Personal Questions (by Claire)

Summary:   Based on the episode “Personal.”
Category:  NCIS-LA
Genre:  Crime
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,218


 

It hurts. Sweet Jesus, it hurts!

Struggling upwards through the mists of confusion, peeling back the layers of heaviness that press down upon him, he struggles to open his eyes as the pain rises. And there she is, sitting at the side of his bed, so he knows he cannot let the moan of pain leave his lips.

Oh God, it hurts so much. Make it stop, please make it stop. Make her go away so I can scream.

“Am I dead?” The pains in his chest feel like several devils are prodding him with red hot pokers, and he feels like he’s in hell. “I figure I must be dead.”

Marty is only aware that he has spoken aloud when Kensi leaps to her feet and leans over his bed, with an expression on her face that is half-joy, half worry. She says something and for a moment Marty could swear there is a slight tremor in her voice, which is strange, he thinks. Not like Kensi at all.

Kensi the Confident, that’s how he thinks of her in private. Which he does a lot. Probably too often. Certainly too often for comfort. But comfort is something singularly lacking in his life in general and is definitely conspicuous by its absence right now. How many times has he dreamt he is lying in bed and Kensi is beside him? Good question. Too many times, and that’s the truth. There have been too many long, hot, sleepless nights spent lying awake, thinking of her. Too many nights when the sounds of the surf has floated in through his open window and pounded in his ears till he felt like screaming. And now his dream has come true in the worst way possible and all Marty Deeks can think of is that he wants Kensi to get the hell away from him.

You don’t show pain. You don’t show vulnerability.

Marty learns these lessons at a very young age and he learns them well. Too well perhaps? That’s another good question. He learns how to smile no matter what, to make a joke and to ignore barbed remarks. After years of practice, it is easy to pretend he doesn’t notice that he’s not really a part of the team. Marty is only too aware he is an outsider, the guy who is there on sufferance. And so he smiles and he plays the role of the good-natured, none-too-bright surfer boy to perfection. Marty knows his laid-back persona seems to rile the NCIS team-members, but he can’t help it. He’s been acting this part for too many years to change now. But the lack of acceptance still hurts. Despite everything, despite all those hard lessons he’s learned, there is something deep within him that cries out when he is alone. And he is always alone. There is no one left who understands, there is no one to share his pain.

Don’t let people get close to you, Marty, because then they can hurt you.

Only right now he can’t think of anything hurting more than this pain in his chest.

It hurts so much. Stop it. Make it stop.

But she is talking again, Kensi the Confident is taking charge and making him feel like he’s a kid back at school. He has to respond, so Marty puts a sweet smile on his face and tries to answer with a joke. And all the time the pain is roiling away and every breath feels like barbed wire. And Kensi doesn’t even ask how he’s feeling, so he can hardly blurt out that he needs pain relief RIGHT NOW. He feels so bad that if someone doesn’t do something for this pain he’s going to throw up. Somehow Marty manages push the pain down and stays in control just long enough for a nurse to come in.

“You’re awake,” she says, checking the monitors quickly and adjusting the IV. “How do you feel?” Marty just gives a weak smile and watches as she shoots his partner a resentful look, which of course Kensi is impervious to. And then the nurse leans across the bed, leaving a faint hint of her perfume floating in the sterile hospital air and shows him the pain button, taking care to press it so that a dose of morphine is released. Kensi doesn’t notice. Has she even thought that he might be in agony? Does she even care? And that’s the crucial question, one which he asked so many times before, but right now, he’s not particularly interested in her answers. All he wants is for the pain to go away.

Never admit weakness, Marty. People will take advantage of you. Be a man.

Within seconds the drug starts to take effect and the pain ratchets down a couple of degrees. It’s still there, but he can cope with this. He forces a smile and makes a joke with the nurse.

Kensi doesn’t look impressed. “What is it with guys and nurses?”

Marty answers without thinking. “They’re helpful and caring.” And for a moment, he could swear that Kensi looks sad. “Did you guys catch my shooter?

“Not yet. Did you recognize him?”

By now the morphine is really kicking in. “It’s hard to remember,” he admits and feels ashamed. He should remember. It’s his job to remember.

He wishes she would go away and leave him in peace. But more than anything, he wishes there was someone who cared, someone to take his hand and hold it tightly, someone to sit at the side of his bed and tell him everything will be alright, make him believe that he will be alright. But there isn’t. There is only Kensi. And she will stay here out of a sense of duty, because he is her partner. Because she has to stay. It’s her job. Why else would she be here?

*****

Earlier that morning

“Deeks has been shot,” Hetty announced. That statement spoke volumes. Hetty, always one for etiquette, had not said “Mr. Deeks,” in her customary fashion, but just plain “Deeks”. She regretted the words the moment they left her mouth

Deeks. Why did I say that? How cold did that sound, how impersonal? Why do I never call him Marty anymore? Does the rest of the team call him Marty, or is he just Deeks to them too? Does anyone call him Marty anymore?

Hetty gave her head a small shake and tried to control the thoughts racing around her brain with dizzying speed.

You can’t afford to let personal feelings enter into this, she chided herself. Do not be so self-indulgent. You must concentrate. You have a job to do and the lives of your other agents — Marty’s team members — may depend on how you do that job. Try not to think of him as Marty from now on. It’s too personal. Except this time it is personal. Marty is not just another member of NCIS. He’s much more than that.

Hetty took a deep breath and began talking again. She was a professional; she had spent all her adult life working in complex situations where the lives of dozens of people depended upon her. So why did this shooting affect her so much?

Why does it have to be Marty? Good question. I was the person who brought him into NCIS. I am responsible. It’s my fault.

Last year, when Dom had been killed, she had held the team together. It was what she had been trained to do. But this was different. This time it was personal.

He was such a sweet little boy. I loved him so much.

But that was long ago and right now Henrietta Lang had a job to do. Someone had shot one of her agents and she was going to find out exactly why and put an end to this. She had a bad feeling about the whole situation, a sixth sense that told her there was something deeper going on. It was a puzzle, but Hetty had always been good at games. In many ways, her whole adult life had been spent playing games. She could still play four games of chess simultaneously, with four different opponents and beat at least three of them. This was just another game, even if the stakes were higher. She wasn’t prepared to gamble with Marty’s life. There would be a time for revenge later on. After the game was won, there would be time.

Hetty took a deep breath to compose herself. “Mr. Deeks was shot in the chest. He’s in surgery at Pacific West Hospital.”

The news hit Sam like a dull blow to the solar plexus. Deeks got shot? How could Deeks be so all-fired stupid as to get himself shot? He could feel the anger rise and fought to subdue it. You’re not annoyed at Deeks. Guy was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just bad luck on his part. Focus your anger. Concentrate on finding out who did this. Get the guy who shot Deeks. Make it right. He didn’t deserve this. Shot in the chest – that’s bad. That’s really bad.

Sam would have gone to hospital — heck, he wanted to go to the hospital — but Hetty had other ideas, telling him that his “particular skills” would be better served at the crime scene. And thus, as bidden, Sam and Callen went off to the Sand Dollar Convenience Store and Kensi went to see her partner. Hetty remained to direct activities. The first positioning of the players was crucial and this was the best use of resources. When situations like this arose, the team ceased to be people: they became pieces in a larger game. She forced herself to concentrate, to stay here and develop her strategy, to begin to gather the information that would determine the next stage. No matter how much she wanted to go to the hospital right now, Hetty would not indulge herself. She would do her job, come what may.

*****

As Callen drove, the atmosphere in the car could have been cut with a knife. Neither man wanted to voice their fears. It was every agent’s worst nightmare and Callen had been there before. He knew exactly what getting shot in the chest felt like. It was something he relived in the smothering dreams of darkness. It hurt. It hurt beyond the normal realms of imagination. That realm of incessant, gut-wrenching pain was not a place he wanted to visit again. It was just over a year since he had been shot and the memories were as fresh as the scars.

Keeping his emotions under control was a daily part of Callen’s life. Years of moving around between various temporary homes had taught him that. He was good at controlling himself and he was equally good at playing the system. Violence and death were also a part of his life, but he had less control over these. And right now he was struggling to stay detached. Marty Deeks had been shot in the chest. That was serious. He knew exactly how serious that was. Sometimes, Callen really didn’t like his life.

At first glance, it was looked exactly like a hundred other crime scenes they had attended before: there was the same flurry of cops moving around, the ever-present bands of yellow and black scene-of-crime tape festooning the sidewalk and of course there was a familiar group of rubber-neckers gawping across the street. Only this time it was different. This time, when Sam looked at the blood on the floor, the discarded medical supplies strewn all around, all he could think was that thirty minutes ago Deeks had been lying on that floor, lying helpless, shot twice in the chest and bleeding. And that made it different. Like it or not, that made it personal. They were involved. One of their own had been shot. And that meant all the normal rules flew straight out of the window.

Versey, the LAPD detective in charge, didn’t seem bothered that a fellow cop had been shot and was more than willing to let NCIS take over the case. He seemed to treat getting shot as little more than an occupational hazard. “Looks like he walked in on a robbery. Happens all the time. We’ve probably had a dozen robberies a week like this for the last month.”

