This is the final chapter. When I started this story I saw the final scene very clearly and I was wrong. Some will like the ending and some won't. I feel, though, that I have been true to the way this story developed. Thank you for reading and for the wonderful reviews. Your support means everything to me.
An Eye for an Eye
Some memories are so precious that you cling onto them even in the face of unforgivable betrayal. Callen stood on the sidewalk staring at Kristen's house. He'd been happy here, letting down his guard and fooling himself into believing it was real instead of the pretence it actually was.
He could almost taste the good-bye kiss he'd given her on that last morning when he knew the operation was coming to an end. A few hours later he, Jon, Gale and Perez had been arrested. Had he really considered Kristen's feelings when he decided to leave without a word? That part was hazy. He clearly remembered surrendering to his fellow NCIS agents. Cuffs tethered his wrists before he was put in the back seat of a car. He'd been freed as soon as they were out of sight of the others. His part in the investigation was at an end. It was now up to others to break down the conspirators and secure convictions.
Congratulations followed, accompanied by the sentiment that he must be happy to finally go home. Except that he'd had no home; just a crappy one room apartment in a nondescript building. Home, as he had finally discovered, meant something very different. With a heavy sigh he walked to the front door. He was still trying to come to terms with the fact that Kristen apparently wanted him to see Michael. In many ways it would have been easier if she had been the one to close that door again.
Despite doubting the wisdom of agreeing to this meeting Callen couldn't deny that he was looking forward to seeing his son. He rang the bell, his hand not entirely steady. When Kristen answered the door she looked more rested than the previous day at the airport.
"You came," she said, her tone indicating mild surprise.
"I said I would. I'm sorry I should have got here earlier." He didn't offer an explanation and would never admit the truth. He'd been parked a couple of blocks away for over an hour wrestling with his conscience.
"Come in." Kristen stepped to one side. "Michael's in bed. With the time difference he's all messed up. He fell asleep mid-afternoon." She followed him inside. "You can go and see him if you'd like. He's in the back bedroom. You remember the way?"
"Yes." He hid his disappointment. He should have anticipated that Michael's sleep pattern would be disturbed and it was after eight o'clock anyway. In his heart he knew that part of his earlier prevarication had been designed to avoid interacting with his son. It would have made it harder to do what he'd come for.
When he reached the door to the bedroom he'd shared with Kristen his footsteps faltered. It had been over six years since they had last made love but he could still feel her smooth skin under his hands. He closed his eyes and let the memories wash over him. He'd broken Kristen's heart. That was what her brother had told him in the minutes before being gunned down. What he hadn't fully admitted until now was that he'd broken his own heart as well.
When he opened his eyes he saw a faint light shining through the partly open door across the hall. He pushed it open. The blinds were closed but a night-light glowed in the corner. It was enough to show him that the room appeared immaculate. He could imagine Kristen cleaning and tidying it in anticipation of her son's return. He walked closer to the bed. Michael had burrowed down under the duvet so that only the top of his head was visible. Moving silently Callen got close enough to bend down and press a gentle kiss on Michael's silky blond hair.
"Sleep well," he whispered. "I love you."
His throat was tight when he returned to the main room. Kristen perched uneasily on the edge of the sofa, two bottles of beer waiting on the table in front of her.
"I thought you'd like a drink," she said.
Callen sat opposite her. "Is Michael okay? He saw some bad things."
"He hasn't said much about what happened before you rescued him. He won't stop talking about you, though. He likes you."
"He'll forget me soon enough."
"Is that really what you want?"
"It doesn't matter what I want. This is the only way to keep you and Michael safe."
"You don't know that. I'd say it was more likely to put us in harm's way." Kristen ran a hand through her hair. "Why is this so hard?" she said, frustrating lacing her words. "It used to be so easy to talk to you. I've been over this conversation a dozen times in my head. I know what you're going to say and I know you believe it's the right thing to do."
"Can we just, for one minute, pretend you haven't already made up your mind?"
"What good would that do?"
"You know what I am Kristen. I'm an undercover agent trained by the Federal government to become whoever and whatever they need me to be. I'm not Jason Tedrow. He doesn't exist. You fell in love with a ghost."
