Namaste, Salaam, and Shalom, Ladies and Gentlemen! Sorry for the long wait. Circumstances beyond anyone's control prevented quick updates this time around. Just a little announcement, I did pull some dialogue from the episodes: Missing and Hunted. Mike also quotes Kensi's description of herself on a first date. I normally don't like to pull dialogue, but the chapter demanded it. Okay, so I hope you all enjoy, and I remember leaving Marty alone in a seedy bar with a mysterious person following him around. So my next post should be what happens next for him, but check out my profile for more information about what I'm up to, and feel free to PM with any questions.
PS. To, A Reader: My very humble thanks.
G. checked the laundry immediately after Mike went to bed. If Mike did laundry before sleeping, he usually forgot to put it in the dryer. Living on the houseboat had taught him that early on. Sure enough, the wet clothes sat in the washer, untouched. He quickly transferred the clothes to the dryer and started the cycle. Between the two of them, he estimated that the rest of the dirty laundry added up to two loads. Since he knew he couldn't sleep yet, he decided to finish it. He reloaded the washer, and then he washed the popcorn bowls. Once he'd finished the last of the mundane tasks he could find to do, he went searching for Mike's throwing knives. He knew Mike also had many more guns hidden around the apartment, but they had an unspoken agreement that their guns were off limits to each other. While their taste in knives ran along similar lines, their taste in guns ran completely opposite.
He found the Nike box, which contained a gorgeous set of throwing knives, a honing stone, and oil. 'All Mike would have to do is show these to Kensi and she might marry him,' he thought. Returning to the kitchen, he stabilized the honing stone with the dish towel he'd used earlier. He sat on the bar stool, poured the oil on the stone, and then began to run the first blade over it. The rhythmic scrape of the blade whispered in the quiet of the room. While his hands moved instinctively, his mind flooded with memories of Dom, and the wound his death had dealt his team.
Callen cringed, recalling his earlier attempts to console Sam. He knew he had limited comforting skills at best, but he considered this one of his most spectacular failures. Even Gibbs would have considered his words patronizing and trite. Once again, he'd revealed only what he wanted and omitted his deepest feelings. Deep within the darkest recesses of his heart, he felt guilt as strong as his partner's. Because he hadn't considered Dom one of his own - Dom belonged to Sam not him - he couldn't mourn Dom in the same way. He'd stuck to the plan, and now his conscience attacked his mind and heart with deadly strikes. Everything came down to the plan. After his shooting, he woke to a devastated Macy who informed him of her plans to keep him under lock and key. She scolded him severely, saying that Sam's career fell far below his capabilities and he deserved to run his own team. To that end, while he recovered, Sam would take over the team, and she'd get a new Probie from FLETC for him to train. Mike would take over his place as Sam's partner and backup for Kensi. After he recovered, Sam would take the Probie and form his own team as Special Agent in Charge. He'd partner with Kensi, keep Mike as backup, and choose a fourth.
When Macy got transferred and Hetty returned, he told his favorite boss that he wanted to keep the plan. He felt Sam deserved to advance. Although he'd miss his brother-in-arms and the longest partner of his career, he'd been excited for the changes to come. Most people found comfort in routine. He only found endless fear. How many times had been pulled from sleep, screaming because his dreams ripped Sam, Kensi, Hetty, and Eric away from him? The dreams of losing Sam hurt the most, because Sam depended on him to have his back. After three long years of responsibility, and a new unknown threat waiting for him, he yearned to be free of the burden. The plan became his saving grace, and when he returned, he chose to keep Dom at arm's length.
He gently ran his thumb along both edges of the last knife. Finally satisfied that each knife now had its perfect edge, he placed them back in their case and returned it to the Nike box. After he put the box back, he checked the time; the clock showed well after midnight. After the alcohol, the emotional upheaval, and the general exhaustion he dealt with on a daily basis, he decided to start his cycle of sleeping twenty minutes every two hours. A queen-size sleigh bed greeted him in the guest room, complete with fluffy hotel pillows and a thick, dark brown, corduroy comforter. Three walls were painted a khaki tan, and the fourth wall where the bed rested against, was painted a deep teal. A large dresser and two end tables provided guests with plenty of room to store their things. Why Mike wanted to encourage long-term visitors mystified him.
He climbed into the soft sheets and made a mental note to ask Mike if he'd been possessed by a designer from HGTV and to torment him about going soft. He lay in his new temporary bed as he did every night, staring at the ceiling waiting for sleep to come. It didn't matter if he slept in the finest beds in the world or on a slab of concrete. Nothing coaxed his body to sleep; it surrendered when it wanted to. Minutes drifted by. As every night, one minute he was wide awake, and the next he was asleep in a dangerous world of memories and dreams…
He and Sam drove through streets of LA surrounded by pitch black. The only light came from their headlights as they sped through the never-ending labyrinth. The lack of traffic concerned him. Where were all the cars? Why was the city dark? He turned his head to face Sam. The rage etched on his partner's face made his skin crawl. "Can I know our destination?" he asked.
"Why?" Sam growled. "Could G. Callen possibly be rattled by the unknown?"
The crawling sensation under his skin changed to the sharp bite of electric shocks. "Do we have a problem, Sam?"
Bright laughter filled the cabin. "No," Sam replied with a warm smile. "We are fine, G. You, on the-other hand, are far from fine."
"I don't understand, Sam. What is going on?" he asked, keeping his voice strong and even.
Sam roughly pulled the car into a vast, deserted parking lot illuminated by one lone street lamp. "Get out," he snarled, exiting the car.
He complied, but when he shut the door an icy chill ran down his spine as he realized he had no weapon, not even his hairpin. "Tell me what's happening," he demanded, his voice still calm, in contrast to his heartbeat.
Sam threw his arm around G's shoulder, but his voice shook with hate. "You're an ice-blooded snake, G. I've known a lot of ruthless characters in my day, but you, my friend, inhabit a league mere mortals cannot touch."