“This time it’s different,” Sam scowled. “This time it’s one of ours.”

Versey flushed and turned away angrily. Sam didn’t much care. Guy was a jerk. He went into the store and suppressed a shudder as he stepped over the mess of blood on the floor. Deeks’ blood, which had only just started to congeal. The metallic smell seemed to linger obscenely in the air.

“It comes with the territory, right?” he asked. They all knew that. Only it was different when it was someone you knew. One year ago, Callen had been shot and he was fine now. Six months after that, Dom had been shot and he had died. And now it was Deeks’ turn and all they knew was that he was in surgery. Sam didn’t much want to think of what the odds might be that Deeks would recover. Getting shot in the chest was always bad.

There wasn’t much evidence to be gathered at the store. The digital camera wasn’t even recording. Great. They’d have to rely on the external traffic cameras to get any evidence. The one thing that was obvious was that the storekeeper seemed to know Deeks pretty well. He was a regular customer there and he’d clearly made a great impression. Sam could understand that. So why do I keep knocking him down? Why can’t I accept him? Sure he’s not Dom, but that’s not his fault. He was brought in to do a job and he’s good at it.

“I can’t believe it – Marty was such a good guy!” The storekeeper looked genuinely upset.

Sam gave him a withering look. “He still is,” he said firmly. “Deeks is a pain in the ass, but he doesn’t deserve this.”

“No one does,” Callen replied sadly. Sometimes life really sucked. I wonder how he is? Is he out of surgery yet? Is he still alive?

*****

Kensi had looked at Hetty with sheer disbelief. “Deeks is my second partner to get shot. So I would really like to be there. Look, the last time I wasn’t there and Dom was dead the next time I saw him. So please – okay?” Her eyes were dilated with fear. First Dom and now Deeks. How can this be happening to me again? What’s going on? I can’t lose another partner.

“I’m sure your partner will want to see you when he wakes up,” Hetty said quietly, giving Kensi a quizzical look. The girl was obviously distraught, but she was focusing on solely on herself and her own needs, and that concerned Hetty. It raised serious questions about Kensi’s objectivity and her ability to continue to function effectively. It worried Hetty that Kensi should see Marty first and foremost as her partner, rather than as an individual.

He can’t die. What is wrong with me that everyone I get close to leaves me? It started with Jack, then Dom and now Deeks. They all leave me.

Afterwards, Kensi had no memory of driving to the hospital, but she was pretty sure she’d run several red lights and probably set a new record for speeding. Quite frankly, she didn’t care. And now she felt as if she had been waiting forever, standing in an anonymous hospital corridor, staring into space and trying not to think about what was going on in the operating theatre. Waiting for news and praying he would be alright. It had been a long time since she’d prayed and she was kind of rusty at it, but she tried. Please. Let him be alright. Please.

She swallowed convulsively and looked at the watch she was holding – Deeks’ watch. They should have been finished by now. What’s taking so long? What’s wrong?

Her hand was starting to cramp and she realized she been gripping onto Deeks’ wallet in the same way a drowning man grasps a lifesaver. Relaxing her hold, Kensi opened her fingers and, without thinking, gently caressed his ID photograph. Deeks was looking straight at the camera, without any guile or pretence. Yes, it was a handsome face, but it was also an honest face, she realized. For so long Kensi had deliberately only seen the tousled hair, the dark blue eyes and she’d fallen into the trap of thinking Deeks was just another stereotypical Californian alpha male with a buff body and careless charm. She had known so many guys like Deeks over the years, guys with charmed lives, to whom everything came easily, who just had to crook their little fingers for the world to bend to their will. Well, she was tired of their superior attitudes and she was weary of being used by them and of being hurt by them. She was Kensi Bligh, she was an NCIS agent and she was damn good at her job. She was better than half the male agents and that was the truth. She should be a senior agent like Callen and Sam, but no, she had to be teamed up with the new guy on temporary liaison from the LAPD. His charm left her cold. She knew his type. And yet…

He’s smart. He’s funny and kind and he’s almost as good as me. We make a good team. Maybe we could even be a great team, if I stop trying to prove how much better I am than him. He’s not a bad man. I trust him with my life every day, so why can’t I trust him with my feelings? Why can’t I admit how I feel about him?

The doors opened to let the gurney through, with a whole team of medical personnel in attendance. Kensi spun around, her whole attention fixed on Deeks. He lay there, perfectly still and at first a casual observer might have thought he was asleep, so natural was the look on his face. And then she saw the stark white of the dressings standing out in sharp contrast to his tanned skin and Kensi felt chilled to the bone. This shouldn’t be happening.

His head was turned to face her and there was a strangely sweet half-smile on his lips. There was no pretence now. She felt she was seeing the real Marty Deeks for the first time. He was just a man. But more than that: he was her partner.

Kensi knew how fragile the human body was and she dreaded the day when a bullet would hit her. So far she had been lucky, but no one could stay lucky forever. Today, Deeks had been shot, but one day it would be her and just the thought of that was terrifying. How would she cope with the reality? Kensi would lie awake at nights and try to imagine how it would feel to have a bullet punch into her body, to gouge a path through her flesh, destroying muscle and bone. And then she would be unable to sleep, so she would go out running, pounding the streets in an attempt to push her fears into oblivion. She was usually unsuccessful, but it meant she could run ten miles without a problem.

He’s a good man and he doesn’t deserve this. He looks so young. He looks so vulnerable. And how come his hair still looks so good? It’s not fair!

And in the sterile-smelling hospital corridor, Kensi Bligh felt her heart flip over. As the doctor started to speak, all she could process was that Deeks was going to be alright. He wasn’t going to die. Her heart compressed with painful joy. It was going to be alright. Sure, he’d been shot twice, he was pretty messed up, but they’d used small caliber bullets. There was no major damage. Deeks was going to live. He was going to be alright.

The doctor’s next question came from left field. “There no next of kin listed. Is there someone we should call?” She looked vaguely annoyed. Over the years she had dealt with numerous cops and federal agents and they all knew how important it was to keep the paperwork up to date. This man seemed to have slipped through the cracks. Normally, when a cop was shot, his buddies were littering the corridors. This poor guy only merited a single agent. Doesn’t his department care? What is going on here?

Who was Deeks’ next of kin? It was a good question, Kensi thought. It was just a pity she didn’t know the answer. She’d worked with this guy for six months and she didn’t even know who his next of kin was? That was shocking. How did this happen? How did I allow it to happen? Why didn’t I make the slightest effort to get to know anything about him?

*****

The traffic cameras near the convenience store were useful – up to a point. The footage revealed a gray Mustang that was clearly the getaway vehicle, but there just wasn’t the right angle to see the number plates. That was bad. Even worse was the fact that the camera was too far away to make a positive ID on the shooters. But the real sting in the tail came when they realized the guys had been inside the shop for seven minutes. Seven minutes to do a simple hold-up that should have taken ninety seconds at the very most. Something didn’t add up, but it looked like they had hit a dead end.

“Bring up the nearest camera to 1894 Parkson Avenue, please,” Hetty requested. “West end of the street, one hour before the shooting.”

Eric complied instantly and an image flashed onto the screen. Hetty was aware the address meant nothing to the rest of her team. It was only when the footage showed Marty jogging casually across the road, hair blowing in the light morning breeze, that they realized what they were looking at.

“I wouldn’t be doing a good job if I didn’t keep an eye on my agents,” Hetty remarked tartly, annoyed both at their sheer lack of basic knowledge about a colleague and at the fact they did not bother to conceal their surprise. Callen winced as the barb hit home.

I’m the team leader and I never bothered to find out where Deeks lived. I don’t know anything about him. That guy in the convenience store knows more about Deeks than I do. How did this happen? Where did we go so wrong? How did we let this happen?

Forcing his attention back to the footage, Callen’s mind registered something out of place.

“Rewind the tape, Eric. And focus in on the bottom left-hand corner.” And there it was, the same gray Mustang they spotted outside the convenience store. Damn, that wasn’t good.

“Those guys in the Mustang were waiting for him!” Sam exhaled in disbelief and horror.

Callen agreed. “Deeks didn’t stumble on a robbery,” he announced. “He was ambushed.”

Everything changed in an instant. Suddenly there was a new game in play and they had been caught off-guard.

“One never gets used to the idea of losing an agent,” Hetty reflected. “On duty or off. Go make him safe.” That was the number one priority. Nothing else came close to being as important as that. Nothing else mattered.

*****

Kensi sat by Deeks’ bed, watching him closely, willing him wake up. She watched and she waited. She seemed to have been waiting around all day, but it was still morning. This was the longest day ever and it was hardly begun. Her cell rang and she answered it quickly.

“Kensi?” It was Callen and he sounded distracted. “How is he?”

“He’s out of surgery and he’s going to be okay.”

“This wasn’t a random shooting. Deeks was targeted. You’re now on security detail and we’re coming over.”

“Before you go – the hospital wanted to know who Deeks’ next of kin is.”

“Good question.” He ended the call and turned to Hetty. “Who is Deeks next of kin?” She’d know. Hetty knew everything about her team. She knew where Deeks lived, she knew that Sam over-watered his lawn, she knew about his own visits to his sister’s grave. Hetty knew everything.

