"It's good to see everyone here today. And a few new faces as well. Although, please don't take offense if there actually aren't. According to my wife, I'm completely face blind," one of the men said. He looked around the same age as Deeks and fully relaxed. It made him envious to see everyone treating this place as no big deal. You had to have gone through something to end up there, but everyone looked fine. Deeks wanted to be fine too. "How about we go around the group and introduce ourselves? I'm Henry."

"Wade," the man to his right with a stack of donuts said next. They kept going around, with everyone saying their name. He was glad there was nothing added onto it, like a fun fact about themselves or why they were there. If Deeks could get out of this with only having to say his name, that would be ideal. It was participating.

"Edgar," his new acquaintance said brightly, giving him an encouraging nod as he was next up. Deeks felt like he was a little kid again, practicing saying "here" in class during attendance. What if he said his name weird? It was already an abnormal name. And he couldn't use an alias, since he'd already told his name to Edgar. Now he was really regretting letting Kensi spring this on him. He didn't have any time to prepare.

"Deeks. I- uh, I'm Deeks." Deeks felt like smacking his forehead. Why didn't he just say his name once and be done with it? Stammering and stuttering over his name, before he even said anything of substance, was a bad sign. The rest of the group finished introducing themselves, but he could barely pay attention after his flub.

"If no one minds, I'm gonna start this week," Henry said, taking a sip of coffee as he leaned back in his chair. "I had that recurring nightmare again."

"Damn, it's been a while for that one, right?" Wade asked with a wince.

"About six months," Henry replied with a nod. "I damn sure hadn't missed it."

"What do you think brought it up?" Edgar asked.

"A movie. This stupid movie that I don't even know the name of. It came on after a show I was watching finished and I didn't pay attention until they got to this college scene, then I was right back there in my mind," Henry said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. "Didn't even have anything to do with a fraternity, but it didn't matter. Didn't stop the sandman from taking me right back to that pledge night."

"Did you try that dream control technique I told you about?" one of the other men whose name Deeks hadn't caught asked. It seemed like most of these guys knew each other well. Deeks was feeling the same outsider feelings that he'd dealt with at work. But was this a group he really wanted to be a part of?

"I don't think I've got the hang of it yet, since nothing changed. I was still drunk and powerless. Scared the hell out of Georgia when I woke up."

"Girl's losing her nerve in her old age."

"Don't let my wife hear you say that. She treats that dog like her baby," Henry laughed.

"And how is Annie?" Edgar asked. "Did your nightmare disturb her too?"

"Hell no. She just handed me the water on her nightstand and tucked me back in. Doesn't even have to be fully conscious to know exactly what I need. I'm lucky she puts up with me."

"You're lucky any of us do," Wade grinned cheekily.

"Anyways, the point I was trying to make with bringing that up was that a trigger can come out of nowhere. Hell, it's been over ten years since I was assaulted and I can talk about it here without batting an eye, but one little thing can take my mind back to that night," Henry explained, huffing out an annoyed breath. "What matters is how you deal with it when it happens. Whereas a younger version of myself would've tried to isolate and drink the memories away, I went with what works for me in a healthier way. Spending time with my wife, talking it out with my therapist, and coming to this meeting with you knuckleheads. I might even sit down and watch that movie later."

"Look at you. All mature and well-adjusted," Wade teased. "Makes me sick."

"I love you too, dear," Henry smirked.

"Love," Wade muttered, shoving half a donut in his mouth.

"Still haven't been able to say it to Robin?" Edgar asked, smiling at him sympathetically.

"I tried practicing saying it to a photo of her and almost threw up," Wade sighed, wringing his hands a bit. "I want to tell her and she deserves to hear it, but my mind always flashes back to- to Kelly, and I can't. It's a miracle she hasn't given up on me yet."

"She knows how you feel about her, even if you haven't said the words out loud," Henry assured him.

"I just get so frustrated with myself. I know that saying those words won't turn her into a monster, but I didn't expect that from Kelly either. I didn't expect Kelly to think those words gave her the right to override my boundaries. And I'm trying really hard to not punish Robin for something she didn't do."

"Needing time to get your mind right isn't a punishment. I'd be sad if Alex did something that hurt him, just because it was something he thought I wanted," Edgar said, giving Wade an understanding look. "And just think, when you finally do get to that point, it's gonna mean so much more to Robin. Don't deprive yourself of that moment. Don't let Kelly take that away from you."

"Everything okay with you, Deeks?" Henry asked suddenly. Deeks jolted in surprise, before realizing his face had been scrunched up in confusion for a while. And now everyone was staring at him.

"Sorry, yeah. This just isn't what I was expecting," Deeks admitted, feeling awkward now that the attention was on him.

"What were you expecting?"

"Honestly, I don't know. I didn't even know where I was until a couple minutes before I walked in," Deeks chuckled uncomfortably. "I guess something a little less casual."

"Less laughing, more crying?"


