Just My Heart Talking (by Claire)

Summary:  This is the fourth installment in my series of stories about Kensi and Marty. The series is slightly Alternative Universe, and begins with my version of events in the episode “Personal”. While each story can be read as a standalone, I do recommend that you read the series in order: Personal Questions, A Little Less Conversation and Former Glory.
Category:  NCIS-LA
Genre:   Crime
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  29,650


 

“Listen up: ongoing incident in San Diego. Briefing with Hetty starts in two minutes, so don’t be late!” Eric gave another sharp blast on his whistle and dived back upstairs.

“San Diego?” Callen’s voice could not have been more full of disgust if he had tried. “I hate San Diego.”

Deeks looked genuinely confused. “How can you hate San Diego? It’s a great city, it’s got a fabulous climate, low crime rate and amazing surfing.” He smiled across at Kensi. “Maybe I can finally get you on a surf board while we’re there?” He kept thinking of how amazing Kensi would look on a board, all long legs and wet hair and… and he was at work. Best keep those fantasies for when they were alone. “You surf, Callen?”

“Callen got wiped out alright in San Diego, but by a lady,” Sam explained. “Five years ago, was it? Took his heart and half his savings into the bargain.”

Callen felt he had to explain. “She was very plausible. Said she could sort out my laptop, which was running really slowly and hacked into my bank account while she was at it.” Despite the bad ending, he couldn’t help smiling as he remembered those nights in that hotel room, the one with the amazing view and the vibrating bed. Suppressing a sigh, he went upstairs, reminding himself not to be quite so gullible just because the lady in question had an amazing smile and an even better pair of legs. Behind him, he could hear Kensi and Deeks conversing in low tones.

“I am not going on a surf board! I’ve told you before…

“It’s easy, honest it is. And it’s so amazing, just you and the ocean and then this wave comes along and lifts you into the air and…”

“And then you get wiped out. No, that’s not my idea of fun. I’m just not a surfer chick.”

“You could be…” His voice was very plaintive and Callen could envisage the look on his face right now: pleading, with big eyes and an innocent expression.

“Well, maybe we’ll talk about it later,” Kensi conceded and Callen had to stifle a laugh. Deeks had her wrapped right around his little finger. He made a mental note to be sure to be around when that one happened. Watching Kensi pout herself into a wetsuit was a sight most men would pay good money to view.

“We have a major international incident taking place,” Hetty announced. “A Royal British Navy submarine, HMS Astute, is currently visiting San Diego. As part of a goodwill gesture, US submariners were on a guided tour and one of them overpowered his British counterpart. Negotiations are currently ongoing, but as the vessel in question is a nuclear submarine, and the first in a new class of British submarines, SecNav has personally requested that OSP takes a personal involvement in this case.”

“It’s going to take us a couple of hours to get down there,” Callen pointed out. “Everything could be over by then.”

Hetty looked at him. “Which is precisely why I have taken the liberty of arranging helicopter transfer for you. Just make sure you don’t get taken in by a pair of shapely legs on this visit, if you please, Mr. Callen.”

“I’m sure we can pick up a couple of boards when we get there,” Deeks was saying as they left. “And then maybe afterwards, we go across the border, spend a little time in Mexico?”

“Where no doubt there is more great surfing?” Kensi asked caustically. It was dawning on her that they would be away for a few days and probably staying in naval base accommodation. Single-sex accommodation. Her mood was correspondingly sour at the thought. Surely they wouldn’t be there for more than a couple of nights?

“You serious about going down to Mexico?” Eric asked. “Maybe you could do a little shopping for me?”

Sam patted him on the shoulder. “In your dreams. Remember you’re an employee of a federal organization and have to be above the law.”

“Kensi!” Deeks called as he snagged his ready-bag, “Remind me to pick up some board shorts when we’re in San Diego, okay?”

“I hate San Diego,” Callen sighed and Kensi silently agreed.

Why did it have to be today? Just when she’d gone to so much trouble to prepare a special evening back in Malibu, complete with strawberries dipped in chocolate, a bottle of champagne and a hot-tub under the stars… And that was just for starters. And even if by some amazing chance she did manage to get together with Deeks in San Diego, all she had in the way of nightwear was a ratty old football shirt that was at least ten years old. Unless that turned him on, of course. Which knowing Deeks as well as she did, was a distinct possibility.

“Well?” Hetty asked once her team had been dispatched. “Have I done the right thing?”

Nate rubbed his chin in a ruminatory fashion. “You’re concerned about how they will act together?” he ventured.

“I am. This will be the first real test to see how they handle working together, now that they are lovers. I have my doubts, as you know.”

“And yet you’ve not done anything officially?”

“Officially, Mr. Deeks is still only assigned to NCIS. Officially he is still an LABD Officer. Officially I have no knowledge of any extra-curricular activity he and Miss Blye may or may not be engaging in.”

“And yet you want my official advice on this very unofficial situation?” He couldn’t help smiling.

“Perhaps I worry too much?” she wondered.

“Perhaps you have good reason too?” Nate countered.

“Touché.”

*****

Kensi had to force herself to confront the reality of this new case objectively. The last time she had been involved in a hostage situation, her own mother was being held captive by her ex-lover. Who had then blown his brains out in front of her. And she had handled that whole thing so badly it was untrue. She’d been lucky to walk out of that one alive, considering she was dealing with a murdering psychopath whose DNA was linked to a whole chain of call girl murders. She’d been even luckier to remain in NICS, considering the way she had broken every rule in the book.

Deeks tried to keep his own feelings suppressed. Why did it have to be a submarine, of all things? A damned submarine, like some big metal coffin. He’d never been that fond of confined spaces and since his kidnapping, his dislike had grown to a healthy fear. There had been too many nights when he’d woken up, bathed in sweat and screaming, dreaming he was trapped in the bunker, with no light and aware the air was slowly running out. And he would wake up to find himself in Kensi’s arms, sobbing like a child at the memories. There were still too many of these white nights, the nights when he was too scared to go back to sleep, for fear of what dreams may come. And now they were going to a hostage situation on a submarine. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck at the very thought of it.

“Update?” Callen demanded tersely as they scrambled out of the helicopter.

Nell started to brief them, dealing with the basic facts first: one American Marine was dead, his throat cut. One British submariner held hostage. A party of civic dignitaries still on board.

“Basically, it’s bloody chaos, as our British friends might say. And the vessel itself?”

“It’s the first of the new class of British fast attack submarines. Armed with Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles. There are six twenty-one inch tubes, with a payload of 38 missiles. And the reactor is a Rolls-Royce PWR2.”

“You thinking this could be a potential hijacking?” Sam asked, listening to the array of facts.

“It’s a possibility. Nobody would want to see these missiles get into hostile hands. But I can’t see how even a team of highly trained men could hope to get the sub out of San Diego, far less one man.”

Sam shoved his hands into his pockets as the approached the cordon that kept the general public at bay. “I hate nuclear power. Scares me out of my head. There are too many things that can go wrong and too much at stake to even risk it. And what sort of legacy are we leaving for our children to clear up in the future?”

“I just hate San Diego,” Callen responded, showing his badge to the sentry. “And, by the way, remember that the Brits say “new-clear”, okay? We don’t need any communication issues on top of everything else.”

Kensi turned to Deeks. “The British also say “Car-i-bee-an”. Where there are some beautiful islands with wonderful beaches. Which I have always longed to visit.” She smiled beatifically.

“Any decent surfing there?” he asked with a mock air of innocence as they walked up the short gangway that led onto HMS Astute.

The levity soon disappeared when the body of staff Sergeant Travis Dolland was brought onto deck. As part of the official welcoming party, he was wearing dress whites, which were now stained with the blood that had poured from his throat. So much blood, it covered his body from his neck down to his knees. The wound gaped horribly open exposing the interior structures and organs.

“At least he died quickly,” Deeks said quietly. “Officially pronounced dead?” At the corpsman’s nod, he knelt down beside the body. Travis had dark brown eyes, with long lashes, and they were still open, gazing up to the clear sky. Pulling on a pair of gloves, Deeks reached out gently and closed the lids, and said a brief prayer. “Seems the least I could do,” he remarked, trying to sound offhand and failing utterly.

*****

“Travis Dolland, aged thirty two. Unmarried but recently engaged; he has a solid record, with several commendations and decorations. Made Staff Sergeant in 2008 and there is absolutely nothing in his record to suggest any problems, far less why he would be a target. NO involvement in any classified projects, no disciplinary problems -– nothing. Just an honest-to-goodness decent Marine serving his country. What do we know about the hostage-taker?” Callen raised his head from his laptop and gave a sigh of exasperation. This looked like it was going to be frustrating.

The team had moved into a briefing room while the ME was carrying out the autopsy. Once logged on to the secure network, they had remote access to all the information Eric and Nell were uncovering back in LA, as well as their own independent privileges to interrogate the normal intelligence databases.

“Okay, got a link here. Our guy is one Rufus Spears, aged twenty-seven, who grew up in Boiling Springs, NC -– along with none-other than Travis Dolland. It’s a small town of around four thousand, so it’s a pretty safe bet they knew one another.” Kensi looked up at Callen expectantly. “You want me to get onto one of the east coast teams and get them to go do some digging around? See if there is any history between the two of them?”

“That’s got to be worth a shot. There is just a chance this is a local dispute that’s blown up into an international incident.” Callen wondered if it could really be that simple, but he wasn’t about to risk letting this slender lead go. SO far it was the only thing they had to go on.

The top brass were out in force now, converging on the British Submarine from all over: both US and British Naval authorities with impressive amounts of gold braid on their uniforms; diplomats and attaches and various people in drab suits who had to belong to Homeland Security or one of the intelligence communities. Add to the mix the presence of the international media and this was one high-profile operation.

There was a knock at the door, followed by a Marine. “Staff Sergeant Dolland’s fiancée, sir. I was asked to bring her over to you.”

“Bring her in.”

This was the part they all hated: telling the grieving relatives their loved one had died and then, immediately afterwards having to get as much information from them. It was never easy. It left you feeling emotionally drained. You never got used to the look of complete and utter devastation that came over a person’s face when you told them the person they loved more than anything else in the world was dead. And you knew that they would always remember you, remember exactly what you said, how you said it and what you looked like as you told them their life had just ended.

The Marine ushered in a tall, blonde woman, who was trying to stay composed. So far the media had only reported the on-going incident, but no further details had been given. She clearly knew something was going on though. “Ms. Sterling, sir.”

Callen rose to greet her, to try to put her at her ease before he broke the bad news. Already he was rehearsing what he would say in his mind. She hesitated for a moment, looking quickly around the room and trying to get her bearings. He noticed the nervous movements of her fingers, the slight tremor of her lips, the way her intertwined played with one another.

“Mikey? Oh Mikey, thank god you’re here! You’ll tell me the truth, won’t you?” Nico Sterling, classical pianist, recently bereaved fiancée of Staff Sergeant Travis Dolland and childhood friend of Marty Deeks flung herself into his arms and burst into tears.

Kensi had only seen her once, accompanying Deeks to a nightclub opening when he was undercover as Michael Brandel. Even just watching the two of them together on television had been enough to make her feel instantly jealous. Seeing them now, right in front of her was ten times worse. Nico Sterling: tall and blonde and beautiful, from a similarly privileged background to Deeks, trained at Juilliard and insanely talented was currently clinging on to Deeks as if she would never let him go and he – he was running his hands down her back and back up onto her shoulders in an extremely intimate manner. In that instant, their body language betrayed them. Kensi knew with complete certainty that they had been lovers. She thought of the grand piano in the Malibu house and wondered exactly when their relationship had ended – if indeed it ever had.

Eventually, Nico composed herself sufficiently to be able to sit down and start answering some questions. However, she retained a close grip on Deeks’ hand and kept looking to him for reassurance as she spoke. Kensi could feel her blood begin to boil as she watched the proprietorial way in which Nico clung to Deeks. And her gut clenched painfully as she observed the sympathetic way he reacted to her: soothing, reassuring, even tender. Everything Kensi watched told her that, whatever had gone on in the past, there was still a deep connection, one that she had no knowledge of, and one which excluded her completely.

Nico’s voice was low, almost throaty, a contrast to her sleek, well-groomed exterior. Everything about her spoke of wealth and privilege, from the discrete pearl studs in her ears, to the immaculate chignon and the casual elegance of her tailored trousers and silk blouse. And yet, there was an immediacy about her, a complete lack of artifice, a very real warmth and sensibility that was incredibly attractive and sympathetic. Despite all her misgivings and to her considerable surprise, Kensi felt herself drawn to the woman.

“Death threats?” Sam said, leaning forward, with a look of concern on his face. “You’ve been receiving death threats?”

Nico nodded and clutched Deeks’ hand convulsively. “For the past two months, I’ve been doing a residency with the San Diego Symphony, so I moved into one of the suites at the Hotel Del Coronado. Everything seemed perfect -– it meant that Travis and I could spend time together when he was off-duty. He proposed three weeks ago and we were going to start looking at houses next weekend. And then last Thursday, I got this anonymous letter…”

“Did you report it to the police?”

“Of course I did!” Nico sounded slightly annoyed that anyone would feel the need to ask such an obvious question. “I called them right away, gave them the letter and a statement and I honestly thought that would be the end of things. I’ve had a couple of fans who got obsessed with me before –- I even had to get a restraining order against one of them. Anyway, I thought that would be the end. Only I started to get emails, sent to my private account. The one that only my friends and family know about. And they were pretty graphic. I got scared.” A single tear ran down her face.

“Exactly what threats were made?” Callen asked gently.

“They told me to go home, to leave San Diego, or I would end up with my throat slashed.”

“Were those the exact words?” Callen didn’t like the sound of this. There was no way this could be a coincidence. Was Nico the real target and Travis just used as a warning to her?

“No, the exact words were much more detailed. If I didn’t leave, my throat would be slashed from ear to ear, clear through to my spine.” She glared at him angrily. “The words are burned into my brain.”

Sam swore under his breath. “We’re going to have to take you into protective custody, Ms Sterling. You see, this morning there was an incident as a British nuclear submarine, docked here in San Diego. Travis was on board, as part of a Marine delegation, a sort of ‘hand across the sea’ gesture.”

“I saw the news,” Nico said, playing with her engagement ring. It was surprisingly modest; clearly she was happy to wear something in line with her fiance’s salary. “Was Travis involved? Is he alright?” She looked up at Deeks, with a look of horror or her face. “Please tell me Travis is alright, Mikey -–please?”

“Oh God, Nico, I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry, but Travis is dead.” There was no way to cushion the blow, except to hold her close, to let her scream out her grief and sob out her misery as he stroked her hair and tried to soothe her in any way he could think of. It was never easy, having to tell people their loved ones were dead, but this was particularly hard.

“We’re going to have to get a protective detail on Ms Sterling,” Sam said in an undertone. “It looks like maybe she was the target and the Staff Sergeant was used as an example. But there is no way this could be a coincidence.” Raising his voice, he continued. “Ms Sterling? We’re going to take you back to your hotel now, have a look at those emails and make sure you’re safe, alright?”

She raised a tear-drenched face and stared hopefully in Deeks’ eyes. “You’re going to look after me?”

“We all are,” Kensi said forcefully. She couldn’t help noticing how beautiful Nico still looked, despite the tears. How come her mascara didn’t run or her eyes get all swollen and piggy like ordinary mortals?

Stop being mean, she chided herself. It’s not her fault that she’s rich, and beautiful and famous and incredibly talented. It’s not fair, but it’s not her fault. But why does she have to hang on to my boyfriend quite so much? And does he have to look at her like that?

That wasn’t fair either. There was only one person Marty Deeks should look at like that, and it sure as hell wasn’t Nico Sterling.

“Callen?” Deeks managed to disentangle Nico’s arm from his own and Kensi took the opportunity to march her out of room. “How about I take that laptop straight back to LA so Eric can get started analyzing those emails? And I could take Nico with me and she could stay at my house in Malibu? It’s already got a pretty decent security system.”

Callen looked at him curiously. “Exactly what is going on here? Anything we should know about?”

Deeks’ eyes widened indignantly. “Nico is an old friend. An old and very dear friend. She knew me before… Our families had been friends for years and…” He could never manage to talk about this without stumbling over the words. Drawing a deep breath, he continued, speaking very slowly and in a voice that shook with emotion. “Nico was there for me when my mother killed herself. Apart from the police, Nico was the first person I rang after…after I found Mom’s body, okay? And she came right over and she stayed with me all night. Sure, we slept together that night –- we shared a bed. But do you know what happened? I cried and Nico held me in her arms and she comforted me and she didn’t let go of me all damned night. That’s what happened. That’s the sort of person she is. So I owe her. Nico’s the reason I’m here right now. She stopped me from swallowing the rest of the drugs in the medicine cabinet and following my mother, okay? So I owe her my life. And if I can’t help her officially, then I’ll take a leave of absence and look after her on my own time. It’s your call, Callen. But just think about it for a moment before you decide. Do me that favor, please.” He turned on his heel and walked out, head high in the air, cheeks flushed with anger.

