Namaste, Salaam, and Shalom lovely people. Here is my first Mike Renko story. As usual I thank Melbelle and Ambrosia Rush for all their help. Ms. Rush is the queen of Mike Renko fiction and if I even come close to approaching her talent I'll be happy. I don't own any of the songs, TV shows, comics, or movies referenced. I love Bollywood, but Indian cinema is as diverse as the country itself. If you're interested in watching a Hindi movie, don't watch this one for your first time. I'll be happy to recommend some through a PM, just let me know.
Henrietta Lange closed the file on Dominic Vail with a heavy sigh. After the death of Sullivan, she told herself that she'd never feel such pain or helplessness again. Unfortunately, fate saw fit to conspire to break her oath. Dom, cut down right on the cusp of beginning to fulfill his true potential, added a sharp tang of bitterness to this familiar pain. Part of her wanted to send in the letter of resignation that her Special Agent in Charge, G. Callen, had pilfered from the Director. Her common sense told her that she couldn't leave this life any more than she could grow a foot taller. If only that knowledge dulled the pain in her heart. She put the folder into the locked drawer in her desk and saw a new shadow fall across the floor.
"I'm sorry that I couldn't get to the funeral, Boss Lady." Michael Renko stood before her with a cocky half-grin and sad grey-green eyes.
She folded her hands in front of her and stared at the young man with all the force of her authority. "You didn't miss anything of value I assure you, Mr. Renko. I trust your task is complete."
The younger man shrugged and flopped down in the chair near the desk. "The paperwork will be done and filed before lunch tomorrow. There could be a situation with the local FBI boys though."
In rare a moment of weariness she pinched the bridge of her nose and removed her glasses. "What sort of situation?"
"It seems they think one of my sources might have a relative involved with a kidnapping." Mike's voice held a trace of disgust that warned her that his 'situation' could be far more serious then he wanted to let on.
"Do you have reason to believe this supposition is correct?"
Mike bent over and put his head in his hands; after a few deep breaths, he sat up again. "I swear to God, Hetty, I have no idea. My source kept me alive on this one, but she's not exactly a stellar example of citizenship. Still, she didn't strike me as the type to support kidnapping."
Hetty, knowing her agent had a knack for attracting female attention of any kind and using it for his advantage, trusted his instincts. "What type did this woman strike you as, Michael?"
"A middle-aged lush whose biggest crime is kiting checks for less than one hundred dollars. Fortunately, she thinks I'm charming and gave me what I needed in exchange for dinner. She's just not hard enough to keep that kind of thing to herself." He ran his hands through his greasy hair and sighed. "I told the FBI that I reported directly to you. If they wanted my Intel, they had to go through channels."
Her affirmative nod helped him relax. "I'll take care of it. Consider this case closed. Now, as far as I'm aware you have somewhere to live this time?"
A faint grin broke out on his lips. "I've got a nice two-bedroom apartment about ten minutes from here. It's nothing fancy, but it's clean and the water pressure is great. I can't wait to get out of these clothes though, so I'll shower and change here." He ran a hand over the bushy growth of hair on his face. "I don't have a razor though."
Hetty looked over at the couch where G. slept restlessly. "Mr. Callen has a spare in his pack. If you can get to it without waking him, I'm sure he'd welcome you to it."
Mike followed her gaze and frowned. "How long has he been staying here?"
She stood and gathered her things for the night. "He comes and goes as he wishes, and he shares your exceptional talent for avoiding cameras. My best guess is that he hasn't left since we first found Dom. I am certain that he hasn't bothered to attempt finding any steady housing since the shooting."
The frown on the younger man's face deepened. "How many times has he seen Nate?" The sharp glare that cut down even the fiercest of men trained itself on him. "Come on, Hetty, you know we're close. I've been gone for eight weeks, and if he hasn't slept in a bed for more than a month I want to help."
"Mr. Callen values his privacy, as you know well. I have not and will not divulge his personal affairs unless it is a matter of saving his life or national security. All you need to know is that he's been cleared for full duty and that is all I will confirm." She nearly winced at the venom in her voice, but grief and her natural protective instincts had impaired her usual rational thinking.
Her venom and frustration rolled off Mike like water on an oil slick. He stood up and smiled. "This is why we love you, Hetty."
She rolled her eyes and reached into her handbag for her keys. "Save your sweet talk, Mr. Renko. Mr. Callen beat you to it when he pinched my resignation from Director Vance. I'll see you tomorrow. Get your shower, Michael. You need it."
He followed her to the door of the mission. "Hetty, how's Sam doing?"
Hetty paused and sighed. "Agent Hanna is doing as well as he can. It will take time, but I believe that all of us will get through this darkness."
Mike put his hand against the door when Hetty tried to open the door. "Hetty, nobody could have prevented this or done anything to save Dom. You've been pounding that into Sam, Kensi, Eric, and G. for months. It's time to heed your own council. If you don't, we're all screwed."
For the first time since meeting the legendary Henrietta Lange, Mike saw and heard her vulnerability. "Contrary to the urban legends that spread through this office, I am only human. My wounds, both physical and emotional, heal the same way as anyone else, with time."
"Hetty," Mike whispered, forcing her to meet his eyes, "take as much time as you need, but do not forget how much every single person in this office needs you." He took his life into his hands and dropped a kiss on her head. "Now, I'm gonna get a shower and then get my buddy into an actual bed."
"Goodnight, Mr. Renko. Please drive safely." Mike took his hand off the door, allowing her to open the door.
