This is it, the final chapter. I have had a ridiculously awesome amount of fun writing this story. It's my first team fic, but definitely not my last. I've said it once and I'll say it again-the readers for NCIS:LA are among the best in any fandom. I thank each and every one of you for sticking with this story until the end.

I'm so glad I was brave enough to post this story. I have learned a lot, and made a few friends along the way. A special shout out to Katy, if for no other reason than for being amazing.


Chapter 13: A Survivor's Guide to Reality

Callen's got a grip on the door handle, his right hand bracing against the dashboard as Sam takes another corner, not even bothering to slow down. Ryker has tried and tried to get in touch with Sorenson, each time receiving an automated message.

"Kill the lights," Callen says needlessly as the beach comes into view, Sam already having reached forward to do just that. They're all wearing vests, NCIS printed boldly in white across the chest, their guns locked and loaded, ready.

The sound of tires meeting sand is like a muffled thump, the engine revving as it compensates for the loss of traction. Sam stops the car behind Agent Sorenson's SUV. As soon as they step outside, they know something's wrong, that their worry is justified.

Not a single house light is on, the two driver's side tires on Sorenson's SUV have been slashed, the rims digging into sand beneath the car's weight. Callen looks to Sam, nodding as they speak without words.

Sam and Callen go behind back, easing onto the porch facing the driveway. Kensi and Ryker go around front, towards the beach.

Kensi takes lead, her eyes wide to take in as much light as the barely-there moon will provide. She feels Ryker behind her, can sense his concern. It mirrors hers. As she rounds the corner of the house, she sees the glass covering the front porch, fanning out from the open door, the collapsed form of Agent Sorenson comes next.

Hearing the sharp intake of breath, the barely muttered curse coming form behind her, Kensi knows that Agent Ryker sees him, too. She lets him pass her, watches as he drops to a knee to check on his partner. She keeps her eyes peeled, watching the house for any sign of Barnett.

Stepping onto the bottom step, she sees the relief in Ryker's shoulders as he gently cradles his partner's neck in his hand. "Jamie, can you hear me man?"

"Is he breathing?" she asks, moving further onto the porch. Agent Ryker nods, as he reluctantly stands, preparing to watch her back as they enter the house.

"Kensi?"

The sound of her name causes her to turn, her gun aimed through the open doorway. "Eric?" she asks, identifying the voice.

"You can put the gun down, Rambo. Coast is clear." She isn't sure if she feels more relieved or annoyed as she recognizes the sound of Deeks' voice. She lowers her gun as she steps through the front door, shattered glass crunching beneath her feet.

She sees Eric sitting on the floor, Deeks sprawled out beside him. Barnett's stilled form is lying near the couch, his eyes open and unstaring. "What happened?" she asks, quickly crossing the room. "Callen! It's clear!" she yells, before turning towards Ryker. "I got 'em," she tells him, letting him know it's okay to go back to his partner. "Are you two okay?"

"We don't know where Hetty is," Deeks tells her, his eyes focused on the ceiling, his breathing forced into a steady pattern. "But we found out who our psycho was."

"Barnett," Kensi says, her hands going to Deeks' shirt, lifting it up to look at the swollen mess beneath. She can't really see anything in the low light. "Hetty's at the boathouse with Nell."

Feeling his shirt rise, Kensi's cold hands testing the tender area at his side, Deeks lifts his head, squinting at his partner. He's about to ask what she's doing, to tell her that it's probably not as bad as it looks, but something else catches his attention.

"What happened to your face?" he asks as he takes in her inflamed nose, the darkened bruises beneath her eyes.

She frowns, letting his shirt drop as she looks up, noticing the swollen lip and redness drifting down towards his jaw. "What happened to yours?"

Deeks lifts his chin to gesture to Chase's body. "He had a mean swing," he explains.

"Well, she had a hard head," Kensi smiles contemptuously.