“Good question.” She wouldn’t meet his eye. Realizing she would say nothing more, Callen left, feeling strangely perplexed. First a random shooting that turned out to be deliberate, then Hetty’s decidedly strange behavior, now it turned out Deeks had no next of kin noted. Something was definitely out of kilter. It made him feel uneasy, like he wasn’t quite seeing the whole picture.

*****

Sitting at the side of Deeks’ bed, watching him as he slept gave Kensi plenty of time for thinking. Someone was out to get Deeks? It didn’t make sense. But there were procedures that would be put into place automatically and within ten minutes, fifteen at the most, the hospital would be full of cops. He would be safe here. If anyone wanted to get to Deeks, they would have to go through the LAPD and then they would have Kensi Bligh, NCIS agent, to deal with. She wasn’t about to let him get hurt again. One bullet was bad enough, two were terrible and a third would probably kill him. But she was here and she wasn’t going to let that happen. Nothing more could hurt him.

Kensi looked across the room and out into the corridor. She could just see a sliver of window and a shaft of bright sunlight dancing across the floor. The sun was shining and Deeks was going to be alright. Despite everything, it was a good day. Kensi let her mind drift off into a pleasant daydream. Her favorite daydream, the one she replayed over and over again…

Oh, that operation when Sam had been undercover in Oakville prison as Hakeem Fayed… that was when she had seen him at his best! She and Deeks were part of the escape plan, playing two very dead paramedics, who were dumped unceremoniously on the ground while Sam and the others made off in the ambulance. Okay, that bit hadn’t been quite so great. The concrete was cold and the fake blood was unpleasantly sticky. But then, the moment the coast was clear, Deeks had stood up, and promptly stripped off the blood-soaked uniform. He had seemed totally unconcerned at the fact he was only wearing boxers underneath it and had just stood there, with a slight smirk on his face. If she closed her eyes, she could relive the moment in glorious Technicolor…

Damn, but he looked fine. I bet he’s a swimmer. He’s got a swimmer’s body with those broad shoulders and narrow hips. He knew exactly how good he looked standing there and he was enjoying it. So was I, only I wasn’t going to let him see that. Oh boy, those great pecs and that washboard stomach. And those cute boxer shorts. He had that whole “surfer dude” vibe going on and he knew it. Oh yes, he looked good…

His hair looked good too. Actually, his hair always looks good. It looks good now, even if it is falling over his forehead. Maybe I should just brush it back a bit? No, better not. He might wake up. How come his hair always looks so good? Why do I want to touch him so much?

I wonder what he’s wearing right now? Did they cut all his clothes off in the emergency room? I mean, that’s pretty standard, isn’t it? I bet they did. I bet he’s naked. Those covers are pulled right up to his waist, but maybe if I could just move them a little and…

“Am I dead?” Deeks’ voice interrupted her fantasy. He sounded surprisingly normal and Kensi came back to reality with a thud.

I’m supposed to be guarding him, not lusting after him. Maybe I’m suffering from delayed shock? I wonder if that tan ends where his boxer shorts would be, or if it goes all the way down… Help! What’s wrong with me? This is sick! I’m one sick, sick woman.

“I figure I must be dead.” Deeks sounded confused and his eyes weren’t quite focusing properly. But he was awake and he was alive.

“Hey there!” Kensi couldn’t keep the smile out of her voice as relief flooded through her body. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily!” She fought back the impulse to take hold of his hand, to run her fingers through his hair. She was an NCIS agent and right now she had a job to do. Doing her job well was the best way she could help Deeks. It wouldn’t help him if she got all mushy and went to pieces, no matter how much she wanted to. Her job was to make sure nothing more happened to him. There would be a time for everything else later on. And Kensi was going to make sure that time was well-spent. She had a lot of questions to ask, a lot of lost time to make up for. She’d been given a second chance.

A nurse came in at that moment, and Kensi went into professional mode, checking her out, watching her like a hawk as she checked Deeks over.

“Is there anyone you want me to contact?” she asked after the nurse had finally left. “Any friends or family? Girlfriend?”

Deeks looked at her briefly and then dropped his gaze. “I’m dying, aren’t I?”

“Not yet.” Not on my watch. “Who’s your next of kin?”

“That’s a good question,” he replied sadly. It was funny, but Kensi would have sworn Deeks looked genuinely confused.

*****

This journey was different. This time the relief in the car was almost palpable.

“He’s lucky he’s not dead,” Sam fumed. “I’m going to kill him.”

“Give him some slack,” Callen advised. He could understand where Sam was coming from, but this wasn’t the time or the place.

But Sam was on a roll and he wasn’t about to stop. “What was Deeks thinking about? Same routine every day? He should know better. I change my routine every single day. I never use the same route twice. As soon as he gets better…” I’m not going let that happen to him again. I should have looked out for him. I’m a senior agent and I should have done my job properly. If I had, maybe he wouldn’t be lying there in the hospital with two holes in his chest.

“Cut him some slack,” Callen repeated patiently. “It was his neighborhood, he felt safe there. And remember, Deeks has been traumatized, so don’t go in with that attitude. Go easy on him. He’s a cop, not an agent.” At what point does he become one of us, an NCIS agent? Deeks has been with us for six months now. We should have made sure he knew the score. We should have taken the time to go over things with him. This is our fault. We’re all to blame. We should have looked out for him. I should have looked out for him. Why didn’t I look out for him?

Guilt was a futile exercise. It ate you up from the inside out and then doubled back on itself. It occupied your mind when you should be concentrating on other things. Guilt was your conscience finding a direct path to your brain. Guilt was uncomfortable.

Callen and Sam drove in silence after that, letting their mutual guilt absorb their thoughts. They allowed themselves to be distracted and they completely failed to notice the gray Mustang three cars behind them, until it was almost too late. And that meant they were as bad as Deeks. Only they had no excuses. They were senior NCIS agents and they’d dropped the ball.

There was a screech of tires, a flurry of bullets and the pumping sound of blood rushing through dilated veins as their adrenaline levels soared. They worked in slick synchronicity, each man knowing where his partner would be automatically. It was a well-rehearsed routine. Only it wasn’t perfect. One man was down, dead before he hit the ground. He wasn’t going to tell them anything. But the other one got away. They let the other one get clean away. It was a basic mistake, the kind a probie would get razzed about.

“Those guys are good!” Sam admitted. He didn’t like to think about what could have happened. The shooters had almost got to Deeks again. He hated it when he fouled up. This was a lousy day and it was getting worse by the second.

Something had been bothering Callen since the convenience store. “That detective Versey – he didn’t even bother to put a protective detail on one of his own. Versey admitted that he didn’t like Deeks, but he did say he was a good cop. So why the LAPD put on an automatic police guard? Why did it have to take NCIS to do that?”

Cops looked after their own. That was an unwritten rule. So what was going on here? The whole day was a complete mess and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. One thing was clear to Callen as he entered the hospital ward– he wasn’t going to start asking Deeks questions right now. The guy looked like hell. Which was fair enough, given what he been through.

“It won’t happen again.” Deeks avoided their eyes and looked completely miserable. He felt like such a fool. It was like being a kid again and having his older brother tell him off for doing something stupid. All he’d ever wanted to do was to be half as good as his brother. If Chris had lived, I reckon he would have been a lot like Callen. Only he would have kicked my butt into the middle of next week for being such a careless idiot.

“We’ll let it slide.” After what had just happened outside, Callen didn’t feel he was in a position to lecture anyone about personal security and taking appropriate precautions.

Sam had no such compunctions. “After you recover, you and I are going to have a little talk.” He meant it kindly, but the look on Deeks’ face made him feel like he’d just kicked a cringing puppy. Some days were just plain bad from the get-go. This particular day was rancid.

Callen ran through the facts, so far as they knew them. It didn’t take long.

“Why would someone target me?” Deeks asked, looking genuinely confused. It seemed like they were going to such a lot of trouble. Those guys in the gray Mustang must have been trying to finish the job they’d started in the shop earlier that morning. He reeled off details of the shooter automatically.

“Small guy, small gun. He was about five-seven, wiry, pretty fast.”

That fit the description of the guy Eric had identified as a likely candidate.

“Looked like he used a two-two,” Deeks added.

“We recovered forty-five rhino casings on the drive outside, “Sam informed him. Deeks looked shattered, but he deserved to know the facts. He owed him that much. No use in trying to sugar-coat things. “Somebody really doesn’t like you.”

“Why didn’t he get it right first time?” It was a good question. But nobody could answer him.

I was lying right in front of him. I was an easy target. Why didn’t he go for the kill shot?

*****

“Miss Jones?” Hetty beckoned the intelligence analyst over. “I’d like you to do some research into Gordon John Brandel. He was released from Folsom State Prison in 1996.”

Nell nodded and scanned the brief details on the discharge sheet. It was the sole piece of evidence in the file folder. There wasn’t much to go on. So the sooner she got started, the better.

“Full checks, please. Parole, contacts and addresses. I want to know everything about him since his release.”

