn't premeditated or connected to his status as a SEAL, then maybe he simply was a victim of a random crime.

"And if you ran into trouble by accident, maybe the clue is in these," Danny says, wishing he'd brought a thermos of coffee.

***

The last thing Danny expects when he walks into the common room is to find the whole team lazing around all the sofas and chairs. It's like déjà vu, except he's not on the receiving end of a dozen scrutinizing eyes. Everyone is in black t-shirts and BDUs as if they'd just completed their mission, stripped off their vests and weapons, and collapsed where they sat. He spots Steve sprawled on a blue love seat, his legs and bare feet hanging over the armrest. In fact, everyone is bare foot.

"Did you guys lose all your socks?"

"Don't ask," Vega mumbles, an icepack wrapped around his ankle.

Whatever they did, Vega's still not a hundred percent and looks like he's paying for it.

There's an empty seat at the end of the orange sofa and Danny looks at it and over at the wall, thinking he might just lean when Torres looks over at him.

"I don't bite, Rolling Stone."

Danny accepts the warm and fuzzy invitation and sits next to Torres who seems content twisting a rope into a series of complicated knots. The TV's on with some movie about a SWAT Team going vigilante on a drug cartel.

"That shot is fucked," one them shouts. "The angle's all wrong."

"Are you just noticing the sheer amount of bullshit in this?" Mache asks, nursing a beer. The big guy still has a stupid bandana wrapped around his forehead. "Was your job as a cop ever this exciting, McGarrett?"

Danny isn't used to hearing anyone call Steve anything but sir, but he guesses it's because everyone is off duty.

"We had our fair share of adventures," Steve says, vaguely. "We put away a lot of bad people."

Mache nods thoughtfully, shifting his large limbs, his elbow bumping into Torres's shoulder. Torres ignores him, all his focus on the rope between his fingers.

"What the hell are you doing, man?" Mache asks.

"Relaxing," Torres grunts.

All that fidgeting is actually quite annoying, but Danny doesn't say anything as he tries to read Steve's mood from across the room.

"Is that some type of slungshot knot?" Mache asks.

"Kind of," Torres mumbles.

"Dude, nothing beats a double reef."

Torres doesn't look up at Mache. "Not if you add a few twists to the slungshot."

"Is that a challenge, Ensign?"

Torres is a man of few words, glancing up at the lieutenant. "Do you want it be?"

Danny can't believe his ears; don't these guys get tired of competition?

"Got a C note that says you can't get out of mine in less than thirty seconds," Mache challenges.

Before Danny knows it, Torres is tying Mache's hands behind his back, and for crying out loud, are these guys Navy SEALs or five year olds?

Danny tries to stay out of the way while the room fills with more testosterone. Mache gets out in a good time. Then he uses his super-secret knot on Torres and Danny hops up from his seat and wanders toward Steve.

He stands there awkwardly, staring at Steve's feet, at the tendons and arches, gathering the courage to ask if things are good between them.

"Hey, Rolling Stone, do you wanna try?"

Danny wearily turns around. "Nah, I'm good."

"What? Why not?" Mache asks. "You can even pick the knot."

"Two hundred bucks says he can't get out of any of them in less than sixty seconds," someone yells.

"I've got that bet."

"Put me in for that action."

Danny can feel his blood boil as everyone wagers on how long it would take him.

"I bet he can," Steve says. "In fact, you name the knot and I'll tie it."

Mache idly twirls the rope around. "I'll take you up on that. Double reef knot. Sixty seconds."

Steve takes the rope and pauses, looking over at Danny hesitantly. "May I?"

Something inside Danny's stomach flips, because Steve is just nervous as he is after this morning. Danny wets his lips, keeping his tone normal, giving him a reassuring smile. "Sure."

Steve releasing a breath, nodding. Mache pulls out a wooden chair for them and Danny sits down, never taking his eyes off Steve.

"I actually prefer a good old square knot myself," Steve says casually. "Maybe give it an alternate twist."

Steve takes Danny's left hand and gently pulls it behind the chair, rubbing his thumb over the pulse point of Danny's wrist, the motion causing it to beat faster. Then Steve takes Danny's other arm, not yanking it, but carefully bending it around until both of his hands encompass Danny's wrists.

Danny wiggles in the chair, his back and shoulders tensing slightly. But he remains cool, doesn't pay attention to the other eleven people in the room, their eyes watching him. All Danny can feel is Steve's breath on the nape of his neck and his long fingers working the rope around Danny's wrists.

He doesn't like being restrained, and his flight or fight instincts collide with his need to relax, to trust Steve, to use the nervous energy coiling into his gut to free himself.

"There." Steve gives Danny's right wrist a squeeze. "It's tied."

Mache walks over, carefully inspecting the knot, and pats Danny on the shoulder. "Let's see what you got."

Torres flips his wrist, holding a finger in the air. "And go."

It would be easier to focus if Steve wasn't actually standing so close by. The other SEALs don't know that Steve drove Danny nuts once during a stakeout, practicing his stupid knots, the square knot to be precise, and forced Danny to learn it. And it's a challenge trying to pull things by touch, twisting his fingers around the rope. This isn't a square knot at all, but Steve told him how to get out of this one by code …alternate twist, his ass.

"Thirty seconds," Torres calls the time.

"Come on, you can do it!" Steve hollers.

Danny thinks things are good between them because only Steve would root for him over his own SEAL team and secretly give Danny the tools to do it.

"That's it, Rolling Stone!" Hunt whoops, and okay, so two people are rooting for him.

"Fifty seconds," Torres calls out.

Just one more tug, damn goofy thumbs, Danny mocks at himself and there – the biggest knot is loose, it needs just one more adjustment.

The rope falls away from his wrists and Danny jumps up as Torres calls out fifty-nine seconds.

Danny brushes off his sleeves, strutting a little, giving the rest of the team a smile. "Not too bad, huh?"

Steve's standing next to him with a big goofy grin that he quickly schools before holding out his hand. "All right, boys, pay up."

Danny settles back on the sofa, feeling pretty good, and even Vega nods at him from his spot on the other loveseat, his icepack dripping on the floor.

"All right, if Rolling Stone can get out of a chair, obviously we need to make this more challenging," Mache announces.

Steve finishes collecting his winnings and Danny shouts at him, "Don't I get any of that since I'm the one that got trussed up?"

"Maybe I'll buy you a beer tomorrow," Steve says.

"Oh, you'll buy me a beer?" Danny snorts. But he actually lets it drop, because this is good, most of the tension from earlier bleeding away.

Mache's still going on about upping the ante and Torres rolls his eyes and nods at Steve. "Bet the boss can get out of anything."

This ignites a whole discussion on how to do that, Steve standing there with this 'bring it on attitude.' Mache for once doesn't look like a pissed off biker and more like an ugly ox needing to blow off steam.

"I've got it," Mache says. "How about with your hands above your head in less than thirty seconds?"

"Only thirty?" Steve challenges.

Danny stops himself from calling Steve an idiot.

Steve walks over to the perfect spot and raises his arms above his head, glaring at the rafter for being taller. "Hold on," he says, grabbing one of the beams with both hands, stretching his body as far up as he can.

Mache's not tall enough to reach above the beam, so he pulls over the chair, and stands on top of it. He snakes the rope around Steve's wrists, tightening the first loop, binding Steve's hands together, forcing him to stand on his tiptoes.

Suddenly Steve's whole body stiffens, his lips a pale thin line, and he starts pulling on the rope and Danny knows something is wrong immediately.

"Wait, sir, I'm not done yet," Mache says, looping it around a second time and tying another knot.

Steve's feet fight for purchase on the ground, his jaw muscles twitching.

Mache finishes and moves off the chair and motions at Torres to start the clock.

Danny jumps up, forcing himself to stop, to think, and not blow their covers. He's furious, forced to watch helplessly as Steve's feet dangle and scrape the floor. He looks up at Steve to offer encouragement, but Steve doesn't see him, doesn't seem to register anything at all.

"Ten seconds," Torres announces.

Steve's head jerks at the sound and he stares at Torres, at everyone around the room, at Danny, blinking. Steve takes a shuddering breath and slowly exhales. He closes his eyes and when he opens them up, they're dull and blank. And in that moment, the point where Steve goes away, his fingers dig in between the knots.

"You can do it, sir!" Hunt yells.

But Steve's face is lax of emotion and Danny knows he's not there with them.

"Twenty seconds," Torres says.