"You got Natalia?" Eric asks, causing Kensi to turn towards him. This close, she's able to see that something isn't right. She feels her stomach twist as her eyes look at the manipulated life vest.

"Eric, please tell me that isn't a bomb," she pleads, leaning closer to get a better look.

"I was wondering how long it would take you to notice," Eric quips. He's regained that stiff posture, breathing small breaths to keep his chest from moving the vest. He's not sure how the bomb's rigged, he just knows he doesn't want to be responsible for it going off.

They all jump a little when the sudden sound of appliances kicking to life fills the house. Ceiling fans begin to turn, the refrigerator hums, microwaves beep, and the air conditioner starts to cool the house.

Sam's heavy footfalls enter the living room, Ryker's phone in his hand. "G got the power back on," he says, clicking the light switch as he looks at what remains of Chase Barnett. "Ambulance is on the way."

"You might want to turn that off," Deeks says, indicating the phone in Sam's hand, the memory of Sorenson's destroyed phone still fresh in his mind.

Sam's about to ask 'why' when he turns to look at the three people clustered on the floor, Kensi letting her hand rest reassuringly on Eric's bent knee, a series of wires tangling between a neat row of explosives and duct tape.

Sam closes his eyes, breathing in deeply before letting it out. The bastard's already dead he reminds himself, knowing Barnett's already been punished. He looks down, quickly turning the phone off.

"Is everyone okay in here?" Callen asks from the doorway, his body half turned towards Agent Ryker, preparing to help him ease Agent Sorenson into a lying position. "Please tell me that isn't a bomb," Callen says, echoing Kensi's plea as he looks towards Eric.

Eric smiles nervously. "I really wish it wasn't."

Callen walks the rest of the way inside, bending down to study the vest and the bomb attached. "There's no timer, that's a plus," he observes, standing to look at Eric's back, trying to determine how complicated the bomb is.

"Sam, come look at this." Callen stands out of the way, giving Sam room to look at the back of the vest and the bomb.

"We can work with this," Sam says, nodding as his eyes follow the wires. Lucky for them, Chase Barnett was a minimalist when it came to bomb making. The two placed beneath Sam and Kensi's cars had been pressure triggered, relying on the driver's weight to activate the bomb. The one currently strapped to Eric is a little more complicated, but only just.

Sam reaches forward, running a finger along the small, black contraption placed over the buckle of the life vest. "This is a receiver."

"It's synced with a garage door opener," Deeks says from his spot on the floor. "Eric tossed it under the chair."

"And I'd like it to stay there, if you don't mind," Eric says quickly, not liking the idea of anyone handling the device or its button.

"Has anyone called bomb squad?" Agent Ryker asks from the doorway. His fingertips are tinged with blood from tending to his partner's head wound.

"Barnett said that phones could activate it," Deeks tells him, lifting his head from the floor so he can see the man.

"Yeah, but Sam already called the EMTs," Ryker points out. "It didn't set it off then."

"It's not guaranteed to go off. It's rigged to explode when you press a garage door opener, but the phone could get on the same frequency and we'd all be toast," Sam explains.

"And I really don't want to press my luck." Eric looks even paler than before. After Barnett was taken care of, he had been able to focus on Deeks and Sorenson, on breathing. Now that everyone's focused on him, he has no choice but to deal with the fact that there is an honest to god bomb resting against his chest. "I just want this off now," he says, his voice shaking with fear and emotional exhaustion.

"Kensi, can you go find me some scissors?" Sam settles down on his knees, his features unwavering as he formulates a plan while Kensi heads to the kitchen.

"You're not gonna cut the wires?" Agent Ryker asks, obviously worried with Sam's sudden sense of determination. Eric looks worriedly between Sam and Agent Ryker, sharing the agent's concern.

