A/N: Hi all, sorry for the delay in getting this chapter up. I've had other life stuff prevent me from ficcing, but I finally have my free time back (for now at least). One of my distractions was my NEW NCIS:LA FAN FORUM! You may recall I was asking about forums the last time I posted. Anyway, I decided to set up my own, The OSP, and you can find the link in my profile. Please come and join! Any and all pairings, fics, fanart etc. welcome.
So... lots of angst and hurt/comfort in this chapter. I should also point out that I based this fic off a timeline I worked out from the episode 'Past Lives'. According to the ep, the undercover op where Callen used the Jason Tedrow alias must have taken place around five years earlier, and Callen and Sam already worked together at that time. So that's the time frame I've used here. But I've since rewatched earlier episodes which say that Sam and G had only worked together for three years by early season 1, so yeesh I dunno. I don't think the writers pay attention sometimes, lol. Anyway thought I'd mention it in case of confusion.
Thanks so much for the reviews and author/story adds! Hope the chapter doesn't disappoint. :)
ALIAS by Filthy Bunny
Chapter Three: Bare Bones
The following day was torture. Callen never slept a lot, but last night had been particularly restless – in the best possible way, of course, but his body was suffering for it now. After their surprise 'date' at the warehouse they had gone back to Sam's place and continued to make up for lost time. Sam's stamina had always been impressive; on this occasion it had been getting light outside before they had finally given in to sleep.
He could have coped with the tiredness and the aching if they'd been sent out to work a case. As it was, Hetty chose this of all days to bury his desk beneath a mountain of unfinished paperwork that had been building up over the last few weeks. For once, he'd actually had good reason to delay working on his reports. Like Sam, like Eric, like everyone on the team, he had been putting every spare moment into researching what had happened to Dom. But there was no point making excuses to Hetty, no matter how worthy.
"No rest for the wicked, Mr Callen," was all she had said in response to his crestfallen expression, before gliding away in that slightly sinister way of hers. He had stared balefully after her, and felt that now-familiar chill of paranoia that somehow, perhaps through some mystical sixth sense, Hetty knew everything about his private life. And last night had been rather wicked, and particularly private. It had also involved the clandestine use of Jason Tedrow's personal effects, and – far more serious – a shirt from Hetty's meticulously organised wardrobe. A shirt Sam had subsequently destroyed in the course of their fun and games. Which Hetty couldn't possibly know... But that didn't stop Callen from feeling like a schoolboy on detention.
The day dragged by hour by agonising hour. Sam and Kensi were occupied with tasks both in and out of the office, and breezed past his desk countless times. Nate seemed at a loose end, and wandered into the bullpen more than once to try and engage in Callen in conversation. After the last snarled response from Callen, he had wisely turned on his heel and made himself scarce.
The paperwork made Callen's already sluggish mind grind to a halt. He spent the morning drinking imprudent amounts of coffee in an effort to counter his tiredness, but this resulted only in an unpleasant buzzing sensation in his head and more frequent trips to the bathroom.
Around noon, Callen returned to his chair and slapped down a freshly-printed expenses report onto the woefully small 'complete' pile on Kensi's desk, which for today's purposes had become an extension of his own. He took the next bundle of papers from the larger stack in front of him and flipped through the pages. Reports from the recent bank case, and the heist they had staged in collaboration with the LAPD; Sam's report, Kensi and Renko's reports, a copy of Detective Bernhart's report, a host of other associated documents... He dropped it back onto the desktop with a sigh. The tedium made his mind wander, and today it had only one destination: the cramped back seat of his BMW, parked up in a deserted warehouse.
Callen let his eyes slide closed and rolled his head on his neck, working out some of the tension. It was useless trying to block out the night before. Particularly with the sex-laden glances Sam had been shooting him at every opportunity, usually with a knowing half-smile playing on his lips. Callen pictured those lush lips on his body, the warm tongue working against his skin, and shifted awkwardly in his seat. God, how the hell was he supposed to get through a day of desk work when his body was locked in battle between a head full of sleep and a permanent hard-on? He'd already had to make an additional trip to the men's room that morning to take care of his physical distraction; now it seemed a second visit may be in order.
