A/N: To everyone who has stuck with this story, thank you so much for your support and patience, and for allowing me to dabble in this universe. I can only hope I did it justice, and I appreciate every one of your reviews. I hope you enjoy the last part, and I would love to hear from you!

It was only a matter of time before they caught up with Sidorov again.

Callen has barely slept in weeks, eyes bloodshot, mind reeling and disoriented. He lies awake at night, the thick, vacant silence stretching vast and interminable before him, missing the warmth of her, the sound of her laughter, the cadence of her breathing next to him.

When he lurches to the office, he finds the same blanketing silences there: he and Kensi have scarcely spoken, ducking around each other in the hallways, exchanging terse, halting pleasantries in front of Hetty and the rest of the team. Even Deeks has picked up on some of the overt tension, glancing between the two of them in wariness when they are being briefed on the situation in the ops center, Kensi deliberately standing on the opposite side of the room as him.

He assigns Kensi and Deeks to babysit CIA agents Snyder and Sobatino, needing some breathing room, needing to refocus on his own partner, who is once more unraveling at the seams with Michelle being called back to Sidorov's side.

His job is to protect Sam, keep him grounded and operational; have his back. What he doesn't predict is that Sam gets arrested, Hetty refuses to bail him out of jail, and suddenly the life of his partner's wife has been placed solely in his hands.

Except he doesn't get to Michelle's side in time. By the time he rounds the stalls at Venice Beach after a confrontation with Sidorov, Sam has already taken out Dmitri Greshnev, and heads straight for his wife, enveloping her in his arms. As Callen watches them embrace, Sam whispering into Michelle's ear, his wife twining herself around him intimately, some fissure splinters inside of him, and he has to look away.

Afterwards, once Sam has safely seen Michelle to their home, Callen waits for his partner outside, car idling. He slides behind the wheel as Sam emerges from his house and settles himself heavily in the passenger side.

"Granger's waiting to debrief," Callen remarks. "How you doing?"

Sam runs a hand over his face tiredly. "I'm good. Be better once all this shit is over."

"Yeah." Callen drums his fingers against the wheel, silently thinking, before turning to his partner. "You know she's going to go back under."

"I know," Sam replies calmly.

Callen eyes his partner carefully. "A few hours ago you broke out of jail to get to her, Sam. How are you okay with this?"

Sam clenches his jaw. "I did what I had to do. Don't have a choice, really, do I? There's a bigger picture involved here. I trust Michelle."

He's still for a minute, then chuckles unexpectedly.

"What?" Callen gives him a puzzled look.

"So how deep are you?"

"Excuse me?"

"How deep are you in?" Sam glances at his partner meaningfully. "With Kensi?"

Callen's eyes widen and he tries to generate a response from his scrambled thoughts.

"Pretty deep, I take it." Sam actually laughs.

"What–How–?" Callen manages to sputter.

"I'm insulted, G. You think I'm blind?" Sam cocks his head, daring his partner to contradict him, but Callen remains mute.

"You were about to blow a gasket during that op she went undercover with Deeks. Kensi was running on fumes when you were with the Iranians," Sam lists off his fingers. "The way you guys look at each other. The way you look at each other when you think no one's watching. The way you watch her closer than a hawk on an op. The way she overcompensates with Deeks. Hell, you were nearly pleasant to be around for a few weeks there." His partner smirks. "And now you two can hardly look at each other. Trouble in paradise?"

Callen rubs his jaw broodingly, ignoring his partner's gibe. "Does Hetty know? The team?"

Sam barely conceals a grin at Callen's implicit acknowledgement. "Nah. Deeks is clueless, don't worry about Eric and Nell. Hetty, I wouldn't put past. She's omnipotent."

Callen cracks a smile at that, and Sam scrutinizes his partner soberly as he gazes out the windshield, once more absorbed in his thoughts, somewhere far away.

"Marrying Michelle was the best decision I ever made in my life," he says, breaking Callen's contemplation.