Callen looked at Sam and shook his head. “Now do you see why I hate San Diego? Bad things happen every time I come down here.”

“Deeks really had a crappy life, didn’t he? I never knew he found his mother. He must have just been a kid at the time too.” He thought about it for a moment, trying to imagine how he would have coped with such an event at just seventeen. It didn’t bear thinking about. Especially if your father was in jail after trying to kill you and your older brother had been blown to smithereens by a roadside bomb in Iraq so that there wasn’t even a body to be flown back home. “You are going to let him take her back to LA? That house of his could be made for the job –- alarms, sensors, perimeter wall -– the works.”

“I don’t have a choice,” Callen confessed. “It’s the perfect solution -– it gets Nico away from what is clearly a dangerous situation and it means Eric can start tracking the exact source of those emails. But…”

“Kensi?”

He nodded miserably. “Kensi’s going to hate it. And she’s going to hate me for allowing Deeks to look after Nico.”

“It’s a hard gig, being team leader, G.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Do you think Kensi’s got any reason to be jealous of Nico, Callen? Any real reason?”

He thought about it for a moment. “Apart from the fact that Nico looks like she stepped out of a magazine cover, has a whole past history with Deeks and still cares one hell of a lot about him -– well no. Clearly Kensi has no reason to be jealous at all.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Denise would blow her top if that was me. How glad am I that it isn’t. Poor Deeks –- looks like his life is going belly-up once again.

“Do you want to tell her?” Callen asked hopefully.

“No way. You’re team leader; you get the glory and big bucks so you can get the dirty jobs too.”

“That’s what I thought. Man, I really hate San Diego.”

Kensi seemed keen to leave the city too, even after Nico offered her free use of her suite at the Hotel Del Coronado. “It seems silly just to leave it empty and I’m sure you would be more comfortable here than in some naval barracks!” she urged.

“Beautiful view,” Callen commented, as he gazed out of the windows. “You should take Nico up on her offer, Kensi. Her very kind offer,” he added meaningfully.

“It’s probably just as easy for me to go back to LA,” she countered, trying very hard not to scowl at him.

Nico had the grace to look shamefaced. “My car’s a convertible, and I’m not sure there would be much room once we’ve got all my luggage in.” She gestured to the large pile of matching suitcases and garment bags in the corner of the room.

“You always did travel light,” Deeks joked. “Still driving a BMW?” He cocked his head to one side with a hopeful expression on his face.

“650i. Do you want to drive”

It was like letting a little boy lose in a sweetshop, Kensi thought, watching the way his face lit up and the way he caught the keys Nico tossed across the room. And she felt like the poor kid, left outside with her nose pressed up against the window.

“Anyway, we’ve got plenty to be getting on with here, Kensi. We couldn’t really spare you. There’s the small matter of a member of the US navy currently holding a knife to the neck of a British submariner, remember?”

“You don’t need to remind me. The media helicopters circling overhead are kind of a big giveaway. And Hetty didn’t exactly pull any punches with the whole ‘international incident’ thing.” She joined him at the window and stared out, but didn’t see a thing.

Sam felt a sudden urge to get out of the room before the tension got much worse. “Need a hand with that luggage?”

“Oh, Curtis, that is sweet of you!” Nico exclaimed, almost making him blush with her easy charm.

“It’s Sam, actually, Sam Hannah,” he managed as he heaved another suitcase off the floor and tried not to groan at the weight.

“I’ll explain everything on the drive up,” Deeks promised. “It’s a long story.” He paused briefly. “Kensi?”

“Yes?” Her voice was distant and there was a distinctly cold edge to it.

“I’ll phone you tonight?” There was a wistful tone to his voice that she could not ignore.

Turning around, Kensi saw him standing in the doorway, looking at her – looking hurt and confused.

He’s not Jack. He’s a good man. I can trust him. I know I can trust him.

“You’d better. Or you won’t be the only one pouting.” And for once she threw caution into the air, ran across the room and kissed him. “Call me?”

“As soon as we get there, I promise.”

I’m missing you already, Kensi.

“You okay?” Callen asked her.

“No. Not really.”

“You know they go back a long way, don’t you? That Nico got him through a really dark patch?”

“No, I don’t. He’s never once mentioned her to me.” Kensi turned around and faced him directly. “And that’s what really bothers me. He’s obviously really close to her and yet he’s never even said her name before. They’ve got this whole “old friends” routine down pat and I feel… I feel excluded. And it sucks. It totally sucks.”

Outside, the BMW engine roared into life as Deeks gunned the accelerator, while Kensi stood at the window and watched as he drove away.

“Nice car!” Sam said, only panting slightly. He had a new respect for hotel porters. That trip down to the car with all Nico’s luggage was about as good as an hour long work-out. “And a very nice lady.” He looked around the suite and gave a low whistle. “This is some serious luxury. You’d be mad to turn this down, Kensi.”

“I am mad!” she retorted and stomped out of the room.

“Don’t ask,” Callen advised. “I did and I think I got away with it, but you might just end up with your head in your hands to play with.”

“Let me guess: Kensi hates San Diego too?”

“That pretty much sums it up.”

*****

“Hey, you. How are you?”

“I’m okay. Standing outside, staring up at the sky. Of course, I can’t see any stars, as there are so many damn lights on at the base.” Kensi heaved a sigh. “And I miss you.”

“I miss you too. You’re not pissed at me?”

She started to walk, not wanting anyone to overhear. “No, not really. It’s just that, seeing you and Nico and finding out you had this whole thing going on, it was hard, you know?”

Deeks walked out onto the terrace and breathed in the cool scents of evening. “I know. That’s pretty much how I felt when I learned about you and Jack. That you had this whole past you’d never told me about.”

“Oh come on, that was completely different.”

“Was it?” He was trying very hard not keep cool, to understand but it wasn’t easy and that last statement just kind of slipped out. He knew it would rile her.

“Of course it was. He’s dead, for a start. And Nico isn’t. And I’m here and you’re there and so is she and…” Kensi stopped, her voice quavering.

“I knew you were pissed at me. Okay -– so what do I have to do? Just tell me, Kensi –- and I’ll do it. If you want me to jump into the car and drive down and then sneak into the base and climb in through your window with a rose clenched between my teeth, then tell me. And I’ll do it. Because if that’s how I have to prove to you that I love you, then that’s what I’ll do. Because I do. Love you, I mean.”

She started to laugh. “You are a complete idiot, you know that, don’t you?”

“But you love me. Don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“And you trust me – don’t you?”

“I trust you. I’m just not so sure about Nico though.” There. She’d finally said it.

“I think I’m safe from her clutches. For one thing, she’s just lost her fiancé, who she talked about the whole way back to LA. And for another, we picked up her Mom on the way over and she came back with us. In fact, she’s sleeping in the same room as Nico. So unless you think I’m going to have some kinky three-way session, with my dead mother’s best friend and her daughter, I reckon you can sleep easily.”

“You haven’t seen my bed here. Lumpy doesn’t begin to describe it,” Kensi said ruefully. “And the woman I’m sharing with has pictures of Justin Bieber up on the wall. It’s like some kind of shrine. Everywhere I go in the room, his eyes keep following me.”

“Bit like mine do when you come out of the shower?” God, he was missing her so much. “Pity you didn’t take Nico up on her offer and stayed over in her suite, isn’t it?”

“Did you see the size of that bed? Talk about enormous. No, this single here feels too big without you. I’d be lost in hers and just spend the night howling and wishing you were here.”

“I wish I was.” He looked up at the moon and wondered if Kensi was doing the same.

“So do I,” she said sadly.

“Are we ever going to talk about Jack and how he messed you up so much?” Ever since he’d learned what that sadistic bastard had done, how he’d abused Kensi physically and destroyed her mentally, Deeks had been waiting for her to talk about it, to let him into this part of her past. But she’d never said a word. It was as if she had simply drawn a curtain over the whole sorry affair and pretended it had never happened. Only he knew you couldn’t just wipe out two whole years of your life.

“Maybe when I get back –- once this whole mess is sorted out?”

“You can’t run away from your past, Kensi. It’s always there.” And God knows, he’d tried to do that. It was only when Marty Deeks had finally accepted that part of him would always be Michael Brandel that he’d been able to start living properly again, and actually start a proper relationship, rather than a series of encounters. “Trust me?”

Kensi was terrified of being judged and found wanting. She felt such an idiot, making all these excuses for Jack, putting up with his abuse, telling herself it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t help it and she should be more understanding. “I do trust you. I trust you more than anyone,” she said slowly.

“I won’t let you down. I promise.”

And she thought that maybe she could believe him and maybe, just maybe, this time it was going to be alright.

“Callen said to tell you we’re coming back tomorrow, by the way. We’ve pretty much wrapped up everything here, since Spears gave himself up. He’s coming under a separate escort. It’s been a long day, what with trying to get some sense out of him before the psych guy finally took over. And then we bagged up all his belongings, got his laptop and phone for Eric and took statements from all his crewmates. Looks pretty much like the classic case of loner goes loco.” She stifled a yawn. “Sorry, but it’s been a long day and I’m about ready to roll into that horrid bed and miss you like anything.”

“I’ll think of you wearing that shirt and I won’t sleep. Do you know how good you look wearing a guy’s shirt, by the way?”

“About as hot as you do wearing nothing at all?” she responded sweetly. Tomorrow she would be back home. Tomorrow, everything would be just fine.

*****

“Okay, it’s just after eight in the morning, and I know for a fact you were in San Diego last night.” Deeks ran a hand through his already rumpled hair and stifled a yawn. “What time did you get up and why?” He padded through the hall, leaving the rest of them to follow in his wake.

“Somebody persuaded us that an early start would be a really good idea. Said something about traffic being light.” Callen tried hard to keep the smirk out of his voice.

Kensi helped herself to a cup of coffee. “And I was right, wasn’t I?” She ruffled Deeks’ hair as she passed him.

“No ulterior motive then?” He turned his head to look up at her and gave her a heart-stopping grin.

“None at all.” She returned his smile.

Sam prowled around the room, never quite comfortable amidst all this wealth. He still could not quite comprehend that Deeks, his friend and colleague, the seemingly normal guy, actually lived in what was basically a mansion and took all this for granted. It wasn’t just that being rich meant you had more money, it was more that it allowed you to live in a completely different way, one which most other people couldn’t even begin to imagine. Over the years, Sam had seen many glamorous houses, filled with excess – but this was still a home. It had clearly evolved over time, and it didn’t seem at all incongruous that Deeks, semi-disheveled, unpretentious Deeks, looked perfectly at ease here. But it was disconcerting when the sound of a piano started to fill the house. A flurry of chords, rising up into a crescendo.

“That’s Nico,” Deeks said, rather unnecessarily. “Chopin Polonaise. In A, if I remember correctly.”

“You play the piano?” Kensi asked, wondering why she’d never made the connection before. She’d walked past the grand piano a dozen times or more, she’d even had vague ideas of sliding onto the lid wearing little more than an engaging smile, and yet she’d only ever seen it as part of the furniture, rather than a part of his life.

“A bit. Not like Nico, of course. My Mom said that seeing as we had a piano, Chris and I had to take lessons. And, of course, anything Chris did, I wanted to do too, so she really only had to sell it the idea to him. I think the trade off was that we could get dirt bikes when we each got to a certain standard.”

Kensi fixed him with a hard glare. “You are absolutely terrible on a bike. That time in the desert, you skidded around all over the place and never stopped complaining.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Deeks smiled enigmatically. “You were very good, though. I was impressed.” She raised her eyebrows enquiringly, not quite sure if she was being had –- or if she had been had several months ago. It was no good though -– Deeks wasn’t giving anything away. She’d have to wait until later, when they were alone. And then she would find out the truth, one way or another.

The music changed: this piece was much softer, with an underlying poignancy. “I recognize that – more Chopin, right?” It was one of Kensi’s favorite pieces and she was enthralled by the delicacy of touch.

“Go on through – Nico won’t mind,” Deeks encouraged.

Reckoning she would probably never get another opportunity like this, Kensi grabbed her coffee and followed the music, swaying slightly as she walked. And Deeks watched her until she was out of sight.

“I’ll just go and grab a shower. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be good to go.” Deeks stood up and then caught sight of the expression on Callen’s face. “Or maybe I’ll just sit here and wait until you’ve said whatever is biting you?”

“Don’t get defensive. It’s too early in the morning.” Sam leaned back into the cushions and folded his arms.

“Okay – what have I done now?”

“And don’t pout either.”

Deeks felt he was like a small boy again, waiting to be told off by his parents. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”

Callen leant forward, placed his elbows on his knees and then rested his chin on his hands. “Probably not, but it’s something you need to hear, something we should have said a long time ago.”

“It’s about Kensi,” Sam added and Deeks felt his heart sink.

“What about Kensi?”

Oh God, don’t say it. Please don’t say it. I knew this was too good to last.

“Kensi – well, she acts tough and gives this whole impression that she’s bombproof, but underneath – she hurts. She’s had a lot of bad things happen in her life and…” Callen looked at Sam. “Want to help me out here any time soon?”

“What Callen’s trying to say is that you can hurt Kensi more than anyone ever has.” Sam didn’t see any point in beating around the bush. Tell it like it is and then get the hell out was pretty much how he chose to live his life. Which probably accounted for his less-than-stellar track record on the relationship front – something Denise was determined to change.

Deeks looked bemused. “Hurt her? Why would I ever hurt Kensi?”

“If you leave Kensi, it will probably kill her,” Callen amplified. “And then, basically, Sam and I will kill you. We’re just saying, alright? Just so you know.”

“But why would I leave Kensi?” Deeks continued, trying to work this one out. At least they weren’t telling him Kensi wanted to finish with him. “I love her. I pretty much want to spend the rest of my life with her.”

“Just don’t hurt her, then,” Sam said.

God, if only life was that simple. Why can’t I take my own advice?

“Just make sure Kensi knows how you feel, okay? Because the whole thing with Nico has really thrown her off-kilter. She needs to know that you are going to walk out of her life, just like her Dad, and Dom and Jack.”

How come this sounds so easy when Nate does it? I’d rather be facing a dozen armed terrorists than have to speak to Deeks about things like emotions. I don’t do emotions –- I’m G Callen, I’m a man and emotions are a foreign language to me.

A small smile began to creep across Deeks’ face. “How about I go and put on some REM? Everybody Hurts should be the sound track for this angst-fest, right?”

I thought they were going to tell me Kensi was leaving me.

“Nico is my friend – she’s probably the best friend I could ever have. But Kensi is my life and I’d do anything for her. If anyone hurts her, they will have me to answer to – not you two, but me. Understand?”

They nodded, intensely relieved Deeks had taken over the conversation.

“As far as relationships go, we’re both pretty screwed up, so maybe we need to… I don’t know…talk about it? Anyway, I’ll make sure she knows I’d do anything for her and that I’m not going anywhere. Because, she’s pretty much my whole life, you see.” He dropped his eyes and studied the carpet intensely, suddenly embarrassed. “Does she know you’re in here, giving me the third degree?”

“Hell no!” Sam winced at the thought. “And if you tell her…” He let the end of the sentence tail off.

“I’m dead meat. Message received.” Deeks got up to take that long-overdue shower when another thought struck him. “Kensi doesn’t have any idea how much you guys care, does she?”

“Probably not. We don’t really do the whole “pour your heart out” bit as a rule.”

“I can tell. You really could do with refining your act down a bit more. Especially you, Sam. You do realize that in a few years’ time you’re going to be sitting Crosby down and doing this whole thing with him?”

Now, that was a truly terrifying thought.

The music changed again, this time to Beethoven. Kensi watched in amazement as Nico played piece after piece without any sheet music to guide her, relying solely on memory and countless repetitions. Her fingers moved over the keyboard with unerring accuracy and the music seemed to flow from within her soul.

“You’re good for him,” Nico said as her fingers glided into the second movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Kensi recognized that one from music appreciation way back in High School. “You might almost just be good enough for him.” She flashed a grin and then bent her head in concentration as she began the third movement. The arpeggios flowed across the notes, each one crowned by a chord. “That’s always a bit of a crowd pleaser, “a nice flashy bit”, as Mikey would put it.” And then she stopped. “Only he’s not Mikey to you, is he?”

“No, he’s Marty. Or Deeks. Mostly Deeks when we’re at work.”

“It’s hard isn’t it? Trying to get the whole work/life balance thing going? I thought I had it made, when I found Travis, I really did.” Her fingers started to play again, almost of their own volition, soft haunting music, that seemed like the echoes of a lost soul. “This time, I thought it was really going to work out.”

“I know it doesn’t help much,” Kensi said, “But we will find out why Spears did this. And who is sending you these letters. And if I can help at all, I mean if you need someone to talk to…”

“You’re very sweet.” Nico stopped playing. “Even if you pretty much hated me when we met. You’re still not sure, are you? You keep thinking I have this whole ulterior motive going on? Maybe stayed awake last night, imagining me padding along that upstairs hallway as the moon poured in through the cupola, making my way along to your man?” There was a grin on her face, but her voice was sad. “That’s not who I am, Kensi. I don’t go around stealing men from other women. Especially when that man’s my best friend. I love him too much to risk out friendship for some quick piece of gratification. And he wouldn’t do that to you.”