"Not the wires," Sam clarifies, "the vest." He gestures to the seams, the thin area where the vest is sewn together along the sides, running perpendicular with Eric's ribs beneath his arm. "The material's thin here. We cut that away, careful to avoid the wires, the vest'll be loose enough to lift over his head. Piece of cake."

"Piece of cake?" Callen asks suspiciously.

Sam smiles and tilts his head. "If I don't mess it up."

"There is that," Callen agrees. Eric looks like he's about to be sick. Beads of sweat begin to gather along his scalp despite the cool air now flowing through the house. He tucks his fingers beneath his legs to keep his hands from shaking.

"Eric." Sam can sense the tension and fear stemming from his friend. "We got this," he says reassuringly. Eric can only nod as Kensi comes back into the room, a pair of kitchen shears in her hand.

"This is all I could find," she says apologetically as she hands Sam the large scissors.

Sam looks to Eric, making eye contact before beginning. "Alright man. Hold your arm up while I cut." Eric slowly raises one arm, giving Sam access to the seam on the vest.

Very carefully, Sam slides his fingers between the wires and the nylon. He can feel Eric's breathing change from short and shallow to rapid and deep.

"We got this, Eric," Sam repeats as he maneuvers the scissors, slowly cutting through the nylon, trying hard not to pull the wires as he does so. "We got this."

Eric keeps as still as he can, his eyes locked to a spot on the floor, distancing himself from the situation. He sighs in relief when Sam finishes cutting the left side of the vest.

"G, why don't you help Ryker get Sorenson closer to the road, keep the medics away." Sam slowly eases around to Eric's other side, careful not to bump Deeks who's still lying beside him. "Then you can come and help get Deeks."

Callen looks at his team, silently wishing them luck before turning to follow Ryker outside. Repeating what he had done on the other side, Sam works to loosen the vest, cutting through the material. They can hear the sound of approaching sirens, can make out the flashing lights bouncing in the darkness through the distant kitchen windows.

As soon as the last inch of nylon is cut, Sam sets the scissors on the seat cushion, wiping his sweaty palms on the legs of his pants as he stands. "Kensi, we're gonna need your help," he says, waiting until Kensi's standing on the other side of Eric before explaining how they're going to remove the vest, holding his own arms high above his head as a model for Eric to imitate.

"You ready?" Sam asks, looking to both Eric and Kensi for an answer as Callen comes back through the door.

"We got this," Eric says, a small trace of confidence evident in his shaky voice.

"Nothin' to it," Sam replies as he grabs onto the vest's shoulder, readying to pull it upwards. He looks to Kensi, nodding once to signal he's ready. Very slowly, they work together pulling the loosened vest above Eric's head and extended arms, making sure the wires don't catch on the way up.

As soon as the wires are clear, Kensi handing her side of the vest to Sam, Eric scrambles to his feet, rushing towards the open door. Callen steps out of his way as Eric grabs onto the doorframe, using it to hold him up as he empties his stomach.

"It's over, Eric," Callen tells him when he manages to catch his breath, the dry-heaves finally subsiding. "It's done."

Eric nods, spitting the extra saliva out before leaning his forehead against the wall. Kensi walks forward, rubbing soothing circles on his back as she steers him out the door towards the waiting paramedics.

Sam carefully lays the still armed bomb on the couch, stepping over the ruined coffee table before turning to help Callen with Deeks.

"You ready to get out of here?" Callen asks, helping Sam pull Deeks into a standing position. Deeks sways on his feet for a moment, the sudden upward motion causing a severe case of vertigo, the movement igniting the fire in his side. He can only nod as Sam and Callen steady him, throwing each of his arms over their shoulders before moving him towards the door, leaving the bomb and Chase Barnett behind.

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

Kensi props her feet up on the end of the bed, pushing the small plastic chair back on two legs. The TVs on, the volume turned low, the local weatherman's voice blending into the background, an errant noise among the beeps and whirs associated with hospitals.

