A/N Second last…oh no nearing the end! But heaps more stuff happening right to the very last word.

Skippy1967 – I can't reveal too much about the ending but it isn't similar.

Chapter 21

A couple of months after…

Kensi and Sam had withdrawn their requests and Director Vance had shredded all the paper trail. It was the least he could do. They had reinstated Callen like nothing had happened. Leon and Hetty both believed nothing more needed to be said or done. He was back at NCIS: Special Projects where he should be. Ziva and Ben had made certain that Eli David had been persecuted and he was now rotting in Nafha. Hevel and Sarkis had settled in Los Angeles with Levi. Finally they were free. It was another good thing that had emerged from Callen's covert operation. They had visited Callen and they had expressed their thanks. Sarkis was particularly happy to see him and Callen made sure that he thanked him profusely for the care he had given him and the danger Sarkis had put his own life in. Things were good. Everything was the way it should be, except she hadn't called yet.

It was Callen's first day back and Sam was going to pick him up. The house was sold…but sold to Hetty who sold it right back to a grateful Callen. He stood in his vacant kitchen, holding a cup of coffee and his thoughts drifted. A myriad of emotions were pounding at his head trying to emerge the victor, but Callen kept them all at bay. One kept niggling…gratitude. He felt he needed to be grateful for the rescue and the special attention he received while recuperating. Callen knew how he should be feeling and how the others thought he was feeling, but they didn't truly know; they never did and he felt they never could know him. He had perfected the game face they were accustomed to, and at times it felt more comfortable than his own.

Callen seldom opened his heart. He'd dared to hope. It never had worked for him before…the whole hope thing. He had taken a chance with his special family at special ops but it hadn't work out. His heart had been violated and torn to shreds. He honestly thought this time it was going to be different. He thought he had done all the right things. He had given them more than he had given anyone else and still it wasn't enough. Still they wanted more. But what they didn't realize is that there wasn't anymore to give. He was all about the glass half empty. That is why he ran. He ran so he wouldn't have to deal with their rejection. That's what he had always done. When families rejected him, he ran and ran. This saddened him. He thought he had grown out this pitiful pattern of alienation. But he hadn't.

But somehow things were different now. He didn't feel entirely lost nor empty. He felt betrayed but not alone. The doctor had told him let them fuss over you, let them show you how much they care and then it will be your turn. The three months he had spent recuperating, Sam and the others had been with him day and night. They sat with him through his screeching nightmares to his sullen and taciturn tantrums, from the painful re-bandaging to the excruciating physical therapy. They were there for it all. They had helped him heal, they had sought forgiveness through their actions and actions have always been more poignant than words. This time he didn't feel like running. This time he would try harder. This time he would make it work. He would slowly rebuild his shattered heart and once healed, he'd give it again to his dysfunctional NCIS family. But it would take time.

Sam honked the car. The sharp sound startled Callen and his reaction caused him to spill his coffee. "Damn it!"

Sam waited tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and still G didn't emerge. Patience wasn't one of his virtues. "Shit G." He got out and went to the front door. It was open. "G?' he shouted.

"Spilt coffee on my shirt just changing," yelled Callen from somewhere in the house.

Sam walked in eyeing the place. Nothing had changed, spartan as usual. Then he turned and accidently looked into Callen's bedroom. Callen was changing and he had his back to Sam. Sam stood frozen. It was the first time he had seen the result of the 40 lashes. He remembered Dr. Lowen saying that the skin was far too damaged to repair and that all they could do was to let it heal naturally. But Sam never imagined this. The criss-crossing scar lines were still pink in contrast to Callen's bronzed back. The raised welts spanned his entire torso and Sam suddenly felt ill.

Callen saw movement from the corner of his eye and caught a glimpse of Sam in the mirror. Their eyes met. Callen saw pity and hurt and he looked away. This is what he was afraid of, that the team would not see him anymore; they would just see his scars and the looks of pity would be never-ending. He didn't want the scars to define him.