“I know that. I mean, I now that now. But, ever since we got together, things just seem to wrong for Marty and I. And then I have this awful habit of pushing people away and I know how stubborn he is and I just keep thinking that one day I’ll push so hard that he won’t want to come back.”

“Life’s a bitch, isn’t it?” Nico arched her back like a cat and stood up. “It’s a disgusting habit and I know I shouldn’t, but right now I need a cigarette. Come outside with me? I don’t dare smoke in here.”

They ended up standing against a wall, where a rambling rose scrambled up in a profusion of blossom, both smoking and whispering like two schoolgirls and learning to like one another.

It had been years since she had smoked, but it was something you never forgot. “This is sinfully good,” Kensi confessed, savoring the giddy feeling in her head.

Nico blew out a perfect smoke ring and watched it float away on the light breeze with considerable satisfaction. “Tell me about it.”

“Total envy. I never could do that.”

“It’s easy, once you get the hang of it.” She blew out another three, one after the other. “Guess who taught me?”

“Difficult one. Er — six foot tall, blond, blue eyed and has a bad habit of pouting?”

Nico dissolved into a fit of giggles. “You noticed that too! God, the number of times I used to tease him and he used to get all huffy and then pout even more.”

Kensi joined in her laughter. “He still does.”

Nico took a final long and satisfying pull, before crushing the cigarette out under her heel. “Don’t hurt him, Kensi. Please? I’ve seen Mikey through some horrific times, but I heard his voice when he spoke about you and I saw his face when he looked at you – and I don’t think even I could get him over losing you.”

“And how about you? Are you to get over Travis?”

“Ah, now there’s the question” She leant back against the wall and stared up at the sky. ”Well, I don’t know, Kensi, I really don’t. I thought I’d found the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and now he’s gone, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of reason to keep on living. It’s more like I’m just existing at the moment – – just going through the motions. He was the one, you see – the one man you find and you just know that he’s the one who makes everything perfect.”

“I know,” Kensi said, subbing out her cigarette on the way and watching as the sparks flew briefly through the air before disappearing into nothingness.

“Don’t tell me you’ve been teaching my girl bad habits, Nico?” Deeks appeared beside them and put his arms around Kensi.

“What makes you think I needed any help?” she replied tartly, but allowing her body to mould into his.

Nico smiled seraphically. “Watch out, Mikey – Kensi won’t let you get away with a thing. Which is only what you deserve.”

He shook his head in mock despair as Nico went back inside. “Two bossy women, I must have been very bad in a former life.”

“Want to make it up in this life?” Kensi turned around to face him and put her arms around his neck, pulling his head down. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

There would be a time for words later on, but right now nothing else was required.

*****

“Welcome, Ms Sterling. I am sorry we have to meet under such sad circumstances. I’ve followed your career with great interest and had the pleasure of hearing you play at Carnegie Hall last summer.” Hetty looked at the pale, composed woman sitting slightly to one side in the briefing room. “I hope we can soon put an end to this unpleasantness. Can you provide us with an update, Mr. Beale?”

Eric looked rather abashed. “I’ve been right through Spears’ laptop – and it’s not good news, I’m afraid. You see, he only bought it last week, so there’s not a whole lot on there. A couple of games, a handful of emails and some browsing of what can only be called “adult entertainment” sites. Nothing to link him to either the Staff Sergeant or Ms Sterling.” He cleared his throat. “I went right through the email server, but none of his other emails gave any concern at all – they’re mainly linking up with other game players, or catching up with his family. Very little other social activity and the same is true for his phone. Spears appeared to be the archetypal loner.”

“That’s pretty much what we picked up from our interviews with his crewmates,” Callen said wryly. “Spears kept to himself and didn’t really interact much with his crewmates. He wasn’t antisocial – he was just quiet and didn’t seem interested in forming relationships. When they got shore leave, he wasn’t out hitting the town and the bars, he was more likely to be going round the museums and galleries, or taking photographs. Not your average naval recruit, but not exactly suspicious behavior either.”

Nico shook her head in disbelief. “So what happened? Why did he kill Travis?”

“It appears that Randy Spears has been battling with some mental health issues lately,” Nate said. “Reading through his emails, I got the picture of a man who had come to dread close confinement and found life on board naval vessels almost unbearable. His bloods showed that he is borderline bi-polar and my preliminary assessment is that the visit to HMS Astute triggered an acute psychotic breakdown. I’ll know more after I speak to him later on today, but that depends on how he reacts to the treatment he’s receiving in hospital. Randy Spears is ill; he’s probably not responsible for his actions.”

“So Travis was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Deeks could relate to that: he knew exactly what that was like.

“And the threats to Nico? They weren’t connected at all?”

“I was just coming to that.” Eric gestured to Nico’s laptop. “Those emails went through a complex set of server protocols, designed to disguise the original sender. However, I was able to back trace them to the original account. And it’s not good news.”

“Why does that come as no surprise?” Deeks asked. “Go on – tell us the worst.”

“San Diego is one of the leading centers for bio-technology research – there are dozens of companies researching and developing new ways to fight diseases. It’s a major employment centre for geneticists. And there are equally as many groups determined to stop that work,” Nell said. “People who object to animals being used in research. Animal activists, in other words. Several of those groups are already involved in domestic terrorism activities and they seem to be using the same tactics as the Right to Life protestors. We traced the emails sent to Nico to a new group, who previously claimed responsibility for a car bomb that killed a leading researcher into stem cell therapies. Homeland Security is very interested in them.”

“But why would they target me?” Nico asked. “I know nothing about genetic research or anything like that. I’m a pianist!”

“Well,” Nell continued, checking her notes, “That puzzled us too. Until we saw that benefit concert you did for the Children’s Cancer Therapy Trust back in February.”

“A fundraiser for a children’s charity? Come on, isn’t that stretching the long arm of coincidence just a little bit too far?”

“No, not when one of their main aims is to fund research into gene therapy – in other words, altering the molecular structure of the human body, so that things like the breast cancer gene can’t be passed down from parent to child. And that sort of research uses animals.”

Nico was struggling to believe what she was hearing. “I played one concert and that makes me a target? But there were other people who took part – and hundreds of people in the audience. Why on earth did they pick me?”

“Because you are young, and talented and beautiful? Because you are a bit of a local celebrity? They want to get as much publicity as possible, by whatever means they can. It’s as simple as that. That’s how these groups work – the more publicity they get, the more cranks they have flocking to their cause.”

“And that is precisely why we are going to make sure that this stays strictly within these four walls,” Hetty said. “I’ve cleared it with the Director of Homeland Security and we are not going to give in to these people. And, with your co-operation, Ms Sterling, we are going to flush them out and bring them right into the open.”

“What do you want me to do?” Nico gave Hetty a steady gaze. “I’m not going to be intimidated by them. I’m not going to hide away and let them ruin my life.”

Deeks felt like burying his head in his hands. Why did he always have to get involved with strong-willed woman who seemed drawn to danger? And why did he have a sneaking suspicion that he knew what was coming next? One glance at Hetty confirmed his worst fears.

“Let me guess – “Old friend Michael Brandel comforts grieving Nico Sterling?” A few well-publicized dinners, maybe some long-distant shots of us walking in a park deep in conversation? That about right, Hetty?”

“You’re very perceptive, Mr. Deeks.”

“Not really. I guess I’ve just sort of tuned into the way your mind works.”

“It is a great cover story,” Sam said. “Given that you actually are Michael Brandel.”

“I was Brandel, Sam, past tense. There’s a big difference.”

Sam continued unabashed. “It’s probably the best cover we’ve ever had. And you and Nico did get quite a bit of interest when you went to that club opening a while back. We’d be crazy not to make full use of it. You want me to be Curtis again?”

Deeks knew when he was beaten. Experience had taught him that there were some battles you were never going to win, so you might as well just sit back and go along for the journey. Even it was going to be a particularly bumpy ride.

“And Ms Blye? I thought that perhaps you could act as Mr. Brandel’s executive assistant. That way we will have three people on hand to make sure Ms Sterling is protected.”

Kensi and Deeks managed not to look at one another, but they weren’t able to exercise quite the same amount of control over their facial expressions.

I bet he’s smirking. Doing that “cat’s got the cream” look. Hmm – cream. Now there’s a thought… could be interesting.

“Fern,” Deeks announced. “Fern Atherton. That should be your name.”

That wiped the smile off Kensi’s face. “I’ve told you before, I hate the name Fern! It sounds like a hooker.”

“I don’t know, I think it kind of suits you,” Callen remarked. “And what have you got earmarked for me, Hetty?”

“I thought it would be expedient for Caroline and Joe to take a little vacation, just in case there should be any attempted break-in. We really don’t want to expose them to any unnecessary danger. Which would leave the position of chauffeur available?”

“I can live with that. Way better uniform that UPS, eh Sam?”

Deeks suddenly realized that he was going to be playing host to his entire team. Which might rather put a damper on any extra-curricular activities. Knowing Callen he would deliberately arrange schedules so that while Kensi took one shift, he took another. In fact, as he sneaked a look at Callen, he was almost positive about this.

Great. So near, and yet so far. The things I do for my country. Kensi’s going to be so pissed. Callen better watch out – – he might think he’s seen her in a bad mood before, but he ain’t seen nothing yet.

“Expenses?” he asked enigmatically.

Hetty gave him a hard look. “Exactly what are you referring to?”

“Well, it seems to me that as I’m putting up an entire NCIS team in my house, on an official operation, then surely the federal government would want to recompense me? And, now I come to think about it, I use my own clothing when I’m Michael Brandel, not the NCIS wardrobe. I think I’m going to have to get my accountants to look into that. Make a note to remind me to do that, Fern honey.”

Goddammit but she looks so hot when she scowls like that!

*****

“LA Philharmonic. Tickets for tonight.” Sam brandished them triumphantly. “Hetty pulled in some major favors to get these.”

Nico looked delighted, Deeks less so. “What are they playing?” Knowing his luck, it would be wither something atonal and arrhythmic or else it would be Wagner.

Sam studied the tickets carefully. “Elgar?” The name clearly mean nothing to him.

”I can live with Elgar.”

At least the guy can write a decent tune and his pieces don’t go on for days, which is a major plus point.

“What about dinner reservations? If we’re going to do this, we may as well do this properly.”

“I’ll get onto it” Kensi said. “So you’ll be changing then?” She looked dubiously at his jeans.

“Give me a little credit. I have been out to a concert once or twice before.”

“Yes, but rock concerts don’t usually have a dress code,” she responded sweetly.

“Maybe you should come and help me chose the right suit then? Give me the benefit of your considerable expertise?” He assumed a particularly bland look, which Kensi returned.

“I suppose I could. I don’t want you showing up looking like an idiot.” She heaved a wholly unrealistic sigh and meandered slowly out of the room. Deeks followed, equally slowly, seemingly reluctantly.

“Could they be any more obvious?” Sam remarked in an undertone, nicely judged so that Deeks just caught it. He didn’t break his stride, but one hand appeared behind his back, with a single finger extended.

Once they had cleared the hall, he broke stride, grabbed her hand and started running up the stairs. Kensi kept pace, a wide, expectant grin on her face, still half-expecting to hear footsteps pursuing them.

“How long?” she asked, as he locked the bedroom door behind them.

“I thought you’d know that by now.” He was nuzzling her neck, unerringly finding the exact spot that made her knees feel as if they were going to give way. “Seeing how you’re trained to be observant and all that.”

“Idiot.” She slapped his butt and then let her hand stay there, gently caressing. “And leave the key in the lock. Just in case they try to pick it.”

“I thought of that. Which is why we’ll just go into the bathroom and put another door and another lock between us and our colleagues. I don’t trust them.”

“I do love the way you think. And the way you do that. Oh, and that too.” Her hand was curled around his neck, the fingers playing with the hair at the nape of his neck, while her other hand remained firmly on his butt, pressing him to her, refusing to let him move away.

“How about this?” He picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder and made a mad dash for the bathroom. “God, how I missed you.” Marty bent his knees slightly so that she could slide to the ground. Her face was flushed and her eyes huge.

“Me too. Missed you and wanted you so badly.”

“How badly?” He’d pulled his shirt off and kicked his shoes into a corner of the room. “You want to show me?”

Her eyes were wicked. “I’ll show you.” Slowly, Kensi unbuttoned her shirt, one button at a time, looking him at him the whole time, watching where his eyes went. “How about that?” The shirt slithered to the floor.

“Oh yes. Indeed.” He unbuttoned his jeans, unable to take his eyes off her. “New lingerie?” Silk and lace, incredibly sheer, more the illusion of covering her amazing breasts than anything else.

“Matching set. See?”

“I see.” His hands explored the silk and lace that barely covered her, easing his hand under the delicate material. “God, you feel good.” She was close against him now, her breasts pressed against him, the heat of her body searing into him and it was difficult to breathe.

“You going to take of these damned boxers or…?” Her tongue tantalized him.

“Help yourself.”

“Oh yes. You have missed me, haven’t you?” She didn’t know how much longer she could bear this. All she could think of was how much she wanted him and how good he looked and how amazing it was going to be and she couldn’t resist any longer…

“So much it hurts. Ahhhh — Kensi!” Okay, that really was below the belt – but in a good way. A very good way. He was finding it difficult to think and his blood was thundering in his veins.

She grabbed his hand and pulled him into the shower, turning on the jets and then their bodies acted instinctively, moving into a familiar routine that was made unfamiliar by the urgency, the build –up of anticipation, the possibility of discovery.

“I always said that was a great shower.” Kensi was sitting cross-legged on the bed, combing out her hair, watching as Deeks, wearing only white boxers, selected a suitable shirt for the concert. His damp hair was slicked back and already starting to curl as it dried. “But I’ve changed my mind. It’s probably the best shower in LA.”

Marty grinned at her in the mirror, loving the way she was so totally relaxed and confident, sitting there completely naked and smiling at him as if the sun rose and set in his eyes. “More like the whole of California. Nothing like some good, clean fun?” And then he just managed to dodge the pillow she chucked at him. If only he didn’t have to go to that damned concert tonight, if only he could just stay here and get onto that bed and… and he would probably never want to leave it. Which actually sounded just about perfect.

Sometimes Marty wondered just why he kept on doing this job. More recently, he’d seriously begun to ask himself, why he and Kensi didn’t just call it a day and go off and live their lives together, away from all the danger. It wasn’t like he needed to work after all, far less in a job that carried an inherent risk of serious injury or… No, he wouldn’t go there. No way was he even going to consider the possibility of Kensi getting hurt, far less anything worse. One day, he really would have to talk to her about it.

Her voice broke into his thoughts. “You be good now, alright?”

“I’m always good,” he replied, fastening his dress pants and looking in the mirror for one last time and wishing things could stay exactly the way they were right at this moment and that he could stay here and make love to her over and over again. But he had to leave. That was part of the job. And sometimes he hated it.

Kensi sat on the bed and watched as he tucked in the crisp white cotton shirt and then pulled up the white dress suspenders, before slinging a bow tie around his neck. “Okay, I’m officially impressed now. You can actually tie one of those?” She’d never realized that watching a man get ready for a big night out could be so erotic. Clearly, she’d never been in the right sort of relationship before.

“Only looking in a mirror. My Dad taught me to do this when I was just a kid. I used to stand on my mom’s dressing chair and practice on him, looking in the mirror, just like this.” He finished the tie and surveyed the result critically. “I haven’t thought about that in years. I’d stand there, with my chin pressed into his shoulder, my cheek against his cheek. And right now, I can almost imagine I can smell his aftershave again.” Okay, it was time to let her into his soul. “He wasn’t a complete bastard, you know. In fact, up till that night, I thought he was pretty great. After he left, despite everything, I missed him so much that I used to go into his dressing room and bury my face in his clothes, just so I could smell that aftershave and pretend things were back to how they should be and we were still a family. I went in there every day, so nobody could see me crying, because I just missed him so much. Crazy, eh?”

“No, not crazy at all.” Kensi got off the bed. “You just never stopped loving him, did you, Marty?” Her arms enveloped him in an embrace.

“Guess I didn’t. Still haven’t, not really. Anyway, after a couple of months, someone got rid of all his stuff and there was nothing left except the memories. Funny how a half-remembered scent can take you right back to another time.” God, what he wouldn’t do to be able to stay here, breathing in her scent, staying right here in her arms. But no, fate in the shape of Henrietta Lang decreed he had to go out, on the arm of his best friend and try to lure some lunatic out of hiding. Michael Brandel and Marty Deeks were getting a little too close for comfort. It was starting to get hard to remember when one stopped and the other began. Especially here in this house, with all these memories and Nico calling him “Mikey”. It had been a long time since anyone had called him anything other than Deeks or Marty, and it had taken him aback to realize just how much he had missed that childhood name. It was always the small things that hit the hardest and brought back the sharpest, most poignant memories. Like a small boy, trying to learn how to tie a bowtie and the smell of Aramis and the feeling that he was completely loved and would always be safe.

