A/N: I know I am overdue with an update for this one. But I've taken a lot of pride in this particular story (hence the length of the chapters) and since it is a collaboration piece with COL I wanted to be sure everything was right. But as a reward, there's a bit of Cherri in here for you. Oh and there are a couple of guest appearances too. ;).

Dwayne Pride was snoring quite loudly when peel of his cell phone alarm pulled him from the throws of sleep apnea, startling him awake. His heart was pounding like a race horse after the Kentucky Derby. He looked at the clock bewildered, it was a little after four a.m. Calming himself he reached for the phone, hitting the speed dial for LaSalle.

They had a plane to catch.

Pride had been reluctant to leave his vulnerable friend alone but after more than a week, of being the younger man's constant companion he could find no reason to keep coddling him, gauging his every move.

The man needed to start standing on his own again.

Seemingly, Chris had reached a middle ground to where he could tolerate being around people and conversing, not to the point where he was comfortable talking to a complete stranger and acting like they were a friend, but he was making progress.

During the day…

Nighttime was a whole different ballgame.


Chris LaSalle started awake, shouting out at the sound of the cell phone that had jolted him awake from another night terror. Not a dream, a horrifying vision of twisted messed up violating actions that left him trembling and sick at his stomach.

Sitting up, he hugged his knees, breathing hard. His entire body was shaking.

The phone continued to sing its programmed chime. It was Pride, without thinking he reached for it and fired the hapless device into the wall. The action had nothing to do with Pride but everything to do with the nightmare. There seemed to be no escape.

He knew he should have answered, because now his friend, his best friend, would be here in less than ten minutes with sirens blaring.

Chris pulled himself together, raking a hand through his hair before getting up off of the couch and making his way to where the phone now lay, silent on the floor.

Great, the screen was shattered. His new cell phone that he had less than a week was officially dead and so was he.

Or at least he wished he was. The dreams, night terrors were literally more than he could handle. Sometimes he just wished-

Anger flashed hot and he put his fist into the brick wall that had murdered the cell phone.

/Shit!/ That wasn't smart he thought wondering if he'd managed to break his hand. Well, if he had he wouldn't be subject to the reason the King had been calling.

But then again, he'd have to explain why his phone was out commission and why his hand hurt so much.

Plan B. Suck it up, lie to King.

When Pride arrived calling out his full given name, Chris made sure he was in the shower, an easy excuse for explaining why he hadn't been able to answer the phone.

His only mistake he'd forgotten to dispose of the phone.

"You wanna tell me what this is all about?" Pride asked, picking up the deceased mobile device from the counter when his young friend emerged dressed in his trademark black t-shirt and brown cargo pants.

"Not really"

"Christopher-"

"Bad Dream," Chris replied quickly.

Pride pursed his lips, frowning. He knew better than to push, especially if it had something to do with a nightmarish flashback. His surrogate was very tight lipped and tended to run a short fuse when questioned.

"Ok, then, let's go pick up, Brody and head for the airport."


"King, is this this really necessary?"

"It'll be good for you, test yer reflexes," Pride quipped.

Chris LaSalle pursed his lips into a pronounced scowl as they entered the NCIS training facility in Falls Church, Virginia. As part of Pride's agreement with Director Vance he needed to pass a series of tests in order to be able to return to the field.

First on the list: rookie qualifications.

Not even Percy had been made to go through this what with her federal agency transfer. Come to think of it, he hadn't either when he had hired on straight out of Vice. The field experience he'd received had been more than enough to cover the hands on and tactical requirements for the job. It was a bit embarrassing to think he now had to go through a series of props and dummy villains to earn his way back to his service weapon and ultimate place back on the team.

You would think someone who had been kidnapped and tortured would deserve a little slack.

"This is kid stuff, you got this," Brody's hand fell to his shoulder, awaking the tense muscle that lay underneath the thin dark Henley. Though he'd improved a lot on his facial features and overall demeanor since that day in the morgue, his anxiety over new situations and people still remained at an all-time high.

He'd be fine one minute and then suddenly be shaking like a wet dog in the middle of winter with no clue as to what had set him off. He tried hard to hone in on things that could be possible triggers such as pitch black darkness, the clock and taste and smell of licorice but some things were just undetectable.

He wished he could say, Brody's hand on his flesh felt comforting but it didn't. And that made him feel a bit guilty. Merri had been so good and gentle towards him, never questioning about what had taken place at the hospital when he'd been all knotted up inside, acting like someone akin to a vegetable.