G. shoved him off. "WHAT IS GOING ON!" he shouted.
"Well, well, well, I forgot about the anger," Sam smirked. "Of course, you're even stingy about that."
"Okay, whatever this is, let's get it over with!" he answered, pacing to control the adrenaline flooding his blood.
"What do you think this is, G.? Tell me what you think, and I'll tell you if you're right."
"I think you're still pissed because of Dom, and you don't like how I'm grieving!" he spat in disgust. "I'm so sick of you pushing me to behave the way you think a man should behave."
Cold laughter filled the warm night air. "Oh, G. it never ceases to amaze me at how clueless you can be. Dom is a mere symptom of your problem."
He stopped pacing and turned to look his partner straight in the eyes. "Just what is my so-called, 'problem,' Sam? What do you know that dozens of shrinks don't?"
"I know that you can't love," Sam answered casually, as if discussing the weather. "That's why nobody even tried to adopt you when you were little. That's why you refuse to date, and the few women you've had in your life end up hating you. People leave your life, or you leave them and you just go on because they never truly touch you." Sam sighed and shook his head. A look of deep pity passed over his face before it hardened into hate again. "Do you know how many people have tried to love you, G.?"
His heart pounded hard and fast in his ears, and his chest tightened. "Apparently not enough because you think I'm a sociopath," he replied, unable to yell because he couldn't take in the air he needed.
"I never said you're a sociopath, G." Sam answered. "You care about right and wrong. The moral center of your brain works just fine. Being moral isn't the same as loving people."
"What do you want from me, Sam!" he gasped. "Do you want me to punch a hole in a punching bag? Should I drop to my knees and sob? Is that how I prove that I love people?"
"That would be better than the ice that covers your soul," Sam shrugged. "Dom's death didn't 'particularly suck because he was so young.' What would Kensi's death be? Would it 'suck' because she's a beautiful young woman, or because she's your 'born operator?' Is that what you'd say to me if she had been the one taken? What would you tell my wife, my son, and my daughter if I died? I really hope it's better than 'Sam's death particularly sucks because he had you all, and I'm sad too.' Let me tell you something, G. That's not love."
"You were the one that didn't want to talk about what happened, Sam!" he objected. His voice grew weaker as the pain caused by his partner's words spread throughout his body like a physical blow. "If Dom meant nothing to me, if you mean nothing to me, why would I even try to help you stop blaming yourself?"
"G." Sam sighed, reaching behind his back and bringing out his SIG. "You know the answer to that question. You're a paranoid control-freak. If the balance of any relationship you have is disrupted, you need to restore it. My grief threw off your perception of the balance of our partnership. That's why you tried to force the issue. It had nothing to do with how you feel about Dom or me. You did it for yourself, because you can't function when you're not in control!"
He couldn't take his eyes off the gun in his partner's hands. Every tiny hair on his body stood up on end, an icy layer of sweat stung his skin, his mouth felt as if he swallowed cotton wool, and his chest ached from the effort to fill his lungs with the thick air around him. He swallowed heavily, hoping the saliva would lubricate his throat. "What now, Sam?" he asked, his voice barely audible.
Sam roughly pushed him down to his knees using all of his weight. "You know what happens now, G.," he whispered harshly into his ear.
In that moment, G. froze. He could not move, he could not speak, and he could not hear. He knelt before his friend helpless and watched as Sam cuffed him and raised his gun…
He woke sitting straight up in the bed, covered in slick sweat. His chest heaved as if he'd run a marathon. He threw off the covers and swung his legs to put his feet on the cold hard-wood floors. His legs shook as he slowly stood up, making him growl in disgust. "Get a grip, Callen! It's not like this is the first time you've had a dream where Sam kills you!" he muttered.
The bed sheets were soaked through, as were the boxers he'd changed into for bed. The fabric stank with his fear, grief, and despair. He pulled out his pajama pants from his pack and changed once again. He took the comforter off of the bed, folding it, and then he stripped the sheets. Mike would never be able to accuse him of being a bad houseguest. He took the sheets to the washer and started the load, his mind still full of images from his dreams. Sam's voice echoed in his ears, repeating 'it's not natural, G.' over and over again; the noise of the washer couldn't drown it out. He bent over to unload the dryer when a shadow passed over him. Without thinking he turned and attacked, rushing at the shadow. He slammed into a solid mass, crashing into the wall.
"GOD, G. STAND DOWN!" Mike roared, locking his heel behind the other man's knee cap causing and them both to fall. "Is this a past or present demon eating you alive tonight?" he snapped, checking his ribs.
"Mike, I'm sorry." G. groaned trying to catch his breath. "Did I wake you up?"
Renko stood and hauled his friend to his feet. "You know your worst character trait is that you think you have the monopoly on demons, G. It isn't true. You're not the only man who wakes up at night because the demons catch you in your sleep. Come on, I'll make some decaf coffee. No, I don't have any tea. I wasn't expecting company."
"So, can I assume that I didn't wake you up?" G. sighed, running his hand over his face.
Mike filled his kettle and reached into his spice cabinet for a small jar of decaffeinated instant coffee. "A demon of my past decided to screw with my head tonight. Hey, were you ever locked in a closet in one of the homes?"
G. rested his head on the counter. "I hid in closets when I was little. When I was eight, the Johnson's stuck me in their crawlspace. I still remember the rats," he flinched as the memory of the rodents biting his fingers and toes sent a shudder through his body.
The shrill screech of the boiling kettle pierced the air. Mike poured the hot water into mugs and prepared the coffee. He set G's mug in front of him and then sat down. "You might not be the only man with demons, my friend, but I'll admit you might have some of the nastiest. The worst thing that happened to me as a kid was being locked in a closet for three days. Sometimes it comes back after a long case where I'm confined anywhere."