Nuzzling into his neck and savoring the fresh scent of lemon sharpened by sea air she always associated with him, Kensi saw their reflections in the mirror and felt as if she was looking at a Jack Vettriano painting. “I’ll be waiting,” she said and wondered if it was just her imagination or if that sounded more like a promise than a simple statement of fact.

Finally, Marty smiled properly, a smile that reached his eyes. “And I’ll be back.” Shrugging into his jacket, he kissed her one last time and left the room.

Nico was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, sipping a glass of water to try to calm her nerves. She was pale and her pallor was only emphasized by the stark blackness of her dress. She wore no jewelry other than her engagement ring and her eyes were haunted. Callen watched her thoughtfully, intrigued beyond words and trying to suppress the feelings she aroused in him. After Hetty’s references to Wilfred Owen had intrigued him, Callen had made a point of actually sitting down and reading poetry, for the first time since those High School English classes he had so detested. Despite his initial resistance, he had instantly fallen under the spell of the language and imagery. He looked at Nico and thought: “The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall.”

It would be so easy to take her in my arms and comfort her and make love to her. But what kind of a man thinks about a grieving woman in that way? A heartless, horny bastard, that’s who. And that’s not me. Whoever else I might be, I’m not that man. But I am tempted.

“You look beautiful,” Deeks said to Nico, and he meant it. This was his best friend and there were few people who knew him as intimately as she did. She was clearly going to need every ounce of support he could give her, just to get through this evening, even supposing nothing untoward happened. Clearly, Nico was terrified about the prospect, judging by the way she was playing nervously with her engagement ring.

Deeks took hold of her hand and raised it to his lips, never dropping his gaze and Callen felt he’d been punched in the guts. He also felt like punching Deeks’ lights out. How come that kind of corny romantic gesture looked so damned amazing and how come Deeks had the guts and the sophistication to actually do it without it seeming theatrical?

“Ready?” His voice was soft and inviting.

Nico took a deep breath and then tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Ready,” she agreed.

Coming to get you, ready or not.

*****

“Kensi? Are you asleep?”

A faint aroma of cigar smoke, a brief hint of brandy and then the comfortingly familiar scent of his shampoo. There is pressure on the mattress as he sits down and the touch of his hand on her bare shoulder sends a tingle throughout her body. His eyes are slightly glassy and she knows by his smile that it has been a long night. She can feel the tautness of the muscles in his thighs.

“I’m awake.” How could she sleep, knowing he is not there beside her? She has sat all evening, listening in as Eric relayed information, following his signal on the tracker loaded on to laptop. The TV was tuned to a mindless celebrity channel and she watched as he and Nico emerged at the concert hall in a hail of blinding camera flashes.

A quick kiss before he buries his head in her hair, just for a second, his finger stroking the nape of her neck. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” he murmurs.

“No. I wasn’t sleeping. I was waiting for you.” The bed creaks as he stands up, still too wound up to stay still for long. Kensi knows exactly what that feels like. “Good night, was it?”

“It was fine. As in nothing happened. We arrived at the restaurant, we ate, we drove to the concert, where we mingled in the foyer and had our photos taken and then we listened to Elgar. And after that, we mingled some more and then we came home.” He pulls off his jacket and stifles a yawn, paradoxically aware that he is still too revved up to even consider sleeping. “Fancy a nightcap? I don’t think I can go to sleep just yet.”

That’s not exactly what I fancy right now, Marty, but it’ll do. “Why not?” Kensi lies in bed and waits for him to return, wondering how many times this charade will be played out, how many more nights she will have to wait for him to return safely to her. And she wonders how long she can bear to keep on doing this before it all gets too much. It would have been easier if something had happened, she realizes. It is the waiting that is the real killer; inaction is always more stressful than action and the lack of any resolution is the worst thing of all.

Marty moves quietly through the house, gesturing to Sam, who has drawn the short straw and is taking the night watch. The curtains are drawn, but in the drawing room a chink of moonlight has edged through a gap and it leaves a silver path on the floor. There is just enough light to guide him to the cabinet where he grabs a decanter and two glasses.

When he returns to the bedroom, Kensi notices that his sleeves are pushed up to his elbows and the suspenders are dangling around his waist; the tie has been undone and is hanging loose around his neck, and his shirt is mostly unbuttoned. Somewhere on his journey, he has discarded his socks and shoes, so that he moves almost silently across the carpet.

“Brandy? Sorry, I forgot to ask. Is brandy alright?” He sounds distracted and she reassures him that everything is fine.

He offers her a large crystal glass, and Kensi takes it with a smile and swirls the liquid around, watching as the rich liquor slides slowly down the sides of the glass. The scent rises up to meet her as the warmth of her hand releases the aromas. She watches as he takes a sip of the brandy, and then another and finally starts to relax a little. The clock shows that it is almost two in the morning and it feels as if they are the only two people in the world and Kensi can wait no longer. She takes both ends of the bowtie in her hands and pulls him close, so that she can kiss him and she tastes the brandy on his tongue. Marty stands up and pulls his shirt off over his head and begins to unbutton his pants, only her hand is there first.

“Let me.” That is all she says, but oh, he can hear the words in between, the words that are unsaid but are there in the tone of her voice, the arch of her eyebrow, the shadow of her smile. The pants fall to the ground, followed swiftly by his boxers and then she reaches up and takes his hand. And he lets himself fall into her arms and rest his cheek against hers and Marty knows he is home and he is safe. And that he will do all this tomorrow, all over again.

*****

Callen awoke with a start and leapt out of bed, grabbing his gun as he moved and raced to the door, heading instinctively to the source of the noise. By the time he was running along the hallway, Sam was already at the top of the stairs, his own gun in his hand.

“It’s coming from Deeks’ room.” He spoke in an undertone and gestured with his head. Callen nodded in acknowledgement and began to edge rapidly along towards the source of the frantic shouting. His heart was thundering in his chest as he moved swiftly through the dim hall, aware of Sam moving behind him and scanning the shadows for any signs of intruders. Ahead he could just make out a door opening and he flattened himself against the wall.

“Nico? For Chrissake – – get back in there and lock the door!”

“Wait!” She emerged fully and tried to take his arm.

Callen pulled both it and his weapon out of her reach and swore under his breath. “Get out of here right now,” he hissed angrily.

“No – you don’t understand.”

“I understand you’re going to get us both killed if you don’t get back inside that damned room.”

Somehow, she stood her ground in the face of his fury. “It’s not what you think. It’s Mikey – listen.”

“I can hear it’s Deeks. That’s why I’m trying to get in there and stop whoever’s doing that to him.” He forced the words out from between gritted teeth.

“He’s having a nightmare – that’s all. But you can’t go in there.”

“You’re absolutely sure, Nico? ‘Cos this is kind of important.” Dear God, what kind of demons did Deeks have to produce such terrors?

She nodded. “Listen. You can hear Kensi.”

Sure enough, Callen could hear Kensi’s voice. He couldn’t make out what she was saying, but her voice was soft, low and comforting. He gave the “all clear” signal to Sam and saw his partner retreat back downstairs.

“Come on, leave them. Kensi knows what to do. He wouldn’t want you to go in there, believe me.” Nico took hold of his hand, and Callen let her. He could feel the warmth of her grasp and as she tightened her grip he returned the pressure. She stood at the door to her room. “We can talk in here.”

“We can talk out here.” Callen was only too aware that Nico was almost wearing some sort of short, silky thing that barely covered her ass. And that he was standing here, in the middle of the night, wearing boxers and a t-shirt like some college kid.

“We could. But why would we?” Her gaze was direct and unflinching. “We’re both grown up, after all. Free agents – aren’t we?” She opened the door and started to go in, stopping only to look over her shoulder. “What do you have to lose? I’m not looking for anything more than…” She couldn’t say any more, for the simple reason that Callen was suddenly in the room, right beside her, pressing her back to the wall and kissing her with rough urgency. His hand around her waist felt like iron and she clung onto him and returned his kisses. With his free hand, Callen shoved the door shut. What indeed did he have to lose?

Three doors down, Kensi lay with her arms around Marty, her eyes filled with tears. This was the third time this had happened, but she didn’t think she would ever get used to it. The first time that she woken up because he was shouting in his sleep, Kensi hadn’t known what to do. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could go through such terror and yet still remain asleep. So she had shaken awake and he had lain trembling with the memory, trying to compose himself, before finally getting up and prowling around the house for the rest of the night. When they spoke about it the next day, he’d tried to make light of it, called it a “white night” and said they ran in the family. Kensi wondered if they had started. With the second attack, Kensi decided not to waken him, but to comfort him and hold him until it passed and he finally lapsed back into a peaceful sleep. That seemed to work, but she had no idea if Marty had any memory of what had happened.

After about ten minutes Marty’s breathing had settled back into a deep and regular pattern again, although his hair was dampened with sweat and there were tear stains on his face. Kensi lay and watched him sleep for a long time, holding him closely so that he would know he was safe.

Callen watched as Nico opened the window as wide as possible, before perching on the windowsill and lighting a cigarette. “That was probably a mistake, you know.” He kept his voice flat and unemotional.

“No, it was sex, Callen, just sex. Something perfectly natural. I needed someone and so did you. No strings attached. So just forget about it, okay? We don’t need to talk about it ever again, if you’d rather not.” She looked at him, her eyes challenging him to disagree.

“No, it wasn’t just sex. It was more than that.”

“If you say so.” She inhaled deeply and threw the butt away, watching the burning tip describe a red arc through the darkness.

“I say so. So come over here and tell me I’m wrong.” He lay back on the pillows and stretched his arms out wide. Her body was cold from the night air, but her tongue was as wicked as ever.

*****

“Morning, beautiful.”

Kensi opened her eyes and saw Marty smiling down at her. She grinned sleepily and snuggled into his, reveling in the feel of his warm body. “Good morning to you too.” She stroked his chest lazily, loving the reaction that always provoked. “Did you sleep okay?”

“Oh God – no. Please tell me I didn’t? Not again? I did, didn’t I?” He rolled onto his back and covered his face with one arm. “Sorry, Kensi. Did you manage to get any sleep at all after my performance?” He moved his arm slightly and peered out sheepishly.

“I’m fine. Well apart from the fact I’m worried about you. Don’t you think you should maybe talk about it – to someone who could maybe help you?”

The arm went back over his eyes. “Like Daisy, you mean? As in Daisy-my-shrink? Although she prefers to be called a counselor. I’ve been going to chat to her on and off for years, so I must be pretty well shrunk by now, don’t you think?”

Kensi felt relieved he was able to joke about it, even if it was a particularly bad joke. “And what does she say?”

“You’re not going to like it,” he warned.

“Try me.” How bad could it possibly be, after all?

And the answer to that was simple: it was freezing and the wind seemed to blow straight through the sweater she was wearing – which was actually Marty’s sweater, so at least the sleeves were long enough for her to pull down over her hands. “California beaches are supposed to be bathed in sun and full of beautiful people running around it skimpy beachwear – but this is just perverse.”

“Come on, the sun’s hardly up yet and most people are still asleep.”

“Sensible them. Remind me why I’m here again?”

“You wanted to see what I did to get my head back together – and this is it. I go surfing. Me and Bobby load up the boards in the Jeep and we come down here.” He gave a low whistle and the dog came bounding back across the beach, a large piece of driftwood in his mouth. “And after I’ve ridden a few waves, my head feels clearer. Simple.”

“Bloody mad, if you ask me.” Although, now she came to think about it, he looked awful good in that wetsuit. She heaved a martyred sigh. “Go on then – go off and do macho things in the ocean and never mind me freezing to death.”

“You could hug Bobby?” Marty suggested and the dog danced happily around Kensi’s feet.

“Yeah – like he doesn’t stink of dead seagull. Go on – I’ll be fine. I’ll get that flask of coffee we brought and try to thaw out.”

Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, sitting watching him surf, sipping coffee and watching the sun rise higher in the sky. There were worse things to do in the morning. Even if the dog did smell rancid and insist on licking her face. Once Kensi remembered to keep her mouth shut, it wasn’t all that bad.

*****

“Are we going to talk about this?” Callen asked.

“There’s nothing to talk about. Is there?” Nico just looked at him and smiled. “What happens behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors, don’t you think?” She disappeared into the bathroom, leaving Callen lying in bed and wondering what the hell he was doing. And why it felt so damned good.

And there was the paradox. It felt so good and yet Callen knew it was so wrong. Nico was grieving, for starters. And then there was the small matter that he was leading the team that was protecting her. Not to mention the fact she was Deeks’ oldest and dearest friend, who may (or may not, Callen still hadn’t worked that one out fully) have once been his lover. It was all because of San Diego, this whole bloody mess was because of that cursed city. Callen made up his mind that he was never going back there. Quite where he was going with Nico was anyone’s guess.

*****

By the time Marty finally called it a morning and came trudging back up the beach, he was physically exhausted, but his head felt clear and fresh. “Did you leave any coffee for me?” he asked, bending down and kissing her. His mouth tasted of sea and salt and sunlight.

“You’re dripping all over me!”

He leaned away and shook his head so that the water droplets sparkled in the air. “Better?”

“I guess.” Kensi handed him the last of the coffee and he took it gratefully.

“Your hands are freezing.” She grabbed the blanket she’d been sitting on and draped it round his shoulders. “But you were right. The beach is a good place to be in the morning.”

They sat side by side for a long time, not saying anything, just watching as the waves broke on the shore before finally acknowledging that they had to go back to the house and back to real life. There was still a job to do.

“I warn you, I can only take so many Californian clichés before breakfast,” Sam said. “And right now, Deeks standing there in his wetsuit with all that blonde hair all over the place is just about to push me into overload.” He looked down at Bobby, who was sniffing around the kitchen with great interest. “You ever noticed how much that dog looks like you, with that shaggy fur?”

“Just let me grab another cup of coffee and then I’ll go and change,” Deeks promised. “We make the news then?” He nodded to the laptop, where the screen showed Sam was accessing the social network and celebrity gossip sites.

“Oh yes. Whole lot about you “comforting grieving Nico”. Some pretty decent coverage, all in all.”

Kensi sneaked a look at the photos and agreed. “Oh wow – this site lets you add comments!! Have you seen these, Sam?”

He smiled broadly. “Oh yes. The teenage populace of LA seems quite taken with Michael Brandel, don’t they?”

“Very funny.” Deeks moved in for a closer look. “You added that one, didn’t you? About me needing a haircut?”

“No, actually that one was there already. As were the seventy-nine responses saying your hair was cool and almost as good as Justin Bieber’s.”

Kensi groaned. “Don’t ever say that name to me again. I still shudder when I think about how I had to sleep in that room with his little baby-face mooning over all the walls and his big cow-eyes boring into my soul, like I was going to save him from the abattoir.”

“No contest. My hair’s much better,” Deeks said complacently. “And I don’t use hairspray either.”

“Eric’s setting you up a Twitter account,” Sam continued, deciding it was best just to ignore this exchange. Deeks wouldn’t smirk quite so much when he discovered what Sam had actually posted, on that site. All twenty comments, using a variety of different names. No doubt Callen would want to add a few of his own. “Hetty thought it would be a good way to boost your profile.”

“Yeah, right. Like Hetty knows about Twitter.” Deeks looked more closely at Sam. “You are kidding me, aren’t you? Oh come on, I don’t believe you. Even Hetty wouldn’t do that.”

“I not only could, I have, Mr. Deeks.” He hadn’t noticed the laptop camera was on so it was kind of a shock to suddenly be greeted by Hetty’s face. “I’m sure Miss Blye will be able to post regular updates to your status. Or should I say Miss Atherton?” She allowed herself the luxury of a small, knowing smile. “Although I believe that technically, they are known as “tweets”. Such imaginative use of language, don’t you think?”

“I’ll just leave all that in your capable hands, Fern honey,” Deeks said, beating a hasty retreat from the room. Halfway up the stairs, just where they bent around the wall and offered a fine view of the upstairs hallway, he couldn’t help noticing Callen trying to look nonchalant as he left Nico’s room. And failing quite spectacularly.

“Sly old dog!” Still, Deeks reasoned, standing under the shower a few minutes later, it wasn’t his place to say anything. Even if he probably did owe Callen for those unsubtle gibes he’d made back when he and Kensi first starting to get together. But who was he to grudge another man the happiness he’d found? Although he did hope they both knew what they were getting into. Especially Callen. From what he could see, the man was pretty much an emotional minefield, with a background that was even more tangled and complex than his own. “Good thing Nate hasn’t made it over here – he’d have a field day!”

Chuckling to himself, Deeks finally turned off the hot water and began to get ready to face another day as Michael Brandel. It was tempting to just grab a pair of jeans, but he forced himself to settle for a blazer and chinos instead. “Informal business attire,” he said airily in response to Callen’s expression. “Unless you fancy attending the meeting with head of Procurement and BB Holdings in my stead?” Two could play at that game, he thought, as he raised an enquiring eyebrow.

“I’d love to, but sadly I have to stay here and make sure Nico is safe. Another time, perhaps?”