She twirls the pen around her thumb, her eyes blurring as she stares at the crossword puzzle lying in her lap. Her coffee sits abandoned on the small table, having long gone cold. Every so often, Deeks will stir in his sleep, jostling the covers and multitude of wires snaking out from beneath the blankets.

The doctors had been less than impressed with Deeks' lack of medical attention, even less so with the added damage and missed antibiotics. Needless to say, as soon as the doctors had heard about the last three days, he had been attached to IVs, pumped full of meds and ordered to stay in bed. For once, Deeks had shown no sign of objecting.

Kensi looks up and studies the clock, letting the pen fall on top of the crossword as she interlocks her fingers and stretches her hands far above her head. It's been a little over three hours since they arrived. Agent Sorenson had been whisked away, a whole team of scrub clad men and women buzzing about him, all worried for the deep gash on his head.

Hetty and Nell had shown up not long after that, each wearing identical looks of concern. Natalia had been handed off to another agent, Monty spending the night with a friendly LAPD officer. Hetty had stuck around long enough to hear Agent Sorenson's diagnosis of an acute skull fracture before disappearing—what it is she left to do, Kensi doesn't know.

She can hear nurses walking up and down the hall, whispering as they go, the night shift having conditioned them to speaking quietly. The patients aren't so considerate. Someone down the hall lets one of the rooms' heavy doors slam shut, the loud bang carrying down the acoustic hallway.

Deeks jerks awake, his eyes wide and momentarily full of fear as he looks around the room in search of the loud noise. Kensi brings her legs down, sets the crossword to the side as she leans forward, scooting her chair closer to the bed.

"Feeling any better?" she asks soothingly, pretending she hadn't seen his momentary fear. She watches as he calms himself, his mind quickly recognizing his surroundings, putting two and two together.

"Yeah," he says, licking his chapped lips. He lets his muscles relax, sinking back into the mattress. "I think I'm just a little jumpy."

Kensi laughs, leaning back in her chair. She has a band across the bridge of her nose, opening the swollen airway, helping her breathe a little better, but she can still feel the pulsating throb with each beat of her heart. She knows Deeks' side can't feel much better.

He had busted a stitch when Barnett drove his knee into Deeks' abdomen. The clear, blood tinged liquid that soaked his shirt had been a sign of infection, explaining Deeks' fever, swelling, and pain he tried to hide. He's got a few more bruises now, thanks to body slamming the coffee table and having his face used as a punching bag, but all in all, it's nothing he won't get over. Like he had said, he's had worse.

Kensi rolls her neck along her shoulders, relishing the painful 'pop' of vertebrae. "I think Sam went to go get you something to eat," she tells him, "Callen went along to make sure it's something you'd want."

Deeks laughs, the medicine in his system stopping the act from causing him any pain. "And they act like they don't care," he says as he pushes himself up in the bed. Kensi watches, waiting to see if he'll need her help. When it appears as though he's got it under control, that he isn't about to collapse in a big ball of hurt, she relaxes, pulling the small table towards her.

"What is that?" Deeks asks after a few moments of silence, gesturing to the small puzzle book she's studying. Kensi answers slowly as she crosses out six down.

"A crossword puzzle." She smiles when he strains his neck, trying to get a good look. "What's a five letter word for 'ignoramus'?" she asks, scooting her chair closer, using the edge of the bed as a table, her elbow resting near his hip.

Deeks looks at the puzzle. "Idiot?" he guesses, sounding somewhat pleased with himself.

"I was thinking 'Deeks'," Kensi jokes, pretending to fill in the small squares.

"I think 'Kensi' would be a better fit," Deeks tells her, not missing a beat.

Kensi just arches an eyebrow, lifting her head and adopting a look of false pretentiousness. "Agree to disagree."

"Like always," Deeks tells her. His smile is lazy, a product of contentment and good drugs. "Like apples and potatoes."

