Former Glory (by Claire)

Summary:  This story continues from the events described first in “Personal Questions” and then in “A Little Less Conversation”. While it can be read as a stand-alone, I do recommend you read those stories first.
Category:  NCIS-LA
Genre:  Crime
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  27,165


 

The first time they nearly made love was unplanned, but it would have been sweet and urgent. It would have been perfect, if Marty Deeks, who was still recovering from a gunshot wound, hadn’t passed out. The second time they nearly made love, everything seemed perfect, right up to the moment when she was called away. That time would have been fast and with a fierce tenderness. Kensi Blye was determined there would not be a third time they nearly made love. A third time would kill her, if the frustration didn’t do that first.

“You’ve been watching the clock all afternoon,” Callen said. “Going somewhere special tonight?”

Kensi kept her head down. “Nowhere special. Just hanging out.” There wasn’t a hope in hell they would believe her, but it was worth a shot.

“Would ‘nowhere special’ happen to be in the Malibu area?” Above her head, Callan exchanged a meaningful look with Sam.

“None of your damn business. You want to butt out of my private life?”

Sam took up the offensive. “I thought I’d swing over to Deeks’ place tonight, maybe see if he fancies a game of poker. You got anything on, G?”

“Nothing urgent comes to mind. I might just do that. You wanna come too, Kensi?”

Her mouth compressed into a tight line, Kensi pushed her chair back with such vehemence it hit the wall with a loud cracking noise. “Why don’t you guys just grow up? Working with you is like being in high school all over again, and believe me, it wasn’t that great first time around.”

*****

The drive back to her apartment is long just enough for Kensi to finally stop seething. It is still early, she still has time. No need to rush. Everything has to be perfect – she has to be perfect. Nothing can go wrong this time. She’s spent far too many days and nights longing for him, remembering how it felt to have his body pressed close to hers so that she could feel the heat of his skin, feel his heart beat like a jackhammer in his chest, feel the soft touch of his breath on her cheek and the caress of his hands.

Her clothes are laid out in the bedroom – new lingerie, wisps of silk and lace that look incredibly fragile and yet erotic at the same time. Her body is still damp from the shower when she slips into a black dress he had once admired, then fastens sheer stockings and finally slips her feet into fabulous shoes. Kensi had to have those shoes the moment she spotted them in the boutique window. For once she didn’t even bother to ask the price. With vertiginous heels and sleek scarlet leather the shoes make her feel beautiful and dangerous at the same time

Tonight is worth it. He is worth it. Kensi has never felt like this before and she wonders if this is how a bride feels on the morning of her wedding, this breathless expectation, this sense of wonder and joy.

Everything is going to be perfect. Kensi has made up her mind – there will not be a third time when they nearly make love. And if there is, she’s going to drive right off the end of the pier.

The drive is familiar – she has done it so many times that it is almost routine. But tonight is different. And after tonight, nothing will ever be the same again. Her IPod is playing Rod Stewart and when Tonight’s the Night comes on, she sings along at the top of her voice and life feels very sweet.

As she slides out of the car in Malibu, Kensi catches a glimpse of how very sexy those red shoes look against her sheer stockings. The night air is soft and warm. Ahead of her the door opens and a beam of golden light spills out onto the steps, warm and welcoming. A familiar figure is waiting for her, his hair shining gold in the moonlight and suddenly life feels perfect.

This time, the third time, will be the night when they make love for the first time.

Marty holds out his hand and, when she takes it, pulls her towards him, so that she dances across the gravel and into his arms.

“You’re beautiful,” he tells her. “You’re so beautiful.” She loves the look in his eyes. And then they go into the house, shutting the door behind them, shutting out the rest of the world. Tonight is all about two people.

He has lit candles in the bedroom and that touches her deeply. The flickering light is soft and tender, like his hands as they run through her hair and down onto her shoulders, where they toy gently with the spaghetti straps of her dress. Marty smiles and she could lose herself in his eyes.

“You’re a mind reader. Do you know how often I’ve dreamt of you in that dress, in my bedroom?”

And she smiles back at him and without saying a word raises her hands so that they cover his and gently eases the straps off her shoulders. Without prompting he reaches around and tugs at the zipper so that the dress slithers to the ground in a shiver of silk. And then Kensi reaches across and begins to unbutton his shirt, very slowly, one button at a time, finally slipping her hand in to run gently across his stomach, where a fine line of hair runs downward like a golden arrow. He bows his head briefly and bites his lip for a second and Kensi feels her heart is going to burst.

Tonight they will make love for the first time and it will be slow and gentle and perfect as they learn about one another and start to grow together.

Much later, when the candles are almost burnt down, they lie together, arms around one another in a hot, unbroken circle. Her hair is tangled and stretches out in a dark cloud across the pillow and she breathes a sigh of contentment. She could drown in his eyes.

“I love you, Kensi.”

He has never said this before, but it is the perfect occasion. And Kensi smiles and whispers in his ear that she loves him too, that she has never loved anyone as much as she loves him.

Much later, they sleep; still entwined together, dark and golden hair tangling together in the pale early light of dawn.

*****

“Good morning,” Kensi whispered in a low tone that nevertheless managed to convey a lot of passion. Marty gave a soft grunt and burrowed his head a little deeper into the pillows. She reached out and ran her little finger gently along the side of his face and then moved over to softly tickle his blond moustache. His mouth moved reflexively, almost into the pout she teased him about.

“Mar-ty,” she said in her most coaxing tone of voices and felt an absurd delight when he finally opened his eyes.

“Morning,” he managed sleepily, before pulling her into his arms again with a sight of sheer contentment.

“You’re not going back to sleep again, are you? Marty?”

“Course not.”

She wasn’t convinced and reached out to stroke the scar that ran parallel to his hip bone.

“Temptress.”

“You bet.” Her hand moved lower.

“That’s not fair, Kensi,” he managed, feeling that at least a token protest was called for.

“Is so. Can I help it if I find you devastatingly attractive and can’t keep my hands off you?”

“Did I ever tell you about my fantasy of being a sex slave?”

“No, but this could be your lucky day.”

*****

“That is one amazing shower,” Kensi said in muffled tones, bent over and with her head buried in a towel as she dried her hair.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am.”

“Immodest jerk. I was talking about the shower, not you in the shower. Although you were pretty amazing too.” She stood upright and shook her hair out. “I recognize that towel — pale blue, Egyptian cotton, right?”

“You got it. One of my best looks, I think.”

“You’d better get a move on or you’re going to be late.”

“Come on, Kensi – I’m always late. It’s like my trademark. If I change now and coming rolling in with a big smile on my face, Callen and Sam are going to know something is going on.”

“Don’t smile then. Simple.”

“Yeah, right. Like that’s going to happen.” He pulled on his jeans and she noticed that they were still much looser than they should be. “And don’t give me that look. I get enough of that from Caroline and Nell. Always nagging me to eat more.”

“Anyway, I think they already know. Callen and Sam, that is. I’m not sure about Caroline and Nell – what do you reckon?” Kensi tried to sound light-hearted and offhand but did not entirely succeed.

“I reckon I don’t care. We’re both grown-ups and we’re not hurting anyone. Besides, there’s nothing in the rules that says an LAPD cop can’t have a relationship with an NCIS agent, is there?”

“Probably not.” Her hand clenched tight for a brief instant.

“Definitely not. Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.” He flashed her that million-dollar grin and Kensi couldn’t help smiling back at him, despite the vague stirrings of unease she felt.

*****

Despite his earlier bravado, Deeks was slightly apprehensive when he entered the Mission. He forced himself to saunter in slowly, as per normal, sipping from a cup of coffee, which was also standard. Kensi was already sitting at her desk, making a show of studying some long report. Deeks tossed his messenger bag onto his own desk and slouched into his chair, sneaking a surreptitious look at her. Apart from a slight clenching of her jaw, Kensi gave absolutely no sign that she’d seen him. He grabbed his cell and fired off a quick text.

Could you make it any more obvious?

“Good night?” Callen said, apparently absorbed in something on his computer. His studiously innocent air fooled nobody, least of all Deeks.

What do you want me to do?

“Sure. And you?” he responded blandly.

Say something. Anything. Mock me like you usually do.

“Not bad. I got involved in something, though, so it was a really late night. Didn’t get much sleep. You know what that’s like – lying in bed, not sleeping. Makes it kind of hard to get going the next day, don’t you think?” Callen asked.

So you can pout like you normally do?

“If you say so, Callen,” Deeks replied meekly. “I hear a lot of older people have trouble sleeping. Must be hard for you.”

LOL. Not.

Before Callen could respond, Eric signaled from the stairs. “Hetty needs to see you guys in Ops immediately.” He turned and ran back upstairs.

Kensi looked up from her in-depth study of a blank spread-sheet. “OK, that was weird. Bizarro World weird. What’s biting him? Where’s the whistle, the smart remarks? I’ve never seen Eric so low-key about anything. And he’s a bit young to have Callen’s insomnia.”

“Funny lady. You and Deeks been working up a double act or something?” Callen said sourly. Where the hell was Sam when he needed him? Just because his kid had a school play, surely he didn’t have to take the whole day off on leave? Ruminating on the iniquities of life, he trudged drearily upstairs.

Hetty didn’t beat about the bush. Her briefings were always concise, relevant and precise. This one was no different. Her job was to give the facts and the course of action, no matter what the possible impact was. She owed that much to her team.

“We’ve been informed of a major incident currently taking place at Camp Pendleton, where there is currently a hostage situation. An ex-Marine somehow got onto the base and has taken seven civilians hostage. He is reportedly heavily armed and non-responsive to the negotiating team. He has made one demand and one demand only: he will only carry out further negotiations solely with you, Kensi.”

Kensi blanched. Sure, she’d done the “Hostage Negotiation and Counter-Techniques” course and she’d assisted in several such situations, but she’d never had to take the lead before. “Me? Why did he ask for me?”

Hetty’s voice was very sympathetic. “Because he knows you, my dear. Our ex-Marine is one Jack Patterson. I believe you know him?

“I knew him,” Kensi said bitterly. It was only recently that she had finally come to terms with what he had done to her, and she’d been majorly screwed up about the whole thing for a long time. Finally, just when she had put it all behind her moved on, here he turned up again. “I wouldn’t say I know him now. I stopped knowing him the day he walked out on me and disappeared out of my life. I lived with him for two years, but I can’t say that I knew him. I thought I did, but I was wrong.” All the old feelings of anger and resentment were flooding back now.

“Nevertheless, that is his one demand. And he holds a very powerful lever to make you comply.”

“I know. Seven civilian hostages. Bastard.”

Hetty’s voice was very sympathetic. “I’m afraid it’s worse than that. One of his hostages is your mother.”

Deeks was beside her in an instant taking hold of her arm. “It’ll be okay, Kensi. We’ll get her out of there.”

“Get off me.”

She physically pushed him away, not able to cope with the comfort he was offering. Sympathy was not what she needed at the moment – all she wanted was to get the bastard who ruined her life and was now threatening her mother’s life. Sympathy would only take the edge off her anger, make her give in to her fears and then what good would she be? How could she help her mother if she was falling apart? Right now, Kensi let her anger take full rein over every other emotion. That was the only way she was going to get through this God-awful mess. She had to keep herself together and concentrate on getting her mother away from Jack. And then Kensi was going to blow his brains out.

“He wants me to be the negotiator? Fine. I’ll do it.” It was either a promise or a threat. Or perhaps it was both. Even Kensi wasn’t entirely sure. Deeks saw the look on her face and had a sinking feeling of dread.

“Nell will brief you on the current situation and our intelligence to date on Lt. Patterson. But first, I’d like a word with you in my office, Mr. Deeks.”

She waited until he was seated. “I think that it would be better if you remained here during this investigation.”

“No way. Kensi’s going to be tied up doing the negotiations, Sam’s on leave today – that only leaves Callen.” He glared belligerently at her. “Why do you want me to stay here, rather than assisting at a high-profile case that’s going to be drawing lots of media attention? And don’t bother to tell me this is some sort of budget cutting exercise.”

She regarded him gravely for several long moments, but Deeks refused to drop his gaze. “I am concerned that you might be too involved on a personal level.” This situation was bad enough without having her decisions questioned by one of the agents.

“So you’re telling me Kensi isn’t personally involved?”

“She has no choice, Marty. You know that. I have no choice but to assign her to this mission.”

“But you did have a choice when it came to another case with a personal aspect. You had a choice when it came to Overlock. That was very personal, but you let me go. I seem to recall you forced me into a corner and gave me no damned choice.” The affable, easy- going Deeks was nowhere to be seen now. “So do me the courtesy of having the courage of your convictions and let me do my job.”

“That is unkind, unfair and unjust. I had no choice with the Overlock situation. I have no choice now but I do have a choice about letting you go.”

“So make the right choice and let me go. Please.” He had one more card left to play, but Deeks hoped he could hold it in reserve. You never quite knew when you might need an ace up your sleeve after all.

“You’re letting your personal feelings cloud your judgment, Hetty,” Nate said softly. Deeks hadn’t noticed the psychologist sitting peacefully by the window, observing their interaction. “Maybe you should just trust your agents and let them go and do their jobs?”

She sighed. “Perhaps I should. I have trouble seeing things in black and white. At the moment, everything just seems to be an unremitting shade of gray.”

Nate turned to Deeks. “You know that her anger isn’t directed at you, don’t you?”

“Kensi or Hetty?” He was only half joking.

“Kensi’s barely holding herself together right now. Later on, she’ll need you to be there, but right now you should give her some space. She’s got a lot of conflicting feelings to deal with. She feels responsible for all this, and in a way, she is. Kensi is the catalyst and that’s not easy for her to deal with.”

It’s not exactly a walk in the park for me either, Deeks thought. “I’m going then am I?”

“It seems as if I have no choice in the matter, “acknowledged Hetty. If Deeks hadn’t been so intent on getting back to Kensi, he might have noticed the note of sadness in her voice. Making hard decisions was so much easier when you didn’t care about the people involved.

*****

“I’ll drive,” Kensi announced, swiping the keys.

“No you won’t,” Callen countered, immediately snatching them out of her hand. “I’m driving and you will be reading Nate’s profile of our hostage-taker while Deeks goes through the base layout.”

“I know the base-layout — I spent half my frigging life there.”

“But we don’t. And we’re going to be the ones on the ground, remember, while you are negotiating and doing everything you can to bring this stand-off to an end. Or had you forgotten that in your quest for revenge?” He grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to look at him. “I am the senior team leader here, Kensi, and that means I am in charge. If I think for one moment that I cannot trust you to do your damned job, then I am going to kick your butt out of there, understand?”

He gave her a full minute to respond before subtly increasing the pressure on her collarbone. “I said: do you understand?”

She managed to wriggle free. “I understand. But it doesn’t mean I like it.” Her shoulder felt like it was on fire, but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of showing any discomfort.

“Nobody asked you to. And I certainly don’t expect you to.”

“Good” She stalked off to the garage.

“You reckon we could just stick in her the trunk while we drive down?” Deeks suggested.

Callen was sorely tempted.

Kensi knew the road to Camp Pendleton like the back of her hand. She had made the journey between her mother’s home and LA too many times to count. It was difficult to concentrate on reading Nate’s profile when each familiar landmark told her just how much closer she was getting. The journey had never seemed longer or more drawn-out. IF the speedometer had not registered a steady 70 miles an hour, she would have sworn Callen was going no more than 30. Nothing seemed real, especially the report she held in her hand.