"Goodnight, Boss Lady," he called out.
She ignored him until she drove past the entrance and then rolled down her window. "Mr. Renko, if you and Mr. Callen come in hung-over tomorrow, there will be retribution of the most severe kind." The sounds of Lady Gaga blasted from the car as it sped away.
Mike watched until the car disappeared from sight and made his way to the men's locker room. He paused at the couch where the friend he loved like a brother slept. The tension around Callen's mouth and his rigid posture signaled his severe stress. "Crap," he muttered as he reached into the backpack for the razor.
After retrieving the razor and fetching his go bag, Mike entered the shower room and began the arduous process of peeling of his clothes. Eight weeks aboard a fishing boat had left his clothes, hair, and skin permeated with the smells of salt, fish, bait, tobacco, and alcohol. Cases like that forced him to admit that the Cartels were far from stupid. Stuffing drugs inside harmless looking fish not only fooled the dogs, but also created more work to get the evidence. Commercial fishing is some of the most grueling physical work he'd ever done in his life. He didn't blame most of the fishermen who took the money to smuggle the drugs. The tanking economy and falling prices meant that an honest catch wasn't worth the effort and risk. The Cartels don't bother offering the crews a choice anyway. Finally, the struggle to get out of his sticky clothes ended, and he stepped into the shower.
He began with a blast of freezing water just to keep awake then heated it to just below scalding. Once again, he marveled at Hetty's foresight, spotting the gallon of Orange Clean in the corner of the stall. The pumice cleanser might take off a layer of skin, but it would also kill the stink. Anything smelled better than the smell of fish guts, and oranges weren't a particularly feminine scent. He scrubbed himself down five times before he was certain he couldn't smell anything but oranges and himself on his skin. Then, he grabbed the Head 'N Shoulders and repeated the process with his hair. By the time he finished, every inch of his skin and scalp burned red and raw, but he felt clean at last. After wrapping a towel around his waist, he went to the sink and lathered up for a shave. The chill of the blade bit into his skin, and for the first time in years he forced himself to focus so that he didn't inadvertently slit his throat. Of course, the fact the razor doubled as an effective weapon made it Callen's ideal choice.
The familiar feeling of relief flooded him when he saw Mike Renko's face staring back at him in the mirror instead of Juan Gomez. The fake skin had shed off and now he could truly tell himself 'case closed.' Now he only needed to find some clothes. Unfortunately, he hadn't had a chance to do laundry before heading out so he couldn't remember what he had in his go bag. 'Just cross your fingers, Mike' he thought as he opened his bag. Inside he found a pair of clean underwear, ('Yes!'), his favorite pair of jeans, ('Score!'), and a clean pair of socks. Then, his good luck hit the skids; he'd run out of clean shirts. Biting down hard on his lip to stop himself from issuing the loud streak of profanity currently running through his mind (he'd already lost fifty bucks to Hetty's swear jar this year) he calmed down and concluded theft to be his best option.
As he opened Callen's locker, Mike concluded not needing to steal from wardrobe counted as the greatest advantage of sharing his best friend's shirt size. For some unknown reason, Hetty got extremely pissed off if anyone raided wardrobe except Kensi. Frankly, he thought whatever her reasons, they were sexist and sometimes wished for just a tad more insanity so he could tell her that. Someday, he planned on crashing a Team Night and getting drunk enough to blame the charge on the booze. For tonight, he'd be satisfied with the vintage, ratty Aerosmith concert tee, and he reminded himself to whistle "Dude Looks like a Lady" until his next assignment. Slipping on his sandals and grabbing the ball of socks he began the next phase of operation roommates part two. "I should put in for hazard pay this week," he moaned.
Once back in the main office area, he cautiously approached the couch. Waking G. Callen from sleep, however fleeting, meant risking one's life. The first time he'd done it, he'd gotten two cracked ribs and a busted kneecap. The safest method involved keeping as much distance as possible, but it only worked if Callen didn't have his gun in hand. Mike threw the pair of socks at G's. head and prayed he wouldn't shoot before he woke up. As expected, the instant the socks made impact, Callen shot up, gun in hand, ready to fire. "Who's there!" he yelled.
"Wow, are you a moron or what, G.?" Mike laughed. "Pulling a gun on the guy who's offering you a hot meal, a bed, and a decent shower is not only rude, but it's exceedingly stupid, even for you."
G. slowly lowered his weapon and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. "Renko?"
Mike's worry increased when he heard the question. If Callen hadn't clearly identified him yet, he needed real rest badly. "No Virginia, it's Santa. Of course it's me, you moron!"
Now fully alert, Callen put his gun in his waistband and stood up to greet his friend. "Eight weeks you've been gone, and you come home an even bigger jackass then when you left."
They shared a quick guy-hug before Mike punched him none-too-gently in the shoulder. "Calling me a jackass won't get you any of my beer."
"Calling me a moron won't make me jump at your less than gracious invitation," Callen retorted in an exaggerated, long-suffering tone.
Sensing that his friend's stubbornness ran high, Mike ended the banter. "I'm not inviting you, G. I'm telling you that you'll crash with me for a few days."
All mirth drained from Callen's face, turning his eyes an icy blue. "I'm fine," he stated.
"Bull!" Mike spat leaning into the other man's personal space. "Don't even try it, G. you can blind them all, even Hetty, but don't you dare try to snow-job me. How many hours of sleep have you had this month? From the looks of you less than twenty, don't think I can't see the makeup under your eyes. God only knows the last time you ate. You're coming back to my place even if I have to temporarily paralyze you and drag you out."
