Under Duress

Part IV – Restoration

He tensed when he heard the soft crunch of footsteps behind him.

"Easy, fella, I mean you no harm."

He knew the voice, couldn't place it though and wasn't interested enough to turn around so he could identify the speaker. Probably one of the locals out on a stroll.

"Mind if I sit?"

Callen shrugged, not sure if he cared. So far, the man hadn't posed a threat. In all the months he had been up here, he found most of the people in Alaska were friendly and courteous even if rough around the edges. They kept to themselves, not begrudging him for doing the same, but what few contact there was, it was polite and simple.

He drew his coat more firmly around himself. It was still cold, even though the season was turning. The last of the snow was fading. There were still some white tufts left over this high above the harbor on the rugged hills overlooking the small town he had chosen as a hiding place, but those too were receding.

"Is this place doing what you hoped it would do, Callen?"

"No," Callen murmured without thinking, jerking his head up when his brain caught up with the question and the address. He sprang to his feet and turned, stumbling backwards to watch the man beside him.

"Please, sit. I promise I'm not an enemy."

He knew that, instantly able to identify the speaker despite the years since he had last seen him. Callen still hesitated for a brief second before slowly returning to his previous place, sinking back down.

Silence fell between them as the other man let him adjust to not being alone anymore. He watched from the corner of his eye, instinctively cataloguing details and comparing them to the last time he had seen the man. He may have gotten older, but he still radiated the same calm competence he had all those years ago. He had shaved off his hair and there was a goatee, precise and well defined, but otherwise his features were still the same. He remembered the man's eyes, kind and honest, even though he also remembered that they could turn cautious and closed off between one blink and another.

Callen sighed softly and hung his head. "Hetty sent you?" he asked quietly, because he didn't believe in coincidences, not in this isolated town high up in Alaska. This wasn't a chance meeting.

"She may have suggested I seek you out."

"She knows where I am?" Dread pooled in the pit of his stomach and he felt even more trapped than he had been before the man's appearance. Callen glanced around furtively.

"Hetty always knows where her protégés are."

Then why hadn't she come to his aid during those ten weeks when he would have desperately needed her? Those ten weeks that had destroyed him. Those dark and miserable ten weeks in the hands of a sociopath in China. Why now and not then?

And what was he supposed to do with that information anyhow? "It's… I mean… I don't know…"

"Easy, Callen." The words were soft, gentle and soothing. "There's nothing for you to do or to decide at the moment. Nothing but deciding on how to get through the next moment, the next hour and the next day."

He lowered his chin to his chest, his eyes once more falling to the ground in front of him. "I don't know how," Callen whispered, rubbing a hand over his face. He felt ashamed for admitting it, but he knew he wasn't doing well. He didn't sleep - well, he slept even less than he had ever before - and he could barely stomach any food. He felt consistently exhausted and as if he was set apart from the world, walking under a glass globe.

"That's because you're trying to do it by yourself. No one can go through what you've gone through and make it out on the other side by himself. Not even you, Callen."

Callen glanced at the other man, the man he still only knew by the name of 'Mirage'. "You know what happened, don't you?" he asked quietly, his voice trembling ever so slightly.

"I know enough."

There was a somewhat hesitant pause and Callen didn't really want to ask, curious but also cautious.

Mirage sighed and turned his head towards him, the first time he was facing Callen. "They recovered evidence…" he said, obviously choosing his words carefully, "footage of those ten weeks."

It felt as if the world stood still, all air sucked out of the immediate area, and the next moment, he could hear the blood rushing through his veins. A clash of emotions surged through him, tumbling together… dread, fear, pain, embarrassment, guilt and despair all rolled into one. Callen jumped up and stumbled a few steps away, hunching over and retching, losing what little food he had managed to ingest for breakfast.

He sunk to his knees, not caring that the wet ground seeped into his pants. He wanted to curl up and forget the last months, forget what had been done to him. Unfortunately, it didn't work that way. Never before had something impacted as hard as those ten weeks had. He looked straight ahead, his eyes glossy from tears that didn't spill as his body slowly rocked backward and forward on its own account.

The landscape was breathtaking, rugged and harsh and yet gentle and soothing. It brought a measure of comfort, but it never seemed to touch him deep down, to really help him.

He had fled L.A. practically as soon as he had woken up in hospital, had ripped out the IV, taken the pulseoxymeter from his index finger, had dressed quietly and slipped out of the hospital. He had been somewhat surprised that no one had sat with him when he woke up, but had considered it a lucky break. He had not returned home, had instead gone through three of his secret stashes around the city to grab what he needed so that he could vanish. He had felt the urge to run so deep inside of his bones that he had been powerless to stop it.

Guilt, shame, fear and despair drove him away and he ran, blinded by the incessant need to get away and keep himself safe.

It had been days before he once more became consciously aware of his surroundings, his instincts having taken over and protected him while his brain had taken a leave of absence. He found himself in Oregon by that time, drawn up the coast and yet not far enough away from the darkness that followed him.

Eventually, he made it to Alaska with the sole purpose of getting lost in the huge state and trying to find himself again.

So far, it hadn't worked. He was still as lost as he had been that day he had fled L.A., as lost as he had been when his personality had been shattered in that Chinese prison cell.

He mourned for what had been done to him, mourned for the man he had been, the man that was lost to him now.

While the man he had been before he had been taken by the Asian hadn't been all good, had missed some fundamental truths and pieces about his past and identity, he had at least been comfortable with who he had become. Ever since China, he felt as if he were a contradiction of shattered pieces that wouldn't fit properly anymore. He was trying so hard to hold himself together, but he could see pieces breaking off and clattering to the ground while he tried to keep the rest from following.

"I don't know if I can be the same person again," he said softly, randomly, not turning around to the other man, still kneeling on the ground and facing away.

"You can't."

The statement was simple, no inflection or emotion. Just a simple, neutral statement and yet it made something inside of him shrivel up further, left a bitter taste of defeat.

"There are pieces of yourself that you left behind in that prison cell in Chinquong, pieces you will not get back, shards of your soul that will not fit into the holes they filled before. That doesn't mean you can't adapt and rebuild yourself. It's hard, but you are one of the persons capable of it, strong enough to make it through a traumatic experience of this magnitude."

"I don't know how."

"For starters, by not doing it alone," the man repeated gently.

Callen listened to Mirage standing up behind him. He expected the man to come to him, braced himself for the contact, instead he heard him step away. Callen turned, watching the figure retreat. "That's it?" he called after him, throwing his hands up, fury suddenly slicing through him. "You come up here, dump all that pseudo wisdom on me and then you leave?"

The man stopped and turned his head around to look at Callen and for the first time in ages, Callen made eye contact with another human being without flinching. Mirage wore an amused expression. "I think I've given you enough to think about for the moment," he said simply before pausing for a moment. "Room 4 in that small hotel by the harbor. I'll be here as long as I need to be."

Callen watched him go, watched as the man slowly and carefully picked his way down the hillside. He was once more alone at his vantage point, but for some reason, he didn't feel as alone as he had felt an hour ago.

Xxxxxxx

He found Mirage in the hotel restaurant hours later. Callen didn't wait for an invitation, simply made his way over to the other man's table and sank down opposite of him.

Mirage acknowledged him with a nod but continued chewing his food instead of starting a conversation.

The smell of food still mostly made him queasy and Callen leaned back slightly.

He had remained on top of the hill for a long while after Mirage had left. He had indeed considered the man's words and while he wasn't sure about many things, he was pretty sure that something would have to change or he would be stuck in limbo for much longer… and he hated to admit it, but he feared he would break completely unless something changed. He was trying to hold himself together by sheer force of will, but he didn't know how long he would be able to do that.