It feels like a lifetime to Danny, but Steve continues tugging at the ropes, standing completely on his toes. It seems to take forever, Steve's breathing rapid, but even, like it's taking every ounce of self control to work the knots. To get the job done.

The corners of Steve's mouth tic until finally the rope unravels and falls to the floor.

"Twenty-eight seconds," Torres announces.

Mache smiles, slapping Steve on the arm when he walks over. "Awesome job, sir."

Steve nods and hands the rope back to Mache, rolling his shoulders, his face a fragile mask of concentration. "You guys have fun. I'm hitting the rack."

"Okay, who's going to outdo McGarrett?" Mache challenges the team.

Danny doesn't stick around to see if they're going to start hog-tying each other next and quietly slips out of the room.

***

Danny quickly enters their quarters, waiting silently until his eyes adjust to the blackness. Steve's on the side of the bed, his elbows on his knees, head buried in his hands.

Danny's heart aches, his impotence doubled from a few minutes ago. He hesitates, not wanting to fuck things up any further, but Steve is a coiled spring of nerves and muscle and Danny debates navigating the murky boundaries between them.

"Is it okay for me to sit next to you?" he asks.

"We've got a long day tomorrow. We should probably go to bed," Steve says, quietly.

It's not a yes or a no, so Danny sits on the bed across from Steve, the front of their knees barely touching. He waits, letting Steve set the playing field.

Gradually, Steve raises his head but doesn't look Danny in the eyes. "I think we should retrace Johnson's steps in real time tomorrow night."

It's not surprising that Steve doesn't want to talk about what happened, and despite how much it kills Danny, he's not going to force Steve to exorcise his demons when he'd not ready.

"We'll go after your last exercise. Do you have anything scheduled at night?"

"Not at the moment."

"Okay, good." Danny rests his arms on his legs, head bowed, his eyes tracing the outline of Steve's nose, his lips. Danny battles the urge to touch, knowing he doesn't have permission. Breathing deeply, he whispers, "I'm sorry, babe. I was wrong the other day."

Steve tilts his head. "About what?"

Danny tries to settle his ragged voice. "You're not a robot."

Steve's breath hitches, his Adam's apple bobbing in the darkness. And damn it, Danny aches to hold Steve, to –

Danny squeezes his eyes shut and forces himself to climb under the covers, flattening himself in bed to keep from doing anything stupid. He hears the rustling of sheets and of Steve settling down, and after few silent moments, there's a faint 'thanks' in the darkness.

***

Danny will murder the guy pounding on their door. Again. For fuck's sake, didn't his head just hit the pillow?

But Steve's talking to someone, Vega maybe, his sleep-mussed voice gravelly. "We'll be there in five."

Danny kicks the sheets to the floor. "What is it with this guy and making sure we don't get more than a few hours sleep?" he growls.

"Stanton won't interfere with the schedule I've created, but that doesn't mean he can't add to it," Steve says, grabbing his clothes. "This isn't routine training. The SBS team arrives in less than a week."

"Yeah, yeah, British SEALs and giant egos," Danny grumbles, his feet hitting the cold floor.

"We'll still retrace Johnson's steps tonight."

Danny's marginally more awake thanks to the chill sinking into his bones and he looks over at Steve, roaming around the room on autopilot, wondering if he slept at all.

"You going to be up for running around later?" Danny asks. The last twenty-four hours have been brutal, but Steve shoots him daggers from across the room. "All right, all right, no need for the SEAL death glare."

Steve ignores him, lacing up his boots. "Did you get anywhere with your hunch yesterday?"

"Other than a few recent on base housing burglaries and a drug bust for amphetamines, nothing that pinged on the radar." Danny grabs his phone and frowns. "Got a couple missed calls from Chin."

"It's four now," Steve says, checking his watch. "We'll call him after the exercise."

Danny finishes buckling his belt, his stomach growling. "I really hate this guy. Doesn't he know that even Rambos need to eat?"

Steve tosses something out of his duffel, Danny catching it against his chest. Staring at the wrapper, he rolls his eyes. "A power bar, really?"

***

Danny doesn't ride with the team; in fact, Steve and the others go in the opposite direction, forcing Danny in the backseat of Commander Stanton's Humvee with the rest of his entourage. It takes half an hour to reach their destination, a large open area with a sprawling compound. Danny stretches his legs, walking around a little, testing his voice recorder.

Stanton at least has the decency to wait until they're outside before lighting a stogie. He stands there while someone hands him a headset, the four marine escorts quickly setting up a table with computers and radio equipment.

Danny slips the recorder into his pants' pocket. "How long do we have to wait until –"

"Look up, Mr. Williams," Stanton says, bringing a set of night-vision binoculars to his eyes.

Danny searches the sky, perplexed, until he notices the faint outline of two helicopters, two very silent helicopters. Goddamn it, they are real.

"Here, sir." A marine comes over, handing Danny a headset.

Danny puts it on. "Thank you."

Stanton adjusts his microphone. "Thumper, this Red Base, Joker One and Joker Two are sixty seconds out. Prepare to light it up."

"Roger that, Red Base."

Danny watches the helos approach low to the horizon, frustration boiling over. "Could anyone please explain to me what's going on?"

"A fast-rope exercise, Mr. Williams," Stanton explains, chewing on his cigar. "At any given moment, a SEAL team must quickly deploy into any area in the world."

Danny thinks back to one of the books he'd read, remembering new clips on TV during Navy Week a few months ago. "Is that where they slide down a rope from really high in the air?"

"Exactly," Stanton says with a nod. "The objective is to quickly sneak into places undetected, but just as often, right into a hotspot."

Both helicopters draw closer.

"Hot spot?" Danny asks.

"Both helos and the special operators are sitting ducks in a situations like this." Stanton lowers his binoculars to look at Danny. "Climbing that wall and entering an enemy compound is less dangerous than the sixty seconds it takes for them to fast-rope thirty meters to the ground."

"Red Base, this is Thumper, we have Jokers One and Two in sight," a voice squawks in Danny's ear.

"Thumper, you have a go when ready," Stanton replies, watching the helos advance.

Two large black helicopters, whisper quiet, hover thirty meters above the ground. One by one, team members zip down lightning fast, hit the ground, and start running toward the looming wall.

Then the ground erupts in explosions, Danny flinching at the noise. "Jesus!"

Thick billows obscure his vision and Danny isn't sure if the team popped smoke for cover, or if it's from all the heavy ordnance. Radio static and explosions bombard his ears, Steve's voice a tiny din rattling off orders. Danny can't distinguish the team from the burst of flames and grey/black plumes.

"Vega, go, go, go!" Steve yells.

Danny squints against clouds of dust and smoldering air, ready to rip Stanton's binoculars when he hears a loud whizzing noise and a crackling explosion.

"Joker One, do you copy?" Mache's voice crackles in Danny's ears. "Commander, do you read?" Danny's head hurts from the sheer volume of noise, his chest tightening. "McGarrett, respond!" Mache demands.

Danny stares out at smoldering ground, pressing the earpiece harder.

"Ensign, do you read me?" Mache shouts, then yells, "Red base, we have two men down. I repeat. We have two men down."

"Thumper, this is Red Base, cease fire, I repeat, ceasefire," Stanton yells over his radio.

"Ceasing fire, Red base."

"Joker Two, this Red Base, report!" Stanton yells, worried.

"We need EMS, stat, Red Base," Mache shouts. "We have two men down, over."

"Roger that, we've ceased firing and will send EMS," Stanton yells, snapping his fingers at the nearest marine.

"We've already deployed EMS, sir," the corporal yells.

Stanton runs towards the Humvee, Danny hot on his heels.

"This isn't a damn photo op," Stanton growls at him.

Danny doesn't have the breath to answer, climbing into the passenger seat, Stanton gunning the engine.

***

Stanton drives like a madman, and in less than a minute, he jerks the Humvee to a stop, and he and Danny hop out in a mad dash to the scene.

"Make a hole," Stanton yells.

Eight or nine SEALs milling around their fallen comrades part like the Red Sea and close ranks behind them.

Torres is on the ground, but sitting up, waving away one of his teammates. "I said I was fine!"

Danny has to stop himself from helping Steve, forced into the concerned bystander's role. He freaking hates this with all his being.

Steve is sprawled on the ground a few feet away, his arms flung above his head like one of Grace's discarded dolls, Mache and Vega kneeling on each side of him.

"Status!" Stanton demands.