"You and what army?" G. growled.
Mike took a deep breath, clenched his fists, and forced his voice to remain neutral. "I'm not screwing around! Get your bag and let's go," he didn't flinch as Callen's frigid eyes drilled into his, keeping his posture as nonthreatening as he could. Attempting to handle G. resembled a high-wire act: push too hard and he'll push you off the wire, give up and he falls.
Seconds that felt like eons passed as the stare-down continued. Eventually, the tension left Callen's body, signaling his concession. "You're still a jackass, Mike," he sighed.
Mike's heart rate slowed to its regular rhythm, and he smiled. "You're still a moron, so we might as well keep each other company."
Callen rolled his eyes, put his sneakers on, and gathered his pack. "You stole my spare razor," he accused.
"Hetty gave me permission. I'll sharpen it and give it back. I haven't shaved in ten weeks, give me a break." His last sentence came perilously close to whining, but his pride couldn't rally.
A dry chuckle and a smirk escaped Callen's control. "Did Hetty also give you permission to steal my Aerosmith t-shirt?"
Putting his hands up in surrender, Mike appealed to his friend's better nature. "I didn't have time to do laundry before I left. You know Hetty would keel-haul me if I raided wardrobe, and we're the same size. I had to be practical."
"That's my last clean shirt, Mike!" he groused.
That's when the last of Mike's patience evaporated, and he exclaimed, "Then you were screwed anyway because Hetty would have never let you wear this thing! The rules state, 'no logos, bands, or graphics for senior agents unless need for undercover ID's.' I'll throw in a load of laundry at my place, and you can do yours , can we please get moving? I'm starving!"
"Okay, okay, you're certainly testy this evening."
"You just be glad my steel toe boots are soaked with fish gunk. Otherwise, one of them would be ramming your 'six' so hard, you'd be thrown into next week!"
"I thought I was a moron?"
"Oh, for the love of God, SHUT UP!"
The two men stepped outside into an LA wrapped in a velvet orange haze. "Say what you want about the smog, but it does make a pretty sunset," Callen remarked, turning towards his car.
Mike stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "I haven't been in a car for eight weeks and we don't need to add to the smog. Let's take mine."
Although he'd never admit it aloud, G. didn't really trust himself to drive, so he didn't bother to object. Mike's Audi provided comfortable heated seats, and they never fought over the radio. "Where is this new place of yours, anyway?"
"You'll see. Now get in." As soon as his body connected with the soft leather, Mike practically purred. He immediately started the car and turned the heated seat on high. "You have no clue how sore you can get until you haul creates of fish for twelve hours a day. I'd face basic on Parris Island again in a heartbeat before I set foot on another boat."
G. sat back and enjoyed the heat from his own seat. "You'll disappoint Gibbs."
Mike laughed. "How is he?"
"Fine. He called after he heard about Dom. He offered to meet down in Mexico for a weekend, but I didn't want to. I just don't need a recitation of the rules or a lecture on how to run a team." He ran his hand over his face and behind his neck, trying to ease the tension building in his skull.
From the tone in his voice, Mike knew not to pursue the subject any further. "Hetty mentioned something about a resignation and you pick-pocketing Vance."
"SHE WAS LEAVING!" G. shouted, startling both of them. "Can you believe that? After what we've just been through, she had the gall to look me in the eyes and tell me she was quitting."
Mike could count the number of times his friend let his pain out on one hand. "G, you can't fault her for grieving. You and I both know what it's like to have bosses that would send us to our deaths just to look good on a résumé. Hetty is one of the few that genuinely sees us as people, not statistics. Of course this hit her hard. Up until now, she's only lost two agents. That's how good she is at protecting us. Of course she feels like she's failed. Getting pissed off won't help her, and you know it."
Callen pressed his forehead against the cool glass of his window, soothing the ever-increasing ache behind his eyes. "I know," he whispered. "It's not time for her to leave yet."
"She knows that. I just wish I could have been there when you picked Vance's pocket."
"That's one skill from my past as a juvenile delinquent I'm glad I hung on to."
Three lights from the apartment, LA traffic struck again as rush hour assaulted the city. Mike groaned, tapping on the steering wheel to vent some frustration. "I still use all of my old skills. Do you mind if I turn on the radio?"
"It's your car."
With the push of a button, the mellow sounds of the 70's filled the cabin. America's 1975 hit "Sister Golden Hair" began and Mike sang along, with Callen joining in the chorus. The singing continued through "Tin Man" and "Lonely People." When the last note faded away, Mike turned off the radio. "As much as I hate admitting it, the plain truth is you've got a pleasant voice, Mr. Callen."
"I thank you for the compliment, Mr. Renko. You're hardly tone deaf yourself," he acknowledged with a nod. "Aren't you a little young to be such a big fan of America?"
"Dad was a fan. Abba always said that the music is a perfect blend of sadness, sweetness, and hope. He said it reflected the way life should be. Without sadness, you can't appreciate the sweetness, and without hope, there's no motivation to make a difference to others. Don't worry; I listened to plenty of Van Halen and White Snake in my youth." Traffic started crawling again. "So much for carpooling saving the planet, we could've walked and had our first beer by now."
Callen raised an eyebrow, the wheels of his mind spinning at Mike mentioning his dad. He rarely talked about his adoptive parents, probably out of some misguided guilt that he got out of the system. "Next month is the two year anniversary of the accident," he remarked casually, not wanting to pry if Mike just wanted to share a good memory.