Nell wondered who this guy was and how Hetty had tied him into the investigation. There was so little detail on him, it didn’t seem possible that she could have plucked his name out of thin air. Hetty was a legend in intelligence circles, but surely even she wasn’t that good?

“And Miss Jones? Discretely.”

That woman could put so much meaning into one single word, Nell reflected, as she hugged the slim folder to her chest and ran upstairs to begin her work. She was beginning to learn when to keep her mouth shut, but nobody said her mind couldn’t work overtime. A little speculation could be very productive, after all.

Hetty sat quietly and let her thoughts run back, rewinding the years. Gordon John Brandel. The youngest and most successful of the famous Brandel Brothers. Twenty years ago, that name had been everywhere: Brandel Brothers were among the top property owners in America, with a massive portfolio of hotels, conference centers and malls; holdings that stretched from coast to coast. Everyone knew them; everyone wanted to work with them. Going into business with the Brandels was the nearest thing to a certainty you could get in business.

Thirty years ago, Jack Brandel had been living the American dream. He was the golden boy of the family, who ran the company’s west coast operations and lived in a Malibu mansion that was featured in Architectural Digest. He was handsome and talented and he’d even managed to marry well. The proof that he had really made it into the big time was when the wedding photographs were published in People magazine. Jack had the world at his feet and his press service confirmed that more column inches were devoted to him than Donald Trump. Life was very sweet.

His fall was just as swift. And now the business was dismantled, the name of Brandel Brothers was almost forgotten and nobody had seen Jack for years. Well, it was time to change all that. There was a price to be paid and an old score to settle. And Hetty wanted answers. She’d waited too long and today she had realized that it was almost too late.

Where did it all start to go so wrong, Jack? When did the power go to your head, so that you thought you were invincible? You had it all and you threw it all away. Twenty years ago, you were still a young man, with two young sons and a beautiful wife who adored you. You had more money than you could spend in a dozen lifetimes and you ruined everything. Did you think the cocaine would make you Superman? Did you start to believe you were like those superheroes in the comic books Marty used to devour? For a clever man, you were incredibly stupid.

Do you know what your imprisonment did to your family, Jack? Christopher dropped out of Harvard and enlisted in the Marines. He was killed in Iraq. His family never got his body back. So there was no grave to grieve at. That was the last straw for Maryanne. She couldn’t live with all those tragedies. Your wife took an overdose and she died. Maryanne died when she was only thirty-eight years old. She should have had her whole life ahead of her to look forward to. And now I suspect you are involved in this operation. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but rest assured of one thing, Jack: I’m going to track you down and you are going to pay for all the damage you’ve done.

*****

Being shot is nothing like it is in the movies, Marty thought, trying to find a position that reduced the pain levels from screaming agony to almost bearable. He couldn’t. Each position he tried was worse than the last. Eventually, he gave it up as a bad job and tried to ignore the waves of pain that peaked with each breath he took.

No matter how hard you train, there are some things that your body just can’t cope with and this is definitely one of them. It feels like there are raw ends of bone grinding together inside me and they must have cut every muscle in my chest. His hand reached out and pressed the pain button. I don’t feel like I’ll ever be able to get out of this bed without collapsing.

“Have you ever been shot?” he asked, more to kill the awkward silence than anything else. Kensi kept giving him the strangest looks and he was too tired and in too much pain to try to figure them out.

She must be fed up just sitting here and watching me fall in and out of sleep. Bet she wishes she was with Sam and Callen, doing something more exciting.

Kensi shook her head.

“I don’t believe you.” The morphine was starting work, and he was starting to say things that really should be left unsaid.

“It’s true. I’ve never been shot.” Kensi felt like she was confessing. She had never told anyone that before, preferring just to let them wonder. Why do I feel so bad about admitting that? It’s not like I’ve failed. But I just feel like I won’t be a real agent until I’ve been shot. And that’s crazy.

“Really? I always thought you were a lot like Wonder Woman, and now I know you are. You’re bulletproof”. Oh God, these drugs work fast. Shut up, Marty. Next thing you know you’ll be calling her by her Superhero name: Kensi the Confident.

“There’s a lot we haven’t told each other.” There’s a lot I should have told you. Like how I think you’re a pretty decent guy. And how watching you try not to let on how much pain you’re in is breaking my heart.

Deeks shut his eyes for a second. There’s something she’s not telling me.

Kensi decided it was time to change the subject. “Sam faxed over a list of suspects. Lots of names – got to be over a hundred.” That was an impressive tally. Sam had added that, although Versey clearly didn’t like Deeks, he admitted he was a good cop. Which meant a lot, coming from that particular source. And she was holding the proof right here in her hands.

“I didn’t realize I’d pissed off that many people,” Deeks said, scarcely able to keep the exhaustion out of his voice.

She tried to lighten the atmosphere. ”I was actually thinking the list was pretty short!” Her attempt at levity failed completely.

“Maybe you should add your name to it?” he said flatly. He gave her a beseeching look and Kensi almost dropped her guard.

Does he really think that? Have I really been that bad to work with? Why am I such a bitch to him?

For a moment, they just looked at one another, and then Deeks dropped his gaze and plucked nervously at the Band-Aid covering the IV site. He didn’t have the strength to pretend anymore. It was easier just to give up the struggle and say what he really felt. “I just got lazy and made myself an easy target.”

“You shouldn’t beat yourself up.” Let me make it better.

“I can’t help it. It’s one of the things I’m good at.” One of the very few things. Don’t you agree, Kensi?

And maybe it was the drugs working, but suddenly Deeks experienced the most vivid flashback, like some weird acid trip. He could see the shooter from this morning so clearly, see the gun pointing right in his face so that he was staring straight down the barrel. He could relive the exact moment when he realized he was going to die.

“Some cop, huh?” he asked wryly.

Kensi could not think of a single thing she could say in response that would give him some solace. She wanted desperately to comfort him, but could not begin to find the right words. I’ve failed him again. Why can’t I say what I feel? That I was so terrified when I heard he was shot? That I’ve been fighting my feelings for him since the very first day I saw him, even before I knew he was an undercover cop. That right now I want to lean over and kiss him like there is no tomorrow. Why can’t I do that?

Only she knew that saying or doing any of these things would ruin everything, so her only option was to sit quietly and just say nothing at all.

Marty was too tired to see the look of anguish on her face. All he knew was that he had bared his soul to her, told her how inadequate and stupid he felt and he’d got nothing back. Not one single word. Kensi had just looked at him.

All of a sudden, everything seemed completely pointless to him and the slide into morphine-flavored oblivion was a welcome release.

He’s been through hell and he still looks gorgeous. I want him so much it hurts. And I don’t know what to do. This is such a mess. How come his hair still looks so good? Oh great, I’ve completely lost it. I can’t even control my thoughts. I wonder if he is wearing boxer short or if he is naked under those covers? Guess I’ll never find out.

Kensi sat patiently until she was certain Deeks was sound asleep and then she stood up quietly, leaned across the bed and stroked his bare arm gently. She didn’t trust herself to kiss him, although she badly wanted to. And then she sat back down and waited some more. It seemed like all she was doing today was waiting. It was almost a relief when Nell came in an hour later, even if Deeks did reveal some extraordinary information that altered everything she thought she knew about him.

*****

“Progress report please, Miss Jones?”

Nell was clearly bursting with news. “I couldn’t find a trace of Gordon John Brandel after he was released in any of the systems, but I’m going to keep looking. Only, when I went over to the hospital, Deeks said he’d identified three possible suspects. Two of them are in prison, serving life sentences, but on non-related cases: Ivan Lee and Michael Thomson.”

“And the third name?” Hetty asked impatiently. She wasn’t interested in either Lee or Thomson.

“Gordon John Brandel!” Nell announced triumphantly. “Deeks shot Brandel when he was eleven years old. He told Kensi and me…” She had expected a reaction and was immediately deflated when she saw that Hetty was not in the slightest bit surprised by her revelation. It’s almost as if she knew all along. But how on earth could she? That’s impossible – isn’t it?

”And did he say anything else?”

Nell shook her head. Deeks had clammed up after that and Kensi had suggested she leave. Right enough, the poor guy was so white he looked like he might pass out at any moment.

“Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Callen?” Hetty asked, aware of an uninvited visitor who was hovering close by and giving every indication of eavesdropping.

“Is there something you want to tell me?” he countered.

Her answer was instinctive and as emphatic as it was succinct. “No.”

Callen wasn’t prepared to let this pass without further enquiry. “We are on the same page, aren’t we?”

He knows there is something more to this! Does he really think I’ll rise to the bait? Callen should learn to play chess; it might give him a little more finesse. “Of course we are,” she answered blandly.

Callen smiled. “Just seems that you’re a few pages ahead of me.” And that you’re never going to let me catch up.

“I’m a fast reader.” Her tone was as mild as tempered steel. Don’t push me. You don’t know who you are dealing with, Mr. Callen. There is a lot that you do not know: there are things you do not require to know.

Callen knew when to back down, when discretion was the better part of valor, but he couldn’t resist one final parting shot. “You will tell me if something comes up?”