"An RPG exploded, knocking Ensign Torres and Commander McGarrett down. Torres was unconscious for a few seconds, but is awake and coherent now. Commander McGarrett has yet to regain consciousness," Mache reports.

Vega pulls open the tabs to Steve's vest, running his hands over Steve's torso. "No penetrating wounds of the chest or abdomen," he says, deft fingers moving toward Steve's limbs. Danny notices the blood on Steve's shirt at the same time as Vega. "I've got shrapnel to the shoulder and arm, applying pressure," he says, ripping open a bandage with his teeth.

"EMS three minutes out," Hunt reports, hovering out of the way.

Mache digs into his rucksack, yanking out an IV kit, quickly rolling up one of Steve's sleeve. Palpating the area, he swiftly inserts a needle. "Running fluids."

Steve's eyes fly open. "What?" he gasps.

Danny sags in relief, keeping quiet during the triage.

"Commander McGarrett, it's Mache, you're going to be fine, sir."

But Steve tries craning his neck and Mache holds Steve's helmet between his massive hands. "Please, sir, you need to lie still."

"Where?" Steve jerks his head up despite Mache's hold.

"You're at Pearl-Hickman, sir."

Steve does a full body twitch, forcing Vega to place a hand on his legs. "Please, sir. You need to keep still."

But Steve kicks out again, trying to move. "What?" he asks confused.

Danny practically jumps out of his skin, but he holds back, biting his lips. Mache continues keeping Steve's head still despite how agitated Steve becomes.

"EMS in one minute out," Hunt shouts.

Steve grabs Mache's bicep in an iron grip, staring at him. "What happened?"

"It was an RPG, sir; you're going to be fine."

Steve digs his fingers in deeper. "My team?"

"They're fine, sir."

Steve wrestles and twists his head free, forcing himself onto one elbow, eyes darting around. "Where are they?"

"We're right here, sir!" Vega says, still crouched beside him. "We're all accounted for."

Mache tries pushing down on Steve's shoulder. "Sir, you need to lie back down."

But wrangling Steve isn't easy and he continues trying to move around.

Vega peers closer. "McGarrett, it's okay. Torres is awake and alert. The team's secure."

Steve's chest rapidly falls and rises in stuttering huffs and Danny forces his way into Steve's line of vision. "Hey," he says, peering closer. "You're going to be good and everyone in the team is fine, trust me." The EMS sirens grow closer and Danny focuses solely on Steve's anxious face. "You hear that? Just lie still."

Steve holds Danny's gaze, slowly recognizing him, and relaxes enough for Mache to ease him into lying back down. Danny releases a shaky breath, well aware that Steve hadn't been searching for his SEAL team.

"Everyone make way for the EMTs," Stanton orders.

Someone touches Danny's shoulder and Hunt nods at him. Standing slowly, Danny moves over to wait with the rest of the SEALs as several corpsmen and EMTs swoop in.

***

Danny doesn't want hang out in the common room; he wants to find out what's going on with Steve, but he can't duck out and hitch a ride to the base hospital without raising suspicion.

"Would you sit down, Rolling Stone? You're making me antsy with all that pacing," one them growls at him.

Danny freezes, cursing himself for not playing it cool, eyes drifting toward the door, Vega walking over with a beer in his hand. "Here, this will calm you down."

"It's six in the morning," Danny says incredulous.

Vega smirks. "We work all hours. Time of day doesn't mean shit."

The beer does sound nice, but Danny doesn't take the offered bottle. "What if you get called out again?"

Vega laughs bitterly, twisting off the cap. "We've been given the rest of the day off."

Danny grimaces; these guys already lost one man and this has to be like acid on an open wound. "Have you heard anything from the hospital?"

"Shrapnel wounds bleed a lot. Looks worse than it was. The LT's with them; he'll call when he knows something."

Mache had been the one to go with his teammates and that still sticks in Danny's craw, because he should be there with Steve. "Do you have any idea what happened?"

Vega takes a pull of his beer. "The ground had remote charges to simulate RPGs. A jarhead might've set off one of them too early, or one of them coulda had too much juice, increasing the blast radius." Vega tilts his head curiously. "You were real worried out there. You and McGarrett must've really bonded."

Danny crosses his arms over his chest. "I've been joined at the hip with McGarrett for days and just saw him get blown up. I'm sorry if I don't share your ability to shut down emotionally."

"We don't shut down. We focus."

"Focus, huh?" Danny says. "Like focusing until you don't feel anything. Say fear for instance."

Vega's face twists into an angry scowl. "We're trained to ignore fear. The moment we let fear take over, we become a liability."

"Fear's a human emotion."

"And we're not human?"

"I didn't mean –"

"Do you think this isn't anything I haven't heard before? Training is one thing, but being out there? Where one wrong move could get you or your teammates killed?" Danny frowns, but he doesn't say a word. "Despite all the training and all the conditioning, sometimes it can still fail you."

Danny opens his mouth to ask a question, but he's caught between prying and giving the guy a chance to unload something he obviously needs to get off his chest.

Vega wipes a hand over his face, exhausted. His age is showing. "You got that recorder?"

"No, I don't," Danny says quietly. "Whatever you say, it'll be off the record."

"There was this time…a few years ago. In some desert, we were surrounded by unknown hostiles. No backup…no…" He swallows. "We'd been there for days. Suddenly, a dozen of these armed shepherds stumbled across us and McGarrett ordered us to lower our weapons."

Vega stares at Danny, angry, ashamed. "I held onto mine. I couldn't just relinquish my rifle and be handed over like a lamb to slaughter. McGarrett ripped it out of my hands."

"Were you taken prisoner?" Danny asks, not sure if he really wants to know the answer.

"No. The guys were nomads; it was a bad case of wrong place, wrong time. They could have sold us to a local warlord or done any other number of unpleasant things. Rival tribes roamed everywhere and they would have shit themselves over a few captured SEALs."

"What happened?"

"McGarrett talked to the leader. Convinced him to let us go and they actually provided us with valuable intel." Vega gazes over Danny's shoulder, lost in too many memories, then gives his a head a shake, looking Danny directly in the eyes. "McGarrett had me up for insubordination. I could have been court-martialed, should have actually, but he didn't seek it out. I was put on forty-five days restriction and lost a month's pay."

"That sounds like a pretty terrifying situation," Danny says in complete honesty, unsure how he'd react.

"I felt it'd been a bad call, because what if they hadn't been so friendly? It was a covert op; we were on own. We had other options."

Danny feels his blood run cold. Fight or retreat. Those were vicious options with possible horrific results.

Vega takes two large swallows of beer. "You know what McGarrett told me after the mission? He said a SEAL must be physically and mentally strong, but know when to act as a diplomat and role model. Show that we're different from the militia and warlords."

"Win over hearts and minds," Danny mutters.

But it's more than that, and this stuff about Steve, these hidden portholes into the man hidden behind cargos pants and t-shirts. It's infuriating that he has to learn about Steve in this way, from someone else, that Steve's so guarded, so unwilling to share the amazing things lurking in his heart.

"It took some soul searching, but I realized it been the right call. We avoided a possible bloodbath that night," Vega says, interrupting Danny's thoughts. "That's what I try to teach my guys. A warrior's most important asset is his brain. We learn to lock things down, but we can't afford to totally shut ourselves off and become nothing but an empty shell. Empty shells can't do this job and still go home to our families."

"And have you ever told McGarrett this?" Because Danny remembers the tension in Steve's shoulders any time Vega's name popped up.

"Tell him what?"

"That you were wrong?"

"He knows."

"Oh, he knows, does he?"

"I don't need to tell him."

"Oh my god. What is with SEALs and the concept of talking?" Danny can't believe his ears. "It's not art, it's called communication. The basis for exchanging thoughts and ideas, because the last time I checked, none of us are psychic."

"You don't need a beer, you need a fifth of whiskey," Vega snorts. "Anyone ever tell you that you're too high-strung?"

Danny stares at Vega, who shakes his head and walks away, leaving him with too many contradictory thoughts and feelings to sort through.

***

The investigation can't be put on hold no matter how much he wants to leave this freaking place. Danny checks the lock on the door, sits on his bed, and dials Chin.

"Hey, it's about time you called," Kono answers.

"Did you and Chin switch phones again?"

"Naw, he left it on his desk when he left to grab coffee and I heard it buzz as I walked by. You've had us worried, brah. We called last night."