"Well, we do both, depending on the day. Depends on whatever we're dealing with at the time," Henry shrugged, leaning forward a bit in his chair. "What are you dealing with today?" Deeks was taken aback at being asked that question outright. He hadn't planned on saying much during this first and possibly only meeting. Just getting a feel and seeing if it was right for him. Maybe offering someone else support if he felt like he could.

"Uh- wow," Deeks mumbled, brushing his bangs off his forehead. He glanced over at Edgar, who was giving him an encouraging nod. Saying something didn't mean he had to be specific. Everyone who had spoken so far had been a bit vague, seeing as how most of the people there probably knew the details already. He could just follow their lead. "I had an encounter with a woman that didn't go so well."

"Okay," Henry replied, dragging out the word to cajole him into continuing. Deeks could just come out and say it. These places were about support and confidentiality. But even with Nate poking at the back of his mind, he couldn't do it.

"It wasn't a big deal." Two people ended up dead and Deeks almost died as well, but downplaying it was instinctual. Deeks shuddered to think of what he would immediately admit was bad. It would probably have to be catastrophic.

"I remember that stage," Wade said knowingly. "Denial."

"Wade, don't be an asshole," Henry chastised. "Everyone moves at their own pace and they shouldn't be judged for it."

"I'm just saying that I've been there. We've all been there. And a sign of acceptance of what happened is actually being able to talk about it. Beating around the bush means it's a bigger deal than you want to admit."

"Stages? You mean like the stages of grief?" Deeks questioned. "I'm not grieving anything."

"When something traumatic happens to us, we're never the same person we once were," Edgar said, smiling sadly.

"That's kind of bleak."

"But realistic. Doesn't mean you can't move past it and go on to be happier than you were before, but the scar still remains." Deeks had to keep from rubbing his still healing wrists. He knew about scars. And as much as he wanted to tell Edgar he was wrong, he wasn't. Deeks remembered the stark difference in his mind before and after his father hit him for the first time. And the first time he'd discharged his weapon in the line of duty. The first time he took a life. Had he ever taken time to process those moments? Or was it easier to keep moving and pretend nothing affected him? Maybe doing what he thought was the strong choice and putting everything behind him was really a disservice.

"I feel like I never got to be the person who I was supposed to be. I didn't have the chance to choose my own path, because it was chosen for me. Circumstances and actions that weren't mine. I thought it taught me how to adapt, but maybe it taught me how to avoid. How to mask so I would be more palatable for everyone else," Deeks rambled, sounding confusing even to himself. But now that he started, he didn't want to stop. "What happened to me wasn't even a big deal. Compared to other things I've been through, it was nothing. But it was like everything in my life was spiraling at once. My professional life, my personal life, and then this. I knew I had nothing and no one to turn to and I'd never felt more alone.

"But I'm not alone, and while I should be happy about it, I can't be. I do have people I can open up to now, but I can't separate the fact that what happened to me was the catalyst. Does that mean I'm going to think about what happened every time we interact? Is it going to infect every part of my life?"

"Not if you don't let it. Not if you choose to fight letting it overtake you," Edgar insisted. "And even if what happened was the reason your relationship began, it won't be the reason you keep it. People rarely stick around for long unless they want to. I think once they realize what they've been missing, it'll be just as important to them to keep you around."

"You don't even know me. You met me practically five minutes ago," Deeks pointed out, highlighting Edgar's unearned confidence in him.

"And I already hope I'll see you back here next week," Edgar shrugged. "There is ugly in the world and the fact that we're all here right now proves we've seen it. But sometimes it's okay to give people the benefit of the doubt. To approach things with optimism, instead of going into it expecting things to go wrong."

"Self-fulfilling prophecy, right?" Deeks huffed. Every time he met someone new, he prejudged how they were going to judge him. With his team at NCIS, he knew they would see him as a lowly undercover detective working the streets, while they were the federal agents with the fancy training. Deeks did his job well, but didn't bother standing up for himself and pushing back to earn their respect. He just saw that he was right and let himself stay bitter and jaded. There was fault on both sides, since he played into stereotypes just to get under their skin.

Now that they were working on things, Deeks should've been happy. He should've felt relief at finding his place and his people. But he'd also never felt more vulnerable in his life. He could lament forever about these things occurring simultaneously, but it wouldn't change anything.

Maybe it had to happen this way. Maybe Deeks had to be laid bare before he would give himself a chance to try. Maybe Deeks was always destined to have tragedy kickstart change in his life. It did when he shot his father to save his family. It did when he realized he was too late to help the people in the way he wanted as a lawyer, so he became a cop. And it did when Jess was killed and he made the switch to NCIS, to go after the bigger threats with the backing of people with real power.

But maybe it didn't have to stay that way. He didn't have to continue along in life until something forced him to change. Maybe if he confronted his issues head on, instead of relying on avoidance, he would be able to grow in the position he was already in. Now that he had a place and people who were worth the work, maybe right now was the time to start.

"I was the victim of sexual assault."