"Sam, you've got a family, kids. It's different," Callen retorts, leery of the direction his partner is heading, but Sam shakes his head.

"It's not about that. She made me stronger, made me a better person than I could have been on my own."

"You wouldn't be in this position now if she wasn't in your life. If you didn't have to go out of your mind every time she straps on a gun," Callen points out.

"Maybe not. But the fact that I do – that's how I know I'm doing something right. That's how I know I can keep doing this job." Sam squints at him knowingly. "And you know it doesn't matter. You'd worry either way, whatever she did."

Callen sighs, raking a hand over his hair. "Trust me, we work better alone."

"Better for who? You? Or Kensi? Can you really make that decision for the both of you?" Sam snorts. "You haven't been alone for a long time now, despite what you want to think. For Chrissakes, my kids call you Uncle Callen."

Callen looks at him expressionlessly, and Sam rolls his eyes at his partner's obstinacy.

"I'm only gonna tell you this once, G. We've been partners a long time." Sam pauses, gathering his thoughts. "You're a statue. You've been frozen, watching your life pass you by, waiting for answers you might never get. You've got a shot at happiness and you're too chickenshit to even take it. Kensi's a smart girl. She knows what she's doing, she's not going to break. You really gonna walk away from this?"

"I'm not as strong as you, Sam," Callen admits frankly. "I can't lead this team if I'm compromised by Kensi."

Sam lets out a derisive scoff. "Bullshit. You're compromised by her anyway. You're scared of being happy. First taste of it and you bolt."

Callen is quiet for a long moment, mulling and formulating the one question he wants to ask his partner, the one question he's petrified of knowing the answer to.

He gestures towards Sam's house. "So is all this worth it? Even knowing she could disappear tomorrow, even knowing you might lose everything?"

Sam looks his partner in the eye. "Every fucking minute of it."

A marine is dead in Idaho, and Callen watches with unease as Kensi gives Deeks a box. Messing with Deeks is a competitive sport at OSP, but he's disquieted by the look in her eyes, the flicker of shock on Deek's face as he accepts the hunk of cardboard. He wonders what its contents are, but intuits that it isn't his place to inquire, that he was infringing on some sort of private rite between partners. Any right he might have had to ask questions, he's willingly forfeited.

Hetty sends him to a little town called Moscow in the heartland. It's freezing and barren but it's a welcome distraction, and it takes him away from the heated silences at OSP and brings him out of the disaster zone that is his head these days.

He meets Paris Summerskill, who's attractive and likeminded and almost as much of a lone wolf as he is. Callen's isn't expecting the chemistry that fizzes between them, and he examines it warily, cautious and unwilling to venture too close, and the few times he does indulge it, there's a keen sting of guilt in his throat. Paris is intriguing, but the way she holds her gun, the way she flanks his back in the field, the way she smiles at him – it's all wrong.

He thinks if it were in another time, another place. Another life, perhaps. Because all he can picture, all he can see behind his closed eyelids, lying awake and alone on the bottom bunk below Sam, are expressive brown eyes and a fearless smile; a girl who softened his hard edges, a woman who saw through the walls he spent a lifetime building.

Eric calls him early the second morning with an update, and unexpectedly transfers the line over to Kensi.

"Hey," she greets him over the phone, brisk and businesslike, and Callen involuntarily tenses.

"Hey," he responds. "What's up?"

"We found Santoso's apartment. Looks like it was a safe house for their cell. At least four of them. Eric's sifting through security cam footage now."

She fills him in on the rest of the details, and Callen hones in on her voice, guarded and vigilant.

"Good work, Kens. Keep me posted," he tells her, and then pauses, deliberating how to continue. He hears the hum and bustle of the ops center in the background, and then a muted quiet as she moves into another room.

"How's Idaho?" She asks at length, and he recognizes the question for what it is, a tenuous olive branch, and he grasps it with relief and gratitude.

"Cold. Nothing out here but snowstorms and Granger."