How could she have been so wrong? All the time, she had thought it had been events in Iraq that changed Jack. At night, she would slip out of bed and go and trawl the internet for hours, trying to work out what was wrong before making a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder. And that meant she had to accept his behavior, no matter how much he hurt her, physically and emotionally, because he couldn’t help it. This violent, angry man wasn’t Jack. It wasn’t his fault he hit her and shouted at her and told her she was ugly and stupid and worthless.

Nate disagreed. Completely, utterly and without equivocation. Of course, Nate had access to all Jack’s medical records, going right back to when he was a child and was cautioned for drowning a kitten in a backyard paddling pool when he was seven. The litany of abuse continued for page after page after page of detail that got steadily more horrific. But Jack was clever. He’d changed his name to that of a classmate who had died in a car wreck two weeks after high school graduation, along with his entire family. Anyone who had ever seen “The Day of the Jackal” knew how easy it was to assume the identity of a dead person.

For a while, being a Marine had provided a sufficient outlet for Jack’s sadistic tendencies. Pushing his own body to the limits had been enough. But Iraq changed that. So many abuses happened when ordinary decent men were placed in a life or death, kill or be killed situation, when other men ceased to be human but instead became that faceless personification of all evil — “the enemy”. Jack had never been ordinary or even normal.

The clinical assessment was straight forward – Jack was a pathological liar with extreme psychopathic tendencies. It was highly unlikely he had been able to suppress these in the two years since he had left Kensi. The police were already linking him with an unsolved series of murders and assaults on call-girls.

Kensi felt numb. This was the man she had lived with for two years, who she had planned to spend the rest of her life with — and he was nothing more than a cold, heartless killer. How could she have been so wrong? All the excuses she’d made for him, all the kicks and punches she taken without a sound, because she loved him and he couldn’t help it. What a fool she’d been, blinded by love.

“I know why he asked for me,” she said in a voice that sounded completely flat. “He wants to taunt me. He wants to show me he’s still got power over me and he wants to hurt me again, in the worst way possible. He’s bringing me here to watch my mother die and I can’t do a damn thing about it.”

For the first time since they had got into the car, Kensi turned around and looked at Deeks. “Some agent I am — I couldn’t even spot a psychopath when he was sleeping right next to me!” The smile on her face was the deadest thing, alive enough to have the strength to die.

His mind went blank. There were so many things he wanted to say to her — that he understood what it was like to be used by someone, that Jack Patterson( or whatever the hell his real name was) had never deserved her and that he, Marty Deeks, was going to make sure the creep paid for every single time he had hurt Kensi. His Kensi. Who meant the world to him and he was going to make sure she was never hurt again.

But the words wouldn’t come out. The best he could manage was to stoke her hair, her soft hair that lay like a cloud upon her shoulders. It wasn’t much and it probably didn’t help, but it was the best he could do right now.

*****

For ten years, Allison Blye’s quilting group had met in the Recreation Hall on Tuesday evenings, from 7 till 9. They had become a close-knit group and spent as much time talking about their lives and those of their husbands and children as they did actually sewing. Until they read about Quilts of Valor — making quilts for servicemen. This was something they could all relate to, something that tied all the threads of their lives together. So far, they had completed two quilts, and a third top had just been finished, hence the early morning meeting to fit the three layer of patchwork, batting and backing together in the frame, ready for the evening meeting when they would begin the long job of hand quilting.

“I think this is our best quilt ever,” Allison remarked, standing back to get the best possible view of their patriotic red, white and blue interpretation of “Birds in the Air” as it lay stretched out in the frame. “I’m going to enjoy quilting this one.” She sipped her coffee and contemplated having another of those delicious scones Chrissie brought along — with real butter and hang with the consequences. Once you got to a certain age, a little padding was actually quite flattering – or was she kidding herself? Allison considered this carefully for at least three seconds before deciding that she would have another scone and maybe go for a walk that afternoon, just to even things out.

“It’s a really lovely quilt,” Maisie Reynolds agreed. A recently retired school-teacher, she was one of the newest members of the group. She reached into her pocket for her stencil and was just about to start marking the Baptist fan pattern they had agreed upon when the door crashed open.

“It’ll make a fine body bag for one of you fine ladies,” Jack Patterson agreed, as he shoved his gun under Allison’s chin. “Long time no see, Mommie dearest. Did you miss me?”

The coffee cup fell from Allison’s hand and crashed to the ground, spilling its contents everywhere. The gun was pressing hard into her throat and she felt as if she was going to gag. Maisie took one horrified look at the gun and then launched into full teacher mode.

“What on earth do you think you are doing, young man? Get out of here at once!”

Almost casually, Jack moved his hand and Allison could suddenly breathe again. She took a gulp of air, grateful for the release. And then all the breath left her lungs as Jack shot Maisie.

“Don’t bother squawking,” he advised. “Or you’ll get the same.” He looked down at Maisie, who was clutching her shoulder with a stunned look on her face as the blood oozed slowly between her fingers. “And that goes for the rest of you fine ladies. Like I said – that quilt will do just nicely as a body bag.”

*****

“Jack? Jack Patterson?” Her voice magnified by the bullhorn probably carried for at least three blocks. Not that it mattered – everyone living there had been evacuated.

“Kensi! Good of you to come.” The window was open, and he must be somewhere nearby, she reckoned. The same voice she remembered so well. “I’ve missed you. And just to show you how pleased I am, I’m going to send out these ladies to you, one by one.”

Before Kensi could say anything, the door to the hall opened and six scared women came stumbling out into the sunshine, to be grabbed and whisked away to safety.

“What the hell’s going on?” Deeks asked. “You don’t give away hostages like that.”

“You do if you’re a psychopath like Jack,” Kensi said. “He only wants one thing – to hurt me. So I’m going to give him exactly what he wants. Play him at his own game.” She raised the bullhorn to her lips. “You want me to come, Jack? Is that what you want?”

Callen grabbed her. “Are you crazy? You can’t do that.”

“My mother’s in there,” Kensi reminded him. She probably was crazy, but she knew exactly what Jack was capable of and what he would do to her mother. She had the scars to prove it.

“Come on in, darling. I’m waiting,” Jack taunted

Deeks stood in front of her. “Don’t do this, Kensi. Please don’t do this.” His eyes were haunted as they pleaded with her and Kensi would have given anything to be able to turn away, to turn around and drive back to Malibu with him and rewind time so that all this was not happening.

“I’m so sorry Marty. I love you so much.”

Last night they had made love for the first time and it was as if all the planets had fallen into alignment so that the music of spheres finally rang out. Last night they had the world. Today it had collapsed into a heap of ashes.

“Kensi – stay here. That’s an order.” Callen was reaching for his gun, but she was too fast for him.

“I’m coming in!” she called and ran for the door, terrified that even now she would turn back if she hesitated for a second. The door banged shut behind her.

“KENSI!” Crazy, stupid, brave, beautiful Kensi. Bloody woman.

Inside the hall, a single gunshot rang out and Allison Blye screamed as the Quilt for Valor was instantly soaked in blood. She didn’t stop screaming until Callen pulled her into his arms and let her bury her head in his shoulder.

“He’s dead,” Kensi said, in a flat, unemotional tone. Her statement was quite necessary, as no one could possibly be alive with a wound the size of a softball in one side of their head. She had seen some pretty horrific sights during her time with NCIS, but this was possibly the worst. No, she quickly revised that thought. The worst thing she had ever seen was Marty being carried out of the Brandel Building, limp and unconscious, while she had to wait and watch, not knowing if he was alive or dead.

“What the hell happened?” Deeks finally managed. He didn’t know whether to feel relieved that Kensi was alive or furious with her for being so damned reckless.

Kensi looked at him with blank eyes. “He shot himself.” Her tone was completely matter-of-fact. “He waited until I was about six feet away, close enough to see everything clearly and then he pulled the gun out from under Mom’s chin, put it to his temple and shot himself. Just like I knew he would.”

It had taken a while for all the information in Nate’s psychological profile to finally crystallize in her brain, but once she had worked through all the vile, filthy information it contained, Kensi knew that Jack was determined to go out it a final blaze and to destroy her life at the same time. She didn’t know how she felt right now. She didn’t feel anything anymore — not relief or anger. There was just a complete absence of emotion in her soul.

The scene of crime guys materialized and started taking pictures. Soon the medical examiner would turn up and shortly after that the mortal remains of Jack Patterson, former Marine, former lover and abuser of Kensi Blye, would be unceremonious put into a body bag and removed. Deeks wondered if anyone would claim his body or turn up at a funeral, and discovered that he really didn’t care one way or the other. It was all over and Kensi was still alive. That was all that mattered.

“Come on,” Deeks coaxed, seriously worried about her. This wasn’t the Kensi he knew. This was some stranger inside Kensi’s skin. “We’ll go back to LA now and take your Mom with us. We can leave the rest to the local boys. We’re going home.” He tried to take her in his arms, but she tugged away.

“This is my home. I need to be with my Mom tonight. I need to be with her. Don’t you understand?” returned Kensi.

“I’ll stay here too, then. I want to help, Kensi – let me help you. Please?” begged Deeks.

Finally she felt an emotion. “I don’t need your help. I don’t need you to do anything except leave me to work this out. Just give me some time to do that, okay?”

“You sure that’s what you want?” Callen asked.

“Don’t either of you listen to a word I say? Go away and leave me alone.”

Deeks tried very hard to keep all this in perspective, remembering Nate’s advice that Kensi wasn’t angry with him; he was just the person she was lashing out at. And if he truly loved her, he would let her vent her anger out, if that would help her. He would do anything to help her. But, oh God it hurt. She was so cold and distant; she was like a complete stranger. His beautiful Kensi wasn’t this woman who stood before him, arms akimbo, angry at the whole world.

“Your quilt’s ruined, Mom,” Kensi said after her team members had finally left. “And it was so beautiful.” Finally she allowed herself to feel something. Finally, she was able to weep. Not over the death of the man who had once meant everything to her, not over her treatment of the decent man who had offered her solace, but over some stupid quilt, now splattered with blood and ruined forever.

*****

“My place or yours?” Callen asked he drove out of the main gate.

Deeks still had a slightly stunned look on his face and clearly was only partially listening. “What?”

“My place or yours? For a drink. Several drinks. As many drinks as we can manage without reverting to our teenage days and throwing up all over the place.”

“Sounds good. I don’t much care where we go, as long we get the hell away from here.” Deeks knew that getting blind drunk wouldn’t change anything, but it would sure as hell help numb the pain.

“Your place then. You’re rich – I bet you’ve got a whole cellar full of vintage wine.”

“You think I’m going to waste the good stuff on you, Callen? No chance.”

Men don’t talk about how their hearts are breaking to other men. They bond over beer and football and action movies and play foosball instead. And later they go to bed alone and weep in the still darkness of the night for what might have been but is gone.

*****

Sam strolled up from the garage with a smile on his face. He’d taken his second alternate route to work, which meant he went via Elaine’s coffee shop. She did the most unbelievable soy lattes. Crosby had been brilliant in his school play and they’d gone out to eat afterwards. For a few hours, it was almost like having a normal family life, even if he had gone home to his apartment at 8 pm. But maybe there was still a chance they could get back together again, recapture what they’d once had, the love that had resulted in their wonderful son? Maybe he should give it a shot? Seeing Kensi and Deeks fall in love had reminded him of how wonderful it was, and Sam had felt a twinge of envy, not for them, exactly, but for what they shared. They had been good together, him and Denise. Maybe they could be good together again?

“Go-od morning!” he called out and Callen groaned loudly.

“Don’t shout. Have a little respect here. We killed a bottle of twenty-five year old malt last night and are now in mourning.”

“Who’s ‘we’ exactly? You and Eric? You and Hetty? You and some leggy lovely from Scotland?” Was Callen finally getting some action? His partner had been suspiciously quiet about his love life for some time now.

“I told you not to shout. Me and Deeks.”

“Kensi let Deeks out of the clutches of her hot, greedy little hands after only one night? You have to be kidding me.” The way that pair had been acting around each other, the way Kensi had acted so antsy a couple of days before, he could have sworn they were about to be registering a wedding list any day now.

Callen realized Sam didn’t have a clue what had gone down yesterday. “You really should watch the news sometimes, Sam. Might keep you up to date.” Between gulps of industrial strength coffee, he proceeded to tell Sam the whole story of the events at Camp Pendleton. The whole sorry tale, leaving none of the painful details out, including the debriefing session with Hetty, who had gracefully restrained from reminding Deeks that she had counseled against his involvement. All she had said was that perhaps a chat with Nate might be of some assistance. That had gone down like a lead balloon with Deeks.

“After we left here, we went out to Deek’s place in Malibu and cracked open that bottle of malt. And very nice it was too — last night. I’m not quite so sure I like what it’s doing to me this morning. Anyway, I reckon we started drinking about six and I rolled into a cab at about eleven. Remind me never to drink single malts again, will you?”

“I’ve got no sympathy for self-inflicted wounds.” Sam checked his watch. “Five minutes and Deeks will be late.”

“Has anyone ever told suggested you are quite anal, Sam? That sometimes you need to just let go of things?”

Sam shook his head. “I’m concerned about a colleague who got targeted a couple of months ago, a team member who’s been given the brush off by his brand-new girlfriend and is possibly driving while still legally drunk, and you call me anal? Callen, maybe you should just go back home and sleep it off. And, by the way, did you even notice that you’d put on two entirely different shoes this morning, or is it a deliberate fashion statement?”

The entrance of Deeks saved Callen from having to answer. He didn’t look too bad, all things considering, just a bit more disheveled than usual.

“How’s your head?” Callen hoped he might get some sympathy from a fellow-sufferer.

“Could be worse. Got up early, went down to the beach and caught a couple of waves.”

The very thought made Callen feel sick and the coffee started roiling unpleasantly around in his stomach. He took a couple of deep breaths and wondered if it really had been such a good idea to make his brew quite so strong.

“You doing okay, Deeks?” Sam asked.

“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Correctly judging that no answer was expected, Sam decided to take a slightly different approach. “How’s Kensi doing?”

“I really wouldn’t know,” Deeks said, head down as he logged on to his PC, his voice carefully non-committal.

Not good, Sam thought, not good at all. For a sweet-tempered guy, Marty Deeks sure knew how to hold a grudge. He sneaked a quick look and decided Kensi was right — Deeks really did pout after all.

Successfully logged on to the secure network, Deeks checked his email. Loads of the normal work-related stuff, which he scrolled through quickly, nothing from Kensi. No texts to his phone either. He clenched his jaw and decided he could play that game too. She wanted to be stubborn — fine. He could be stubborn too. If only he didn’t miss her so much. It would be so much easier if he didn’t want her so much, just want to be with her, to help her. But Kensi had made it quite clear she didn’t want him, so he wasn’t going to make the first move, however long that took. It was fine by him. Just fine.

He’d woken up that morning and reached out his arm only to discover that the other side of the bed was empty. It was a cold awakening, especially after a vivid dream that involved Kensi slipping between the sheets, wearing his old “Surf’s Up” t-shirt and not a whole lot more. He could have sworn it was actually happening. To say reality was a disappointment was putting a positive spin on things. The day wet further downhill when his dog ran into the room bounced onto the bed and licked his ear thoroughly. While Deeks was fine with Kensi doing that — in fact, it was something he positively encouraged — Bobby’s decidedly fishy breath was another matter altogether.