“Of course, Mr. Callen.” She waited until he was definitely out of hearing before she continued her conversation with Nell. “Keep looking, Miss Jones. I need more information. Find Brandel for me.”

I’m getting closer, Jack. You can’t run forever. You haven’t begun to pay for that night you came home high on cocaine, so out of your head you were paranoid. At the trial, your lawyer said you were so delusional that you thought Christopher was trying to take over your position in the company. He was a nineteen-year-old college student – he was just a boy! He was more interested in having a good time with his buddies. But you couldn’t think straight. You just saw him as a threat, so you threw a punch and you knocked your son right across the room. When Chris hit the wall, it was with such force that your shotgun fell off the rack. Did it seem like a good idea to finish off the evening by killing him? Did it? Was that why you were aiming that gun at his head? Thank God, Marty knew there was a pistol in your desk drawer. I’m glad he shot you. He saved his brother that night but he’s had to live with the consequences for nearly twenty years.

Can you imagine what it is like for a child of eleven to see his father trying to kill his brother, as his mother stands screaming in the doorway, unable to move? Can you even begin to think about how scared he must have been? Or what it must be like for a little boy to have to shoot his father? Do these thoughts haunt you like they haunt me? I hope they do.

And what about Maryanne? Her whole world fell apart that night and she could never rebuild it. Eventually, she just couldn’t endure the struggle any longer. You killed her too, Jack. You’ve ruined so many lives. And you haven’t begun to pay. Prison was only the beginning.

The Brandel legal team had gone into overdrive. They didn’t bother to try to exonerate Jack: he was a liability, and even in a family business, money took precedent over sentiment. No, they had concentrated on keeping publicity to a minimum, making sure Jack pled guilty and that he signed over all his shares in the company to his wife, along with the Malibu mansion, the apartment in New York and the summer house in the Hamptons and various other assets too numerous to mention. One thing Maryanne didn’t have to worry about was money.

The smell of failure is anathema in the world of big business, and Jack’s sins were too great to be ignored. Once the trial was over, Brandel Brothers employed entire teams of publicists to try to repair the damage and to halt the decline in stock prices. They were very successful and the share prices soon began to climb again. Which was all most people were really bothered about in the first place. Soon, it was as if Jack Brandel had never existed. A few years later, the company sold their property holdings, re-invested in new technologies, changed their trading name and Brandel Brothers quietly disappeared.

Once you were locked away in prison, Maryanne divorced you and went back to her maiden name, and the boys did the same. Chris enlisted in the Marines and seemed really happy. Marty was doing well at school and Maryanne was trying her best. It didn’t last, of course…

I think I was working in Moscow when Christopher died. I’m certain that I’d newly transferred to Berlin when Maryanne took the overdose. The world was a very different place then; there was a lot of work to do and I was needed. It was deep undercover work, playing a long game that lasted for nine months. I’d devoted my life to serving my country and I was proud to do that. But I’m not proud of the fact that I was never around when Marty needed me. I failed him just as much as you did, Jack. I made some bad decisions and I’ve regretted them ever since.

By the time Marty was seventeen, he was completely alone: his mother and brother were dead and you had vanished as soon as you’d left prison. In the space of six years, your son lost everything that mattered. He’d inherited everything when Maryanne died, but what good was money when he’d lost his family? Did you know that your son was rattling around in that huge house in Malibu, with only the servants for company? Did you even care?

Marty is nothing like you. You don’t deserve a son like him. He became a cop because he wanted to make a difference. He’s a good man and I’m proud of him. I’ve kept my distance though. He was only four the last time I visited you and Maryanne, so he doesn’t remember me. Of course, I haven’t used my real name for years, so there is no reason he should make the connection. Marty has no idea who I am and it will stay that way.

Your son has done so well, Jack, despite everything you did to him. I kept an eye on him when I came back to California and it was relatively straightforward to arrange his secondment here, of course. There is no precedent for a liaison officer between NCIS and the LAPD, but I was able to pull some strings. I have one or two friends who have a certain amount of influence and this seemed like a good time to call in a few favors. I thought I was so clever. It all seemed so perfect.

How wrong I was. I must be getting old. But I’m not so old that I’ve even begun to forget what you did, Jack. And I’m going to find you and make you pay. Watch out. You won’t see me coming until it’s too late.

*****

Clock watching was never fun. As the hands edged slowly towards three o’clock, Kensi could feel her muscles starting to tense up. It looked as if NCIS identified the man behind the shooting and a meet was arranged for three. It was nearly time. It would soon be over. The plan did not allow for any survivors.

By now, Sam and the SWAT team would already be in place, ready and waiting for Callen. The waiting was the worst time. You had to control your adrenaline, keep alert, and not let your concentration slip for one second. You had to be prepared for the unexpected and be ready to react to a change in the game plan without a second thought. And Kensi excelled at that. Thinking on her feet was one of her best skills. She just hated all this waiting on the side-lines and the feeling of being completely helpless. But as much as she wanted to be with Sam and Callen and get the bastard who shot her partner, she wanted to stay beside Deeks even more.

He shot his father when he was eleven? Did he kill him? What on earth happened?

Deeks lay back against the pillows, eyes heavy with fatigue. He couldn’t rest, this one particular thought kept nagging away at the back of his mind.

“Why didn’t he finish me off? He used a .22 pistol. That’s just going to wound, unless you go for a head shot. He used a girl’s gun. So why didn’t he shoot me in the head and finish me off?”

Kensi didn’t want to go there. “Maybe that’s what they wanted – to wound you.”

Deeks shook his head. “No, that’s not it.” There was something more to this. If he could just think a bit harder, it would come to him. It was almost within reach, he just needed to concentrate. The morphine was dulling his senses, so he leaned forward knowing the movement would be agony. Which it indeed it was. Mary Mother of God, that hurt!

The waves of pain rolled back and forwards for some considerable time and the room went in and out of focus for at least two minutes, but it certainly helped to clear the fog from his head. And then the clouds cleared and he could see everything with complete clarity

“If I’m an easy target, that makes you guys impossible targets, right? I’m new to this but you guys, you guys live your lives with heightened security awareness at all times. I’m a cop and, like it or not, I’m the weakest link.” It’s all so obvious, now that I can think clearly. How come the others can’t see it?

“What if I’m not the target? What if I’m the bait?”

“To lure the rest of us out?” It made perfect sense, Kensi realized. Grabbing her phone, she speed-dialed Eric. There wasn’t a moment to lose.

“Callen is walking into a trap. Deeks is not the target. This is a set up to hit the rest of the team. Abort the mission.” Barely pausing for breath, Kensi turned to Deeks, “You are safe – they are not”. She was on a roll and ready for action. At last there was something constructive she could do. She started to run. At last there was something she could do.

“Wait a minute!” Deeks objected. “I’m still thinking here!” There’s something missing. Something important. Something you need to know, Kensi. Just give me a minute to figure it out.

But Kensi was too busy hear him, too involved in her plans to listen. Her mind had already moved on to the next step. Got to think ahead. Got to warn the guys. Deeks is okay now; I don’t have to worry about him.

Suddenly it all made sense, horrible sense. Deeks saw the whole picture and it scared him rigid. There was only one reason Santo and his buddy had come to the hospital and one reason only: they knew his partner would be there. Shooting him was the only means to an end. Kensi was the real target. And Kensi was gone haring off somewhere.

“KENSI!” Deeks yelled so loudly his right lung felt like it was going to collapse in on itself. A new, sharp pain asserted itself and it was noticeably difficult to breathe. Might have just done a bit more damage there. Great.

It was too late. Kensi was gone and he was stuck in this bed. And she clearly had no idea what she was going to run into. What did she say about being security conscious? That it was hard and you had to think every moment of every day?

There were some days when the best option was not to even bother getting up in the morning and just stay in bed with the covers pulled up over your head, Deeks thought. Only this wasn’t one of those days. Not by a long shot.

Moving rapidly through the hospital corridors, Kensi placed a call to NCIS. “Eric? Abort the mission. Deeks was not the target. Callen and Sam are walking into a trap. Get them out of that warehouse – it’s the perfect spot for an ambush.”

The signal on her cell went dead after that and, cursing at the timing, Kensi tore through the hospital, pushing her way past people. As she ran, Sam tried to call, but the reception was so poor only the odd word made it through crackles of static. Cursing under her breath, she pushed her way outside. Immediately, her cell rang again.

“Kensi?” It was Sam and he sounded worried.

Is he okay? Is Callen okay?

“Kensi – stay put. Do NOT leave the hospital. That’s an order.”

She was running towards her car, focused on getting to them. It was easy to ignore Sam.

“Kensi? Do you hear me? DO NOT MOVE. Stay inside the hospital. We are coming to you.” He barked out commands, short sentences that were incapable of being misunderstood.

What’s he talking about? I need to get to my team. My car’s only four hundred yards away.

Her feet pounded the sidewalk as she increased her pace. Every second counted.

Nearly there now.

“KENSI!” Sam yelled. She wasn’t listening to him; she was ignoring his clear instructions. He could hear she was running — the sounds of her footsteps were clearly relayed over the phone. She was running straight into trouble. Could this day get any worse?

You need to learn to listen, Kensi. You need to learn to obey orders instantly, without thinking. That’s your job. You’re going to get yourself killed.