"Yeah, but the dirt-bag's in jail so I'm good. I sent the Governor a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue for passing the tougher vehicular manslaughter laws."
"We can get drunk anyway if you want."
The slow crawl of traffic increased, allowing them to turn off onto Mike's street. "I'll be in Okinawa next month, so unless you want to make the trip to the base we'll have to wait until next year." He pulled into a well-kept Art Deco building and parked in his space. "This is the best apartment I've ever had. I think it could meet even your insane standards, my moronic friend."
G. got out of the car and grabbed his pack from the back. "I know that you like to think of yourself as a comedian, Mike, but I have to disillusion you." He pulled Hetty's letter from his pocket. "Vance offered me Operations Manager when I lifted this."
The expected laughter never came. A look of shock crossed Mike's face, followed by serious contemplation. "You could do it. I don't think I'd trust anyone else to replace the Boss Lady. That said, I still wish I'd been there."
"Have you lost your mind?" G. gasped. "Let's get some food in you before you start seeing things, or worse."
"I'm in 3A, just let me inform the landlord I'm back. I left with a beard; I don't want the poor man to get startled. He's ninety-two and a sweet man." He took a step toward an apartment on the ground floor and paused. "Come with me, I want him to know who you are just in case you end up crashing here in between places. Just give me a name."
"Do I look like a Luke Hicks?"
"You've had worse. Remember Purdue Witherstock?"
"We agreed never to mention that case ever again," G. snarled through clenched teeth.
Mike kept walking. "I don't know why you're so touchy about it. You were the better dancer, and the ladies loved you. Besides," he grinned, "two-thousand bucks a night in tips didn't hurt you any."
"Please, don't make me shoot you."
Mike knocked on the door and rang the buzzer. "Act like you have some manners, Luke."
"I seem to remember something about a pot talking trash about the kettle."
"I'm not joking!" Mike hissed.
The door opened and revealed an old gentleman, who still stood straight and tall, with warm brown eyes and fine white hair. "Michael, you're back!" he exclaimed, with a beaming smile of joy. "Did your business go well, son?"
Mike reached out to take the man's hand gently in his own. "Good evening, Mr. Goldman. It's good to be home. Yes, my business worked out perfectly. I'd like you to meet my friend Luke Hicks. He's going to stay with me a while, and I'd vouch for him with my life. I'm willing to pay extra this month."
"Shush!" Goldman scolded. "How many times have I told you to call me Ezra? Of course the boy can stay as long as he likes, and you won't pay me one extra penny!" He kissed the younger man's forehead. "Now let me greet your friend properly, Michael."
G. stepped forward and offered his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir. I promise I won't cause the building a moment's trouble."
"Ezra, my boy, call me Ezra. Any friend of Michael's is family here, so you are invited to Shabbat dinner this Saturday. My son and his family will also be with us."
"If I'm not working, I'll definitely be there," G. assured him. The older man's genuine warmth and graciousness put him relatively at ease.
"Do you work with our Michael, Mr. Hicks?"
"Please call me Luke. Yes, we work together occasionally."
Mike jumped in. "He's a worse workaholic than I am, so he never has a permanent home." He had to bite his lip to keep from laughing; it always felt strange to tell the truth in a cover, even if the cover belonged to another person.
Ezra shook his head in disapproval. "You young men need to learn there's more to life than work. You're both good-looking, well-spoken, you make a good living. Why waste these precious years of your life living alone?"
Mike smiled and rolled his eyes. "Ezra, we've been through this, our work is dangerous, and I'm not high enough on the food chain for a wife to be practical. As for my buddy Luke, please don't drag him into this. He'll get mad at me and make my professional life a nightmare."
"All right, Michael, you win," Ezra sighed. "Ruth's stocked your fridge and sorted your mail. She even dusted and kept the plants watered. However, you both are invited to stay for dinner."
"I'm sorry, Ezra, tonight's just a bad night. I just wanted you to meet Luke and let you know he'll be around. I'll be here for Shabbat dinner with or without him."
"Have a good evening, boys."
"We will, Mr. Goldman, and it's an honor to meet you, sir." G. replied.
Ezra waved them away. "Mr. Goldman and sir—you military boys are all the same. My name is Ezra! Now off with you both and do whatever it is you boys do without dates or a life."
"Okay, okay, we're leaving. I'll make sure to give Ruth flowers this Saturday," Mike promised. The door closed behind them, and Mike turned to G. "Well, what do you think?"
Callen looked around, admiring the flower boxes or pots on the windowsills of the building and the fresh cut grass of the courtyard, and soaked in the sense of tranquility. "I think you've found your safe place here that reminds you of the good home you had. I'm happy for you, Mike."
"Thanks. I'm across from here, third floor up. Just wait until you see this place." Every time he inserted his key into the lock, a deep feeling of contentment washed away the stresses of his daily life. He opened the door and stepped in, smiling when he saw his mail sorted out on his console table.
G. followed, letting out a loud whistle of appreciation. "Who did you kill to get this place?"
Mike couldn't believe that an unexpected turn of events had led him to such a fantastic home. His corner unit had everything most people wished for, and because of its location, his salary covered the rent and utilities easily; more importantly, it felt right. This place felt like the place where he could settle down and build a life outside of work. To that end, he'd ditched his previous methods of setting up house by picking up discarded furniture off the streets and buying MDF bookshelves at Wal-Mart. He took care to choose things he found comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, and durable. He chose colors just because he liked them. He even found himself choosing things with little practical value simply because they made him laugh. The end result was a home that combined elements of chic old Hollywood glam, durable comfort, and kitsch.