According to his watch it was still only 5:30 and it felt like it. A dead time of the day, when only the hardcore surfers were out on the beach. Why not join them? His wetsuit was in the jeep, along with his board. He had nothing better to do and it would kill a couple of hours before work. If he was very lucky, the cold water would kill this hangover dead in its tracks. What did he have to lose? “Come on, pup. D’you wanna go see if the surf’s up?”

Bobby needed no further encouragement and bounded downstairs in a flurry of shaggy fur. At least a man knew where he was with a dog.

The surf was tumbling in, hard and fast. He wasn’t on form — he was seriously out of synch and basically at odds with the world. A couple of wipe-outs later, Deeks gave it up as bad job. Today was seriously crappy.

*****

Seventy miles away, Kensi woke up in her childhood bedroom and wondered what on earth she was going to do. Go back to LA and take up where she’d left off? Only that would involve a whole lot of explanations. Not an attractive proposition. She’d managed to hide the abuse Jack had doled out from Callen and Sam, who were bound to want to know why she’d put up with it for so long, why she hadn’t got out of there. Hetty would want to know why Kensi hadn’t seen fit to inform her of Jack’s sadistic tendencies, a rather pertinent piece of information, given the hostage situation. And Deeks… Marty would want to know why she’d pushed him away, not once but twice. Why she’d gone out of her way to hurt him. And that was the worst thing about this whole mess.

She turned over and lay on her back, staring up at the ceiling, and wondered what on earth she was going to do. Fax over her resignation? Just avoid everything, bury her head in the sand, move back in with her Mom and go on unemployment? That wasn’t much of an option either. And it would mean giving up Marty, never seeing him again, and she didn’t think she could bear that.

The cell phone lay beside her bed, within arms’ reach. It would be so easy just to send a quick text and get it all over with. Why not? It wasn’t like she had anything to lose.

I’m sorry. I miss you. I love you.

She hesitated for just a second and then pressed the” send” button before she could change her mind.

*****

Not again, Deeks thought. I thought I’d made it quite clear I don’t want to go there again. I barely got out alive last time. Maybe I wouldn’t have got out at all if Sam and Callen hadn’t turned up in the nick of time.

“Well?” Hetty raised one eyebrow and regarded him carefully. Clearly he had not slept well, which wasn’t surprising, given the events of yesterday. “It would be very helpful if you would agree.”

“You want me to go undercover, for an unspecified period of time, using my real identity?” He’d been Marty Deeks for so long that it was difficult to remember who Michael Martin Deeks Brandel was.

“It’s the perfect opportunity for us to finally get into this circle,” Hetty explained. “As Michael Brandel, you have a well-established background as a wealthy young man, who only pays token interest in the family business. And we can use that to gain access into certain areas of society that were previously closed to us.”

Sam struggled with the image of the perpetually disheveled Deeks as a playboy. And then he remembered the sleek Italian suit he’d worn at the Brandel board meeting, exquisitely tailored to fit like a glove, and revised his thoughts. Maybe the kid could get away with it?

“And we can use the recent attack on you to explain why you have a bodyguard.” Hetty was very pleased with this particular piece of planning, which dealt very neatly with two problems in one tidy solution. “Which will allow us to introduce Mr. Hannah, without arousing anyone’s suspicions.”

The corners of Deeks’ mouth began to curve in a smile. “Sam is going to be my bodyguard?” That was a stroke of genius on Hetty’s part. “So he’ll have to go everywhere I go, do everything I do?”

“Naturally. There would hardly be any point if he did not.”

“Just checking.” Deeks was grinning now. “How are you on ice, Sam? I’ve a fancy to take up hockey again. Great way to keep fit.”

“I don’t do ice,” Sam informed him. “I like my water in its natural state.”

“You’re never too old to learn, they say. But maybe in Callen’s case, we should make an exception? Bones don’t heal so quickly once you’re past your first flush of youth.” He knew he was pushing it, but God knows he needed something to laugh at. Even if it did feel just a bit like cruelty to dumb animals, judging by the green tinge to the senior agent’s face.

Callen decided it was time to change the subject. He was getting ever so slightly tired of these jokes about his age. Forty was the new thirty, after all. Although that sounded better than it felt. It was infuriating to sit here looking at Deeks who appeared to be glowing with rude health while he felt like death warmed over. Anyway, it was time they all stopped ignoring that damned elephant in the room. “What about Kensi?”

“What about her?” Hetty threw the ball straight back at him with a hard and accurate aim.

“Well, for starters, how about where is she? We haven’t heard a word from her since yesterday and I think we’re entitled to know what is going on.”

“I quite agree, Mr. Callen. As far as I am aware, at this precise moment, Miss Blye is absent without leave. Unless you can inform me otherwise?” Her gaze settled unerringly on Deeks, who had been staring at the ground since Callen had first mentioned her name.

“Don’t look at me. I don’t know a thing.” Which was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

*****

“Are you planning on staying in bed all day, or just until lunchtime?” Allison enquired. She’d already done a load of washing, cleaned the kitchen and written out a grocery list. And brought her daughter three cups of coffee.

Kensi groaned and pulled the quilt over her face. “I can’t face getting up. Can’t I just have a day away from things, like when I was a little girl and you would let me stay home from school, even though you knew I wasn’t really sick?”

“But you’re not a little girl, darling. You’re a grown woman with responsibilities that you can’t run away from. Whatever you are avoiding, whatever you are trying to avoid, it’s not going to go away just because you can’t bring yourself to face it.”

“I know!” Kensi wailed pathetically, and then burst out laughing. “This is ridiculous. I’m ridiculous!”

Allison sat down on the bed and patted her daughter’s shoulder. “Yes, you are. But I still love you. And I always will, no matter what.”

Pulling the quilt away, Kensi sat upright. “I know. And I’ll always love you. But I just seem to have this knack for saying the wrong thing or pushing people away…”

“Like that young man yesterday?”

She had never been able to hide anything from her mother. Not even what she actually did for a living. It was against every rule in the book, but she couldn’t lie to her Mom. “Uh-huh.”

“DO you love him?”

Kensi nodded. “I do. I really do.”

So far, so good. “And does he love you?” Judging by the look on his face yesterday, Allison had no doubt about the answer to this question.

“I think he does. He said he did.”

“So what exactly is your problem?”

Kensi groaned. “It’s complicated.”

Sometimes Allison wanted to shake her daughter. “No, it isn’t, Kensi. If there’s a problem, then go and do whatever you can to sort it out. If you really love him…” She let the sentence tail off and watched her daughter expectantly.

“I tried. I sent him this text and I haven’t heard back.”

“You sent one text and you’ve given up hope? Oh darling -– there could be any number of reasons he has answered. He could be busy, his phone could have died, you could have sent the message to someone else — a number of things. Go back to LA –- go back to your life and start working things out. And while you’re getting ready, I’ll heat up some chicken soup and we’ll have lunch before you get on the road.”

Sometimes, it took a mother to put things into perspective, to give you a metaphorical kick up the backside. She couldn’t resist checking her phone one last time before going into the bathroom to try to make herself look slightly more human. Still no reply from Marty, but a whole host from the others, including a terse header from Hetty that said simply “Call me”. Oh well, at least she could think up a suitably apologetic response on the drive back. Groveling wasn’t her strong suit, but she’d be able to come up with something.

The shower was as ineffective as ever – low water pressure had always plagued their house and the tepid water dribbling out of the showerhead was in sharp contrast to the shower she’d enjoyed in Malibu yesterday.

How good did he look, all wet and with soap in his hair and running down that golden torso? Why am I such a fool? He’s the best thing that’s happened to me? What am I going to do?

They ate their soup in silence, in a kitchen that had seen so many meals over the years. As Kensi got up to go, Allison smiled and said softly “It’s never too late until they are gone. And then you find there are so many things you wished you had said. Don’t let that happen to you, darling, not while you’ve still got a chance.”

*****

It had not taken Sam long to transfer his essential belongings into the Brandel penthouse. As an ex-serviceman, he knew how to travel light and been able to get all he required into one hold-all. It had been a different matter for Deeks, though, and Sam had been astounded at the size of the younger man’s wardrobe.

“There must be about twenty different suits in here,” Sam said, surveying the long rail of clothes normally hidden by sleek mahogany doors. Why did someone who seemed to live in jeans, t-shirts and plaid shirts have so many suits?

“Probably. My uncles kind of insist on formal attire at the business. And back in college, I was planning on practicing law, so it kind of made sense. I’ve sort of accumulated them over the years, I guess.” Deeks selected an armful of suits at random and dumped them onto the bed. Sam caught a glimpse of a label bearing the name of a bespoke tailor in Saville Row. As in Saville Row, London, England. Despite himself, Sam was impressed.

“Nice. No wonder you turned down Hetty’s offer to use the NCIS wardrobe.” He fingered the hand-stitched lapels of the charcoal grey jacket with something approaching reverence.

Deeks was still delving in drawers, rummaging through various items of clothing. “I’ve seen how she makes Callen stand there while she holds up various shirts to see how they go with his eyes, or whatever. Not my idea of fun. It’s been a long time since a woman dressed me. Must have been some time in the mid-eighties, I guess. After that, I pretty much insisted that I wore whatever my big brother was into and Mom just gave in.”

Sam snorted. “Pity you didn’t follow his example and get a Marine buzz-cut.”

“Ha ha. Highly amusing. But you do kind of have a point. I’m going to have to get a haircut for this role, I guess.” He looked at himself in the mirror and heaved a huge sigh. “What I do for my country…” He tried to assume a suitably martyred expression and then changed.

Oh God – Kensi was right! I do pout…

“You’ll probably have to pay the barber overtime to get that dish-mop into some sort of order. And a shave would be a good idea too.”

“I do shave – at least once every couple of weeks.”

“No you don’t, Deeks — you just kind of wave the clippers in the vague direction of your face at best.” Sam was enjoying himself hugely. For some reason, Deeks’ scruffy appearance and laid-back attitude, which had bugged him so much during the first few weeks they had worked together, was much less of an issue now. It had become a joke between them, and that was good. You needed to have ways of defusing the tension their job invariably brought about.

Deeks had added dress shirts, casual shirts, polo shirts and a rainbow assortment of ties to the ever-growing pile of clothes on the bed. “I’ve been thinking — if I’ve got to change my appearance, shouldn’t you do the same? In the interest of security, of course. I’m kind of thinking along the lines of Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Could be a good look for you. I reckon we should call Hetty and see if she has any wigs in that closet of disguises she guards so jealously.”

“I reckon you should add some underwear to that pile. I don’t want to share an apartment with some guy that goes wandering around naked all the time.”

The set-up before an operation was always like this — so much to do, so many things to consider. Packing up your old life, your real life and putting it into cold storage before assuming a new identity, trying to crawl chameleon-like into the skin of a stranger. They checked all the suit pockets for any stray evidence that could link Marty Deeks, LAPD officer, with Michael Brandel, the Harvard-educated lawyer and majority shareholder of Brandel Holdings. A new set of ID cards was already nestling in the sleek Hermes wallet Deeks had casually shoved into the back-pocket of his jeans and Eric had deleted all reference to his formal change of name. Marty Deeks had ceased to exist. They had turned back time, with a little electronic wizardry, and once again he was Michael Brandel. Only this time, he didn’t have any of that old baggage to weigh him down.

Finally, they were ready, although it took both of them to carry all the luggage downstairs. On the way out of the door, Marty snagged his new Smartphone, already set up by Eric. Brandel’s phone didn’t have most of his old contacts on it – just Sam, Hetty and Callen, plus members of the Brandel family. He hoped to be adding several new contacts as the investigation continued. The one thing he had forgotten to do was to check his old cell after he left the meeting with Hetty. That was lying in his desk drawer back at the Mission, still showing he had an unread message from Kensi. But then there was always something you forgot to do before starting a new operation.

*****

Your eyes are burning low
As you look out on this morning
But your eyes will return
To their former glory

It was with some considerable effort that Kensi dragged herself out of bed the next morning. Her telephone conversation with Hetty had been rather worse than she had anticipated. “Seriously hacked off” was probably how Marty would describe it, if he was around. If he ever bothered to get back in touch with her. Could life get any crappier, she wondered, as the milk poured into her coffee curdled instantly on contact with the hot liquid. Great, that was just what she needed. She poured the revolting mixture down the sink and ran the tap to dispose of the repulsive curds. It would have to be black coffee then.

In need of some light relief, she switched on the TV, channel skipping until she found some mindless celebrity news station. Watching a few mindless bimbos, botoxed up to their (non-moving) eyebrows would take her mind off things. Some new club had opened last night, and Kensi made a mental note to check it out. Purely in a professional sense, of course. In her job, she had to be aware of what was going down and where the latest hot spots were. This one was aiming for an exclusive (which usually meant filthy rich, in Kensi’s experience) clientele and was operating a strict “members-only” policy. According to the reporter, it was consequently the hottest ticket in town.

Kensi slouched back on her sofa as some interior shots came onscreen and started to muse on how she could wangle an invite. This club looked amazing – huge dance-floor, cool DJs and a guest list to die for. Who wouldn’t want to be there? The action moved back outside, with various limousines drawing up and she sat bolt upright.

Sam?? What’s Sam doing there? He looks pre-occupied, scanning the crowd. Oh geeze – look at that bulge under his left armpit! Could he make it any more obvious that he’s carrying a gun? What’s going on here? This has to be some new operation going down.

She grabbed her cell and selected Sam’s number on speed dial. It went straight to voice mail, a bland message saying to leave a message. Kensi ended the call and returned her attention to the TV, where a familiar figure was exiting the limo.

Though the cold North wind may blow
It’s all sound and fury
And the summer will return
In its former glory

“And that’s Michael Brandel,” the voiceover informed her. “The owner of Brandel Holdings and recently returned to the LA scene. We hear he’s recovered from last month’s horrific assault and his partner, Nico Sterling, the classical pianist, certainly looks like she’s taking good care of him!”

I’ll say, Kensi thought sourly. The way she’s draping herself all over him.

Marty gave the camera an engaging grin and pulled Nico closed to his side.

Get a room, why don’t you? The pair of you look like Ken and Barbie with your blonde hair and your blue eyes and those matching tans. Too frigging cute for words. And what the heck have you done to your hair? I loved your hair!

He was only onscreen for a few seconds more. Kensi froze the screen and took one last look at him, standing there and looking so damned hot in his suit it positively hurt, before gulping down the remainder of her sour-tasting coffee. It seemed like there was a new game in town and she needed to get into the action.

As long as he’s not getting any action. I’ll cut that sexy suit to ribbons, with him still inside it, if he is. You’re messing with the wrong girl, Marty Deeks.

She wasn’t jealous. Why on earth would she be jealous? Kensi knew she didn’t have a single jealous bone in her body. And it didn’t matter, anyway. She’d had plenty of one-night stands in the past and this was just another one. She could put it down to experience and move on. What was the point in looking back?

Except that this time, she’d got involved. This time, she’d trusted him and given him her heart. Marty wasn’t another one-night stand. He was so much more than that. Hot tears were prickling at Kensi’s eyes when something struck her and she rewound the broadcast.

“…Michael Brandel. The owner of Brandel Holdings and recently returned to the LA scene.”

Her mind flew back to the briefing he’d given before the board meeting at the Brandel Building, where everything had gone so horrifically wrong.

“That’s me. A photo from Harvard Law review, I think, judging by my hair. A look I regret now, although it seemed like a good idea at the time. Michael Martin Deeks Brandel and no comments about the name, please.”