“Kensi – you are the target!” Sam practically screamed down the phone. He didn’t much care if it shattered her eardrums; he had to stop her before she got herself killed.

It worked. She’d never heard Sam sound so desperate. As much as anything he said, it was the tone of his voice which stopped her as effectively as running into a brick wall. Skidding to a halt that ruined the heels of her boots beyond any hope of repair, Kensi looked around in shock. By now, she was halfway across the parking lot, right alongside the entrance road. She had run in a blind panic, heedless of her surroundings. And now she was in the open, in clear space, with no cover. She couldn’t have put herself in a worse position if she tried. And then, seemingly coming from nowhere, a van screeched to a halt beside her.

This is it. Today is the day I find out what it is like to get shot. Today is the day I die.

Defense was second nature to her. Kensi was a trained agent; she knew how to go on the attack as well. But she was outnumbered and she was overpowered. No matter what man oeuvres she tried, she wasn’t a match for three guys. When it came down to it, Kensi knew in her innermost heart that no matter how good she was, being female put her at an automatic disadvantage. Every time she fought a man, it was an unequal match. Nine times out of ten, a male opponent would win, due solely to his greater strength and weight. And that was in a one-to-one situation. Which this was not. The odds were crap, but she had nothing to lose. Kensi fought as she had never fought before in her life, using all her skills, all the tactics she’d ever learned. And quickly found out how useless it was. It was simple physics, simple arithmetic. Three against one, three men against one woman were not odds any sane person would bet against.

Is this how Deeks felt this morning, when he stared down the barrel of a gun and knew he was going to die? Does it hurt to die? It’s not fair. I’m not ready to die.

Salvation came swiftly, in the form of three shots, fired in rapid succession. Followed by more gunfire.

Good shooting. Got the bastard.

Standing over the gunman, Kensi was impressed, in a detached kind of way, at the grouping of the shots. It could have been a textbook example: chest shots, close grouping. Deadly. Then habit asserted itself. Never assume your opponent is incapacitated: always make sure. Make the situation safe. Do not put yourself or anyone else in unnecessary danger.

Kensi kicked her assailant’s gun out of reach and did a quick check of his condition. Mortal wounds. He won’t survive. He’s got minutes to live at the most. Good. That’s an end to all this. Shots came from over by the hospital. LAPD must have had a marksman on the scene. Thank God. One second later and this guy would have shot me. I was nearly lying there instead of him.

Across the road, over the long distance of the parking lot that separated her from the hospital, Kensi saw a familiar figure standing unsteadily in the entrance: tall, tanned and with a shaggy mop of golden blond hair that still looked good, despite all he’d been through. She’d been saved by an LAPD officer alright, but this one just happened to be her partner. Her already wounded partner.

How did he get there? He’s just out of surgery! What is he – Superman?

Kensi started to run. Even from a distance she could see that the white bandages wrapped around Deeks’ chest were stained with fresh blood. As she got closed, she could see the thin stream of blood that trickled down his left arm, where an IV line had been pulled out with little regard for finesse. And yet more blood, dark blood, was oozing down his torso and soaking into the light-blue scrub trousers that were all he was wearing. That’s not good. Where the hell did he get those scrubs from? He wasn’t wearing those before, was he? Kensi! Stop thinking about his body. Oh God, he looks bad.

Sprinting now, she covered the remaining distance in no time at all, but not soon enough to stop Deeks swaying and then stumbling unsteadily into a concrete pillar, crashing into it with his left shoulder as he started to keel over. Before she could get to him, a doctor materialized beside Deeks and started shouting for a gurney.

Hold on. I’m nearly there. “I’ve got him.” Kensi pushed the doctor aside.

Deeks was in her arms. The warm, solid weight was oddly comforting. She could smell the shampoo he used, as well as the tang of blood, blood that was all over her hands as she pressed against the worst of the bleeding, making him whimper aloud. And, more than anything that had happened today, that slight sound nearly did for her.

“You’re safe. I’ve got you,” Kensi mumbled, her face pressed into his hair, indulging herself.

For the first time that day, for the first time ever with Kensi, Deeks was able to let down his guard completely. The time for pretence was over. He didn’t have the strength for that anymore. He had to concentrate just to keep breathing. With a low moan of pain and a barely suppressed cry of “Oh God,” he slid down onto the sidewalk, breathing rapidly in low, shallow breaths.

It hurts. Make it go away. This is bad. This is really bad. Is this it? Is this how it all ends? But she’s safe. Kensi’s alright. I did my job.

It was too much. The pain in his chest was taking over. Deeks was too tired to fight any more, so he did the only the only thing left to him and gave up the struggle and finally let the pain take him away.

*****

“What the hell were you thinking?” Callen demanded. For once, he couldn’t keep his emotions under control. “You disobeyed a direct order Not only did you willfully put yourself in danger, you exposed the rest of the team to that danger. You know better than that, don’t you?”

Kensi nodded, balling up a Kleenex in her left hand and squeezing it hard. “I know.”

“You’ve got no excuses,” he added, in a tone of cold disdain. He couldn’t forget how bad Deeks had looked, as the ER team knelt beside him, trying to stop the bleeding, frantically starting IVs, and pumping his chest to keep him alive.

“I know,” she repeated miserably. “He asked me to wait. Deeks knew there was something else, but I didn’t listen to him. And now, now he’s…”

“No, he’s not. “ Sam momentarily stopped his pacing up and down the small waiting room. “Don’t even think that. Deeks is not dead.”

“You don’t know that.” Kensi couldn’t stop the tears. Had she ever cried before her team before? Probably not, but right now she didn’t care. She just let the tears slide down her cheeks. It was a while before she could compose herself enough to speak. “Deeks got shot in the first place, because of me. They used him to get to me. And then he tried to save me and look what’s happened! It’s all my fault. If he dies, it’s because of me!”

A fresh voice broke in. “That may very well be true, Miss Bligh, but it is hardly constructive, is it?” She stared at her agents. “Report please, Mr. Callen?” Tell me, Mr. Callen: is he alive? Please tell me Marty is still alive. There is still so much I have to say to him.

“Deeks took out the main guy. We identified him as a Chechen terrorist we’ve had previous dealings with. It seems he had some unfinished business with Kensi. A little matter of her putting his wife and child into protective custody. Sam and I accounted for his partners. There were no survivors.” A highly professional summary of events: cold, clinical, unemotional. He was good at that. Doesn’t mean I’m not hurting inside. But someone needs to stay detached. There are too many undercurrents swirling around in this room already. I have to stay detached. But it’s hard. Deeks is a nice guy. He doesn’t deserve any of this. He looked really bad.

“And Mr. Deeks? How is he? The last report said he was undergoing emergency surgery? That was forty minutes ago…”

Sam took her arm and led her over to a seat. Kneeling down beside her, he took hold of her hand. “He did some major damage, Hetty. The broken rib pierced his lung and an artery. He would have bled out, if Kensi hadn’t been there. She saved his life.” Don’t be too hard on her. Not now. She’s been through enough. We all have. We can’t cope with much more. We’re only human.

“Thank you,” Hetty said. It wasn’t immediately obvious if she was talking to Sam or to Kensi, but it really didn’t matter.

Yet again, Kensi found herself waiting. She seemed to have done else that day, and the one time she’d been called upon to act, she’d messed up so badly it looked as if Deeks might die. He’s nearly died twice today, because of me. It’s all my fault. I lectured him on security and I never thought to keep tabs on the Chechen? What was I thinking of? Why didn’t I wait when he said there was something more? Why didn’t I just listen? Why didn’t I trust him?

Good questions indeed.

*****

The sun had set and it was dark before they heard anything. They had given up trying to make any sort of conversation over an hour ago and were just sitting in uneasy silence, when a doctor finally appeared. It was a different doctor from the one she had spoken to this morning, Kensi noticed. This doctor was older and looked tired, no, make that exhausted, but he had a slight smile on his face and he had guardedly good news to give. Deeks was alive. He was in critical condition, but he was alive. And, right now, that was enough.

Entering the ICU was like entering a different world. Intensive was the right word, Sam thought, he had never seen such concentration as he observed on the faces of the staff in the unit. He struggled to contain his calm when they saw Deeks, shrouded with wires, swaddled in bandages, surrounded by monitors.

“We’re helping Marty with his breathing,” a nurse explained. “Due to the severity of his injuries, he’ll be in a medically induced coma for at least twenty four hours. We’ll reassess the situation then.” She looked around sympathetically. “Try not to worry too much. Your friend is young and he’s in great shape. Those are really positive things. We’ll take the best care possible of him. But he has just had a major operation, so it’s going to be one step at a time.”

Hetty stepped forward. “May I stay with him for a short while?” For the first time ever, Callen could hear a note of vulnerability in her voice. “I promise not to disturb him.”

“Just for a few moments,” the nurse agreed.

Moving very quietly, Hetty pulled up a stool, sat beside the bed and took hold of Deeks’ hand. “Oh Marty. What have they done to you?” Her voice trembled and she lowered her head until it rested upon the bed rail.