There was no denying it – the guy was a smooth operator.

“She’ll probably be practicing most of the day. You might want to go over to the guest cottage if you’re trying to get some sleep, Sam. Keys should be in that drawer over there. Okay, Fern – are you ready to hit the road and rock?”

Looking unfamiliar in a non-descript business suit, Kensi grabbed her briefcase and followed him out into the sunshine. “We’ve got a couple of things to do first before that meeting. Starting, sad to say, with my barber.”

“You have a barber? Poor guy — he must find it hard to make a living. And after that?”

“Wait and see.”

The barber’s was one of those discrete establishments that clearly catered to an exclusively male clientele, so they weren’t quite sure what to make of Kensi. For her part, the feeling was pretty much mutual.

“Not too short,” Deeks cautioned.

“And you’ve been saying that for how many years? Over twenty, at any rate. I think I’ve got the message by now. You want a wet shave too, Mr. Brandel?”

“Why not?” Deeks settled back comfortably in the chair. “Might as well go the whole hog.”

“You might want to make sure you’ve got a new box of razor blades handy,” Kensi said. “My boss doesn’t exactly go in for detailed grooming on a daily basis, as you can see. Just commenting, sir,” she added, catching a glimpse of his expression in the mirror.

“I saw you in the papers this morning,” the barber said, starting to make headway on the cut. “With Ms Sterling. Lovely lady.”

“Indeed,” Deeks said dryly. It appeared that word was well and truly out on the streets.

“You look about eighteen,” Kensi remarked as they left the shop. “Better make sure you don’t get carded.” She reckoned it would take some time to get used to him with tidy hair and clean-shaven.

“Arousing your inner cougar, am I? And no, don’t hit with that briefcase. That’s not what good Executive Assistants do, is it?”

“What exactly do they do?” Kensi was curious. If it involved shaving him on a regular basis with one of those wicked looking cutthroat razors, then she was up for it. That whole business has been seriously sexy.

“Damned if I know. Never had one of the creatures before. You’ll have to keep me in line, I guess.”

“So what’s new?” A thought occurred to her. “I do get a paycheck, don’t I?”

They were at the car now. He opened the door for her. “For personal services, eh? That could be arranged. Subject to a satisfactory performance appraisal, of course.”

“That could be arranged.” Her smile was anything but demure. Two hours later and it was gone completely. The tedium of a high-level meeting on new leasehold options for office equipment was anything but riveting and her attention had slipped after the first ten minutes. After an hour Kensi had given up the will to live entirely. It was easy to see why Marty had decided not to take a full-time role in the family business.

“Lunch I thought we’d maybe go somewhere we could eat outside. In the fresh air,” he added meaningfully. “I did mention that most EAs don’t fall asleep during meetings, didn’t I?”

“You don’t pay me enough to keep me awake.”

“I’ll have to pay you more attention then, won’t I?” He strode along the corridor, and Kensi wondered if this where he’d been attacked a few months ago. “After you, Miss Atherton. We’ve a few things to attend to before our lunch reservation.”

The office was large and spacious, with a highly polished oak table in front of windows that stretched the entire height of the room and pretty much covered two entire walls with glass.

“Nice view,” Kensi said, noticing how he locked the door behind him and pocketed the key. “And exactly how can I help you, Mr. Brandel? Sir?” The smoothness of his cheek was unfamiliar, but she would know those kisses anywhere.

“There’s just something I have to see to before lunch.”

Okay, maybe she’d been a bit hasty. Maybe office life wasn’t as bad as she’d first thought.

*****

“I’ve just got more thing to do before we go back,” Marty announcing, swinging the car into the traffic. “I asked the jeweler to put something aside for me.” Kensi felt her heart quicken.

The jeweler turned out to be one with a very familiar name, with a shop where you had to have an appointment just to get in to try to spend your money. There was a buzzer at the door, which was locked, just to make sure no chance passer-by should try to come in from the street. And they knew Marty, greeted him by name –- although the name they used was Brandel, of course. Nothing so crass as money changed hands: instead a discreet bill of sale was tucked into an envelope and proffered almost apologetically.

“What do you think?” He opened the green leather box and displayed the bracelet. “Do you think Nico will like it, Miss Atherton?”

“I’m sure she’ll love it, sir,” Kensi replied dully. For a moment, she had forgotten they were undercover, acting out a role. For a moment, she had allowed herself to dream. “It’s very beautiful.”

“I thought she could wear it to that opening we’re going to tonight –- the Hockney retrospective.” Deeks continued chatting as they left the shop. “That should do it. Some of the biggest gossips on the west coast work in there. I’m sure one of them will be on her cell the moment we drive away.” He continued talking, pleased with his clever scheme, never noticing that Kensi was uncharacteristically silent.

She stared gloomily ahead, trying to put things into perspective and failing utterly. She hadn’t realized just how deeply she was involved until the moment she thought he was going to present her with a diamond ring and propose. And it was stupid, it was still early days and there were so many things they’d never even spoken about, far less talking about spending the rest of their lives together. Only it would have been lovely and she would have said “yes” in an instant. And now she felt like weeping for what was not. Which was stupid, because Kensi knew she had so much that was so great in her life, she should be deliriously happy. But right now, she felt like weeping.

Luckily, before she could revel too deeply in her misery, her cell rang. “Hi Sam – we’re on our way back. Should be with you in about twenty minutes. Everything okay?” Her face grew concerned. “He’s doing what?? Okay – and what did Nico say? We’ll be there as soon as possible.” She ended the call.

“You want to let me in what’s happening?” Deeks had already moved into the fast lane and was accelerating rapidly. “Kensi? Is Nico alright?” His voice had an unfamiliar edge of panic about it.

“Minor trouble back at the house. Nico’s manager has arrived and is demanding she goes back to San Diego immediately. According to Sam, when she put her foot down and said she was staying put, he tried to drag her bodily out.”

“Sam soon put a stop to that, I hope?”

Kensi smiled, despite herself. “He didn’t get a chance. Nico literally put her foot down. As in she ground the heel of her stiletto into his foot -– really hard — and then boxed his ears for good measure. All Sam had to do was lead the whimpering wreck over to a chair and stand over him.”

But Marty wasn’t smiling. His face was set as he changed gears and belted towards the turn-off. “It could be him, Kensi. Nico’s manager could be the person one sending her all those threatening emails. And he’s right there in my house, right now. With Nico.” And I should be there too. I owe her.

Deeks took his eyes off the road just long enough to look across at Kensi. “Call back Sam. Make sure Callen checks out that creep’s background and tell Sam to check he’s not carrying anything that could be used as a weapon. We’re not taking any chances here.” His grip on the steering wheel relaxed marginally. “And I know I’m probably over-reacting, but why take chances? So, just humor me, okay? And make sure Sam calls the police. I want that guy arrested and charged.”

Gravel flew in all directions as the car pulled up in front of the house, with Deeks leaping out of the driver’s seat and not even bothering to shut the door. He strode into the house, and marched into the living room where Trevor Matthews sat quivering, as Sam stood guard.

“Is this the little piece of scum who forced his way into my house and assaulted my guest, Curtis?”

“Sure is, Mr. Brandel.” Sam was actually finding the whole situation quite amusing. Matthews was a scrawny little guy, who barely came up to Nico’s chin and weighed about one hundred pounds dripping wet, if he was lucky. “But everything’s fine. I’ve got things under control.” He gave Deeks a meaningful look.

“I’m here to see my client!” Matthews protested. “It’s all a complete misunderstanding.”

“I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but this is my house and as far as I’m concerned, you’re trespassing.” Deeks was implacable.

“Nico’s my client – I’ve managed her for years. She just got a little overwrought, that all. You know what women can be like.” One minute he was trying to charm his way out of the situation, the next minute Trevor Matthews was struggling to breathe, as his shirt collar grew uncomfortably tight.

“Apologize to Miss Sterling NOW!” Sam instructed, giving him a not-so-gentle shake

“Actually, I’d prefer it if we left Ms Sterling out of this. So just put it in writing,” Deeks suggested. “Along with a notarized consent, releasing her from her contract. And have it couriered over before noon tomorrow. Do you understand?”

Sam gave the unfortunate Matthews a shake that jarred every tooth in his head. “Answer the man.”

“Yes, Mr. Brandel.” He just managed to gasp it out.

“And Curtis: please tell the police I’m pressing charges. Ms Sterling can speak to my lawyer and decide if she wants to have him charged with assault.”

Released from Sam’s grip, Matthews foolishly decided he could talk his way out of this one. “I don’t know who you think you are, but I can assure you I’m a powerful man and I have a lot of friends in this town and…”

“I don’t care if the Chief of Police is your godfather or if you play poker with the Governor every Tuesday evening. I don’t even care if you have the President on speed dial. Ms Sterling is a guest in my house and you came in here without being invited and then you threatened her.” Deeks leant forward so that his nose was almost touching Matthews’. “And that makes me very angry. Very angry indeed.” There was a cold, controlled fury in his voice and the low tone was much more menacing that shouting would have been. He glared for several seconds longer, before standing up. “Get him out of here, Curtis. Please.”

“You won’t hear the last of this!” Matthews shouted and then gave a squeal as Sam gave him another shake. In the background they could hear the distant shriek of police sirens.

“Was I snotty enough?” Deeks sat down with a sigh. “I was so tempted to whack him right in his soft belly.”

“The ritual humiliation was lovely. Much more effective. He’ll squirm every time he remembers how you treated him like the weasel he is.” Kensi tucked her hand into his. “And Nico’s probably better off without him. Are you really going to press charges?”

“You bet I am. Are you really not going to ask me about the jewelers?” The teasing mood was gone, and the abrupt change of subject took Kensi completely unawares, so that all her defenses were down.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She pulled her hand away and sat up straight, her good mood suddenly evaporating.

“Never kid a kidder, Kensi. I saw your face in there. And I’m sorry.” His voice was strangely hesitant.

“It’s fine. There’s nothing wrong.” Kensi stared hard at the floor, willing the tears not to fall. This was ridiculous. She was ridiculous.

“Kensi, this would be so much easier if you’d just turn round at look at me. You see, I’ve never done this before and really, I wanted everything to be perfect but… I can’t wait any longer. So please, Kensi – just look at me?”

She couldn’t move, couldn’t bear to look at him and let him see the misery on her face.

Marty took a deep breath and pushed something into her hand. A small box-shaped something. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Kensi. That was never my intention. Because I love you and I’d do anything for you. I just want to make you happy.”

Please Kensi, this is difficult enough without you making it even harderGive me a break, why don’t you?

“You see, I pretty much want to spend the rest of my life with you. So – you’ve got a choice, Kensi. You can stay sitting like that and refuse to even look at me and I’ll get the message eventually, go off upstairs, cursing myself and stand under a cold shower and while I hit my head off the tiles a few dozen times. Or you can turn around, look at me and let me propose properly. It’s your choice.”

“What did you say?” Kensi turned around so quickly she nearly fell off the sofa.

“I’m the one who’s supposed to get down on my knees.” He snagged her arm and pulled her back up onto the seat. “Do you want me to get down on my knees – or one knee or whatever I’m supposed to do?” Marty gave her a beseeching look.

Maybe I should have waited, taken her away somewhere, got roses and champagne. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong and she’s going to say “no” and then where will I be?

“Seriously – say that again.” Kensi was gripping onto him so tightly he was pretty sure he’d have bruises tomorrow. She looked at him and Marty felt she could see right into his soul.

“Which bit?” Marty was aware this wasn’t going the way he’d planned it.

It’s not supposed to be like this. It’s supposed to be all romantic and she’s meant to gaze adoringly at me and maybe even swoon a little. It’s all going horribly wrong.

“The bit about how I love you and think you are the most amazing woman in the world? Because it’s true, Kensi. It’s all true. I love you. And I can’t live without you. So, will you marry me?”

“I thought that’s what you said.” Her voice was thin and faint.

Any minute now I’m going to wake up and find this is all a dreamSo can I just stay sleeping and dreaming, please? Just for a little bit longer? Because things like this don’t happen to girls like me — do they?

“Really? Really and truly?”

“Really and truly. I got a ring and everything.” He opened the box and she saw how his hands trembled, how he bit his lips and would not look at her.

Say something, Kensi. Say “yes”. Please say “yes”.

“Oh my.” God, it was so beautiful, it almost took her breath away. Kensi couldn’t stop looking at the ring and how it seemed to radiate with light.

“So – will you marry me?” He seemed to have been asking the question for hours now and she still hadn’t answered him. Marty was beginning to get worried. Had he got this all wrong? “Will you marry me, Kensi?”

“Will I?” she echoed blankly. “Oh Marty, darling Marty – of course I will!”

And she was in his arms and he was losing himself in her kisses and it was just so damned perfect he thought his heart would burst out of his chest with happiness. Even if he had needed to ask her three times. Third time lucky, as his Dad always used to say.

Oh God, I’m the luckiest guy on earth.

“Here, try it on.” He took the ring and slipped it onto her finger. “I borrowed one of your other rings, so it should fit.”

Her eyes were sparkling just as much as the solitaire diamond. “It’s perfect. It’s just so…”

“…damned huge!” Callen continued. “That is a seriously big stone.” And then it hit him. He stopped dead in his tracks and looked at them. “No way, guys. Seriously?”

I’m losing my touch, I never saw this coming

“Seriously,” Deeks confirmed. “Seriously engaged.” Callen could see the joy just radiating out of him.

“I’ve never been more serious in my life,” Kensi added. “Or happier.”

“Congratulations,” Callen said, and he meant it. There had been a time, well, lots of times, if he was totally honest, when he thought that maybe he and Kensi would get it together. But he’d been there before, getting involved with a colleague and the break-ups had been horrifically messy. And then there was Macy…only that had not been so much an affair, as a series of liaisons, without any real commitment on either side, and that had worked out, after a fashion. And then it had gradually petered out, not through lack of attraction, more because they had both moved on. Callen knew he wasn’t good at commitment, but it was unexpectedly hard seeing his friends embrace it quite so wholeheartedly. And here he was, going down the same path yet again, with Nico. The sex was amazing but this time, he sensed it was different. He was actually craving more. Finally, he felt ready for an actual relationship. Maybe it was seeing Kensi, Deeks and Sam all behaving like grown-ups and making their own lives, maybe it was because he’d finally met a woman he was actually interested in seeing each and every day, but whatever it was, Callen knew it was different with Nico. He could even begin to imagine actually living with her. But not in San Diego. Even Nico could not reconcile him to the city. Maybe it was time they sat down and talked, rather than just having mindless sex. Alternatively, maybe they could have more mind-blowing sex and then talk afterwards? The second option was infinitely more appealing, so he slipped out of the room in search of her. Kensi and Deeks didn’t even notice him leaving.

The nice thing about Deeks’ garden, apart from the sheer size, was all the little hidden corners – the walled enclosures, high hedges and gazebos might have been made for furtive encounters. They possibly were, if Deeks’ parents were anything like their son, Callen reflected. He could see Nico just ahead, wandering slowly between rose beds, meandering along a flagged path that led to a summerhouse. He quickened his pace a little and felt the familiar pang of expectation.

“Mikey – I’m just going up to get changed. We’re due at the opening in a couple of hours.” Nico came in some time later, her cheeks becomingly flushed.

“Do we have to go?” Deeks’ head appeared suddenly, as he pushed himself up from the sofa. “Can’t I have a night off for once?”

“Ignore him,” Kensi’s disembodied voice advised. “He’s just moaning for the sake of it. I’ll make sure he’s ready on time.” Finishing buttoning her blouse, she sat up and beamed happily at Nico. “But I can’t guarantee he won’t spend the evening pouting.”

“This whole pouting business is getting a bit old. Gang up on me, why don’t you” Deeks had to raise his voice to be heard above the giggling.

“I thought we already were.” Nico patted him affectionately on the head. “Smart haircut, by the way. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“Not to mention the baby-smooth cheeks.” Kensi ran her hand affectionately down the side of his face.

“Okay. Is there something you want to tell me?” Nico had spotted the ring.

“Didn’t I mention that? Sorry, must have slipped my mind,” Callen said smoothly, having carefully timed his entrance to be a crucial few moments after Nico.

“You knew? And you didn’t think to mention it? Honestly, men! What can you do with them?” She looked at Kensi for affirmation.

“I don’t know. But some men, you just can’t live without.” She was in love and right now, Kensi wanted the whole world to be as happy as she was.

Deeks looked at her: eyes sparkling, hair all tousled and the buttons of her blouse in entirely the wrong buttonholes. “How do you fancy coming along with us?” Tonight he didn’t want to be apart from her for one second. As Callen and Nico moved towards the other sofa he hastily shoved her bra down the back of the cushions.

“Could I? I mean, I really love Hockney and…”

“You don’t want to be apart from your man? Show me that amazing ring, honey.” Nico made suitably impressed and envious noises as Kensi extended her hand.

“What does Hetty say?” Callen enquired in an undertone.

Deeks looked entirely innocent. “I don’t know, Callen – what does Hetty say?”

