Seeing You With Open Eyes

They work together seamlessly, operate in such fluid tandem in the field and in the office, undercover and during operations, that it makes perfect sense they would fit together here, like this. Callen/Kensi. A love story in seven parts.

A/N: I started this story sometime last year and just got around to finishing it now. This is a Callen/Kensi story, and while I recognize this is a pretty peripheral pairing, there has always been something about these two together that has intrigued me. I hope there are still some Callen/Kensi fans out there, and if you are not one and choose to read this, I hope you can still respect my pairing choice. This takes place through seasons 3 and 4, beginning with "Crimeleon."

"Sometimes you find them, or sometimes they find you. You just have to keep your eyes open." –Henrietta Lange ("Imposters", 2.23)

It's the tattoos.

Kensi is used to being used as bait. Lord knows, they had done enough of these ops, and she puts up with them with good humor. After all, these were the kind of ops that (usually) required a girl, and last she checked she was the only one who fit the profile on the team.

The stubborn, independent feminist inside her is inclined to take offense at being dangled like a juicy worm on a hook, but as she sashays into the Edison downtown, leaving a trail of turning heads in her wake, a part of her feels a delicious excitement. Most ops of this nature required her to blend in with the rest of the crowd, dress correspondingly to what other women were wearing, but tonight, the tattoos snaking sinuously up the length of her legs, twining across her shoulder blades and down her arms, framed by the plunging back of the Hetty-approved dress that clung to her every curve, had her on display like a peacock in heat. Kensi would be lying if she said a part of her didn't secretly enjoy it, the appreciative, heated looks sent her way by both male and female alike, fueling the rush of seductive power that runs through her. This job didn't leave her much time to enjoy the perks of being a beautiful woman in a city like Los Angeles, and if she had to rely on an undercover op to dress up and act like a normal, young, single woman, then she was damn well going to take what pleasure she could from it.

Case in point: within seconds of sitting down at the bar, a suave, handsome stranger approaches her and buys her a drink. She knows they're here to catch a killer, a deadly chameleon who could look like anyone, but her instincts aren't screaming at her when this guy looks her in the eye and hey, he was cute. Kensi knows Deeks is somewhere behind her and she can sense Callen watching her from across the bar, looking dark and dangerous in black, and she cheekily turns up the charm.

"Not him. I shot the guy in the face, he should have a scar on his right jaw. Cut him loose," she hears Callen tell her through her earwig. He's right but she protests a little just to needle him, and she can feel his eyes bore into her across the distance. Kensi meets his gaze for a quick moment and the strange intensity she sees there rattles her for a split second, sends an unexpected, illicit thrill coursing up her spine.

Callen turns away the next second, feigning disinterest and commanding curtly into his drink, "Lose him."

Kensi tamps down her flash of annoyance and does so without preamble. She hears Deeks chuckle and looks back at Callen, shooting him an are you satisfied? look, and sees him glancing down at the bar, trying to hide a smirk. She should have known Deeks would have a quick comeback to her play, and she rolls her eyes good-naturedly at the familiar, deliberate flirtation and cockiness in his reply.

"We could be in the car right now heading home, you'd be drunk, sitting on my lap, telling me how I'm gonna wake up with bite marks on my neck," Deeks taunts shamelessly.

To her irritation the image he paints sticks in her mind, and involuntarily she pictures herself draped across Deeks' lap as he drives them back to his place, pressing open-mouthed kisses against his neck. But just as quickly the hand that is draped suggestively across her thighs turns into Callen's hand, and she imagines what it would feel like to nuzzle her face against the rough stubble of his jaw, run her hands across the short strands of his hair.

Where the fuck did that just come from? Kensi shakes herself violently and tunes back in to hear Deeks loudly declare that she wasn't his type.

"I am too your type," Kensi retorts automatically, and immediately wants to smack herself. She hadn't meant it the way it had come out, only meant that with the way she looked tonight, hell, she'd be anyone's type, and he'd be damn lucky if someone like her chose to go home with him and he'd do well to know it. Of course, it doesn't come out that way, and of course, Deeks seizes it and runs a mile with it.

"I'm sorry – what? Can I just get confirmation that we just heard that?" Even through her earpiece Kensi can hear the unbearable smugness in Deek's voice.