"Yeah, well, something happened and –" Danny rubs a hand over his face.

"Danny? Is everything okay?"

"Steve's in the hospital – there was an accident."

"What? Wait? How is he?"

"I don't know. I haven't gotten an update. But it's not that bad. He was conscious."

"What happened?"

He still doesn't know. "There was an explosion and Steve got too close. Some shrapnel hit him but it didn't look serious. As soon as I get a chance to go to the base hospital, I'll give you an update. What do you have for me?"

"Fong analyzed all the evidence we collected from the first scene. He discovered heavy-duty pieces of rubber that were the result of blown tire. He identified the tire as a Superlug, a tire the military uses for their large industrial vehicles.

"That could have been from any time."

"Or it could be the reason why Johnson pulled over to help. We collected several boot prints form the scene, including one from a size twelve Blackhawk Light Assault boot."

"A what?"

"Johnson wore a tactical boot used by special operators. We matched his boot print in the ground by the shoulder. It was a custom order; the tread is a hundred percent match."

"Okay. That's something," Danny says, rolling his achy neck.

"Hey! Rolling Stone, you in there?"

"I've got to go, someone's looking for me, I'll call you later," Danny says, hitting end.

Vega's standing there when Danny pulls open the door. "The LT called. McGarrett's got a concussion. They're pulling some pieces of shrapnel out of him now, but he's going to be fine."

A knot in his stomach slowly uncoils in Danny's gut. "That's great news."

"McGarrett's a SEAL; it'll take more than an RPG to take him down." Vega shakes his head. "You, on the other hand, look like shit. Maybe you should get some sleep."

Danny leans against the doorjamb, feeling like death warmed over, and laughs. "Maybe I will."

***

Danny startles, blinking his eyes in the darkness, confused, realizing that he'd fallen asleep. He'd only meant to lie down for a few minutes, but something in the hallway woke him. Swinging his legs toward the floor, he sits up in time to watch the door open.

Danny stands, flips on the light, and watches Steve walk into the room. Steve who looks whole, solid, and alive. Danny hurries over, running a trained eye over him, taking in the white bandages poking out from under a black shirtsleeve that wraps down to his left forearm.

"What did you do to yourself this time?" he asks, brushing his fingers down Steve's uninjured right bicep.

"Minor concussion," Steve says, eyes warm and tired. "Stitches in my arm and shoulder. I've been taken off active duty for the next seventy-two hours then I'll be reexamined."

Danny gives him halfhearted smile. "That doesn't sound like enough down time to me. Do you know what happened out there?"

"I actually don't remember."

Danny frowns at the despondency in Steve's voice. "That's pretty normal, babe."

Steve huffs out a breath, miserably wiping his hand across his face. "What if…what if it was a misstep or I zigged when I should have zagged?"

"Torres got his bell rung, too. Do you think he should have zigged when he should have zagged?" Steve seems frustrated at Danny's logic, doubt doubling the lines around his eyes. "Why not give that bruised brain of yours a rest, huh?"

"Yeah, okay," Steve says without arguing, a sign to Danny that he's hurting. "Mache's going to take over the next few days. I think he's ready."

"Yeah, he seems more than capable," Danny mumbles, perturbed.

The ends of Steve's mouth curl. "Something bothering you, Danno?"

"And if I say yes? Are we actually going to talk about it?" Danny challenges. Steve gets this deer in headlights look and Danny wonders how discussing feelings could be scarier than jumping out of helicopters. "Come on, you should sit down."

But Steve doesn't move, ducking his head bashfully. "I did think about things when I was in the hospital."

"Yeah?" Danny asks, trying to keep his voice neutral. "Did you figure anything out?"

"I think so."

"And will you tell me this century, or do you need training for that?"

Steve places a hand on Danny's shoulder, his face soft and serene. "I think I just need you."

This time, Danny's at a loss for words, the moment ambushing him, and he stands there, gaping openly.

Steve drops his hand before gingerly moving toward the bed. "Did you hear from Chin?"

For once, Danny goes with change of subject because he can't think about this right now.

"Didn't I say we should give your brain a break?" he sighs, rolling his eyes, looking around the room until he finds Steve's duffel by the door. "Did the docs send you back with some pills? And if you say you don't need anything, I'll smother you with your pillow."

Steve gestures at the duffel. "A script for pain meds and some antibiotics."

"Did they feed you?"

"Mache brought me a turkey sandwich. Are you were going to tell me about the case?"

"If it'll get you to shut up and go to sleep, I will."

Of course, Steve chooses that moment to wage war with his t-shirt, vainly trying to remove it.

"You are such a child," Danny grumps. "Here." He helps remove Steve's tee, pulling it over and off his head, careful not to touch all the gauze and white tape. He reaches to trace the silver chain around his neck but pulls his hand back. "Do I need to wake you up every few hours?"

"No, it's only a minor concussion, but we should take advantage of my downtime and try to make some progress."

"Take advantage? Are you kidding me?" Danny grabs Steve's duffel and rifles through it, handing Steve his meds. "Of course you're not. Why do I even bother?"

"Because we still have a job to do."

And Danny thinks about Steve in the middle of some desert surrounded by nervous nomads and frightened SEALs, wanting nothing more than to ensure his team makes it home alive.

"When this case is done, we're taking some time off," he demands.

Steve bites back a groan, stretching out on the bed. "That sounds really nice."

***

Danny wakes up before Steve, takes advantage of the shower first, wishing he had more than three blissful minutes. Padding back inside, he finds Steve up and zombie-like on the side of the bed, contemplating the act of standing like it's some complicated op.

Shuffling toward his footlocker, Steve freezes mid-bend, obviously dizzy, and Danny doesn't say a word, grabbing his clothes and handing them over.

"Actually, I need my other shirt," Steve mumbles.

"But you're off duty."

"Danny just… please."

"Fine." Danny digs out the familiar camo. "After you wash up, we're going down to the mess to eat some real food, and before you argue, think of it as an order."

"Bossy much?" Steve complains.

"Coming from the guy who lives to command others around?"

Steve flaps a hand at him in dismissal as he heads toward the shower, treating Danny to the fantastic bruising contrasting the too-white bandages on the back of his shoulder. "Hey, don't get your stitches wet!"

"Done this before," Steve yells, closing the door.

"I'm not coming in there if you pass out and crack your dumb skull again," Danny rants.

Steve's reply is to shut the bathroom door and run the water.

***

It's late afternoon, the setting sun warming Danny's skin. Steve quickly slips on a pair of sunglasses and Danny winces in sympathy, keeping quiet, except to hold out his hand. "Keys."

"Have you ever driven a jeep?" Steve asks, digging through his pockets.

"No, not a jeep, but I can drive a stick, and oh wait a minute, I don't have a concussion."

Steve pulls out his keys, curling his fingers around them. "First, we're going to the motor pool."

"Nooooo, food first."

"There's something we need to go over during lunch."

Danny draws a deep breath, argument imminent, but snaps his fingers. "There's a maintenance log, isn't there? Wait, don't answer that, this is the military, of course there is." Steve gives him a smug grin, and for once, Danny doesn't want to wipe if off his face. "That's why you're in uniform even though you're supposed to be off duty."

"It helps get things done in a timely manner."

Steve's trident and rank across his shoulder does open a lot more doors than Danny's credentials when Porter isn't around. "I admit you have a point," he says, jutting out his hand again in a gimme gesture.

Steve slaps the keys into Danny's palm. "Don't strip the gears."

"Strip the gears? I'll tell you that I've been driving a stick since I was thirteen. Used to sneak out of the house after Dad went to bed."

"Oh, yeah? And what happened when you got caught?" Steve asks with a smirk.

Danny slides into the driver's seat and gets this fond expression from several memories, Steve's lips curving into a matching grin bedside him. "What are you smiling at? I haven't even told you what happened."

"But you have."

Danny's breath hitches at that, because it's true, Steve can read him just like he can tell a million things from the array of Steve's serious and goofy faces.

"Whatever happened to me having a tone?"

"You have those, too," Steve says, warmly.

Danny doesn't argue with Steve on that one, roughly shifting into second just to rattle his chain.

***

The mess hall is jammed-packed with hungry sailors and it takes forever to get through the line, not to mention finding a place to sit in privacy. Grabbing a couple brown paper bags, Steve gestures outside. "We'll eat in my office."