There was something else gnawing at his mind, though. Something that lent a sour aftertaste to the otherwise delectable memories. As great as last night had been, it was out of character for his partner. Sam was a creature of habit, a master of strict regimen; he was hot-blooded and passionate, certainly, but also steady. Dependable. His approach to sex, like work or friendship or anything else within his sphere of existence, was energetic yet straightforward. The meticulous planning of last night's game was Sam's style; the rough 'bad cop' role play was not. It flashed up a warning sign for Callen. Observation was a key skill in their line of work, and one of the golden rules was that changes in outward behaviour flagged up changes under the surface, and foreshadowed more drastic events.
What had changed for Sam? There was the obvious worry about Dom, which seemed to be torturing Sam worse than anyone else. But he was handling that pain in his typical energetic yet straightforward fashion: by taking it out on his own body. Beating the crap out of gym equipment, running for miles at night as well as first thing in the morning. No, Sam was dealing with something else, something different. Callen thought he knew what it might be, but he backed off from thinking about it. It was a can of worms he was wary of opening.
Nevertheless, as the afternoon crawled towards evening, he did think about it. As a result his mood worsened by the hour. At six, Sam jogged downstairs from the ops centre where he had been assisting Eric with the translation of some suspect communications coming out of Yemen. Callen was standing at his desk, shuffling his remaining paperwork into more manageable piles. He heard Sam and Kensi's voices but didn't tune in. He didn't even glance up until Sam slung his bag over his shoulder and walked by Callen's desk.
"I'm heading off, G." Sam placed his hand against the small of Callen's back where no one would notice. "You coming with?" he added quietly.
Callen went on sorting his papers, frowning down at them. "No," he replied. "I still have this to finish. I'll come by later."
"Make sure you do," Sam said, stroking a little circle on Callen's back, and Callen could hear the smile in his voice.
Within the hour, Hetty left too. Callen glanced up as she paused by the bullpen to wrap a patterned scarf around her neck.
"Goodnight, Mr Callen," she said with a nod of her head. "Don't work too late. Judging by the number of empty coffee cups in your waste basket, you've already been burning the candle at both ends."
Callen smiled and bid her goodnight, then watched as she vanished into the corridor. Once she was safely out of the building, and Callen had heard her car roar out of its parking spot, he went to the records room and returned Jason Tedrow's wallet and watch to their steel box. He had planned to do this much earlier in the day, but had never found a moment when he could be sure Hetty's eagle eye was not upon him. He secured the box away with a strong sense of relief that was caused by more than just successfully avoiding Hetty. He was glad to see the Tedrow alias shelved again. Maybe for good this time.
He returned to his desk heavy-hearted. Normally he would have been falling over himself to get out of work and end the day's pen-pushing, especially when it meant getting Sam all to himself, but he found himself stalling again, putting off his departure until he had finished this one last form; now this one. All he wanted to do was eat, shower and have slow, sleepy sex before crashing out for the night. In reality there was likely to be an uncomfortable, perhaps painful conversation about things he would love to avoid but knew he could not.
Finally the anticipation of that conversation became worse than just getting it over with, so he got up, stretched, and delivered the 'completed' pile to Hetty's desk. As a cheeky yet affectionate gesture he placed a piece of candy from his desk drawer on top. Callen knew Hetty would give him a hard time for not finishing all the work, but secretly she would be pleased that he'd done this much. It was one of many unspoken rules of their relationship. They both understood that Hetty would never fashion him into a bureaucrat, wouldn't want to, but she could crack her teacherly whip and make him knuckle down to desk work as long as it helped him to get by. She was a lot to him – mentor, colleague, friend, even guardian – and he would do just about anything for her. She was one of only two people who had learned how to see through his many protective layers to the man underneath.
