It's probably not completely outside the realm of what is likely to happen that I would completely forget my author's note. I like to think that I have so much going on inside my head that there just isn't room for everything, but the truth is that I just have a really really bad memory. In any case, I'm adding one now.
Author's note: Much thanks to my dear friends MioneAlterEgo and imahistorian, who provided the inspiration for this story in a long ago and mostly forgotten conversation about the show. Extra special thanks to imahistorian, who is the best beta out there, bar none! She helps me tweak and tighten and figure out just exactly where I need to tinker. For this particular story she provided invaluable direction, since I had looked at it so often I couldn't see it anymore. Thank you, ladies!
And thank YOU, readers, for the lovely reviews and alerts. Feedback feeds the beast. :)
There's tired, and then there's tired. Sam Hanna had experienced both, along with every variation in between.
He's probably most familiar with the tired that comes after a good workout. The muscle burn, the damp circles of sweat around neck and head, the slow cessation of heat and energy. He knows all too well the tired that comes after closing a long case, or of sitting on a stakeout with nothing to do, or of being stuck in the office working on paperwork. His least favorite is the tired that comes from being without his family. He misses his kids rather desperately when he has to be away from them for extended periods of time, and sometimes he thinks he needs Michelle, needs to see her face and hear her voice, the same way he needs water to drink or air to breathe.
But right now, what he's feeling is a good tired. The team had closed a case earlier, and everyone had made it back safe and sound and in one piece. His "mother hen" instincts, as Callen liked to characterize it, had let him relax and enjoy the gentle razzing Kensi turned on Deeks and the bickering between Nell and Eric before everyone began heading home for the evening. The call back to OSP in the wee hours had been unexpected, but not as unwelcome as it could have been had it come on the heels of a more exhausting or difficult case.
If he had to wait much longer, though, he was going to experience the tired of sitting at his desk doing absolutely nothing, or maybe pounding on team members who were late to a call. No one had arrived except Eric, who was already upstairs in Ops. The rest of the team had yet to put in an appearance.
Sam was tapping his fingers impatiently when Kensi was first through the door. Her hair was mussed, tumbled around her face in gentle disarray, and she was wearing the same clothes she'd left in some hours earlier.
"Late night?" asked Sam, head cocked to one side.
"Yeah. Yeah." Her eyes avoided his as she carefully began pulling her laptop out of her bag. "I was super busy. Haven't even made it to bed yet."
"I can see that." Gentle humor colored Sam's words. "You're still wearing yesterday's lunch. You couldn't at least change into a shirt without a marinara stain?"
"I was busy!" she repeated defensively. She sat down at her desk, but Sam's eagle eye had picked up on something else.
"You must have been," he said casually, but his eyes gleamed with a different kind of amusement now. "I think you missed a button there, Agent Dressed to Kill. Or maybe two. " Rich red color flooded her cheeks, and her fingers hurried to correct the mistake. He chortled at her. "Where did you say you were again?"
Her eyes skimmed around the room as if looking for something before her gaze steadied, then snapped back towards him. "I was with Hetty."
"Oh, you were?"
"I was." Her voice firm, she got to her feet and moved around closer to his desk. "What, you don't believe me?"
"I didn't say that," he responded calmly, but something in his face must have pushed her to continue.
"Well I really was." Her chin tilted a little higher. "She called me after I got home, and wanted me to come over and...and I did, because I knew it must be important for her to call me, and it was Hetty, and no one can really question Hetty, and….and…."
Sam watched her, fighting a grin. Really it was almost too easy. A nicer person might have put her out of her misery and ended the interrogation at this point, but clearly his mother hen instincts were on vacation just then because he couldn't wait to see where this went. Where she went, and just how much she'd admit. She took a deep breath and nodded firmly, but he thought she was probably searching for words. Or a creditable story.
"…..and?" he prodded.
"And she wanted me to help her…paint."
"Paint," Sam repeated slowly. "She wanted you to help her…paint."
"That's right." More settled now, Kensi returned to her desk. "She was painting her guest….deck!"
"Her guest….deck?" This was fun.
"Are you just going to just keep repeating everything I say?" Kensi asked crossly.
"Am I going to just keep…." A frustrated growl from Kensi caused him to stop, laughing. "C'mon. That was too easy."
"Whatever," Kensi huffed. "Hetty wanted help painting her deck, and she gave me a shirt to wear so I wouldn't get paint on my clothes. And then it got late, and we had a couple glasses of wine, and I fell asleep on her couch. When we got the call I must have been in too much of a hurry to get dressed to come here. That's why my buttons are all off. There." She nodded once, satisfied now with her story completely revealed. Then her brows creased a little, and there might have been a spark of concern in her eyes. "But don't say anything to Hetty about it. She' going to have everyone over later. For...for a surprise party. On the deck."
Sam nodded slowly. "A surprise party on the newly painted deck. Sounds just like her."
Confused a little at his response and unsure just what to say, Kensi retreated into the safety of silence. She stared at Sam, and Sam stared back at her, until finally, flustered, she got to her feet. "I'll just go see if I have another shirt in my locker."
