Well, here it is, finally, the conclusion to this monster of a story. I can't believe it's taken so long and this chapter was especially challenging to write. It's also absurdly long at over 7000 words. I'm still not entirely happy with it, but I've struggled with it for a while now and I really think it was the best I could do.
In any case, for those of you who have actually followed through with this until the end, I can't begin to thank you enough. I don't want to mention names because I don't want to miss people, but those of you who supported me, I'm sure you know who you are and I hope you know how much I appreciate each and every one of you. Thank you all so much.
Kensi and Deeks sat at a candlelit table at the hotel restaurant, gazing into each other's eyes. "Happy New Year," Deeks whispered to Kensi.
"Happy New Year, Deeks." Kensi smiled at him and sighed happily as she looked out at the view of the water through the picture window they were seated beside. "This was the most perfect gift Callen could have given to us."
Deeks nodded. "It is, but...I still don't think he should have spent so much money on us."
"But he wanted to do it," Kensi protested gently. "He would have been offended if we had refused."
"I know it was what he wanted," Deeks agreed. "It's just, we did what we did for Callen because he's our friend and we wanted to help him. I didn't expect any kind of payback, Kens…did you?"
"I don't really think he thought of this as payback, Deeks. I just think he wanted to do something nice for us. I'm sure he wouldn't want you to feel bad."
"You're right, baby. And I don't feel bad," Deeks said, finally just deciding to be happy about Callen's gift and not read anything into it. "It's New Year's eve and I'm sitting across from the most beautiful woman in the world. I'd have to be nuts to complain about that."
"I agree," Kensi said. "I have only positive thoughts about the year ahead for us."
"Sounds like a good plan," Deeks said.
"Oh look, the fireworks are starting," Kensi exclaimed as the first burst of multi-colored lights in the sky appeared over the water.
"What do you say after these fireworks, we head up to our room and make some of our own," Deeks said with a grin.
"I'd say that sounds like a very good idea," Kensi replied, smiling back at him.
"That dinner was outstanding, Michelle." Callen patted his stomach with a smile as he pushed his chair away from the table. "I'm unbelievably stuffed."
"No room for dessert?" Michelle asked. "I made my five-layer royal fudge cake."
"Mmm…" Kamran said enthusiastically. "You don't want to miss that, Uncle Callen."
"Maybe later," Callen said with a grin. "I want to be able to appreciate it."
Michelle nodded. "I don't think I'm quite ready for it myself. Sam?"
Sam shook his head. "I think I'll wait too." He glanced over at his partner. "Come on, G. Let's go out to the living room."
"Uh…shouldn't we help clear the table?" Callen asked.
"You and Sam go relax," Michelle insisted. "I have a perfectly capable helper right here." She smiled at Kam who good-naturedly began to clear the table. Aiden had chosen to ring in the new year with some friends.
Sam and Callen went out into the living room and sat on the sofa. "You want a drink or anything, G?" Sam asked.
"No thanks, I'm good Sam. That was a really delicious meal."
"I've got to say, I'm a little spoiled when it comes to Michelle's cooking," Sam admitted, leaning against the back of the sofa and putting his hands over his stomach contentedly.
"Even the Sunday night casseroles?" Callen asked mischievously as he lowered his voice so as not to be overheard.
Sam grinned at his partner. "One of these days, I'm going to tell her what you really think, G."
Callen raised an eyebrow. "Really…This comes from a guy who always tosses his Monday afternoon leftover lunches and heads out to the food truck?"
Sam tried to think of a way to defend himself, but nothing readily came to mind. "Fine…you've got me," Sam said with a sigh. "I'll keep your secret and you keep mine, deal?"
"Deal," Callen said with a self-satisfied smirk.
"Happy New Year, partner," Sam gave his friend a warm hug after he had appropriately hugged and kissed Michelle to welcome in the new year.
"Happy New Year, Sam," Callen said, returning his embrace.
Kamran was dancing around the living room blowing on her noisemaker. "Happy New Year, everybody!" She then hugged her mother, father and Callen each in turn. "I hope you have a very happy new year, Uncle Callen," she said earnestly.
"Thanks, sweetheart," Callen replied. "I wish the same to you as well."
Callen hung out with the Hanna family for a little while longer and then decided to head home. Michelle had packed up a considerable amount of leftovers for him as well as a large amount of cake, as they had never ended up eating it that evening. "You still trying to fatten me up?" Callen asked in amusement. He had regained almost all the weight he had lost after the plane crash, but not quite all of it.