"I think you mean apples and oranges," Kensi corrects. She leans more onto the bed, her shoulder barely touching his wounded side as she continues to study the puzzle. "Not apples and potatoes."

"No, apples and oranges are both fruit," Deeks explains, "We're a little more different than that."

Kensi looks up from her puzzle, searching his face to see whether or not that 'difference' is a good thing or bad. "So we're like fruits and vegetables. You think we're that different?"

"Yeah," he shrugs, lazy smile still in place, his eyes studying the corners of the room with inebriated interest. "Still food, just different parts of the grocery store."

"You've lost your mind," Kensi tells him, her attention going back to the crossword.

"For the record, I like potatoes," Deeks says, leaning in to look at the next clue in the puzzle—eleven across: returning to strict tempo.

"That one's 'a battuta'." He points to the clue, pulling his IV as he does so. Kensi looks up, still trying to process the whole "I like potatoes" line. Glassy eyes look at her, confused as to why she isn't writing it down. "It's from music," he explains, his arms rising, moving as though he's playing a violin. "Italian."

Kensi nods, showing she's impressed as she writes it in before marking out eleven across. They continue like that, her reading the clue, the two of them brainstorming, trying to beat the other to figuring it out first.

"All right, thirty-nine down," she begins, studying the small print, "An eight letter word for 'Family'."

"Partners," Deeks says almost immediately. Kensi stops her pen from writing the word 'relative', surprised at Deeks' quick and resolute answer. He's given up on supporting his head, letting it rest heavily on the pillows, his eyes closed though he's still awake.

Kensi waits just a moment more before writing 'partners', despite the fact the letters are wrong. The last three days have been a hurricane of emotions. Worry, fear, anger. She hadn't been able to relax, she hadn't been in control. The drive from the boatshed to the beach house had been the longest of her life, each failed phone call driving a spear into her stomach, twisting with worry.

Seeing the lights off, Agent Sorenson lying unresponsive on the porch, she thought they had been too late.

Now, sitting beside a drugged Deeks, listening to him equate the word Family with Partner, she feels more emotions. Those she's not quite ready to deal with, but too stubborn to ignore.

Readjusting the pen in her hand, she continues on. "Forty-two down…"

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

Eric punches in the code, watching as the metal spiral starts to spin, stopping just short of dropping the bag of chips. "Oh, come on," Eric mutters, leaning his head against the grimy glass of the vending machine, pounding the side with his fist.

He's just finished talking with Sarah Sorenson, Agent Sorenson's wife. Someone had told her what happened, explained that Eric had been the one to end Chase Barnett's life, the man responsible for her husband's serious condition. She had wanted to thank him, compliment him on his bravery, on a job well done.

As he pushes away from the machine, he realizes it's probably a good thing the chips got stuck—he isn't sure he can keep anything down at the moment.

He hadn't wanted to speak with Sarah Sorenson, he isn't ready to deal with the fact that he had killed a man—mostly because he doesn't know how. As he walks through the waiting room, the soles of his shoes squeaking against the linoleum, he thinks back to the beach house, trying to see if there was anything he could have done differently.

Eric knows there's a reason Hetty doesn't ask him to go into the field very often, and he's okay with that. He's fully aware he's less than useless when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. Odds are, if it isn't featured on a video game, he can't name most of the weapons the others train in using. Up until two days ago, he had never even fired a real gun.

Barnett had had a gun; it's the only reason Eric had allowed the man to wire a bomb around his chest. He can't help thinking had anyone else been in his situation, they never would have let it get that far.

He finds his way to a men's room, thankfully completely empty at four in the morning. He leans against the counter, studying his face in the mirror. He studies the four days worth of growth along his jaw, the neglected stubble, the reddish outline covering one side of his face, trailing down beneath his collar. His mind keeps conjuring the image of a silencer pointing at his head, the sound of Deeks' scream as Chase used his injury against him.