He also knew it wasn't working.

"Why didn't Hetty reel me in if she knew where I was?" he asked quietly, somewhat curious.

Mirage smiled into his drink. "Would you have returned?"

Callen didn't reply, but tilted his head to the side in silent contemplation.

"You're the ultimate lone wolf, Callen," the other man explained after a few silent moments, "you had to try on your own before you would even consider doing things differently."

"You think this is wrong?" Callen reached for the paper napkin belonging to his place, idly following the fold with his fingertips, turning the cloth over and back again to keep his hands occupied.

"Not wrong, no," Mirage shook his head, taking another sip of his beer before he put it down, "but ask yourself this… has it helped?"

Callen sighed and shook his head, "not really," he admitted, hhis eyes still on the napkin.

"You've fallen into a deep hole that you can't see the way out of. Rebuilding the life of someone whose dignity, whose sense of self, has been destroyed takes time," Mirage said softly but bluntly. It was something that Callen had appreciated all those years ago: the way the man didn't sugarcoat things but simply put them out there. "And to do that, long-term medical, psychological and social support is needed. You've deprived yourself of all of it."

Glancing up, Callen drew a breath to argue, but the man held up a single finger and he fell silent once more.

"I'm not berating you. Would be quite hypocritical since I did the same back in the day," he shrugged and turned his head to gaze outside into the darkness beyond the harbor lights. "I can understand the reasons your brain supplied, I know the shame and the guilt that's most certainly keeping you in a firm grip."

Callen sighed softly and started ripping small pieces off of the paper napkin, watching them beginning to pile up. "I gave in, I let him destroy me."

Mirage turned back to face him. He tilted his head to the side and watched Callen calmly, "did you really?" he asked softly. "Think, Callen… you resisted in a way he didn't notice until it was too late. Your team survived because of you."

"They were in danger because of me!" he exclaimed forcefully, throwing the napkin - or what was left of it - down onto the table.

"No," the man said evenly, not reacting to Callen's outburst. He shook his head, "all of you were in danger because you're good at your jobs and because you made enemies."

"But if I hadn't been taken…" there was a note of despair in his voice that he didn't know how to keep at bay. His fingers trembled over the pile of shreds he had generated. It felt like a cruel analogy of his own personality that lay in a desolate heap at his feet.

It was Mirage's turn to sigh, "yeah, the sickening guilt of having been snatched." He sat back and put his knife and fork down with a soft click, "you are a professional, Callen. You know just as well as I do that if someone is determined - and those men were determined - everyone can be taken, no matter how highly trained or how well protected."

He did know that, also knew that for all his training, fighting against five well trained opponents on his own had been odds he couldn't have beaten. Still, he was a Federal Agent, had been a CIA operative before, he should have been able to keep this from happening somehow. He hung his head, picked the remains of the napkin back up and started smoothing out the edges, ripped off as they were.

Mirage leaned forward once more and reached for his beer. "I'll tell you something else even though you know it already," Mirage took a sip of his beer and carefully put the bottle back down, "that man was a professional. He put you through a very systematic and fine tuned process. He was very good at what he did. He knew exactly what he was doing and at which point to do it, he knew to look for the signs and he exploited them mercilessly."

"He enjoyed it," Callen murmured, his eyes still on the napkin and the small pile of pieces.

"Yes, he did," Mirage agreed simply because there wasn't anything else to do. Callen had experienced it and Mirage would have seen it in the recordings. "You've been trained, Callen, you've been trained in theory and in life, and you've been trained well. You knew what he was doing and you managed to counteract it, but that doesn't mean that what he did to you didn't impact. A lot of things have been taken from you in those ten weeks and it will be a battle to get them back, but it's not impossible."

"I couldn't even look at them without flinching, expecting the pain, feeling it sizzle through me even without any current being applied," he whispered, randomly jumping to another subject, even though it was related to what they were talking about on the whole.

"That's not surprising after what he made you go through."

"He trained me like a dog." There was fury mixing in with the devastation and his voice sounded choked even to him.

"A dog that attacked him and brought him down."

There was that, yeah, but it didn't feel like enough. Callen leaned back in his chair, exhausted. He brushed a hand down his face, feeling weary and beyond his endurance.

Mirage reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a card. He put it on the table in front of Callen without a word and then picked up his knife and fork once more, returning to his meal.

Callen glanced at the business card in front of him. "Who's that?" he asked. He saw the MD in front of the name and there was a flash of reluctance… it was smaller than he was used to though.

"A friend," Mirage said after he swallowed his bite. He picked up his drink and took a mouthful.

"A shrink?"

There was a somewhat mischievous smile that went with the answer to the question. "She prefers counselor."

Callen didn't scoff like he would have before - like he had done after previous stints in captivity. Truth was: by now he knew he couldn't come out of this on his own as he had expected. Previously, he'd licked his wounds in private, fortified his walls and then soldiered on. This time though… either it really was like Nate had once suggested, that mental trauma added up, or… yeah, who was he kidding? The kind of torture he had endured at the hands of the Asian was leagues apart from the amateurish fumbling he had encountered before. His fingertips brushed against the card. "What about my… the team's confidential status?"

Mirage shrugged easily. "She's got clearance."

Callen let that sink in for a moment before he simply nodded in acceptance. He pocketed the card and stood. This time, it was he who decided enough was enough for one conversation. He stepped away from the table but stopped before he took two steps. Turning back, he glanced at the man, forcing himself to meet his eyes when Mirage looked up. "I still don't even know your name…" It was half prompt, half question and he knew that the other man could easily blow him off.

Mirage returned his gaze evenly, his features open and relaxed. "It's Derek."

It was not much, but for some reason it felt good to know the man's name. It felt like a real connection to an important person instead of a barely tangible pseudonym. Callen nodded slowly in acceptance. He took a slow breath and straightened a little, "your teachings helped, Derek. They helped a lot," he told the other man quietly.

Mirage returned his nod with one of his own. He gave Callen a smile. "Good night, Callen." It was a farewell, at least for the evening, because while a lot had been said, and some ground had been gained, Callen still felt somewhat directionless and without anchor. He was sure that Derek could see it too and the man had said he would stay for as long as he needed to.

Xxxxxxx

He had met with Karen five days later in Texas. Derek had flown down with him and provided some sort of backup during the first minutes of meeting the counselor.

There had been an ease with which the woman had drawn him in and made him comfortable in her presence that had surprised him, that had been missing in any human interaction lately, but one he was grateful for.

Karen mostly worked for a cooperation that provided service for survivors of torture, people escaping from conflict regions and war torn countries, but she also worked for the government in cases like Callen's which explained her security clearance.

The first few times they met, he barely opened up to her. He liked her, felt her presence soothing, but going into what had happened, telling his story, proved to be difficult. She was patient though and carefully guided him through the process of opening up.

She did have access to the tapes that had been recovered as evidence, so Callen knew she could have gotten the story that way, but she told him she wouldn't watch them until he had told her what had happened himself and unless he gave his permission.

Somehow it was that promise that made it easier to start trusting her. He thought it was the way she put control back into his hands. He knew she would probably have to watch eventually so she could provide the best help possible to aid in his recovery and deprogramming, but the fact that she didn't without his permission gave him confidence in her.

He refused medication even though she strongly recommended it. Despite going without, it only took a few weeks before he felt the first signs of improvement. Sleep came a little bit easier and with fewer nightmares than before, fewer flashbacks snuck up on him and his eating habits improved… well, in Callen-fashion at least.