"I heard it," Sam responds.

"I heard it too," Callen says in that aloof, impatient tone of his, and Kensi suspects that she's just handed the boys fuel to tease her with for weeks to come.

"Kens." Callen's nickname for her has her looking up at him, and he meets her gaze directly. "Take a walk. Let's get you a little more exposure."

"You got it." Kensi gets up lithely from her seat, still grasping her drink, and brazenly saunters her way through the crowded club. She knows Deeks has his eyes peeled on her every move from his new vantage point by the bar and it's her turn now to be smug, but it's the knowledge that Callen is a few steps behind her, eyes drilling a hole against her bared back, that sends that startling flush rippling across her body.

She hears Callen and Sam comment on an admirer and jerks around in time to see the blonde creep following her turn and bolt at the sight of Callen.

"I think I might have scared him off," Callen says, catching her eyes, and Kensi can read a brief second of reluctance to leave her before he moves to follow the guy.

"I'll powder my nose until you get back."

She heads to the restroom and finds herself puzzling over the disconcerting way her body has been reacting to Callen's presence tonight, trying to figure out where it's coming from. Callen and her are colleagues, friends, have been for a long time, and yes, there may have been a time when she had a bit of a crush on him when she was a rookie and first joined NCIS, but that was partly due to her being young and impressionable and the sheer legend and mystery that surrounded him. He was a chameleon in his own right, one of the best operators NCIS had ever seen, a ghost – a man with a letter for a first name and no past. She looked up to him as a mentor, a leader, and now, a colleague. She's since lost count of the number of times they've gone undercover together and had to depend on each other for survival, and while Kensi knows she cares greatly about him, it's been a while since she examined those feelings closely and dismissed them as anything more than the distinct bond formed between teammates. But tonight – she doesn't know if it's the situation or the nature of this particular op, being put on display and attracting such blatant male attention, including those of her teammates – something about the way Callen's gaze raked over her tattooed skin has her responding in unsettling ways.

Kensi is so engrossed in her thoughts that she doesn't notice the tall, bearded man until he's nearly behind her, and then she silently berates herself for her momentary lapse in vigilance. This is an op, she reminds herself.

The man moves fast, and as he ushers her through the back door of the bar and shoves her against an alley gate, pushing himself against her, Kensi finds herself caught unawares for the second time that night. The role of seductress is almost second-nature to her by now, but she's only ever had to go so far in the ops like this she's done; never had a stranger thrusting his tongue down her throat and forcing his hands under the hem of her short dress in a dingy, deserted back alley. He smells of cigarettes and tastes like ash and hard liquor, and his hand trailing up her thigh is harsh and unyielding. Earlier in the day she told Kallstrom that she would be prepared to kill without hesitation, and in the back of her mind Kensi knows she could probably kick this guy's ass twenty times from here to Tijuana, but the fact that she's actually being sexually assaulted right now shocks her senses into momentary paralysis.

She barely hears the snap of the switchblade he pulls out before Sam bowls into them, sending the guy to his knees with a brutal punch to his lower back. Kensi steps quickly to the side and tries desperately to clear her head, to focus, and when Callen bursts out the door, Deeks on his heels, she grips Callen's shoulder briefly in instinctive relief. Callen's gaze lands on her swiftly, coolly appraising, before he reaches over and grabs her assailant's head forcibly, twisting his face, checking for a scar.

"You okay?" Deeks asks her, and she can hear the concern in his voice, except this is when the adrenaline finally starts to hit her.

"Yeah. I'm fine," she tells him tersely, and watches as Sam and Callen search the guy, trying to regain her mask of cold impassivity.

Until the guy – Rinaldo Maggio – tells them that he answered a personal ad that paid him to take her outside and cut off her panties. That's when the disgust and revulsion sink in fully and Kensi covers her mouth at the realization at how close she had been to –

"He set us up. He wanted us to be here." Callen's voice dawns with realization at DeGramont's ploy and his face takes on the familiar preoccupied, dogged expression where he's rapidly scanning and assessing for potential threats.

With a shove, Sam sends Rinaldo stumbling towards Deeks. "Take him home. Get his laptop, check his story."