The pieces were starting to fall into place. This had to be some set-up they were working. Of course it did — that was the only logical explanation. It all made perfect sense now. Nevertheless, Kensi took especial care with her hair and makeup and selected her tightest possible jeans. Why leave anything to chance? That Nico Sterling was pretty hot after all.

Everything will be just like you remember
Today won’t look as bad as it seemed
And though love’s become a dying ember
It will burn brighter than you ever dreamed

As she drove into work, Kensi kept remembering her mother’s advice. It wasn’t too late; this time she wasn’t going to leave anything unsaid, no matter how much apologizing she had to do. Because, in the end, it was worth it. A relationship was about two people and they both had to work at it. And some things were worth working at. Marty Deeks had no idea what he was up against if he thought he could rid of her that easily!

For once there were no traffic snarl-ups on the LA freeways, so Kensi had a clear run into work. Conscious that she really needed a decent cup of coffee, she was inspired to get drinks for the whole team, hoping this would go some way to making up for the crap she’d thrown at them. Carefully balancing the tray, she entered the room expectantly.

“Where’s Deeks… oh, and Sam?” she asked, seeing only the empty desk next to her own. She dumped the coffee down and stared accusingly at Callen.

“And good morning to you too, Kensi. They’re on a job — a new operation. Currently classified on a need-to-know basis, so you’ll have to ask Hetty if you’ve got clearance. And it was nice of you to check in with us yesterday, by the way. I appreciated you letting us know you were alright. Not that we were worried or anything.”

“Yeah, I screwed you around.” She bit her bottom lip nervously and surveyed him from under her lashes.

“You screwed Deeks more than you screwed me,” Callen responded magnanimously. “Is one of those coffees for me or are you just seriously mainlining the stuff?”

“This one — filter, regular milk, no sugar, right?”

“Right. Well?” Callen fixed her with a mild but penetrating look.

“Well what?” She wasn’t going to bite.

Finally, he lost patience with her. “It’s too early in the morning for all this, Kensi. In fact, as I’ve been here all night, I’m just about to log off and go home. Maybe you’ll be in a better mood tomorrow and we can talk like partners. But right now, I’m just not in the mood.”

“Perhaps I’ll have more success?” Nate asked. She hadn’t noticed him lurking in the background. “How about it, Kensi?”

She sighed, suspecting the hand of one Henrietta Lang in his sudden appearance, in all of this. “Why not? Sleep well, Callen.” Maybe, after she gone a couple of psychological rounds with Nate, she could persuade Hetty to tell her exactly what Sam and Marty were up to? She really needed to get up to speed with whatever was going down.

“So, where do you want to start?” Nate asked calmly.

For a moment, Kensi was tempted to channel her inner Julie Andrews and starting singing “Let’s start at the very beginning”, but she managed to suppress the urge. Just thinking about what was bound to come up in this discussion made her feel dizzy and sick. She had kept it all to herself for so long now, burying all the shame and hurt and it hadn’t helped one little bit. The memories still lay just beneath the surface of her skin, festering away. It was time she exorcised those demons.

“How about we start with my relationship with Jack? And why I never told anybody about the fact he was beating me?”

Oh God, this is going to be hard.

Nate’s smile was very gentle and she realized she could trust him, that he was going to help her get through all this. So she leant forward in her chair, clasped her hands around her knees and began to tell him about it: the anger, the abuse, the way she had believed it was all her fault – that she was the one who made Jack so angry, who gave him no choice but to hit her.

“And how many women have I seen in abusive relationships and counseled them to get out, get away? I carry cards in my pocketbook, giving contact details of shelters, and I couldn’t see what was happening to me. What’s wrong with me, Nate?”

“Absolutely nothing. You loved him — you wanted to see the best in him, to help him. And so you blamed yourself. You focused all your anger on the wrong person, Kensi.”

Yes, I did. And I did it again the other day, when I pushed Marty away. Why can’t I ever learn?

“What now?” she asked. “Where do I go from here?”

“That’s the big question, isn’t it? And only you can answer that question. Where do you want to go, Kensi? What do you want to do? Think about those questions carefully and give yourself the power to make the right choices for yourself.”

The thoughts tumbled around her head, while Nate sat patiently, waiting for her. He was very good at silences, Kensi realized, managing to make them relaxing and constructive. “I want to go back to work,” she said finally. “Start living my life again and doing what I’m good at.”

“That’s a positive step. And what about the rest?”

Nate was also very good at not letting her get away with a single thing. “You mean me and Deeks?”

“That’s exactly what I mean. What are you going to do about your relationship? That’s what’s really bothering you, isn’t it?”

It was like he had a direct line to her heart. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said slowly. “All I know is that I’ve got to do something. I can’t let this just slip away.” Without knowing, she had sat up a little straighter and was now looking directly at him. “I’m not giving up on him, Nate.”

The psychologist allowed himself a momentary flash of pleasure at the re-emergence of the spunky Kensi he knew. “Good for you!” Afterwards he felt a small pang of anguish; Marty Deeks didn’t stand a chance with Kensi on the warpath. Nate almost felt sorry for the guy.

Okay, Kensi thought, one down, one to go. Time to talk to Hetty.

“I withheld information and I didn’t report back in and I acted stupidly,” she said, all in a complete rush, the words stumbling over one another. “And it won’t happen again.”

“Good,” Hetty replied. “I’m glad to hear that. Did you find your chat with Nate helpful?”

Kensi realized that the older woman sounded genuinely concerned and sympathetic. As she had prepared herself for one of Hetty’s legendary dressing-downs, this took her totally by surprise and knocked the wind right out of her sails. “Er, yes actually, I did.”

“And you’ll be meeting with him again?” Although phrased as a question, there was no doubt at all that this was actually a command.

“Yes, I will.” Kensi found she was actually looking forward to talking to Nate again. Her head seemed so much clearer after their conversation.

“Excellent. Then I don’t think we need bring this up again. Unless…?” She looked expectantly at Kensi.

“There won’t be a next time. I promise.”

“I’m relieved to hear that. Moving on, you will be aware that your colleagues, Mr. Deeks and Mr. Hannah are currently engaged on a new task.”

“Callen did mention something,” Kensi admitted. She wasn’t going to tell Hetty she had caught up with their guest appearance on “Celebrity Cuties” or whatever that dumb TV show was called, preferring to keep whatever shreds of dignity she had left. Owning up to watching that mindless show would seriously dent her credibility.

“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, it would appear that there is still an existing threat to the Overlock security monitoring system. We thought that by apprehending Donald and Manson last month that threat had been eliminated, but it would appear there was a third man – or possibly woman – involved. Mr. Beale discovered another attempt to compromise the tracking software, which we can only regard as a hostile threat.”

Please tell me you’re not using Marty as a decoy, Kensi thought.

“All current investigations by ourselves and the wider security and intelligence communities have revealed nothing. Therefore, I had no option but to ask Mr. Deeks for his assistance. By reverting to his original name of Michael Brandel and assuming his old identity, he can quickly become a high-profile player on the LA scene. We are hoping that either he will be approached to further compromise Overlock, or that some move will be made against him.”

What the hell are you thinking off, Hetty? He could have died the last time he went undercover in this whole Overlock mess. And what are you thinking, Marty? Have you got some sort of death wish? Just wait till I get my hands on you, you stupid bastard.

“You do realize I had no choice, Kensi? That I have to make decisions looking at the whole picture, rather than focusing on the details? Our colleagues in the other agencies are also involved in trying to ascertain the source, but with so many lives potentially at stake, we have to act quickly. I was expressly ordered to try to stop the threat by any means possible.”

It’s almost as if Hetty is asking for my approval, Kensi thought. She’s no happier about this than I am. Is someone exerting pressure on her? Are these orders coming right from the top?

“I understand, Hetty. I don’t like it, but I do understand.”

A flash of relief momentarily brightened Hetty’s face. “Thank you. I appreciate that. Mr. Hannah is acting as Michael Brandel’s bodyguard, and he will be with him at all times. I have done everything I can to try to make he is not compromised again.”

That was the inherent risk of going undercover; no matter how good your new identity was, there was always the chance that someone could stumble upon your past and blow your cover wide-open. It was risk each one of them took and it was a risk that was ever-present. You could only be lucky for so long, for luck was fickle and finite. Luck had no favorites. Michael Brandel had been born to incredible wealth and privilege, but that hadn’t protected him from seeing his family implode and it hadn’t stopped him becoming an orphan at the age of seventeen. Changing his name to Marty Deeks had been the chance to lead a new life, and for a while, he had been lucky again. Until the morning he had visited the Sand Dollar Convenience Store one time too often and his luck ran out. Was he now chancing his luck one time too often?

“And the girl?” Kensi couldn’t help herself.

“Ah yes, I understand there was some media coverage of the club opening last night. Not that I watch Celebrity Cuties, myself, of course, but Mr. Callen was kindly monitoring the television networks on my behalf. It would appear our Mr. Deeks has been very busy, getting back in contact with old friends from his past — people who know nothing about his life after he changed his name to Marty Deeks. It appears he had a rather wide social network in those days, and a reputation for being somewhat reckless, which we are hoping to capitalize on. I believe Miss Sterling is an old friend from his college years.”

She looked more than an old friend last night. She looked like she thought he was good enough to eat. Just wait till I get my hands on him. Oh God, I want to get my hands on him. I want to run my hands all over him, very, very slowly. And then I’m going to kill him for putting me through this.

*****

“You snore,” Deeks said accusingly.

Sam affected an air of extreme innocence and indignation. “No, I don’t. I may have a slightly deviated septum, but I don’t snore.”

“Don’t even try to deny it,” Deeks said, pouring another himself cup of coffee in an attempt to try to wake up. “I knew you would try to deny it, so I got incontrovertible evidence.” He held up his smart phone. “And, ladies and gentleman, with the wonders of digital technology, we have the proof. Is that loud enough for you, Sam? It was certainly loud enough to wake me at three o’clock this morning.”

“I sleep on the other side of the hall from you. No way you would have heard me. Denise would make me go sleep on the coach sometimes, and that was right next door to the bedroom and even she didn’t have any complaints. And Lord knows, that woman could complain.” He stopped in mid-flow and looked at the younger man. “So you’re not sleeping too well, is what this is about?”

“I’m not sleeping,” Deeks responded shortly. “Period. We’ve been doing this for days now and we’re getting nowhere. And I’m just tired of all this.” He flopped down onto a sofa and stared moodily out of the window. “Another perfect California day, with not a cloud in the sky. Another pointless day of meeting up with a group of vacuous idiots living off trust funds and doing absolutely nothing with their lives.”

And feeling like I’m getting dragged right back into their self-centered, pointless lives. I’ve been there, I’ve done that and I’ve moved on. I’m not Michael Brandel anymore; I’m Marty Deeks and I want my life back. I want Kensi back.

“Did you ever miss it, your old life, I mean?” Sam was genuinely curious.

“I didn’t miss those guys, not really. I’d pretty much realized they were a bunch of jerks. But we did have some good times, and in a lot of ways, I could relate to them.” He curved both hands around the coffee cup. “We were all screwed up, you see. Having too much money does that to you. My Dad — he was a great guy, until he got obsessed with money, even though he’d already made enough to last him ten lifetimes. That last night, he ended up screaming at me, telling me how much he hated me, as the cops dragged him out of the house. That was the last time I saw my Dad. Not the greatest memory, is it?”

“What he did to you, to your family was unforgiveable.” Sam’s parents were not rich, but they had never hurt their children. They worked hard to have a happy, united family and took pride in their neat house and tidy garden, however modest it might be by other standards. It was theirs and they were happy and that was all that mattered. Although he would never admit it to anyone, Sam felt he had failed Crosby by not giving his son the same stable background.

Deeks smiled wanly. “That’s the irony, Sam. I forgave my Dad a long time ago. All I wanted was for him to forgive me. But he died twelve years ago, so that’s not to happen, is it? He got out of prison and he didn’t even send me a lousy postcard. Like I said, all rich kids are screwed up. I was lucky — I got a chance to live my life differently, and I took it. I get to go and actually do something, to make a difference.” He put down the coffee cup and stretched. “God, I must be tired. Sorry for laying that on you.”

“We’ve not got any plans for this morning, so how about we go for a run — you, me and the stop watch. See if you can beat your time for the five-mile circuit?”

It was the best Sam could offer. Get out into the air and push your body to its maximum, so that when you finally went to sleep, the dreams were manageable. He’d been there, down into the black pit where you doubted everything and he wasn’t about to let Deeks go anywhere near the edge. “And then we go swing by the gym afterwards. I might even let you land a couple of punches on me?”

Finally, Deeks cracked a smile. “I keep telling you, Sam, I pulled my punches when we fought in that MMA tournament. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Sam patted him fondly on the back. “You keep right on dreaming, kid. That’s what you’re good at.”

He’d never thought he would feel sorry for a multi-millionaire, but Sam would not have traded his childhood with Deeks’ for all the money in the US federal reserve. All credit to the guy for getting out. And there was no way he was going to let him get dragged back in there. No way at all.

Sam ran with intense concentration, listening to his body, pushing himself every single step of the way, intent on keeping his physical prowess honed to perfection. Alongside him, Deeks kept pace, but let his mind drift off, using the exercise as a way to escape from all the thoughts swirling around in his head. The rhythmic thud of their footsteps, feeling his heartbeat and pulse start to rise as the run continued, the way he suddenly felt as if he could run to the end of the earth — all these combined to produce an almost euphoric sense of well-being.

“You up for a sprint?” Sam asked, breathing hard, sweat glistening on his smooth pate.

Deeks grinned. “Bring it on!” His hair was a darker shade of gold now, beads of sweat were standing out on his brow.

They accelerated across the grass, matching one another stride for stride, exchanging glances and grins as they began to race in earnest. Each man pushed the other to the limit, until their muscles stared to scream with pain and their lungs felt as if they would burst. Neither man wanted to be the first to concede defeat.

“Enough?”

Much farther and I won’t be able to speak.

“Enough!”

Glad you made the call.

Lying on his back, savoring the sweet smell of newly cut grass and staring up at the cerulean blue, cloudless sky, Marty Deeks felt glad to be alive. Beside him, Sam stood bent over double, hands hanging limp to the ground as he gradually brought his breathing under control.

“Don’t move an inch, or the big guy here gets a one-way ticket to oblivion.”

Holding his hands in a wide-open gesture of supplication, Deeks edged his eyes over to Sam and clocked the gun pressed against the base of his spine. “You want money?” he asked.

The guy with the gun just laughed. “Don’t act so dumb, pretty boy. You know exactly what we want.”

“Tell me?” He just hoped they were being tracked by NCIS, that someone had their eyes open and knew what was going down. Sam couldn’t move, and he could hardly launch a rescue attack, given the 9mm weapon that threatened to blow Sam’s spine to smithereens.

“How about you come with me and we’ll talk somewhere a little more private.”

“Don’t do it, Mr. Brandel!” No sooner had the words left Sam’s mouth than the gun moved a few inches and fired. The pain registered instantly, flaring up with a white-hot intensity. His foot felt like it was being severed by a red-hot poker and his knees began to buckle.

“Didn’t you listen, big guy? I told you not to move.” The gun was pressed into his spine again. “You move again, and I’m going to blast you into next week. So you’ve got a choice — you can die here like some piece of roadkill, or you can come with me and your employer and maybe you might just get away alive. What do you say?”