Sam on the other hand would despair of him and the bacon and the burgers he ate.

Callen smiled slightly to himself as he acknowledged the thought of his best friend flittering through his mind without flinching.

It felt good to finally be able to think about his partner and the rest of his team, have their faces enter his mind without expecting and experiencing pain. He still wasn't ready to meet them in person, but it finally felt like he might be able to take his life back after all.

"Care to share?"

Callen glanced up at the woman opposite of him. She had a quirky personality that was reflected in the way she dressed: brightly colored dresses, her hair made up in complicated patterns and the colors of her framed glasses changing every few days. She came across as a bit of a whirlwind sometimes even though she was actually rock solid. Despite - or maybe because of - all that she saw through the eyes of survivors she counseled, she had a way of embracing life with a joyful attitude he envied her.

She was watching him with a small smile and he returned it somewhat easily. "Just thinking of home," he told her quietly.

Karen's smile widened, "good thoughts it seemed."

It was half a prompt and half a statement. He could leave it, but he went for the opening it provided, "yeah. I have been able to think of the team for a few days without… repercussions." There was a soothing feeling of victory and happiness that blossomed further when he saw the elation in her features.

"That's great, Callen. Big step!"

He shrugged slightly, "yeah, but I'm not sure about meeting them yet. I've glanced at the pictures I still have on my phone," pictures from their time together, random snapshots while they socialized or had fun together. He had left his phone in L.A. when he fled, but Hetty had provided it through Karen during the sixth week of him meeting with the counselor. "Mixed results."

She nodded calmly but still sobered slightly, "expected," she said evenly. "Most difficult?"

"Sam and Hetty," he answered promptly, "I didn't expect any less because he focused on them most." It had been a conscious move on the Asian's part because of their roles in Callen's life.

Karen tilted her head to the side. "You think that's all?"

Callen frowned softly, "what do you mean?" he asked back, watching her closely, trying to read her.

"What about your guilt towards them?"

He swallowed and shifted slightly, barely keeping his arms from crossing over his chest in a defensive motion. "What guilt?" he asked, keeping his voice even.

There was amusement in the woman's features and she raised her eyebrow in an expression of 'really?' that didn't need to be verbalized.

Callen deflated. Karen had proven to be hard to keep away, for one because he needed to let her in for her to help him and for another thing because she was just so easy going, quirky and straight forward. "I feel I've betrayed them most with what I've done, not warning them the way I managed with the others," he admitted.

Karen nodded when he gave her confirmation of what she most certainly would have suspected. She did know him rather well by now. "You chose to do it because you thought they could handle it and because you didn't have the possibility of doing otherwise."

"Doesn't exactly make it better," he muttered, his gaze lost in the distance of the park they were sitting in. They often met up somewhere outside. He felt less confined in the open space. Sometimes when inside, the walls seemed to start closing in on him. The room didn't even have to have any resemblance to the cell in China, but just the still air inside was enough to make him feel queasy at times.

"No," Karen agreed calmly. There was a pause and she leaned back, her arms stretched out behind her on the blanket that was spread out beneath them. She watched him calmly. "You know, guilt is something we see in nearly all survivors of torture. The consequences of torture reach far beyond immediate pain as you are aware. Besides the physical symptoms, most victims feel guilt and shame. Many feel that they have betrayed themselves or their friends and family. All such symptoms are normal human responses to the abnormal and inhuman treatment they suffered."

"Will it go away?" he asked quietly, his fingers smoothing over a blade of grass.

"With time, patience and lots of work," Karen answered simply, "some people shake off the effects quickly, but it's like a wound or the death of a loved one… scar tissue has to grow… Some manage it in days, some in weeks, some in years; and some bled forever. No two cases are the same, but yeah, I'm confident you will make it out on the other side. The fact that you've come this far in the few weeks we've worked together, the fact that you're one headstrong person in the first place should give you that reassurance as well."

Callen breathed deeply and let her words sink into him. He didn't share her certainty yet, but he had to admit that he had made progress since coming to Texas.

Xxxxxxx

Eleven months after fleeing his hometown, he returned to Los Angeles.

The city welcomed him with its typical weather, known smells and sights. Still, it felt somewhat different, less open, less like a refuge, less like home. Callen kept to himself and didn't advertise his return. He needed to get settled on his own and he didn't yet feel ready to face his team mates.

He had talked to both Hetty and Sam several times on the phone over the last few months, but facing the people he had been conditioned to kill and to expect pain upon seeing hadn't yet been on the agenda. Usually he was a 'rip off the plaster' guy instead of slowly easing into things, but with this, he didn't dare take a wrong step. He privately feared that things would never be ok again and he would be permanently cut off from the people he had come to call family.

He returned to his old habits, renting short term rooms in one or another place - mostly in Venice, the place he had always felt most comfortable at. He took care of staying clear of any surveillance and CCTV cameras as he had a feeling that the techs might still have him flagged - with or without Hetty's express permission.

For the moment, he wanted to remain anonymous and alone, wanted to try and find his footing in the city he called home.

He talked to Karen several times a week, using the rapport they had built up in Texas as a security blanket and lifeline.

Two weeks after returning to L.A., he felt the itch to take the next step and Karen egged him on. Still, a face to face confrontation wasn't something he felt comfortable with yet when he didn't know how well the deprogramming had worked. He had worked with Karen and another psychologist specializing in these kinds of things. It had been frustratingly long weeks with progress and setbacks, broken coffee mugs, raised voices and crows of victory alike.

His first step in putting himself out there was therefore by tailing his team mates. He started with Eric as the tech was the one least likely to notice, therefore giving Callen the most time to explore his own reactions upon seeing one of his team members in the flesh.

There had been a fierce bolt of unease and pain upon first seeing the tech, making Callen instantly frustrated and ready to call his experiment off, prepared to retreat and leave US soil if necessary. Karen had read him the riot act when he admitted to letting Eric leave without even following him to see if it got easier. She had also challenged him into doing better.

So Callen found himself at Eric's place again two days later and this time, was prepared for the unease, noting with curiosity that it was down to a moment of hesitation and a wince now that he saw Eric for the second time. He followed Eric, noting with approval how the tech took care to double back once and use a roundabout route to get to his destination - which was obviously the new headquarters of the Office of Special Projects.

It was located in a wide area, consisting of several buildings that seemed to be connected by walkways. While he still mourned the loss of their old condemned Spanish Mansion, the new place seemed to work for their needs. He remained far enough away so as not to have any warnings go off at OSP.

He tailed Eric for two more days before switching to the rest of his team mates, following them one after the other and making himself face each of them without any direct interactions.

Some were harder to face than others, more left over tension in seeing them, but generally, he didn't feel the paralyzing bolt of electricity racing up and down his body that had been there before he fled L.A.

Following Sam turned out to be most fun as his partner seemed to be suspicious several times. Callen managed to stay back far enough to not get made but he guessed he would have to confide in Sam soon if he kept on tailing him or there would be red lights flashing in alarm with Sam pulling out all the stops to make sure there was no threat against him. The fact that he only saw Sam hesitate once or twice and not get fully defensive let him know that his partner wasn't totally worried yet. Still, Callen backed off and decided to leave Sam alone until he was confident he could take the next step.

Tailing Hetty as the last person he needed to see from afar before venturing forward went somewhat differently than planned… though not all that surprising considering it was Hetty. Just like Callen himself, Hetty had a finely tuned radar for picking up tails.

