Note: Here we are, at the end. I'll try and keep this short! This has been one of the most fun and rewarding experiences to plan this story, write it, and see the reactions from those reading. If you're still reading, almost seven months later, I just want to say thank you. None of us gets paid to read or write fan fiction so the fact that you stuck with this (which is impressive considering the whole story clocks in at 555 pages) is appreciated. Thanks for reading, for reviewing, and for coming back from chapter to chapter. I don't think this would have turned out quite as it did without the support from those of you reading. And it definitely wouldn't have turned out as it did without the best beta in the world, MioneAlterEgo. Writing and working with a beta should be a collaborative and rewarding experience. And this definitely was! Thanks, Jenn.

It's an epilogue so quite heavy on the exposition and fluff. But I think in the end you'll be satisfied with where everyone ends up. I hope that's the case, I did my best to be true to the characters and the journey they've been on since the beginning of this story. And if you're wondering about a possible sequel or other upcoming stories I might write, I'll cover that at the end. And I'd love to hear from you on your way out. Thanks for reading!

Six months later

Logically, Kensi knew the passage of time was constant. A minute was always sixty seconds, an hour was sixty minutes, and a day was twenty-four hours. And the last six months were a constant and measureable 184 days, 4,416 hours, 264,960 minutes, or 15,897,600 seconds. But to Kensi, time had passed at a more relative, breakneck speed that she couldn't even begin to quantify.

It was October now, nearly a year since Deeks began his undercover assignment as Marty Tyler. When Kensi thought back to the year before it was with staggering wonder at how much had changed. It all began when her relationship with Deeks turning into something more than their simple work partnership. But it was really in the last six months that the effects of that one change, which had happened right in the middle of the maelstrom of Deeks' undercover assignment, had rippled through.

Deeks, Kensi, Rachel, and Nell had all fully recovered from the physical injuries they'd sustained during the take down of the bank robbery and drug cartel. Deeks had checked out of the hospital in El Centro as soon as he was allowed to and after packing a few things he and Kensi had taken off for a week on a secluded beach in Mexico. It had been the first real vacation Kensi could remember enjoying in years.

Upon returning to Los Angeles Deeks had immediately submitted his letter of resignation to the LAPD. None of his fellow officers and detectives had even asked where he was going and his departure had been met with little fanfare beyond relief. Which had immediately turned to annoyance at the first LAPD crime scene NCIS had appeared at where Deeks wore an agent's badge. He'd taken the irritation in stride, joking with his former fellow officers that they shouldn't have thought they could get rid of him that easily.

In time Deeks' relationship with the LAPD had smoothed out. Somehow it was easier for officers and detectives to deal with Deeks as someone not within their ranks. And Deeks had garnered a certain amount of respect thanks to his part in catching the bank robbers and shutting down the Contreras drug cartel.

Jesse Thompson had been spared from a lifetime in prison. Kensi, Deeks, Rachel, and Nell all testified to his assistance in the operation in El Centro. He'd been given a reduced sentence of five years in a white-collar crimes prison in a remote part of the country. He'd also been given a new name and identity to protect him from retribution in prison from Santiago or Mateo Contreras. Jesse's family had been placed in witness protection and relocated and with good behavior Jesse would be out of prison in three years and could join them with his new identity.

Kensi and Deeks had seen him once after his sentencing and Kensi had been glad to see that Jesse didn't hold any grudges against them, even though it was arguable that he had the right to after they'd lied to him for months. But Jesse had gained perspective on everything that had happened. And he'd come to recognize through seeing the harm brought on Kensi, Nell, and Rachel that his involvement in the bank robberies had been wrong. He'd been ready to pay for his crimes and even though Kensi was fairly certain she would never see Jesse again she'd been able to wish him well with a truthful smile.

Santiago and Mateo Contreras had been soundly convicted of a series of crimes, including attempted murder of a federal agent, drug dealing, accessory to kidnapping, and theft of federally insured funds. They'd had no hope of any kind of deal and had been separated, given life sentences, and placed in maximum security prisons in California. Their cartel operation had crumbled in the wake of their disappearance although other drug cartels and dealers had largely picked up the slack. As Sam had observed, there would never be the absence of drug lords in Los Angeles. All the LAPD could do was try and keep a lid on it.

After completion of their undercover assignment Kensi had been happy to return to their NCIS cases. Working with Deeks as her partner and living the rest of her life with him as her something more had been a remarkably easy transition.

They basically lived at Deeks' apartment. Kensi still rented her place but was rarely there. Deeks lived close to the beach and since they spent many a morning and weekend on the sand or out on the waves it had seemed like the perfect compromise. She'd moved all the important things she needed from her apartment to his, beginning to leave behind some of the clutter of her life before him.

Kensi had come to love the beach, the ocean, and surfing nearly as much as Deeks. And Monty needed walking several times a day so there wasn't a day that went by that they weren't on the beach. It was a little crowded in Deeks' apartment between the two of them and Monty but the closeness hadn't caused anything but the occasional short argument. Kensi had been worried Deeks would grow annoyed with having her there all the time since he'd never really lived with a woman or been in a serious relationship in recent years. And she'd wondered at her ability to be able to accept Deeks constantly around after years living on her own in her own space. The adage of "too much of a good thing" held a certain amount of truth in it.

But, miraculously, not in the case of working with Deeks everyday and living with him the rest of the time. They'd learned to balance their time together. They didn't do everything together and they each took space when they needed time to themselves. And they'd found surprising things in common. Occasionally going dancing at clubs on the weekends, listening to live music at the Hollywood Bowl, catching a Dodgers game, even hiking in Topanga State Park or around Griffith State Park. Other than the beach Deeks wasn't much for outdoor activities, but hiking around the low hills of Los Angeles seemed about their speed.

Kensi found herself with a new and surprisingly active social life. Outside of her time with Deeks, she'd developed more of a friendship with Nell. And Rachel was now a permanent fixture in Kensi's life. Even if Kensi hadn't had any intention of dropping out of Rachel's life, Hetty's hiring of Rachel as her assistant had further solidified their place in each other's lives.

It had taken Rachel a few weeks to recover from her gunshot wound. Rachel had returned back to work at the law firm she and Kensi had worked at while physical therapy had continued for weeks after her discharge from the hospital. Going back to her job as an administrative assistant, Rachel had a difficult time adjusting. Aside from the physical location serving as a troubling reminder of where she'd been kidnapped, the absence of Joshua Scott actually served as an impossible-to-ignore glaring beacon of his manipulation and the part he'd played in the ordeal Rachel and Kensi had endured.

Although Rachel had been the first one to adamantly insist she was fine and not at all traumatized by her captivity, Kensi had been worriedly skeptical. Not wanting to push Rachel as they were still feeling their way towards the boundaries of their current friendship, Kensi had left her alone for a few weeks. But after a week of ignored calls and texts, Deeks had urged Kensi to check on Rachel.

Arriving at Rachel's apartment, Kensi had found Rachel completely withdrawn and isolated. Rachel had quit her job the week before and hadn't left her apartment in days. Recognizing the signs of post traumatic stress, Kensi had immediately taken charge. Ignoring Rachel's objections, Kensi had immediately taken her to see a therapist to help her deal with the trauma of the kidnapping. When Rachel resisted going to her appointments Kensi came to her apartment and wouldn't leave until Rachel opened the door. Kensi recruited Nell and they came over on weekends to keep Rachel company if she balked at leaving her apartment, or they coaxed her out for shopping trips, nights at the movies, and a meal away from the ease of her microwave.

When Deeks had commented, admiration clear in his voice, at how she was a good friend to be so tenacious and caring for Rachel, Kensi had simply smiled pointedly and told Deeks she'd learned from the best when it came to dogged persistence. That had earned her his laughter and a tickling wrestling match on the couch that left them both gasping for breath.