Maybe if he hadn't been so frozen in fear, Eric could have done something else. "Stupid idiot," he mutters dropping his head into his hands, rubbing tiredly at his eyes.

"Who're you talking about?"

Eric turns quickly, his eyes wide, his mouth opened in a surprised 'o'. Nell's standing by the door, her hands folded before her. She's rocking lightly on her heels, her mouth pressed into an embarrassed line, a sign that she isn't entirely comfortable with her actions.

"Nell, this is a men's room," Eric manages to say when his heart finally slows down, his voice shaking with resonant nerves.

"Yeah, the um, the urinals kind of give it away," Nell smiles, pointing to the far wall, four urinals lined in a neat row.

"You're not supposed to be in here," Eric says quietly, a little unnerved by her presence, unclear on why she's followed him.

"Because it's a men's room?" she asks, tilting her head questioningly.

"And you're not a man," Eric confirms, swallowing nervously as she takes a step towards him, nodding as though she agrees.

"No, I am not," she says, her fingers twisting in the hem of her shirt. "But I am a friend, and I think you might need one." She takes the last few steps needed to bring them side-by-side. As she leans against the bathroom counter, random drops of water from the sink soaking into the back of her clothes as she studies her feet, she tries to think of the best way to organize her thoughts.

"I'm okay," he tells her in a hushed whisper.

"So I've heard." She can see the muscle in his cheek twitch, his jaw clenching as he fights against the tell-tale burning in his eyes, an errant sniffle giving him away as he hurriedly wipes at his running nose.

"Eric, I'm not gonna tell you that you did the right thing, because I know you've already heard it and hearing it again won't change how you feel. Honestly, I don't know if anything anyone says will change how you feel, but…just know that if you hadn't done what you did, a lot of good people would be dead right now." She waits, wanting him to look at her. When he continues to study the gritty floor, doing his best not to meet her eyes, she continues.

"Chase would have shot Deeks, then he would have shot you and Agent Sorenson. And when Callen and Sam, Kensi, and Agent Ryker showed up, he would have detonated that bomb and they'd all be dead too. It's okay to feel bad for what happened, and you may hate the fact that you had to do it. That's what makes you you."

In an act that surprises them both, Nell pushes off the counter, wrapping her arms around Eric's middle, securing his own arms in place. "You are a good person Eric Beale, and we will get through this."

As soon as his mind begins to recover from the shock of her impromptu embrace, Eric awkwardly brings his trapped arms up as far as they will go, returning her hug. "We?"

"Friends have to stick together," she mutters into his shirt. She turns her head, looking him in the face, "Besides, you're delusional if you think Hetty and the others are gonna leave you to sort this all out on your own."

Eric snorts a mildly sardonic laugh. "I kind of wish they would."

Nell takes a step back, removing her arms as she sets her hand on his shoulder. "Eric, they're the best people to help you get through this. They've all been where you are now. Every one of them."

Eric closes his eyes, nodding as he recognizes the truth in her words. "I know," he says, wiping the wetness from his eyes, "It's just that talking about it, means that I'd have to…well, talk about it."

"You don't say," Nell says, unsuccessfully trying to bite back a smile.

Eric laughs, though he isn't sure if it's at the situation or himself. "Told you I was a stupid idiot."

"You're not a stupid idiot," she tells him. "You're…just at the end of the first comic book."

Eric's smile fades in confusion. "Come again?"

"You know," Nell raises her hands, absently trying to pull thoughts out of the air, encouraging him to catch on as she struggles to explain. "The first issue always sets up the back story, the daring-do that causes our super hero to commit to a life of crime-fighting. Something bad always happens, the hero struggles with it, and then moves on to continue to save the day. This is that part."

Eric purses his lips as he considers her analogy. "I really don't see me going out and kicking bad guy butt. I prefer to sit back and control the gadgets."

"Tony Stark uses gadgets," Nell points out, happy to see Eric playing along, "So does Bruce Wayne."

