Author's note: Hope my random approach to telling this story isn't too confusing…

WARNING: Some profanity.

As Callen cradled the tormented young woman in his arms, feeling her finally succumb to exhaustion, he couldn't help but replay the events of the morning in his mind. The day had seemingly started off so well. Nell had finally seemed to be returning to her normal bright self. And then this, this… Someone was going to pay with their life.


Callen made his way towards ops to check on the status of their current mission. The junior field agent and her detective partner were the primaries. And they were doing one hell of a job, Callen had to admit with a bit of pride. Deeks and Kensi always seemed too busy teasing and fighting with one another to ever get the job done. But they were, in fact, professionals, and extremely capable ones at that. They were due to check in this morning, and if all had gone well the previous night, they could set up the endgame 'meet and bust' for later that day.

Just as he was about to enter the technological heart of the Office of Special Projects, Nell Jones bumped into him. He did not have time to apologize or even catch her to ask her if she were all right, for she pushed by him and, by the sounds of her footfalls, was running down the hall.

His positive outlook on the day suddenly dissipated. He saw Eric staring after the door with just as much apprehension on his face as Callen felt.

"What was that about?" Callen asked, a knot -a specific, familiar knot- forming in his stomach. "Is Nell alright?"

"I don't know," Eric said.

"Is Nell okay?" Kensi Blye asked as she walked into ops, freshly showered and changed out of her undercover clothes. "She just ran past me towards the Ladies'. It looked like she was crying."

The two male agents exchanged concerned looks before returning their attention to Kensi. The last few months had been rough on the young woman. They all knew. But she'd been soldiering through, gradually regaining her peppy demeanor. This seemed like much more than simply one of her 'low' days. Something specific must have happened.

"We're not sure," Callen said. "Eric, did Nell do anything out of the ordinary this morning? Did she seem upset when she came in? Did she receive any phone calls?"

"No," Eric said, obviously bewildered by his partner's breakdown. "Nothing."

"What's going on?" Sam asked. He and Deeks had been laughing, joking about something, but quieted immediately upon sensing the tension in the room they'd just entered.

"Something's bothering Nell," Callen said. Sam gave him a look that was concerned but also pointed out the fact that she had the right to seem bothered, plus some, given how...

Callen looked to Kensi, and bless her, she read his mind.

"I'm going to go see if I can't get her to talk to me," the female agent said, excusing herself to go after their young team mate. Honestly, he wasn't sure how much Nell had disclosed to the strong female field agent, and whether she was liable to share her troubles now. But it was worth a try. Because if it was -as Callen suspected- a certain trauma darkening her world like a thunderhead rolling in across the plains, then Kensi was the best choice. Nell wouldn't want any of the others to know. And she wouldn't want Callen, because he knew too well. But he could still help her by figuring out exactly what had reopened the wounds.

"Eric, just take us through the morning, step-by-step," Callen said. The computer tech shook his head as if he were waking from a daze, then nodded and chewed his lip briefly in thought.

"Honestly, nothing unusual happened," he said. "Nell came in, said 'good morning' to me, logged onto her system, and..."

Eric swiveled around to his computer, his fingers flying over the keys briefly, obviously onto something.

"Care to share with the class?" Sam asked, giving voice to the impatience Callen himself felt. Callen was already leaning over Eric's shoulder, trying to follow whatever lead had occurred to the younger man.

"Her email," Eric said. "She always checks her email first thing."

His fingers stopped and he withdrew slightly from the computer terminal. Hesitation to invade his coworker's privacy. Not a bad thing, Callen supposed. But how were they supposed to help if they didn't know what was going on? True, Nell had every right to her own privacy, but this appeared to be a major setback for her recovery (if it was indeed related to what Callen suspected), one that had to have been instigated by something... Callen wanted, no, needed to know what had so badly upset the little pixie analyst who'd just begun to regain her normal cheerfulness.

"Let's see it," Callen said in a voice that informed the computer tech that it was not a request, and that Callen would take whatever flak was sent his way for the violation. Because ever since... he had made it his duty to protect the young woman from further harm.

Most of her inbox was the usual inter-office memos; data requests, procedural obscurae, etc. But the last one... it hadn't originated from within their own system, as most of the communiqués did.

It was a photo. Dark and grainy. But Callen recognized its content immediately, the knot in his stomach instead becoming a cold abyss.

"Everyone out!"

There was a split second in which Deeks, Sam and Eric just stared in large-eyed shock at Callen's sudden, intense flare of temper. And then Sam grabbed Deeks by the arm and urged him out the door, not even bothering with a 'You okay, G?' because it was apparent the seasoned field agent was not okay. Not okay in the least.

Callen stopped the computer tech from scurrying out after his team mates by placing his hands on the young man's shoulders and pushing him back down into the chair in front of Nell's terminal.

"Not you, Eric. I need you to trace the source of that email."

The blonde tech was averting his eyes from the screen before him. And Callen couldn't blame him for not wanting to look at that fucking photo. The irate field agent sighed, and swiveled the chair so that he was looking directly into Eric's alarmed green eyes.

"I'm not asking you to analyze that photo."

Callen already knew when and where it had been taken. The fact that it existed had come somewhat as a surprise at first. But with that psychopath, no doubt he'd wanted mementos to cherish later on, after both of his prey were dead. But who had recovered it, sent it to Nell? That fucking bastard was dead. It seemed unlikely at the time, but maybe he had had a partner, someone who got off on such perverse games, who liked to watch even more than the psychopath liked to play with his victims. Callen inadvertently glanced at the image again, as if it might lend some clue as to who this new sicko could be. Bile immediately bit at the back of his throat as memories surfaced and cut him deep. He might never be able to forget, but Eric didn't need to have such an image seared into his memory. It was bad enough that he'd damaged Nell beyond repair, he could at least spare her partner.

"You don't ever have to look at it again, Eric. In fact, please don't. Just tell me who sent that email and where to find them."

And I'll take care of them.

Eric nodded, quickly closing out the email when he turned back to the computer screen and began tracing the asshole whom Callen was going to tear to pieces with his bare hands.

His hands were currently full of the peacefully sleeping young woman that he'd hurt so badly. What he'd done was absolutely unforgiveable. Yet she had placed herself in his hands, trusted him enough to fall into a deep sleep while enveloped in his embrace. How could she do that if she blamed him? The answer was simple. Nell didn't blame him. And that made her a far better person than him, because he could not forgive those who'd caused them both such pain. He could only ever offer them their own suffering and death. But still it gave Callen just a twinge of hope that he wasn't as bad a person as he thought. For Nell had the best heart he'd ever known. And she called him 'friend.'

It was a good thought to accompany one into sleep.

A/N: Still with me?