The other, of course, was Sam.
Callen parked a street away from Sam's house and covered the remaining distance on foot. It was just one among dozens of little strategies they used to maintain secrecy, in daily life as well as in the specific context of their relationship. He went up the steps to Sam's front door and let himself in as he always did.
The living room was deserted, but after pausing to listen, Callen could hear Sam moving about in the bedroom. He slid off his jacket and tossed it along with his backpack onto the couch. The smell of food captured his attention and he wandered through to the kitchen. He soon sniffed out a dish of homemade lasagne that was keeping warm in the oven. One large serving was missing from the dish; Sam had already eaten, but had been sure to make enough for his partner too. Callen couldn't help but smile. Sam always took such good care of him.
Callen heard footsteps on the linoleum.
"Hey," Sam said, sliding his arms around Callen's waist from behind. "You hungry?"
Sam reached over to adjust the heat on the oven. Callen turned in Sam's arms to face him. Sam was freshly showered and changed, and Callen caught the faint tang of his shower gel on his dark skin.
"So did you finish your paperwork?" Sam asked.
"Yeah, but then my dog ate it. Unbelievable."
Sam smiled and planted a kiss on Callen's lips. "I couldn't stop thinking about you today," he said, pulling Callen in closer. He kissed the peak of G's cheekbone, just beneath the corner of his eye. "About everything we did last night." He ran his hands up Callen's sides. The next kiss fell close to G's ear. "About all the things I want to do to you again."
"Do you have any idea how hard it is to file accounts reports when there's a hot guy having eye-sex with you across the office?" Callen said. His hands slid over Sam's chest.
"There's a hot guy having eye-sex with you across the office every day," Sam teased.
"But it's not every day I get stuck in paperwork purgatory when I'm already extremely distracted," Callen replied, "And exhausted, after said hot guy got frisky and decided to keep me up all night."
"Poor baby," said Sam. "I'll try to behave myself better." He lowered his head further and started kissing G's neck just below the jawline. "But I'm not promising anything..." he said against G's throat. Callen closed his eyes and breathed Sam in, dangerously close to seduction once again. If he let himself go now, he would never have his intended talk with Sam. Plus he'd probably pass out halfway through sex from lack of energy. He sighed and took Sam's face between his hands, turning it back toward his own.
"Easy," he said softly. "Mind if I eat first?"
Sam smiled. "See? I really can't behave myself around you." He placed one last kiss on G's forehead before pulling away. "Go sit down, the food'll be ready in a minute."
Callen complied. He sat at the table and watched fondly as Sam moved with his trademark efficiency around the kitchen. He fetched G a chilled can of beer from the refrigerator, then a few minutes later set down a plate of lasagne and steamed vegetables. Callen dove straight into his meal. Sam poured himself a glass of water and took the seat perpendicular to G. He made small talk as he watched Callen eat. After scraping his plate clean, Callen leaned back in his chair with a groan of satisfaction.
"You're way too good for me, you know that?"
Sam grinned. "I know."
Callen moved to clear his plate, but Sam took it from him. Callen sat back obligingly and worked on his beer while Sam cleared up.
"What was last night all about?" The question bubbled up from him without warning.
Sam looked a little surprised. "Exactly what it looked like." He leaned against the worktop and gave G a flirtatious up-and-down look. "Fun."
"Fun?" Callen replied. "Normally when you want to have some fun, you just ask me to come home with you. Or you send me a text that says Hey, G, I want to have some fun. You've never set something like that up before."
"So maybe I'm not as predictable as you think I am." Sam shrugged. "I wanted to try something new."
"Out of the blue like that? After you've been keeping me at arm's length for weeks?" Callen shook his head. "It's not like you, Sam. I've certainly never seen you get so into role play before."
Sam raised an eyebrow. "Is that a complaint?" His mouth turned up in a sexy smile. Clearly he was set on derailing Callen's questioning. He walked back to the table and sat down.