It takes another fifteen minutes to walk, find the jeep, and reach their destination. "Why does everything have to be so spread out?" Danny grumbles. "What if you don't have a vehicle? Do they expect everyone to jog everywhere?"

Steve doesn't defend his precious way of life, walking stiffly down the hall. Once he reaches his office, he pulls out a four-inch folder, carefully easing himself into his leather chair.

Danny unpacks their baked tuna, veggies, and salads, shoving the plate in Steve's direction. "Eat, you big lug, so you can take your meds."

"It's not that bad and we have a lot of work ahead."

"Stop being a tough guy," Danny fusses. "Your head hurts because you're squinting at those records like you need glasses and my Uncle Henry could beat you in a hundred meter dash right now. You probably shouldn't be up at all; concussions are nothing to mess with."

Steve gets a petulant look worthy of Grace. "My helmet protected me from the blast and cushioned my skull when I hit the ground. I've had worse. This is more like a four or five at the max."

Danny doesn't even want to comprehend what he just heard. "I find it deplorable that you have had enough head injuries to create a scale for comparison."

"I played football before I went into the Navy," Steve says like it's a reasonable answer. He flips through the sheets using a ruler to slide down each page. "Kono said it was a Superlug tire?"

"Yeah, is that a log of tires they have replaced?"

Steve frowns. "No, I'd have to go to supply office; this is a list of repairs. I'm trying to narrow it down by vehicle type. Superlugs are for heavy duty trucks, so I can ignore jeeps, armored vehicles, and anything under a ton."

"How many does that leave?"

Steve grabs his lunch and starts digging into his salad. "A lot."

Danny tears open a tiny packet of salt for his tuna. "So, Johnson's riding along and sees our mystery truck pulled over with a blown tire. He gets out to lend a hand and then what happened?"

"I don't know. Maybe he noticed something suspicious. Saw something he shouldn't." Steve closes his eyes, obviously his headache getting the better of him. "It would take more than one person to subdue Johnson and fake an accident. It's too complex an operation to pull off alone."

Danny silently pulls out the bottle of Advil he snagged earlier and slides it over. "Then we're looking for an accomplice and probably another vehicle. But would Johnson pull over if it looked like he was already getting help?"

Steve drags his gaze back to the page in front of him. "Wait. A M35 cargo truck was checked in the day after Johnson's death to replace a new front tire and minor damage to the axle."

"What's it used for?"

"Not sure." Steve studies the file. "It's has a cargo bed that can hold up to three tons of equipment. But I can look up the plate number and see who was driving it the night of Johnson's death."

"Sounds like a plan," Danny agrees, hoping for a breakthrough.

***

"Where are we going?" Danny asks, following Steve into the secret black ops supply room. "I thought learning about the driver was our next step?"

"It is." But Steve walks around a series of shelves stacked with small black cases. "But once we identify him, I want to do a little recon." He pops open one of the cases. "And this will help us do it."

Danny peers over curiously at a tiny thing the size of a button in Steve's palm. "Is that a tracking device?"

"Yeah." Steve bounces it in the air. "Once we discover our mystery driver, we'll do some surveillance. We'll need this too," he says, dragging out a set of night vision goggles.

"And what are you going to do with those?"

"I'm going to borrow them."

"Borrow them? What like some damn library books?"

Steve's brow furrows in confusion at Danny. "I'll bring them back."

"You know," Danny sighs in exasperation. "For someone whose entire life is based on following rules, you seem to break them a lot."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Steve grins, hefting a duffel bag over his good shoulder.

***

"Take a left."

Danny rolls his eyes. "I know how to get to the motor pool."

"No, we're going to the armory," Steve tells him, tapping away at the laptop perched on his legs.

"Okay. Why?"

"Because I've got the ID of our driver form the database," Steve says. "Seaman Calvin Ridley. He's a unit driver for the EOD, coming up on his second year of his first tour. Clean record, nothing exemplary, and no behavioral problems."

"Mr. Squeaky Clean, huh?" Danny snorts.

"Highly doubtful. Turn right."

"I can read the signs," Danny grumbles.

Parking on the far end of the lot, Danny drums his fingers across the steering wheel. The armory is a large complex with high chain-link fences and patrolling guards, the parking garage located at the east end.

"How do you want to play this? Even if they let you inside so you can locate Ridley's truck, you still need to place the tracker unnoticed and –" Danny doesn't complete his sentence when Steve unbuckles his seatbelt. "Um, what are you doing?"

"Going to plant the tracking device."

"And you're going to do that without getting caught?" Danny hisses.

Steve flashes Danny the biggest Cheshire grin. "I'll figure something out."

Danny reaches for Steve's shoulder, but he's out the passenger door like a slippery eel. "You're not supposed to be doing anything strenuous!" he yells out the window. "You're off duty for a reason."

***

After six agonizing minutes, Danny contemplates going after Steve's dumb ass when a giant alarm blares and smoke begins billowing out of one of the windows. He bangs his head against the headrest. "You crazy, insane Neanderthal."

He white-knuckles the steering wheel, searching for his partner through the windshield when the passenger door is yanked open and Steve climbs in.

"Jesus!" Danny yells. "Where the hell did you come from?"

Steve calmly fastens his seatbelt. "The transmitter is in place."

"And that?" Danny angrily jabs a finger at the reign of chaos in Steve's wake. "What the hell did you do?"

"A small contained electrical fire." Steve gives him an unconcerned shrug. "Purely for show, it won't cause any damage."

Danny scrubs a hand through his hair in frustration. "That is a real fire and an absolutely ridiculous, unnecessary distraction!"

Steve meets Danny's fiery gaze with an amused smile. "I like to think of it as being resourceful."

Danny guns the engine. "When does Ridley's shift begin?"

Steve checks his watch. "In half an hour."

***

Danny cracks a yawn. "How many trips back and forth does one guy need to make between the armory and the disposal unit?"

"If that's your detail for the day?" Steve asks, shifting uncomfortably in his seat for the millionth time. "However many tons of ordinance that needs disposing."

"I know the Navy enjoys mindless repetition, but I'd go bonkers." Danny flaps a lazy hand in the direction of the truck. "Ten miles to drop off a load, then ten miles to pick up a new one. He doesn't help transfer his cargo; he's not involved in smashing –"

"Older weapons are dismantled and melted down."

"Whatever," Danny says, ignoring Steve. "The point is this guy spends his whole night driving a truck back and forth."

"It's a job that needs to be done."

"Yeah, but I seriously doubt it was featured in the recruitment brochure about serving aboard nuclear subs and discovering exotic international ports of call." Danny glances at Steve folded awkwardly in the passenger seat. "What about you? Was it the 'be that you can be' motto that made you join the Navy?"

"That's the Army."

"The few, the proud –"

"Shut up, Danno."

Danny enjoys riling Steve up, but he knows when to tone it down. "And becoming a SEAL?"

"I did it to serve my country."

Danny knows there is more to it, more than the obsessive competition and drive.

"You could do that in any capacity," he says.

Steve looks over at Danny, his face mostly obscured by shadows. "Because I needed to prove something to myself."

"Just yourself?" Danny asks, pushing.

Steve clenches his jaw, the joint visibly protruding. "It was about testing my limitations, seeing if I had the mental and physical discipline needed to become a SEAL."

"You have that in spades, babe, and I'm sure your mom would have told you how proud she was, even if your father –"

"My father was proud of me." Steve's face softens, "and my mother would have been, too." He turns his head away, staring out in the darkness, his body a silhouette of lines. "But I became a SEAL for myself. So I could discover my strength and use it to help my teammates overcome whatever was needed. So I could save lives and go after cowards who terrorize innocents and hide under rocks they think we can't kick over."

It's rare when Steve reveals a chip in his armor, a vulnerable soft side that he constantly tries walling up with obsessive pursuits for justice.

"Now you're using those skills to help even more people," Danny says with a quick hand to Steve's arm. "This time, you can even see the smiles of those that you touch. And that…that's a precious gift. Because the one thing I've learned about SEALs, they might have nerves of steel, but they have heart, and you, you big goof, have a very large heart."

Steve stares at him in disbelief, like he can't fathom Danny's words, and it's such a damn tragedy because Steve's probably never had anyone tell him what he deserves to hear.

"You know you can talk to me about anything, right?"

"I know."

Danny thinks about all of Steve's buried secrets and pain, old demons and new ones that take them both by surprise. "I hope one day that means you'll actually take me up on it."