Callen's eyes darted around his surroundings, telling himself he couldn't be stuck in a Twilight Zone episode. He and Mike were infamous around the office as nomads, temporarily setting up residences in the hovels of LA. It gave their friendship one of its many competitive edges. Now, surrounded by warm ochers, deep red, cozy leather couches and chairs, solid wood bookshelves filled with dozens of books, and art on the walls, he wondered if Mike had planned this as an elaborate prank. His eyes landed on a huge poster of Rosie the Riveter hanging above the couch and a collection of pin-up's of glamour girls like Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, and others hung in a gallery style. The pin-ups reassured him a little that Mike actually lived here, but the surreal feeling stayed in his gut.
Mike's patience with his friend ran out. "Well, say something! You're my first official guest in my permanent home."
Unable to think of an appropriate response, G. blurted out the first thing that came into his mind. "I'm assuming Rosie is your new girlfriend since she takes up an entire wall."
Mike's face scrunched up in disgust. "Seriously, that's all you can come up with! I'm disappointed, and watch what you say about Rosie, without her we might all be speaking German."
"You and I do speak German, Mike," G. pointed out as he looked around the room.
Mike threw up his hands and marched to the kitchen. G. followed, wondering what other surprises were in store with this new Mike. The kitchen was painted a deep plum with a slate-colored floor. White Quartz counters covered light cherry wood cabinets. The upper cabinets had glass fronts, and all the draw pulls and knobs were sleek stainless steel to match the appliances. The backsplash consisted of mustard, black, and white tiles in an Art Deco chevron pattern. Off the kitchen, in a dinette painted pumpkin pie orange, a large painting of Dogs Playing Poker hung over a round table that could comfortably seat six. The choice of art further lessened the shock of the new reality of Mike's private life, and Callen investigated it further.
Standing in front of the painting, he realized this rendition of the iconic pop-culture image differed in many significant ways. First, the dogs were each wearing Marine Dress Blues, with Force Recon's 4th Division insignias in clear view. Second, the German Sheppard at the head of the table had M. Renko written on the nameplate on his uniform. Each dog bore the name of a man in Mike's first unit. G. swallowed hard, remembering that during his friend's first tour of duty with the unit, they had been ambushed in Somalia. Mike had been the sole survivor. What most people would categorize as a cheap, tacky, even vulgar piece of art became a moving tribute to fallen heroes.
"You didn't get this at the poster store," he called out as Mike frittered around the kitchen.
Mike looked up from his pantry. "I met a guy on the pier who customizes pop-art. I thought it fit so I paid him one hundred and fifty bucks. It's done in oil paint, so at least it doesn't look cheap."
G. nodded and continued his snooping. Underneath the painting, a sterling silver menorah sat on a narrow table. G. leaned in so he could read the description on the base. Mr. Abram Kolwalski, Mrs. Miriam Kolwalski, Welcome their son Michael William Renko into their family July 22, 1982. "Where have you been hiding this?"
Mike paused chopping the tomatoes and sighed. "Come in here if you want to talk. This is my house, not a barn!"
A tiny worm of shame wriggled in Callen's gut. How many times had he heard those words with the Rostoff's? He walked slowly back into the kitchen and sat on the lone bar stool. "I'm sorry. I think I'm still trying to think of this as your place. I mean, your last place was a motel off of Rodeo Drive. Now you have dishes and glasses! Give me a minute to take this all in."
"No apology necessary. I suppose I should have warned you that I decided to turn my life upside-down. I needed time to get things the way I wanted and adjust to it myself." He opened the freezer and pulled out two chilled beer mugs. He took a lime, sliced it in half, and put one half in each glass. Then, he poured two Coronas. "Drink this. It'll calm your nerves."
G. took a long drink of the cold beer and let the alcohol work. He didn't plan to get drunk, but he didn't care if he did. He trusted Mike implicitly without exception. "What's for dinner?"
"The special tonight is tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches with bacon," Mike bragged with a smile.
Callen swallowed the rest of his beer with a gasp, nearly choking on it. "When did you learn how to cook?"
"I always could cook simple things. Mamela and Abba insisted that I learn to feed myself without a microwave, and I had enough KP duty in basic that I can manage without living on takeout. My specialty is Bubby's stuffed cabbage, but that takes hours." Seeing how wide and uncertain G's eyes had become, he put down his knife and looked directly at him. "G, stop freaking out. I haven't changed into a different person. You put in KP duty so you know how to make a basic meal. It's not like we haven't traded those stories before. The problem isn't the apartment or dinner. You're still in crises mode, and you've got to stand down."
"Yes, Dr. Renko," he replied flatly.
Mike ignored the failed sarcasm. "Dinner will be ready in twenty; my room's down the hall at the end. Your room's on the right and the bathroom is across the hall. Go take a shower, change, and then we'll eat."
Maybe the beer did its work, maybe the crash finally caught up with him, maybe his brain simply refused to formulate words to object; whatever the reason, G. stood up and did as Mike asked. He grabbed his pack while Mike listened to his heavy steps retreat down the hall. G. entered the bathroom, where Mike's quirky personality seemed to quiet down. The tile-work showed a great deal of care to preserve the original details and fixtures. White porcelain tiles in a subway pattern set the background for black and aqua tiles to be inlaid in complex geometric patterns on the walls and floor. The original sink, with separate faucets for hot and cold water, stood tall and gleaming in its place with the original beveled mirror over it. On one of his first cases with NCIS, G. suffered the misfortune to end up in a situation where a similar mirror got destroyed. The unhappy victim sent him the bill for reimbursement which had eaten a huge chunk from his paycheck.