"Being on a boat is certainly confining," G. agreed, sipping the hot drink. Instant coffee disgusted him, but nothing could improve the taste of decaffeinated coffee so he couldn't complain to his friend for buying instant. "What does it say about me as a team leader when the thought of Hetty leaving OSP hit me more than Dom's death?"
The edge of the cup of the mug had barely touched Mike's bottom lip when the force of G's whispered question hit him like a hard punch in the gut. He carefully placed the mug of steaming liquid back on the counter, worried that he might spill it. "I think that it says you knew that what happened with Dom was beyond your control, and the idea of losing Hetty when you could do something made it hurt more. I don't think that has anything to do with your abilities as a team leader or your morality as a man, for that matter."
A spike of anger burned in his gut when he couldn't stop himself from flinching. "You're certainly chatty tonight," G. snapped.
"Don't start, Squid! If you didn't want to have this conversation you wouldn't have asked me the question. You've attacked me in my own home because something's got you tied in so many knots that you can't think straight. If you don't want me telling Nate, then you start talking. Now!" Mike replied in a hard tone.
"Sam's the snitch, not you," G. sighed, taking another sip of the swill that passed for coffee.
Mike relaxed for the first time since being pulled awake by his night terrors. "That's right, my friend. However, I do make exceptions when I think some idiot might get himself killed because his head is cockeyed. You're a bigger risk than the average idiot because you don't even try to get yourself killed, you just continually find yourself in situations where you've got to be a hero."
A bitter laugh burst from G's throat "Yeah, that's me the hero. A hero whose partner thinks that my ability to focus on a case even when the victim is a teammate is 'unnatural' and probably thinks I gave Dom up for dead the moment we discovered his car!"
"Okay, so this is a 'partners' thing. I think I have some Rocky Road in the freezer," Mike said, standing up.
"I don't know what it is. All I know is that Sam is pissed at me," G. growled.
"Sam's grieving," Mike replied, putting two bowls of ice cream on the table in front of each of them. "Sorry, I don't have any whipped cream. Ruth only stocked the essentials; I'll have to go to the grocery store after work. What woke you up tonight? We've had more than our fair share of hard nights but this is the first time you put me into the wall."
"You once gave me a black eye and nearly broke my nose as I recall," G. defended as he took a bite of the creamy chocolate ice cream.
"True," Mike acknowledged. "I also answered all of your nosey questions that night. Now it's your turn, so I repeat, what woke you up tonight?"
Giving into the inevitable, Callen recounted his dream, thankful for the coffee and ice cream that killed the taste of bile and adrenaline in his mouth. "If you say that this is a guilt complex I will make your life a nightmare," he growled when he finished.
"Please," Mike scoffed, waving the suggestion away with his hand. "Of course you feel guilty. You stuck to Macy's insane plan and didn't get close to the kid. If you didn't feel bad about it, I would've skipped bringing you here and just dropped you at Nate's. No, you didn't put me into a wall because of guilt. You put me into a wall because something triggered the dream. Do you know what it is, or do we just chalk it up to a dream?"
G. finished his ice cream and the last of his coffee. If he said he could handle a dream, Mike would back off. He could handle a dream, but he knew he couldn't handle the trigger. He couldn't go to Hetty when she needed to work through her own grief. He only gave Nate what he needed to do their jobs; he simply couldn't confide in the young doctor and chip away at his naïve innocence. He had to deal with his emotions for the sake of his team, his job, and for his own peace of mind. "The day we discovered Dom had been taken, Sam and I had a conversation. He thought I hadn't reacted to it in a healthy way."
"Tell me exactly what you both said," Mike encouraged, pouring himself another cup of coffee.
"Sam said, 'I don't know how you keep a lid on your feelings.' I replied, 'I just focus on the case.' He didn't like that answer much, and told me, 'It's not natural, G.' I don't see why he can't see that letting myself be consumed with anger, fear, and guilt would've made it impossible for me to do my job!" He slammed his fist on the counter, causing the spoons to shake in their bowls.
"G. you know the man better than anyone except maybe his wife." He smirked when G's eyes met his in astonishment. "Come on, the man has 'married with kids' written in his DNA. Don't worry; I can keep my mouth shut. Sam's pestered you about relationships since the day you both met. What is it about this time has gotten you so twisted up?"
"Sam may be grieving, but deep down, there's a part of him that worries I am cold and that I can't connect with other people in a normal way," G. whispered, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. "I know I'm not normal, but -" he paused, unable to put the rest of his thoughts into words.
"It hurts that your partner, someone you have to trust with your life, could think that you're a sociopath." Mike finished.
"Not a sociopath," G. sighed, as his dream filled his mind. "Someone incapable of feeling or giving even platonic affection and love."
Mike frowned. "G. you know that you are very much capable of feeling love and affection. Only an idiot wouldn't see the love and affection you give Hetty and your team. Hell, anyone with two eyes and half a brain could see the affection you have for Gibbs. Now do I think you're a moron for turning down Treasury Barbie? Yes! If I'd been around for that one she wouldn't have wanted you for 'room service', but you're the best judge of what you need in that department. You can't control what Sam thinks or feels, but don't tear yourself to pieces because Sam has his own definition of what, 'normal'."
"This team is the closest thing I am ever going to get," Callen answered softly. "How can they trust me if Sam feels this way? Kensi just lost her partner, we'll have to replace Dom eventually, and if I know Hetty she's already chosen a candidate for me to approve. If they know my partner doesn't think I care enough, how can Kensi and Deeks trust me?"
A faint smile ghosted across Callen's lips. "He's an undercover cop with the LAPD. I'm ninety-nine percent certain Hetty wants to turn him into her next super-agent. The problem is that Sam can't stand him just now."
"Forget about Sam!" he huffed. "Sam will get past everything with time. Tell me what this cop is like."