God, help him he absolutely loved her for that. Sure there were times when he caught her still looking at him with sympathetic eyes but for the most part she and Pride treated him the same as they always had (if you didn't count the fact that one of them was constantly checking up on him to see if he was still breathing).

"Pride, Brody, LaSalle." The corners of Abigail Borin's mouth twitched as she stood behind the check-in table, manning a computer. It was a rarity that she ever smiled, but today was an unusually happy day for the Coast Guard Special Agent.

Of course, every NCIS agent that Chris had ever met was probably here along with their mentees who had probably only heard stories about him.

Abigail's face changed as she gazed at her computer screen. "LaSalle, I don't see your name on the facilitator's list. Did you just come along for the ride?"

"I came for the coffee," Chris said, trying to feign a grin before doing a 180 and heading for the refreshment table.

"I'll go with him." Brody sighed quietly before Pride could give her a subtle look.

When he was certain they were out of earshot, Pride leaned over, whispering softly with a slight grin. "You'll find his name on the other list."

The other list?

Abigail's eyes narrowed, her mind processing the thought. Why would LaSalle's name be on the rookie list? "Who'd he piss off to have to go through that?"

"Long story," Pride answered before engaging in political pleasantries with a few longtime associates.

Across the room, Brody watched her partner pick up a Styrofoam cup and made a mental note that his hand had started to shake. Quickly, she scanned the room for any sort of ticking device. It didn't really matter if it was in the room she concluded when she failed to find the source, Chris could probably hear one ticking in the next building. Since he'd come home he'd acquired an acute perception for things that ticked and certain smells. She shuddered to think what would happen the first time they encounter a bomb once Chris was cleared back to regular duty.

"Here let me get it for you." She said, reaching for the cup. Automatically, her partner recoiled, drawing back.

"I can git mi' own coffee just fine thanks."

"Of course you can." Brody pursed her lips, making a face as he shoved his cup under the coffee dispenser. His hand was still trembling it was all she could do to contain herself.

Whew…

Success.

After they'd had their fill of caffeine and glazed donuts, Brody walked with him to the staging area where he would suit up and wait for his name to be called.

Reaching for his backpack, she pulled out his Kevlar and started to work the straps until she felt his steely gaze boring into her back.

"I can put my own Kevlar on too."

"Right, I was just making sure it wasn't defective," Ok, bad excuse. Inadvertently, she had been trying to coddle him. She wanted so badly for him to be himself again that she couldn't control herself.

"Because the dummy in there is going to hit me with armor piercing rounds, am I correct?" LaSalle quipped sardonically. The test was the equivalent to a round of laser tag.

"Something like that." Brody grinned largely at him, earning an eye roll.

God this was getting awkward.

"I'm not a rookie." Nope he was just a guy on the edge of a complete nervous breakdown. Truth was he had shattered into a million Lego bricks and was desperately waiting for someone to put him back together again.

"Definitely not," Brody nodded, earning another curt look.

"Look, I know yer just tryin' tuh help, but like you said, I've got this."

"Yeah," Brody pulled her lips into a thin line, giving him a look. "And your Kevlar's on backwards." Quickly, she turned on one heel, leaving him to deal with his absentminded mistake as his name was called.

Los Angeles based Agent and Retired Senior Chief, Sam Hanna, stood at the entrance to the obstacle course, issuing orders. "Agent LaSalle you have 3 minutes to clear the area and apprehend the suspect (a dummy agent). You will be scored on your defensive skills as well as your observational skills and tactfulness with your weapon.

"Any questions?"

"No, sir"

"Good luck."

The green light came on and Chris entered what appeared to the hull of a ship. He felt his hands start to perspire as the door closed behind him. But was there no reason for it. Nothing in the hull of the mock ship could remind him of the long dismal hours he'd spent chained up waiting like a defenseless animal about to be slaughtered.

Could it?

He sucked in a breath, pushing unpleasant memories to the back of his mind.

Training his weapon, he started down a narrow hallway canvassing the area as he went along.

So far so good.

Ten seconds went by and side door opened with an armed perpetrator dressed in all black with the cliché ski mask, jumping out. Automatically, LaSalle's reflexes when into high gear, allowing him to perform what came naturally, years of deer and quail hunting with an overbearing father taught him to shoot quickly.

Target #1 defeated.


Absently, Brody began to pick at her cuticles. She couldn't help but worry for Chris. Though she didn't know any of the details of his time in captivity, she had vivid daydreams of what he had possibly gone through, detailing the abuse until it made her sick to her stomach.

"Somethin' the matter Brody?" Pride asked, pulling a near empty cup to his lips.