He stayed back far enough to not get instantly made for a time before he decided to venture closer to see how well he was holding it together. Of course that was when Hetty's demeanor changed. Her leisure stroll through the market changed ever so slightly and a small amount of tension entered her posture. She doubled back twice, giving Callen a run for his money. He idly smiled when all he felt at the threat of being made by her was amusement instead of dread at potentially having to face her. Taking it as a good sign for his mental state, he didn't back off and leave, instead entered the game with Hetty, doing his best to evade her.

Only when he saw her Derringer appear from her sleeve, did he decide to stop before he got himself killed - not that Hetty would make such a mistake. He eased off and when Hetty turned in something close to confusion at the lessening presence, he didn't make a move to conceal himself.

They stood some 50 yards away from each other and Callen took a deep breath and raised his eyes to meet hers. There was a small jolt, but nothing more than that and relief doused him, making him weak at the knees.

Maybe he could really do this, could regain what had been taken from him.

Surprise flittered over Hetty's features before elation and amusement followed. When Hetty made to step towards him, he stepped back. She stopped instantly and nodded, remaining where she was, understanding he still needed space to do this on his terms. He returned the nod with a small smile before taking another step back and then turning away.

He hadn't even taken ten steps before his phone chimed with an incoming text. He smiled upon reading it. 'Tea, Mr. Callen?'

Callen stopped to type in a reply, glancing over his shoulder when he sent it. 'Not today. Not yet.'

He watched as Hetty read his answer and then returned her gaze to him. There was another solemn nod before she typed another reply and then determinedly turned away and left, giving him the space he had asked for.

'Some other time then.'

Callen breathed a sigh of relief and felt something unclench. He had already known he had her backup. While they had evaded difficult topics in the phone conversations they had shared during his time in Texas, she had been very clear in the fact that she held no ill will towards him and on the contrary offered whatever support he needed - she had sent Derek and probably had a hand in picking Karen after all. Facing her now but having her back off when he signaled that he still needed time only underlined that support and he relaxed.

Callen melted back into the easy coming and going of the market, losing himself in his contemplations and going through his 'meeting' with Hetty and his reactions to it once more.

Even though Karen suggested meeting with one of the others first to ease into things, he still wanted to go for the most difficult ones first: Hetty and Sam. He knew once he had faced those two, once he knew he could keep it together when he met with them, then the rest would be comparatively easy. Plus, he owed it to those two to approach them first. After so many months of hiding and healing, after working up to it by tailing his friends to check his own reactions, he felt it was time to face this head on.

Therefore, it was a few days after he had briefly faced Hetty in the market that he sent her a text.

'Tea, Hetty?' was all it said; all that needed to be said.

Xxxxxxx

He met with Hetty several times. He knew she had been surprised by his request to meet at the beach house where he had met up with the team after the first two mock-assassinations, when had been deeply hurt by what had been done to him and nearly out of his mind with the repercussions of his torture and brainwashing.

Callen had debated with himself and had also discussed it with Karen, unsure if he should face two difficult things at once, but he wanted to meet with Hetty somewhere in private and while she had other properties that would fit their need, something drew him back to the beach property. It was an instinct and he usually listened to his gut feelings.

Especially the first meeting had been somewhat difficult and he had often found himself evading eye contact, looking up several times to find familiar jolts of pain and adrenaline rushing through him. Karen had warned him about that and while he had hoped he would be ok, he had prepared himself to expect it. The depth of his brainwashing and torture took time to reverse, not only in theory, but also in real life.

Hetty had been patient and had carried a conversation he didn't always follow, but was glad for anyway as it left him time to come to grips with what was happening. Shawn had been around as well and Callen had once more noticed his presence as something soothing. Even though the former SAS soldier mostly left them alone, his presence had a calming effect on Callen. By the time he left Hetty's place late in the evening, he felt more settled with himself and the situation.

The next meetings went better and better and by the end of the fourth, he could meet her eyes without flinching… which was more than could be said for a lot of agents coming under Hetty's purview.

Xxxxxxx

While he periodically checked up on the rest of his team mates, he hadn't made a push to see anyone else before he was on more stable feet with Hetty.

He for once decided to heed Karen's warnings of not overdoing things by tackling several problems at once.

Still, with his meetings with Hetty getting easier, he felt himself becoming more restless and eventually, he was drawn to the man who had always had his back, the man who was in many regards his brother.

Callen knew he could finagle a meeting wherever he wanted, could tail Sam or stake out his favorite coffee shops to eventually bump into him. In the end, he decided on a very simple way: he waited for Sam on his boat one morning after his partner had gone for a run.

Callen watched him leave, somewhat surprised by the way he itched to join Sam for his morning run, to spend time with the other man. Taking it as a good sign, he approached the boat, smirking at the huge sea lion watching him suspiciously. Climbing on board, he settled himself into one of the deck chairs, giving himself more time to prepare himself and smiling when he received a message with well wishes from Karen who knew about his plan to meet with Sam.

Callen tensed slightly when he felt the shift in the air, the way eyes were suddenly locked onto him. It wasn't a threat - instead he felt the presence of his partner drawing near. Callen closed his eyes and allowed himself to bask in the old feeling of soothing comfort and belonging. He hoped facing Sam would help him regain another support beam and anchor he had been missing dearly for months.

Mirage had been correct. By running, he had deprived himself of a lot of support, even though at the time it had felt less like support and more like anguish.

The easy rhythm of footfalls approached and Callen held himself still, opening his eyes but not yet looking up.

Without saying anything, Sam sank into a second chair that was angled towards the one Callen sat in.

He could easily pinpoint his partner's location even though Sam didn't speak, obviously giving him the lead.

Inwardly, he braced himself for the jolt of pain. Taking a slow and deep breath, Callen slowly raised his head and met his partner's gaze. "Hello, Sam," he said quietly, a small smile on his lips when the jolt of pain was dull, overshadowed by the expression on his partner's face - happiness, relief and pride.

"Hey G," Sam gave back in an equally gentle tone of voice.

The voice sank into him and Callen felt himself relax a bit further. He could do this, could regain what the Asian had tried to permanently take from him.

"I thought I felt your presence a little while ago," Sam said and leaned back in the chair, stretching out his legs. He reached for the towel that hung close, wiping his face.

Callen shrugged a little. "Been tailing everyone every now and then."

"How long have you been in L.A.?"

"Two months. Give or take a few days," he said slowly. "I needed some time to settle," he added after a brief pause, hoping Sam wouldn't be angry for staying away that long.

"You don't settle, G, you don't stay at a place long enough to settle," his partner needled gently and Callen felt a laugh escape, elated that Sam was willing to banter, to give him something that had always defined their friendship.

There was a private and pleased smile on Sam's features when their gazes connected the next time.

Callen shifted and slouched a little deeper into the chair, relaxing and allowing the tension to slowly seep from his bones, beginning to trust that he would be ok.

There was a moment of silence before Sam leaned forward a little, his eyes firmly on Callen. "How are you, G?"

"I'm…" he contemplated the question for a brief moment, "better," he settled on, before adding, "I'm getting there."

Sam's eyes remained on him for a moment longer, cataloguing and checking for himself. "Good," the other man said with a smile, obviously deciding to take Callen's word for it, before he stood up. "I'll take a shower. Coffee's inside if you want it."

Before Callen could decide on what to do, Sam was already gone. He contemplated if he should stay or if he should make a getaway and eventually decided to remain where he was, relaxing back into the chair and allowing his eyes to close in something that felt pretty close to 'contentment'.

If he was asleep by the time Sam returned outside, no one commented on that.

Xxxxxxx

There was a lull in conversation and Callen watched Hetty somewhat wearily, feeling the pressure of his own thoughts.