"Why don't you do that," said Sam, laughing softly as she made her escape. He shook his head, wondering what the younger agent had been up to…and who exactly she'd been with. She was normally wide open about her personal life, never acted like she had anything to hide. The fact that she was so secretive about this when it was just the two of them present meant it was something she didn't want Sam to know about. Or maybe someone.
"Hey." Deeks came in then, moving around his desk before slinging his shoulder bag over his chair. "Where is everyone?"
"Not here yet," said Sam, eyeing the other agent carefully. He was even more curious now. "Late night?"
"What makes you say that?" Deeks' voice was casual. Maybe too casual.
"Pretty sure you're wearing the same clothes you had on when you walked out of here…" Sam consulted his watch, "….over nine hours ago."
"Oh, that." Deeks shrugged and developed a keen interest in the loose papers stacked on his desk. He appeared to be reading one carefully, which was rather odd given the fact that Sam could clearly see he held it upside down. "Haven't been home yet."
"Hot date with a hottie? Gettin' a little somethin' somethin'?"
"No!" Deeks looked up at that, brows drawn together in a surprisingly strong reaction. "It wasn't like that at all. It was…." But his voice trailed off. Sam waited, head cocked to one side, until Deeks finally continued. "It wasn't like that," he repeated, quieter than before.
When he didn't say anything else, Sam's interest sharpened. "It must have been something serious to make you late to a call."
"Look, I get that it must seem like it was something…something important to make me late, but that didn't have anything to do with it." Heaving out an impatient breath, he continued trying to explain the inexplicable. "But it wasn't just a bootie call either. It wasn't anything I've….I never….I'm not even sure how to… We were just…" Looking harassed and sounding confused, Deeks turned away from Sam's desk for a moment, hand running through disordered blonde hair.
"Well something must have been going on." Sam kept his face carefully blank, although he was torn between rolling his eyes and laughing out loud. Deeks really shouldn't have turned around. "Your shirt's on inside out. You got a tag hanging out the back."
Deeks' hand froze, shoulders straightening a bit. He turned back around, this time meeting Sam's gaze directly. "It was Hetty."
Truly struggling now to keep a straight face, Sam crossed his arms. "Are you saying you were with Hetty? And she did the...shirt?"
"Yes." Deeks nodded firmly before it penetrated. "No! I mean no. Not that. Please God, not that." He shook his head quickly, shuddering a little. "That's just...c'mon, Sam. I've been doing a little side project with her. Using some of my contacts from LAPD. It's nothing official. We were just out working last night. On that project."
"Yes." Deeks looked around, then continued hurriedly. "But it's kind of personal. For Hetty, I mean. Some people she knew, so you probably shouldn't say anything about it to her. For her sake." His voice lowered conspiratorially. "You wouldn't want to embarrass her or anything."
"Of course not," agreed Sam, but something in his voice caused Deeks' eyes to narrow a bit. He sat down slowly, eyes trained warily on Sam, as if he expected the other agent to say something else. Sam didn't move. After a few seconds of staring, Deeks' gaze dropped first, then he got to his feet again.
"So. I think I'll go check on something in the records room." Deeks pointed in the direction of the side hall. "For that project. Idle hands, you know."
He scurried off, and Sam was watching him leave, or more accurately make his escape, when a commotion in the entry corridor next to his desk caught his attention. He got to his feet and moved until he could see what was going on. Nell knelt there on the stone floor, hands fluttering about as she tried to help an equally flustered tech analyst pick up several thousand pages of data. Or maybe it just appeared to be several thousand due to Nell's ineffectual efforts to pick them up.
"Sorry. Sorry. I didn't mean to knock you down. I was just…late, and I'm never late, so it makes me nervous when I'm late and when I'm nervous I tend to…well, clearly I tend to overshare." Nell was stacking papers haphazardly, her movements causing more damage than good. "Plus I run into things, which you probably already figured out."
Sam moved to help as Nell sat back in frustration, sighing heavily. "Nell, are you okay?"
"Oh, I'm fine. I'm just running late." With Sam's more able assistance, the poor analyst finally managed to gather up her papers. Sam turned to help Nell to her feet. She began dusting herself off. "I hate being late. I'm never late. I'm the kind of person that likes to get there early. Really early. Getting there early means you have extra time to prepare and plan, which is so important in the intelligence game."
"Nell, you've always been…."
"Of course you're wondering why I'm late. You want to know what on earth could keep me from a case, one that may involve national security or the safety and welfare of the people of this country. It's perfectly natural that you'd want to know where I was, and if it was truly something that should have caused me to be late."
"You don't have to…."
"Well it was something that should have caused me to be late." Nell began to walk quickly toward the staircase leading up to Ops, and Sam followed, nonplussed at the impressive and unceasing flow of words. Of course she didn't have to explain herself to him, and he would be happy to tell her that if she'd ever let him get a word in edgewise. Even now her monologue—for it wasn't a conversation, not really—continued on unabated. "It was something very important. Something so important that no one can question it, or wonder why I may have appeared to choose…that over duty." She stopped suddenly, then turned to Sam, eyes lighting in what almost appeared to be triumph. "I was with Hetty."