“He doesn’t have a say.” Deeks was on his feet now, hands on hips and glaring at the shooter. “I don’t pay him to talk. I pay him to look after me.” He looked down as Sam, still bent over double, blood oozing out of his left shoe. “You doing okay, Curtis?”

“I’ll manage.”

“Doesn’t seem like you’re paying Curtis here enough money, does it? Either that or he’s not too good at his job.”

“Leave him out of it.” Deeks took a step forward. “It’s me you want — and here I am. I’m standing right here in front of you? What are you wasting your time with him for?”

A tall, elegant figure strolled over to join them. “Don’t worry, we won’t be bothering with your muscle-bound minder for much longer. You know as well as I do that he is irrelevant to this whole business, don’t you, Michael?” The leather cosh looked obscene in her beautifully manicured hand and the sound it made when it connected with Sam’s skull nearly unmanned Deeks.

For about two seconds, he thought he was going to lose it and then the adrenalin kicked in, the primeval fight or flight instinct asserted itself. And he was so done with running. “You didn’t need to do that,” he mumbled, quickly checking Sam over. Apart from being totally out of the, the guy actually seemed alright.

“Of course I did. He was just an inconvenience. You really do have to learn to curb that bleeding heart of yours.”

“Nice to see you too, Emily. I never thought you were entirely happy with your 2% share-holding in the company. See a chance to make some easy money and get rid of your inconvenient cousin at the same time?”

I hope someone, somewhere is listening to this, ‘cos right now Sam could do with some help and I’m not exactly in a position to provide it. And I don’t think Emily is planning to invite me over for afternoon tea and scones.

“I think we’ll continue this conversation somewhere a little more private,” Emily mused. “Somewhere with rather fewer witnesses around. Oh, and before you even think of doing something stupid, Michael dear, don’t bother. My friend Darryl is not nearly as patient as I am and he has rather a hot temper.”

Okay, Hetty – want to send in the cavalry now? Right now, please? Cos I’ve got this nasty feeling I’m riding straight into the jaws of hell. It’s your move, Hetty.

Deeks tried every delaying tactic he could think of, but Emily was implacable. “I want to get out of here now! Show him we mean business.”

Darryl didn’t need to be told twice. He simply grabbed hold of Deeks’ left hand and in one swift movement neatly snapped his index finger in two.

“Son of a…!” Deeks couldn’t help himself. The expletive roared out before he could help it. There had been no warning, no time to prepare himself.

Sweet Jesus, that hurt.

“That was just the start,” Emily said. “Once Darryl has finished with your fingers, he’ll move onto other parts of your body. So, if you would like to stay more or less in one piece, I’d suggest you come along quietly, like a good little boy. Alright?”

Deeks wanted very badly to cradle his mangled finger, but he wasn’t going to give her that satisfaction. Emily had always been a good deal of a spoiled brat, the apple of her father’s eye, who could never see any wrong in her and he’d allowed her to flit around aimlessly in life, cushioned by her very substantial trust fund. At thirty-five, Emily had already been divorced twice and the family rumor-mill had it that her third marriage was on the way out too. Still, it was still shocking to realize that she was quite this ruthless.

“Alright. I’ve got the message.” Deeks took one last look at Sam, who was still lying prone on the grass, dead to the world, a large lump disfiguring his skull. He had to be alright. “You ever consider going to anger-management classes, Emily? You really have a whole lot of control issues going on.”

That earned him a hard look from Emily, who then switched her gaze to Darryl, who neatly broke Deeks’ left middle finger without further ado. It hurt just as much as the first time, possibly more, but at least this time he was prepared for the pain and didn’t flinch or yell out.

“Always one for the smart remarks, aren’t you, Michael? You just can’t help yourself, can you?”

Deeks shot her a look of pure hatred. “My smart mouth pales into insignificance alongside your behavior, Emily. What the hell is going on with you? You were always a spoiled, stupid little bitch but you’re like some crazed psycho case now. Daddy not paying you enough attention? Husband number three had enough? Those lines round your eyes a little too noticeable now?”

Keep her talking. The longer we’re out here in the open, the better. God, my hand hurts. Come on guys — I’m waiting and I’m running out of patience!

“Shut him up!” Emily was screaming now, not caring that she was in a public place, waving her arms incoherently at Darryl, who flinched visibly as the out of control woman lunged towards him. It gave Deeks just the opportunity he’d been waiting for, and he managed to wrench himself out of the man’s grasp, pulling away and moving a couple of feet back. At the same time, his right hand darted around behind his back, pulling out his gun. Emily and her goon had been so confident they had never even thought to check if he was carrying a weapon.

This is going to be interesting. Mad Emily with her cosh, big bad Darryl with his gun and me with mine. Not good odds for them. Damn but my hand hurts!

“You want to make my day, Emily?” he taunted. “Fancy your chances, do you Darryl?”

“Oh Michael, did you really think I’d come here with only Darryl to back me up?” Emily almost sounded regretful. “Show him I mean business, boys.”

He was fast, but he wasn’t that fast. Spinning around, Deeks knew he couldn’t just shot at random; there were too many people around who get caught in cross-fire. He had to be certain of his target before he fired and he had no idea where Emily’s accomplices might be. The advantage was all theirs and they took it. One bullet went wide, but the other found its target, and its impact forced Deeks to his knees.

*****

“Sam! Sam – are you with us?”

Opening his eyes was an effort and, once he managed it, the sun nearly blinded him. “I’m here,” Sam managed.

“Good man.” Callen sat back on his heels, able to breathe normally once more. He did not ever want to relive the moment when he and Kensi had arrived at the park to discover Sam lying prone on the grass. It had probably taken less than a minute to sprint across to him and discover that his partner was still alive and showing signs of coming to, but Callen would relive those seconds of pure terror in his dreams for months to come. “The paramedics should be here any second.” He knew how bad Sam was feeling when the only response to this statement was silence. “They hit you pretty hard, eh?”

“They did.” Every word was an effort. “She did. Emily Brandel, Deeks’ psycho cousin.” It was hard to tell which hurt more – his head or his foot. At the moment, they were pretty much neck and neck in the throbbing versus pounding pain stakes.

“Can you tell us what happened?” Callen probed gently.

Sam swallowed and managed to jerk out a brief resume of the events, including descriptions of Emily and Darryl.

“Sam, where’s Marty? Do you know where he is?” Kensi’s face swung into view. Sam registered that she looked pretty wild-eyed.

“He’s not here?”

“No sign of him.” Callen confirmed, trying to keep the despondency out of his voice. “Any idea where she might have taken him?”

“Weren’t you guys tracking us?”

Kensi was on her cell, talking to Ops in a low urgent voice, leaving Callen to break the bad news.

“This morning, at 9am PST, someone downloaded this major virus that managed to exploit a protocol used by the majority of security tracking systems across the world. Our systems were totally disabled for 23 minutes. Eric’s managed to get us back up and running, but we’ve lost a whole load of data that can’t be retrieved.” There was no easy way to say this. “We lost all contact with you and Deeks during that time. We only traced you here to this park because a member of the public phoned 911 reporting shots fired and a man answering Deeks’ description being dragged into an SUV.”

Sam felt physically sick. That mad bitch had Deeks and God alone knew where she had taken or what she was doing to him. “Tell me you’re onto the vehicle?”

“We’re trying. Got a basic description – white, last year’s model. Could be a couple of thousand of those within a ten mile radius. We’ve issued an APB and Eric and Nell are working flat out back at the Mission.” No matter how he phrased it, this was bad news.

Sam closed his eyes briefly as he mentally tallied all the facts. Any way he put them together, the result made bleak reading. “You’d better find him quickly, G. That woman is unbalanced. There’s no telling what she might do to Deeks. That virus — was it connected to this? Another attack on Overlock?”

Callen looked grim. “Nope. Some group protesting about infringement of civil liberties, rights to privacy — you know the kind of thing. This time they had a pretty sophisticated virus and a genius hacker to actually plant it in the systems. And because their main aim was actually publicity, they made it easy for us to back trace to the source. Homeland Security is running that end of things and they’re confident there’s no continuing risk. But it’s anyone’s guess what damage has already been done.” He didn’t want to think about what actual damage might be done to Deeks. He had to concentrate on finding the missing man.

“The paramedics are two minutes out, Sam. They’re nearly here.” Kensi knelt beside him and took hold of his hand. “Is there anything you think of that might give us a clue to where they took Marty? Anything at all?”

“I wish there was, Kensi. I really do.”

She squeezed his hand firmly. “I’ll find him. I promise you this Sam – I will find Deeks and that bitch Emily Brandel and when I do…”

“When we do,” Callen corrected. “You go and get yourself seen to at the hospital, Sam. Kensi and I will work this one on the ground. It’s back to basics here. We’ve got the LAPD combing the scene, talking to eye-witnesses. Something has to turn up.” God, what a mess this whole thing was. He had a bad feeling in his gut about this one.

*****

When Marty Deeks finally regained consciousness in a dim-lit room, he was pretty much in accord with his senior field agent. This was one hell of a mess and he was damned if he knew how he was going to get out of this one alive. All his instincts told him that Emily had no intention of letting him walk away from this alive.

The facts, as he knew them, weren’t exactly encouraging – two broken fingers, which hurt like hell, a beauty of a headache that made him strongly suspect Emily’s cosh had seen some more use. And then there was the small matter of a bullet wound in his right shoulder, which had bled freely enough to soak the sleeve of his sweatshirt in blood. It was difficult to move much, seeing as his hands were manacled behind him, and impossible to see much in the dim room, but he reckoned the wound had stopped bleeding. That would meant he’d probably been unconscious for at least an hour.

All in all, it was pretty crap – both arms were impaired, his head was fuzzy, and just to complicate things further, there were also manacles around his ankles.

“You don’t believe in doing things by half, do you Emily?” Deeks said wryly.

He tried to keep vigilant, to listen out for any sounds that might mean someone was approaching, to try to flex his muscles regularly to stop them cramping, but it was hard, all alone here in this darkened room, with no idea of how much time had passed. They had to be looking for him; his team would not just give up and leave him here alone. Logically he knew that, but it was easy to get discouraged as yet more time passed and nothing happened.

In a way, that was one of the worst things — the fact that absolutely nothing happened. There was just him, stuck in this room with the pain. Funny how broken fingers could hurt quite so much, Deeks thought. Quite out of all proportion to their size. His arm was pretty tender, but he reckoned it was probably superficial damage, with the bullet missing bone and only damaging flesh and muscle. Only — now there was an irony! Actually, now he thought about it, his bicep seemed pretty swollen. It was impossible to be sure, but Deeks was beginning to wonder if the bullet was still in there.

Great. Something else to add to my already long list of woes. You guys thinking of putting in an appearance any time soon? At least my insane cousin hasn’t put in another appearance.

Time passed more slowly than he would ever had thought possible. And yet, at the same time it was impossible to tell how much time had actually passed. Deeks had no idea if he had been tied to this damn post for hours or for days. His entire world had shrunk down to a few feet of darkness and the only thing he was really aware of was just how much his upper arm hurt. By now it was visibly swollen, the flesh felt taut, hot and hard and it was throbbing incessantly. At least the pain kept him alert. But he felt like hell.

Things just get better and better. That bullet is definitely still in there. If they don’t come soon, I’ve have a nice infection brewing away in there.

And then it struck Deeks with a force akin to a sledgehammer. He’d been counting on Emily coming back to inflict more pain and damage on his already abused body. But what if she didn’t come? Supposing Emily just left him here and never came back. How would they find him?

Deeks had thought of death many times during his life, it had been impossible not to, starting at the tender age of eleven when his drug- crazed father had threatened to blow his brains out with a shotgun. Since then, he’d probably directly faced the prospect of being killed at least a dozen times more. Pretty much every week since he joined NCIS had resulted in one situation or another that had a real and present danger. It was a risk he understood and one he was willing to take. But Deeks had never even considered the possibility that he might die alone. That wasn’t easy to come to terms with. For some reason, it mattered very much that someone should be there at the end.

Come on guys. I’ve got things to do with my life. Things I need to do. Don’t leave me here to die alone in darkness.

His throat was dry and his voice was hoarse with shouting. Nobody came. His wrists were raw and swollen where he’d pulled fruitlessly at the manacles fettering him. And it made no difference at all. It was hard to concentrate on anything, except for the one thought that kept coming back time after time, hammering away, refusing to give him peace.

I’m not ready to die.

*****

Henrietta Lang had a bad feeling about this latest development. Over her many years of experience, she had learned to listen to her sixth sense, to trust her instinct. The only problem was that with this particular operation she knew that Emily Brandel would have no compunction in killing her cousin, solely for her own personal gain, no matter how unlikely it was that she would benefit from his death. Nate had agreed with her, assessing the woman to have a severe personality disorder, along with narcissistic tendencies, meaning that she would be devious, focused only on her own personal gain and utterly without morals. It was impossible to predict what she would do.

Therefore, Hetty’s instructions had been clear and unequivocal: “Find him. Find Mr. Deeks and bring him back safely. By whatever means possible.” If only that was as easy to do as it was to say. But at least now the gloves were off. She was trying to stay calm and detached about this whole fiasco, but she knew she was not. None of them were. One agent had been deliberately attacked, another was missing without trace. That raised the stakes as high as they could possibly get. If only they could make even the most basic of breakthrough.

Two hours after Sam had left in an ambulance, Callen and Kensi were no further forward than they had been. Although the park had been full of families enjoying the sunny day, remarkably few of them had noticed what was going on, far less paid enough attention to the participants to be able to provide a half-way decent description.

“Okay, we can’t find the rabbit,” Callen finally acknowledged their dispiriting lack of progress. “So let’s go bring the magician in and see what we can discover.”

“You really think it will be that easy?” Kensi asked drearily. She was fighting the ever-present thought that, by the time they found Deeks, he would be dead. This kidnapping had all the hallmarks of being one of those missions that was guaranteed to have an unhappy ending. And she couldn’t bear the thought that she might never have a chance to say all the things she needed to say, the things he needed to hear. All her hopes and dreams coalesced into one single thought: Let him be alright. Nothing else mattered. She would do anything to achieve that goal — anything and everything.

“I never said it would be easy. But we’ve got no choice. And anyway, Emily has given us a pretty good idea where her weak spots lie.” He pulled out his cell. “Eric? We need an address for Emily Brandel. And as much background information on her as you can. Concentrate on any vehicles she owns or has access to via her household. Especially those with on-board navigation systems.”

“Very sneaky, Callen. You want I should get LAPD to impound them?”

“It’s as if you read my mind. They’ll know what to look for. Any word on Sam?”

“He’s on his way in as we speak. The hospital wanted him to stay in for observation, but that didn’t ring his bell. Shall I get him to meet you in the boathouse?”

Callen felt a little of the pressure ease. At least Sam was alright, at least there was one less person he had to worry about. Now, if only he could break Emily, chances were that by this evening, he’d be kicking back with a large bottle of scotch, perhaps another bottle of that amazing 25 year old single malt from some small distillery in the Scottish Highlands, so well-aged that it slipped down your throat with an aroma of peat and smoke, leaving just a hint of salt air. And he would raise his glass to Deeks and toast his safe return and they would sit out under the stars and talk about all manner of things. But not the fact that death was an ever-present companion that walked alongside them every day of their lives. You didn’t talk about that. It was bad luck.