The deep silence that permeated the room was punctuated only by the hiss of the ventilator as it pushed air into his lungs. Nobody said a word until Hetty raised Deeks hand to her lips and kissed it softly. And then she got up and walked over to the door, pausing for a second to take a last look. “I won’t be far away, Marty. I’ll be right here when you wake up. I promise. I will not let you down again.”

Kensi reached forward to take the older woman’s arm. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” she began, but Hetty pulled away.

“You know nothing about what I may or may not be responsible for, Miss Bligh. You have not the slightest idea what I am talking about and I would prefer it if we left things that way.”

“Sometimes I think we are reading different version of the same book,” Callen said pointedly and sat down beside her. Hetty could be decisive, she could be blunt, but he had never known her to be deliberately cruel before. Clearly she was taking today’s events to heart. “We’re all hurting. We’re all worried.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Sam added and sat down on her other side. “Deeks is one of us. We look after our own.”

Kensi leaned against the doorjamb. “I owe Deeks my life. I’ll never forget what he did. I wouldn’t be standing here if he hadn’t deliberately put himself in danger. And we were all so quick to tell him where he had gone wrong that none of stopped to think that there might be something more going on. Deeks was the only one who picked up on that. We should have listened to him.”

“We’re all at fault. Most particularly me,” Hetty admitted. She leaned back in her chair and took a deep breath. “It occurs to me that I may have done you all a disservice, by concealing some facts germane to the current situation, and for that I apologize. I know Mr. Callen is aware that I have been attempting to establish the current whereabouts of a certain Gordon John Brandel. What he and Sam are not aware of is the fact that this afternoon, Marty told Kensi that Brandel was a possible suspect in this enquiry. I allowed myself to become somewhat preoccupied by Brandel, for very personal reasons.”

This was all news to Sam and he struggled to keep up. “So why did you think Brandel was involved?”

“Because Marty shot Brandel in 1991. When he was just a child. It was self-defense, of course. Brandel was threatening the boy with a shotgun.”

“And I thought I had a dysfunctional childhood,” Callen muttered under his breath.

“You know only a small part of the story,” Hetty chided. “The tale began some years before any of you were born, when my only niece, Maryanne, met a young man called Jack. He was a charming young man and we all liked him very much. He was handsome, hardworking and very successful. Their wedding was one of the social events of the year. They seemed like the perfect couple. For many years, Jack and Maryanne seemed like the perfect couple. But then things began to go wrong, very wrong indeed…” She paused, and wondered briefly if she should continue. They deserve to know. They are, after all, involved.

“I have been interested in Gordon John Brandel for many years. Of course, he was always known as Jack to his family and friends. And, since he was married to my niece, I was family. Jack’s actions led, directly or indirectly, to the deaths of my niece and her elder son. Marty is the only family I have left. So I have a very personal involvement in this case.”

They weren’t expecting that, Hetty thought and was secretly pleased that she could still stay one step ahead of some of the best agents in the business.

“Deeks is your nephew?” Kensi said, trying not to sound startled.

“My great-nephew, yes. Only I seem to have neglected to inform him of that fact. Marty was still a very young child the last time we met and it may be that he knew me by a different name. Families tend to do that, don’t you agree?”

Nobody dared to disagree, although Callen gave her a very old-fashioned look. I always suspected that you might be using a pseudonym, Hetty Lang. Is there anyone who knows your real name – the one you were born with?

*****

“I still can’t believe that Deeks is a millionaire!” A day later and Sam was still struggling to process the facts. “Deeks is an honest to goodness millionaire?” The team had done a little research of their own over the past twenty-four hours. It helped to pass the time while they waited for news.

“Don’t forget the part about graduating from Harvard,” Callen added. “He sure kept that quiet too. Seems there is a lot our Mr. Deeks omitted to tell his co-workers.”

“You sure that’s fair, G? It’s not as if we asked him or anything. Did you ever have a real conversation with him about anything except work?

Good question, Sam. Hit me with some more guilt when I already feel bad enough about things. “No, I didn’t,” he answered slowly, forcing each unpleasant truth out into the open. “I resented the fact Hetty brought him in. I didn’t give him a fair chance. None of us did. We never included him, or made him a part of the team.”

After all this time and Deeks is still the odd man out. This stranger who comes in every day to do his job and what does he get from us? Nothing. And he keeps on smiling. He doesn’t have to work another day in his life, far less do a job like this, but he does. Seems like he’s a pretty decent guy. So why did we make him an outsider?

It was time to change all that. Clearly, Hetty wasn’t about to say any more, until she had discussed things with Deeks. And as he was still lying unconscious in hospital, that could take some time. But Callen knew a man who could help them with some valuable background information. If they asked nicely and were very persuasive.

“You guys want me to investigate Deeks?” Eric asked. “Isn’t that a bit unethical?”

“Isn’t that a bit rich coming from the guy who has never seen a system he can’t hack into?” Sam gave a broad smile that showed all his excellent teeth. And made him looked rather like a Rottweiler getting ready to bite down on a piece of rump steak.

“Just satellite images of the Malibu estate,” Callen said in a soothing tone of voice. “Most of those are public domain anyway.”

“They just look better on the big screen, am I right? Otherwise you guys would have done it yourselves?” Eric typed rapidly for a few seconds. “Wow! That is one impressive spread.”

“Extensive,” Callen agreed, walking over to the screen and started pointing to things. “Main house: swimming pool, of course with Jacuzzi; guest cottage there and that looks like tennis courts. Very nice indeed.”

“How come Deeks lives in a one-bed apartment when he’s got that?”

“Maybe he’s allergic to luxury? Those grounds are fabulous. Are the lawns lush enough for your taste, Sam?”

“Perfect. I might ask Deeks if he’s got any tips.”

“I hope you do just that.” They started in a guilty manner as Hetty’s voice suddenly joined in the conversation. “I’m sure he’d be very happy to help – if you asked him. If you gave him a chance.”

“He’s earned it.”

Callen smiled at her. “How about we start off by calling him Marty?”

“I think that would be an excellent beginning.”

*****

I remember this pain. This is what it feels like when you’ve been shot, right? It feels like I’ve been shot again. How could I get shot again?

“Marty? Mr. Deeks?”

He doesn’t recognize the voice, but it is very persistent. And it feels like someone is running their finger down his cheek.

“Marty? It’s time to wake up. Can you open your eyes?”

Now, there’s a good question? Can I open my eyes? Do I want to?

“Hello there! Welcome back.” His head is fuzzy and Marty reckons they must be giving him very good drugs, because he can see a pretty face, but it’s going in and out of focus in a fashion that makes him feel dizzy and sick. He tries to say something, but he can’t.

What’s wrong? I can’t breathe. I can’t talk. What’s going on? Help me!

“It’s alright, Marty. You’re alright. You’ve got a tube in your throat that’s helping you breathe.” Her voice is reassuring. He can hear her moving around and then she places her hand on his cheek again. And he almost weeps at the tenderness of her touch and the memories it brings back. It’s been a long time since anyone has made him feel so safe.

“Squeeze my hand if you can understand me.”

Her hand is warm. It takes some effort to send the right message from his brain to his hand, but eventually he manages it and is able to press gently.

“Well done. Everything is alright. You are fine. Just go back to sleep now.”

And Marty believes her. He closes his eyes and lets the drugs drift him away into a realm where there is no pain and there is nothing to worry about.

Once she is certain he is sleeping, the nurse hurries to the waiting room. She has grown accustomed to the policeman standing guard over this patient and gives him a quick smile as she passes. His presence is not unusual – the hospital receives its fair share of people under police guard, but this is different, this patient is a cop, wounded in the line of duty, who then risked his life to save his partner. There’s a rumor that he is up for a commendation. All in all, he’s made quite an impact on the medical staff. It doesn’t hurt that he is, by common consensus, drop dead gorgeous.

ICU rules are strict – visitors are only allowed under exceptional circumstances, so his friends have been taking it in turns to stay at the hospital, waiting for news, practically grabbing any member of staff who happens to be passing and asking for news.

He must be a really popular guy. Everyone cares so much about him. I wonder if he’s got a girlfriend?

A tall young woman, with long dark hair and a haggard expression looks up hopefully as she enters.

“Good news. Marty woke up and he’s doing really well. He was able to respond to commands. He’s sleeping now, but tomorrow we’ll try to wean him off the ventilator.” She smiles brightly and is taken by surprise when the woman’s face crumples and she begins to sob uncontrollably.

She REALLY likes him! Can’t say I blame her.

*****

Hetty had barely slept for days. She had tried every remedy she knew, and had a whole new collection of herbal teas, none of which had worked. The reports from the hospital were encouraging, with Marty’s condition moving from “critical” to ”holding his own” and finally “stable and making satisfactory progress“, which meant that he had been moved out of ICU. And that meant that the rules on visitors had been relaxed considerably. And, in Hetty’s case, relaxed all together. It had only taken a five minute appointment with the Director of Medical Services to achieve that concession. And she wasn’t sleeping anyway, and the hospital wasn’t too far out of her way home, only ten miles in the opposite direction, plus the roads were quiet at this time of night. And she really didn’t have anything else to do, because that stack of reports could wait until tomorrow, as could the briefing for SecNav, so it seemed logical to just pop in and see for herself how her agent was doing. That was what any boss would do, wasn’t it?