"Are you kidding me?" Callen tried to suppress the physical thrill that ran through him as he pictured being cuffed, toyed with and blissfully fucked. "I had to go and jerk off twice today just to keep the blood flowing to my head."
Sam gave a little growl and leaned forward, running a hand up Callen's thigh. "Now why didn't you tell me that at the time? I could have offered my assistance."
"You know the rule," said Callen. "No sex at work."
"Not even to help my partner out with his paperwork?"
"Mmmm." Callen's hips tipped forward slightly as Sam's fingers teased at the front of his jeans.
He caught Sam's wrist and squeezed. "I'm serious. There's something else going on here. With you."
Sam pulled his hand away and sat back. He looked hard at Callen. "Nothing's going on, G." His voice was even, gaze level. But Callen wasn't convinced.
"I know how worried you've been about Dom. We all are," he said. "You've been taking too much responsibility for it, and you keep on punishing yourself. But last night – despite all the fun we had, I think on some level... it was about you punishing me." He paused. "Sam, are you angry with me about something?"
"It's not about Dom. If you blamed me for that, I would have known earlier."
Sam flicked his tongue over his lips, but not seductively. His patience was starting to fray.
"It's about Jason Tedrow. You never mentioned why you chose that particular alias for your little game."
"Bullshit." Callen peered at Sam through narrowed eyes. "It's about me and that case." Sam's face remained impassive, so Callen added, "When I was with Kristin Donnelly."
Callen saw it then: Sam's top lip gave an involuntary twitch, and his eyes flashed for a split second. After a moment he broke eye contact.
"I knew it," Callen muttered.
"Of course. You know everything," Sam snapped. "Now, have you finished psychoanalysing me, or would you like to get Nate on conference call to help explain my sexual inclinations?"
"No, I haven't finished."
"Well I have." He scraped his chair back and stood up.
"I don't want to do this now."
"That's what's worrying me. It's not like you to avoid an issue," Callen said. Sam stalked over to the worktop where he stood rigidly, his arms folded in a defensive wall across his chest. "But I know this has been bothering you, so until we talk about it, I'll know you're just pretending to be okay."
Sam stood staring out the window, and he gave a tight smile and shook his head as Callen spoke. "That's good, hearing you talk about pretending. About avoiding the issues."
Callen looked down at his hands on the tabletop, and nodded. "Yeah, I know. I'm the master of it." He exhaled heavily. "But I guess you've rubbed off on me after all." Sam remained silent and still. "Look, you already made it clear that you didn't like the way I handled that case. I get it. I didn't like it either, but it was the best way in, and I got the results. That's our profession. So why are you taking it personally? This isn't something that should come between us."
His eyes burned into Sam's broad back, watching the tensed shoulders rise and fall, but he still got no response.
"God, Sam, will you talk to me? What was the deal with making me bring Tedrow back out? You wanted to reclaim me as your own by fucking the alias who cheated on you, is that it? Because you should know that's ridiculous."
"I should know?" Sam turned his head at last. "How can I know what you don't tell me? I don't know what that woman was to you. You keep brushing me off, saying it was nothing, it's just the job, but I have eyes, G. I saw the way you looked at her. What do you think that felt like? Finding out that you'd been that close to someone while I was away, after what happened between us before I left?"
"Sam, it was just a job," Callen shot back. "I was playing a part. What did you expect me to do? Tell Hetty and the Director that no, sorry, I'm not taking this assignment because I'm seeing someone? I didn't go out and pick up some chick because I was lonely, Sam. I would never have started a relationship like that unless I had to. And I had to. Kristin was the only way in." He rubbed his eyes, feeling frustrated and weary. "You know how it works. What we do. Sometimes we have to give up more of ourselves than we want."
"I know that."
"So why are you still so mad at me?"