“This is not the time for jokes. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“Okay, seeing you’re so concerned, let me put it this way. First, I’m an LAPD officer, currently assigned to NCIS. Which puts me out — with Hetty’s jurisdiction. Second, there’s nothing in the rules that says NCIS agents cannot be married. Sam’s married and Hetty doesn’t have a problem with that. So why should she have a problem with Kensi getting married?”

Sometimes, especially when Deeks did his whole wide-eyed innocent look, Callen wanted to come over all Leroy Jethro Gibbs and swat him on the back of the head. “It’s not that simple, and you know it.”

“Thirdly: seeing as how I have a law degree, do you really think I didn’t go through all the contracts and codes of conduct with a fine toothcomb? So it is exactly that simple. We’re sticking to the strict letter of the law and there’s not a damn thing Hetty can do about it.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

“Don’t bet against it. As extra insurance, I got my lawyers to double-check everything. I’m not taking any risks here, Callen. Unlike you. Getting involved with Nico means you’ve broken just about every rule in the book.”

Callen dropped his gaze. “It’s not what you think.”

“The only thing I’m thinking is that you’d better be damned sure about what you’re doing. Such as risking your whole career? I mean, I can walk away from all this tomorrow, if I have to – but can you?”

“I’ve got some savings; I won’t exactly be out on the streets.”

Deeks sighed. “That’s not what I’m talking about and you know that damn well. Can you really walk away from the team, from Hetty – from the danger? What are you going to put in place of all that?”

I feel like I’m banging my head on a brick wall. Just look at that mulish expression on his face. Talk about refusing to listen

“So what would you actually do with your life, without NCIS in it, Callen? Take some desk job maybe? Go travelling for a few months? And how long before you were crawling up the walls with boredom?”

“And exactly how is it different for you?” He glared belligerently at Deeks.

“Because maybe I’ve realized I can’t go on doing this forever. That at some point, I’m going to have to walk away from all this and start living like everyone else again. If we’re to have any chance at having a decent marriage, that is. ”

Realization dawned on Callen. “You’re really serious about all this, aren’t you? About walking away at some point in the future?”

How come I’ve never thought further ahead than next week? What am I trying to avoid?

“I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since I got shot. Kensi’s sat by the side of my hospital bed three times already and I don’t want to ever put her through that again. And I sure as hell don’t want to ever have to pace up and down a hospital waiting room while I wait for some doctor to tell me if my wife is alive or dead.”

“You’ve got it all thought out, haven’t you?

And I’ve been avoiding thinking about all this for far too long. Just like I’ve shied away from ever having an actual relationship with a woman

“Not really. I’m just facing up to facts and reassessing my priorities. We all know we can’t live like this indefinitely, that this won’t last forever.”

“No, I guess it won’t,” Callen replied.

It all seems so obvious, the way Deeks put it. Maybe he’s right –there has to be more to life than this – doesn’t there? There was a time when I thought I’d live forever – but who wants to live forever when you’re living all alone.

Running his hand through his hair, Deeks decided to shake Callen up a little further. “And have you stopped to think why you’re taking such a risk with Nico? You’re not fooling anyone and Hetty will have every right to throw the book at you.”

“It’s not like I have a choice. I’ve never known anyone like her. I just look at her and I lose my mind.”

A broad grin crept across Deeks’ face. “Welcome to the club, brother. We might just make a regular human being out of you yet.”

“Don’t count on it,” Callen warned. “Hadn’t you better go start getting ready for tonight’s latest appearance? And remember, all your many virtual fans are going to be waiting on the latest news. According to Eric, you and Nico are trending on Twitter right now. They’ve even got a name for you -– “Mico”. How does it feel to be a star?”

“I’ll get back to on that, shall I? Anyway, once you and Nico go public they’ll forget all about Michael Brandel and I can disappear quietly into the background.”

“With that hair? No chance. Unless, of course, if you actually get a proper haircut –- then you might just manage it.”

“Jealous, Callen?” Kensi asked, ruffling Deeks’ hair.

“Yeah, right. Go get a room. And get changed while you’re at it.” Looking over their shoulders, Callen could see Nico standing watching at him. He knew exactly what that look in her eyes meant and he knew exactly what he was going to do.

*****

“So, does anyone actually buy any of the paintings?” Sam asked curiously.

“It doesn’t look much like it, does it?” Kensi swiped another orange juice from the tray of a passing waiter. The heat in the crowded room was starting to rise, along with the levels of chatter. “Seems like most people are here to meet their friends and have their photographs taken. Hardly anybody is even bothering to look at the pictures.”

Sam wasn’t entirely surprised. To his way of thinking, once you’d seen one painting of a swimming pool you’d pretty much seen them all. “So – how does it feel to be an engaged lady?”

“Lovely. But also like I’m living in a dream. I pretty much feel like I’m going to wake up tomorrow in my own crummy apartment.” She admired the ring on her fourth finger for about the hundredth time. “I’m so happy I just can’t believe it, Sam.”

“Marty’s a lucky guy. He’s very nearly good enough for you. And I told him, if he ever hurts you, I’ll kill him. So you don’t have to worry on that score.”

Kensi’s smile was as bright as the diamond on her finger. “Thanks, Sam. I love you too.”

Sam did another sweep of the room. “I can’t see anything going down here. Too many of the great and the good around, each with their own bodyguards. Maybe they should have a special area cordoned off for us all?”

“Do you think they’re going to be much longer?” Looking at Deeks, she could see he was starting to fidget, shifting his weight from foot to foot. It was clear he had something other than fine art on his mind, even if he was making a determined effort to focus all his attention on Nico.

After a quick check of his watch, Sam shook his head. “I doubt it. It’s just after nine o’clock now, and Callen mouthed “ten” at Nico when we left. So I’ll bet you ten bucks they make a move in the next fifteen minutes.”

“It’s not like Callen to be like this, is it?” Something was troubling Kensi. Only she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

“If you mean it’s not like Callen to let anyone get a glimpse into his private life, you’re right. But he’s not exactly got much choice, seeing how we’re all living together under the same roof. And as for the rest – Kensi, it’s exactly like Callen. He’s a man, after all – he’s a good looking, fit man and he doesn’t have to do much to get a date for the night. So don’t go thinking he’s some sort of plaster saint, who’s sat at home for last twenty years waiting for the right woman to come along.

“You’ve no romance in your soul, Sam, that’s your trouble.”

“Denise would probably agree with you.” He took another slow sweep around the gallery. “Should have taken me up on that bet – they’re getting ready to go now after only five minutes. But maybe money doesn’t motivate you, now that you’re going to be Mrs. Millionaire.”

Kensi flushed angrily. “That was mean. I would still love Marty if he lost all his money tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry, that came out wrong.” Sam tried to backtrack hastily, knowing he’d gone too far.

“I hope that’s true. I really do. But don’t you ever make that kind of comment to Marty. Why do you think he went to so much trouble to make sure nobody ever connected him with Michael Brandel?” She gave him a hard look and started to make her way to the door.

The night air was cool and soothing after all the noisy hubbub of the gallery. Kensi took a deep breath and tried to force down the anger Sam’s thoughtless remark had sent bubbling up. It was a beautiful night, the sort of evening when she would love to go down to the ocean and walk hand in hand along the shore with Marty. Maybe once Nico was safely back in the Malibu house they could do just that? Dreaming happily, she started along the sidewalk towards the waiting car and then looked up with a start as she nearly walked head-long into a group of passers-by.

“You stupid bitch. Tell Nico it should have been her.”

Kensi felt a sharp pain in her abdomen, as if she had been punched with a red-hot poker. A sharp, piercing pain that made her instinctively double-over and press her hand against the sore spot. Only that made the pain worse and when she pulled her hand away the streetlights showed that it was covered in blood.

“Oh my God.” She sank to her knees as the pain started to consume her and only vaguely heard a familiar voice calling her name followed by the sounds of running footsteps before the darkness consumed her.

“Kensi!” Oh shit, all his worst nightmares were coming true all at once. Marty had never told her that the reason for the white nights was that he kept dreaming about something happening to her. That had seemed too much like tempting fate for him to even consider speaking about it. He tore along the sidewalk as Sam screamed into his cell that there was an agent down and they needed medical help immediately.

“Kensi?” She was lying in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk, and her pale lemon dress was stained with blood. But she was alive. As he knelt down beside her and stroked the hair off her face, Marty saw her eyelashes flutter briefly.

“Nico.” Her voice was very faint and he had to bend forward to catch her words. “After Nico. Her next.”

“It’s okay, everything’s okay,” he soothed. Only it wasn’t. Everything was going wrong, just like it did in his dreams. He wanted to pick her up in his arms, cradle her to him, but Marty was too afraid that might hurt her. It seemed best just to kiss her cheek and hold her hand and tell her how much he loved her. The blood was slowly tricking down her dress all the while, in a thick, sluggish stream.

“Love you so much,” Kensi breathed. Was it his imagination or were her lips pale?

“And I love you. Stay with me, Kensi. Stay right here,” he commanded with a certainty he did not feel.

Don’t leave me, Kensi.

People were starting to gather around them. “Ambulance will be here any second,” Sam announced unnecessarily, seeing as the sirens were already at ear-splitting levels. His arm pressed Nico safely to his side. “How’s she doing?”

“Fine,” Deeks said mechanically. “She’s fine.” His eyes dared Sam to argue with him.

“She’s tough.” Sam forced his voice to stay steady.

“Yeah –- on the outside.” Deeks picked up Kensi’s hand and held onto it tightly, as if by doing so he could keep her with him. “She’s getting so cold,” he remarked in an abstracted tone of voice. For just a moment his gaze left Kensi’s face and he looked up at Sam. “What the hell am I going to do, Sam?” And the look of bleak devastation on his face was killing.

“My beautiful Kensi.” Marty Deeks raised her hand to her lips and kissed the palm, and then placed his own hand over her fingers and gently pressed them closed.

*****

Callen ran along the hospital corridors, the soles of his shoes slapping off the hard flooring and echoing in the otherwise quiet passages. At this time of night there were few people around to impede his progress and those members of medical personnel who were going about their duties flattened themselves against the walls as he pelted by with single-minded purpose. This was the part he really hated: not knowing what was going to greet him, what he was going to have to deal with, what horrors he would be required to deal with. The message to his cell had been terse and factual, leaving his mind to race off on all sorts of avenues, each one darker and more twisted than the previous.

“Kensi’s been stabbed. “ That could mean anything from a minor wound in the arm to a fatal injury to the heart. “Deeks is in the ambulance with her.” Well, that didn’t sound too bad. Unless Deeks was injured too -– but they would have told him that, surely? And then Callen recalled their conversation that afternoon and Deeks saying” I sure as hell don’t want to ever have to pace up and down a hospital waiting room while I wait for some doctor to tell me if my wife is alive or dead.”

The hospital corridors seemed to go on forever and still he ran, arms pumping, feet pounding, heart in his mouth. “Sam and Nico are on their way to the hospital. Join them.” She was with Sam, who would look after her: at least Nico was alright. Oh God in Heaven above, how could he be such a selfish bastard when Kensi was lying somewhere in this bloody maze of a hospital?

He tore around a final corner and there she was – there was Nico, safe and sound, talking to a uniformed officer, with Sam beside her.

“Callen!” His heart leapt as she ran towards him and he could hold her safe in his arms, bury his head in her hair and breathe in her perfume. There weren’t words enough to say how he felt.

“Glad to see you,” Sam said, with a brief nod. “LAPD have sealed off the scene. Their forensics guys are all over it as we speak. Kensi wasn’t able to give us any description, so we’re checking all the security cameras in the area.”

“And Kensi? How is she?”

He gestured towards a closed door. “Deeks is in there, talking to the doctors. Nobody’s said anything much. But it didn’t look good, G.”

Callen had been here too many times before but it never got any easier; in fact, each time seemed to be worse than the time before. “And how’s he taking it, Sam? How’s Deeks?

“Controlled. Too controlled. It’s not like Deeks at all.” It was impossible for Sam to keep the anxiety out of his voice. “He wouldn’t let go of her hand, not even when they were loading her into the ambulance. It was like he was afraid to let go.”

At his side, Nico cuddled in closer to Callen, craving the contact. “Mikey’s holding himself together, but he looks like hell.”

Sam checked his watch. “It’s been too long. They should be out by now.” He had a terrible feeling about this.

Brisk footsteps could be heard in the distance, beating an impatient staccato rhythm on the tiles. They were unmistakable. “Update, if you please, Mr. Callen.” Hetty was slightly out of breath and her hair was in disarray.

“Nothing more to report.” He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “We know as much – or as little as you do.”

Fingers drumming on the sides of her legs, Hetty considered her options carefully. She could knock politely on the door and then let herself in; she could get the Director of Medical Services to personally provide her with an update; she could even send Marty a text message and ask him what was going on. Then again, she could exercise a little self-restraint and just wait patiently. While the fourth option was the least palatable, it was also the most practical. It was more important that the medical staff looked after her agent than that they came out here to deliver a briefing. But she badly wanted to know how Kensi was.

“Has anyone called Kensi’s mom?” Callen asked after a long silence.

“Miss Jones did, over an hour ago. I arranged for her to be driven straight here.” That, at least, had been something Hetty could do – pull a few strings at Camp Pendleton so that Allison Blye did not have to worry about the long dive over to LA. She looked impatiently at the closed door again and shook her head sadly. The waiting game was the hardest game of all.

Eventually, the door opened and Deeks came out, looking pale and shattered. His eyes were empty as he surveyed the faces, filled with anticipation that looked eagerly at him. “Sorry to keep you guys waiting so long.” It wasn’t his voice – the usual lightness of tone was completely absent, the pitch was much lower and the delivery was hesitant. He nodded towards Hetty. “Good of you to come.”

“I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she assured him.

“Thanks.” He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes for a second. “It was touch and go there for while.” All at once his legs didn’t want to support him and it was easy just to let his back slide down the wall into a crouching position, resting his elbows on his knees. “But they reckon she should come through the surgery.” Raising his head, Marty looked at Nico. “I had to make some decisions in there. You see, Kensi named me as her next of kin.” In his left hand he held the diamond ring and as he clenched his fingers around it, the stone bit into his flesh.

She knelt down beside him and put her arm around his shoulder and laid her cheek against the top of his head. “It’s alright, Mikey. You can tell me about it. I’m right here.”

Nico wouldn’t judge him, he knew that. Nico had always been on his side. If there had been one constant in his life over all the years, it was Nico.

“She was stabbed in the abdomen, with a long blade. Something a stiletto blade, they reckon. So it was a deep, penetrating wound. Caused a lot of damage and that’s what they’re trying to fix in surgery.”

“It’s a good hospital, with excellent surgeons,” Callen reminded him.

It was as if he hadn’t heard. “But, I had to give permission, that if they couldn’t… that if they didn’t have any other option… you see, there as a lot of bleeding and a lot of damage and they weren’t sure how things would go.”

The blue eyes raised to Nico’s were haunted. “I agreed that if they had to –- to save her life –- then the surgeons could remove Kensi’s womb. I didn’t have a choice, you see. Not if they were going to be sure of saving her.” His voice broke and Marty dropped his gaze back down to the floor. They’d never talked about children; he didn’t even know how Kensi felt about having a baby. But to be the man who denied her the chance of ever making that choice for herself, of taking away the hope of ever get pregnant — how could he ever look at himself in the mirror again and not rue the day he was born?

“Of course you didn’t.” Nico pulled him into her arms. “You did the right thing, Mikey darling.”

“What if she hates me?” he mumbled.

“Then you’ll have to let her hate you,” Sam said briskly, hiding his inner horror. He could remember when Denise had first held Crosby in her arms, the total joy and fulfillment on her face. It was cruel that Kensi should be denied that. “Better she’s alive and mad at you. But don’t get hung up because you had to make a decision to save her life. Do you think Kensi would have stopped them amputating your arm if the drugs hadn’t worked that she’d have sat back and watched you die?” Christ, but he felt sorry for Deeks.

“The hardest decisions we make are those which affect the ones we love,” Hetty advised, speaking from long years of experience. She had learned a long time ago that you could survive pretty much anything, given a little bit of luck, but she also knew that only love could break your heart.

*****

“Kensi? Come on, Kensi, darling open your eyes.”

The voice was so familiar and very insistent.

“Come on, Kensi. I’m right here waiting. Wake up and look at me.”

“Mom?” She struggled a little on the pillows, aware of a nagging sensation in her stomach that made it difficult to move properly.

“Hello, sweetheart.” Allison leant over the bed and kissed her daughter on the forehead. “Everything’s going to be alright. You just rest now.”

“My stomach hurts, Mom.” Even in her current befuddled state Kensi could hear the semi-whine in her voice, as if she had reverted to childhood and just wanted her Mommy to make everything better.

“I’ll get the nurse, see if she can give you something to help with the pain, shall I?”

“Please.” Kensi waited until she heard her mother’s footsteps leaving the room and reckoned it was probably safe to close her eyes for a second.