"I do talk to you," Steve says, looking hurt, then frowns as if realizing the hard truth. They still hadn't mentioned the other night with the ropes. "I can't promise I'll put everything on the table, but I'll try harder." He peers through his night vision goggles, ending the conversation. "Ridley's on the move again."

Danny shakes his head in frustration. "I'm going to take a wild guess. He's going to go pick up another load of weapons."

***

"It's three in the morning, Steven. We should go hom –" Danny bites off the end of his sentence before embarrassing himself.

If Steve noticed, he doesn't say a word as he spies on their suspect, a suspect on his fifth trip to the armory to pick up his weapons or bombs or whatever because Danny doesn't really care. What he cares about is a shower, a bed, or even one of those MREs. Maybe even a certain prescription bottle.

"You remembered to grab your batman gear, but you forgot your pain pills. Why I am not surprised?"

"I'm fine," Steve snaps crankily.

"Riiight. You're so fine that you're only using your right hand to hold up those binoculars and you just dry swallowed another bunch of Advil. Are you aware that there's a limit you can take in a twenty-four hour period?"

"And are you aware that it requires two eyes on the road to drive?"

"What?"

Steve points at the windshield. "Ridley's leaving."

"Last time, Steven," Danny growls. "This is the last time we dog this guy tonight."

"Edge off the gas, D. We don't want to get too close."

"I know how to tail people and quit backseat driving."

But Danny eases up on the accelerator, placing more distance between them and the three-ton truck.

"Wait a minute," Steve says.

"What?" Danny asks, sneaking a look at the blinking dot on Steve's laptop.

"He turned left."

"Left? Where the hell does left go?"

"Off the main road," Steve says, staring at his screen. "And not toward the disposal unit."

Danny shoots Steve an irritated look. "Why not use some of those Navy skills to –"

"He's on North Road leaving the base," Steve rattles off. "If we take this, we'll either head toward Kamehameha Highway or…"

"Or what?"

"Take a right."

Danny follows Steve's directions for another four miles as they near the edge of a park.

"Ridley pulled off the side of the road." Steve flicks his gaze between the laptop and the windshield. "Kill your headlights and see how close you can get."

"I need these lights to see," Danny hisses, but he switches them off. "Great, now I'm blind." He slows his speed to a crawl, coasting the edge of the road for guidance.

"Easy," Steve says, using his binoculars. "Okay, pull over."

Danny eases the jeep into the grass, squinting at the truck's outline thirty meters away. "See anything?"

"Nothing. Ridley's just sitting there. Wait…there's another truck approaching. Medium size. Hard to tell the model. It's pulling over."

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Danny asks.

"That Ridley's sitting on hundreds of outdated M14 assault rifles."

"Outdated, but worth thousands of dollars on the black market."

Steve pulls out his Sig. "Do you have your piece?"

"What? No," Danny growls. "I'm a damn reporter, remember?"

Steve removes a Glock35 from his ankle. "Take my back-up. Four suspects just exited the second truck."

Danny grabs the weapon. "We are not pursuing these people, Steven," he hisses. But Steve doesn't say a word, tensing beside him. "What? Hey! Talk to me!"

Steve grips the binoculars using both hands. "Something's wrong."

"Something's wrong? Can you be more specific please?"

"I think…I think they have a…they're scanning the truck for electronic devices." Steve lets the goggles dangle over his chest, his fingers franticly tapping across the keyboard. "I'm turning the tracker off."

Danny holds his breath, struggling to see in the dark.

Steve lifts the goggles back to his eyes. "I wasn't fast enough. They're searching for us."

Danny's torn between starting the engine and readying for a fight. "Steve?"
Several beams of light illuminate the night. "Those are high powered flashlights."

"Danny. Go!"

But by the time he turns the keys, bullets shower the truck grill and Danny ducks in time as the windshield shatters.

"We've got to get out of here, we're sitting ducks!" Steve yells.

Fumbling with the door handle, Danny forces the door open and dives to the ground. He rolls several times as bullets riddle the jeep with holes.

"Danny, run, I'll cover you," Steve yells over the chaos.

"What? No, I'm not –"

"Don't argue with me!" Steve growls. Another burst of gunfire rips through the jeep, popping the tires. Steve runs behind the vehicle for cover. "Now, Danny!"

Danny sprints the second Steve starts shooting and reaches the tree line.

Steve's Sig echoes in the distance then it stops. He probably ran out. Breathing roughly, Danny takes aim, waiting, the woods erupting into a maelstrom of automatic fire.

He's got to provide Steve with some cover.

"Steve, run!" Danny screams, opening fire at the muzzle flashes.

He squeezes the trigger until it clicks empty. Danny doesn't dare call out Steve's name, franticly scanning the night.

He notices the shadow just as a hand encloses around his bicep. "We've got to keep going," Steve whispers in his ear.

"Goddamn it," Danny hisses, flinching.

Steve tugs on his arm, Danny scrambling alongside him, his feet fumbling for purchase over the rocky terrain. His shoulder bumps against Steve's and it bumps again when another barrage of bullets peppers the trees ten meters away.

Steve grips Danny's elbow. "We've got to go faster."

Danny pumps his legs, running harder, and right into a tree branch. A sharp pain lances across his head as he's knocked to the ground.

"Danny," Steve hisses, kneeling beside him. "What is it?"

Danny groans, wiping blood out of his eyes. "Great. Now we both have concussions."

"Danny, look at me. Track my finger."

Danny squints up at Steve's anxious face, blood dripping into his eyes. "I can track your finger, it's just, damn it. The cut won't stop bleeding."

Before he can say another word, Steve shoves his hand under Danny's armpit, pulling him close, guiding him. "Let's move."

Danny bobbles against Steve until he can gain his bearings. The woods fill with a series of short bursts of gunfire.

"Okay, this way," Steve's voice ghosts over Danny's ear. "Over here."

Before Danny can protest, Steve pulls him under a large tree. "Do you have any ammo left?"

"No, I'm out. You?"

"Empty. Only had one clip." Before Danny can open his mouth, Steve slips on the night vision goggles dangling from his neck. "Don't budge from here and don't make a sound."

"What the –"

Steve softly presses calloused fingertips to Danny's lips. "Danno."

Danny hisses, frustrated as his heart thumps violently inside his breastbone. "Steven."

"I can't distinguish who is who with these goggles, I don't want to risk –"

"It's okay. Go do your thing," Danny says breathless.

Steve nods, unsheathing a knife from somewhere and slips away.

Danny grips his useless Glock, cursing his luck, tucking it into his waistband. No, he can't let Steve do this alone, but blood continues to run freely down his face and the world feels unsteady when he rises to his feet.

He listens, straining against the wind and chittering insects, wondering where the hell everyone could be. Because, hello, loud ass gunfight on one of the biggest Navy bases.

Phone. He has a phone, except he doesn't, patting down empty pockets. Of course, he dropped it while running for his life. Danny would blame Steve –except Steve's out there, hunting those hunting them.

A cold lump of reality lodges in Danny' throat and he remains alert, listening intently into the darkness.

Steve appears out of nowhere, dragging a body, and dumps it by Danny's feet. Brandishing his knife, he disappears into the night like a real freaking ninja, and yeah, Danny's never going tease Steve with that nickname again.

Danny quickly checks the guy's pulse and finds none, his fingers tacky with blood. Jesus.

The report of multiple AKs sends him onto his belly, and Danny tenses, knowing Steve's outnumbered, his worry superseding his confidence.

It takes forever for his eyes adjust to the darkness and he catches Steve's catlike outline sneak up another bad guy, the unsuspecting shadow crumpling. Then Steve plunges deeper into the woods, disappearing from view.

"Damn it."

It's a deadly game of cat and mouse when more gunshots ring out erratically, the shooters firing wildly. Two different AKs rip up the area – then fall silent seconds later.

Danny pushes up to his knees, searches vainly, tensing at every noise and gust of wind. One minute passes, then two. Nothing.

He swirls around at the crunch of leaves, swinging, but a hand twists his wrist away, Steve's face appearing inches from his. "Don't say a word."

Danny might implode from the need to yell and scream, but he nods, holding his breath.

There's blood on the front of Steve's shirt, splatter across his neck, but his eyes are a deep sea of calm. "I need you to draw out the last guy."

"Last guy? I counted two left."

"There's only one," Steve says evenly.

"Noisy bait, right," Danny whispers. "Got it."

Steve slinks away, the night swallowing him whole. It's freaking eerie.