He reacted quickly by throwing on a raglan t-shirt then a loose long sleeve tee. He turned and walked over to Sam who looked down at his toes feeling uncomfortable. "I didn't want you to see it. It's ok Sam. Don't be embarrassed. They're part of me now. You get used to it after a while," said Callen trying to make Sam feel better.

Sam looked up, his eyes glistening and his anger smoldering, "I don't think I ever will. I did that to you."

"What?" said Callen looking shocked.

"You wouldn't have gone on that stupid mission if I hadn't…"

Callen grabbed Sam by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes, "We've been through this already Sam and now I'm only going to tell you this once more. You are not responsible. I make my own decisions about my life. I always have. You did not do this. Aaron and Eli did. Aaron is dead and Eli will be soon. It's over."

"But it will never be over for you. Those scars will be with you forever," said Sam barely holding it together.

"Yeah but they will fade as will the memory. Sam, I've got emotional scars worse than the ones on my back. I'll never forget the time in Nafha not because of everything that went on, but because my friends risked their lives to save mine. They will remind me that my family is right here." He slapped Sam on the back, "Now let's go. You don't want me to be late for me first day back?"

Ziva was right. Callen was a survivor and the strongest being he'd ever encountered. Sam didn't understand how he could be was philosophical about it. But Sam was going to stop trying to figure him out. He was going to accept his partner, flaws and all.

They got into the Challenger and Sam drove, constantly checking his review mirror.

"Should I be worried?" asked Callen signaling to the review mirror.

"No, just habit. Hey G, you remember last time I picked you up after…you know?"

"What, when I was shot?" said Callen turning to Sam.

"Yeah…do you have to say it so bluntly?" said Sam feeling uncomfortable.

"I don't like to sugar coat things. Why the trip down memory lane?" said Callen.

"I just remembered, it was when we moved into our new Ops Headquarters," said Sam.

"Where is this leading to Sam?" asked Callen a bit annoyed by the pointless questions and uncomfortable about dredging up the shooting.

"Don't know…just thinking out loud. I just have a bad feeling about today."

Callen looked at Sam. His bad feelings always meant something was going to happen. But there was nothing he could do now so he decided to brush it off. He had had enough emotional angst for the day. "Speaking to your grandma lately, have you? Read your tea leaves? Oh stop and get some donuts. I promised Kensi," said Callen smiling.

"My grandma is in tune with the spirits and her predictions have always come true. By the way donuts…G when are you gonna realize too much sugar is bad for you. Now fruit is better. Let's get some mangoes, bananas…brain food," said Sam enthusiastically.

"What do you think got me through the last couple of months? A strict diet of chocolate and cinnamon donuts. Brain food well, some might need it," he said smiling salivating for a response.

"Jest all you like G, but I'll be still jogging up Eldred Street when I'm 90," boasted Sam.

"And I'll probably be laughing at you from beyond the grave," laughed Callen and Sam scoffed.

"Why do I bother?"

"Because secretly you love me."

Humpf exclaimed Sam, "I'll just add delusion to your looooooog list of psychological hang ups!" Callen smiled and this time it actually reached his eyes. Something Sam hadn't seen in over three months.

Their moment was interrupted by Sam's ring tone Mama said Knock you out. "Are you ever going to change that ringtone?" whined Callen.

"No! My phone, my rules. Answer it!" ordered Sam.

"Eric," answered Callen.

"Put me on speaker Callen (he did). Sam, remember the witness to the Ahkmed Farid murder. There's been a sighting. It was anonymous phone call and too brief to trace. The place is Warehouse 71 next to the pier off Hudson St. Hurry!"

"Thanks Eric," responded Sam as Callen hung up.

Then Callen turned to Sam, "Ahkmed Farid?"

"Yeah…a case I worked on while you were on leave. He was a political asylum seeker…murdered. Cameras in the area showed a witness. Eric got facial recognition but we never found out who he was. This is a big break," finished Sam.

"Ok. So I'll be missing my welcome back party," smirked Callen.

"Crime waits for no man G, not even you."

With peak hour traffic, the boys still made record time avoiding any speeding tickets. They located the warehouse. Sam parked the car just out of sight. They got out, Callen still moving a little stiffly. "You ok?" asked Sam.