“Don’t even think about it,” Marty advised, trying to sound upbeat. “You’ve got to learn that when you’re in hospital you’re never allowed to sleep when you actually feel tired. That’s when they wake you up and do all sorts of unpleasant tests.”

She managed to turn her head just enough to that she could see him, still wearing the linen jacket from the gallery opening. “You look terrible.”

“You look beautiful.” It was true – seeing her lying there, alive and talking, she was more beautiful in that moment than she had ever been.

“You’re biased. But that’s alright.” As tired as she was, Kensi could see the tension in his face, the exhaustion in his eyes.

“You had me worried there.”

“I had myself worried,” Kensi confessed and felt tears prickle behind her eyes. “I was so scared,” she whispered and grabbed his hand.

“I know. Don’t ever do that to me again, Kensi. Please?”

She smiled. “Now you know how I felt all those times.”

“You scared me so much, Kensi. Don’t ever do that to me again.” Marty‘s fingers stroked her hand softly before raising it to his lips and holding it there. “I thought I was going to lose you,” he confessed, in a broken voice. Soon he was going to have to tell her, but not just yet. She’d just had a big operation and she wasn’t in any sort of shape to hear that news. Besides which, he just wanted to have a last few moments with her that were pure joy. It was probably selfish, but he couldn’t help it.

“Not a chance. You’re not getting out of it that easily. I want a big wedding with a band and a dozen bridesmaids and white doves and everything. You’re going to marry me whether you want to or not.”

“Here we are, Ms Blye. Some pain relief.”

The nurse bustled in just in time to see Marty lie down on the bed, take her patient carefully in his arms and kiss her fervently, before saying “I’d marry you tomorrow, Fern. Any time, any place, anywhere. You just say the word,” while Allison Blye stood in the hallway with a shocked look of disbelief on her face.

“Maybe not tomorrow, Marty. The day after that, perhaps? I’m a quick healer, just ask Mom.” The meds were starting to work and her eyes were feeling heavy.

Marty recognized the signs. “You just say the word, Wonder Woman.” He waited for a few moments until he was quite sure she was asleep before easing himself out of the bed.

“Go home, Marty,” Allison Blye said. “You look shattered. Go home and get some rest while Kensi’s sleeping.”

“I’m fine, honestly. And I want to stay. I want to be here when she wakes up.”

“I’ll be here.” Allison had been a Marine wife for over twenty years and a mother for nearly thirty. She knew how to make her meaning clear with implacable politeness. “There’s no sense in you sitting around here waiting. You need to get some sleep because Kensi is going to need all your love and support later on.” She smiled, trying to soften the blow. “I promise to call you if anything changes.”

Marty knew when he was beaten. A quick shower and a change of clothes sounded good. A double espresso sounded even better. At four o’clock in the morning the roads were blissfully quiet, which was just as well, as he felt like he was driving on autopilot. The house was quiet when he let himself in. Even the dog was sound asleep, snoring noisily away in his basket. Marty reckoned it was highly probable that Callen had probably seen fit to up the security detail by positioning himself strategically close to Nico. Which sounded professional until you realized that it was double-talk for sleeping with her. Not that he blamed the guy.

It was a different matter when it came to Sam, who was stretched out on one of the sofas regarding his host blearily. “Everything alright?” he enquired in an undertone.

“Kensi’s fine. I just came home get changed grab something to eat, then I’ll be going back in. She’s sleeping right now and her Mom’s there so…”

There never was much of a possibility of getting anything past Sam. “She gave you your marching orders, right?”

“Pretty much. I see where Kensi gets her bossiness from alright.”

“You might want to think about getting some sleep, by the way.” He tried to phrase it diplomatically, but Sam was concerned. Deeks looked strung out.

“You’ve been taking to Mrs. Blye, haven’t you? I’ll be fine.”

“By the way – your dog farts.”

“Why do you think he sleeps downstairs? Go buy him some charcoal biscuits tomorrow if it bothers you that much.”

He set the shower as hot as he could bear, and stood underneath the jets, hoping they might sere away some of his pain. As the water pounded away, Marty turned his face upwards, so that he could pretend that it was just water running down his face. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see her, lying on the street, her dress disfigured by blood. And it hit him like a hammer-blow, just how much he wanted a baby with Kensi.

If there is no one there to see, you can stop pretending and let the tears flow. If the water is thundering out of the shower and there is no one within earshot, you can howl out your anguish. But when you eventually go into the bedroom and see the empty bed and smell the faint trace of her perfume and yet you know that she is not going to be there beside you, there is nothing at all you can do. Except force yourself to keep going and so you go downstairs and choke down some coffee and take comfort from the small dog that presses its warm body against your legs. Sometimes you take comfort from wherever you can.

*****

“You want to explain to me how the assailant managed to get clear away?” Callen was not in a good mood. The investigation trying to uncover Nico Sterling’s would-be assailant had been going precisely nowhere for too long without any success. And last night’s attack on Kensi has been entirely too close for comfort. “You’re telling me we’ve got no trace evidence, no eye-witness accounts, no camera angles, nothing?”

Eric felt as if he was being personally attacked. “I just analyze the information, Callen. I can’t help it if there isn’t anything to report. We all feel bad about what happened.” He’d been poring over tapes for hours now, studying every little detail, using every piece of facial recognition software available, but without success. If there had been anything to find, he would have found it: Eric was as cut up about what had happened as anyone else on the team. “This guy is good. And he’s experienced. He’s cool and he knows exactly what he’s doing. Whoever he is, he’s no amateur. And that means he has to be on some watch list somewhere. This is not the first time he’s attacked. I guarantee you that. Just look at his body language.”

He pulled up a video surveillance tape that showed the stalker from behind as he strolled casually along the street, mingling with a group of people. To all intents and purposes he was merely another person enjoying an evening out. There was nothing in his relaxed demeanor to suggest he had an ulterior motive until the second he darted towards Kensi. And then it was over in an instant and he melted back into the crowd.

Staring at screen, Sam tried to see the bigger picture. There had to be something they were missing. “The only thing we know for definite is that Nico is being singled out and that the people close to her are being systematically attacked. Kensi’s stabbing confirmed that beyond all doubt. And our only link in the whole case has been between Travis Dolland and Rusty Spears. We never really pursued that line, seeing as Spears seemed to be having a psychotic breakdown. But maybe we should go back to that line of enquiry?”

“I’ll factor in their details – hometown, high school, known addresses and run it against the animal activist databases,” Nell said. It was frustrating to have so little information to go on. “And I’ll cross-reference it with Nico’s touring schedule and public appearances. There has to some causal link here we’re missing.”

“I hate that I’m the cause of this,” Nico said. “Kensi could have died because of me. Maybe I should just give up performing and move somewhere like Switzerland” She played nervously with the bracelet on her right wrist, the bracelet Michael Brandon had given her last night. The gift had been widely reported in the media. Receiving rather less coverage was the assault on Fern Atherton, his personal assistant.

“That won’t stop whoever is out to get you,” Sam said. “Giving in will just make him more determined.

“We’ll protect you and we’ll find him. I promise you.” Callen sounded like he was making a solemn vow. He looked at her long and straight and under his gaze, Nico seemed to gain a little courage.

Miss Blye is expected to make a full recovery, I hear?” Hetty asked. She judged it a suitable time to change the conversation. Affairs between protector and vulnerable client were not unusual, but they were discouraged. However, as she had no direct knowledge of any breach of protocol, plus all the evidence suggested that Nico Sterling was a strong and independent woman who would not be coerced into an affair unless it was by her own choosing, she decided to imitate Horatio, Lord Nelson and put the telescope of this matter to her blind eye. She too had been young and virile and placed in highly-charged circumstances where sometimes sexual release was the only thing that had stopped her from going insane. Her life had been very full in those days of danger.

“So the doctors say, according to Deeks. He’s back over there now, along with Mrs. Blye. I saw him briefly this morning, when he swung by the house.”

“Did he pack a bag for her?” Nico asked and then rolled her eyes as Sam looked blank. “Typical male. I don’t suppose it occurred to any of you that Kensi would need nightwear and toiletries or anything like that?”

“The hospital pretty much provides all that sort of thing,” Callen protested, thinking back to his many stays of varying durations.

Nico looked to Nell and Hetty for support. “Are all your agents as clueless when it comes to women?”

Hetty’s eyes twinkled. “Sadly, I fear they are typical of the male species in general and require to be taken in hand by a good woman. Perhaps you might oblige?”

Thinking about it afterwards, Callen could not decide if she had been referring to providing Kensi with some essentials, or if there had been something altogether more arch in her intent. Either way, he was more than happy to leave the actual bag-packing to Nico. The thought of rummaging around in Kensi’s underwear was just a bit too kinky, seeing that she was engaged to Deeks. Mind you, had she still been single, it would have been a different matter. As it was, while he had been thinking along the lines of a nightdress, some underwear, toothbrush and so on, Nico had an entirely different perspective on things.

“Scented candles? Her own pillow? Perfume and makeup? Come on, this is Kensi we’re talking about. Mind you, the IPod is a good idea.” Even if a quick look at the playlists were a revelation. Who would have pegged Kensi for a Michael Buble fan?

Nico ignored him and continued packing. To Callen’s eyes it looked as if she was preparing for a two week vacation, rather than putting together a few essentials for a hospital stay.

“And he wonders why none of his relationships last more than six weeks.” Sam winked at Nico.

She raised one eyebrow. “As long as that? You surprise me. Callen, did you ever notice that Kensi is a woman? A very attractive woman? Who has just got engaged to a particularly hot guy?” From the look on his face, she might as well have been talking in ancient Hebrew.

“I decline to answer that question on the grounds that I might incriminate myself.” While he might not have the greatest track record when it came to sustaining a relationship over a period of time, he had at least learned enough to know that question was a poisoned chalice. And actually, all things considered, Kensi didn’t look too bad at all, even if she was wearing a hospital gown. Mind you, he could see why Nico had been so insistent about putting some make-up in the bag for her. The first bag, that was. By the time she’d finally sorted out everything that was needed, a second bag had to be pressed into service.

“Hey Kensi!” he greeted her cheerfully and followed this with a more subdued greeting to Allison Blye.

“Meet my team, Mom,” Kensi said, propped up on pillows. “Sam Hannah and G Callen.”

Allison Blye gave them a guarded smile. “I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s nice to finally be able to put faces to the names.” She looked curiously at Nico. “I’m sure I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”

“Try the cover of that CD I gave you for Christmas, Mom. This is Nico Sterling, the pianist.”

That should have been a great ice-breaker, for Allison Blye adored classical music and turned out to be quite a fan of Nico’s. Only it was surprisingly awkward to find out that she also had what amounted to a major addiction to following celebrity gossip and had been following the very public romance of Michael Brandel and Nico with gusto.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw him kissing Kensi. I mean, you both seem like such a devoted couple.”

Deeks sat in a corner, blushing violently. It was at times like this that he realized parents could be a considerable liability to their offspring.

“But Mom, you met Marty during the siege at Camp Pendleton. I told you all about him.” Kensi was equally embarrassed. “Surely you remember that?”

Maybe she’s going senile, Marty thought. Allison had been very chilly towards him from the moment they met.

“He looked quite different then. Michael is always nicely groomed.”

You really don’t like me, do you? Marty thought. Although you do seem to like Michael.

“I had a haircut,” he volunteered lamely. No way was he going to look anywhere in the direction of either Sam or Callen, who were guaranteed to be smirking their heads off.

“Anyway, I couldn’t believe it when he started talking about marrying Kensi! I just thought, “That poor Nico! After all she’s been through!” It gave me quite a shock.”

Kensi had a very resigned look on her face. “But I told you, Mom – none of that is real. It’s just a cover story we’re running.”

Callen thought it was time he helped his team out. “Well, it’s partly true. Marty here is actually Michael Martin Deeks Brandel and he is a millionaire.”

“But we’re not involved romantically,” Nico added. “We’re just good friends.”

It was no good. Allison Blye did not look convinced at all. She had Deeks pegged as some philandering playboy and she wasn’t going to change her mind in a hurry. A long night of sitting at the side of her daughter’s bed had given Allison plenty of time to think about things. All she had ever wanted was for Kensi to be happy, but how could she encourage her child to continue in this terribly dangerous career? Kensi could so easily have been lying on a mortuary slab. If only she had become involved with someone in a different profession, then perhaps her daughter might have seen that she could not go on playing fast and loose with her safety for any longer. But getting involved with a team member meant that Kensi would stay with NCIS until it killed her. And Allison would make a deal with the devil himself before she allowed that to happen. Marty seemed like a nice enough man, and Allison had nothing against him personally. He clearly adored Kensi and she seemed be head over heels in love with him. It was just a terrible pity that he represented such a very real danger to her daughter.

A knock at the door put a welcome end to the strained atmosphere in the room. The doctor looked slightly overwhelmed at the number of people crammed into the small space.

“We’ll give you some privacy, darling,” Allison said, rising out of her chair. Everyone made suit to follow her lead. There was no doubt who was in control of this particular scenario and it certainly was not the doctor.

“Stay with me, Marty,” Kensi called, reaching out her hand to grasp hold of his. She gave the doctor a beaming smile. “How long before you let me out of here?”

“Not for a few days. Abdominal surgery is never a minor affair. We want to make sure everything is healing and that you don’t suffer any complications. We’ll see how you get on a bit later when we get you out of bed and sitting in a chair for a while. But you can’t rush things.”

Kensi looked crestfallen. “But I feel fine, really I do. I’m a bit sore, and the stitches pull, but other than that…”

“Listen to what the doctor has to say.” Marty kept hold of her hand, his fingers gently stoking it. “It wasn’t as straightforward as you might think.”

She did not speak at all for the next few minutes, as the doctor explained the extent of the damage and the fact that her uterus had been affected. “We were facing a potentially life-threatening situation. I had to ask your fiancé for permission to perform a hysterectomy, if that proved essential.”

Kensi heard the words, she understood what he was saying, but she could not begin to comprehend their impact.

“I said “yes”, I gave them permission.” Marty had to make it clear to her. “If it came to saving your life I said they were to do anything and everything necessary. There wasn’t any choice. Making sure you lived was the only important thing. We could do anything together, we still can.”

“I understand.” Her voice was dull. “But I’m only twenty seven. And I had such dreams. We were so happy.” She should have cried. It would have been normal to cry. But the blow was too deep for mere tears.

*****

Outside in the corridor, standing looking at Nico who was chatting to Allison Blye, it suddenly came to Callen. All the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place. Pulling his cell out of his pocket, he contacted Ops, relaying the facts in a staccato tone.

“Matthews. Trevor Matthews – Nico’s erstwhile manager. He saw Kensi at the house yesterday. He knew Travis. Start looking into him – every single contact. I’m sure he’s the link.”

“Trevor?” Nico looked skeptical. “I’ve known him for five years. We met while I was on tour in Scotland. We met at a house party out in the country. Beautiful scenery, but terribly cold,” she mused. “Lots of sheep and lovely muscular men in kilts. It was very nice.”

“Put me on speaker, Callen, I need to talk to Nico.” Eric could not keep the anticipation out of his voice. “Nico, I need more information regarding location and timing. Exactly when did you meet Matthews and where about were you?”

“It was September, and the house had been rented for the season. It was about five miles from a village called something like Edston. Or maybe it was Ellstone? I can’t remember exactly. Is that important?”

“Is there anything you else you can remember” Eric asked. “Anything at all that might help us narrow things down?”

She closed her eyes for a second and concentrated hard. “There was a pub called the Horseshoe. It was definitely called that – there were old horseshoes all over the outside. I’ve even got a photograph of it somewhere.”

“Thank you, Ms Sterling. That is very useful indeed.” There was a note of undisguised triumph in Hetty’s voice. “Mr. Callen, it appears you were correct. We’re contacting LAPD to get Mr. Matthews released to NCIS custody. Eric will download the information to your phones, gentlemen.”

“We’re on our way,” Callen confirmed. Things were about to reach a climax and he could feel a familiar tingle of anticipation at the thought of confronting Matthews. And then, when all this was finally over, maybe he and Nico could see if they might just be able to make a go of things? Even if that meant he’d be visiting San Diego regularly. She was worth it.

He knocked on the door to Kensi’s room. “Possible new lead on the attacker. You coming with us?”

Deeks looked up with a distracted expression on his face. “I should really stay here.” He looked at Kensi for confirmation.

“No, it’s alright, you should go. I’ll be fine.” She had lowered the back rest and was lying down, curled up on her side and showed a complete lack of interest in his news.

“Try and get some sleep,” Callen advised, seeing how shadowed her eyes were. “I’ll make sure he comes back in one piece. And I’ll send your Mom back in.”

“Okay, fill me in,” Deeks demanded as they jogged to the car. His face grew grim as Callen related the news and he stopped dead in his tracks when the name Trevor Matthews was mentioned. “I told you yesterday to get Matthews investigated. So what the hell went wrong? Could you have screwed things up any more if you tried? We let him walk out of there and Kensi nearly died.”

“He left under police custody, remember? And there was no link yesterday. You need to calm down, Deeks and think this through rationally. Matthews was still in custody yesterday evening. There’s no way he could have carried out the attack.”