Who are you kidding, Hetty Lang? You need to see exactly how Marty is doing with your own eyes. And once you are convinced he is alright, perhaps you will be able to sleep. Because right now you are so tired you’re thinking of yourself in the second person and that is never a good sign!

“Stable and making satisfactory progress” meant that Marty was breathing unaided and that he was no longer lying flat on his back, but was propped up with pillows. It meant that he looked shattered and that there were lines of pain on his face. It meant that he was still on high doses of painkillers and antibiotics to prevent infection and that tubes carried fluids in and out of his body. It meant that to a layperson he was in one hell of a state. But it also meant that he was alive and talking and, for that, Hetty was grateful beyond words.

“How long have you been there?” Marty’s voice was weak and he sounded tired.

“Long enough.” Too long. I’ve waited far too long, my dear.

He gave a slight grunt and closed his eyes briefly, trying to remember. There was something important, only he couldn’t remember what it was.

“You should rest,” Hetty suggested.

“I’ve done nothing but rest for days. I think… It’s all a bit vague.” He tried to raise himself up on his elbows, but a sharp piercing pain caught him by surprise.

Hetty could move with considerable speed. In an instant she was by his side, one hand pressing him back down, the other pressing the pain button. “You are under orders to rest, Mr. Deeks. My orders.”

Marty subsided onto his pillows, trying to give up graciously.

“It occurred to me that my records require to be updated and that there were some things we should discuss.”

“I figured you always knew.” He refused to meet her eyes.

“You figured correctly.” Hetty sat back down and reached into her briefcase. “Gordon John Brandel. Your father.”

“You found him?” He’d never even tried to find his father, too afraid at what he might say, terrified he might be rejected again.

“I found him.” She laid the folder down on the bed and Marty stared at it blankly. “He served five years of a seven year sentence and was released in 1996. He died two years later, in an auto accident.”

The silence last for several minutes as he absorbed the contents of the folder. At the back was a photograph he had not seen for years, showing a young boy sitting on a porch.

“I recognize that – it’s the house in the Hamptons. I must have been about four or five years old?”

Hetty smiled. “You were four. It was the summer of 1984 and you had just learned to swim. Do you remember? And you had a puppy called Deeks. Your mother’s maiden name.”

His head snapped up. “How do you know that?”

“Because I was there.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out some more photographs, showing a whole host of people: smiling, tanned and relaxed. “This was taken on the same day. Your mother and father, Maryanne and Jack. And here’s your brother Chris. He had his twelfth birthday that summer and we had fireworks on the beach in the evening. And here you are, with your aunt. Do you remember now?”

He held out his hand and took the last picture, studying it intently, looking at the little boy with blonde hair who held the hand of a small woman with bobbed hair. And the memories came flooding back, fresh and clean and wonderful. “Now I remember. I remember you were there that summer.”

Hetty smiled. “I think about it often. It was a lovely summer, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was.” He was still looking at the photograph. “I never realized…”

“I know. I never expected you to make the connection. It was a long time ago and we were different people then. But it was such a wonderful summer. You were part of such a happy family. Your parents loved each other very much. And they adored you and your brother. No matter what happened later, these were good times. Never forget how much you were loved. You keep those photographs and remember the happy times.”

“It was difficult after Dad… after that night. I didn’t know what to think, for a long time. This helps. It helps a lot.” Leaning back on his pillows, Marty braced himself mentally. This wasn’t easy, but it had to be done. “I have a favor to ask. My next of kin – who should I put down?”

She allowed herself the luxury of a small, knowing smile. “Lang. Henrietta Lang. That might not be the name you remember me by, but it is the truth after all, if not exactly the whole truth. And, in return, may I request the same favor? I too am in need of someone to put down as my next of kin. So we can help one another out.”

“My pleasure.” He was feeling tired and he couldn’t hide it. But at least he didn’t have to pretend any more. At last there was someone who understood, who knew who he really was. It was so tiring having to pretend all the time. He was glad of a chance to be himself again.

Soon afterwards, Hetty left. She slept that soundly that night. It turned out that she had never needed revenge after all. The only thing she needed was to reconnect with her family and to bring the past into the present. It was soothing to know she was not alone any more.

*****

If Kensi had a weakness, it was for Jell-O. The more virulently colored, the more she craved it. This particular pot was day-glo orange and it looked even more delicious than yesterday’s green variety. She did a quick check: Deeks was still asleep. He’d been asleep for hours and she beginning to wonder if he would ever wake up. Her hand crept out and snagged the pudding.

“You don’t actually come here to see me at all, do you? You just come to eat my Jell-O.”

She started guiltily and a spoonful of Jell-O tumbled onto her top. “It was just sitting there… I figured you didn’t want it and I was doing you a favor.”

“Some favor. That’s all they give me in the way of solid food at the moment. I was really looking forward to it. I’ve been saving it all day, and now you’ve eaten it.” Deeks managed to keep a straight face as he watched Kensi blush.

“I thought you were asleep.” I’m sorry.

“I was resting my eyes.” I was sleeping, so that makes it all right?

“For two hours?” It’s only a pot of Jell-O. Why the big deal?

He shrugged nonchalantly. “I sleep a lot because I’m ill. Or had you forgotten?”

“I’ll never forget.” This wasn’t the time for joking; she had been bottling things up for too long. “I need to tell you something…” I need to tell you how sorry I am. I need to tell you that you are a great partner.

He cut her off. “Not now, Kensi. I’m too tired for this. Really. You can tell me later how I messed up again. I’m not going anywhere.” Deeks glared at her and Kensi realized it was the first time she had ever seen him angry, really angry. There was a cold fury in his eyes that scared her.

“That’s not what I’m talking about! I wanted to thank you for saving my life. You didn’t have to do what you did.”

He was still angry. “No, I didn’t. But do you know what, Kensi? I did it. I did it without thinking because you were my partner. And these past few days, I’ve been lying here wondering if any one of you guys would have done the same for me. Well? Would you?”

“In an instant.” Kensi couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Is that what you think of me? That I’m completely heartless? “You’re my partner. That’s what we do – we look after each other. And I’m going to keep on looking after you, whether you like it or not.” She sat down again and picked up the empty Jell-O pot. “And if that means I have to watch you eat my favorite dessert, then that’s what I’ll do.”

“Why are we talking about Jell-O?” Deeks had never met such an infuriating woman.

“Why not?” Because it’s easier than saying what’s really on our minds, you idiot. You stupid, gorgeous idiot. Lying there looking all vulnerable and totally hot. Just give me a chance to make it up to you.

“Kensi – I’m tired of this. Really tired. I don’t want to do this anymore, do you understand? I can’t joke about things today. So please, just for once would you do as I ask and just go? Please.”

He does look tired. And maybe he’s right, maybe this isn’t the best time. Only I need to tell him what he really means to me. “You can’t get rid of me that easily, Marty Deeks. I’m your partner and you’re stuck with me. Have you never heard of that saying: save a person life and you are responsible for them forever? Well, you saved me by shooting the Chechen in the parking lot. And then…”

This was hard. This was the hardest thing she’d ever done. She had tried to repress that memory, the blood covering her hands, the dreadful fear that Deeks was going to die like a dog on the sidewalk. Kensi took a deep breath and managed to continue.

“And then I saved your life. You’d ruptured an artery. I managed to slow the bleeding down, just enough so that you didn’t bleed out. And now, whether you like it or not, we are tied together, forever. You are responsible for me and I am responsible for you. So you’d better get used to that, because I’m going to be right here when you wake up again.”

“I give up.” He closed his eyes. “I know when I’m beaten.” Please stay. I don’t want to be alone anymore.

Kensi listened to his breathing until the subtle changes told her Deeks was finally asleep. He muttered fitfully for a while and then settled down. Outside, darkness was falling and the air had started to get chilly, so she moved over to the bed and carefully pulled the covers up around his shoulders. It wouldn’t do for him to catch a chill on top of everything else. He was her partner and she had to take care of him.

“Good night, Marty,” Kensi whispered softly, her mouth close to his ear. She moved her head slightly, fully intending to kiss him on the forehead, or perhaps on the cheek. So it was strange that she found herself kissing him on the lips. But that was alright, because he was asleep and he would never know. Besides which, it just felt right. It felt damn fine.

*****

Some scars are visible, like those on the right side of Marty’s chest. Still fresh, still in the process of healing, they will fade. In time they will be almost invisible. But there are other scars, invisible scars deep within his soul. They never completely heal and their pain is something he has lived with for too many years. But he has come to realize the shooting has been cathartic and finally he has given himself permission to move on, to put the past behind him and to live freely, without regrets. It’s been a long road, but finally the path ahead seems clear and the next part of his journey is something to savor. He’s come a long way. And for the first time in years, Marty Deeks feels genuinely happy.

Marty stares at himself in the mirror for a long time and wonders what others see when they look at him. And he asks himself if it really matters what they think after all. Finally he grins, realizing that he doesn’t really care. Finally, he can be himself and that’s all that matters.

***End***

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