"Yeah. You take left and I take right?"

"Ok…don't spook him G, we want him alive," said Sam.

"Yes sir."

They moved in like lions on a hunt, ready to pounce on their prey. The place was deserted, dark and cold. They entered the warehouse, always keeping eye contact with each other. Then they saw a neon flickering light emanating from around a corner of the warehouse. They stalked carefully until they saw something that made them stop in shock. They raised their guns in alarm.

"Gentlemen so glad you could join me. I'm sorry I had to orchestra this whole charade. It was the only way to get you here Callen and your trusty sidekick Agent Hanna," said Rivkin.

"Give me one reason why we just don't kill you right now," asked Callen on high alert.

"I can give you a few. First of all we are all professionals here, so please put away your guns as I only want a chat with you Agent Callen," said Rivkin laconically.

"Really. A chat? About what?" said Callen still holding up his gun.

"Your guns gentlemen."

"No," said Sam unrelenting at this point.

Rivkin breathed heavily and looked at both agents, "I didn't want to do it this way." Rivkin held up his hand and he was holding something that resembled a trigger. "You shoot me, I let go of the trigger and your headquarters goes up in flames. So I ask you again, please put your guns down and kick them away so we can talk like civilized men."

The boys didn't relent notwithstanding the threat, "Fine." With the other hand he flicked a switch and 6 monitors came to life. Four monitors were a live feed into OSP centre, one was showing a parcel that was placed next to Callen's nameplate on his desk and the final one was focused on Hetty's movement.

"What's all this?" asked Callen slowly lowering his gun, feeling confused and suddenly very afraid.

"This my friend is a live feed into your headquarters. The parcel on your desk Callen, is an explosive big enough to take out the entire block," explained a calm Rivkin.

"How do we know this is not fake, pre-recorded?" asked Sam who had placed his gun on the floor.

"Ring Miss Lange…ring her now." Sam looked at Callen whose eyes went wide with uncertainity. His look saying what do I do?

"Do it Sam," said Callen. Rivkin smiled.

Sam pulled out his phone and dialed. "Mr. Hanna, how is the investigation going?"

Callen and Sam froze. Rivkin whispered, "Ask her to go to Callen's desk to see if a parcel arrived."

Sam faced tensed. He didn't like taking orders and he didn't like this situation. But he did as he was told. "Hetty, nothing so far. Callen wanted to know if a parcel arrived for him today?"

Hetty walked over to Callen's desk. The monitors showed Hetty standing next to the box. Callen and Sam looked at each other. Rivkin was telling the truth. "Yes Mr. Hanna. The parcel is on Mr. Callen's desk. Important is it? Since it's taking time out of your important case."

"Yes."

"Ok then. Careful with your investigation. Need I remind you how important this witness it," and the call ended. They watched everything. Rivkin wasn't lying. The smile of satisfaction gracing Rivkin's face churned hatred and spite in Sam, whereas Callen's mind was thinking overtime. But he realized they were between a rock and a hard place.

"So this whole set-up, what's it for? What do you want Rivkin?" asked Callen. Both agents now standing, waiting like lambs to the slaughter at their master's mercy yet showing no fear for themselves.

Rivkin scoffed, "Always fearless…that's what Eli used to say about you. Fearless to a fault. Here you are at my mercy and you're interrogating me. No I won't be as naïve as Aaron. I heard he died in Nafha."

Callen's stared straight at Rivkin, "He was shot by Eli, point blank in the head…from the back. Couldn't even face him. The coward!"

"Eli was not a coward. He was a visionary, he was passionate, he was my mentor and friend," ranted Rivkin.

"Was?" asked Callen confused.

"He hung himself in Nafha. That's what innocent men do when incarcerated wrongly!" yelled Michael.

"Or when they're ashamed of their crimes. He was guilty of betraying your country for financial gain, Michael. My role was to uncover the people behind the trading scheme not to target Eli," explained Callen hoping to appeal to Rivkin's rational side.

"And fortuitous that the man happened to be Eli, isn't that right Callen?" said Rivkin glaring at Callen.