They'd been having dinner together twice a week since he had first met with her and the stability of the scheduled meetings gave him some sort of anchor.

Re-including Sam into his social contacts had also done a lot to help him find his feet again. They went for a run three times a week in the morning. He still hadn't met with anyone else from the team, though it was less out of avoidance of them and more that he wanted to give himself a little more time to know where things would go.

Which was also why he was apprehensive about today…

Callen glanced up again and found Hetty watching him, her gaze steady and sure.

"I don't know if I can return to my position," he blurted out, wincing when his mouth clicked shut. He put his cutlery down and rubbed a hand over his eyes.

Hetty continued watching him, her head tilted slightly to the side, obviously unfazed by what he had just said. "Do you want to?" she asked simply.

Callen hesitated before forging on. "I don't know," he admitted, his gaze downcast, pinching the bridge of his nose. He had searched himself for weeks, unsure if he wanted to return to OSP, return to the life he'd led before. On the one hand, he didn't know how to be anything else. He had been an undercover agent for one or another agency almost all of his life, but on the other hand, he had bled for his country multiple times and had his mind, his personality nearly fractured by what he had been forced to endure that last time. Captivity was always a possibility in their line of work and he wasn't sure if he could stand it again, wasn't even sure if he could stand the mere thought of it.

There was a long moment of silence and Hetty's gaze remained steady. "I see," she hedged before reaching for the sauce. "Why don't you come to OSP first and we'll see how that goes?" she suggested.

Callen arched an eyebrow. "Shouldn't you keep the new location confidential?"

Hetty grinned and put the saucepan back down, reaching for her cutlery once more. "I'm pretty sure you already know where it is, don't you?" she asked, pointing her fork at him. The mirth in her expression let him know she didn't mind. "And anyway… you said you didn't know whether you could return to your position, not that you couldn't return to NCIS."

He opened his mouth to argue but Hetty gave him a stern glance.

"You are far too valuable an asset to let go, Mr. Callen," Hetty told him firmly but gently. Her voice softened even further when she went on, "and you are one of mine so unless you decide you're really done with our world, I will do my best to find a suitable placement for you within NCIS. If the status of a Field Agent is not for you anymore, then I'm sure we can find something else to suit you." He also heard what she didn't say, that he was far too valuable to her to let him slip away.

Callen shakily reached for his glass. He had of course known that Hetty had his back, but this was more than he had hoped for. He had been an undercover operative for ages, something he knew he excelled at, but he didn't know what else he had to offer to the agency. Having Hetty's backup and support was a huge relief. He trusted her to guide him and find something he could be comfortable with if he decided to drop out of the field. He glanced at Hetty and met her gaze head-on. "Thank you," Callen told her quietly, giving her a relieved smile.

"You're most welcome, Mr. Callen. Most welcome indeed."

Xxxxxxx

Callen sat in his car, watching the building from outside, shoring himself up to actually leave the vehicle and set foot into the new OSP.

His dinner with Hetty had just been yesterday and somehow he had found himself roped into her machinations and agreeing to come by today. He wasn't quite sure how that had happened, only knew the satisfied gleam in Hetty's eyes should worry him more than it did. He was pretty sure that she had already made contingency plans on top of contingency plans that he wasn't yet privy to. He didn't know if he should mind.

For the moment, he was more worried about the imminent happenings.

He had already talked to Karen that morning and she had encouraged him and prodded him in equal measures. He got the feeling that Hetty had already filled her in on the plans and he was being railroaded by the two women. He was equally certain that it wasn't a bad thing since he could be sure these women meant him no harm.

Callen glanced at his phone when it signaled an incoming text.

He huffed out an amused breath when he read Hetty's words: 'Aren't you coming in?'

Trust her to be watching and trust her to know he needed a small push. Callen took a deep breath and then resolutely opened the door to get out of the car. Slowly heading over to the building, he glanced around the area, smiling when he caught a glimpse of the ocean behind the fence line. He had spent many an hour on the beach after coming to grips with his aversion to it after the incident with Sam's mock-assassination. It had taken a while and some guidance from Karen, but by now, the ocean had regained its value for his peace of mind.

He pushed the door open and took in the sight. Similar to the Spanish Mission, this place looked bland and mostly deserted from the outside. And also similar to the previous OSP, the place was bustling with energy and people once he stepped inside.

Callen stopped again just inside the hallway, glancing around and taking in the sights and the energy of the place. He smiled when one of the women from wardrobe pushed past with a clothes rack, minding her own business. Several people with file folders moved from one place to the other, some people were clustered in small groups, conversing and discussing.

There was something familiar in all of this and Callen was startled by the pang of longing, the realization that he had missed this. He glanced straight ahead and found Hetty watching him from her office. Just as before, she had an open space, no door, nothing to set her apart and keep her from knowing everything that was going on around her.

He gave her a somewhat shaky smile.

Her returning smile was wide and open, not hiding her feelings upon his appearance.

There was a sharp whistle from above and Callen glanced up, smiling when Eric skidded into view on the walkway above - similarly to the previous OSP, giving the techs the high ground. "Heads up," Eric hollered, obviously fired up about something. "It's Callen. He is…" the tech broke off when he glanced towards the entrance where Callen stood and their eyes met.

There was no jolt of pain and Callen smiled before glancing over to where he could hear chairs scraping and exclamations being made. His team popped into view behind a divider that was more closed off than the open iron fence in the Spanish Mission had been, but was still tastefully done.

"-here," he finished Eric's sentence, "I'm here." Callen smiled to himself upon the words, and the feeling of contentment they evoked. "Miss me?" he asked, only feigning confidence a slight bit until he saw their reactions. Kensi, Deeks and Nell tried pushing each other out of the way and it was surprisingly Nell - using her smaller size to her advantage - who won the battle and got to him first.

He was somewhat caught off guard when the woman crashed into him, her arms winding around him. "Jesus," he huffed out, instinctively returning Nell's firm embrace. He hadn't done terribly well with physical contact ever since the Asian, but aside of a slight tensing, there was no distressing reaction. The surprising move gave him very little time to guard himself, but he found he didn't actually need to, found that this felt surprisingly right.

When Nell stepped away, Kensi was next, going for the same tight embrace Nell had given him and Callen drew her close while he slowly relaxed.

Deeks' hand came down on his shoulder and Callen glanced up and gave him a smile before he withdrew from Kensi.

"Man, it's good to see you," Deeks said, his voice honest and gentle before he offered his hand and drew Callen into the male version of a hug.

Eric had by now also flip-flopped downstairs and went for the same hug that Deeks had. Sam leaned against the table nearby. They had seen each other just this morning, had gone for a run together but Callen hadn't told him anything about being roped in by Hetty. In the privacy of his own mind, he might have been worried about chickening out. Then again, defying Hetty was something he wasn't prone to doing.

Callen glanced at his partner and answered the raised eyebrow with a somewhat sheepish smile and a shrug.

The rest of the team observed the interaction and Kensi crossed her arms in front of her chest before she turned accusing eyes on Sam. "You knew he was back."

Sam glanced at her and shook his head. "I knew he was back in L.A.," he specified.

Deeks poked his partner in the side. "I told you he has been more relaxed for the last few weeks," he muttered, sotto-voice.

Kensi's eyes narrowed as she focused on Sam first and then turned her stare onto Callen. He prided himself on not recoiling, but there was a jolt of pain this time. He distractedly rubbed a hand against his chest, ignoring the sudden silence that fell around him.