"I think you still have a few pounds to go," Michelle said as she hugged him. "Happy new year, Callen. I wish you all the best at work next week, though I know you're not going to need it."
"Thanks, Michelle…for everything."
"Come on, G. I'll walk you out to your car." Sam threw his arm around Callen's upper back. Kamran had already headed up to bed for the night. "You sure you don't want to stay over?" he asked as they walked to where Callen's car was parked.
Callen shook his head. "No thanks, Sam…I'm good. Besides, I need to take care of some bills and stuff tomorrow."
"Bills?" Sam looked at his partner in amusement. "You don't buy things, G. How could you have bills?"
"Electric, cable... I do have some bills, Sam."
"I know you do, I'm just teasing you, buddy. So…" Sam took on a more serious expression as he looked at his partner who had just put the food into the backseat of his car. "You good about Monday?"
Callen nodded, but there was a tiny bit of uncertainty in his eyes which Sam picked up on immediately. "Sure…I'm good."
"Good, because it's going to be fine. You've come such a long way and this is just the last step. Just icing on the cake."
Callen nodded. "Thanks Sam…you're right…It's going to be fine."
"I'll pick you up Monday morning, G," Sam said with a grin. "I'll be incredibly happy to have my partner back full time again."
"Me too," Callen said, smiling back at his friend as he got into his car. "I'll see you Monday."
The next morning, Callen awoke early. Although it was true that he had a couple of bills to pay, that would be quickly taken care of that evening. There was another, more important reason, why he hadn't taken Sam up on his offer to spend the night. He quickly showered, dressed, then headed out to his car and started to drive. He stopped at a drive-through for coffee and a bagel then began the two-hour car trip.
When he arrived at his destination, he sat in his car and stared at the two cars in the driveway of the single family house. He hadn't called ahead. He supposed there was a tiny part of him that may have hoped she wasn't home, but he knew this was something he had to do, no matter how difficult it might be. Finally, he took a deep breath, walked up the front walkway and rang the doorbell. A few minutes later, the door opened and he stared into the deep brown eyes of Jessica, Andy's wife.
"Callen…" she stared at him, obviously surprised by his impromptu visit. "I…come in…" She stood aside and Callen entered the house.
"I'm sorry, Jess," he said. "I know I shouldn't have just shown up like this. I should have called." He suddenly realized that it had been selfish of him not to have given her a heads up.
"No, it's fine," she said with a shake of her head. "It's good to see you. Come in and sit down. Can I get you a drink or anything? I have some homemade brownies."
"No, I'm good, thanks." He definitely was too nervous to eat.
"Okay." Jessica took a seat on the sofa and then Callen sat down beside her.
"So…I heard what happened to Andy…"
"You heard?" Jessica asked with a small smile as she absently twisted a long curl around her finger. "You always want to protect people, Callen, but you don't have to protect me. I know what happened. I know what Andy did and…and I know what he did to you. I'm very sorry that he hurt you." Her eyes filled with tears as she leaned into Callen and he gave her a heartfelt embrace.
"I'm really sorry you have to go through this," Callen said softly.
"I just…I don't understand why he did it. It makes no sense."
"He was really distraught, Jess," Callen said with a sigh. "He definitely wasn't thinking clearly. I think he was just so worried about you and your children that he just lost it."
"I guess I'll never really understand."
"So, he didn't leave you a note or any kind of explanation?" Callen couldn't even fathom how Andy had chosen the path he had taken. If it had been him, he would have done everything in his power to keep his family safe and reunite with them. Like Jessica, he didn't understand the choice that Andy had made. Jessica shook her head. "No…nothing…"
"So, how are you and the kids doing?"
Jessica shrugged. "It's been hard on all of us, especially Sarah and Sammy. They were really close to Andy. He was a great father to them."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Callen asked. "I have some money put aside. I..."
"We're fine, Callen," Jessica said, interrupting him. "Andy was always a planner. He had a life insurance policy that will provide nicely for me and the children."
"I just wasn't sure," Callen began hesitantly. "With the circumstances and all..."
"There was a two year su...icide… Jessica stumbled over the word, fighting back tears, "clause. We were well past that. I…I won't have to worry about their college educations…or…or…anything."
"I'm sorry I couldn't stop him," Callen said, bowing his head before gazing back at her. "You'll never know how sorry."