Callen didn't want to get into that argument with Michael of all people. He too blamed Callen for Ziva's distance. So he decided that engaging Michael in an argument was going to be fruitless, so he changed tactic. "So why this? What do you hope to gain?"

"You see Eli was like a father to me. When I heard he died something in me died as well. Now I have no one except for Ziva. You know how much I've always loved her. Mossad is being restructured and all who were loyal to Eli are being discharged. I have nothing left. I'm here to do the same to you. I'm going to take everything you hold dear, Callen, and then I'll take Ziva" said Rivkin, madness creeping through his stare."I've watched you over the last three months and I've realized how close you are to Agent Hanna. He is like the brother you never had and your bond is strong. I am going to give you a choice; one King Solomon would be proud of. But first I want you to tie Agent Hanna to that chair using those plastic ties. We can't risk ropes can we?" smirked Rivkin.

Sam didn't like it. He didn't like being at the mercy of a madman but his life was nothing compared to the lives of the agents at Headquarters. Callen turned to his partner. He looked at Sam and the exchange of glares needed no words. He did what Rivkin wanted. He tied Sam to the chair then before turning to Rivkin, Callen squeezed Sam's shoulder and whispered, "I will not let anything happen to you." Sam nodded. But the tension was building up and his muscles started to twitch. He was trying hard to keep his emotions in check. "Easy big fella."

Then Callen straightened himself up showing strength and determination. He wasn't one to back down or show weakness. "Ok it's done. Now what's the choice?" asked Callen as cold as ice.

"Your choice is quite simple really. The first option is that you pick up your gun, aim it at your partner's head and pull the trigger, or the second option is that the whole of NCIS special operations and the whole block goes up in a huge blast and everyone dies. Brilliant don't you think? Win win situation," said Rivkin relishing in his planning.

"You son of a bitch!" yelled Sam fighting against the restraints. Callen stared at Rivkin, unable to fully digest the magnitude of the choice. The shock was overwhelming. "So Callen? How much time do you need to choose? I thought it would be rather simple."

Without uttering a word, he looked towards Sam. Callen's eyes started to water. Sam met his partner's eyes. He saw despair and desperation. Callen had always been the strong one. He had always been the person to make the tough calls and the hard decisions. Now Sam would carry that burden. He wouldn't let Callen make the decision. "G…you know the right choice. Do what he says, you hear me. Just do what he says. You cannot let them all die because of me…G! Understand?"

Callen didn't respond. He just kept staring at the monitors and then at Sam, "I can't," he choked out the words.

"Yes you can." Sam stared Callen down. His was resolute and he was brave. His death would mean something and he wanted Callen to remember that. He would go down proud and courageous.

Callen found himself completely detached from the situation. He felt his body move but he didn't feel present. He was urged on by an external force; the force that was Sam Hanna. Callen picked up the gun, holding it limply he raised it. "I can't Sam. You have saved me from myself so many times. You have been my anchor and my family. I can't lose you, not like this. I can't be the one to take your life." Callen started to cry. This made it harder for Sam to keep his composure.

"I know G. I never had a brother. But if I could choose, I'd choose you. You will always be my blood. Just do it. I'd rather you do it than some scum," said Sam stoically and strong.

Callen went through all the scenarios and they all led to his colleagues or to Sam dying. There was no way out….unless.

"Oh how touching! So have you made your choice Callen?" asked Rivkin feigning annoyance but relishing in his victory. Callen kept his eyes on Sam. Callen raised his gun to Sam's forehead. Sam was trembling with fear but managed a slight smile for Callen who couldn't keep his hand still. "Good so the decision has been made. Go ahead. Once he's dead I'll deactivate the bomb and you'll have to live with the reality that YOU killed your partner."

Callen turned to him was a murderous glare striking through his tears. Rivkin just raised the trigger. He had to do it. His body started to tremble as he took aim. Sam smiled. Then Sam looked in horror and disbelief as Callen, smiling knowing he'd outwitted Rivkin, raised the gun to just under his chin when a shot rang through the warehouse.

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