Eventually the treatment and constant intervention began to help. Within a few weeks Rachel had started to improve. Kensi knew she still had a way to go before she would be completely comfortable but she also knew Rachel was strong. Kensi recognized the fear that seemed to grip Rachel. Although the people who had hurt them were far away and unable to touch her, Rachel saw the possibility of harm nearly everywhere she went.

It was understanding Rachel's fear that led Kensi to talk to Hetty. She'd argued that if Rachel could feel safe in at least one place, surrounded by the people who had saved her and in one of the most secure buildings in Los Angeles, maybe then she could have at least one comfortable place in her life. And Kensi's gratitude towards Hetty had deepened when Hetty hired Rachel on the spot, putting her in the position as her assistant and a dependable right hand.

Rachel had almost immediately blossomed at NCIS. After passing the requisite background check and enduring the required security training, Rachel had easily fit in at OSP. She helped Hetty balance her appointments and paperwork and she was a constant background presence when the team was in the office. Rachel had been content to play the role as support staff for the team and finding useful purpose working in an organization that did the important work NCIS did seemed to help Rachel deal with her helplessness after her ordeal.

It helped that Cody was a fairly regular presence at OSP. Rachel got along well with everyone, but her relationship with Cody had started out as a friendship she seemed to rely heavily on. After their initial connection Kensi had watched them carefully for signs of something more developing between them and had been surprised when it didn't appear that they were anything more than good friends.

Rachel admitted to Kensi that Cody made her feel safe like no one else did and Kensi had been disappointed on Rachel's behalf that Cody didn't seem to want pursue more with Rachel. Even if Cody couldn't see it or didn't reciprocate, Kensi could tell Rachel felt more for him. Neither Cody or Rachel seemed bothered by the status of their relationship and Kensi had left it alone, deciding that at least they were good together as friends.

However, in the immediate aftermath of the operation to take down the bank robbers and drug cartel Cody's commanding officer at Camp Pendleton had made it known loudly and vocally how displeased he was at Hetty's commandeering of his valued and highly skilled Marine.

Nell had privately told Kensi that the fight over Cody had turned fairly ugly and had been taken up the chain of command several rungs above Hetty. Kensi hadn't really been surprised. Cody was an incredibly effective and elite soldier. She also knew enough about him to know he was a gifted teacher and that if the Marine Corps needed him to help pass along his knowledge and experience he would do what was needed, ignoring his own preferences when it came to his career.

But Cody's experience with NCIS had made him realize he wanted the opportunity to help with the work they did. Even still, he knew his duty and recognized he was needed at Camp Pendleton as well. But sitting on the sidelines teaching wasn't something he could reconcile with his need to actively serve his country. Kensi had spent hours talking to Cody, sensing how torn he was. And even though it was something she never thought she would have done, Kensi had taken it upon herself to call the General and ask for his help.

They'd both been surprised when she made her request. Kensi had picked up the phone to call before she'd had a second thought about it. She'd never asked for help from the General before. But that kind of foolish pride was easily set aside when she'd seen how unhappy Cody was. The General had been unaware of the situation his son was in since Cody had always been careful not to use his father's position or influence, preferring to fight his own battles and find his own way. Kensi knew Cody would be furious with her but she also knew the General could help.

And so he had. Robert had been in the process of rotating back to the United States from his tour in Afghanistan and had been offered his pick of posts. Wanting to be back with Diane and not wanting to cause more upheaval by moving so soon after her heart attack, Robert had requested stationing at Camp Pendleton. And in immediate and closed-door meetings Kensi had a feeling she would never be privy to knowing the contents of the discussion, a compromise for Cody's assignment had been reached.

Cody was officially assigned to Camp Pendleton though he spent most of his time at NCIS. He assisted NCIS on missions and investigations as they needed him, rotating between the different teams and tagging along with either Kensi and Deeks or Callen and Sam. His laid-back personality and the easy way he worked, while being a very professional and imposing soldier, allowed him to fit in well at NCIS working with both the civilian and military personnel. Usually once a week Cody was in San Diego assisting with training soldiers, but the rest of his time he was in Los Angeles.

And Cody had been initially furious with her for interfering and calling his father. The outcome might have turned out to be the one he wanted but it didn't sit well with him that his father had called in favors on his behalf. After his initial fury and after he'd stormed away from Kensi and refused to talk to her for a week, Deeks had intervened.

Deeks had observed that while Kensi felt as though she hadn't had a choice and she'd done what she thought was right for her brother, she also felt regret that she'd done so behind his back. And Deeks had seen how Cody's anger and absence in Kensi's life made her unhappy, which was not something he'd been prepared to accept on her behalf.

Cody and Deeks had managed to become friends after their initial disagreements over Kensi when she'd been in the hospital. Their personalities were similar and they shared a love for surfing and a love for Kensi, albeit in different ways. Unable to take the silent treatment Cody was giving Kensi and her distress at her brother's behavior, Deeks had taken Cody for a beer to talk.

Deeks lost count of the number of beers they drank but in the hours they sat at the bar he'd finally managed to make Cody see that for Kensi to even go to the General had taken a momentous leap. She'd done it out of love and concern for Cody and she'd done the one thing she'd resisted doing in more than fifteen years: she'd asked for help. And she hadn't even done it for herself; she'd done it for Cody.

Realizing that Deeks was right had almost immediately sobered Cody. It had been a short cab ride home and then Kensi found two very tall, handsome, apologetically drunk men stumbling into Deeks' apartment waking her from where she'd been asleep in the bedroom. Cody had been sorry for being angry with her and Deeks had started apologizing just to forestall his anticipation of Kensi's indignation at him that he'd interfered.

Instead of getting angry, Kensi had taken his meddling for what it was: a loving gesture of how much Deeks cared for her and wanted to see her happy. And forgiving Cody hadn't even been a question. After settling one drunk Marine on the sofa she'd helped her drunk partner to the bedroom, tucking Deeks into bed and silencing his effusive apologies and declarations of enduring love with a few well placed kisses.

After the initial transition and settling in at NCIS, and after Cody and Kensi had worked past their argument, Cody had blended in well with the team. When he was in Los Angeles he stayed at Kensi's apartment, an arrangement made easier since she was only rarely there. It was during one of her random and infrequent trips to her apartment late in the summer that Kensi had noticed unfamiliar feminine items littered throughout the apartment. Kensi knew Cody wasn't the type to jump from woman to woman and the placement of shoes, clothing, bathroom products, books, and other assorted items suggested whoever the woman was, she was a regular and serious presence in Cody's life.

Kensi had immediately confronted Cody, curious about who the woman was and why he hadn't told her. And she had been concerned on Rachel's behalf, not wanting to see her friend disappointed that Cody was seeing someone else. Cody had hedged at her questions at first. But Kensi had persisted and he'd finally admitted he wasn't seeing someone unknown. He was seeing Rachel. Kensi's response had been immediately surprised and colored with unexpected hurt.

"Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't Rachel tell me?"

Cody sighed, running a hand over the short, brown bristle of his hair. "It's complicated, Kensi."

"I'm a smart girl, Cody. Speak slowly and I think I can keep up." Kensi said sharply, forcing herself not to react with outright anger. She didn't want to think badly of Cody but she didn't understand why he would hide Rachel and their relationship from her and from everyone. And if she was being truthful with herself, she was hiding her insecurities about why Rachel hadn't told her behind her brusque tone.

"Look, it didn't start out like it is now. We were just friends, hanging out. But Rachel started to feel like she wasn't making progress with her therapy. She started to get scared wherever she went and she started to think she was sliding back to where she was after everything at the warehouse."

Stunned, Kensi had to struggle to get the next words out. "She did? When did this happen?"

"About a month after she started at NCIS."

"But that was two months ago. She never said anything. Why didn't she say anything?" Kensi pressed. Then, horrified, she directed her questions accusingly inward. "Why didn't I see she was struggling?"