Callen barely spares her a glance as she and Deeks head towards the car, and Kensi manhandles Rinaldo a bit more roughly than necessary into the backseat of Callen's sleek Aston Martin when the valet finally pulls it up. To his credit, the guy has the good sense to avoid so much as taking another peep at her, judging by the death glares Deeks shoots him in the rearview mirror anytime he has the audacity to glance up.

Unfortunately, Rinaldo's story checks out, and they are forced to let him go at his apartment after sending Eric the requisite information. On the drive back to OSP, Kensi tries to erase the feeling and taste of Rinaldo's mouth on hers and attempts not to be sickened by her own inability to react more swiftly and appropriately. Kensi has plenty of confidence in her skills and abilities, and if there was one thing she's learned on the job, it was that it was no good to second-guess oneself after an operation. Things happened in the heat of the moment and you had to make split-second decisions in the middle of full-throttle action that made them fruitless to try and over-analyze later. Except – tonight, she didn't really make a decision or take any action at all. All things considered, the night's op turned out to be pretty tame – no bullets exchanged, she wasn't hurt, not really, and even though they didn't get their guy, they might be one step closer to finding him. However, Kensi is left with the realization that while she could be cool as a cucumber in the face of flying bullets, when confronted with a situation that probably happened way more often than she felt comfortable thinking about to defenseless women everywhere, she – strong, independent Kensi – had fucking frozen and had to have Sam come to her rescue.

The disappointment and guilt leaves an acrid, stinging taste in the back of her mouth, and she can't shake a mental image of Rinaldo with a knife to her throat, slowly ripping her underwear off. She can't help the involuntary shudder that spasms through her, and Deeks doesn't miss it.

"Hey," he says, laying a hand gently on her arm. "It's okay. You're okay."

She smiles at him faintly, feeling a sudden rush of gratitude for the solidness of his presence next to her. Before long they're driving into OSP and she's inside ripping the dress over her head in the changing area, wanting nothing more than to be rid of it and changed into her regular, unassuming jeans and T-shirt. She wants to go home to her shower, scrub herself until her skin is pink and raw, tattoo-less, until she can wash the smells and tastes of this night right out of her skin. Then she wants to pass out until she has to come back in and possibly have to do this all over again.

It's already past midnight by the time she grabs her bag and swings out of OSP, but she bumps into Deeks by the entrance and he grabs her arm, steadies her slightly. "Let me drive you home," he says, and his eyes are earnest and insistent. It's been a long night, and Kensi nods, following her partner out to his car.

Deeks drives in silence for a while, but he keeps sneaking glances at her out of the corners of his eyes until Kensi finally snaps, "What?"

Deeks looks sheepish. "Just…I'm here if you know, if you want to talk about it."

Kensi swings her gaze back out the window, to the view of miles of uncharacteristically empty highway stretching before them. "What's there to talk about?"

"I know there's something bothering you, and I know when you say you're 'fine', you're really not," Deeks continues resolutely, oblivious to her attempt to shut him down. "I'm your partner."

Kensi sighs. Deeks is her partner, but the reason they worked so well thus far was because the depth of their interaction consisted of banter, teasing, and the underlying, flippant flirtation that was so pervasive in their relationship. They didn't delve beneath the surface – like the way they avoided addressing whatever the "thing" was that was between them. They didn't share personal details with each other, and Kensi preferred it that way. Hell, she rarely shared private information with anyone, and she didn't see it changing with Deeks.

Despite how much she liked to complain about him, Kensi truly appreciated her partner for his levity, for his ability to make her laugh in any given situation, for his capacity to bring some light to her dark corners. She wanted to keep it like that, for a while; didn't think they were anywhere near the relationship Sam and Callen had, able to understand each other on an instinctive level. Truth be told, she didn't even understand how it was possible to reach that level of partnership, or what it took.

"Deeks," Kensi replies, flashing him a reassuring smile. "Thanks for your concern, but I'm fine–" She realizes what she's just said and huffs out a breath ruefully. "I'm good. Really. There's nothing to talk about."

Her partner remains mute, surprisingly, and it isn't until he pulls up to her apartment block that he finally speaks.

"Want me to come in? We could watch some Top Model reruns, you could demonstrate some of those bite marks I was talking about earlier," Deeks waggles his eyebrows and grins at her, and just as suddenly their old dynamic is back in place, and Kensi feels another rush of gratitude towards him.