"Look, I've been back in L.A. for a while. I needed some more time to…" he let the sentence hang, unsure on how to continue. Glancing up, he let his eyes move slowly around the circle of his friends, not quite making eye contact this time.

A soft sound alert coming from the tablet Nell had put on a nearby desk startled everyone out of the stillness. Nell reached for the device and her expression sharpened. "Alright. Kaleidoscope just got a hit on Farrell. Address on your phones," she said, her voice back to business and everyone reacted to that, turning to gather their things and springing into motion.

Nell and Eric made to return upstairs before Nell stopped and glanced back at him. "You gonna be here later?" she asked, her voice hopeful and at the same time guarded against disappointment.

Behind him, he heard the trio of field agents stop as well, just as interested in his reply as the techs were.

Callen shifted slightly and gave a small shrug. He tilted his head to Hetty. "Not sure about today, but I guess I'll be here more often from now on."

Nell gave him a pleased smile and he felt the tension in the others behind him slowly fall away. Interestingly, the strain in his own shoulders eased as well.

Hetty chose that moment to clear her throat. "You've got places to be, people," she ordered calmly and everyone scrambled.

Callen gave her a fond look which she returned before beckoning him over with a tilt of her head.

Xxxxxxx

Returning to work at OSP had given him another anchor he had been lacking for months.

Callen had to admit that he felt better for it. Not only working and keeping his mind occupied but also returning to the circle of friends and family he had made here. There were moments when memories were pressing in on him and he'd narrowly missed tumbling into a flashback or two, but mostly being around the others helped stabilize his world further.

It had taken a while, but eventually, the last effects of the conditioning wore off, overlaid with the reality of nothing happening upon seeing his team mates. The residue of expecting pain had still been there despite the deprogramming, as he had felt when he had tailed his team mates and met with Hetty and Sam, though the effects had not been as strong as before the process. Still, he had eventually determined that he simply had to go on and experience again and again that no pain was coming. With each experience, it got easier to trust and put himself out there, facing his team mates until there was no more muscle memory of sizzling pain.

Since returning to OSP, he hadn't made a push towards active field work again. He had re-qualified for the necessary weapons and also passed the fitness tests, but he hadn't gone into the field.

Sometimes, his feet itched when the team had to scramble and rush out, or even when he was up in Ops and checking on their status or guiding them during a raid, but the urge to be out there with them wasn't strong enough to give in and head out. There was an anxiety remaining in him that held him back and both he and Hetty acknowledged it. He didn't want to endanger his team and if he couldn't function, he would inescapably do that.

He had once told Deeks - after being tortured by Sidorov - that he didn't want him on the team unless he was ready to be back, that he couldn't have Deeks second-guessing himself while trying to figure out if the job still made sense for him, that it wasn't safe for Deeks… and not safe for the team.

It was only fair he heeded his own advice. And he knew he wasn't ready to be back yet because he was still second-guessing himself.

He was certain that he wanted to be here, within the family he had built for himself, but beyond that? He just didn't know.

Xxxxxxx

Callen moved upstairs, planning on watching the undercover assignment from Ops. Kensi and Deeks were doing an easy recon on a person of interest in a club. Kensi was going in as bait while Deeks was providing backup.

No one else was needed on the ground since they were just in the first steps of putting the mission together, just the first tentative appearances to get their sailor's interest.

Still, Callen often watched from Ops these days, guiding his team, providing insight into body language and other things that weren't exactly Nell or Eric's jobs to do. It helped him in staying close to the team, providing backup the only way he knew to do right now and also allowing him to stay in the game and draw closer to potentially returning to the field. His senses were tingling and he felt the itch to leave administrative work behind, to test himself out there once more. After two months of being back at OSP, he was finally getting itchy feet.

Striding through the automatic doors into Ops, still contemplating his returning interest in field work, he was completely unprepared for the blaring noise and drumming basses that were transmitted through Kensi and Deeks' microphones to the speakers in Ops. Catching himself, he glanced at the main monitor to get a handle on how the operation was going.

Deeks' button cam was up on the main screen and strobe lights were flashing, pulsing in time with the music/blaring noise inside the club.

The sight of Ops dissolved around him and merged into the prison cell in Chinquong, strobe lights and white noise.

Bile burned at the back of his throat and Callen recoiled as he stumbled backwards. Turning, he left Ops and fled through the building, trying to leave the flashback behind.

The visual memories merged with the physical pain of what followed after, leaving him breathless with agony.

Callen regained awareness seconds, minutes or hours later. He wasn't able to tell how much time had passed, only knew he was huddled against his partner's side when the flashback petered off and spat him back out. He was shaking with strain and fatigue, but the urge to recoil and scramble away from Sam was absent. He should be embarrassed by the display of weakness, but couldn't find it in himself to actually dredge up the energy to do so.

He forced his fingers to uncurl from where they were tangled in Sam's shirt.

"G?" Sam asked quietly, instantly aware of Callen's return to his senses.

He wanted to draw himself back together, but lacked the strength to do so, his muscles burning with fatigue after the powerful flashback and his reaction to it. For some reason though, he didn't mind his weakness. Sam's presence was strong and soothing and Callen let himself draw strength from it, feeling something inside of himself heal.

He knew that the way he had reacted to Sam's presence all those months ago, the night after the mock assassination, when Callen had been out of his mind and unable to cope with his partner's presence, had damaged something between them. It wasn't overly obvious, more a subtle hesitation in the way they behaved in certain situations. He knew that Sam - as both, the caretaker of the team and his best friend - had been thrown by his reaction and while he would have later come to rationally understand it, it had still hurt them both that Callen hadn't been able to allow his best friend close.

The fact that he could do so now without fearing the repercussions of the Asian's conditioning anymore helped somehow, made something settle between them, at least for Callen.

Callen drew in a measured breath, shifting slightly without drawing away completely. "Yeah, I'm here," he eventually answered Sam's prompt, his voice still warbling slightly, "give me a moment."

Sam's arm tightened slightly around him, "take the time you need."

Neither of them had ever been prone to being overly physical around the other, but there was no embarrassment in this situation, just the protective and soothing comfort of strength that was voluntarily offered.

Eventually, Callen sighed and slowly sat up, rubbing his hands down his face.

"Flashback?" Sam asked quietly, even though Callen was sure his partner had already worked that one out for himself and wasn't even really asking for confirmation, just putting it out there.

Callen hummed an affirmative. He had been totally unprepared for the flashback, taken off guard. He felt the world slowing down around him once more, stabilizing itself into reality. At the same time, he felt lethargy set in. He needed to go somewhere so he could rest.

Callen shifted and made to stand. He would have tumbled back to the ground if it hadn't been for Sam who caught and supported him. He allowed his friend to stabilize him when he was swaying on his feet.

The flashback had sapped his strength. The adrenaline was ebbing away, leaving his muscles wobbly and shaking. His heart was still beating somewhat out of tune, but he was at least clearheaded - even if completely exhausted.

"Couch," Callen murmured, "I need to rest." Admitting weakness had never been his strong suit, but he didn't feel like drawing the remnants of his walls up right now.

"You need to go home, Mr. Callen," Hetty spoke up from the doorway, watching their slow progress out of the gym.

Callen shook his head, "no home," he muttered, more to himself than anyone else. He still hadn't found a place to settle and he knew he needed the by now familiar surroundings of their new OSP to calm down, wouldn't be able to relax in the room he was currently staying at in Venice.

Hetty watched him closely and he returned her gaze, glad the flashback hadn't transported him back to a time where he couldn't stand the sight of his team mates or his superior. It had been a powerful flashback, but it didn't topple all the healing he had done so far.