"Oh Callen, I don't blame you." Jessica reached for his hand and squeezed it gently. "I know if there was anything you could have done to save Andy, you would have. I just thank God he didn't hurt you any more seriously. He could have…" She trailed off as she gazed at him.
Callen nodded as he looked back at her. Once upon a time, he could have envisioned a future between him and Jessica, but Andy had had strong feelings for her and Callen never would have tried to go between them. Still though, it made him wonder about the world and how things worked out or sometimes didn't work out. "Are the kids here?" he finally asked after a long silence.
"No…they're playing with some friends. All the other parents have been great. I try to encourage them to spend time with their friends as much as possible."
"What about you?" Callen asked. "This house must get pretty empty when they're not around."
Jessica hesitated, then nodded. "It does, but I'm going to be okay. I'm so grateful I have them though. How about you? Do you have any children?"
"No," Callen said, shaking his head. "Not yet anyway."
"Anyone special in your life?"
"Not right now…" Suddenly feeling a little bit uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, Callen decided to change it. "So…I guess maybe I'll try one of those homemade brownies you mentioned," he said with a grin.
"I'll go get them," Jessica said. She headed out into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with a plateful of brownies and some milk.
"Your kids must love these," Callen said after he had eaten one of the chocolatey treats and unabashedly reached for a second. "You always were a fantastic cook." Back when he, Andy and Jessica had hung out together, she had made them some delicious meals.
"You were always pretty easy to please," Jessica said, smiling.
"Well, I didn't get a lot of home cooking back then."
The rest of the visit was spent reminiscing about earlier times with much happier memories. "I guess I should get going," Callen said, a little reluctantly, after a couple of hours.
Jessica went out into the kitchen and returned with a bag which she handed to Callen. "Here are some brownies for the road. It's nice to see them appreciated by someone else for a change."
"What about your kids?" Callen asked.
"Trust me, they get plenty of sweets, more than what's good for them, I'm afraid, especially now. I have to admit that I have a hard time saying no to them these days."
"I think that's understandable, Jess," Callen said quietly, his blue eyes filled with sympathy.
Jessica nodded. "It was really nice seeing you again, Callen. I'm sorry you didn't get to meet the kids. Maybe another time?" she asked as she gave him a hopeful look.
"I'd like that," Callen replied. "We'll try to make that happen soon, okay?"
"Okay. Thanks again for coming." She reached for him and they hugged tightly before Callen gently pulled away.
"You take care of yourself, Jess. Don't hesitate to call if you need anything…anything at all."
"I won't. Thank you." She sadly watched from the doorway as he walked to his car and continued to do so until he had driven out of sight.
Callen paced nervously through the rooms of his house as he waited for Sam to arrive to pick him up for work. In some ways it seemed like only yesterday since his partner and he had commuted together, but in other ways, it felt like a lifetime ago. It was such a simple thing and it was the largest part of reestablishing the normalcy in his life, but he felt anything but normal today. When he had returned to work after the Venice Beach shooting, he hadn't felt anything like this. Of course, he'd been younger then and he hadn't been mentally affected by the shooting as he had by all that had happened in the aftermath of the plane crash.
He took a couple of slow deep breaths as he thought about his team. Each one of his team members had proved to be one hundred percent loyal and supportive to him through his recovery. He had leaned on them more than he had ever wanted or expected to. Of course, Sam and his family had proven themselves in the past, helping him through his recovery from the shooting as well as the Spiral virus when he'd been weak as a newborn kitten. He had to admit though, it still surprised him how easily he had fit in with staying with Kensi and Deeks. He'd always thought of Kensi as a little sister and she'd been nothing but kind to him, even though she was still recovering herself. And Deeks…he'd been the most surprising of all of them. He had seemed to instinctively know when to take a step back and give Callen the time and space he needed to breathe, but he'd made it clear that he was there for him to talk to him after a nightmare or drag him out of the house at just the right time.
Then there was Hetty. They'd clashed more than a few times over the years, but deep down he knew she had his best interests at heart. He knew that children fought with their parents, even adult children, and Hetty was the closest person he'd ever had to a mother. He knew he'd always be grateful to her for taking him out of the foster care system, and even though she sometimes upset him more than he liked to admit, he knew deep down that she had his best interests at heart.
The ringing of his doorbell brought Callen out of his musings and he opened the door to find Sam, grinning at him. "Good morning, Sam," Callen said, smiling back at his partner, immediately more at ease.
"Good morning G," Sam replied. "You all set?"