"He's a scruffy, smartass loner who likes to lie. I'd call him a born operator, and he likes to work alone. So you can see how Sam would just love him to bits," G. answered, sarcasm filling his voice.
Mike laughed. "Sounds like your long-lost twin!"
"Not quite," he smirked, rolling his eyes. "I don't like to lie. I'm exceptionally good, but that doesn't mean I enjoy myself. Besides, Deeks has no military background. After Dom, that's an issue. But, I have to admit, this guy just fits well. He irritates Kensi enough to make her want to kill him, but I don't worry about him keeping her alive the way I did with Dom."
A pair of green-grey eyes narrowed at a pair of blue. "Is the new tramp sniffing around my girl?"
Callen punched Mike in the shoulder. "Since when is Kensi, 'your girl'? She's 'our girl.' I hate to shatter your grand illusions and lurid fantasies, but there's been a large amount of mutual sniffing going on since we've found Deeks."
A pout formed on Renko's full lips. "Do you think its love?"
"I think it's a nursery school contest of who can tease who the most. He metaphorically yanks her pig-tails; she pushes him off the swings. Sooner or later they'll jump each other. Who knows?" G. shrugged, amused but not concerned about the pair's growing attraction.
"It's love!" Mike groaned, finishing the last of his coffee. If Kensi just wanted to jump him, she would. She's not 'the best first date girl in town' by accident! Oh well, I suppose that she won't be my Shiksa when I decide to settle down. I won't deny I liked the idea, though."
An idea lit up like a firecracker in Callen's mind. Tiny things that stuck out in his mind now began putting themselves together to form a picture. "During the ride here, all the songs you played were about lonely guys finding love. Then, there's this place with actual plates, glasses, and cutlery. Now, I know you're joking about Kensi, but you're not joking about settling down, and earlier you made a crack about not bringing any flings here. Mike, are you planning to get out of fieldwork?"
"Not yet," Mike assured his friend. "I love this job, but I'm pushing forty, and I don't want to stay out there until my body breaks down. When I get out, I want enough health and strength to have a life, preferably one that includes running after a few kids and lots of great sex with their mother. I don't see that happening if I keep out there for another decade. I'm going to Okinawa next month for my reserve duty, and I'll be training newbies for the 4th Division. I want to see if I'm any good at teaching. If I am, then I might get out within the next five years. If I should find the woman of my dreams, maybe I'll retire sooner. I haven't set a date or anything; I'm just trying to get an idea of what my options are."
"Who'd be crazy enough to marry you?" G. scoffed. He dodged Mike's hand and grew serious. "It sounds like you've been thinking about this a long time."
Mike stood and cleared the bowls and mugs from the counter. "You died twice on that operating table you know," he said running his fingers through his shaggy hair. "We really thought we might lose you. It made me think about how quickly this life can kill. I accept it, but what happens if it doesn't kill you and you can't play the game anymore? I'm not ready to get out just yet, but I don't want to be lost if I beat the odds."
G. felt a hard lump form in his throat. "Do guys like us get a happy ending, Mike?"
"I don't know, my friend," he replied, shaking his head. "I've just decided to hope for the best and expect the worst."
A bitter smile grew on G's face. "If my dream partner should haunt your sleep don't let him call you an, 'ice-blooded snake.' It isn't a pleasant experience."
"The day Sam makes an appearance in my dreams is the day I eat a bullet!" Mike growled. "G, do you ever dream about women? I mean we both know the rumors about you being a natural monk are bogus, you must dream about sex sometimes."
"Does sex with my ex-wife that ends with her knifing me in the heart count?" G. asked, turning his face away.
"If I ever run into that one I may shoot her for you," Mike spat in disgust.
"Oh well, I prefer it to the one where I walk out on Kristin when she's screaming at me not to leave her and the baby," he whispered.
A sick feeling of dread coiled in Mike's gut. "You don't think she lied about the boy being yours, do you?"
"I know she'd lie to me about the boy. I also know Hetty would never let her get away with it!"
"You need a real vacation, one that doesn't include a hospital visit," Mike said patting him on the shoulder.
His lips curled into a wicked grin. "Hospitals do have nurses."
"Hetty makes sure they're all old enough to be your mother."
"You're such a jackass!" G. exclaimed trying not to laugh.
"It's the truth!" Mike retorted, putting his hand over his heart in feigned outrage. Then he grew serious again. "You know Sam thinks of you like his own flesh and blood. Yeah, he has an 'apple pie and mom' outlook on life, but that's why he's the right partner for you. He'd never let the fact you drive him nuts interfere with the team."
He shrugged. "It won't change, I know that. I love Sam, but sometimes I get so angry. I'm sick of being treated like I can be changed. I'm not a toaster, and he can't fix me." He shook his head and yawned. "I can't even fix myself."
Mike stretched his back, weariness seeping back into his blood. "Who says you need to be fixed?"
"Mike, you're ready to fall flat on your face. You've never sat up coddling me before, and you don't have to now," he groaned.
"I'm not coddling you. In fact, I'll give it to you straight; you are cold. Guess what, so am I, and so is our beloved Boss Lady. People like us dip our hearts in liquid nitrogen to do our jobs and then let them shatter, thaw, and put them back together again." Mike answered with all the finesse of a man wielding a sledgehammer.
"Hetty was going to leave! Nothing says ice cold like trying to resign twice because you've lost an agent," G. snarled.
"That's my point! Tell me something… from the moment you all realized Dom was taken, did Hetty lose her composure? Did she let her heart get in the way of her head? Did she sit around and think of what they were doing to the kid? Did she let herself drown in guilt?" Seeing that his friend had decided to put up his walls and avoid his eyes, he slammed his hand on the counter. "Answer me, G.! What did Hetty do?"
G. bolted up and took a defensive stance. "Do that again and I might break your neck!"
"What did she do?" Mike pushed, ignoring the threat.