"Because you lied to me, G," Sam yelled in reply. He grabbed his water glass from the counter and hurled it into the sink where it shattered. The sound was as loud and angry as a gunshot. "We're partners. Lovers. Friends. We've shared everything. I've given more of myself to you than anyone else in my entire life. And I thought I'd finally gotten the whole story about you too, but now I find out you hid all of this from me. If it was so meaningless, tell me why you kept it from me. Tell me."
Callen sat, stunned, and stared back at his furious partner. "I –" His mouth was suddenly bone dry. He shook his head. "I just wanted to put it in the past. As soon as I was done with that case, I just wanted to close the lid on it and move on. And it's not as though you've never kept anything from me. You never told me about Moe until a few weeks ago."
"Oh, you wanna go there?" Sam's eyes flashed dangerously. Callen inwardly cursed himself, and his big stupid mouth. "First, I wasn't fucking Moe," Sam went on. "And second, that happened before I even met you. Not in the few months we spent apart."
"Look, I didn't go behind your back. It was just chance that the job came in while you were away in Afghanistan. And when you got home, I was just so relieved to have you back. I didn't want to think about Tedrow any more, never mind explain it all to you. As far as I was concerned, it had never happened."
"But it did happen, G," Sam raged. "You didn't imagine sleeping with her, you really did it." Callen's face fell. "She remembers it. And so do you. I saw how you acted around her."
"You didn't see what you think you did." Callen put his hands up. "Look, I do care about Kristin. I care about what happens to her because she's a good person, and she didn't deserve any of this; she didn't deserve to have a thief for a brother, or for me to manipulate her in order to get to him. And she sure as hell didn't deserve for me to turn up again years later and open up all those old wounds. But that's as far as it goes, okay? I was never in love with her, Sam. Please believe that."
"You enjoyed it," Sam said. His voice was rough with emotion, and his eyes blazed with it, so much that Callen could hardly bear to look. "Hetty said as much. That you enjoyed being Tedrow more than any other alias. Are you going to tell me that wasn't because of her?"
"And you just went on and rubbed it in my face. The night after you last saw her, when we went out with the team, you sang that song. To All the Girls I've Loved Before. How do you think that made me feel?"
"Oh, Christ." Callen's mind reeled. He had badly underestimated the depths of Sam's feelings on this, and the realisation was devastating. "Sam, I swear, that song had nothing to do with her. God, I never even connected the two together." He got to his feet and paced across the room. "Look, that case – I wasn't in a good place when it came along," he explained. "You'd just gone away, and I was having kind of a hard time dealing with it." He turned and paced back again, hands on his hips, staring at the floor. "So... I took the opportunity to bury myself in a different life. To escape being in my own head all the time, thinking about you." His brow creased in a deep frown. "I know that makes me a coward. I always have been when it comes to things like this. But I'd never felt like that before, Sam." He looked up at last. Sam had been watching him the whole time, and his gaze didn't falter now, but Callen struggled to meet his eye for fear of being overwhelmed. It was difficult enough to open up this far; he felt as though anything more could turn him inside out.
"I've spent my whole life moving on," he said. "Putting things behind me, forgetting about them and dealing with what came next. I wasn't used to missing someone. So I took advantage of the distraction. After all, being Tedrow was my job, right? By getting deeper into that world, spending more time with Kristin and John and the other guys, I was just making sure the mission went the way it was supposed to. At least that's what I kept telling myself." He fell silent.
"I didn't have an escape from it, G," Sam said. His voice was still ragged, but quieter now. "I may have been stuck out there in a war zone, working the mission, trying to keep myself and my team alive. But I still thought about you all the time. Wondered what things would be like when I came home. If it was going to go anywhere; if it had just been a one-night thing. I questioned it all the time." Callen still couldn't bring himself to look in Sam's eyes, but in the edge of his vision he saw Sam shake his head. "I get why you did it. I know you had a job to do. And I can understand that in some way it made things easier for you. God, I hate to think of you being with someone else; of course I do. It tears me apart. But that's not what hurt me the most." He took a step closer to Callen. "You never told me, even after everything I shared with you. And then – you must have seen what it did to me when I found out. But you just shrugged it off like it didn't even matter."