"Steve!" Danny whispers too loudly. "Where are you? I think I've got a signal."

He waits, eyes darting back and forth at shifting shadows.

"Steve. Come on, we've got to get out of here."

Snap.

Danny sees the shift in air and a figure emerges from around a tree, stalking toward Danny, Steve's outline following inches away.

But the figure spins around, shining a light in Steve's direction, the beam swiping across his goggles. Steve hisses, throwing up a hand to block the light, and the suspect takes aim at him.

"Steve!" Danny yells, charging the figure.

He rushes forward, slamming into the guy, both of them falling to the ground. Danny lands on top of the suspect's chest, both of them fighting over the guy's Sig, the damn weapon going off with a deafening pop.

Adrenaline surges through his veins and Danny rips the Sig away, repeatedly slamming the butt into the suspect's face.

"Danny, Danny!"

Hands grab him from behind and yank him away. Danny squirms out of the grasp, swinging the Sig, but Steve grabs his fist in an iron grip.

"It's okay." Steve carefully relieves Danny of the weapon. "You can stand down."

Danny stares at up at Steve then at the unmoving body on the ground, his heart pounding.

"Danny, talk to me," Steve says anxiously. "Are you okay?"

"What?"

"Are you hurt?"

Steve is frantic and a little crazed looking.

"I'm fine," Danny says.

Steve runs his hands over Danny's shoulders and arms. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm good." But that doesn't erase the worried look on Steve's face. Danny squeezes his arm in reassurance. "I promise." Steve nods, releasing a breath and Danny gives him a pat. "What about the others?"

"He was the last one."

Danny lowers himself to the ground and stares up at Steve, out of breath, dabbing at the wound at his temple. "I really hate getting stitches."

Steve gives him a dopey smile before securing their suspect's weapon. "Look at the positive side. You have some time off coming up."

"You better believe it," Danny growls, the adrenaline crash hitting him hard.

Steve stuffs Ridley's weapon into his waistband, stumbling slightly when he moves.

"Hey, tough guy," Danny growls, quickly assessing Steve for injury. "Sit down before you fall down."

Huffing annoyingly, Steve eases himself to the ground next to Danny, leaning against him. And jeeze, what that does to him, knowing Steve has let his guard down.

"Are you hurt?" Danny demands. "And don't you dare lie to me."

Steve laughs this exhausted sound. "Not any worse than I was before."

Danny chuckles exasperated, feeling wrung out and scattered. He wipes at the wet trickle from his cut. "We're quite the pair of gimps, aren't we?"

Steve's fingers slip into Danny's. "Who are you calling a gimp?"

***

It's a three-ring circus between the Pearl Harbor Police, MPs, and medical emergency crews. Danny sits inside the back of the ambulance with fresh gauze taped to his temple as he waits for his ride to the ER.

Steve finishes talking on the phone after what seems like forever and strides over. "Just got off the horn with Agent Bailey and Captain Bishop. They're on their way for a debriefing. Bailey said the ATF wants in on this, but NCIS still has jurisdiction."

Danny shifts his butt on the gurney and scans the area lit up by flashing red and blue lights. "Did you leave anyone alive to arrest?"

"The guy you knocked unconscious. I only subdued Seaman Ridley." Steve nods in the direction of the unconscious man surrounded by two medics. "He'll live."

Danny watches two gurneys loaded with body bags wheeled toward the coroner's van. Tonight had been close.

One of the EMTs, a young guy in his twenties, comes around the rig. "Detective Williams, we're ready to take you to the hospital," he says and looks over at Steve. "You should ride along and get checked out as well, Commander."

"Come on, keep me company," Danny says before Steve can argue. "Besides, you should get cleaned up. You look like a deranged freak."

Steve glances down at his stained shirt and subconsciously rubs at the dried blood on his neck. "Yeah, okay."

Danny shakes his head. "Like I was going to take any other answer."

***

Three hours and x-rays later, Danny is the proud owner of four new black sutures. He's lucky according to the tiny shriveled old physician who oversaw his care: Danny doesn't have a concussion.

That doesn't postpone the debriefing that follows with too many questions and an even slower trickle of answers. Commander Stanton stands in the room, the odd man out in this whole thing, his face a mask of cool professionalism as Steve goes over their investigation with Agent Bailey and Captain Bishop and five other big shots from other law enforcement organizations.

Danny breathes a sigh of relief when the meeting ends for the night – or is it morning? He doesn't know.

Everyone files out except for Stanton and Danny wanders over next to Steve who stands at complete attention like he's ready for the firing squad.

"Lieutenant Commander McGarrett," Stanton says, hands on his hips. Steve holds himself even straighter, as if readying himself for a barrage of verbal body blows. "Your team is waiting for you. I think they would like to know about the apprehension of the people responsible for the murder their CO and brother."

Steve doesn't lose a single inch of rigidness in his posture, but the lines around his eyes ease. "Yes, sir."

***

Danny follows Steve into the common room, all eleven members of SEAL Team Five standing at attention. He begins moving to stand off to the side, but a familiar hand grips his shoulder and Danny freezes, his face scrunching up in curiosity at Steve.

"You should stay here next to me," Steve says.

The gesture catches Danny off guard. A wave of pride and affection renders him speechless and slightly dumbstruck at how much it means to him.

Steve holds his head up high, dressed in cargo pants and a black t-shirt, his tags resting against his chest. "Detective Danny Williams and I were assigned to this team to investigate the murder of Lieutenant Commander Ryan Johnson. As you have heard by now, his death wasn't an accident."

Steve nods at Danny to continue. They started this case together and they'll end it together.

"We're still trying to put the pieces together, but we believe there was an arms ring involving the ongoing theft of ordinance earmarked for destruction." Danny waits a beat, gives the team a second to process before continuing. "Both suspects are in interrogation, but we believe Commander Johnson stumbled across this operation when he spotted a truck with a flat tire on the night he was killed. A truck more than likely filled with crates of stolen weapons."

"What happened, sir?" Vega asks.

"We still don't know," Steve says. "Johnson might have seen something or asked the wrong questions. Or maybe the people who were supposed to receive the weapons arrived to help and got freaked out when they spotted Johnson. But we'll find out. I promise."

"And you did not divulge any information regarding the truth behind Commander Johnson's death because you thought one of us could have been a suspect?" Mache asks, his expression tight.

"We didn't have any suspects or motive," Steve answers. "We couldn't risk tipping our hand. It was recon."

Steve's words settle over the shoulders of a team trained to honor trust above all else. A team who just lost a leader to some stupid random act of violence.

"Does this mean there won't be a story?" Hunt asks.

The disappointment in the man's voice catches Danny off guard. "Um, that's unclear at this time."

Steve gives him a curious look before staring straight ahead at the team.

Mache is the first man to walk forward, his girth a formidable presence. Holding his head up high, he stands at attention. "Thank you, sir."

It's like the weight of the world slides off Steve's shoulders.

Mache turns toward Danny and holds out his hand. "Thank you."

Danny shakes Mache's massive paw. "You're welcome."

Each team member falls in line, standing at attention, acknowledging the trident Steve wears no matter the clothes or uniform. And Danny shakes each of their hands, earns a couple claps on the back, he and Steve standing side by side.

***

Danny longs for his big comfy bed and a shower he can camp under for an hour without fear of running out of hot water. But he is beyond exhaustion's threshold, skirting the cliff of loopy, and he needs to recharge his batteries and unwind coiled muscles. And that means getting some shut-eye before sliding behind the wheel since Steve shouldn't drive yet.

Steve closes the door, locking it, his eyes tracking Danny as he takes off his socks and shoes.

"You're kind of creepy standing there." But Steve doesn't say a word. "You okay, babe?"

"You know as a SEAL, I learned to live my life for today," Steve says, voice rough. "There wasn't a rewind button for yesterday and the future doesn't matter if you don't survive to see it."

"That's a pretty bleak outlook on life."

"It worked for us, for me. But now…"

"Now?"

"During the firefight when the suspect blinded me and you tackled him – and the gun went off." Steve wipes a hand over his face, fingers lingering over his eyes. "I thought you'd been shot and I was filled with rage, but more than that…I was filled with horrible regret. And I have enough regret in my life, Danny."

Danny's heart aches at the desperation in Steve's voice and he wanders over to stand in front of him. "I know how painful regret is. It leaves a terrible hole inside, and sometimes it gets smaller, but mostly it turns into a giant chasm that leaves you empty. The question is, Steven, what are you going to do about it?"