Eventually, Hetty nodded and stepped aside. "Bring him to the couch, Mr. Hanna. I'll make some tea."

Callen hung on as he stumbled alongside of his partner, being guided and half-dragged over to where he had asked to be brought.

He had never been one to allow himself to be this vulnerable around his team mates. Not even Sam had seen him at his lowest after the near fatal shooting in Venice years ago, but somehow after trying to battle the Asian alone, after understanding he couldn't do it on his own, he felt himself sliding closer to the others, less inclined to keep them at bay.

He sunk down onto the couch with a weary sigh, rubbing his hands down his face once more.

The quiet, internal musings he had entertained before entering Ops, the strengthening interest of returning to the field, receded from his mind once more. As long as he couldn't function, he would be a danger to everyone.

Without giving his partner another glance, he lay down and shifted onto his side, curling up to take the strain of his aching muscles. He needed to rest, to sleep off the effects of the flashback.

Xxxxxxx

It was still dark outside when he woke. The room was lit dimly though, allowing for an easy way to orient and ground himself. Callen glanced around, a small smile coming to his lips when he saw his partner asleep in an easy chair close by.

Sam's obvious need to be around to offer care and comfort touched him. While they hadn't worked together in the field in over a year, the bond of brotherhood was still there and Callen knew he could fall back on it - now more than ever after experiencing the flashback and having Sam close when he returned to his senses.

Callen shifted and sat up stiffly, drawing the blanket around himself while he drew his feet up onto the couch. The images of the flashback were gone, but the feeling of helplessness and being trapped was still somewhat there. He knew he needed to talk to Karen, get her input and sort himself out.

Glancing at the clock and doing a quick calculation of time zones made him shake his head. He would have to wait a few more hours before he could call her.

Callen sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, feeling physically and mentally exhausted. He hadn't experienced a flashback in several weeks, especially not one as powerful as this. He had felt upbeat lately, settled somewhat firmly back into his life. He had begun to miss going out into the field and had been somewhat confident he could reclaim that part of his profession as well. Now, he wasn't so sure any more.

Callen jumped slightly when his cell phone vibrated on the coffee table in front of him. He reached for it before Sam could startle awake and glanced at the incoming text.

Karen is waiting for your call.

Callen reread the words and then glanced up, searching for the nearest surveillance camera. He gave a grateful nod, certain that Hetty was watching, the timing of her text too perfect to be coincidental. Glancing at his partner once more, Callen quietly stood and left the room for some solitude, finding his way up to the rooftop that had become somewhat of a sanctuary for him when he needed a quiet moment to himself.

Sliding down to the ground, his back wedged into the corner of the balustrade, he dialed Karen's number.

Xxxxxxx

Despite his initial internal musings the night after the flashback, he had tried to withdraw from the team in the aftermath of it, had tried to isolate himself again but had been met with both unvoiced and voiced disapproval.

The team had been quick to rally around him and draw him back in and despite his misgivings, he had surrendered to them.

The flashback itself wasn't so much the problem as the uncertainty of being able to return to field duty was. Because he now knew that he wanted to return to the field, he felt himself mourning for the possibility of being unable to do so in the end.

In a way the feeling was a relief because for a long while he hadn't been sure if he really wanted to return to the field, but on the other hand he felt backed into a corner he couldn't come out of for fear of making the wrong decision and endangering his team if he couldn't handle himself.

Callen had never been prone to being indecisive or afraid of making decisions, but the last year had changed him in fundamental ways.

Xxxxxxx

In the end, it was less a conscious decision or a process of careful steps to reintegrate himself into fieldwork in mostly controlled conditions but rather the desperate need to save his team that drew him out of Ops.

Callen glanced up from where he was discussing strategies with the head of another team when Nell called his name. There was a note of tension in her voice that had him out of his chair and up the stairs without consciously deciding on it.

He skidded into Ops moments later, instantly noting the thrumming tension in the room.

"Status report," he ordered curtly, not wanting a long discussion but just the headlights of what was happening and why Nell had called him up.

"We've lost contact with the team," Eric replied shortly, his fingers flying over the keyboard. Callen glanced over the tech's shoulder long enough to understand that Eric was trying to reconfigure the system. He had been in Ops often enough lately to recognize what those two were doing most of the time.

"How long?" he asked, glancing at his watch. The op wasn't supposed to go down for another twenty minutes at least. The team had gone into position early. Kensi was on overwatch while Deeks and Sam were on the ground - a shady lawyer with his client/muscle.

"Four minutes ago," Nell replied, shaking her head when she dialed through several frequencies, obviously all with the same results.

"Visual or audio?"

"Both," Eric answered distractedly, growling softly when his efforts too were met with silence on the comm.-system.

Callen breathed deeply, centering himself. "Just our team or is it a problem with the system in general?"

"Just our team," Nell shook her head.

"The system is fine. We're being jammed," Eric added, rolling away from his station and over to another terminal to try and set something else up.

"We got satellite telemetry?"

"Not for another fifteen minutes," Eric gave back without looking up from whatever he was doing now, "and I can't hack into another satellite either as there's none over the area."

There went that idea. Callen watched the monitors in silence for a few moments, considering all angles.

"Check the surveillance cameras in the area for anything suspicious," he told the techs, "this was supposed to be a courteous meeting to feel each other out. Cortez shouldn't have access to the kind of jammers needed to force our systems down." The niggling worry inside of himself started to grow and he felt himself tense, adrenaline slowly seeping into his body. Their target was an arms dealer with interesting connections, but so far he hadn't been considered a huge threat or Callen would have sent more muscle with the team. Still, right now, it felt as if they were missing something.

Two more minutes went by before pictures of several SVUs heading towards their meeting point appeared on the main screen. Another moment went by before Eric isolated the picture of one of the drivers.

Callen recoiled when the man's face appeared on the screen. "Oh no. No, no, no," he muttered, his stomach plummeting down, dread spreading through his being, his vision narrowing.

"Mr. Callen?" Hetty asked behind him.

He spun around and turned towards her, glad for the surprise of her appearance as it stopped the flashback in its tracks. "One of the Asian's guards," he told her, unable to keep the slight warble out of his voice. Callen held onto his control with a tight grip as he straightened and turned back to Eric and Nell. "I need as many tactical teams as you can scatter right away. Give me as much information about the area as you can until I hit the dead zone of the jammer."

He pivoted and nearly collided with Hetty who stood in his path. She arched an eyebrow at him.

Callen's eyes narrowed, dread turning into fury. "Don't try to stop me. China will not take this team down. They didn't manage last time, and they will not manage to do so now," he growled, anger surging powerfully through him.

He had done everything in his power to stop the Asian the last time and he would not let his people come to any harm now.

The Asian himself was in custody, had been dropped into a deep pit as far as he knew. Callen had never bothered to find out where he was being held and Hetty had never offered the information. He didn't care, as long as the Asian was under lock and key and couldn't do any more harm. If Callen found out that this monster was pulling strings from out of his dark pit though, he would make sure the Asian would be buried in that same black pit.

Hetty's gaze was sharp and piercing before she obviously saw what she needed to see and stepped aside with a nod.

Callen marched past her and once the automatic doors swished open, he sprinted to the armory to gather the gear he needed.

Xxxxxxx

The fifteen minute drive was made in fewer than ten as the small convoy of tactical teams raced to their destination. Callen could only hope that they wouldn't be too late, that they wouldn't walk into the aftermath of a bloodbath.

Nell and Eric were indeed feeding them information as long as possible and Callen coordinated the tactical teams as well as the other field agents he had commandeered to tag along.