And if things didn’t go well? No, Callen refused to think of the alternative. There would be a time for that hereafter. That day would come, as it had dawned so many times before. How many good men and women had he drunk a posthumous toast too? Their number was legion, and while their names and deeds might forever be unknown to the general public, Callen remembered them. Every single night of his life he remembered them and wondered how long his luck would last, how long it would be before he joined their ranks. But he was not ready to give Deeks up to their number. Not yet. Not by a long shot. Emily Brandel had no idea what she had started, far less what was going to happen to her. Which was probably just as well.

“Just one more thing, Eric. I’ve got this little job I need some help with. Any chance you could persuade one of the other teams to assist?”

“For Deeks? No problem. They’ve all been asking how they can help. I’ll probably have to fight off volunteers.” By the time Eric ended the call, Callen began, for the first time that day, to feel that there was just a chance that things might not end up in a total disaster.

Kensi had enjoyed seeing the look of shock on Emily Brandel’s face when they had knocked at her door, announced they were federal officers. But now, the woman was sitting in the interview room, looking as if she hadn’t a care in the world.

“Ready to rock her world?” Callen asked.

“Bring it on.” Kensi strode into the room, crashing the door behind her and was delighted to see the woman jump slightly.

She’s not as in control as she’d like us to think.

”Emily Jane Brandel? You do know why you’re here?”

“My lawyer will have me released before you know what’s happening,” Emily said, with a smug smile.

Kensi could play that game. “We have eye-witness testimony to your assault with a deadly weapon. So let’s just stop pretending you’re going home any time soon. A couple of nights in detention and maybe you’ll feel like being a little more co-operative.”

“And that’s just for starters.” Callen favored Emily with his most charming smile. “When you factor in that the man she assaulted was a federal agent…”

Emily gulped. “I didn’t know that.”

“Really?” Callen pulled up a chair alongside her. “Well, you know what, Ms. Brandel, I don’t rightly care what you did or didn’t know. All I care about is the fact you deliberately put my partner in the hospital. And I can assure you, the judge won’t be too impressed either. That’s the thing about law enforcement — we look after our own. You made a big mistake there, didn’t you?”

“I said, I didn’t know he was a fed! I thought he was Michael’s bodyguard and he just got in the way.”

“Oh dear, that means we have to add another charge of impeding an officer in the lawful pursuit of his duties. That’s not good, is it, Kensi?”

“It pretty much sucks for you, Emily. You can see that, can’t you? Already those charges are starting to mount up against you. I’d say you’re looking at a seven to ten year stretch at the minimum. Maybe you’ll get out after five years, just in time for your fortieth birthday? If you’re lucky.”

They could see Emily was struggling to keep her composure. “You’re bluffing.”

“Yeah, you’re right. It’s more like ten to fifteen years, right enough. So, having decided to assault a federal agent, you then abducted your cousin, Michael Brandel. Where is he?”

“I don’t know.” Emily started to drum her fingers on the table. “I want my lawyer.”

Kensi smacked her fist down, just inches from Emily’s hand. “I want to know where Michael Brandel is! You’ve lost, Emily. The game is over and you’re going to prison. That’s four serious charges we’ve got against you and we can make every single one of them stick. But you can help yourself, if you tell us where Michael is.” She had an incredibly urge to smack this self-centered bitch, to hit her so hard that she would end up in the middle of next week.

“Look at me, Emily.” Callen kept his voice low and soft. “Assaulting a federal agent is bad enough, but kidnapping an agent and holding him against his will is much worse.”

“What are you talking about?” The look of confusion on Emily’s face was so complete it was almost laughable.

“Keep up with us, Emily! Come on, who’s going to believe you didn’t know your cousin was an LAPD Officer? The entire family knew that. And six months ago, he joined NCIS. Which makes him one of us.”

Kensi sat down on Emily’s other side. “It makes him my partner. Do you have any idea how pissed off I am with you?”

“I just wanted him out of the way!” Emily wailed. “I didn’t mean anything.” She raised her hands to her face and wept loudly.

“I don’t buy that for one damned minute, do you, Kensi?”

“No – too much Botox and not enough facial movement to be believable. Are you going to tell us where he is, Emily?”

“Shut up! Emily screamed. Her hand shot out, contracting into a claw as she stretched out to claw Kensi’s face. Just before she made contacted, her wrist was gripped so tightly that it made her scream again, this time in pain.

“That’s an attempted assault on a federal officer. Another charge to add to the growing list. It’s really not looking good for you, Emily. Tell me where he is.”

“Like hell I will! He’s going to die there and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. None of you!”

Callen had reached the end of his patience. Too much time had passed. He stood up and signaled. “Bring him in.” It was time to put an end to all this. He was about to play his last card and he was praying that Emily would not trump him.

They should have heard something by now. Why hadn’t they heard anything? Time was running out. Callen knew that he was taking one of the biggest gambles of his career, but he had to take that risk. He stood aside as the door opened and a man walked in. Standing just outside, Sam gave him a brief grin and then a quick thumbs up.

“Daddy!” Emily tried to get up, but Kensi forced her back down into the seat. “Daddy — you have to get me out of here!” She stretched out her hands in supplication, but Bernard Brandel stood his ground and did not move an inch.

“Tell them, Emily. Tell them where your cousin is right now, or God help me…” He faltered, unable to continue. Watching his daughter from the other room, listening to what she had said, her callous attitude and willful disregard for anyone except herself had truly shocked him. “I can’t believe my own child would do this. I don’t know who you are, Emily.”

At last, Emily began to cry real tears. Callen knelt down beside her. “Come on, Emily. Help yourself. Tell us where he is.”

Kensi watched as Callen cajoled and Bernard Brandel pleaded, and Emily wept and wailed and refused to say where Deeks was. They couldn’t wait much longer. And personally, she couldn’t wait any longer at all. If she stayed in this room for just one second longer, she would be highly tempted to grab Emily by her shiny blonde hair and smash her face into the surveillance mirror. Slipping outside seemed to be the best option. She could do with a break.

“Any progress?” Sam asked. All things considered, he didn’t look too bad, apart from the fact that he had a lump the size of a hen’s egg on the back of his skull and had one foot swathed in bandages.

“No. Sit down before you fall down.”

“I’m coming with you.” He was smiling. “The lab guys came thorough, Kensi. They accessed the onboard computer of Emily’s SUV. Unlike the GPS, it wasn’t affected by the virus. They got all the data, every last piece of it. Eric’s just narrowing down the exact location, but we’ve got rough co-ordinates. You good to drive?” He nodded down to his injured foot.

“I’m good to drive.” She’d never been better.

“Eric, warn LAPD and CHiPs we’re not stopping for anyone. Make sure they know why.” Sam was breathless by the time he finished relaying all the details, unaccustomed to the energy and effort required to use crutches. “And don’t leave Callen alone in there too long!”

He could hear the smile in Nell’s voice as she responded. “Hetty’s on her way down to the Boathouse as we speak. She wanted to have a little chat with the Brandels.”

“Awesome. Make sure that tape is available for us to view later on. Emily doesn’t stand a chance.” Sure he was good at breaking down a suspect, as was Kensi. Callen, well the man was pretty much a legend: inventive, able to switch from empathy to brutality in a second and always totally believable, completely involved. But Hetty — she was in another league altogether. Her detachment and objectivity when interrogating were like watching some master-class in techniques. And she made it all seem so effortless. Sometimes, when he had an idle moment, Sam would speculate on exactly what Hetty Lang had done in the years before she joined NCIS. He suspected that whatever wild flights of fancy he concocted (the latest was Hetty working undercover at the Greenham Common Peace Camp) came nowhere close to the truth.

******

“You planning on breaking the land-speed record tonight?” Sam said, catching a glimpse of the speedometer.

Kensi didn’t take her eyes off the road for a second. “We’re on the freeway, traffic’s light and I heard you making sure we get a clear run. Can you give me a good reason why I shouldn’t be driving this fast?”

Sam sat back and decided it was probably best just to keep his mouth shut, while surreptitiously checking his seatbelt was securely fastened. Two injuries were more than enough to be going on with.

As they drove through the night, Eric worked frantically to narrow down the location, desperately working to give them as small a search perimeter as possible. “Check this?” He’d got to the point where he didn’t believe his own calculations. Nell went through each equation and finally nodded her agreement.

“Sam? We’ve got a location for you. Summer house, only occasional occupancy. Remote location. Originally built in the 1950s and featuring a rather nifty bomb shelter. It’s my best guess that’s where Deeks is. I’m sending the co-ordinates to your cell now.”

“Thanks, Eric. I owe you,” Kensi said, and meant every word. “We nearly there, Sam?”

He gestured. “That turn up there, then two hundred yards up the track.”

As they drew to a stop, the headlights picked up recent tire marks in the soft dirt. And blood stains, that left a trail going around the side, rather than to the front door. Sam cursed softly, as he made awkward progress while Kensi rushed ahead.

“Sam? I can’t get in to the cellar. This door must be at least an inch thick.” Her eyes were frantic. How could they have finally got so close, only to be thwarted at the last minute? The structure was made of concrete, at least a foot thick by her reckoning. If he was inside, Deeks wouldn’t be able to hear them, or even know that they were close at hand.

He used his crutch to give the door a whack and it resounded with a metallic thud. “Lead and steel construction, I’m guessing. So that if they ever dropped the bomb, you could come down here, shut the door and keep your neighbors and the radiation out.”

It was bloody effective at keeping them out too.

******

“Callen. You might want to get out here. And bring Hetty with you.”

Sam’s tone of voice alone was enough to warn Callen. “Tell me. Is he dead?” There was no time for platitudes or for beating about the bush. If ever there was a “need to know” situation, this was it.

“I wish I knew. We’re 99% certain Deeks is in that damned bomb shelter. Trouble is, we’ve got no way of getting in there. It’s a bunker — a nuclear bunker, complete with re-enforced concrete and an armor-plated door. I’ve been onto Army Logistics and there sending out specialist cutting gear, but it’ll take time to arrive. And, given it’s a sealed chamber, and there’s no air gets in or out…”

He didn’t need to say any more. The picture was perfectly clear, so clear that Callen could imagine every last detail.

“We’ll be there.” Hell-mend Emily. She wasn’t saying anything and he had no desire to waste any more time on her. They already had Sam’s testimony and those charges would stick. But if Deeks was dead, his long-session with Emily would only be the start. If it meant he was locked in a room with her for a month, Callen would make her confess to everything she had done to his friend. He owed that to Deeks. If that was the only thing he could for him, then that was what Callen would do.

Telling Hetty was as bad as he had thought it would be. She sat perfectly still, asked nothing and, after a silence that seemed to stretch out almost beyond endurance said simply. “Of course we must go. But, if you could give me a moment first. Please?”

He’d agreed; of course he had agreed. He knew the visions that were dancing through her mind, playing on each and every pain receptor in her body, the ever-present cry of “if only — if only I had done this or that differently. If only I had said this or not said that. If only.” So many regrets, all futilely swirling around.

“What did I do?” Hetty wondered. “When I discovered who he was and brought him here, what did I do to Marty? Did I sign his death warrant there and then?” He was not just her agent; he was her great-nephew, her one last link with her past, her one hope for her future. There had to be something more than just a lifetime of work to leave behind, didn’t there? Surely there had to be?

They didn’t talk much on the drive out of LA. It was very early and dawn was just starting to break, with lemon-hued shards of light piercing through the sky, as a deeper rosy-pink color infused the horizon. It was going to be another beautiful day, weather-wise at least.

“Move him into the sun,” Hetty murmured quietly. Her seventeenth summer had been spent enthralled in the poetry of the First World War, words of such power and such beauty, created in unimaginable carnage. She cleared her throat and began again. “Move him into the sun; Gently its touch awoke him once. Lines from a poem by Wilfred Owen, entitled ‘Futility’. One of my favorites.”

“I’ve never read much poetry,” Callen confessed.

“Many men would say the same. But you should read Owen. I think you would relate to him. He said ‘I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War and the pity of War. My poetry is in the pity.‘ He was a young man, writing about other young men and the horrors of war. He was killed one week before the end of the war. And somehow, amidst all that devastation, he managed to create something of such power and beauty it haunts readers to this day. Quite remarkable.” What will my legacy be, I wonder?

They were in the countryside now, the road running between tall pines that threw tall shadows across their way. Hetty could not restrain a shiver.

“You cold?” Callen asked, adjusting the temperature. “We’re nearly there.” He didn’t have to guess at the turn-off, as a police car was parked on the road verge, lights flashing but sirens mercifully silent, two uniformed officers barring their way.

“NCIS.” Callen flashed his ID briefly and turned up the track. Ahead, he could see a couple of army trucks, more police cars, an ambulance, plus a myriad of people, mainly in uniform.

“Can you see Mr. Hannah and Miss Blye?” Hetty asked, craning her neck for a better view. “Perhaps we should call them?”

“No need — she’s over there, talking to a full-bird colonel.” The army had spared no effort, he thought. Exiting the car, Callen raised his arm and Kensi came running over.

“Good to see you. They reckon they should have the door open in the next few minutes.”

“Any updates?”

Kensi shook her head. “We’ve not been able to make contact. And none of the normal equipment was able to get any sort of reading, probably because the entire structure is lead lined.” Her mouth was bitter. All that waiting, and still they knew nothing. Her cell rang and she answered it in an instant.

Sam kept it short, if not exactly sweet. “Kensi – they’re about to open the door. Get over here now!”

She started running immediately, pushing her way through all the various personnel, her mouth dry, the blood thundering through her veins. A single thought propelled her:

Just let him be alive.

Nothing else mattered at all.

“Let me through!” Sam was just ahead, reaching out his arm, grabbing hers and dragging her the last few feet, so that she was standing right beside the door as it slowly opened inwards, revealing a dark and silent interior.

“We need lights” Sam bawled but Kensi was already going down the short flight of steps, her pocket flashlight already in her hand. The interior of the bunker was deceptively spacious and she had to play the beam right around the room before its light finally illuminated a familiar figure.

“He’s here!” she called and sprinted across the room, falling to her knees beside him. “Marty?”

Apart from the sound of her heart beating, the room was completely silent. He was kneeling, his hands handcuffed behind him and tethered to a wooden pillar; his head dropped forward onto his chest.

“Marty? Come on, answer me, you stupid bastard.” She was crying now, as she frantically brushed his hair back off his face, her finger shaking as she tried to find a pulse in his neck.

“Hi Kensi.” His voice was hoarse and weak. “I knew you’d come.” He gave a grin that was a weak, pathetic parody of its normal self. With an obvious effort, he moved his head so that he could look at her. “You’re crying?”

The room was crowded now, full of people holding lights, cutting away the manacles that had restrained Deeks for so long, but Kensi didn’t care.

“Of course I came. Where else would I be? I told you — I’m responsible for you, don’t you remember?” The bolt cutters did their work and he slid into her arms, his head resting against her as she gently stroked his hair. “You’re safe now. Everything’s going to be alright.”

“I missed you so much.” Marty wasn’t sure if this was real or if it was another of those strange dreams. “Are you real?”

“I’m real and I’m here.” Kensi bent forward and kissed the top of his head. “I’ll never let you go,” she whispered and watched he slipped back into unconsciousness.

“Ma’am? You have to let us help him.” The medic was polite but firm and Kensi grudgingly moved aside to let him do his work. It didn’t take long for him to look concerned. “We need an IV stat – this guy’s seriously dehydrated.”