"For the record, you totally could not have picked me up, I'm so completely out of your league, and don't think you're coming inside again for a long time," Kensi retorts teasingly, but squeezes his arm softly before she gets out of the car.

Deeks rolls down the window and looks out at her for a moment, eyes searching. "You sure you're going to be okay?"

"Yes," Kensi rolls her eyes. "I'll see you tomorrow, Deeks."

She knows he's watching her as she makes her way up the steps, waiting to see her enter her apartment before he pulls away from the curb, but she doesn't glance back. Kensi heads straight for her shower, and she stays in there for a long time, letting the steam and heat and the scent of her soap cleanse the remnants of the night away. She droops against the bright tiles of the stall, allowing her muscles to finally relax under the pounding stream from her showerhead, watching the water swirl away in rivulets down the drain.

When she's done, she wraps a towel around herself and steps out into her living room to find Callen sprawled on her couch, flipping through his phone. He looks up at her entrance, raises an eyebrow at her outfit but doesn't say anything.

Kensi starts in surprise, only to discover an immediate sense of ease and reassurance flooding through her at the sight of him, a reaction that she wants to avoid thinking too long and hard about at the moment.

"G, what's up?" Kensi asks in greeting, as if it's the most natural thing in the world for her to find him sitting in her apartment at 1 a.m.

Callen looks amused at her question, and he nods at the door. "Sorry, I knocked but you were obviously showering. Let myself in."

Kensi is fairly certain he probably picked her lock but can't find it in herself to be annoyed about it just now as she pads into her tiny kitchen. "Do you want something to drink?"

"No," he says, although he follows her into the small space, leaning against her refrigerator. "Kallstrom's dead."

"What?" Kensi straightens up quickly, tucking the towel more securely around herself.

Callen fills her in about the video and the follow-up calls he and Sam made after she and Deeks left. "We need to be back at OSP in a few hours."

"Okay." Kensi rubs her face tiredly, then glances at him, notices the way his eyes are startling blue in the fluorescent light of her kitchen, the way they're roving over the tattoos still inked across her arms, and all of a sudden she is achingly alert and acutely aware of his proximity to her. Without warning he takes a step forward and reaches a hand towards her arm, fingers hovering hesitantly over the area where the tribal design snaked around behind her shoulder.

"Couldn't wash these off?" His voice is low, quiet, and against her volition Kensi's heartbeat quickens against her chest.

"Makeup artist said it might take a few days to come off." Kensi nearly jumps as his fingers make contact with her skin, at the electricity that sizzles from his fingertips straight to somewhere in her gut.

"Callen," she manages to bite out, trying in vain to ignore the humming of her body. "Were you just here to tell me about Kallstrom? You could have just called." Her voice sounds entirely too high-pitched to her own ears.

He shrugs noncommittally. "I was in the neighborhood."

Kensi quirks an eyebrow at him, waiting. He meets her eyes and sighs. "Guess I wanted to make sure you were okay. I know the op tonight might have been…uncomfortable."

Kensi focuses on his words and feels a sharp surge of irritation rise to the surface. "What's with you boys tonight? I don't need you and Deeks asking me if I'm okay every five minutes, checking to see if I'm going to fall apart – I don't need you guys coming to my rescue, because I'm sure as hell not some damsel in distress."

Kensi's words come out jagged and she glares at the man in front of her, but he merely stares at her in silence, and after a moment the discerning blue of his eyes has her dropping her gaze and exhaling a long breath. It was hard to hide from Callen, especially when she was in the direct path of that knowing, shrewd look of his. It was part of the reason they worked so well together in the field, why they could communicate tacitly with a single look. On some fundamental level they understood each other: understood the walls each threw up as impenetrable defenses; understood the gaping holes that lay behind those walls. But with Callen, Kensi was slowly realizing with trepidation, maybe her walls weren't as impenetrable as she thought, and maybe that explained some of her behavior tonight.

"I'm used to guys wanting to hit me. Kill me. I can handle that, no problem. I wasn't expecting a guy to assault me in that–that way, and when he told us what he was planning to do – I guess I was caught off guard," Kensi admits quietly, with a measure of chagrin. "I should have reacted faster."