He sat back in the chair and his entire body went limp. "She did her job," he whispered. "She called in every favor she had, got us what we needed, and called both the Defense Ministers of the UK and France 'flaccid bureaucrats'. She never stopped, she never gave up, but she never let her heart overrule her head."
"What did you do, G.?" Mike continued, in a gentler tone.
The words came out haltingly and strained, but eventually G. replied. "I did my job. I waited for all the reliable, solid, Intel we could get. I took each step as it came. I didn't jump at every hunch or guess. I trusted in my team to do their jobs. I did everything I could to bring Dom home. I just couldn't stop him from throwing himself in front of Sam to save him."
Mike gasped. "Dom took a bullet for Sam?"
"Dom took an entire magazine for Sam!" G. hissed through clenched teeth. "He was a great kid. Kensi and I were out-of-range and the guy came up right behind Sam. I don't even think Sam knows what happened. I can't tell him either."
"Why not?" Mike growled.
G's eyes grew hard and cold once more and emotion left his voice. "Sam already believes he's responsible for all this by not being strict enough in his training. I honestly think he'd crack if he knew right now. I know he's seeing Nate, I hope he'll figure it out on his own. Everything is in my report, so Nate and Hetty know. I just can't be the one to do it."
Mike took a deep breath to process what he'd just been told. "Why can't it be you?"
"Because if I tell him Sam will look at it as me being me, not as a fact," G. sighed.
Mike gently placed his hand on his best friend's shoulder. "There's nothing wrong with being you."
"Maybe not for me, maybe not for you, and definitely not for Hetty, because she would've been bored within a week if I hadn't gotten ahold of that resignation," G. acknowledged. "But right now, in this situation, being me isn't what's good for my partner."
"Come on, my friend. We need rest, and you need to accept that the only wrong way to grieve is to hurt yourself or others. Everyone - you, Sam, Hetty, Kensi, Eric, and all of us at OSP - grieve for Dom. I admit I didn't know him much, but all of us who choose this job mourn him in different ways," Mike said, slapping G. on the back.
G. stood up and stretched, trying to relieve some of the stiffness in his weary body. "I just wish my way could be different sometimes."
"Hey, you could be like me," Mike chuckled. "If you got killed, I'd drink three shots of the most expensive Vodka Hetty could get her claws on, take a shower, and go to bed."
G. felt warmth build in his chest. He couldn't think of a better way to be mourned. After all, he'd be dead and beyond helping. He didn't want the few people he loved to be burdened with something they couldn't change. "Just promise me that you'll help Hetty and the team, catch whoever takes me out."
"Sam will have to fight me to get the shot," Mike swore.
"No," G. whispered. "I want Hetty and Gibbs to handle that. They're the ones with the largest right over me now. If Jenny were alive, I'd say let her and Hetty handle it, but she's dead. Gibbs will have to take care of it. Promise me you'll make sure my team doesn't go off the deep end."
"Okay, but you promise me that if I go first you'll make sure whoever does it rots in the deepest hole you can come up with. You'll probably need Hetty's help with that, but she'll do it." A desperate look came to his eyes. "Don't let Rose cut me open if you can help it. I realize I might not get buried quickly, but I don't want to be cut open if I don't have to be."
G. put both his hands on Mike's shoulders. "You have my word. Is there anything else?"
Mike took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "I have nobody left to sit Shiva for me. If you think you can do it, I'd appreciate it."
A hard lump formed in Callen's throat, his chest tightened, and his eyes stung. "Of course I will," he assured.
"Anything you want me to take care of, or do Hetty and Gibbs have a plan?"
"I'm a simple guy. I want to be cremated and taken to my secret place."
Mike rolled his eyes and let out a long-suffering sigh. "You do realize that nobody knows your secret place, so that's a really crappy plan."
"Au contraire, two people know my secret spot. Not only that, but you wouldn't be able to guess one of them," G. replied with a cocky grin.
"Yeah, yeah, keep your secrets. We have to be at work at 0900, which means I can get five more hours of sleep. I don't care what you do, but I'm going to bed."
Mike went back to bed and G. decided to browse the bookshelves. Mike had an impressive collection of books. He considered himself the world's biggest Clive Cussler fan and had accumulated a first addition copy of every book the man had written. G. liked a good adventure story every now and then, and Juan Cabrillo and "The Oregon Files" always reminded him of OSP. He found the latest novel and sat down on the couch. His sheets had another ten minutes in the washer and then an hour in the dryer. He sighed and opened the book, hoping this time Juan would once again be riding a fantastic motorcycle. Time passed quickly, and before he knew it, the sheets were dry and he'd read the first five chapters. He took the sheets out of the dryer before they cooled and wrinkled. Then he remade the bed with perfect corners, on which a quarter could bounce six inches high. Finally, with the bed taken care of, he went back to the couch to keep reading. His regular sleep pattern returned without any more night terrors.
The next morning, Mike padded softly into the kitchen to start his coffee. He sighed passing the guest room, seeing the bed perfectly made and undisturbed. He'd never understand why his friend rarely slept in a bed. Even when they lived together on the boat, or when G. had an apartment or a hotel room, he rarely slept in a bed. As the coffee maker whirred and percolated, he walked slowly into the living room, not wanting to face the barrel of a gun again. He found his friend sprawled out in every direction on the soft leather couch.
"No wonder he's always stiff and popping grunt candy," he muttered. Still, he held out some slight hope that G. found rest at some point.
Having the unenviable task of waking him up twice in less than twelve hours might not be his idea of a good time, but at least he now had a safer method. Turning to his radio, he turned the volume to its maximum setting and Nickelback blasted from his premium sound-system. G. bolted up from the couch and reached for his gun, but didn't find it. "Nice wakeup call, Jackass!" he groaned.
"You left your gun on the counter," Mike yelled over the music but made no move to turn it down.