"That's unfortunate."

"You holding up the fort okay?" Callen ventures, a part of him wanting to keep her on the line, despite his better judgment.

"We're managing. Keeping Deeks on a leash."

"He open the box yet?"

"No." He can hear the smile in her voice. "And a hundred bucks says he's not going to."

Callen chuckles. "We ever going to find out what's in there?"

"Wouldn't you like to know." She sounds smug, a hint of her old playfulness coming back, and it isn't until this moment that he realizes how desperate he has been to hear it.

"Poor guy must be going nuts. You're breaking his heart," Callen says glibly, before he has time to process his words, and he instantly wants to smack himself. The line goes still, and he listens to the slight hitch of her breath, feeling a dull, throbbing ache somewhere deep in his bones.

They were both trying, but the old sense of ease is gone, careless words revealing the cracks and fissures underneath their masks more starkly now. He keeps having to convince himself that this was the right call, that he had made the only decision he could, the one that protected both him and Kensi. They were better off alone, it was what they knew, what they had been doing for years – except now that he is again, he's fracturing around the edges.

He thought it would get better with time, the persistent worry and second-guessing, but if anything, it's gotten worse. He's having trouble focusing, distracted by Kensi's whereabouts and his constant attempts to decipher the thoughts swirling behind her veil of stoicism, the messages beneath her silences. He can't concentrate on the case, and he concedes the peril he's inadvertently putting himself and his team in, the liability he and Kensi are slowly becoming. He remembers Sam's words, and thinks maybe his partner was right. Maybe they were stronger together than apart.

Except there's been damage done, and bridges to rebuild, to rediscover and re-cross. He's unsure of the way forward, lost and groping in the darkness of unfamiliar terrain. He thinks of all the things he wants to say but can't, all the things he should say but doesn't know how to, the words lodged, cloying and rigid, in the back of his mouth.

"Stay warm out there, G." Her voice comes across the line, dense and fluid, and he reads the meaning behind everything she isn't saying, either.

She disconnects the line.

When Red Team sets up camp back in LA, he goes over strategy and contingency tactics with Paris, their heads bent closely together over his desk, Paris casually resting a hand on his arm as she points out a weakness in the plan. He senses Kensi watching them surreptitiously, and when he glances over at her he glimpses the flash of anguish in her eyes, visceral and unconcealed, before she can temper it. She smiles thinly at him and and gets up abruptly from her desk.

He's not prepared for the nausea that hits him in the gut, or the absolute, dizzying certainty that comes with it.

He's spent a lifetime running, hunting for ghosts and afraid of leaving himself open to being hurt, to being (human). He thinks of all he's missed along the way, of so many things lost and shattered irrevocably, of the price that may just be too high. He thinks of a life spent surviving in shadows, of taking one hesitant step forward and three decisive steps back.

He doesn't really want to do that, anymore. The game had changed underneath his feet; the stakes too great.

It was time to start living.

He's contemplating this after the case is over, and Paris finds him standing on the grassy knoll outside Red Team's trailers, staring off into the distance.

"Want to stay for dinner? Dave's not cooking," Paris invites him with a shy grin, her eyes flicking to his.

Callen looks at her, appraising, and shakes his head in decline. "I appreciate that, but Sam has a family."

It's a partial truth, the other half unspoken. He has someone he needs to get back to, someone to make amends to. A reason to return home, a reason he hopes is not broken irreparably.

"Tempted to run away and join the circus?" Sam asks innocently on the long drive home.

Callen scoffs. "Nah. My young and reckless days are over. Got a mortgage to pay now. Besides, they wouldn't want me."

Sam cocks an eyebrow. "You sure about that? Seemed like someone back there was plenty interested in buying."

"I don't date law enforcement, remember?"

"What's that make Kensi?" Sam's lips twitch in a half-smile.

Callen takes a measured breath in and exhales slowly. "Kensi's…different."

"She sure is." His partner grins at him and guns the throttle.