The color had disappeared from Kristen's cheeks. "I know I was just a job to you and that there'll be plenty of other women…"
"No," Callen said. "No. I should have told you who I was once the operation was over. I'd told you so many lies and talked myself into believing that it would hurt you less if I just disappeared. I was wrong."
"Two years ago you came here to tell me the truth. Why?"
"Seeing you again made me realize I'd made a mistake. And I thought…that maybe Michael was my son."
"Would you have stayed if I'd told you the truth?"
"It doesn't matter now." He couldn't look at her while telling another lie.
"Alright, then tell me what changed?"
"You know the answer. Hetty made sure of that," he said bitterly. Hetty's betrayal left a sour taste in his mouth.
Anger flared in her eyes. "You're not the only one who has trust issues. I've only loved two men in my life and both lied to me."
"Tommy was a good man. He might have lied to you in the beginning but he loved you and Michael. He was willing to die or go to jail to keep you safe. If he could risk that then I can at least stay away from you. You don't want to get mixed up in my sordid life. I've nothing to offer you that doesn't come with too heavy a price."
"Do you remember what it was like growing up without a father? Is that what you want for Michael?"
He flinched from her verbal attack. Hetty had handed Kristen the ammunition and it appeared she was willing to use it. He had to admire her guts. "Yes, I remember but Michael has you and a home. He has a stability I never got to experience." He gazed at her earnestly. "My job doesn't allow me to stick to a routine. I could be gone for weeks without any chance of contacting you. How do you explain that to a child?"
"I'd find a way. Why are you so afraid of commitment? I'm not asking you…I know we're over. I'm not trying to use Michael to get you to come back to me." A flush crept into her cheeks and then receded leaving her paler than ever.
Callen did nothing to show that the small sliver of hope he'd been harboring had just disintegrated. Kristen was being brutally honest and deserved the truth. "When I saw Michael again it was like I'd been struck by lightning. He was everything I'd ever dreamed of and never expected to have. I wanted to hold him tight and protect him from all the bad things in the world."
A faint smile caressed Kristen's lips. "That was how I felt the day he was born."
"I'd never felt that way before. It was different from the way I felt about you. I don't know how to explain it," he added helplessly.
"You don't have to. Any parent would understand. Why are you so determined to walk away if that's how you feel?"
"It's better for him. It'll spare him the poisonous legacy left by my family. If I don't leave today it will happen in the future and that'll be harder on all of us."
"You're forgetting that he's already been tangled up in your past. That bitch who took him knows who he is. It isn't a secret anymore that you're his father. Isn't he safer if you're around?"
"There's one way to keep you both safe. Go into protective custody.."
"No!" Kristen said fiercely. "I'm not going to live a lie and neither is Michael. You can stay involved in his life or you can leave. It's your choice but I'm not going to lie to him any longer. He will know who his father is and, when he's older, if he wants to contact you I won't stop him. Before you decide I want you to answer one question. Hetty told me about your father. How will you feel if you find him and he tells you he left to keep you safe? Will that make it any easier for you to forgive him?"
Callen's pulse was racing. The assault on his fragile protective barriers was more than he could withstand. "I don't know. Please, Kristen, you have to stop."
"Why should I? Do you think Michael will find it an acceptable excuse? Are you shutting him out to protect him or because you're too cowardly to try forming a relationship with him?"
"Enough!" Callen stood up abruptly. The pounding in his head had almost reached a crescendo. "You have the power to do a lot of damage. I'm asking you to stop."
Kristen had covered her face with her hands and her chest was heaving with the force of her sobs. He was faced with a choice; leave or stay and risk unraveling his resolve. He walked over and sat beside her being very careful not to touch her.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I've made it worse. I'm sorry."
"No, you were right. I've spent most of my life avoiding relationships because nothing good has ever lasted." Now that the moment was here all he could see was Michael's face and his trusting innocence. He couldn't imagine a life that didn't involve his son. "I'd like to try and be a father to Michael but I don't know how."
Kristen raised her head. Her nose and eyes were red and there were tear tracks on her cheeks. "Children don't come with an instruction manual," she said with a hint of humor. "You have to learn as you go along."
"I can't make any promises except one. I will never do anything to hurt Michael."
"Then you've already made a good start."
The weight lifted from Callen's chest. His decision was made. Time would tell if it was the right one. For tonight, though, he was at peace.