She watched as they cut away his sweatshirt, revealing the recent surgery scars, still fresh and livid, standing proud from his torso. Even from a distance, she could see his breathing was labored.

“Veins are collapsing — get that tourniquet tighter! We need IV access. And get a pressure cuff on him while you’re at it.”

“Kensi? Come outside with me.” Hetty placed her hand in the younger woman’s. “They need room to work, if they’re to help him.” She tugged gently.

“I want to stay here. I want to be with him.”

“I know you do. And I promise that you can ride with him on the way to the hospital. But you can’t do anything at the moment, so come outside with me, dear.” She had seen many broken bodies before, she had seen what inhumanities people were capable of, what savageries they could unleash, but at least she could spare Kensi this experience.

“Crap!” the medic exclaimed. “We’ve got a serious infection in the right arm and his temperature is hitting the roof. We can’t wait until we get to the hospital – we’re going to have operate and get that bullet out. Start pushing the antibiotics.”

Kensi gave a gasp and tried to pull her hand of Hetty’s grasp, but Sam materialized at her side.

“You’ll just be in the way, Kensi. We need to get outside.” He’d seen enough emergency procedures carried out in the field to know they weren’t pretty; they were quick and dirty — in and out in the fastest time possible, only performed in such hopelessly unsterile surroundings because there was genuinely no choice. Sam wasn’t going to let Kensi see that. He didn’t want to be there either, if he was completely honest.

So Kensi allowed herself to be led up the stairs and out into the fresh cool air, where the morning sun was already shining and didn’t see the flash of a surgical blade as it hovered briefly above the swollen, discolored bicep of the man she loved, before descending and swiftly slicing through the taut flesh.

“I really do love him you know?”

“I know. He’s easy to love, isn’t he?” Hetty smiled as the sun warmed her face.

“I tried not to, but I couldn’t help it.”

They started walking, just for something to do, not because they had anywhere to go to. It was easier than just standing still, somehow.

“I know.” I remember how that feels. I loved and was loved, once upon a time, a long, long time ago. I remember how wonderful it was and also how painful it was to lose him. I hope you never experience that.

Someone was pouring a cup of coffee and its fragrance floated towards them like a small breath of normality amidst all this upheaval.

“Do you think he’s going to be alright?” Kensi turned and looked back at the open door of the bunker with such a look of longing and love on her face that Hetty could have wept.

“I don’t know. I hope so.” For both your sakes, I hope so.

As they watched, the medic appeared at the top of the steps, and behind him came a stretcher.

Move him into the sun… the poetry is in the pity.

Lines written by a young man, who had seen too much and died too young.

*****

“I’m seriously beginning to think we should just have that room permanently reserved for Deeks. And then maybe we could get some chairs that are actually comfortable in here.” Sam moved restlessly in his seat, trying to get comfortable and eventually ended up propping his foot up on a low table. It was throbbing away in a particularly unpleasant manner, reminding him that he was under doctor’s instructions to keep it elevated at much as possible. With everything that had been going on over the last day, he’d not paid much heed to this, and was now paying the price.

“You want me to see if they can get you something for the pain?” Callen didn’t like the grey tinge to his partner’s complexion. They were in the right place after all. The waiting room at Pacific West Hospital was becoming like a second home by now. He was even becoming quite fond of the bland artwork on the walls.

“Maybe later. After we’ve seen Deeks. And I’ll even let you drive me home.”

That was when Callen knew Sam must be feeling bad — under normal circumstances, he would never admit to any pain or take any tablets. “How’s your head?”

Sam was too tired, physically and emotionally, to bother to pretend. “Murder. The doctor said I probably had a concussion and I’m inclined to agree with him.” He wanted to close his eyes, but had the feeling he’d never open them again. “Hetty and Kensi have been gone an awful long time, haven’t they?”

“The coffee shop probably didn’t have the exact blend of tea Hetty required,” Callen said sleepily. The events of the past few days were beginning to catch up with him. Maybe he was getting too old for all this.

By the time Hetty and Kensi finally made it back, laden down with coffee and sandwiches, both men were both asleep, snoring in unison.

“I’m almost too tired to sleep,” Kensi confessed. “Too tired and too worried. And I’m tired of waiting for a doctor to come and talk to me.” There was a doctor in there right now, in there with Marty, right there, just across the corridor.

Hetty inclined her head. “Exactly what are you waiting for? My permission?”

“Would you give it to me?”

“I thought I already had.” Despite everything, Hetty could not help smiling as Kensi almost skipped across the corridor and pushed open the door. Sometimes, she was blinded by the confidence and capability of her agents and forgot how young they were and how immediate life was when you were that age, when life was there to be lived in the moment, as the future was so far ahead.

“How is he?” Kensi stood in the doorway, suddenly afraid to go any further.

The doctor looked up briefly. “And you are?” he asked, before turning his attention back to Deeks.

“I’m Special Agent Kensi Blye,” she announced, with a confidence she did not feel. “His partner.”

In more ways than one! She risked a glance at Marty, who was tossing feverishly in the bed and felt her heart turn over.

“Well, given that a second head trauma, especially following recent neurosurgery isn’t ever good news, it could be a lot worse. We’re monitoring him closely, and the CT scan didn’t show any swelling, so we’re cautiously optimistic. Those fingers have been pinned with wires, and he should recover full use of them over time. But we are very worried about his arm.”

He looked at Kensi with a direct honesty. “The indications are that your partner is developing sepsis. The bullet has set off a nasty infection and we’re trying to find the right antibiotic to knock that on the head.” He nodded towards a machine at the side of the bed. “Due to the severity of the infection, we’ve set up a central line, to deliver a combination of drugs directly into one of the great veins of the heart. But so far, we’ve not noticed any improvement in his condition. If anything, it’s deteriorating.”

Kensi was aware that her legs felt as if they had the consistency of overcooked spaghetti. “Exactly what are you saying here?”

The doctor smiled sympathetically at her, and she registered that he had nice eyes, eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “I’m saying that he’s really very ill, that the infection could kill him. And that if we can’t control it, we’ll have no option but to amputate your partner’s arm at the shoulder. I really am so very sorry, Agent Blye.”

There was something strange happening with her vision, Kensi thought. It was as if she was viewing everything through the wrong end of a telescope, or looking down a dark tunnel. She shook her head to try to clear it and was aware of the doctor saying something, only the buzzing in her ears was too loud to allow her to understand him. It was such a struggle to understand what was going on and she didn’t really have the strength to fight anymore.

“Sit down. “ There was a hand under her elbow and Kensi was vaguely aware she was being lead over to a seat. “Now put your head between your knees and kept it there.”

“I’m fine,” she protested feebly.

“No, you’re not,” a familiar voice replied.

“I thought you were asleep, G? And I am fine.”

“Just about passing out is not fine. Just stop arguing and do as you’re told. I’ve got Sam across the corridor trying to pretend he’s not in extreme pain, Deeks pretty much unconscious – again – and I don’t need to add to the list, okay?”

“Okay. But I never faint.”

God, she could be annoying sometimes, Callen thought. “How about putting that into the past tense? Because I can assure you, this time you passed out. So just sit there and keep quiet, okay?”

“Bully,” Kensi mumbled, not quite daring to move after that.

The doctor gave Callen a look that contained a good deal of respect. “I was just explaining that Mr. Deeks is in a very serious condition.”

“I can see that.” Callen said soberly, walking over to the bed and studying the monitors closely. “Antibiotics not working yet?” He placed a hand on Deeks’ forehead and winced when he felt how hot it was.

“We’ve taken swabs and the lab is currently running tests to find the specific drug, but that takes time, so at the moment we’re using a broad spectrum antibiotic. Unfortunately…”

“I get the picture,” Callen interjected. “Watch and wait?” Without waiting for an answer, he went over to the sink and filled a bowl with cold water. “He’s a fighter. I know you wouldn’t think so, what with that innocent face, but he really is.” He dipped a washcloth into the water, wrung it out and gently ran it down the side of the unconscious man’s face. “Sorry — I just felt I had to do something. Can’t stand sitting around, feeling helpless, you know?”

“I know. You go right ahead and look after your friend.” He clapped Callen briefly on the arm and left the room.

“Can I get up now? If anyone is going to be mopping down Deeks’ fevered body, it really out to be me, don’t you think?” Kensi had decided that the only way she would be allowed to stop staring at the floor would be to pretend to be light-hearted, to make believe that this was no big deal.

She didn’t fool Callen for a moment, but he appreciated the effort she was making. There was so much tension in the room already and somehow, she’d managed to diffuse it just a little. “You trying to deny the whole bromance me and Deeks have got going on?” –

“You don’t stand a chance, G.” Kensi reckoned it was safe to get up now. She moved slowly and was relieved to discover her legs seemed to be working normally once more and that the room had stopped trying to disappear down a black hole. “I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to him, you know?”

“I know.” The y stood there in silence for a moment.

“Come kid, I told the doctor you were a fighter. So don’t you dare make a liar out of me, you hear? Start fighting right now.” He looked across at Kensi. “Hey – it’s worth a try, isn’t it?”

She sniffed and wiped the back of her hand across her nose. “What have we got to lose? Stop being so bloody lazy, Marty and make a damned effort. I’m fed up with sitting at the side of your bed! How dare you do this to me again!”

“Kensi, you’re screaming at Deeks,” Sam said in a perplexed tone of voice, having just woken up and walked into the surreal scene.

“Of course I’m screaming at him. You think I’m just going to sit there and let him die on me? Or that I can let those doctors cut his arm off at the shoulder? Because that’s what going to happen if he doesn’t start to make an effort.”

It took a moment for Sam to work out exactly what she was saying. “Seems fair enough then. But you might want to tone it down a bit — I heard you clear across the corridor.” He looked at the central line delivering the drugs and tried not to think of what might happen. “Why do you always have to get yourself into such a mess, Deeks? Do you have any idea what we’re going through here? Do you think it’s easy for us to see you like this?” His voice had a shudder in it.

Unseen by any of them, Hetty stood in the doorway and observed her agents silently and realized she was possibly more proud of them in that moment than she had ever been before. She listened as the banter resumed. Sometimes, you did whatever it took to get you through a situation, no matter how unlikely it might sound

“I hear right, G? You going to trade me in for Deeks? Talk about being swayed by a pretty face. I’m hurt, seriously hurt. Don’t we mean more to each other than that?” Sam batted his eyelashes flirtatiously.

“You should be so lucky – either of you!” Kensi swiped the washcloth out of Callen’s hands and dropped it back into the water. “Why don’t you guys leave me for a while? We’re going to be here for ages, and you might as well get some sleep. Relieve me in an hour, okay?”

It wasn’t until the door shut behind them and she was alone that Kensi picked up the cloth again. “Come, Marty,” she coaxed. “Remember all those fantasies you had when you got shot? The ones about the hot nurses giving you a bed-bath?” She ran the cool cloth tenderly across his chest. “Why don’t you wake up and then we can both really enjoy this?”

Was it her imagination, or did he seem a little more restless? Was that a good sign or a bad sign? “Just give me a break, will you? All I want is one little sign that you’re going to be okay?” She was sitting on the edge of the bed now, stroking the hair back off his face. “Listen, if you just open your eyes, tomorrow I’ll come in wearing this really short nurses’ uniform, with black stockings and…”

“Can I get tickets for that or is it members only?” It was Callen, of course, standing there with a big grin on his face. “Time for a shift change.” He pointed in the direction of the waiting room. “Go get some sleep.”

“Anyone ever told you how unbearably bossy you are?” Kensi flung over her shoulder. Perhaps she would manage to catch a little sleep. Perhaps, by the time she woke up, things would have changed and by then Marty would be sitting up in bed, smiling at her and this whole nightmare would be over. Perhaps she was seriously deluded.

Callen settled down and pulled out a newspaper. “I reckon that after Kensi, I’m a poor substitute. And I really haven’t got the legs for stockings. But, at the moment, you’ve not got much choice. So, where do you want to start?” He started flicking through the pages. “Well, there’s the international news — which is fairly depressing, as per usual. The domestic news is probably even worse. Finance — well, exactly who understands more than one word in ten? Not me, that’s for sure, although seeing as you have this whole double-life thing going on, maybe you understand a bit more than most of us? We’ll move on swiftly through the women’s pages and the lifestyle section, I think. Ah, the sports section — that’s a bit more like it!” He started to read aloud, pausing every so often to check everything was alright.

By the time a nurse came in, Callen had covered baseball, basketball and football and was just getting started on boxing. His voice was getting tired by now and it wasn’t easy, reading out loud to a completely non-responsive audience. He’d never thought he would miss Deeks’ smart remarks quite so much.

The nurse smiled at him, as she connected a fresh bag to the drip stand. “Good news.” Her voice was low pitched and calm. “The lab worked overtime to identify the strain of bacteria causing the infection and we’re now able to tailor his drug regime to be much more effective. I’ve started the new drug now. We’re hopeful this will make a real difference.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Callen asked bleakly. He watched as she took Deeks’ temperature, checked his blood pressure, noted the readings on the heart monitor – did all the routine things he’d seen a dozen nurses do before. And he wondered how she could treat seriously ill patients every day, knowing that some of them were going to die, some were going to become more ill before they got better, and still be able to come in the next day and do it all over again. And how she managed to keep smiling.

“I know this is hard, but try to stay positive. There’s a good chance this treatment will work. Your friend has a lot going for him – he’s in a good hospital, he’s getting the right drugs and he’s got a lot of people who love him.”

When your work meant that you literally had to trust other people with your life, your team became your life. You shared an intensity of relationship that few outsiders could ever begin to comprehend, far less understand. There was a fierce loyalty that built up between team members, they became an exclusive club that no one else could ever truly join. And eventually, the team became a family unit. Your team members became the most important people in the world, because they were the only people who really knew you, because they were the only people you could let close enough to know you. They were the people you didn’t have to lie to, didn’t have to pretend to – because they already knew the darkness and despair.

“Okay kid, enough’s enough. It time for some straight talking now, just you and me. So listen up: if you die, it will kill Kensi, do you understand? And it will destroy me and Sam. So, don’t you dare die, Marty Deeks. Do you hear me? I will never forgive you if you die.”

Okay — it was official, Callen thought. He had completely lost it. Better give in while the going was good and get Sam in for his shift. “You watch over him, alright?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Quit teaching your granny how to suck eggs and go get some rest. I’ll call you if I need you.” He had always been intrigued by hospitals at nighttime, how everything seemed to slip into a different mode, one that was punctuated by the whisper of feet along empty corridors and the gentle sounds of machinery. When you were inside a hospital at night, you were cushioned from the rest of the world and what went on outside seemed nowhere near as important as what happened within the confines of a small room.

After a while, Sam began to get uneasy. Something had changed — something was definitely different here. Pressing the call button, he got to his feet slowly, struggling to get the crutches to work properly, and hobbled over to the bed.

“I think something’s wrong,” he said the instant the nurse came in and stood aside as she rushed towards Deeks.

She took her time, checking her patient carefully, but Sam couldn’t look. He had seen death many times, but he couldn’t look this time. This time it was different, it was closer, it hit that much harder. When Dom had died, it had been so sudden and besides which, there hadn’t been the long period of working together beforehand. Although he was ashamed to admit it, the team had got used to Dom not being there. Sam had struggled with his feelings of guilt about that for a long time, and when Deeks had come along, that had colored his attitude to the newcomer. But it was impossible not to like Deeks, with his irrepressible good humor, and Sam had been impressed at the way he had coped with the events in his life. Somehow, against all the odds, Deeks had come through all the crap and had come out a decent man. It didn’t seem right that it should all end like this.