Instead, he walked heavily back to the kitchen, eager for his first jolt of caffeine for the day. G. followed hot on his heels, smelling the coffee. "When We Stand Together" began to play and the two unconsciously sang together. Mike didn't have a strong voice, but he stayed on key. G's monthly experience with Karaoke and a naturally pleasing voice made his harmonies work well. "Do you think we'd take a lot of flak if it became knowledge that we do this sometimes?" G. asked after the song finished.
Mike took a big gulp of hot coffee and a moan of pleasure escaped his throat. "Well, you and I aren't exactly headlines at the proverbial water cooler, and people know we used to room together. Why? Are you scared they'd start saying we're 'more than friends'?"
G. nearly choked on his coffee, and shot Mike a dirty look. "Like I'd be caught dead with anyone that has your chicken legs!" he scoffed. "I don't know, I guess I'm still shaken up. I don't do vulnerable well."
"I don't know any man who does. That's why I love women so much!" Mike replied with a grin. "Relax, you'll be back to normal soon, and I don't want what I do outside work to be public knowledge any more than you do. My family is my own, and that includes you. As for our love lives, I have no issues being public with mine. Dates don't mean much to me until I find 'the one.' You don't have one, but nobody has the right to speculate on it. Hetty wouldn't tolerate any malicious gossip about her golden boy anyway. I think we're safe."
"I guess I just don't want to deal with Sam asking me, 'why didn't you stay with us, G.? I'm your partner. Dom was a member of our team, not Renko's.' I can't deal with it right now, Hetty needs me to keep it together for her."
Mike felt a great deal of empathy and sadness for the soft-hearted SEAL, but they'd never been close. Their prior careers being members of elite and close-knit Special Forces units gave him a keen insight into what the other man felt losing his trainee. The foster child inside of him hurt more for Callen. "Forget that, the odds of him finding out are nil. What do you want for breakfast?"
"Oh no, you get dressed, Major!" G. ordered. "I'm treating you to breakfast."
Mike shook his head in horror. "G., no offense, but there is no way I'll let you trash my kitchen this morning!"
Callen took the final gulp of his coffee, rinsed out the mug, and put it in the dishwasher. He turned to Mike and breathed a long sigh. "I wanted to treat you to a new waffle place that serves authentic, traditional Belgian waffles, but if you prefer oatmeal this morning I guess I'll go myself."
Mike paused, spooning sugar into his second cup. "Are you saying they have the Liege waffles with the pearl sugar?"
"They do indeed," G. replied, with a wide smile. "I'm still willing to pay if you want to go."
Mike pushed his mug toward G. "Put this in a thermos and I'll be ready in five!" he yelled, running to his room.
G. did as asked merely because his friend spent insane amounts of money on his regular coffee. In fact, Mike felt as passionately about coffee as Hetty felt about tea. The child inside of Callen, who spent the most formative years of his life in desperate want, couldn't conceive of wasting such expensive coffee. In all truth, he couldn't conceive of spending large amounts of money on anything, not even a home of his own. He sweetened the coffee and sealed the thermos. His next tasks: to gather his clean laundry, change, and pack. He completed them quickly, emerging just as Mike retrieved his coffee and keys.
"Thanks for letting me crash with you," G. said as they left the apartment.
"You're a super house guest, so it's no trouble. It reminded me of the boat. So where is this magical place?"
"About twenty minutes from here. Let me drive there, and you can drive to work."
Every once in a great while, the traffic gods smiled on LA, and the lights turned green before gridlock occurred. People celebrated a universal pleasant morning by courteous driving, and one could drive to a destination fifteen minutes away and arrive in twenty. G. pulled into a shopping center parking lot and spent ten minutes finding a good spot. "We're late; I didn't think I'd oversleep. The line is long if you don't get here when the doors open."
"How did you find this one?" Mike asked, slipping on his sunglasses while stepping out of the car.
"I went for a drive last month, and somehow I ended up here looking for a Starbucks. I wasn't expecting an incredible Belgian/Viennese bakery."
The two men took their place at the end of a line that moved slowly but constantly, finally allowing them to find a table in the tiny shop. A tiny elderly lady and a tall, bronzed Valley Girl of indefinable age appeared to be the only staff in the front. Standing behind a counter full of culinary wonders, they distributed the confections, laughing with regulars and patiently helping first timers make choices. The whole atmosphere made people smile and act just a little kinder. The crowd thinned out in just a few minutes, allowing Miss Valley Girl to come to their table.
Mike's eyes widened and he felt his mouth go dry when he saw that Miss Valley Girl kept an exceptional pair of legs hidden behind the counter. "Yeah, you come here for the waffles!" he accused.
"I really do," G. answered, rolling his eyes.
Before Mike could answer, the young woman greeted them. "Well, what-do-you-know! This is the fifth time, you qualify as a regular now," she said, smiling at Callen.
G. turned his chair out slightly to face her, leaned back, and lifted his left leg so that his heel rested on his knee. He smiled the charming grin that Hetty said could melt butter, which got him out of trouble on the rare times he upset Kensi. "Does that mean I get a discount if I bring converts?"
Miss Valley Girl returned a heart-melting smile and lowered her eyelids to gaze at him through her eyelashes. "Maybe I can arrange something," she replied, with a slow flirty tone. "It all depends if your friend becomes a regular too," she added, tossing Mike a quick wink over her shoulder.
Feeling his competitive instincts start surging Mike spoke in his most charming and warm tone. "I'd love to! But, how can I decide that until I taste something?"
G. bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. Mike might pester him about a lack of feminine companionship and sex, but he couldn't stand it if a girl came on to him when they were together. For all his nagging, Mike couldn't bear not being the one who got the phone number. Miss Valley Girl (whom he knew as Jill) turned to size up her new potential suitor. She ran her bright hazel eyes over the new customer quickly, liking what she saw, but not enough to give him all of her attention just yet.
"I hate it when the customer is right," she sighed, pouting for Callen.