He debriefs Hetty and Granger back at OSP, after which Hetty pours him a stiff glass of Scotch.

"To another successful case," she toasts, and he clinks glasses with her.

Hetty gives him a penetrating look. "So how did you and Ms. Summerskill get along?

"Uh," Callen rubs his face tiredly, momentarily taken aback. "Good, I suppose. She's a good agent. Good team."

"Will you be seeing each other again soon?"

Callen narrows his eyes at her suspiciously. "No, I don't think so. They caught a case in Arkansas."

"Ah." Hetty's smile is inscrutable. "Just as I thought."

Callen takes a swig of his drink, waiting for her to elaborate, but she continues to smile enigmatically at him.

"Perhaps what you need to learn, Mr. Callen, is that sometimes the answers you're seeking are right there in front of you," Hetty remarks finally, gazing at him astutely. "Take it from an old lady who's had a lifetime to think about this, a lifetime intimately acquainted with regret: it's about more than the job, and there will come a time when you'll find it's not enough. When the opportunity presents itself, you should not hesitate. She will not wait around forever."

They stare at each other, and Callen understands with perfect lucidity that it isn't Paris she is referring to.

He heads to the training room. There are too many thoughts clouding his mind, and he has an urgent desire to work up a sweat, clear his head, figure out the next step forward. The punching bag is methodical and soothing, and he lulls himself into a comfortable rhythm before he's aware of another presence in the room.

Deeks is the last person he expects to see.

"Hey boss, working out some stress there?"

Callen grunts as he lands another punch, hoping Deeks will take the hint and leave him alone. He throws a triple jab and hook combo before he realizes Deeks is pacing restlessly in front of him, fidgeting on the tips of his toes. Callen pauses, holding the bag stable, and looks at Deeks expectantly.

"I came here to – I just wanted to –" Deeks clears his throat uncomfortably. "Look, I'm just going to say this. This has got to stop."

Callen arches an eyebrow.

"I know this is none of my business, but whatever's going on between you and Kensi, you need to fix it. I've tried to talk to her about it, but she shuts me out completely. She's moody, well more so than usual, unfocused, reckless. My jokes aren't even working, let's talk about a serious issue right there –" Deeks falters slightly under Callen's imperturbable gaze, then plows on heedlessly.

"She's my partner. I get that the two of you clutch your cards closer to the vest than I thought was even humanely possible, dysfunctional baggage and all that – and I'm not even going near you – but I know Kensi, and I know when something's wrong. Whatever's going on between the two of you, it's messing her up. And seeing as how both of you are too stubborn to do anything about it and are just going to skirt around the issue forever while the rest of us suffer…"

Callen stares at Deeks in incredulity. "What is this, a coordinated attack?"

Deeks returns his gaze blankly. "Huh?"

"Did Hetty put you up to this? Sam?" Callen snaps, irritated.

"No. Why would they?" There's a dawning realization in Deeks' expression. "Oh. Well maybe you needed a slap in the head."

Callen glowers at him and shoves off the bag in aggravation. "You're right. It's none of your damn business."

Deeks holds up his hands in appeasement. "I know I'm overstepping. But I just thought you should know. I know you care a lot about her. I care a lot about her, too."

There's a suggestion of some deeper emotion behind Deek's words, and Callen stops short. It was oftentimes easy to write off the LAPD detective as frivolous and superficial, and they had all been guilty of dismissing his flippant demeanor and incessant clowning. But Deeks' layer of armor and defenses were his jokes and insouciance, and he was as adept at hiding behind them as the rest of them. Chinks in that armor were showing now, and Callen senses the worry and concern peeking through acutely. He exhales sharply and faces his teammate.

"How is she?" he asks, earnestly.

"Well, she hasn't been sleeping much. She'll never admit that she's hurting, but I know better. She'll be okay, though, because she's stronger than either of us." Deeks gives an imperceptible shake of his head. "You should talk to her before it's too late."