He took a deep breath, then crossed his arms.
"You were with Hetty."
"Yes. You see, she and I have been working on a…"
"Side project?" Sam's eyebrows rose in amusement. "Painting her guest deck, maybe?"
"What?" Nell shook her head quickly. "No, of course not. That just sounds….well, silly."
"Doesn't it just," agreed Sam, dimples quirking.
"We're working on an analysis of the current personnel here. Determining if everyone here is working to their full potential and whether or not all available resources are being utilized in an efficient manner." She sounded sure of herself, confident, and if she hadn't been completely unable to meet his eyes he might have been convinced. "But you probably shouldn't say anything about it to Het…to anyone at all. Personnel records. People start getting awfully uncomfortable when they know you have access to their files."
Sam stared at her for a long moment. She began to fidget little, weight leaning to one side then the other. "So, you're trying to tell me that you and Hetty are burning the midnight oil looking at personnel evaluations?" he asked, voice carefully casual. "Seems to me that's a job that could have been done during daylight hours. And it would probably make more sense to do it here, where all the records are kept. Is there a reason why…"
"Well, I'll just head on up to Ops." Turning, she hurried toward the stairs.
"Hey." Sam turned to see Callen standing behind him. "What'd I miss?"
"You wouldn't believe it if I told you," said Sam, shaking his head. "Everyone is running late, and the reasons range from pure ridiculous to…."
"I have a good reason," said Callen, eyes following Nell up the stairs. Sam turned to see where Callen's gaze was focused, watched curiously as Nell turned and snuck a glance back at Callen, then winked at him. "In fact, I have a real good reason."
Winked at him. Nell winked at Callen.
He wondered briefly if he should start a score card, then turned back toward Callen. This was a new development and certainly a bit of a surprise, but Sam discovered it wasn't completely unexpected. Not really. Not to someone who knew Callen as well as Sam did. He decided to give his partner a break.
"Let me guess," prodded Sam gently. "You were with Hetty?"
"Yes." Callen turned to look at Sam. "Yes, that's exactly where I was. I was with Hetty, and we were discussing an old case. One we were both involved in, and one that was…highly classified."
"So you can't talk about it. Neither you nor Hetty, of course."
"No, we can't." Callen cocked his head toward the staircase. "Should we head upstairs?"
Fighting back a grin, Sam responded. "We probably should."
Once upstairs, Sam settled back to watch his teammates, looking for proof that his suppositions were correct. Kensi and Deeks entered from the east entrance, Deeks leaned over close to Kensi as she spoke in a low voice that only he could hear. There was nothing specifically suspicious about that. For all Sam knew they were taking turns sharing knock knock jokes. Far more telling was their entrance together through the same door, given the fact that Deeks had been in the records room and Kensi had been searching for a clean shirt in her locker. Last time Sam had checked, the records and locker rooms were on opposite sides of the building.
Yeah, that was pretty telling.
Meanwhile Nell and Callen had managed to precede them all into Ops, and were now holding an intense conversation in one of the darkened corners on the far side of the door. They might well have been discussing something about the case at hand. Nell's recall was near perfect and she could spout information off like a stock tape ticker. Callen was listening carefully to her, and it really did appear that maybe they were talking about….but then Nell giggled softly, ducking her head and looking up at him through her lashes, and Callen's lips quirked as he bent just a little lower.
That conversation was definitely more personal than professional.
Just then Hetty cleared her throat, ready to begin going over the particulars of the case. With some effort, Sam put all the foolishness out of his head and got ready to listen.
Time to go to work.
After a thorough briefing, Hetty turned toward the team, gathered in the dim blue light of Ops.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, I believe that will be all for now. Let's regroup in the morning. At that time we can pick back up and begin working the case, but for now let's see if we can get a couple of hours respite. Everyone, off to your homes." She gestured them all out, then looked up at Sam. "Except you, Mr. Hanna. May I have a few words?"
Sam moved towards the operations manager as the rest of the team began filtering toward the door.
"Mr. Hanna, I was wondering if you'd care to pick back up where we left off." She smiled kindly at him. "I know a game of chess with an old woman is no substitute for a wife and children who are off visiting family, but I was quite enjoying our contest before we were called back in here tonight."
Sam turned to watch the rest, seeing how Kensi and Deeks exited together, arms bumping casually as they walked side by side out the door. A less casual observer might not have noticed that her fingers trailed gently across the back of his hand, and that he turned his palm and captured those fingers for a scant second or two. Callen was walking a few steps behind and to the side of Nell. But a trained investigator would see the way she watched him out the corner of her eye as she responded to Eric's gentle teasing, the way he timed his steps to match hers perfectly. And...yes, as they turned the corner Callen made his move, and somehow Callen and Nell were walking side by side with Eric a few steps ahead. His partner was smooth, no denying that.
"Yeah, that'd be great, Hetty." Sam turned back to the operations manager. "It's a little lonely at home, and I have a feeling the rest of the team is…busy."