Callen sighed and ran his hands over his face. "I was scared," he admitted. "When I saw that kid, I was terrified. It completely threw me off guard when I realised he could be mine. I thought that episode of my life was all boxed up and dealt with and then suddenly... there's this blue-eyed kid staring at me, and I was afraid I'd really screwed everything up." He leaned back against the table, looking deflated. "I know, I was selfish. I was so caught up in myself that I didn't stop to think how you must be feeling. But maybe – I guess on some level I was avoiding it deliberately, not wanting to admit why I'd lied to you." He took a deep breath which did not seem to go anywhere; all of him felt airless and rigid. "And then so much happened. Dom went missing the next day and all our attention was on that..." Callen's voice trailed off, leaving only the ringing silence of the kitchen.
He was surprised at how much he had said; even more amazed at how much was still left to say. What he had thought were small pockets of feeling turned out to be openings into deep wells. He wanted to share everything in those deep, dark spaces with Sam, who had long since earned the privilege to know the very best and worst of Callen. But the process of telling it was painful and draining, which made him respect Sam even more for his bold honesty.
Sam moved towards him, and Callen could sense his need to reach out and connect to heal the rift. He held up a hand to stop him.
"Please, Sam. I need to explain this to you." Sam held back and waited. Callen closed his eyes and tried to focus his thoughts into words. "I've told you about my past," Callen began. "You know that before you, I hadn't been with a guy for a long time. I spent most of my adult life just going through the motions, dating women, assuming that was... 'regular'.
"I am attracted to women. But... Being with women, sexually, never felt all that real to me. It's something that happens outside of myself, and I feel like more of an observer. But when-" He shifted awkwardly. It was hard work, pushing a lifetime's build-up of feelings through the narrow filter of language. "With men, it's different. It always was. And with you, it's magnified.
"That first time with you, before you went away, it changed everything. It was amazing, of course it was, but it was intense. I wasn't used to anything that intimate. And the next day you were gone, and without you there to work through it together, it felt as raw as an open wound. So I dealt with it the way I always had. We're different, Sam. You've always valued honesty, but I've usually run from it. I've hidden myself and my feelings all my life. So even though being with you is the best thing that's ever happened to me, it's also been terrifying at times. It's scary for me to be opened up the way I am with you."
Callen's shoulders ached, and he realised that as he had been talking he had slowly curled in on himself. His arms were clamped tight around his chest and his head hung down towards the ground, as though his body were trying to hold everything inside even as he spilled it verbally. He loosened his arms a little but did not let them drop.
"What I'm trying to tell you, Sam, is that you should never feel threatened by anything I've done with anybody else, because none of that is real, not to me. You're what's real. And I'm sorry for everything I've done to hurt you. I know I've fucked up a lot, and I try to learn from it every time, but I still have a way to go. And..." He shook his head. "I really don't know why you take so much of my shit."
Sam shook as he released the breath he had been holding. Now that his anger had drained away, the argument had left him with a heavy ache like a rock on his chest. But Callen's words countered the pain. In five years, Callen had never found it easy to say I love you. But to Sam, the words he did say meant so much more, because he was voicing his feelings in terms that were entirely his own, using words that were painful and awkward to speak, but all the more beautiful for it.
He approached G and, taking him by both wrists, gently unwrapped G's arms from around his chest. Callen's eyes remained closed, but Sam let it be, and pulled him close.
"I take your shit," Sam said, "Because I love you. And because the thought of not being with you scares the hell out of me." His voice caught on the words, and Callen grabbed for him and kissed him hard. They clutched each other tightly as they sought to show the other that he was loved, that he was forgiven, that his fears were unfounded. Their lips spoke volumes without the need for words.
In the living room, Sam's phone started to ring, but they ignored it. They kissed and held on tightly until it was no longer enough and they were hard for each other and needed to be closer.
The closest they could get.