Cody was quick to reassure her. "No, Kensi, she was careful to keep it hidden. She didn't want to burden anyone. But then one night she got freaked by noises outside her apartment and she called me. I went to her place to check everything out. I got there and—" Cody paused, his eyes shifting to a memory that seemed to make it difficult for him to breathe. "—and she was so scared. I've never seen anyone so terrified, practically of their own shadow. Every sound made her jump. I couldn't leave her alone. I didn't want to leave her alone. So I brought her back here."

Kensi listened to Cody's admission, admiring how he'd stepped in to help Rachel, and how strongly he clearly felt for her. But there was a part of the story that still concerned her, as much as she was relieved that Rachel had someone to help her.

"But is she getting better now? I'm glad you're helping her, but she also needs to get better in her own way, too. If she depends on you too much—"

"Believe me, Kensi, I've had the same thoughts. That's why I kept things strictly as friends between us. I figured I could be her friend and nothing more, not after everything she'd been through. It was why I didn't pursue her right after we met and she was still recovering. I didn't want to take advantage of her when she was vulnerable," Cody argued heatedly. Kensi immediately felt terrible for doubting Cody. She knew he would never have treated Rachel with anything but chivalry and respect.

"So you gave her the space you thought she needed?"

"Yeah, I did. I just kind of stayed close when she needed company or someone to talk to. I figured once she got back on her own two feet and felt more like herself that maybe then I'd see about something more with her."

Kensi smiled softly, shaking her head at her incredibly patient and loyal brother. "You were going to wait for her?"

Cody shot her a confused look, as if he couldn't understand the question. "Of course I was. I didn't want to compromise her recovery. And she's worth waiting for."

Unable to help herself, and thinking of all the men Rachel had told her about who had flittered through her life and taken advantage of her, Kensi leaned forward and kissed Cody on the cheek, so grateful that of all the men who finally saw Rachel for who she was, that it was Cody who proved himself worthy.

Cody blushed a little at her touch and then smiled softly, shaking his head. "But Rachel's kind of stubborn. And she's really driven. She was determined to get better and she's worked hard at her therapy. And even though I tried to keep my distance and just be there as a friend for her, she finally just told me she wanted more with me. How could I possibly resist that?"

Kensi took in Cody's almost desperate question and beneath the query she saw what Cody was really saying. He was in love with Rachel. Probably had been for months up until she confronted him. But his decency and concern for her made him hold back. But even the strongest man, when freely offered his heart's desire, would be powerless to resist.

"I'm not saying you should have. I'm happy for you both. I just don't understand why either of you didn't say anything," Kensi said softly, feeling that earlier hurt color her voice. She hated the weakness of it, but these were her friends, her family. She'd thought they were past secrets.

Cody laughed a little, shaking his head. "The only reason we didn't say anything was because it's still new. Rachel only just put me in line about a week ago. And I think we just wanted to see what it was like with just the two of us for a little while."

Surprised, Kensi looked around her apartment, the signs of cohabitation clear. "But it looks like she lives here."

"She basically does, most of the time. But that's been going on for months. When she didn't want to be alone she came to me. Don't be upset that Rachel didn't want to confide in you that she was struggling. She doesn't like to ask for help either. She reminds me of someone else I know," Cody said pointedly.

Kensi had been forced to concede the point. And the insecurities she felt at how Rachel hadn't told her that her relationship with Cody had changed to something more serious were wiped away when the very next day Rachel pulled Kensi quietly aside and told her everything. When Kensi had tried to stop her, telling her Cody had told her they were together, Rachel had crossed her arms over her chest and huffed in feigned annoyance.

"He didn't tell me he told you! I told him I wanted to be the one to tell you," Rachel said irritably, casting a glance at Cody and Deeks, relaxing on the sofa across the room in OSP, discussing the previous night's baseball scores.

"I sort of made him tell me. I was at the apartment and saw all these things that clearly belonged to a woman. I was worried he was seeing someone and how you might take it," Kensi admitted. Rachel's green eyes softened shyly and she tilted her head to the side.

"You were looking out for me?" Rachel said quietly, her lips lifting to a soft smile. Then she reached forward, hugging Kensi around the neck tightly. "Thank you, Kensi."

Kensi hugged Rachel back, realizing they were both adjusting to the depth of their fierce protectiveness towards each other. Kensi was learning that when it came to her friends and family that a mama bear protecting her young was an accurate comparison.

Even knowing Cody and knowing he was a good man, Kensi realized Rachel had confidence issues with men, as well as in her ability to pick men. Her next questions were as much to reassure herself that Rachel and Cody were in the right place as they were to give Rachel the confidence she needed in her developing relationship with Cody. "Are you worried? That your relationship is based on these charged emotions from being held hostage and Cody being the one who came to your rescue?"

Rachel weighed her words carefully but her expression turned confident as she glanced at Cody, then around OSP, taking in the people and the place that had become her salvation.

"Cody was just one of the people who saved me. Callen, Sam, and Marty were there too. But it was Cody who came to my apartment when I called him. It was Cody who took me home with him and Cody who looked out for me as a friend when I needed that. And it was Cody who was so worried about my wellbeing that he almost refused to get involved in a physical relationship with me. Even when I could tell it was what he wanted, too. If our relationship is based on even half of those emotions what could I possibly have to be worried about?"

It had been the only answer Kensi needed. There were still challenges, among them Rachel's continuing PTSD treatment, but the foundation of their relationship was strong. And Kensi knew from experience that a strong and trusting starting point made the challenges a little easier to work through.

The changes in relationships hadn't end with Rachel and Cody. Not long after the hostage ordeal Eric and Nell got engaged. Although they hadn't dated even a year it seemed that Nell's experience had reminded them that some experiences in life shouldn't be waited for. There hadn't been any real urgency to their wedding except for their desire to start the next phase of their lives together but Nell had been suddenly impatient to take that step.

Kensi understood the reaction. Rachel had suffered in the aftermath with feeling helpless and overpowered. And Nell had decided to take some of her helplessness in the situation and take control of what she could, making changes in her life for the things she wanted.

Nell and Eric had been married early in October, at a large family wedding at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. And it had been the catalyst of Nell and Eric's wedding that unexpectedly brought them both into the fold of the Keppinger family.

Both Nell and Eric had multiple family members across the country and they'd decided to have their wedding in Los Angeles, a location easy to get in and out of for travel. But with Nell's mother and aunts several states away, Nell had been in need to some motherly advice and suggestion. Upon hearing about the wedding from Rachel and Kensi, who were maid of honor and bridesmaid, respectively, Diane had immediately volunteered her help.

After her heart attack Diane had been in search of a project or activity to help occupy her time. Kensi and Deeks had gone to San Diego every few weekends to check in with her and because Diane demanded time with her surrogate daughter and the man she'd begun to think of as a son. With Cody back in southern California that had eased some of her worry. And when Robert returned in the early summer Diane had been able to breathe easier. But she was also a woman constantly in search of a way to mother and help the people around her, whether they were her children or not and whether they were family or not.

Diane had been visiting Los Angeles the weekend Kensi, Rachel, and Nell sat down to start working through wedding details. Nell had wanted to plan a wedding in four months and while Kensi had been firmly ready to help where she was needed she'd been privately skeptical of their ability to pull off a wedding with several hundred guests in such a short period of time. Panic had just begun to settle on Nell's face and she'd been about ready to contemplate pushing the wedding off several months when Diane had intervened, taking charge as only a career military wife could.

With Diane's help the wedding planning had gone off without a hitch. And Kensi had been involved in the surreal experience of being heavily involved in the organization of a very elaborate wedding. Kensi had gone along on cake tastings, buffet tastings, dress and shoe shopping, and dress fittings. She'd inspected easily a dozen tailors with Nell and Rachel to find the right cut and fit for the men's tuxedos. Thankfully Rachel's mom owned a nursery so the flowers for the decorations and bouquets had been easy decisions. She'd listened to performances from DJs and live bands, more than she could remember. And even though it all went against almost every facet of her personality, Kensi did it all for Nell. The extravagant nature of the affair wasn't completely in line with what Eric and Nell wanted either, but they had larger families with matching expectations.