The conspicuous lack of a bath tub disturbed the authentic nineteen-thirties interior, but in its place stood a steam shower, enclosed with glass on two sides. Wall jets and a rain showerhead above promised an invigorating massage or a relaxing shower. However, the highlight came from the stylized portraits, in black and aqua, of a Mermaid playing with a dolphin on the back wall. "He definitely killed someone for this place," G. mumbled.
In the kitchen, Mike had a half pound of chopped tomatoes, two cups of vegetable stock, four cloves of garlic, fresh oregano, and fresh basil boiling in a pot. The smells reminded him of getting home from school on a cold day, when his mother had this soup and a light sandwich ready. At age twelve, he'd been through nine years of foster care before the Kolwalski's found him. They were each in their late forties, and had suffered miscarriages and health crises before finally getting approval to adopt. He'd been one of the lucky ones. So many others, including one of his dearest friends, never found a mother to comfort them at the end of a hard day. He hoped that G. could let out some of the stress he'd been holding in, but he knew that pushing wouldn't get anywhere. G. would talk only if he wanted to talk. The best he could hope for is that his friend would eat, and try to sleep.
He let the tomato mixture boil for five minutes before adding salt, pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. After a quick stir, he transferred the hot mixture into his blender and pulsed the mixture until nearly smooth. He grabbed a tube of tomato paste from his fridge and added two tablespoons while the soup blended until completely smooth. He poured the soup back into the pot, added just a bit of cream, and turned the burner to low so the soup kept warm. For the grilled cheese sandwiches, he sliced and generously buttered four thick slices of challah bread. He placed eight slices of tofu bacon into his cast iron skillet (found when he met a contact in a flea market) and sliced aged white cheddar while they crisped up.
G. walked into the kitchen wearing only a pair of flannel pajama bottoms. He paused, watching as Mike built the sandwiches and placed them in the skillet. He felt his stomach growl and realized for the first time in a week he felt hungry. He went to the fridge to get another beer when Mike noticed him. "Sometimes I still can't believe you lived through that shooting," he said as he stirred the soup, deliberately ignoring the scars littering the other man's torso.
"Sometimes I can't believe I fought so hard to stay alive," G. replied, reaching for another lime.
Mike glared at him, but he kept an instinctual rebuke to himself. "You're too damn stubborn to die on anyone's terms but your own. The only person in this job who might outlive you is Hetty."
"I don't know, you're pretty stubborn yourself," G. chuckled.
"All I want is a quick death. If I have to die, I don't want time to think about it." He flipped the sandwiches and turned to G. "Make yourself useful. The placemats and napkins are in the cabinet just outside the dinette, and spoons and knives are in the drawer to the right of the oven. You set the table and pour the beers. I've got the plates."
"I thought I was a guest!" he exclaimed in mock horror as he moved about gathering utensils.
Mike's voice turned stern, but his eyes laughed. "I said you were a guest, not a special guest. Only special guests don't have to help."
"Let me guess, you consider one of the women you manage to get to follow you home, 'special guests,'" G. scoffed as he set the table.
Mike flipped the sandwiches onto plates and ladled the soup into mugs; he brought the food to the table and sat down. "Any lady," he emphasized, "is certainly a special guest. And not that it's any of your business, but I don't intend to bring any ladies here unless I find someone serious. Now let's eat."
G. bit into the warm, gooey sandwich and marveled at the cozy feeling that spread through him. He rarely had meals where he felt like this. He remembered the first time he felt similar, when he lived with the Rostoff's. Since then, it came on the rare occasions he ate at Sam's or Hetty's. Something about a homemade meal generally had an effect on the guests. Callen understood this intellectually; why he found it strange within himself puzzled him. Pushing the uncertainty aside, he took a big gulp of his soup. "Ordinarily, tomato soup isn't my first choice, but this is fantastic, Mike."
"Glad you liked it. I haven't made this in a while, so I was worried it might not work out. It isn't as good as my mom's was, but it'll do. How do you like the sandwich?"
"It's very good," G. replied, wiping his mouth with the napkin. "The bacon tastes a bit different, though."
Mike fiddled with his napkin and took a deep breath. "It's tofu bacon. I've been trying to keep kosher between cases."
"That reminds me, where have you been keeping that Menorah?"
Mike hadn't expected that reaction to his news. In fact, as far as he could tell, his old friend had barely noticed. "I kept it with my books in my storage locker."
G. felt better seeing the slight dismay on his friends face. He'd been off-kilter since walking through the door; now, the shoe slid on the other foot. "Mike, you did tell me your parents were Jewish."
"I didn't tell you I converted after they adopted me, or that I started observing again," Mike answered, a hint of shame coloring his voice.
"I'm sure you had your reasons. It doesn't change anything. You're still the Mike I know, remember?"
"I should have told you about it. I started going to Temple off and on about six months ago, about three months in, I realized that I actually still believed in everything Mamela and Abba taught me. I'd just forgotten for a long time." Mike finished his sandwich and continued. "When I was adopted, the only thing I had that belonged to me was my name. I nearly backed out because I didn't want to change it. They were great about it; they totally understood what I felt and told me that they wanted my happiness, to give me a home and love. I asked them if I had to convert, and they asked me what I believed in. You can probably guess the answer-" he trailed off to drink his soup.