Callen nodded as he stepped outside and closed the front door behind him. It was a perfect Los Angeles morning, slightly cool with sunshine and blue skies. Weather-wise, he couldn't have asked for a better day for his first day back to full time work.
"So how are you doing?" Sam asked, glancing at his partner after they'd seat-belted themselves into the Challenger and were on their way.
"I'm good," Callen replied, deciding not to mention how many times he had woken during the night worrying about one thing or another. "You?"
"I'm good too, G," Sam said. "Happy to have my partner back. It's been a long time coming."
"Yeah it has," Callen said. "I'm glad to be back, Sam." His nerves didn't really have anything to do with not feeling confident about being able to do his job. He actually couldn't put a finger on exactly what it was that was troubling him. Maybe it was just a case of first day jitters, although that didn't make sense for him either when he'd had the same job for years. "What?" He realized Sam had said something to him and he had no idea what it was.
"I asked if you wanted to stop for coffee. You sure you're okay, buddy?" Sam asked. "You seem to be a million miles away."
"Just thinking," Callen said with a shrug, "but yeah, I'm okay and coffee sounds good."
"I hope you're not letting this thing with Granger bother you," Sam continued as he pulled into the drive-through of their favorite coffee place. "Because I really just think you've built it up in your head, G. Everything is going to be fine. In any case, we have your back and Hetty does too."
A short while later, Callen and Sam walked into the mission, each of them carrying two coffee cups. "Good morning, guys." Sam handed a cup of coffee to Deeks who was already seated at his desk.
"Thanks Sam," Deeks said, accepting the coffee with a smile.
"Good morning." Callen handed a cup to Kensi and then went over to his desk where he stopped short, a pleased smile on his face. "What's this?" he asked, looking down at a large bakery box from Angela's Bakery.
"Only one way to find out," Deeks said.
Callen put down his coffee cup and proceeded to open the box. Inside was a fancy coffee cake with "Welcome Back Callen," written on top with white icing. "Thanks, guys," Callen said. "But I've been back."
"But not in your official capacity as team leader," Kensi said. "Anyhow, it's just a little something to show you how much you mean to us and how glad we are that you're back where you belong."
"Thank you," Callen said, looking a little bit emotional. "I'm happy to be back."
"Mr. Callen." Hetty walked into the bullpen and smiled at her team leader. "It's very good to see you." She turned to the rest of the team. "I trust all of you enjoyed your holiday week?"
"We did," Kensi said, smiling at Deeks who returned her smile.
"I did too," Sam replied. "Did you have a nice new year, Hetty?"
"Indeed I did, Mr. Hanna," Hetty replied. "I took a few days to visit with an old friend and we had a lovely time reminiscing and spending time together."
"Was this old friend of the male variety?" Callen asked, a slight smirk on his lips.
"Don't be cheeky, Mr. Callen," Hetty said, smiling fondly at him. In some ways, he had never really changed from the boy she had taken in so many years ago. She looked down at the coffee cake in the box. "That looks quite lovely. Why don't we take a little coffee break now and then get to work."
The team nodded happily as Deeks went off to get some plates and a knife to cut the cake.
Callen immediately froze when he heard Granger's voice behind him, feeling the exact same way he had felt at various points in his life when he knew trouble was ahead for him. He saw Deeks and Sam looking at him encouragingly from across the bullpen and he turned around to face Granger. "Assistant Director."
"Welcome back. I'd like to speak with you if you have the time."
"Of course…" Callen got to his feet, trying not to let the reluctance inside of him show. He couldn't imagine Granger was going to straight out fire him, but he really had no guarantee that it wouldn't be the case. Granger's expression told him nothing, not that the man was ever particularly expressive, at least not with him. He followed Granger, trying to slow his heartbeat which was racing. Finally, they ended up alone in the weapons room. "Are you going to shoot me, sir?" Callen asked.
Granger stared at him and Callen got even more uncomfortable. "Sorry…"
"What the hell is this sir crap?" Granger asked. "I really thought we were past all this. I honestly didn't think this was necessary, but Hetty said I needed to talk to you so let's get to it."
Callen slowly shook his head. "I didn't say anything to Hetty."
"I understand that I may not have coddled you like the others after the plane crash…"
Callen bristled at that. "I didn't expect to be coddled," he said narrowing his eyes.
"But yet, I keep hearing that you're afraid you're not getting your job back. You have your job back, Agent Callen. Unless you do something to jeopardize it, you're not going to lose your position on your team."