"It has to happen every once in a while," he replied with a bit of false sympathy. It wasn't enough to wreck Mike's plans, but enough to hold on until he didn't want to anymore.
"I suppose that's true," she acknowledged with the look of supreme self-sacrifice. "I'll take a risk and guess you want your usual stack of Brussels Waffles, with the blackberry jam on the side, and extra powdered sugar."
"You guess right," he confirmed with a wink.
She giggled and turned to Mike. "Hello, I'm Jill and I'm the official runner here. Do you need a menu, do you know what you want, or would you like it to be server's choice?"
Mike offered his right hand to her and when she took it he kissed the air above the back of hers as naturally as any Crown Prince. "It's a pleasure to meet you Jill, and I'm sure I'd love whatever you chose. But, you see, I haven't had a good cinnamon Liege Waffle since I was stationed in Europe ten years ago! I'd be the happiest guy on the planet if I could get five or six."
Jill stared into his grey-green eyes so full of sincerity that her heart pinched. She'd been sending her mysterious blue-eyed customer signals for weeks, yet while he didn't reject her he hadn't asked her out either. His friend wasn't really her type at all, but he seemed nice and obviously interested. She couldn't let herself give up on Mr. Blue Eyes quite yet, but she wouldn't turn this new opportunity down either. "You'll be back there, just as soon as I get you a plate. Mr.—" She trailed off, leaving the question open.
"Just call me Mike," he answered. He winked and grinned, knowing that he now had a decent opening.
"Hot waffles coming right up, gentleman. What would you like to drink?"
"Two large orange juices, please," G. answered.
"I'll be right back," Jill assured, putting an extra sway to hips as she walked away.
Mike waited until she couldn't hear them to kick his best friend. "Why didn't you tell me about this place before?" he growled in Polish, reasonably sure that this conversation would remain private.
G. forced himself not to kick him back. "You were on a Mexican fishing boat until last night," he replied reasonably in English, hoping Mike would drop it.
"Let's cut the crap," Mike refused to yield, continuing in Polish. "Has she given you her phone number yet?"
"No," G. sighed, adopting his friend's language of choice.
"I don't believe you! It's a repeat of Treasury Barbie. Okay, if you're not interested, I have a bet to make."
G. sat straight again, intrigued. A bet between them always had exciting results, win or lose. "I'm listening."
Mike's eyes glittered in anticipation. "Obviously the very attractive Miss Jill wants you to make the first move. Since we both know you've never made the first move in your life, let's see if we can push her into making one of her own."
A sharp pain of worry stabbed his gut momentarily. Whatever Mike's intent, it had potential catastrophe flashing in neon. "Mike, I'm not doing anything that might screw around with her feelings. She's an ordinary woman, not a mark. Besides, I don't want to lose a good breakfast spot."
"Relax, I'm not suggesting we do anything to hurt her!" Mike snapped, slightly miffed that G. would worry that he'd ever do that on 'off time.' "All I'm saying is that you could drop your regular hermit crab charm, we invite her to sit and have a cup of coffee while we eat, and flirt a bit. Whoever gets her number when we leave wins."
When he thought about it, G. had to admit Mike had a point. He certainly thought Jill was attractive, and he could even see himself enjoying a drink with her. Still, he didn't have a steady place to crash and absolutely no interest in a one-night-thing while he and his team healed from their recent tragedy. He hadn't even bothered to come up with a decent story to explain the five bullet scars from his last shooting. On the flip side of the coin, he could be killed later today and taking a moment to enjoy being alive might be good for him. "Terms?"
Mike nearly shouted in victory. "If I win, ten bucks and you square me with Hetty if I get blood on her wardrobe."
"Make it twenty, and if I win you make me Bubby's stuffed cabbage."
"Deal!" They sealed the bet with a handshake just as Jill returned with their food.
"Here we are, gentleman. The best waffles in the country as my ever expanding thighs will confidently attest."
While she served G. she leaned in a bit closer and a curl of her light brown hair brushed his temple. Yet another reason why he hesitated. Every time he got tangled up with a romantically aggressive woman, the ending resembled nuclear war. However, a bet was a bet, and he never welched. "Now that the morning rush is over, would you get fired if you had coffee with us?" he asked, certain his 'hermit charm' had faded away.
Mike watched as Jill's bright hazel eyes light up at the invitation. In the privacy of his own thoughts he actually hoped his friend might get the date. Every true friend wants to see another enjoy life and have happiness. G. had contentment and even allowed himself moments of mirth, but he experienced precious little true joy. Still, a bet is a bet, and he simply didn't lose well. "We'll pay for the coffee, if that's what it takes," he offered with a rakish grin.
"That's not necessary. I own this place!" A smug smile formed on her lips seeing the surprise on the men's faces. "My brother-in-law runs the kitchen, my grandmother over there," she said gesturing to the counter, "is in charge of the case and quality control. I, as I said before, am the runner, the book keeper, and I frost the base of our cakes. Right now, we have a lull before we gear up for the lunch crowd. Just let me get a snack, and eat your breakfast before it gets cold!"
"You are without a doubt, the biggest Idiot Squid I've ever met!" Mike hissed. "Will you please explain to me why you're not interested?"
Jill returned with a piece of Apfelstrudel and a glass of milk. "So, are you two related or what?" She asked hoping the, 'or what' didn't wreck any chances with Mr. Mysterious Blue Eyes.
"This guy's my best friend," Mike answered quickly. "He's saved my hide more than once, so I keep him around."
G. shifted into a more relaxed posture, keeping a warm grin on his lips. "I'd say we're just two guys stuck with each other. But, we're really boring. Let's talk about you."
Mike grinned at the challenge he saw in G's eyes. 'Game on,' he thought.