The comm.-system cackled and then died just as Nell had announced would happen ten seconds before. They were now blind and relaying on their instincts and the previously acquired information to stop the massacre he was certain China planned.

Screeching to a stop, he jumped out of the car and made his way into the dense cover of trees, taking care to be quiet despite his haste. The two members of one of the tactical teams behind him were equally cautious as they approached the location. They had made a plan of attack on the fly while they raced to the meeting point.

Callen didn't give himself a moment of hesitation when he approached Kensi's position and took in the sight. Firing twice, he watched as the man standing over her stumbled backwards and then fell. Kensi reacted instantly, turning towards where the shot had come from, her sniper rifle forgotten while she reached for the knife. Their gazes connected for a moment, surprise and astonishment crossing through her eyes before she glanced around and saw the man lying a few feet away from her. She hadn't heard the enemy sneak up, completely focused on her job of protecting her team mates from above. That was always a problem for snipers without a spotter. They were left vulnerable when they were in the zone of concentration.

Turning her head back to Callen, she gave him a sharp nod of thanks that he returned.

"Keep overwatch. We're being set up. Tac teams coming up from the east and west end," he told her shortly before he glanced down the slope.

Deeks and Sam had taken cover upon his shots and were out of immediate sight. Callen could only hope they hadn't scared the Chinese Agents away. He didn't want those men to run rampart in his city and continue being a threat to his team any longer.

He spared another glance for Kensi, noting she had settled back in front of the rifle and was canvassing the area. He signaled for one of the men from the tactical team to remain with her while the other followed Callen down the slope, carefully picking their steps.

The shot came out of nowhere and Callen was thrown back, the bullet finding center mass and striking with the force of a sledgehammer. Losing his footing, he fell hard, rolling down the slope before he came to rest in the dense foliage. Breath had been punched out of his lungs by the force of the bullet and he lay there, gasping and floundering as he struggled to take in some air. Callen curled onto the side, curving his body around the point of agony. He listened to the sound of gunfire around him as he tried breathing through the pain. It took long moments before he regained enough of his breath and his senses to put himself back into the game. The vest had taken the hit, but he knew there would be colorful bruises later on. At least he was still alive to see the bruises forming.

The guy from the tac team who had been with him before he had been shot was squatting down beside him. He waved the concern away before carefully pushing himself up and scanning the area.

Bursts of gunfire could be heard through the valley where the tactical teams were returning the enemy's fire.

It seemed like someone was holding a grudge against him. Callen was certain they had been waiting for him to show up before the fireworks started. Down below, Sam and Deeks were still wedged behind cover, under heavy fire while their tactical teams were beginning to converge on the enemy, taking them out one by one. The Chinese had found well protected ambush positions and were relentlessly firing back.

At least Sam and Deeks had sturdy cover and in drawing enemy fire, they helped the tac squads in locating the shooters.

In the middle of the shootout, their comms cackled back on and it was a relief to hear their techs' voices and regain their guidance.

It took a small eternity, but eventually, the area quieted down. Everyone was holding their breaths and no one was taking the victory for granted.

"Sam, Deeks, remain where you are. Everyone else, canvass the area from above," Callen directed, "Nell, Eric… can you help with thermal imaging?" He needed his team mates to remain behind cover as they would be most vulnerable in the space of the meeting place below and his gut told him there was a sniper-nest remaining, waiting to take people out once they lowered their guard.

"Roger that," came the dual replies from Ops and moments later, directions were given, helping them in finding possible remaining threats.

There wasn't one remaining sniper nest, but two of them.

It took a long while before everyone was satisfied that there were no more threats and slowly, everyone lowered their guard.

By that time, everyone was feeling the effects of the adrenaline and the stress and everyone was glad the ambush had been derailed.

Callen left his position and made his way down to where Sam and Deeks stood in the middle of the valley. The car they had come in was a goner with all the bullet holes in it. At least it wasn't a car of high value since Deeks had been undercover as a shady low level lawyer instead of a wealthy sleaze bag.

Sam turned when Deeks' eyes grew wide upon seeing Callen approach. They had gotten used to expecting Callen to direct them from Ops and obviously hadn't made the connection that he was on the ground and not just with them via their comm.-system. Callen arched a questioning eyebrow at his partner when Sam frowned.

"What are you doing here?" Sam asked.

"What am I…?!" Callen sniped back with an arched eyebrow. "What do you mean: what am I doing here? I'm saving your ass… again." He smirked.

"The fine gentlemen of the tac teams could have done that," Sam pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest.

Callen threw up his hands. "See if I tear out of Ops and risk my neck for you again," he muttered before pointing a finger at Sam, "but at least you admit to needing to be saved. It's a start… even though it still feels a bit ungrateful."

Deeks watched the verbal sparring match, for it wasn't an argument but an old and trusted way to relieve some of the tension after being in a tight spot like this. Smirking, Deeks clapped his hands together gleefully. "Ohh, goody. Finally everything is back the way it should be."

Sam and Callen shared a glance before turning to Deeks as one. "Deeks… shut up."

The order came from both of them at the same time, again an age old stress relief and security measure. Picking on their Detective who usually gave as good as he got always emphasized they were all alive and well.

Deeks only grinned wider in response and opened his mouth to sling a shot back at the senior agents. Before he could do so, Kensi stepped up beside him and startled him out of his concentration by a well placed punch to his shoulder. "I wouldn't if I were you."

She turned to Callen, "thanks for the assist up there," she told him.

Callen gave her a smile and a nod before turning to Sam, "see? Now that's what I call a show of gratitude." He stepped over to Kensi and drew her against his side. "I always knew why you were my favorite agent."

Kensi and Deeks both laughed while Sam muttered something under his breath while rolling his eyes.

When both Deeks and Sam had turned away, Kensi glanced up at him, still pressed lightly against his side. "It's good to have you back," she told him quietly.

Callen tightened his arm around her and gave her a somewhat grateful nod.

"Come on, let's get back to Ops," he told the others. The tactical teams were still securing the area and the crime scene techs would be there soon to take over. There was nothing left for them to do for the moment as any surviving prisoners would be brought in by the tactical teams as per Hetty's orders.

Deeks glanced dubiously at the shot up car the trio had arrived in and Callen grinned. "Seems like you guys might need a ride." He gestured to the general direction where he had left his car, turning and taking Kensi - who he still hadn't let go of - along.

"At least it's not my car they shot up," Sam groused, "last time you were in the field, the Challenger found a premature end."

Callen arched an eyebrow, "you want to walk back to Ops?" he asked sweetly.

"Can't be much worse than your driving," Sam shot back.

"Oh, come on. I apologized," Callen said, rolling his eyes.

"He apologized, he says," Sam mocked, throwing up his hands and scoffing, "you sunk the Challenger in the harbor… with me inside."

Callen pursed his lips and tilted his head to the side, "alright. Listen… the next time I have to assassinate you, I promise I'll take my Mercedes."

Sam pointed a finger in his direction. "See that you do!"

"I hate it when mom and dad are fighting," Deeks huffed from two steps behind Callen, his voice laced heavily with mirth.

"Deeks?" Callen called over his shoulder, turning his head towards him.

"Mnnn?" the younger man gave back with a wide grin, already knowing what was coming.

"Shut up," all three of them chorused laughingly - and if Callen mostly held back the laugh, it had more to do with the bruised ribs from the shot he had taken to the vest than the gloom and doom that had seemed to try and keep reaching for him the last few months.

This, right now, was good. For the first time since he'd been taken by the Asian, he was really back where he belonged, in the field, bantering with his team without holding back.