"Thank you," Callen said, feeling rather foolish about the whole thing now. Like he'd been told, he'd blown the whole thing up in his mind into something that hadn't really existed. "I guess I just…" He started to explain but then realized that his explanation was likely the last thing the Assistant Director wanted to hear.
"You guess what?" Granger asked, his tone less harsh than it had been.
Callen shrugged. "I don't know…I guess I just thought you wanted Sam for the position…"
Granger sighed and shook his head. "Agent Hanna is superb at what he does, but so are you. If, for some reason, you had been unable to resume your duties as a field agent and team leader, Agent Hanna would have been a commendable replacement. But Callen, you're back. I know you went through hell to get here. I'm certainly not going to stand in your way."
Callen nodded and took a deep breath to keep his emotions in check before facing Granger. "Thank you, Granger," he said softly. "I really do appreciate that. I'm sorry if I made you feel otherwise."
"Get back to work Callen," Granger said gruffly.
Callen smiled and then headed back to the bullpen, feeling better than he had felt in quite some time.
"We have information about the possible location of Clyde Becker," Hetty said as she came into the bullpen followed by Eric and Nell. Becker was the leader of a drug cartel who had been eluding them for quite some time.
"Nothing definite," Eric said, but there's the possibility that he's at the location I've sent to your phones. A source told us he may be wounded which may be why he's holed up there. It's a deserted warehouse on Summer Street."
"We'll check it out," Callen said. As far as he was concerned, the sooner he got thrown back into the fire so to speak, the better off he was.
Hetty nodded, but her eyes were concerned as she looked at Callen. "Be careful," she said softly to him.
"I'll be fine," Callen said, smiling at her.
She watched as he headed out and turned to Sam. "You'll have his back, Mr. Hanna?"
"I always do, Hetty," Sam said as he and Deeks followed out after him.
"Godspeed to all of you," Hetty said softly, a worried expression on her face as she watched until the three men were out of her sight. She was always concerned about them, but this time her thoughts were more ominous than usual.
"Deeks…you cover the back," Callen said quietly after they had put on their body armor and had their weapons ready to go.
Deeks nodded and exchanged a quick look with Sam. Both were somewhat troubled in spite of the assurances Sam had given Hetty. A dimly lit, deserted warehouse wasn't what they would have chosen for Callen's first field assignment.
Deeks headed for the back and Sam and Callen made their way to the front of the building. Callen tried the doorknob and found the door to be unlocked. The two cautiously and silently made their way inside, closing the door behind them. Callen pointed towards the left and Sam went that way while Callen headed towards the right. At least the building had somewhat better lighting than it had appeared to from the outside.
Callen caught sight of a sudden movement and saw a man aiming a rifle at his partner. "Gun! Sam get down!" Without a moment's hesitation, Sam heeded his partner's warning and dove for cover behind some old wooden crates, hitting the floor extremely hard. In the meantime, Callen's eyes met the eyes of the shooter. Luckily, he proved to be a little quicker as he shot three rounds into the man who had been about to shoot his partner.
"Sam, are you all right?" Callen called out as he ran over to the fallen man and checked for a pulse. He quickly determined that the man was indeed Clyde Becker and that he was dead. He then cast an anxious glance at his partner. "Sam?"
Sam nodded as he slowly got up off the dirty floor and brushed off his pants, then gently rubbed his shoulder which he had heavily fallen on. "I'm good, G. Thanks." He looked over at Callen and smiled at him. "You saved my ass. It's really good to have you back, partner."
"I'm glad I was here," Callen said as he directed a heartfelt smile back at his friend. At the moment, he was just very relieved that Sam was unharmed.
"Hey, you guys okay?" Deeks asked breathlessly as he ran over to them, looking from Callen to Sam and then at the dead man lying on the warehouse floor.
"We're good, Deeks," Callen replied then glanced at the dead assailant. "Becker's not so good."
"There's no sign of anyone else in here," Deeks informed them. "Or if they were here, they're gone now."
"I'll call it in," said Sam.
Callen took a few deep breaths and walked away, trying to get his surge of adrenaline and his fast heartbeat back under control.
"G?" Callen turned to his partner who had come up behind him. "Are you okay?"
Callen nodded. "I'm good, Sam." He was a little uncomfortable with the attention being focused on him. It wasn't like they all didn't do this kind of thing all the time and no one made a particularly big deal about it. He supposed, under the circumstances though, that he couldn't blame anyone for concentrating on him more than usual. It was probably something he was going to have to get used to, at least for the time being.