"Yeah, see Deeks and I have kinda already established I'm like the Alfred to their Batman. I'm good with that. Besides, our Bat Cave is kinda kick-ass," he tells her with a smile.

Nell begins walking to the door, Eric following close behind. "Yeah, Hetty does buy all the best toys." She pulls the door open, gesturing for him to go first. "Come on, Beale, I think I heard a rumor about Sam and Callen getting us some grub."

As Eric walks out the door, he turns back around, a curious smirk on his face. "You really think I'm like Iron Man?"

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

"It's called flirting," Sam insists as they wait for the elevator to reach their floor. Callen shakes his head, a disbelieving smile playing out on his lips.

"It's not flirting," he denies, readjusting the many pizza boxes in his arms. "It's called being nice. Maybe leaning a little towards a bribe, but definitely not flirting."

"Did you even pay attention in school? What you're planning on doing, that's flirting, G. Look it up."

"Oh Sam, when are you ever going to learn?" Callen chuckles, his eyes watching the digital display above the doors change with each floor they slowly pass. "Patronizing me is a wasted effort."

Sam clicks his tongue in disapproval. He adjusts his shoulders, repositions the bag of drinks in his hand. "It wouldn't be if you'd learn from your mistakes. George Santiago once said, 'Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.' It's sound advice, G."

"Why will I be doomed for giving pizza to the nurses?" Callen challenges, turning to look at his smirking partner.

Sam holds up one finger, his dimple forming with his crooked grin. "One word. Liz."

Callen faces forward again, shaking his head. "Liz doesn't count. That was a misunderstanding."

"A misunderstanding that all started over flirting," Sam points out, clearly happy with his reasoning.

"I highly doubt any of the nurses' husbands are going to hire a hit man because I gave their wives pizza. Besides, this isn't flirting. I already told you," Callen whispers, scooting to the corner as a pair of elderly women step into the elevator, "It's kind of like a bribe. Plus, it never hurts to be nice."

"Why do we need to bribe the nurses?" Sam whispers back, smiling and dipping his head in polite greeting when one of the women turns to look at him suspiciously.

"Because I'm almost certain four in the morning isn't normal visiting hours, we have no official reason for being here, and they haven't complained about all of us piling into Deeks' room," Callen explains.

"So you're honestly telling me that this is not in any way a ploy to get the head nurse's number?" Sam quirks an eyebrow, not believing Callen's seemingly selfless act of kindness.

"No," Callen promises. "She already gave it to me," he whispers with a smile, pushing his way through the elevator doors as they open to their floor. "Didn't even have to ask."

Sam just laughs as he follows behind. They fall into step as they walk down the long hallway, the smell of pepperoni and sausage leaving a trail behind them.

"You talk to Eric yet?" Callen asks casually as they press against the hall, allowing a pair of orderlies with a gurney to pass.

"Yep, you?" Sam replies, already knowing the answer.

"Uh huh. Told me he was fine." Sam can hear the disbelief in Callen's voice as the nurse's station comes into view.

"Don't worry about him, he'll be okay," Sam reassures him, his own worries for Eric playing out in his mind. They had all spoken to him after the beach house, both about the bomb and the shooting. He had sworn he was fine, a little shaken up, but fine none-the-less. No one believed him.

"Eric's the last person on the planet I'd ever think would be in that situation," Callen says, breaking into a believing smile at one of the night nurses who's just noticed their arrival, her eyes on the pizza. "He's not cut out for it. We shouldn't have left him alone."

"He wasn't alone," Sam corrects, "but it doesn't matter. He did what he had to and came out on top. Give him time, G. The guy's stronger than he looks."

"A hell of a lot stronger than we give him credit for," Callen concedes. He brightens his smile as he sits the pizza boxes on the counter, careful not to knock over the stack of files or bottle of hand sanitizer.