Steve runs his tongue nervously over his lower lip and Danny wonders if Steve is trying to be provocative before he leans down and tentatively brushes his lips against Danny's. It's a slow and anxious gesture, so unlike Steve's normal ferocity.

"Is this, okay?" Steve whispers.

"More than okay," Danny growls.

Steve's eye light up at that and Danny devotes all his attention to the next kiss and Steve eagerly opens his mouth, meeting Danny's tongue with his own.

Cupping Danny's head in one hand, Steve slips his other arm around Danny's waist, pulling him flush. His eagerness and excitement radiate through Danny, electrifying him, energy he replicates with ravenous kisses. He closes his eyes and concentrates on the sensations of lips and teeth and tongue, groaning in pleasure. Steve grips him tighter, digging his fingers into Danny's back.

"Want to take this to the bed?" Steve whispers in his ear, sending a wave of heat through Danny's body.

"Oh, yeah."

For the ten seconds it takes to move over to the bed, all Danny can think about is stripping Steve's clothes off. He sits on the mattress, Steve quickly shucking his boots, practically kicking them across the room in his rush, and crawling next to him.

Danny tugs on Steve's shirt and helps pull it over his head. Danny shudders at all that tanned skin and inked arms, ignoring the white bandages. "God, you're beautiful."

Steve's eyes drop abashed and Danny wants to erase that damn incredulous look and make him feel the very love that Steve gives every day with his sweat and pain.

His eyes draw toward dog tags hanging down Steve's chest and Steve caresses the left side of Danny's face. "You can touch them if you want."

Danny's breath catches at the trust Steve's bestowed upon him, aware at how much Steve guards it. Danny's hands shake as he traces the chain, twirling it between his fingers, drifting down to the black tape. "Can I…I mean…"

Steve wraps his hand over Danny's, both their fingers curled around the tags together. "Go ahead."

Danny slowly peels away the tape, rubbing the pad of his thumb over Steve's name, his social, a shiver ghosting down his spine.

Steve swallows, watching him with hooded eyes, his chest rising and falling. "God, Danny."

Danny kisses the tags with love and reverence, tracing the chain with his mouth, up Steve's neck, and licks the skin along his throat. "Babe."

"Yeah," Steve says breathless, excited. "Now your turn."

"Fair is fair," Danny teases, grabbing his t-shirt and pulling it over his head.

Steve helps, practically ripping it away and tossing it to the floor. Danny smiles at the enthusiasm, so incredibly turned on at having a hundred percent of that McGarrett intensity directed toward him.

Danny has fantasized about getting his hands on all Steve's tantalizing skin and muscle, but the one thing he'd forgotten to factor is the sensation of Steve's hands on him. Fingers so adept with knives and firearms impatiently explore Danny's sides and up each rib. Danny gasps as Steve wordlessly finds and exploits his every hotspot like it's a critical piece of intel, mission essential.

Eventually, Steve works his way up Danny's shoulders, wrapping both arms around Danny's neck as he kisses his mouth deeply. Passionately. Like Danny is the most vital thing in Steve's life. And damn those SEAL lungs, forcing Danny to break off the kiss, his head dizzy for air.

"Do you know how long I've wanted this?" he pants, wondering if this is really happening.

Steve breaths are rapid and heavy and he buries his face in the crook of Danny's neck, holding him tighter, as if Danny might slip away. "I'm sorry that I couldn't…that I…"

And out of nowhere, a wave of wanting hits Danny hard, overwhelming him with the need to keep Steve safe, to give him everything he deserves.

"Shssssh, it's okay," he says, rubbing his hands up and down Steve's back, channeling security and longing. So much longing. "We have each other now. No regrets, remember?"

"No regrets," Steve repeats, like it's an order, an oath, a promise. He lifts up his head, eyes dark with desire. And yeah, Danny could get used to that look.

He moves back just enough to insinuate a hand between their bodies and gives Steve a hard rub then a gentle squeeze through his pants. Steve gasps, squirming against him. Encouraged, Danny fumbles with Steve's belt enough to slip a hand inside.

"How far do you want this to go?" he asks, pressing his lips to the hollow of Steve's throat.

"I don't care." Steve sounds a bit dazed. "Just please...don't stop."

Danny palms Steve, prompting a low groan, and making Steve press his face against Danny's chest before eager fingers grasp Danny's hardness through his pants.

"I don't think we're gonna get much past this," Danny says, his voice hoarse.

"Not this time, anyway," Steve agrees breathlessly, making Danny's heart surge.

Danny grips Steve's shoulder, pushing him down onto the bed, his other hand undoing his own belt and shoving down his pants. He lines their bodies together and Danny brushes against Steve, the two of them quickly finding a rhythm.

"Fuck, Danny. Yeah, just like that," Steve pants.

Danny clings to Steve, rocketing over him, pressing closer, lost in blissful sensation. Steve's tags dig against Danny's chest and he can't get enough of them rubbing against his skin, leaving a mark. Their straining bodies provide enough friction to take them to the brink.

"Want this so much," Danny groans, eyes rolling into the back of his head. He's not going to last much longer.

Steve bucks under him, growling, groaning. "Danny! God."

Spots dance beneath Danny's closed eyelids, his body shuddering. He feels Steve's release just before his and he collapses on top of him, Steve's rapid breath ghosting against Danny's neck.

After a minute, Steve's breath slows down, soothing Danny's rapid pulse, leaving him comfortably relaxed. "Well," is the only thing he manages.

Steve wraps his arms around Danny's back. "'Well'? That's all you've got to say? What happened to all that talk about communication?"

Danny rolls over onto his side until he's lying next to Steve and grabs one of their shirts to help clean them up. "Now you wanna talk. Who talks after mind-blowing sex? How about basking in the afterglow? Enjoying things. Talking can wait until morning."

Steve gives him a loopy smile. "It is morning, Danno."

Danny wraps Steve's chain around his finger. "Morning, night, noontime. I don't care, we're going to sleep for as long as it takes, and then we're going to leave this place in our rearview mirror and take some time off. And yeah, then we're going to talk. Talk a lot."

Steve loses some of his spark and Danny twirls the chain even tighter. "Steven. You promised time off."

"And you're going to get it."

Danny bites his bottom lip. "Not we?"

"I'll join you, I promise," Steve says, licking his lips anxiously. "But I've got to do something first."

Danny closes his eyes, knowing exactly what's coming. "The joint operation? Steve, you're not their leader."

"I know that, but they're still a man down and I'm going to see them through." Steve swallows hard, steeling himself. "I hope you understand."

Danny works his finger around the chain until he caresses both dog tags, his voice gentle. "Yeah, I do."

Steve opens his mouth seemingly lost for words. Shocked. "You do?"

Danny wets his mouth, trying to find right the words, because Steve should never have to look at Danny in doubt like this again. "It's an important part of who you are, babe. I don't have any right to deny you that."

Steve's face crumples in a mix of relief and disbelief and joy. It's beautiful and heartbreaking. "I…just…I…"

Danny presses a finger to Steve's mouth, hushing him. "I know you'll always be a SEAL and lord knows there's more to that than I could have ever imagined, but that's a big piece of you." He smiles. "And you, my friend, are one complicated jigsaw puzzle. And I'm about the whole thing. Every single part."

"Come here," Steve says, pulling Danny over, holding his body close, pressing his lips to Danny's mouth. "I meant what I said. This was just the beginning."

"Yeah, I know that, too," Danny says, meeting the kiss with vigor. "Believe me."

Steve smiles this lazy, amazing grin, and Danny returns it. "Besides," he says with a cough. "While you're busy with playing war games, I have a story to type."

Steve gets this baffled, adorable expression and Danny runs a hand over Steve's side. "I am an expert at writing reports, and well, I think those guys deserve to have their story told."

"They don't expect accolades, that's not why –"

Danny presses his lips to Steve's, trailing a hand down Steve's thigh and hooking it over Danny's leg, pressing their bodies even closer. Flushed skin to flushed skin. "Will you just hush," he says, taking a breath. "Who cares about all that superficial shit?" He wets his lips, his voice thick. "It's going to be about the heart that beats inside them."

Steve stares at him with such fondness that Danny can't help the warm glow overwhelming him. "I do believe you have a look."

"And you have a tone," Steve says, voice blissful as he wraps his arms around Danny.

"So, I've been told," Danny whispers, basking in it all.

***

Fini-

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