G. polished off his sandwich and took the last drink of his soup. "I believed in survival as a kid, and that's it. Now that I'm an adult, not much has changed except that I believe in working for the greater good and catching bad guys."
Mike stood up. "Another beer, or something stronger?" he asked, walking to the fridge.
"Beer is fine."
"I'm out of Corona, is Guinness acceptable?" He paused and turned, feeling Callen's incredulous gaze on him. "Okay, that was stupid. Please, no remarks." He got out the stout glasses and the Guinness and went back to the table. "Here, pour your own," he said pushing a glass and the bottle across the table to him. "Getting back to the original topic, you're right. I said I believed in survival. Again they understood, and they told me that because I had just turned twelve, according to their faith, in a year I'd be considered a man when it came to my decisions about God. So, they told me that if I wanted the adoption they'd take the year and teach me about their faith. At the end of the year, I had to make the decision for myself. I studied hard, and the sense of community and family did a lot to help me heal—so I converted."
G. sat back and took a long drink. He and Mike got along because they didn't push each other, but knew when the other needed support to say what they needed to say. "So what happened?"
Mike's gaze lifted to his painting, and he sighed. "You know what we do, and how we live. After a while, I just forgot. Then, after my parents were killed in the accident, I sat Shiva, and I felt rage just consuming me. Then, about six months ago, I had to interview a Rabbi for a case."
"You're kidding!" G. blurted out, trying not to laugh and spill his drink.
His voice turned grave and soft. "No, I'm serious. I went to the Temple, and suddenly, the rage got weaker, and I started remembering everything that I cherished before. I found this place a few weeks later, and since you've met Ezra, you can guess that he figured it out in no time. He's helped me remember a lot. So far it feels good, like I've gotten something important back. Anyway, Abba got the Menorah the day the adoption was finalized; now it's just me."
"Well, well, well, it's the new-old Mike Renko!" G. said with a smile. "You know, Major, you made them proud, and you'll continue to honor their memory."
Mike felt the back of his neck and his ears grow hot with embarrassment. His careful plan to get his friend a good meal and some rest had transformed into a heart-to-heart about his growing pains. Of course, it shouldn't surprise him. G's. talent for avoiding his personal problems had many people spilling all of their own secrets. It's part of what made him the second best interrogator at the OSP. "Thanks," he smirked. "So what did you think of Flipper?"
A wicked grin formed on G's lips, and a devious sparkle filled his eyes. "Is that what you call the mermaid in your shower?"
Mike picked up his napkin and chucked it at G's. head. "No, you moron Flipper is the dolphin! Didn't you see the movie or the TV show when we were kids?"
"Yes!" G. laughed, "I've actually heard of Flipper. What do you call the mermaid?"
"Her name is Sheila Ki Jawani," Mike's leer showed pure lust, which just amused his companion more.
"There's a story behind the name isn't there? Who was she, a girl you met in a club in Europe?" he asked waggling his eyebrows.
"Better!" Mike winked, standing and starting to clear the table. "Miss Sheila is a character in one of the most insane movies ever made. Well, it's actually pretty typical for Hindi masala films, but to uninitiated westerners like yourself, you won't believe your eyes. Let's watch it."
G. followed with his dishes and found a dish towel while Mike washed the pots. "Wait a second, this is a movie reference?"
"Yeah, I discovered Bollywood on the fishing boat. The Captain was completely obsessed with this actress named Katrina Kaif, and I don't blame him! He played her movies every night, so I stole one for myself after I busted them."
"Were you hit on the head or something?" G. asked as he ran his hand over the back of Mike's head checking for damage.
Mike shoved him off hard. "Cut it out! When was the last time you saw a movie?"
G. returned to drying the pots while trying to remember. "I think it was last year when we went to see The Dark Knight."
"Oye Vey!" Mike sighed slapping his forehead. "You should really go out with Sam more. Neglect will kill a partnership, and seriously, you need to have recreation. I know you're practicing your Arabic, but you'll never use it because you want Sam to feel needed, so find another hobby, preferably one that requires some laughter and less work!"
"I could start studying Yiddish if you're going to go on like this now," G. mocked.
"Shut up!" Mike snapped. They finished the dishes and finished tidying up the kitchen. "I'm going to throw in a load of laundry. Do you want me to wash yours too?"
"Yeah, thanks. My pack is in the bathroom."
"Okay. Popcorn is in the cabinet next to the fridge. Put it in the microwave, and I'll set up the movie in a few minutes."
G. found the popcorn and took out two bags to avoid the inevitable argument over who would make more in the middle of the movie. It didn't matter if Mike had seen a film a thousand times; he hated getting up for any reason. While he waited, he reflected on the evening so far. Once again, he'd inadvertently spoiled a friend's plan to make him to confront his own feelings and instead ended up confessing their own. Contrary to popular belief, he only deliberately misdirected his friends when Nate bugged him for professional reasons or when Sam pushed too hard and too soon. The rest of the time, it just happened. Years of avoiding prying State-paid shrinks and apathetic Social Workers had honed his instincts so sharply that he couldn't control them anymore. Sometimes, he wished he could just pry himself open like a clam and get it over with. His psyche simply refused to give him that option, so he worked with what he had. Still, he had to admit that when looking at his life as a whole, he believed himself to be remarkably sane. Then again, most lunatics are convinced they're perfectly normal. He would never call himself normal, but he always believed sanity and normal were very different things.