After one particularly long day of shopping, Kensi had returned to the apartment, collapsing backwards over the arm the couch and closing her eyes with a groan. She'd heard Deeks enter the living room from the kitchen, pausing at the doorway.

"When we get married it will not be this complicated," Kensi announced, covering her eyes with an arm flung over her head.

"'When'? That seems awfully presumptuous of you, Ms. Blye. I don't believe you've even asked for my hand in marriage," Deeks replied, failing in his attempt to keep his amusement hidden underneath the formal tone.

Rising up on her elbows propped behind her on the couch cushion, Kensi opened her eyes slowly, grinning as she saw the way Deeks' gaze drifted down to her body before he quickly returned his seemingly innocent blue eyes to her face.

"Well, we have previously established who the girl in this relationship is," Kensi teased lightly as Deeks returned her grin and sauntered over to the couch to straddle her hips and lean over her to kiss a path from her chin, along the smooth column of her neck, and dipping his tongue into the hollow at the base of her throat.

Kensi allowed her head to fall back, pushing her chest up towards Deeks. His hands came up to rest high at her sides, his thumbs making slow sweeps to brush lightly at the swell of her breasts. His voice was a rumbling murmur as he nudged aside the collar of her shirt to kiss her collarbone.

"Since I'm the girl in this relationship does that mean I have to wait for you to propose?"

Kensi felt her heart stutter at the words and she found herself suddenly speechless. They'd talked about it, intimated what their future would be. There wasn't any question in either of their minds about where they were going. The only unknown was when. And Kensi couldn't deny she looked forward to the day when they were officially a "them." But she also wasn't in any huge rush. Despite the fact that they knew each other better than anyone else, they were also intensely independent and private people and they still had a great deal to learn about each other, and to learn about being together.

Framing Deeks' head with her hands and allowing her fingers to comb through his unruly hair, Kensi just smiled softly, happy to see the answering grin that pulled at Deeks' lips.

"Whenever it happens and whoever does the asking, I think we both know the outcome," Kensi replied. Deeks' eyes softened happily and he nodded, content with her answer. The security in their relationship, the absolute faith and trust, allowed them to take their time with where they were going. And ultimately Kensi knew they were stronger together for it.

The wedding had been two weeks ago. It had been a beautiful fall day in Los Angeles, the weather still holding on to a slight Indian Summer. Kensi had walked down the aisle in her lavender dress, unable to tear her eyes away from Deeks, standing off to Eric's side in a gray suit that made his eyes look a little like a stormy ocean. His grin and gaze, fixated solely on her during her journey up the aisle and all through the ceremony, had been so deeply knowing, so unabashedly heated, that she'd found a warm permanent blush glowing over her skin.

So pleased was Deeks with his ability to garner such a seemingly bashful response from her, he hadn't let her out of his sight and barely out of his reach throughout the entire reception. His defense, that he rarely got to see her as softened and dressed up in a beautiful gown as just herself, as his normal Kensi Marie Blye, had flattered her more than she would have thought. It was true that aside from their frequent operations when she was dressed to the nines, she didn't often have a need for formal evening wear and elaborate jewelry. But seeing the awestruck expression on Deeks' face, she had to admit there was the secretive feminine part of her that got a fluttering satisfaction at his appreciatively male response.

The NCIS team had kept a low profile at the wedding. Most of the guests were family and close friends of Nell and Eric and their families. It would have been hard to explain their disparate group to most of Nell and Eric's families, who thought they worked normal and mundane jobs. Additionally, Sam brought his wife and daughter, who were oblivious to his real job, and Callen brought a woman he was newly dating. A drama and theatre teacher at a local high school, Kensi had been surprised to note how attentive Callen was to the woman. But then, everyone around him was making connections, forming relationships that might last. Even though it went against some of his natural lone wolf instincts, Kensi was pleased Callen seemed to be making the effort with someone who seemed to enjoy his company.

Diane and Robert Keppinger attended the wedding, both having formed friendships with the bride and groom over the months of planning the wedding. Many a weekend Nell and Eric, Kensi and Deeks, and Rachel and Cody had escaped to San Diego for wedding plans and surfing. Now Kensi remembered back to weekends spent nearly alone with the occasional night out clubbing and she shook her head in amazement. So much could change in a year. She'd gone from having acquaintances and co-workers to having friends and family. It was the kind of full life she'd long thought she would never have.

Kensi had been unable to stop from smiling as Callen, Sam, Deeks, and Cody kept Diane on the dance floor through half a dozen songs, both Deeks and Cody coming back for multiple turns. They'd overhead Diane mentioning how much she loved to dance and in their slightly overzealous and well meaning way had made it their personal mission to make sure she danced plenty. Diane had finally caught Kensi's eye over Deeks' shoulder and after mouthing the words "Save me!" Kensi had taken pity, cutting in and allowing Diane a break.

Kensi felt the contentment and happiness swell and settle over her heart as Deeks' arms went around her easily, his hand finding the dip in her back to hold her close, his fingers drifting along her spine in a warm press. And his hand reaching for hers, lacing his fingers with hers before pulling her hand to his chest, resting the back of her hand against his heart, was familiar and full of expectation.

She hadn't been so in tune with someone since she was a teenager. And even her connection with her father had held a different tinge than the one she had with Deeks. He knew her inside and out, knew her mind and body in ways no one else did or ever could. She couldn't imagine that changing and couldn't imagine ever wanting anything else.

"Would you look at them?" Deeks murmured in her ear. Kensi followed his gaze to Cody and Rachel, swaying closely together, their arms tight around each other. Rachel's head was resting on Cody's shoulder, her long blond hair curling in waves down his back. Although Cody was much taller than Rachel his head was bowed over her, his body curved towards her in an instinctively protective pose. Kensi allowed a glance over at Diane, seeing the joy and happiness for her son brimming from her eyes.

Even before Rachel and Cody officially began dating Rachel had been instantly loved and accepted by the Keppingers. Diane had easily picked up on her son's feelings. It had been obvious to everyone around them how Cody had almost been looking for someone and something to ground him and how Rachel had proven to be exactly the right person. She both needed Cody and wanted him enough to fight for him.

Cody had experienced enough romantic rejection that the possibility of anyone needing him was something that instantly bonded him to Rachel. Rachel had been taken advantage of by men who couldn't see past her physical appearance to acknowledge the caring woman underneath. They were both a little damaged but somehow complete together. Diane had sensed their connection early on, had done everything she could to welcome Rachel. Robert, as always, followed his wife's lead. The news that Rachel and Cody were dating had been met with excited approval.

"They look wonderful together," Kensi replied, turning her head so she could briefly touch her lips to Deeks'. He kissed her back lightly, then leaned his cheek against hers, allowed the scruff of his beard to rub against her cheek. Kensi closed her eyes at the feeling, shivering lightly at the touch.

"We look pretty damn good together, too," Deeks said with confidence, swinging her around in a graceful dance step she wouldn't have thought him capable of. At the surprised lift of her eyebrow he'd merely given her a cheeky grin. But Kensi followed him step-for-step, following his lead and keeping her steps matching his. She knew they looked good together, him all lightness and sunshine and her strikingly dark.

As regular and predictable as the turn of the earth, there was no day without night. On shadowing paths, one always followed the other and neither ever complete without the other. Appreciating the coming of the day was not possible without the darkness of the night and the night allowed a welcome respite from the occasionally overwhelming brightness of the day. There was balance in their differences.

They did look good together. Whether it was their physical differences or their personality disparities, it was hard not to notice. They were striking as a couple and as partners because they improved each other, brought further enhancement to the differences that complimented each other.

"Hey, Kens? You ready to go?"