The week went by quickly, with Callen gaining more and more confidence as each day went by. Friday was a slow day with no active cases. "You guys want to go out to dinner tonight?" Sam asked at a little after 4. He was just finishing up another Tootsie pop wrapper origami animal to add to his collection, or rather Kamran's collection. Most of the time, he gave his creations to her.
"I'll go," Callen answered quickly, looking up from the online crossword puzzle he was doing. For once, his paperwork was all caught up.
Deeks glanced over at Kensi who smiled mischievously as she nodded her assent. "Sounds good, Sam," Deeks replied. "What did you have in mind?"
Sam thought for a few moments. "Chinese?"
Each member of the team nodded in agreement.
"Okay, how about the Imperial Palace?" Sam asked.
"Works for me," Callen stated.
"We'll meet you there," Deeks said. "What time?"
"Six," Sam replied. "I'll make a reservation."
"I'm going to ask Hetty if she'd like to join us," Callen said.
"Hetty already left for the day," Kensi informed him. "She said she had some things to do."
"Oh, okay," Callen said. "Should we invite Nell and Eric to come along?"
"I think they already have plans," Deeks said.
"Guess it'll just be the four of us," Sam said as he grinned at his partner. "Don't worry, G. We'll still have a good time."
Callen and Sam arrived at the restaurant a little after 6. Sam gave his name to the maître D who immediately beckoned a waiter to bring them to their table. They were then led through the crowded restaurant towards the function area. "Sam, what's going on?" Callen asked, his suspicions aroused as the waiter stopped at a closed door to one of the function rooms.
"Enjoy your evening," the waiter said, smiling as he scurried away.
"They had no tables available so they gave us a room," Sam told Callen
Callen looked at his partner incredulously. "You expect me to believe that?"
Sam chuckled as he threw his arm around his partner's shoulders. "Come on, G. This is going to be painless, I promise you." Before Callen could protest or really do anything at all, Sam opened the door and gently pushed his partner through the doorway as the occupants of the room yelled "Surprise!" and then everyone broke into applause.
Stunned by the number of people gathered in the room, and very uncomfortable with being the center of attention, Callen just stood there until Kamran came over and hugged him. "Did we surprise you, Uncle Callen?" she asked, grinning up at him. "You look pretty surprised."
"Yes, I'm very surprised," Callen said, returning the girl's hug. He then let go of her and took a look at the familiar faces in the room. Of course, the team was there, including Eric, Nell, Hetty and even Granger. There were a lot of people from the office and most surprising was the appearance of Director Vance, Rachel and Gibbs.
"So, how mad are you?" Sam asked his partner teasingly.
"I'm not mad," Callen replied, gazing back at Sam seriously. "I just…I don't get all the fuss."
"Everybody here loves you, Uncle Callen," Kam stated. "They wanted to give you this party to show you how much."
Callen smiled at Kamran, but he was still uncomfortable and not sure what he was supposed to do next.
"I think everyone's getting hungry, G," Sam informed his partner as he gestured towards the well-stocked buffet at the side of the room.
"So why don't they eat?" Callen asked, not sure what Sam was getting at.
"It's your party, Uncle Callen," Kamran whispered. "You have to go first. They're waiting for you."
Callen looked at Sam for confirmation of what Kamran had said. Sam nodded, almost feeling sorry for Callen. It was obvious that he'd never had this kind of celebration in his honor before. "Go ahead G. Don't worry. We'll be right behind you."
Still looking a little unsure and aware that all eyes were on him, Callen headed to the buffet. There was a huge variety of food including various varieties of fried rice, lo mein, chow mein, chicken fingers, chicken wings, spare ribs, crab rangoons, egg rolls, pork strips, chicken and broccoli, beef and chicken teriyaki, sweet and sour chicken, and moo goo gai pan. As Callen filled his plate with his choices, he vaguely wondered who had paid for this shindig. His best guess was Hetty. It had obviously cost a pretty penny.
"Callen's looking a little out of his element," Deeks said softly to Kensi as they took their places in the buffet line.
"Well, I certainly don't think he ever would have expected this," Kensi replied. "I think it's good for him though. It lets him know much everyone cares about him."
"You don't think he knows by now?" Deeks asked.
Kensi shrugged. "I don't know, Deeks. I still think he has his moments of doubt. Childhood scars run deep. In any case, it can't hurt to reinforce it."