Learning about Mike's family and his new phase of life made him happy. He knew that Mike preferred to keep life outside the office as private as possible, like they all did, but Mike pursued professional isolation to an extreme. He refused to work on a team or with a partner because of losses during his years on active duty with his Force Recon units. He knew Mike had an active social life with both friends and temporary romances, but there weren't many people he'd let into his private world. Despite being anti-social and more comfortable alone, G. considered it an honor that Mike wanted him to know this part of his life.
Mike came through the kitchen, having changed into a pair of Iron Man pajamas and a Lakers jersey. "Where's the cayenne pepper?" G. asked. Seeing the pajamas he added, "Iron Man! I hate to break it to you, Major, but you're no Tony Stark."
Mike glared and pulled back his fist as if to swing. "If you don't want me to tell everyone that your favorite Comic Book character is Robin, you'll shut up about Iron Man. Tony Stark is the coolest superhero EVER!"
G. rolled his eyes and sneered. "First of all, my favorite Comic Book character is Dick Grayson, not Robin, because there is more than one. Second of all, have you ever heard of Nightwing? Thirdly, I don't care if you blab because Sam already knows. Finally, Tony Stark may be cool, but you're not. Now, where's the cayenne pepper? You know I like it on my popcorn."
Mike lowered his fist, but he couldn't hold back a growl as he got the butter and the cayenne pepper out. They'd never agree on comics; G's. loyalty to DC never wavered. He let him finish the popcorn and returned to the living room to set up the movie. The crown jewel of the apartment, a sixty-inch LCD flat-screen, had come with the place. It hung in an Art Deco reproduction frame and doubled as a mirror when off. He had bought an XBOX console, a few games, and a premium stereo system. He even got himself a Netflix account, but he hadn't had a chance to use any of it yet. Despite his friend's appalling taste in comics, he was ready to rock!
Callen walked in carrying two huge bowls of popcorn: one with his much adored cayenne pepper, the other just plain butter and salt. "Grab a seat my friend," Mike said as he placed the DVD in the XBOX.
The DVD case caught Callen's eye so he grabbed it. "Mike! This is a bootleg copy of a movie not even released yet!"
Mike shrugged. "India has major piracy problems. Don't worry. This copy looks and sounds great."
"I suppose the irony of two Federal Agents committing a Federal crime is lost on you," he snapped.
"Hey, I didn't buy it. I stole it from the guy who did. I didn't support the guys who pirated it. Therefore, I committed a misdemeanor at best. Now shut up!" He looked around and noticed they'd forgotten something to drink. "Do you want beer, water, or cream soda?"
"Water's fine," G. sighed.
Mike ran to the fridge and grabbed two bottles of water and made his way back to the couch. "Now, I'm warning you, this movie will be strange at first. Keep an open mind. If you hate it after a half-hour, we don't have to finish it."
"Mike, just play it before I remember I have a badge!" G. cried out, throwing up his hands. 'All this fuss for a movie,' he thought, taking a bite of buttered cayenne popcorn, 'he must've hit his head on something.'
After the first five minutes, he'd gotten used to reading the subtitles (which naturally were in Spanish) in the first ten minutes he wondered if Mike had slipped something in his beers at dinner. The movie reminded him of the one time he'd done a hit of Acid at age sixteen. The music was loud, the colors were loud, the actors (at least he hoped they were actors) were loud, and as far as he could tell they all needed to be in straightjackets. He glanced at his friend, who seemed completely engrossed in the wacky goings-on and shook his head in disbelief.
"Just a few more minutes, G. Trust me," Mike reassured, not taking his eyes off the screen. Then, another song started. Thus far, the music had proved to be the only redeeming feature of the entire movie. A gorgeous woman appeared on the screen, and he heard the name Sheila Ki Jawani, and he perked up. She started to belly dance, and he became transfixed. The woman knew her power and used it with a ruthless precision; sensual, beautiful, silly, and playful, she effortlessly cast a spell on her audience while remaining untouchable. When the number ended, Mike paused the movie and jumped up from the couch. "Sorry, I have to take a leak."
G. opened his water and drank half in one slug. "Are all of the Hindi movies like this?" He asked when Mike returned.
"The hard-core masala movies are," he replied, flopping out on the couch. "There are different genres, just like everywhere else. Actually, I screwed up by watching this one with you. There are other great movies that aren't like this at all. In fact, I've seen a few that blow what we have here in the west out of the water in terms of story, acting, and just about everything else. They also have actors that would give these Hollywood guys panic attacks. I admit I prefer masala though. I like the insanity."
"So, it's supposed to make you think all of these people have a screw loose?"
"Sure, look at Jim Carry."
"Okay, let's finish it."
Mike threw his head back laughing. "Sheila killer youth, strikes again."
The film's insanity built to such outrageous heights that G. eventually fell off the loveseat from laughing so hard. When it ended, he stood up and gave Mike a high-five. "Okay, that's almost as fun as watching Kensi sing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" after three margaritas!"
Mike gathered the empty popcorn bowels and water bottles. "Nothing beats Kensi after three margaritas. I'm glad you liked it. I'm wiped out so I need to sleep. You can take apart anything but the coffee machine. I've got a set of throwing knives in the closet that could use sharpening. They're in the Nike box. Please try to sleep in the guestroom bed! I'd like to know if it's the right mattress for company."
"I'll try, I promise."