Kensi shook her head out of the memories of the last several months. Deeks was looking at her curiously as he slung his bag over his head, cocking his head towards the exit with excitement. Checking her watch and seeing it was well past their usual quitting time, Kensi was quick to pack her bag, then she turned to look for Rachel.

"Have you seen Rachel? She's still going to ride with us, right?"

"I'm here. Sorry, I just got back," Rachel replied, her voice nearly breathless as she approached the bullpen. Kensi glanced at Rachel quickly, then took a second look when she thought she saw something like tension in Rachel's green eyes.

"Where were you all afternoon? I saw Cody had to leave for San Diego earlier for a meeting and then after lunch you disappeared too," Kensi commented, matching her stride with Rachel's as they followed Deeks to Kensi's SUV.

Rachel's eyes darted to the side as she seemed to think and consider her words. She bought herself a few seconds as they piled into the car, Kensi sitting in the front while Deeks drove and Rachel took the backseat. Before Rachel could respond, Kensi turned to Deeks.

"Eric and Nell are meeting us there, right? I know they've only been back from their honeymoon a week but I'm sure Diane will be thrilled—"

"I'm pregnant."

Other than the sounds of exterior traffic, complete silence filled the space inside the car after Rachel blurted her words out. Kensi glanced over at Deeks quickly, seeing the widening of his eyes as he glanced in the rearview mirror at her and how he suddenly gripped the steering wheel tighter. She laid a hand on his forearm as she twisted in her seat to face Rachel.

"You're pregnant?" Kensi asked softly. Rachel nodded mutely, her face a little pale. "Does Cody know?"

Rachel shook her head. "He knows it might be possible. We were supposed to go to my doctor this afternoon but then he got called to that meeting and had to leave. I haven't been able to get a hold of him since I left the doctor's office."

Kensi smiled slightly at the concern coloring Rachel's voice. She knew Rachel had nothing to worry about. Cody would be thrilled at the news. But such a big step, in a relationship only about three months old, had to be a little daunting. Trying to be reassuring, Kensi reached out and squeezed Rachel's hand, not missing how Rachel's grip on her tightened and didn't let go.

"How do you feel about it?" Kensi asked, curious at how anxious Rachel seemed.

Rachel shrugged in a show of ambivalence that didn't fool Kensi for a second. "I'm not sure how I feel. We never really talked about this happening. We've only been seeing each other a couple months. Most guys wouldn't take this kind of news well."

Kensi sent up a silent thank you that Deeks was wisely staying silent. Rachel had developed close friendships with both Kensi and Deeks but Kensi had a feeling even this conversation was a little outside Deeks' comfort zone with Rachel. Not to mention his track record as a single guy probably wouldn't comfort Rachel in this situation. And with his occasional tendency to want to fill uncomfortable silences and deflect away from difficult conversations with humor and irreverence, Kensi was relieved Deeks was keeping quiet for the moment. She could tell Rachel was nervously brimming with insecurity and anxiety and Kensi decided to take a calming approach to try and keep her friend focused.

"That's true. Most guys wouldn't. But Cody isn't most guys, you know that," Kensi said surely, knowing deep down that Cody would never abandon Rachel like she feared he might. Not because Rachel really doubted Cody. But she did generally doubt the chivalry of the male species thanks to many a morally deficient ex-boyfriend.

"I know you're right. This is all just a lot to take in," Rachel admitted. Kensi gave Rachel an encouraging smile, realizing that more than anything Rachel and Cody needed to talk. Trying to deflect the conversation away from the immediate emotional concerns, Kensi asked Rachel questions about her appointment and what she'd learned. Being able to respond with facts and straightforward information rather than the murky unknown of emotions seemed to help distract Rachel.

When they arrived at the Keppinger house in La Jolla two hours later Cody was already there and reaching for Rachel's door almost before the car had stopped moving. Making a show of unloading their bags from the back of the car, Kensi kept an eye on Rachel and Cody, unable to suppress the grin on her face as she saw Cody's face light up with wonder and joy, and at how he brought a hand to lay flat on Rachel's stomach, his touch reverently hesitant.

She'd been so focused on Rachel and Cody that Deeks' voice next to her, his breath warm against her ear, made her jump slightly. "Looks like that's going well."

Kensi narrowed her eyes at his slightly surprised tone. "Did you expect anything else? You know Cody. He could never be anything but thrilled at this kind of news."

"I know as a man in love with Rachel he's probably over the moon. But the work we do is risky, Kens. That's a lot to ask anyone to take on. And I know it's a part of who Cody is, but it's still a burden on his future family," Deeks replied, his voice low and serious. Kensi studied Deeks closely, considering his words carefully.

She couldn't deny they made her heart pound with uncertain trepidation. They'd talked about children. They both wanted them and wanted them together. But they'd never really discussed how they would make it happen. Kensi understood the hesitancy in Deeks' words. They'd each chosen the lives they led. But introducing children into their lives was an irrevocable step. And Kensi wondered if it was a fair thing to do, for her and Deeks to be parents to a child with the jobs they had.

That the questions swirled around her mind, and she could tell troubled Deeks as well, told her they weren't ready to take on the responsibility of being parents. Not just yet. And even though she was still a little unsettled by what Deeks had said, she took it as a sign of his trust in her. He wouldn't have told her about his doubts if he didn't think she could handle it.

Any further conversation on the subject was set aside when Diane walked up to both of them, pulling them both close for hugs. Kensi watched as Diane's eyes lit up as she hugged Deeks and his answering grin made Kensi smile. Deeks had been without motherly affection for his entire adult life. And really, considering the mother he'd had, for pretty much his entire life. Diane was the perfect fit to that particular hole in Deeks' past.

"I'm so glad you're both here! Marty, Kensi, come inside. Eric and Nell are already here. Eric's upstairs helping Robert set up some secure network or something so he can do work from home. I'd be annoyed that he wants to bring work home with him, but it does mean he'll be here more often," Diane replied, nudging Deeks and Kensi ahead of her and inside.

Just inside the entrance to the house Kensi and Deeks went their separate ways. Kensi took their bags upstairs to their room, the same room they'd stayed in all those months ago when Diane had been in the hospital. Diane urged Deeks towards the backyard, demanding his help with the grill and dinner. Kensi dropped their bags and then just stood at the top of the stairs and listened for a few moments.

The house was just filled with so much life. So much familiar noise, so much humor and familial affection. Down the hall she heard Eric explaining to the General in his patient tone the ins and outs of his VPN connection, the various firewalls in place and the modifications he'd made to the General's computer. Even though Kensi would have bet a million dollars the General had no clue what Eric said he still asked questions, making every effort to understand.

The voices from downstairs drifted up to her and Kensi listened, picking out the threads of conversations. Nell was showing Diane and Rachel photos from the wedding. And through the screen door Kensi could hear Cody asking Deeks if he needed a hand with the barbequing.

As Kensi took the stairs down to the first floor she let her eyes drift over the cascading photos on the walls. There were the family photos of Cody throughout the years, and then there were photos of Kensi from when she'd come to live with the Keppingers. And towards the bottom of the stairs there were new photos of all of them. Candid photos from different visits to San Diego, on the beach, and one of Kensi and Deeks, relaxing in the backyard, her sitting on his lap, their arms loose and comfortable around each other.

Diane circled around from the kitchen, beaming as she caught sight of Kensi. She held up a framed photo from the wedding, one of the entire bridal party.

"Look what Nell just gave me, Kensi! Isn't it beautiful? You all look wonderful," Diane said fondly, letting Kensi take in the photo as she moved to hang it on the wall. Kensi couldn't disagree. Eric and Nell were at the center of the photo, their smiles wide and content. And to Nell's right Kensi stood with Deeks and Rachel with Cody. On the opposite side Callen, Sam, and Eric's brother stood with the three other bridesmaids, two cousins and friend of Nell's.