"Agent Callen, back so soon." A pretty redhead with bright blue eyes looks up from her magazine. "I thought we wouldn't get to see you again until tomorrow, you know, during visiting hours." She puts emphasis on the last part, but her tone is void of any malice.

"Don't listen to her," a young brunette interjects as she peeks beneath the lid of the pizza box. "Supreme?" she asks, smiling playfully.

"With extra olives," Callen confirms, flipping the lid and sharing a look with his partner that Sam will later describe as being 'smart-ass'.

As three more nurses swarm the station, each vying for a piece of pizza, Sam jerks his head down the hall, indicating the room on the far left. "He wake up any?"

"Oh yeah," the brunette says, stuffing a mushroom in her mouth. "He's been up. A little loopy, but that's to be expected."

"They're all piled in there doing word puzzles," the redhead informs them, winking at Callen as he and Sam turn to leave.

"What?" Callen asks when he sees Sam shaking his head.

"That was flirting," Sam tells him, pointing towards the nurse's station with his thumb.

Callen shrugs not bothering to deny it. "She's not married."

Sam stops short of opening the door to Deeks' room. "That's not the point."

Callen frowns, turning questioningly towards Sam. "Do you even have a point?"

"Only that you're asking for trouble." Sam pushes the door open, "I'd leave the nurses to Deeks if I were you."

"What about nurses?" Deeks asks as Sam and Callen walk in.

"Nothing that concerns you," Callen jokes, placing the last two boxes of pizza on the table.

"I'm almost certain I heard my name," Deeks continues, looking to Eric for support. "They said my name, right?"

Callen and Sam both look at Eric, waiting to see whose side he'll take. Eric smiles nervously, reaching for the first slice of pizza and shrugging apologetically at a drunkenly confused Deeks.

Kensi and Nell hide their smiles behind the offered drinks Sam begins to pass out.

"The nurses said you're all doing puzzles?" Sam asks, handing the last Coke to Eric.

"Were," Deeks corrects, "It's not really any fun when you've got these two helping you out." He gestures between Nell and Eric accusingly.

"You were reading the clues out loud," Eric defends, the loud pop and fizz of the soda can filling the room.

"Yeah, but you could at least give us a chance to figure it out first," Deeks tells him, the tiredness in his voice only making him sound half-sincere.

"Hetty not back yet?" Callen asks Kensi, ignoring the banter playing out between Deeks and Eric.

Kensi shakes her head, cutting her eyes to look at her partner. "Not yet. Where do you think she went?"

"Probably to sort out this mess. Tomorrow's gonna suck." Callen takes a slice for himself, easing into one of the plastic chairs. "It's gonna be awhile before we bounce back from this one."

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

Hetty puts the phone in her pocket, her eyes closing as she calms her frustration after having spoken with the director, giving him a full account of everything that's happened since last they spoke.

The case is over, at least for the most part. There's still a great deal of work to do before they can work on putting the last few days behind them.

In the morning, units will go to each of the team's houses to search for and remove any recording devices. Each of them will have to give a statement, including Eric and Deeks. Everyone who works in her office will be subjected to another scrutinizing background check, updated polygraphs. All the cases that Chase Barnett assisted on or had access to will have to be examined.

For over six months, someone they saw almost everyday worked to plan their demise, scheming to bring about the most fear and pain. They hadn't seen it until it was almost too late.

When all the paperwork's done, and all the bugs and kinks sorted out, her team will still have to deal with everything. They all have to accept the fact that they aren't impenetrable, that they are all capable of being bested.

As Hetty nears the open door, sounds of familiar laughter drifting towards her, she realizes they've already started.

She looks at the men and women sitting around the hospital bed, she takes in the bruises and abrasions, the burns and tired eyes.

"Hey, Hetty. We saved you some pizza," Eric tells her, smiling a true smile.

Tomorrow they will sort through the mess that somehow managed to infiltrate their lives, but today they can rest. They've more than earned it.

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

THE END