"Kens," Callen's fingers close around her arm, warm and firm. "You were always going to be all right. Sam, Deeks and I were right behind you, the whole time."

"I know. But I didn't need Sam to rescue me. I don't want you to think I can't handle myself in a situation like that."

Callen looks surprised at that. "I don't. I wouldn't ever." He strokes his fingers down along her arm, following the path of her tattoos, and Kensi barely suppresses the shiver that runs through her. He doesn't miss it.

"You're one of the most capable agents I know, Kens. Sam just had your back. Like we all do."

Kensi lets her gaze flicker over Callen's face, noting the deep shadows under his eyes, and she realizes with sudden clarity that he was genuinely worried about her, that what had driven him to her door so late after the op tonight somehow stemmed from some deeper emotion. And it's that thought that floors her, sends her breath hitching in her throat and anticipation thrumming through her veins.

"What I hate most about these ops is having some random guy's hands all over me. I feel like I can't get them off me for days," Kensi whispers after a beat, and her admission and the trust she unreservedly offers him alongside it astound her.

"I know," he murmurs, so softly she has to strain to hear him. "I hate that too." Callen takes a step closer, and Kensi wonders if he can feel the heat that's crackling between them, and she is intensely conscious of the fact that the only thing standing between them right now is a towel. It would almost be absurd, her and Callen of all people, mere inches separating them in her kitchen, were it not for the fact that she's watching his eyes darken to a mesmeric shade of indigo, pupils dilating, and it sends a pool of desire straight to her stomach, between her legs.

They stand like that for what seems like ages, hovering on the brink of an unspoken precipice, until Kensi takes the plunge and closes the distance between them, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing a kiss in the hollow behind his jaw, her smooth cheek rubbing sensuously against his unshaven one. She hears Callen's low growl, and then all thoughts flee her head as he slides his mouth against hers.

This is nothing like their few undercover kisses, cursory and perfunctory. This is explosive and all-consuming, devouring them both, and if Kensi had room left in her brain to analyze anything she'd be stunned at the intensity with which they come together. He presses her back hard against the fridge, hands gripping her waist so tightly she thinks they might leave an imprint, and she runs her hands feverishly through his close-cropped hair. Callen smells comforting and familiar, like leather and gunpowder, and he tastes faintly of whiskey and something that's intangibly Callen. She can't seem to get enough, and she clutches him tighter against her, slides a bare leg between his, needing more.

"Kensi," he pulls away abruptly to whisper in her ear, breathing heavily. "Kens–"

She realizes he's got a hand on the top of her towel and he's implicitly asking for her permission. She unwraps her towel in one smooth motion, lets it drop to the floor, and takes primal pleasure in the sound of Callen's guttural groan as his hands come back to her skin, skimming over the tats on her back to land on the curve of her spine. His touch sears her and she actually lets out a moan, nipping at his ear. Callen reacts like a livewire, curling a hand in the tangles of her hair and yanking her head back, setting teeth and tongue down the long line of her throat, and Kensi shudders as she slips his jacket off, feverishly begins to unbutton his shirt, and he hoists her up against him, her legs wrapping around his hips.

He takes them into her bedroom, spreads her out on her queen-size bed, covers her with the length of his body, and time seems to stop. When she flips them and arches over and around him, she wonders if it was the tattoos that led them here, if having them still imprinted on her like a second skin was akin to taking on an undercover persona. Wearing them, she could pretend that she was someone other than herself; that they weren't Kensi and Callen, that they wouldn't wake up the next morning with yet more masks and secrets to tuck behind their walls. That they would be able to find their way to something more than this one night.

She wonders if there will be anything left after this fire burns through them.

Later, as they lay quietly together side-by-side, Callen traces the lines of her painted-on ink in meaningless patterns, up her legs, across her thighs and down her arms, and in a surprising gesture of tenderness after the heat and ardor of before, presses a soft kiss to her shoulder. Kensi lets her eyes droop closed, and thinks sleepily that she's not sure how they ended up here but she wouldn't have chosen to end the night in any other way. She falls asleep to the taste and smell of Callen on her skin, now.

When she wakes up a few hours later, the sky still dark outside her window, the spot beside her on the bed is cold, and he is gone.