Kensi looked over Diane's shoulder and caught Nell's eye from where she stood in the doorway to the kitchen. She read the knowing relief in Nell's face as both women remembered how exhausting the wedding had been, both glad it was over. It had been a lovely but large event, more for Eric and Nell's families than any other reason. And as Diane stepped back to admire the new addition to the wall of family photos, Kensi felt her heart lighten even further. It was hard to believe with how much had changed that there was room for even more happiness. But each time Kensi looked around the people who were now a part of her everyday life she was proved wrong. Her life was full of people and a family she'd never thought she would be lucky enough to have.

Not much later the bustle began as bowls and plates of food were carried outside and placed on the table for dinner. The General and Eric came downstairs and joined them and they settled around the table in places previously picked and claimed as their own. Kensi sat next to Deeks and then glanced curiously at Rachel, noticing the apprehensive expression on her friend's face. It was then, after everyone sat down, that Cody stood, clearing his throat nervously.

"I don't mean to hijack dinner, but this really can't wait," Cody began, looking to Rachel for confirmation. She blushed, looked a little embarrassed, but then nodded. Suspecting what was coming, Kensi reached under the table for Deeks' hand, his fingers lacing with hers as his other arm went around her shoulders.

"This is probably going to seem a little fast. And while it wasn't exactly planned, I've learned you can't plan everything in life. Sometimes things happen and you go with the flow, rise to the challenge, and become a better person for it," Cody continued. He finally tore his eyes away from Rachel's smiling face, looking at his parents in turn. "Rachel is pregnant. We're going to have a baby."

Kensi watched as the surprise filled Diane's face, quickly melting to elation for her son. The General looked similarly shocked, albeit a little more reserved, as he reached for Diane's hand. Kensi watched as the elder Keppingers exchanged a glance that spoke to their easy, silent communication of decades together. There was a little bit of hesitation in the looks they exchanged and Kensi thought she knew why. Even though it was a happy announcement, it was still something a bit unexpected.

Diane was moving to get up from her chair to embrace her son when Cody held up a hand to stop her. "Hang on a second, Mom. There's one more thing."

Rachel raised a quizzical eyebrow in Cody's direction. Clearly whatever he had planned next they hadn't discussed. Kensi watched her brother, feeling her heart begin to beat faster as she quickly realized what was about to happen. Her body and soul seemed to understand before her mind did and she squeezed Deeks' hand tight as she watched Cody, her normally confident and always sure brother, take a deep breath and a half step forward before he dropped down on one knee in front of Rachel.

It was Rachel's gasp of surprise that broke the still of the silence, and it was Deeks' touch, his hand warm on her neck, that told Kensi to breathe again. Kensi turned to look at Deeks, his blue eyes piercing her with an unblinking and understanding stare. In the background Kensi heard Cody speaking to Rachel. But all she could so was stare back at Deeks.

"Rachel, I know you're going to doubt this and think I'm doing this because of the baby. But I've had this ring for two months and I was just trying to figure out how to propose but not look like a crazy person. I think I've known you were it for me since the moment I saw you in that warehouse when you were shot and your first instinct was sympathy for a person you'd never met. You're the kindest person I've ever known and your strength impresses me everyday. I know I can be a good husband to you and there's nothing I want more than for you to be my wife and for us to be a family. Will you marry me?"

Rachel's response was out almost before Cody could finish speaking. "Yes, of course I'll marry you!"

Kensi finally tore her eyes from Deeks, looking over at her friends as Cody's face broke out into the happiest smile she'd ever seen from her brother. Before he could manage to slide the ring on Rachel's finger she was pulling him close for a kiss and a tight embrace. If it had been anyone else Kensi probably would have been uncomfortable witnessing such a private moment. But Rachel and Cody were the kind of open and sharing people that their happiness was enhanced by including the family and friends they loved. They couldn't help but want to make others a part of their joy.

When Rachel finally released Cody she laughed as he kissed the side of her face and whispered in her ear, no doubt teasing her that she wouldn't give him enough time to even make it official. Rachel nodded vigorously and held her left hand out, her green eyes sparkling as Cody slid a diamond solitaire ring on her finger. From across the table even Kensi could tell the diamond was large, but Rachel barely gave it a second look before she leaned forward to give her fiancé another soft kiss.

After that it was near chaos around the table. Kensi grinned as she watched Diane, unable to contain herself any longer, rise from her seat to go around and embrace Rachel and then her son. The General was on his feet too, shaking Cody's hand and then taking Rachel's hands in his as he spoke quietly to her. Rachel blushed and then gave Robert an impulsive hug. And Kensi felt tears in her eyes at how the General hesitantly tightened his hold on Rachel. Kensi knew she wasn't the only one who had changed in the last year. And the changes, fought for long and hard, were absolutely for the better.

Kensi watched as the Keppingers and Rachel spoke excitedly, and in nearly impossible to discern words, about the baby and proposal. And she watched as Nell and Eric rose to offer their congratulations. Biding her time and waiting for the storm of activity to die down, Kensi looked over at Deeks, at how he watched her closely. His smile, lopsided as he grinned happily at her, told her he was happy for their friends.

Rachel came around the table then, excitedly holding out her hand for Kensi to admire her engagement ring. Kensi gave in to the female excitement that was a slightly foreign, but also fun, feeling and just a part of being Rachel's friend, and replied with the required exclamations of approval.

"Did you know he was going to do this?" Rachel asked curiously. Kensi shook her head emphatically.

"I had no idea."

Rachel glanced over at Cody, who was laughing with Deeks and Eric, her eyes softening. "He's so wonderful. I mean, he'll make a wonderful father. And I can't even believe how good he is to me. I'm not sure I deserve him."

Kensi tightened her hold on Rachel's hands, making Rachel look at her. Kensi locked her eyes with Rachel, wanting to banish away the insecurity she saw there.

"You deserve each other. So much. The fact that everything worked out that you two met when you did, and under those less than ideal circumstances, it's luck or cosmic kismet or whatever. Rachel, don't sell yourself short. Cody's a good man. And you're one of the best people I know," Kensi paused, the words forming in her mind and whispered through her lips. "If someone good loves you then there must be something good about you."

Rachel's eyes filled with tears, her self-consciousness and doubt seeming to melt away under Kensi's words. She gave Kensi a tremulous smile, nodding as she trusted Kensi's words and trusted in the strength of their friendship. Kensi felt her own eyes filling with tears at the trust she saw when Rachel looked at her. Rachel trusted her not to lie to her, and the weight of that trust made Kensi a little breathless. It had certainly been easier on her own with no responsibility for anyone. But being counted on as a friend, a sister, and a daughter was so much more rewarding.

And glancing over at Deeks once again, seeing him laugh with her family, fitting in as effortlessly with them as he'd also taken over his rightful place in her life, Kensi could feel nothing but peacefully accepting of where her life had taken her. It had been a long and tiring road, and one still littered with heartbreaking memories. But they were easier to face now that she wasn't alone.

Rachel's tugging at her arm brought Kensi's attention back to her friend. "So you'll be my maid of honor? It actually works out well now that Nell's married. She can be my matron of honor and you can be my maid of honor. I don't have to choose between the two of you," Rachel said, her tone clearly relieved.

Kensi laughed, knowing Rachel really was a peacemaker who didn't like to see conflict between the people she cared out. But then Rachel's eyes lit and she glanced slyly over at Deeks before turning back to Kensi, lowering her voice. "Unless, of course, you and Marty think about making it official…"

Rachel let the words hang, her eyes turning slightly disheartened as Kensi resolutely shook her head. Kensi opened her mouth to reassure Rachel's disappointment but then Robert made the announcement that dinner was getting cold and they should probably eat. Rachel returned to her seat across the table and Deeks came back to sit next to Kensi, casually kissing the back of her head as he passed her chair. Kensi lifted her head to give him a smile, her heart beating faster at Deeks' all too familiar need to constantly touch her.