They moved through the line and went to their table. Callen, Hetty, Sam and his family were already seated. Callen looked noticeably more relaxed now that he was seated and out of the spotlight. "So, Mr. Callen, what do you make of all this?" Hetty asked.
"It's really nice," Callen said slowly, "but I guess I don't really understand why…"
"Because we're happy you're back, G," Sam said. "You've come a long way and we're proud of you."
Callen shook his head. "It's just...I didn't do any of it myself, Sam. All of you helped me. His eyes met the gazes of each member of his team and then Hetty. "If you all hadn't been there for me, God knows what could have happened. This should be for you, even more than it should be for me."
"Come on, Callen," Deeks said. "Maybe we helped you along the way, but you did all the hard stuff yourself. A lot of people might have given up, but you wanted to come back to work and you did. Give yourself some credit, man."
"All I know is that I'm grateful to each and every one of you," Callen said quietly. He knew how much they had all helped him and that chances were good he wouldn't have gotten through any of what had happened without the help of his teammates.
"I think I speak for all of us when I say we were happy to do it, G," Sam said, giving his friend a heartfelt look which Callen acknowledged with a nod and a faint smile. After that, the discussion moved onto some lighter topics and the remainder of the meal was spent with lots of joking and laughter.
After he had finished eating, Callen headed over to the table where Vance, Granger, Gibbs and Rachel were all sitting. "Hey Callen." Gibbs greeted his friend as he stood up and the two men hugged. "It's really good to see you. You look great."
"You look great too," Callen said, gazing happily at his long-time friend. "Man, it's been a while."
"That it has," Gibbs replied.
Callen turned his attention to Director Vance as the two men shook hands. "Director, it was really nice of you to come."
"It was my pleasure," Vance said. "I've gotten a lot of good reports about you this week. I'm glad you're doing so well."
"He's been doing extremely well," Granger said entering the conversation as he gave Callen a pointed look. "It's almost like he was never gone at all."
Rachel had been observing Callen's interactions with interest and smiled when he turned to her. "I didn't expect to see you this soon," Callen said. "It's a nice surprise."
"I was very glad the director arranged for Gibbs and I to come out with him on his private plane," Rachel said.
"Yeah? How long will you be staying?" Callen asked.
"Unfortunately, we'll be leaving directly after the party," Vance answered. "Gibbs' team is on call this weekend and I have a lot of matters I need to attend to, as well."
"Well, at least we can catch up a little bit tonight," Callen said to Gibbs. "One of these days you're going to have to come out here for a longer visit."
"Before you and Gibbs began catching up, can I talk with you for a few minutes?" Rachel asked.
"Of course," Callen said.
"Why don't we go say hello to some people?" Vance suggested as he, Gibbs and Granger quickly made themselves scarce.
"So," Rachel began after she and Callen were alone. "Good week?"
Callen nodded, a big smile on his face. "Yeah, it was a really good week. Much better than I could have hoped for."
"Oh Callen, I'm so glad to hear that," Rachel said. It was easy to see that he was proud of himself and she couldn't have been happier that his return to work had been so successful.
"You know I couldn't have done it without you," Callen stated, turning more serious. "I really appreciate everything you did for me."
"I may have helped guide you, Callen, but you did all the heavy lifting," Rachel said. "I'm just glad to hear that your return to work went well. I take it any doubts that you had proved to be unfounded?"
Callen nodded a little bit sheepishly. "Yes, they were. Everything has been fine with the assistant director and my work in the field has gone smoothly."
Rachel nodded as she inwardly noted the dramatic transformation Callen had undergone since the first day they had met. She couldn't have been more proud of him.
The rest of the night went by in a blur. Callen made sure to speak with each of the people who had come to the party, then was able to spend some time with Gibbs before it was time for them to leave. "It was really good to see you," Gibbs said as he pulled Callen in for a hug. "I'm really glad you're doing so well."
"I can't thank you enough for recommending Rachel," Callen replied softly as he pulled away. "I know I was reluctant at first, but…she's been really great."
"I'm glad," Gibbs said.
Rachel then came over and she also hugged him. "You should be really proud of yourself, Callen," she said softly. "I know I'm proud of you."
"Thank you," Callen said.
"We'll talk next week?"
"That sounds good."
"Thanks again for coming, sir," Callen said to Vance as they shook hands. "It's really appreciated."
"Just keep doing what you're doing, Callen," Vance said. With that, he, Gibbs and Rachel headed out.
After they had left, Callen headed back to where his team was sitting with Hetty and Sam's family, laughing over something. "Hey guys," he said, taking his previously abandoned seat. "Sorry I didn't get much of a chance to talk with you tonight."