“This still shouldn’t have happened. None of this should have happened. And don’t bother telling me I’m too close, I’m too involved. Because we all know you’re in no position to tell me anything.”

“You’re not angry with me.”

“Actually Callen, I am.”

“Shut up and just listen for a moment.” Callen took a deep breath and tried to control the bubbling anger within his belly. Deeks was really pushing his buttons right now, and he was doing a damn fine job. Callen was already beating himself up over not looking into Matthews more thoroughly. Perhaps if he’d been just a little less focused on Nico, Kensi might not be lying in hospital right now. “It’s not Matthew, but maybe he can tell us who the attacker was. Or we can trace the attacker through him, if he doesn’t talk. But first we want to work out how he managed to contact anybody when he was in police custody. It doesn’t make any sense – but there’s no other alternative that I can see.”

A slow smile crept across Deeks’ face and his fists gradually relaxed and unclenched. “You need to brush up on your Shakespeare, Callen. You never know when it’s going to come in handy. Ask to borrow Hetty’s book of quotations sometimes.”

Callen knew he’d said something that had given Deeks a clue; he just had no idea what it was. Still, at least they weren’t going to come to blows in the hospital car park like two hormonal schoolboys.

The anger was completely absent from Deeks’ voice as he pulled out his cell phone. “Hetty? Matthews said anything yet? Really? I didn’t think he had it in him. Well, why don’t you take a look at his lawyer? The one he spoke to after he was arrested. I’m sure they had a very interesting conversation. I’m sure they’ve even got some shared interests. Like animal rights. And lawyers know some very interesting people with a variety of skills and rather too few morals who can be easily persuaded to do just about anything, if the money is right.” He ended the call and looked at Callen. “Never, ever trust a lawyer. Old William knew that when he wrote “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Smart man. It’s just a pity nobody listened to him.”

“Wait a minute.” Callen looked at him with a puzzled expression on his face. “You qualified as a lawyer, didn’t you?”

“Ah yes. Well, there you go. That’s exactly why I know what I’m talking about. Never trust any of us, Callen. You can just ask Kensi if you don’t believe me.”

Nico and Sam were waiting for them in the car and for once Callen had to take the back seat.

“Take a look at the information Eric and Nell have uncovered,” Sam advised as he pulled out into the traffic. “Looks like we’re nearly there. If that’s not the most perfect paper trail, I don’t know what is.”

It was all there: the final pieces of the puzzle were slipping into place. The small village in Scotland, that was home to the man who created the first cloned mammal, the famous Dolly the Sheep, who had lived her short life just a few miles away and was, for a time, the most famous animal in the world. The sheep who brought the ethics of cloning to international attention and ushered in a whole new awareness of what science could do. The current debates in the US on stem-cell therapy could be traced back over the years to Dolly the sheep.

“Dolly? Why would they call a sheep Dolly?” Deeks asked. He could only think of one Dolly, and any links between Tennessee, country music and a cloned sheep seemed tenuous at best.

“Says here she was cloned from a pair of mammary glands. Scottish humor, I suppose.” Callen returned to his reading. Threats against the scientist had been investigated during that September and the United Kingdom’s Counter Terrorism branch had been interested enough in Trevor Matthews to compile a dossier (“You’ve got to love the British formality!” Eric had commented) on his activities, which included several meetings with a scientist working in xenotransplantation. Here Eric had kindly provided a link from the FDA:

“Xenotransplantation is any procedure that involves the transplantation, implantation or infusion into a human recipient of either (a) live cells, tissues, or organs from a nonhuman animal source, or (b) human body fluids, cells, tissues or organs that have had ex vivo contact with live nonhuman animal cells, tissues or organs. The development of xenotransplantation is, in part, driven by the fact that the demand for human organs for clinical transplantation far exceeds the supply.”

“I can see where all this is going. Lots of potential for people to take violently opposing views on that topic. I’m presuming our Trevor was networking and recruiting other similarly-minded people?”

“He’s certainly on a number of UK watch lists as having suspected associations with animal liberation organizations. They couldn’t prove anything, but he was cautioned for driving “without due care and attention” near a scientific institute, that just happened to fire-bombed ten days afterwards. Special Branch flagged him up as a possible sympathizer to the group claiming responsibility. Their file on Trevor Matthews remains open. And he has known associates working in gene therapy in San Diego.”

Nico turned around to look at them. “But that doesn’t make sense. If they work with animals, surely they’re in favor of the treatment?”

Callen shook his head. “Never presume anything. I guess the field of scientific research has as many disaffected people in it as anywhere else. People who suddenly “see the light” and then start to reassess their life and work in an entirely different manner. Or who have deliberately concealed their real intentions all along, or maybe who have been recruited to the cause at some point.”

“We’ll probably never know what motivated Matthews, but you were the golden goose who popped into his life and when your support for that Cancer Charity threatened his principles, he just couldn’t resist trying to warn you off.” Deeks shook his head sadly. “And when that didn’t work, he used his contacts to start amping the pressure on you.”

“Ah yes, the splendidly seedy legal counsel. Nice list of clients. A great cross-section of the seedy underbelly of American life. I see several names on here with form for using knives.” Callen leaned his head back on the seat rest and sighed. “Christ, what a tangled mess this all is.”

“Do you think Matthews will talk?” Sam asked, neatly switching lanes at high speed.

“I could make him talk,” Nico commented darkly.

In the safety of the back seat, Callen allowed himself the luxury of a small smile. He knew exactly how persuasive she could be. Watching him in the rear view mirror Sam could see the look in his partner’s eyes and made a mental note to have a little chat later on about discretion. His gaze slipped sideways to where Deeks sat in the opposite corner of the rear seat. There was something going on with the younger man. Not only was he uncharacteristically quiet, all Sam’s instincts were screaming danger signs. They were all too close to this case, there were too many undercurrents swirling around and if they weren’t careful, they could get dragged down into the whirlpool

Predictably, Matthews wasn’t giving up without a struggle. Sam and Callen let him sweat for a while, as they documented the evidence they had against him: step after step, relating each tiny thread, building up the warp and weft of the case they had against him, slowly adding stitch upon stitch, detailing each aspect of the tapestry that portrayed his duplicity. The email records were the final dart of the needle into the fabric: narrating each contact, going back over eight years.

“Do you want to think about changing your mind, Trevor?” Sam’s voice was almost kindly. It had fooled many better men than Trevor. He watched as the beads of perspiration trickled down Matthews’ face and felt not one iota of sympathy towards the creep.

“Or we could turn you over to our colleagues in the United Kingdom, with whom we have an extradition treaty” Callen suggested. “They seem to be very eager to talk to you.”

“Lovely Victorian prisons they have over there,” Sam reflected happily. “They have the quaintest tradition called “slopping out”, did you know? Seemingly, there aren’t enough toilet facilities and the British taxpayer doesn’t see why their hard earned money should go on little luxuries like indoor plumbing for prisoners, so they make do with “chamber pots” in the cells. And once a day, you get to empty it out. Of course, what with overcrowding, it can quite rank with four men in a cell. And their four chamber pots, of course.”

Nico was entranced by this line of attack. “I almost feel guilty that I mentioned Trevor has a bashful bladder. It really doesn’t seem fair for them to torture him quite so much, does it? But then when I think of the 8% he’s been getting from me for five years, I could string him up by his thumbs quite cheerfully.”

“I’d do more than that,” Deeks said, watching as Matthews started talking very quickly. “I spent a long time sitting by Kensi’s bed, thinking about exactly what I’d do to each and every person who had so much as a fingertip in this. And I can be very inventive when I have to be.”

“It’s going to be alright,” Nico consoled. “Kensi is going to be fine. Everything went alright and they didn’t have to do the hysterectomy. You’re going to have a wonderful future together, just like you’ve always deserved.”

The smile on his face went nowhere near his eyes, it just sat unnaturally. “I wish I could be as sure. She didn’t take it very well.” That was an understatement. Kensi been horrified.

“You made that decision? Without asking me?” She looked at him as if he were a complete stranger.

“There wasn’t time –- and you were unconscious.”

“It doesn’t matter. You had no right.”

“I was trying to save your life.” He was pleading now. “And they didn’t have to do the hysterectomy. Everything is alright. But I couldn’t risk losing you.”

But she hadn’t wanted to hear. Kensi had turned away from him to face the wall, as if she could not bear to look at him for a second longer.

“I love you, Kensi. You are the most important thing to me. Only you. Please understand.”

She said nothing. Yesterday, she had sat with her back turned to him, but that had been different.

Marty couldn’t give up. He had to make her understand. “We can get through anything as long as we’re together.”

“Go away.”

And then Callen had come in and Marty had left, not knowing what was happening.

He still wasn’t sure. All he knew was that it wasn’t good. In fact, it sucked.

“Give her time,” Nico counseled. “Kensi’s been through a horrible ordeal, she’s in pain and she’s gone from being so happy to feeling incredibly low. You need to just give her some space.”

“I know all that. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been through just about all that right alongside her every step of the way. And you know what — maybe I need something as well?”

“What do you need?”

Marty leaned forward so that his forehead rested against the two-way mirror. “I need to be with Kensi, to hear her say that it’s alright, she understands why I made the decision and that she still loves me.” The glass felt cool and soothing. “Only that’s not going to happen.”

“You don’t know that, Mikey.”

He turned around to look at her. “Actually, I do. I know Kensi – she pushes and she pushes. And she’s pushed me as far as she can. It’s like we’re sitting across a table from one another, both holding loaded guns and daring each other to fire. She’s never going to forgive me for this. She’s never going to forgive for loving her so much I was willing to sacrifice anything to keep her alive. And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”

“How old were we when we first met?” Nico asked. “Seven? Eight years old tops. And you call Kensi stubborn? Mikey – I know you as well as anyone alive, and I’m here to tell you that under that sweet-tempered façade you’re the most obstinate man I’ve ever met. And I still love you despite that. But you’ve got to stop moping around feeling sorry for yourself. You and Kensi both need to learn the meaning of the word “compromise”. Should I go buy you a dictionary?”

“I’m not stubborn, I’m single-minded,” he muttered, trying not to smile. “You want to do any more character assassination on me or is that your quota for today?” Turning around, he held his arms open wide. “Anyone ever tell you how wonderful you are?”

“Too many to count.” She rested her head against his chest. “So – are you going back to the hospital later on?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“No.”

He sighed and kissed her cheek. “That’s what I thought. So yes, I’ll go over and I tell her I love her and maybe she’ll shout or throw something at me. And her Mom will give me the evil eye.”

“Make like you’re Michael Brandel – brush your hair and wear a suit. That might win her round. Mrs. Blye, that is. I’m not sure what would work for Kensi.”

“How about a hair shirt?” Despite himself, he couldn’t suppress a smile at that image. “But seriously, thank you. I don’t know what I’d do without you, Nico. Sometimes it seems like you’re the only person who can kick sense into me.”

“That’s because I’ve been kicking your butt since we were children. You were such a scrawny little kid. And I know you too well to put up with your crap!” And then Nico stopped laughing and turned serious. “Did you ever wonder why we never got together, Mikey? Or what it would have been like? What we would have been like together?”

“No. Never,” he lied, and crossed his fingers behind her back, just in case.

They broke apart just in time to watch Callen and Sam clasp hands briefly in triumph inside the interview room while Trevor Matthews surveyed the table with great interest. To all intents and purposes, he was a broken man.

“Full admission of guilt?” Deeks enquired when they exited a short while later.

“Signed, sealed and delivered. Once we’ve written up our reports, this case is officially closed.” Callen gave Nico a meaningful look.

“Speak for yourself, G. My paperwork is right up to date.” Deeks gave him a wicked grin. “Any plans for tonight then? Anything you’d like to share? No? How about you then, Nico?”

“I thought I’d tell them about that time when we were eleven. Remember? The time we were playing cowboys and Indians and…” She stopped and gave him a hard stare. “You really don’t want me to go there, do you?”

Callen pulled her into his arms. “He might not, but Sam and I would love to hear the whole story later on.”

“You’ve made him blush,” Sam observed, laughter in his voice. “One last night in Malibu then? We could throw some steaks on the barbeque, raid Deeks’ wine cellar and sit and watch the stars come up?” After a case, you always needed to decompress and especially after this case.

“Sounds good. Apart from the wine cellar bit. I don’t think I want to waste my fine wines on a pair of ingrates who chug beer. I’m going by the hospital first, so I’ll catch up with you later. I would say ‘make yourselves at home’, but you’ve pretty much done that already, haven’t you? These past few days have taken me back to college –-it’s been like living in a frat house all over again. Only with less hair and vomit.”

“Give my love to Kensi,” Nico called as he left the boathouse.

Deeks stopped at the florist and caught them just as they were about to close for the day. He chose armfuls of white flowers: irises, lilies, roses, stocks and a dozen others whose names escaped him. They lay on the back seat and filled the car with sweetness as he drove. Walking through the hospital, he felt like he should be in some Hollywood love story and judging by the reactions of the people he passed, they agreed. So it was a grand romantic gesture. So what. What did he have to lose? Well, that was the question, wasn’t it?

“Did you buy the whole shop?” Kensi asked, burying her nose in a bouquet of roses and admiring the others that lay on her bed.

He shrugged, suddenly nervous. “Pretty much, I guess. And I brought you something else. This.” He held out the ring, lying in the palm of his hand. “If you still want it, that is?”

My eyes are telling me leave well enough alone
My feet are telling me keep walking
Another voice is saying please don’t go
That’s just my heart talking

“You know I love you, right?” Kensi asked.

“Why do I sense there’s a “but” about to follow?” She hadn’t made a move for the ring. He knew what was going to happen next. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion and not being able to do a thing to stop it.

Kensi put down the roses and looked at him. “Maybe we took things too fast? I just need some space to work things through. But I do love you, Marty.”

It’s always leading me where I do not belong
To doorways where I shouldn’t be knockin’
Trying to pass itself off for a song
That’s just my heart talking

“You love me, but you don’t want to be with me?” he said wryly. “You’d rather be alone? Kensi, don’t take me for a fool. I can read between the lines. You want space – fine. I can do that. I love you enough to do that. Even though it’s killing me.” Marty’s fingers contracted around the ring and he shoved his hand into his pocket, aware that his whole body was trembling.

“I’m not ending this, Marty. It’s just that I’ve got a lot of things to think about,” she protested. “And I need to get away for a while. I’ve got sick leave due to me and I thought I’d back to Mom’s for a while.”

“You want to think about us and our future together by yourself? Kensi – I want to help you, to be with you. Don’t push me away.”

It’s talking,
Sometimes I don’t know what to say
I turn to look the other way
Are you talking, talking to me?

“Don’t do this, Marty. Please don’t do this.”

“Okay, we’ll do this your way. I’ll go and I’ll wait to hear from you. But don’t you ever forget that I love you enough to let you do this. So give me a call when you want to talk, will you? I’ll be waiting.” He shook his head in disbelief. “By the way –- I thought you might want this. For old time’s sake.”

It was the “Surf’s Up” t-shirt she’d worn the first time she’d stayed over in Malibu. Kensi reached out and pulled it towards her, feeling the softness of the cotton.

“Get better soon, sweetheart.”

Some people tell me eyes are windows to the soul
But eyes can be like empty sockets
Maybe you’d be better off alone
But that’s just my heart talking

After he left, Kensi lay back on the pillows and wept into the shirt, using it to stifle her sobs. She remembered talking to Nico and telling the other woman how she was afraid she’d push too hard one day and she was painfully aware that she had just pushed away the best man she’d ever known.

He drove back to the house in a numb daze. For two cents, Marty would have thrown the damn ring in the ocean, but that would have been childish. Besides which, it had looked so good on Kensi’s finger. “Wonder if I’ve got the record for the world’s shortest engagement? Must have been all of twenty-four hours.”

When he got back to the house they were all on the terrace, catching the last of the evening sun, relaxing and enjoying life. It was like a scene from some lifestyle magazine.

“How’s Kensi” Nico asked, trying to keep the dog away from the steaks.

“Sitting up in bed.” He snagged a beer and gulped down a couple of mouthfuls appreciatively.

It’s talking,
Sometimes I don’t know what to say
I turn to look the other way
Are you talking, talking to me?

“She’s talking about going back to stay with her Mom for a bit while she recuperates.” Marty finished the beer in another few gulps, grabbed another and, kicking off his shoes started to walk across the grass .It was cool and damp underneath his bare feet and the dog frolicked happily beside him. “You’ve been putting on the sprinklers again, Sam, haven’t you?” he yelled.

“If you want a lush lawn, you’ve got to work at it,” Sam responded unrepentantly.

In the distance Marty could see the ocean stretching out, immense and vast and infinite, sparkling under the setting sun, beckoning him. “Looks like the surf’s up, Bobby. How about you and me go catch us a wave?”

My eyes are telling me leave well enough alone
These boots are telling me start walking
Another voice is saying please don’t go
But that’s just my heart talking
That’s just my heart talking

***End***

“That’s Just My Heart Talking” lyrics belong to Ron Sexsmith

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