Before Deeks she hadn't been the type for public displays of affection. She'd found such gestures smothering and condescendingly blatant. But Deeks was definitely the exception. When he touched her absentmindedly she couldn't help the thrill she felt that it was so automatic and unthinking. He didn't ask for the right because she'd already given it to him. And his possessive posture and touches around her in public were something she could understand. On more than one occasion she'd found herself doing the same to him.

The rest of dinner was an evening filled with excited conversations and laughter. It was much, much later after all the food had been cleared and the dishes had been cleaned that Kensi returned to the backyard to find Cody building a fire in the fire pit. She slid an arm over her brother's shoulder, feeling his arm go automatically around her waist as she gave him a silent hug. He returned the gesture, throwing her a smile before he turned back to the fire. They didn't really need words to say it, but Kensi wanted Cody to know he had her love and approval.

Nell and Eric settled into chairs around the fire and Deeks and Rachel came from the kitchen, balancing selections of beer, wine, and soda between them. Diane and Robert had already headed up to bed, Diane giving them a stern, though not at all imposing, lecture about them not being too loud and bothering the neighbors.

A light breeze began to pick up and Kensi shivered slightly, a reminder that fall and winter were just around the corner. She was about to go inside for a sweater when Deeks caught her arm, pulling her down to the chaise lounge to sit between his legs and against his chest. He nuzzled at her neck, causing shivers of a completely different kind to chase over her body.

"I'll keep you warm," Deeks murmured against her ear, kissing the outer shell lightly. Kensi tilted her neck to the side to allow his lips to trace a warm path to her shoulder where he dropped one last kiss before he rested his head next to hers. Deeks tightened his hold on her and Kensi let his heat surround her, let herself sink back against the solid strength of his body behind her, holding her up.

Kensi listened to the quiet conversations around them, watched as Eric and Nell casually kept their hands linked, their connection obvious in the quick looks and glances they gave to each other. And Cody had pulled Rachel down to his lap, lifting her legs to drape over the arm of the chair and his hands casually holding her close. Kensi read the confidence in Cody and Rachel, the easy acceptance of the rapid changes of the past few hours. It was that confidence that she admired and was even a little wistful of.

"I can practically hear the gears grinding and smell the smoke coming out of your ears. What're you thinking, Kens?" Deeks asked, his voice a low murmur in her ear. Kensi sighed and leaned back so she could turn her head and look Deeks in the eye, keeping her voice quiet so only he could hear.

"They're just so sure about having a baby. I can't imagine being so certain about something that happened so quickly," Kensi admitted, sharing a fear with Deeks she knew she never would have been able to months ago. Sharing her fears with anyone had been a difficult adjustment. But Deeks had proven himself worthy of taking on her fears. And he didn't let her hide her fears from him.

"I'd be willing to bet they're scared and nervous, too," Deeks replied. Then his expression turned painfully sad. "It isn't as though there's a user's manual for raising kids. Plenty of people do it who probably shouldn't."

Kensi heard the muted pain in Deeks' voice and knew he was thinking of his own parents. A father who let his own weakness hurt others and a mother who couldn't see past her own selfishness. She slid a hand under his shirt to rest against the warm skin of his lower back, turning slightly so she held herself against Deeks in a tight embrace.

"It's not just that," Deeks continued, his voice uncertain. Kensi waited, knowing he was more than referring to his less than stellar parental figures. "The job Cody has, the jobs we have. They're dangerous and there's no guarantee that any of us will live long enough to see any kids we might have graduate from high school. I just wonder sometimes if that's fair."

Kensi felt her heart turn over at the slightly dejected tone of Deeks' voice. And she thought about what he'd said, could see the logic of his words. But she thought about the opposing point of view to his statement and thought she might have an answer that would appease some of his doubts.

"It's true there's no guarantee any of us won't be killed on the job. But job or not, every child has some risk of losing their parents. My mom died of cancer; my dad was killed in a car accident. Does that mean they shouldn't have had me?" Kensi asked.

Deeks' eyes widened as he tried to back pedal. "Kens, that's not what I meant—"

"I know, Marty," Kensi reassured, allowing a slight smile to lift her lips before her expression turned serious again. "And your parents weren't very good at taking on the responsibility of having a child. Does that mean they shouldn't have had you?"

"They probably shouldn't have had me," Deeks muttered, his tone laced with darkness she hated hearing in his voice.

"But they did have you. And I'm glad they did. I hate what you had to grow up with but the idea that you might not exist in this world is not acceptable to me," Kensi replied firmly. Deeks managed a chuckle at her words, delivered with such infinite strength.

"And we both had totally different upbringings and yet we still somehow managed to turn into the people we are today. There are no guarantees in life," Kensi continued sadly. "Cops have kids all the time. Detective Benson had a daughter who will never have her father at her graduation because he died trying to protect her. But he was a good man and something of him remains in her. My father taught me everything he could before he was taken from me. And I'll never forget how much he loved me. Loss is a part of life. And you don't forget to live your life just because you might suffer from loss."

Deeks looked at Kensi carefully, his eyes shifting to amazement at the confidence in her tone. "You know, you used to be a lot more pessimistic. What happened?"

Kensi smiled widely, letting him see the easy answer in her bright eyes. "You happened. You annoyed me from the second we met in that gym, I couldn't stop thinking about you even then, and you got under my skin and never left."

Deeks let out a short bark of laughter as he shook his head. "I am persistent, aren't I?"

"Yeah, like pinkeye," Kensi replied cheekily, grinning back as Deeks snickered, his chest rising and falling against her back as he chuckled. Their laughter died down and Kensi ran a hand up and down Deeks' arm, watching as the tendons and muscles of his arm rose and fell as he moved his arm across her chest to cradle her close.

"You know we'll figure it out, right?" Kensi asked quietly, waiting until Deeks nodded silently, the side of his face brushing against hers. "Partners, married, kids, no kids, whatever happens. And you know that no matter what, we're in this together. All in, all the way."

Her words were a determined vow, a reaffirmation of the trust she knew Deeks had in her. She knew he needed to be reminded sometimes, how the emotions and demons of his past still made him doubt himself. The way Deeks exhaled, his breath hot against her ear, and how his arms tightened around her were her silent answer. They still had a lot of things about their future to figure out. But it would be a future they would figure out together.

They'd all stayed up much too late the night before, trading stories and talking around the fire. But Cody was up and knocking on their door before dawn, the promise of some awesome waves convincing Deeks to coax Kensi from bed. Nell passed, citing a planned shopping trip with Diane, but Eric was more than willing to join them. Kensi and Rachel stumbled sleepily downstairs just as Cody and Deeks were finishing strapping their boards to the top of Kensi's SUV, already fitted with a rack for surfboards.

They crammed into the car, Deeks taking the wheel as Cody directed them to Camp Pendleton. Thanks to Cody's access they'd been able to surf in some of the restricted areas on the base. But there was more than twenty miles of wide, sandy beach and Cody had saved the best for that weekend.

Pulling off to park near the Del Mar Jetty, everyone exited the car to stand and overlook the expanse of glimmering ocean, the rising sun behind them highlighting the crashing waves. The beach was deserted and Kensi stood behind Deeks, laying her hands flat on his shoulder blades as he practically vibrated with excitement under her touch. She glanced at Cody, sending him a silent thank you for bringing them to one of the beaches on Deeks' own personal surfing bucket list.

Cody moved to stand in front of them, ticking off information and advice. "I double checked and there aren't supposed to be an amphibious maneuvers this morning so we shouldn't have to watch out for tanks. They recently cleaned the shoreline for debris and metal shrapnel but keep your eyes open. There's supposed to be a great south swell overhead and pretty consistent barrels."

"How high?" Deeks asked curiously.

"Very fast breaks and hard and heavy waves with twelve to fifteen foot face," Cody replied back, to which Deeks gave a whistle of appreciation. Deeks clapped his hands together, then grinned at Cody.