"You did what you're supposed to do as the guest of honor at a party," Hetty said, smiling at him. "You mingled and spoke with friends you don't usually get a chance to talk to."
"Besides, we talk with you more than enough, G," Sam said teasingly. "At least I know I do."
"Sam, you're awful," Michelle said, giving him a mock punch in the arm. "Did you have a good time tonight, Callen?"
"I did," Callen said, nodding earnestly. "Thank you very much for doing this for me." He turned his eyes toward Hetty who nodded at him. "I never had a party like this before, and…well…just thanks."
"You're very welcome, Mr. Callen," Hetty said. "I honestly can't think of anyone more deserving of this. I'm glad you enjoyed yourself."
They sat and chatted for a while longer before Michelle noticed Kamran was yawning repeatedly. "Sam? I think it's about time we headed home. Come on, Kamran."
Kam didn't even protest as she got to her feet then went over to Callen. "Goodnight, Uncle Callen," she said as she hugged him. "I'm glad you liked your party."
"I liked it very much, honey," Callen said. "Thank you for coming."
Michelle then came over and hugged Callen as well. "You coming for dinner Sunday night?" she asked him.
"Wouldn't miss it," Callen said, deliberately avoiding Sam's eyes which he knew were on him.
After Sam had returned from walking his wife and daughter to their car, Deeks turned to Kensi and Hetty who he had driven to the restaurant. "What do you say, ladies?" he asked. "Are we ready to call it a night?"
"I think so, Deeks," Kensi said, nodding. "Hetty?"
"Yes, I'm ready to leave as well," Hetty said agreeably. She got up from her chair and walked over to Callen then proceeded to embrace him tightly. "I'm very proud of you, my boy," she said softly. "And so happy that things have gone so well for you."
"Thank you, Hetty," Callen replied, looking a little bit emotional. "Thank you for everything."
"You're very welcome," Hetty said, her eyes also filled with emotion.
"So, you ready to head home, G?" Sam asked after Kensi had also hugged his partner.
"I think so," Callen said as he pushed his chair away from the table and got to his feet. With that, the five remaining partygoers walked out to the parking lot together and said their goodbyes.
"So…it wasn't so painful, was it, G?" Sam asked as he pulled out of the parking lot and started driving down the street.
"No, not so painful," Callen admitted with a grin. "When did Hetty come up with this idea for a party?"
"She mentioned it at Christmas."
"Really?" Callen said, looking a little bit surprised. "What if things hadn't gone well for me when I returned?"
"We all knew you were going to be okay, G," Sam stated. "You were the one who needed to know that for yourself."
"Even so," Callen said, shaking his head.
"Come on, G," Sam said. "You know you're good. You've been getting better and stronger every day this week. We've all seen it and I know you feel it too."
Callen nodded thoughtfully. "You're right, Sam. I'm feeling much more confident now, more so than I've felt in a very long time."
"That's how it should be," Sam stated. "I, for one, am very glad to see it."
The two men then lapsed into silence, each immersed in his own thoughts before Sam pulled up in front of Callen's house. "Thanks Sam," Callen said as he unhooked his seatbelt.
"You're welcome, G," Sam replied. "I'm glad you had a good night."
Callen turned in his seat and gazed at his partner, his eyes filled with emotion once again. "I mean, thank you for everything, Sam, for saving me after the crash, for being there for me in the hospital and through everything else that came along…just thank you for all of it..."
"You're my best friend, G," Sam said, trying to hold back his own emotions. "I'm just glad you're back, buddy. You've gone through an awful lot and you fought through all of it. I couldn't be more proud of you or happier for you."
"Thanks, Sam." The two men embraced briefly and then Callen opened the passenger side door. "So, I guess I'll see you Sunday?"
"The casserole will be waiting," Sam said, grinning at his partner.
"What do you think Michelle would say if I offered to bring pizza?" Callen asked.
"I think she'd be highly insulted," Sam replied. "I mean, you're welcome to try, but I can't guarantee the results."
"I guess I'll stick with the casserole," Callen said. "Maybe this week will be one of the better ones."
"You never know," Sam said.
"Okay, have a good weekend, Sam," Callen said. "And thanks again."
"Take it easy, G," Sam said. He watched until his partner had walked into the house and closed the door behind him before he began driving home. Callen had undertaken some of the biggest challenges of his life, but ultimately he had fought through all of them and had survived.