Instantly, she clenched her fists, inwardly berating herself for allowing herself to engage in an annoying habit.

"It just seems like a long a three minutes."

"He's fine," Pride said, with hint of confidence. For the past week he and Chris had been running scenarios, training in various parts of the city along with regular trips to the shooting range. There was no reason for him to suspect that his young friend's physical ability to do his job was at any kind of risk.

Emotionally, however, that was a different case.

"I'm going to get more coffee. You want some?" Pride asked, before making his way across the room to find Agent Hanna.

"How'd my boy do?"

Sam grinned as he reached into his pocket and pulled out Chris' score card. "Ninety-eight, percent. He would have had a perfect score; except for he took a random shot at a clock."

Pride couldn't help but grin back at the agent. "Make sure agent Borin enters that correctly and sends it off to Director Vance."

"We'll do, Pride."

Pride purposely stood near the staging area waiting until he saw his young friend exit, hefting his gear bag over one shoulder.

"See what did I tell ya, flying colors"

Chris suppressed a grin as Pride slapped him on the back. A small victory had been waged. "Can I have my gun back now?"

"Why the rush," Pride answered looking away. In the deepest part of his mind, he still felt that Chris wasn't ready for that. There were still too many things that set off warning signals to potential self-harm.

"The murder rate in New Orleans is at an all-time high," Chris countered casually.

"Murder rate's always been high," Pride disputed.

"That's why I need my gun." Chris quipped watching his friend's face change.

"Ya need to start talking to your therapist first."

Chris stopped dead in his tracks, a rather miffed expression on his face. As prescribed, he saw his agency appointed therapist every week. She was a real nice lady, cute too.

He had conversations with her, he did. But he purposely kept them at surface level, preferring to keep all of the truly horrific stuff buried down deep. Evidently, Pride had knowledge to this.

"Ya can't be talking to her, King."

"Didn't say I had been I just know you. You clam up and hold everything inside and it's not going to work this time." Pride clipped, "If ya want your job back, it's gotta be more than just appearance sake."

Chris clenched his jaw, preferring to keep any come back behind sealed lips. Didn't Pride understand if he revealed the things that Monster had done, they'd lock him up in a padded room and throw away the key? There would be no way any ethical, therapist would ever clear him to work the streets. Sheer fear of every violent crime he was sure to encounter turning into some sort of emotional trigger for one.

Well, so much for any kind of victory, Pride had just taken that away with the sharp lash of his tongue.


On the plane ride home, LaSalle sat staring pensively out the window, his mind lost in a whirlwind of thoughts; Pride, the monster, his therapist. Suddenly, being confined to a small seat with a seatbelt over his lap really started to bother him.

A Phantom Restraint?

Unconsciously, he started to squirm until rational thought seeped in commanding his hand to release the metal buckle, prompting a huge sigh.

"You did good work out there today," Brody's hand on his knee made him jump.

In return, he gave her doubtful half-smile to her patronizing comment. He knew she didn't mean for it to sound that way, but that was the way he took it. Today had not been work; it had just been another facet of their coddling. Give the crazy, broken one, something easy to do, make him feel good about himself.

Little did they know, it was having the complete opposite effect. He knew his skills as an L.E.O. were top notch, that wasn't the problem.

"You're going to get there; it's just going to take some time." Her hand was still on his knee and now she was squeezing it. He supposed that was ok right up until the monster started to creep back in. Gently, he took her hand, depositing it back into her lap.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, remorse written on her face.

"It's ok, I just have reactions to bein' touched sometimes"

"Flashbacks?" Merri frowned.

"Yeah," he said, feeling the need to quench dry his throat.

"Ok," she sighed, "No touching unless I have your permission."

"And no coddling either." LaSalle added, watching her smile.

"You got it, from now on you can go to Starbucks and get your own Spiced Latte."

"Well, maybe a little coddlin' every now and then wouldn't be so bad," he grinned nudging her with his elbow.

"So what do you say to some dinner? There's this new place in the Garden District I've been dying to try," Merri said, knowing that he hadn't been out any place socially since before the abduction. She watched his brow furrow, which surprised her somewhat. Chris LaSalle contemplating a good time with great food? "I promise to have you home by ten and if anything makes you uncomfortable we can leave."

"Well, what about Pride? His is our ride." Chris said as they both looked over to the sleeping agent in the aisle seat.

"He can come too," A huge smile crossed her lips, "What's the matter, LaSalle are you afraid to be alone with me?"

Chris dipped his head, feeling the tips of his ears grow pink. It was quite the contrary, next to Pride, Brody was just about the only other person he felt safe being around.