"What are we waiting for?"

Cody laughed loudly and the guys unstrapped the boards before beginning the trek to the ocean's edge. Kensi and Rachel trailed behind as Cody, Deeks, and Eric practically ran to the water, excitedly discussing the quality of the surf. Kensi had her board and thought she might surf some, in part because Deeks loved to see her out on the water with him. Rachel surfed a little thanks to the ever persistent teaching from Cody and Deeks but she opted to stay on the beach and watch from a distance.

The waves were amazing and Kensi enjoyed the freedom out on the water, putting the skills she'd learned from Deeks and Jesse to good use. Being out on the ocean reminded her of Jesse and the memory of him so patiently teaching her to surf never failed to make her smile.

After awhile she sat on her board out on the water, watching the unrestrained delight in Deeks as he surfed. She knew for all his carefree façade that there were deep undercurrents of doubt and pain left by a difficult past and lurking demons. But out on the ocean that all seemed to go away. He was free, perfect, and beautiful in a way that almost made it difficult to breathe.

After one fairly spectacular ride Deeks paddled out to her, accepting her clapping and wet kiss with satisfied male pride. She nodded towards the ocean and Rachel, who had been sitting on her own for a few hours.

"I'm going to head in and keep Rachel company. You guys have fun though, don't rush," Kensi assured. Deeks looked uncertain.

"Are you sure? If you want to go—"

Kensi laughed. "Oh no, and listen to you whine about all the missed waves? No, you surf to your heart's desire."

And then Deeks gave her that wide smile, one side of his mouth lifted a little higher than the other, that smile she'd always privately thought was meant just for her. "As long as I have you, I've already got that, you know."

Kensi blushed a little, the sweetness of his expression and the honesty in his voice making her stomach flutter. She shook her head, charmed. "You're such a sap."

Deeks nodded happily and knowingly. "Yeah, but you love that about me."

Leaning across her board and the water to rest a hand around Deeks' neck and pull him close enough to kiss, Kensi smiled against his lips before she released him. "You're right. I do love you."

Deeks murmured the words back, then watched her ride a wave back to the beach, waiting for her arrival on the sand before he turned to paddle out to join Cody and Eric. Kensi sat with Rachel for a few hours, chatting about work, Cody and Deeks, books, movies, and the beginnings of wedding plans.

It was all so comfortable and real, the ability to learn to depend on others and let them depend on her. Kensi thought of her slightly imperfect life and knew she wouldn't change a thing about it. She had a mother and father in Diane and the General, a brother in Cody, close co-workers in Sam, Callen, and Eric, girlfriends in Nell and Rachel, and a man who loved her to distraction in Deeks.

Later in the morning Cody and Deeks took a break from surfing, Cody returning to give Rachel a few surfing pointers as they stayed close to the shore on his board. Kensi watched them from a distance, their laughter carrying across the wind and the soft rush of the waves.

Deeks approached, dropping his board and toweling off quickly before he held out a hand to her, pulling her to her feet. Kensi followed him willingly, enjoying the touch of his skin, cooled by the water, against her sun-warmed skin.

They walked in silence for a while and then Deeks stopped, turning her around so they faced each other. Kensi studied Deeks, watched as he shifted nervously from one foot to the other, casting his gaze out to the ocean before his determined eyes returned to her. Kensi watched as Deeks reached down to one of the pockets of his board shorts, pulling something out for her to see, the sunlight brightly glinting off metal.

Kensi squinted, focusing on the small piece of metal in his hand.

"Is that a key?"

"It is, yes."

Kensi paused, waiting for Deeks to explain. When he didn't, she pressed forward. "Is it a house key? But we already have keys to each other's apartments," Kensi said, slightly confused. Deeks continued to watch her and her heart began to hammer as another thought tumbled through her mind. "Marty, you couldn't—you didn't buy us a house, did you?"

Deeks laughed abruptly at the shocked expression on her face, shaking his head quickly.

"Oh, hell no. I'm not a moron. I would never buy a house for us to live in without involving you in the buying. Besides, I think we need your squeaky clean credit to qualify. No, this key is completely symbolic."

Kensi sighed in relief even while her heart began to quicken under the thoughtful smile that pulled at Deeks' lips, one hand going to cradle the side of her face while the other held the key for her to take.

"I do want to ask you something. I know it's not a ring or a promise. But I do mean this with everything in me. I want us to have a life together, no matter what it is. And I want us to take that next step, whatever it is for us. I think that's finding a house of our own, something that's both of us, together. Will you move in with me?" Deeks asked seriously, his blue eyes imploring her. Kensi couldn't help her bubbling laughter.

"We basically already live together, Marty," Kensi teased. But she nodded happily, then leaned into Deeks' arms as they circled her shoulders and waist to bring her flush against his bare chest. She brought her arms up and around his back and kissed his shoulder lightly. "But yes, we'll get a house and move in together."

When Deeks finally pulled back he fixed her with a concerned look, allowing a glance back at Cody and Rachel, now walking together hand-in-hand down the beach in the opposite direction.

"It doesn't bother you? That everyone around us is moving at faster speeds?" Deeks asked curiously.

Kensi shook her head, the answer coming easily and without hesitation. "No way. Why would it? I don't think we've ever been, or we'll ever be, exactly what people expect. I kind of like that about us."

Deeks' curious expression shifted to a shy smile. "Yeah, me too."

They turned to walk back along the beach. Kensi turned the silver key over in her hand, letting her fingers find and rub against the grooves of the cut metal. Buying a house together might not have been the typical or expected next step for a couple like them, already committed in an unshakeable relationship. To an outside party marriage might have made the most sense. But it didn't bother Kensi in the least that marriage wouldn't be the next step for them. Not yet.

She allowed her stride to match Deeks' as their legs and hips occasionally bumping comfortably against each other. She caught his eye with hers, allowing him to see the teasing curiosity in her face.

"So, partner. Buying a house, living together, working together. What do you think? What's next?"

Deeks grinned at her, going along with her playful words. He stepped away from her, spreading his arms wide.

"Anything we want. Sound good to you?"

Kensi took a deep breath at Deeks' confident tone, at the sincere certainty as he gazed back at her. "'Anything we want'? That sounds better than good."

She hesitated to use the word perfect, even though never before had it felt more applicable. Deeks seemed to read the change in her expression, saw the promise and hope in her eyes. Still a few steps away from her, he reached out a hand, his palm up and open for her to take.

"Come on, then. Let's get going."

Without hesitation, Kensi took his hand, locking their fingers and fate together. They continued down the beach, walking in the water and feeling the ebb and flow of the ocean around them, the changing tide and the inexplicable way they effortlessly fit together.

Kensi walked with Deeks down the beach towards their friends, towards their family, and towards their future. It was by no means certain or perfectly planned. But they would face it.



Final Note: This is always where I intended to leave this story, which I thought would be a standalone story. I figured the ending left the characters in a good place and tied up the story loose ends. I wasn't even contemplating a sequel. Not because I didn't think it wasn't possible but because I figured it would need to be a good story, with an interesting mystery/case, and opportunity for character growth. But last week I was having such a hard time writing this epilogue and I think it was because I didn't really want to say goodbye to these characters and the world created out of this story. And then a new story began to take form. And the epilogue suddenly became easier to write. So for those of you who have asked and suggested, wanting to see more of Kensi and Deek's story (as well as Cody and Rachel's), there will be a sequel to this story. Tentatively titled Feel the Tide, I'm still working through the plot to make it all fit but I hope to have something to share in a month or two. Admittedly, I think I need a little break from my self-imposed rigorous writing schedule from TBT and I want to make sure with something new that all the characters and plot will work. And I have a couple smaller one-shot story ideas I might try first, depending on where inspiration strikes. Thanks again for all the support and interest, this is a great fandom and it has been my pleasure to write for you. - Mel