“Come over here,” the nurse said, beckoning. “Come and see your friend.” She stood aside and Sam saw that Deeks was lying on his side, breathing quietly, with the strained look on his face ebbing slowly away, along with the hard, hot flush of fever. She took hold of Sam’s hand and placed it gently on Deeks’ bare shoulder. “Can you feel that? The fever is going down. He’s turned the corner.”

“He’s going to be alright? He won’t lose his arm?” He needed confirmation, he needed to be sure.

“It’s still very early, but I’d say that everything looks very positive. He’s sleeping normally now, which is another good sign.” She patted Sam on the arm. “And now you need to look after yourself. Let one of your friends take over for a little while.”

“I think that this is my turn. Mr. Hannah. Why don’t you and your colleagues go and get some breakfast. You might see if they have any tea and bring some back with you in an hour’s time. If you would be so kind?”

Sam knew when he wasn’t wanted. Besides which, breakfast sounded really good. He suddenly realized he hadn’t eaten for nearly twenty four hours.

“You said there was some improvement?” Hetty had hardly dared to believe her ears. “That Mr. Deeks might make a full recovery?” She looked carefully at him, registering all the small changes, the miniscule improvements that gave hope he would return to them. She never ceased to be amazed at how different people looked when they were asleep, how all the artifice of everyday life was stripped away and the fragile vulnerability was revealed. She looked at Marty, and once again saw the little boy from an idyllic summer twenty-five years ago who had captured her heart with his innocent love and trust. In that one moment, the past and the present were so close they almost bled into one another.

The nurse smiled at her. “I’d say there’s every chance of that happening. He’s young and he’s exceptionally fit. Would you like me to page the doctor now, so he can come and talk to you?”

“I would like that very much. And I would also like to thank you for all your compassion and kindness, not only to your patient, but to all his friends. We really do appreciate it.” Hetty wanted to say more, much more but her heart was too full at the moment.

“This is what makes my job worthwhile,” the nurse confessed. “These are the moments I remember on the bad days. This is what keeps me going — knowing that I can make a difference, even if that is just helping to shoulder the burden or helping to ease the pain. I’ll see you later tonight, shall I?”

Hetty walked over to the window, where the sun was beginning to rise and a new day was dawning, fresh and pure, with the promise of infinite beauty and wonder. “I’ll be right here.”

Weeping endureth for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

“By the way, I almost forgot — Happy Easter,” the nurse said as she closed the door behind her.

Her words made Hetty grip onto the windowsill for support as she registered their significance. How could she have lost track of time like that? She thought back over the chronology – Marty had been kidnapped on Friday; they had found him on Saturday. And today he had come back to them. On Easter Sunday.

“Oh my giddy aunt.”

*****

“Happy Easter, Mom. Sorry I can’t drive up to be with you.” Kensi stood outside the hospital, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her skin.

“I understand, darling. How’s your partner? Any change?” Allison Blye was not fooled by the carefully light tone of her daughter’s voice; she knew her too well for that. This time, Kensi was seriously involved. Just for once, couldn’t she be happy? Didn’t she deserve that? Allison had never liked Jack Patterson, although she had been careful not to let Kensi see that. She cringed when she saw her beautiful, confident daughter becoming a subservient drone to this bullying, self-absorbed man. But she said nothing, did nothing except to make it clear that she would always be there, so that when Kensi needed to talk, she knew there would be at least one person who would be there, who would not judge her but just love her. Kensi deserved to be happy.

“It was pretty much touch and go for a while yesterday, but things are looking better now.” She would never forget waking up to find Hetty shaking her shoulder and smiling at her, or rushing across the corridor to see with her own eyes that he was alright. Just seeing him curled up on his side, rather than lying flat on his back was a good sign, but she’d had to touch him to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. And oh, the feel of cool skin was like balm on her ravaged soul. To lay her fingers on his wrist and feel his pulse, strong and steady; to place her hand on his chest and feel the slow, regular beat of his heart; to press her lips on his skin and know there was going to a chance to say all the things that had been left unsaid for too long, that there would be a time and place for them; to run her fingers through his hair and remember the first time they made love — these were the things that mattered. There was so much she didn’t know about the man, so much to discover. Kensi wanted long slow mornings, waking up beside him, watching him sleep after exquisite nights of passion and the unguarded confessions when their hot bodies were still entwined and there were no barriers at all, when the world shrank right done to two people and nothing else matters. She wanted a lifetime of discovery.

“I think it’s going to be alright, Mom. I really do. I think, this time, I’m going to be alright.”

There was no doubting her certainty. For the first time in years, Allison Blye felt she didn’t have to worry about her daughter any more. Kensi was taking charge of her own life and she was happy. And, in the end, that was all any mother ever wanted for her children.

*****

“Happy Easter, Crosby.” Sam leant against the wall of the waiting room, speaking quietly into his cell. Normally he tried to keep a strict separation between his work and private lives, but somehow those barriers didn’t seem so important any more.

“Daddy!”

The squeal of delight nearly pierced Sam’s eardrums, but it was worth it. He missed his son so much. At least Denise never tried to stop them spending time together, realizing that they were still bound together by their son. Things could be a lot worse. There was no sense in regretting the past; you had to make the most of the present if you were going to have any sort of future.

“Mommy and I are to the park for a picnic. Do you want to come too?”

Do I want to, son? More than anything. More than words can say. “What does your Mommy say, Crosby?”

But Crosby was no longer on the phone. “She said to ask you. Today should be about families, Sam.” Denise’s voice held more warmth than Sam had heard for a long time.

“I’ll be there. Denise — you do know I’ll always be there for you and Crosby? Come what may? You do know that, don’t you?”

“I do, Sam. I always have.”

Even over the phone, Sam could hear the words she was not saying. Maybe there was a chance after all? Perhaps they could be a family again? Even after all this time.

In the end, it was all about perspective, about putting things in the right order so that you could see them clearly; of getting rid of the extraneous clutter that clouded your vision and seeing the whole picture, all the small circles that intersected to make up the complicated entirety of your life. Sometimes real life required more courage than you thought you were capable of.

*****

“Happy Easter, Marty. It’s time for you to wake up now, do you hear me?”

His head felt like cotton-wool and his mouth was parched. “Hetty?”

“You’re in the hospital, my dear.”

“I guessed.” The narrow bed, all the tubes and wires all over his body were a bit of a giveaway, not to mention the antiseptic smell. “Did you get her? Did you get Emily?”

“We did. Everything worked out perfectly.”

Well, apart from the bit where we thought we had lost you.

“Good.” He was lying looking directly at her, guileless blue eyes boring into her soul, saying the words his brain would not escape from his lips.

“And Kensi is right here. She’s never left you.”

“I promised you, didn’t I?”

Marty turned his head slightly in the direction of her voice, just enough so that he could see her silhouetted by the morning sun, her hair floating down around her shoulders.

“I knew you’d come,” he managed sleepily. “All those hours, I kept thinking of you and I knew you’d come.” And just seeing her, knowing she was there meant that all his defenses were completely down and the memories of all the past few days came flooding back. Once again he relived those awful hours spent totally alone and isolated, racked with pain and when they only thing that kept him going was the thought of her, his amazing Kensi.

Kensi took hold of his hand and saw the tears forming in his eyes, not just a few but so many that in a moment they would be over-spilling and running down his cheeks.

“I thought I’d lost you. I thought I’d never see you again,” she whispered.

And now she was crying too; they were both crying in each other’s arms. And that was alright. Actually, it was pretty damned perfect.

*****

For the day is coming soon
You don’t have to worry
Your light will return
In its former glory

Life is wild and unpredictable, and there is no such thing as a certainty. Just when you think that things are finally going smoothly, something happens and the world turns upside down, so that you are clinging onto your sanity by the tips of your fingernails. That’s just how it is – you have to adapt, to make compromises, sometimes even sacrifices, just so you can go on living. And just when you think there is no hope, that there is no point in trying anymore, that it is easier just to give up and give in to all your dark impulses, something wonderful happens and you can see the rest of your life stretching out in front you: beautiful and perfect and so full of such hope and promise that your heart feels as if it might burst and you wish everyone was as lucky as you.

Kensi was having one of those days. Life was very sweet, she thought, sipping her coffee on the stone-flagged terrace that stretched along the back of the Malibu house. At last she was able to live in the moment, to savor each pleasure as it arose. The anticipation was delicious.

He’s a lot better. Maybe tonight? I’m going to explode if I can’t be with him soon.

She looked sideways under her lashes, over to where Deeks sat basking in the sun. A true child of California, he’d pulled off his shirt and was just wearing a pair of old, well-worn jeans, cut-off at mid-thigh, faded almost to white through many washings and molded to his body. He lay stretched out on one of those teak steamer chairs that always reminded Kensi of ocean-going liners and his golden tan contrasted with the cream cotton cushions in a way that made her think of molten honey. Totally and utterly relaxed, he lay with his head tilted up towards the sun and his eyes closed.

How can he be so damned laid back? Doesn’t he want me? Doesn’t he know how much I want him?

Her fingers curled up with tension and she took another sip of coffee. Damn the man for sleeping so much!

Everything will be just like you remember
Today won’t look as bad as it seemed
Though love’s become a dying ember
It will burn brighter than you ever dreamed

“You’re coveting me.”

She looked up with a start.

“Stop lusting after my gorgeous body, you depraved woman.” He was grinning at her, teeth very white and eyes startlingly blue against his tan.

“I’m thinking you need to start getting back in shape,” she said tartly, aware that her desire must have been showing very clearly on her face. She moved over to sit beside him, her hip nudging his. “You need to get a little more covering on those bones.”

Kensi let her fingers run gently over his ribs and then lay her hand flat on his stomach, feeling the warmth of the sun and just rejoicing in the fact he was right here, right beside her and alive and well. “Can’t have you fading away on me.”

Bending her head, she dropped a series of kisses, fluttering down from his ribs to the jut of his hip bone.

“Fading away is the last thing on my mind right now.” His voice was tense.

“I know. You can’t hide anything from me. I’m a trained agent; I noticed these sort of things.” So she was flirting – so what?

For the day is coming soon
You don’t have to worry
Your lights will return
In its former glory

The waistband of his jeans was still too loose, but that was good; it meant that she could slip her hand in easily and, as she did that he hitched his breath in and tightened his arms around her. Their faces moved together and Kensi thought she would drown in the sweet urgency of his kisses. Her hand moved further down, inch by inch, enjoying the anticipation this created in both of them.

“Did your Mama never tell you nice boys should wear boxers?”

“I was a Boy Scout. I like to be prepared. She did warn me about girls like you, though. Told me I’d be putty in their hands.”

He moved so that he could caress her breasts and Kensi arched her back so that they fell forward, filling his hands.

“No bra? Seems like this household has got a serious underwear shortage going on today. Not that I’m complaining, you understand.”

Marty’s hands slipped underneath her shirt, lingering over her back before slipping around to cup her breasts again.

“I understand perfectly.” She couldn’t keep the tension out of her voice. She wanted him more than she had ever wanted anything in her life, right here, right now. Her hand moved a little further down and he could not control the low groan in his throat.

“I need you so much, Kensi. For now and forever.”

“You’ve got me, Marty. Always and forever.”

Your lights will return
The summer will return
Your hearts will rise again
In its former glory

*****

“Getting used to living the good life, Kensi?” Sam asked as she floated in, coffee in hand, big smile on her face. A diamond pendant swinging around her neck, catching the light and sending multi-colored reflections shining around her face. But it wasn’t just that – she seemed lit from within. There had been a noticeable change in Kensi over the past few weeks; everyone had noticed it. She seemed softer, in some strange way.

“You’re sounding envious. I thought life was going well for you?” Over the weekend, Sam had moved back in with Denise. They had finally realized there was to bring them together than to keep them apart.

Sam allowed himself a smile. “It is. But it’s also hard work. There were a lot of things we said and even more thing we didn’t say. So we’re taking it slowly, rebuilding our lives bit by bit.” It was never easy to admit you had been wrong, but he had swallowed down his pride, and Denise had allowed him back into her heart. Sure, there was work to be done, but it would be worthwhile. Only — when he looked at Kensi, and saw how her love enveloped her, it made him just a little envious for those early, halcyon days when there was no history to color everything you said or did.

“Don’t have secrets,” Kensi said, logging on to the secure network. “I’ve learned that one the hard way. Maybe if I’d spoken to you and Callen about Jack, let you know what was really going on, maybe things would have been different.”

“They would have been very different. I’d have given that guy such a beating he wouldn’t have dared to come within a hundred miles of you. And then I’d have let Callen do the same.”

“You’d have let me? Yeah, I can see that happening.” Things were changing, Callen realized. Sam had his life back on track, Kensi and Deeks were building their new life together, but he was still exactly where he had always been — stuck in the past and unable to move on. Callen had no illusions about who he was — the man with no real name, a nebulous identity and an empty house. What did he have to offer anyone, except a quick one-night stand? How could he ever let a woman get close when even he didn’t know who he really was?

Anyway, things were what they were. What was the sense in mourning, when there was still life to be lived? And a job to do. There was always a job to do.

“So when’s our boy dragging his lazy butt back in here?” Callen asked.

“Are you talking about me?” The impersonation was terrible, but it didn’t matter. Marty Deeks strode in, late as usual and sat down at his desk as if he’d only been out for coffee. “God, it’s good to be back!” He grinned happily, leaned back in his chair and propped his boots up on the desk. It was business as usual.

“Security is slipping,” Callen mused. “They let anyone in here, these days. Any old riff-raff.”

“Exactly who are you again?” Sam enquired, tossing over an apple Danish. Denise had gone on a baking spree last night and later, when they lay together in bed the aroma of sugar and cinnamon had encircled them both.

Deeks caught the pastry deftly and ignored the comments. “Yeah, you missed me, didn’t you? Been struggling to manage without me, guys?” He bit into it, savoring the rich flavors.

“You could have made a bit more of an effort. Maybe had a shave, combed your hair?”

“I have great hair. Don’t I Kensi?”

“Fabulous.” She stared at Sam and Callen, daring them to argue with her. “First thing I look for in a guy is his hair, which pretty much ruled you two out from the start.”

“You know, Sam, I was hoping Kensi would have a positive effect on Deeks. Maybe get him to start wearing those Armani suits, look a little less scruffy.”

“I bought him that shirt!” she protested. “And those jeans.” A size smaller than before, they clung to his butt and made him look almost obscenely gorgeous, she thought.

“I’m being dressed by a woman again. Feels like I’m a kid again,” Deeks rued, but he didn’t look too bothered.

“It’s good to have my team back up to strength again, Mr. Deeks. Welcome back.” Hetty surveyed the scene with pleasure. They had all come through, and if Marty was a little battle-scarred, he had survived. The team as growing stronger; they would only be more effective. Everything was as it should be. Well, almost everything…

“Boots off the desk, if you please Mr. Deeks!”

Marty Deeks heaved a martyred sigh. “Bossy women — why am I always surrounded by bossy women, telling me what to do?” His voice was low and his comments directed at one person and one person only.

“You know you love it!” Kensi replied and raised her eyebrows significantly as she gazed at those boots.

Remembering last night, those boots, a whip and not a whole lot else, he didn’t even bother to deny it. Besides, he’d do anything for her. Anything at all. It was that simple.

***End***

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