A half hour later, they left the bakery laden down with both lunch and dessert. G. bought a box of Belgian chocolates for to comfort Kensi and a mini Sachertorte for Hetty as part apology for butting in her life and part I love you gift. They each loaded their plunder into the car, and G. tossed the keys to Mike. "Okay," Mike said as soon as they shut their doors. "She wrote something on the back of your receipt, and passed me a napkin. Let's see what happens…"
They each pulled out their scraps of paper, and held them out. G. burst into hysterical laughter reading the identical messages. 'Sorry, guys but I just can't bust up such a beautiful bromance! Even if I could, I can't choose between you both. Mr. Mysterious Blue Eyes is exactly my type, but you Mr. Mike are too good of a time to resist! Thanks for a great morning! Free waffles for life!' "Well, I guess we're both too good at this!"
Mike growled and sped out of the parking lot. He hated losing, but a tie made him crazy; to lose and tie at the same time meant the ultimate humiliation. "What do you want to do about the bet?" he moaned.
"I give you twenty bucks, and square you with Hetty, you'll make me stuffed cabbage. We both lost so we both pay up," G. replied patting Mike on the shoulder.
"I hate you!" Mike snapped. He didn't really mean it of course, but it irked him to lose when he knew G. held back. To make things worse, G. holding back had more charm and humor than just about anyone he knew. Any woman would be blessed to have a guy like him in her life, and the idiot refused to see it! He could cheerfully wring his neck.
"Hey, we just got free waffles for life. Stop sulking, Jackass!" G. scolded.
He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "I hate ties!"
"Don't worry," G. soothed. "Next time I find a great bakery with a charming owner, I promise you can have her number." He laughed as Mike cursed, and blasted the radio.
When they pulled into work, they only saw Hetty's car in the lot. "Where is everyone?" Mike asked. "It's 0830, usually the tech squad is in."
"Hetty said something about offering an optional half-day because it's Friday, and the funeral was on Monday," G. answered, trying to not be glad his partner had taken the offer.
"You mean we could've slept in!
Once inside, they labeled and stored their lunch. Mike took off to his corner to complete his paperwork, and G. left Kensi's chocolates on her desk. He didn't see Hetty in her office and assumed she'd be climbing the wall. She usually did when stressed. He placed the box with the mini Sachertorte on her desk and grabbed a pencil and a post it note. 'If you can't be strong right now, lean on me,' he wrote in Russian, and stuck it on the top of the box. Walking back to his desk he heard Hetty's familiar quick footsteps approaching. Hetty carefully prepared her first pot of tea for the day, and then turned her attention to the box on her desk. G. couldn't see her face clearly from his angle, but he saw her carefully put the note in her desk and open the cake. Satisfied his message had been accepted, he got to work for real.
Twenty minutes later, Mike sat in Hetty's office chiding her for not mentioning the half-day, and bragging that he'd gotten his expense report in early. G. ruthlessly cut through the mountains of paper on his desk with brutal efficiency, so engrossed in his task he didn't here Sam enter. "Good morning, G." the other man said nudging his seat.
"Hey, Sam, just trying to get this done for the weekend." After the nightmares the previous night, he felt jumpy.
"I see Renko's back," Sam said, jerking his head toward Hetty's office.
"Yep." G. didn't look, up focused on his work.
Sam sighed and sat in his own chair. "What's with the cold shoulder?"
G. hoped he didn't flinch at the words. "No cold shoulder, just want this done."
"Feels pretty icy to me," Sam snapped.
Before G. could even think of what to say, Mike's voice burst in. "Sam! Thank God you finally got here; I'm so desperate to spar with someone that I could cry. I haven't had a good workout since the last time I pounded you into a mat."
"Go!" G. ordered. "We don't have a case, and if you don't, I'll have to do it later, and I don't want to crush his spirit."
"We'll see who pounds who into the mat!" Sam said darkly, relishing the chance to hit something that hit back. "Call me if we get a case."
An hour later they had a case, the DOD had called in a debt Hetty owed the Director for his non-help in getting Dom back. Sam's earlier rage had cooled some after sparing with a Force Recon vet and he favored his right side while walking. In order to appease the DOD, he and G. were now working surveillance on the pier in Venice Beach. By the time dusk settled the DOD had their man, and they could go home. Sam uncharacteristically wanted to leave without food.
"Come on, Sam you haven't eaten all day!" G. objected. He'd offered to share his lunch with his partner to no avail. He understood grief killed appetite, but it still worried him.
"Fine!" Sam grumbled. "I'll get a pretzel from the cart over there. What do you want?"
"Two soft pretzels, extra salt, and hot mustard."
G. approached the kid surrounded by canvases on the other side of the pier. He'd watched him all day certain he'd been the one to paint Mike's unique, 'Dogs Playing Poker' painting. "Excuse me, I know you're packing up but I wondered if I could talk to you about a commission?"
The kid smiled and bounced a little. "I always have time to talk about that! What can I do for you?"
G. smiled at the kid's enthusiasm. He pulled out his phone and pulled up a Youtube video of, 'Sheila Ki Jawani.' "If you watch this I can explain it better," he said.
Four minutes later the kid grinned at him. "I'd love to paint her in real life."
"I wish," G. replied. "I noticed you like to play with some of Warhol's techniques."
The kid shrugged. "Not my personal style, but I want to be good at everything."
"A buddy of mine is crazy about Pop Art. I'm hoping you could do something with her, like Warhol did with Marilyn Monroe."
"Not a problem," the kid assured him. "How big do you want the canvas?"
"How long would a 24X24 canvas take?"
"Three weeks if I use oil, longer if I use pastels, shorter if I use acrylics."
"I'd like it done in oils," G. answered. "How much?"
"$200 for a Warhol, more depending on the frame you want."
"Deal," G. accepted shaking the kid's hand. "I'll meet you here in three weeks, same time."
When he returned to the car Sam handed him his hot pretzels. "Didn't think you were an art lover, G."
G. grinned, "Our partnership's still young, Sam. You'll learn."