"You know as well as I do that it isn't that simple."

Deeks hesitates for a few seconds. "I might not have been doing this for as long as you have, but what I have learned is that in this line of work you take what happiness you can get, even scraps of it. And I'm pretty sure you've been offered the whole damn platter. For some reason Kensi's chosen you, and that makes you one lucky man, G Callen. I'm man enough to know when I'm beat – for now."

Deeks looks at him boldly, an unspoken challenge in his eyes, and Callen meets his gaze unblinkingly.

"Sam should give you more credit," Callen reflects after a moment, a part of him amused by the younger man's audaciousness.

Deeks breaks into a sudden grin. "Nothing we need to share with him. Don't bench me for this, bossman."

"I'll take that under consideration." Callen smirks.

Deeks moves to leave, and it's Callen who stops him this time.

"How'd you make the decision, Deeks? How'd you let the pieces fall?" He's genuinely curious.

Deeks turns back around to face him.

"You look at everything that could go wrong, everything you could stand to lose. Then you look at everything you could possibly gain. There wasn't much of a decision." He shrugs. "Then again, it's not mine to make."

Callen ponders for the millionth time the risks and threats, the inevitable complications and struggles, looming large. Then he thinks of Kensi, and somehow she was enough to tip the scales.

"You're a good man, Deeks," he finally says to the detective, and Deeks shrugs again.

"She's my partner. I've got her back."

He makes his way across the room to the door.

"You open the box yet?" Callen calls out after him, an afterthought.

Deeks beams back at him.

"Nah. Some things aren't meant to be opened," he replies over his shoulder, right before he exits.

Callen props himself against the punching bag and begins to chuckle, uncharacteristic, aberrant snickers and chortles that turn into wild, uncontrolled laughter, deep heaving breaths that come from his abdomen. He laughs and laughs, at the absurdity of finding himself in this situation, at his own fear and foolhardiness, at being tag-teamed by his own team; weeks of tension and trepidation dissipating out of his system at last.

The sound of it echoes against the walls. When it dies off, he's left staring at the empty room, abruptly sober and strangely calm.

He's found his way forward.

It's late afternoon the following day by the time he finishes his errand and makes it back to the office, cradling a tiny box in his hand.

He searches the building for her, and finally finds her on the second floor, in a hidden corner of the hacienda. She's perched on a balcony gazing out at the dusky Los Angeles sunset, skin illuminated by the blaze of crimson and orange streaking the sky above her, wind tangling gently through her hair.

He steps up quietly beside her, and Kensi barely spares a glance in his direction before inquiring, "You bring donuts?"

"Something better, I hope." He lets his elbow lightly brush against hers.

"Red Team leave?" There's no malice or jealousy in her voice, simply inquisitive.

"Yesterday," he replies, gingerly broaching the subject. "So about Paris– "

Kensi shrugs wryly. "The op comes first, right?"

"That's not what– " Callen begins, but Kensi shakes her head as she turns to face him, interrupting without preamble.

"The thing you didn't bother to ask me is this: I wanted you. You were enough. I was happy to take it one day at a time with you, as long as we were doing it together," she asserts doggedly. "Happy ending be damned. You think I planned for this to happen? You think I didn't do everything I could to try to stop? You and I should be too fucked up to even consider this, yet we found a way to each other. It's too late to turn back."

Callen waits patently for her to finish, then quirks an eyebrow at her. "Wanted? Or still want?"

He feels the stirrings of something that feels like hope, fluttering tentatively against his ribcage.

Kensi narrows her eyes at him, and he places his own small box in her hand.

"What's this?"

"Something that's meant to be opened."

He smiles gently at her, and she carefully eases the lid off the box, lifting out a key, its brass coating glinting dully in the light of the setting sun.

"It's to my house." Callen shoves his hands into his pockets, suddenly feeling self-conscious and unnerved. He hopes she understands his gesture, understands everything he wants to say but still doesn't know the words to, understands enough to forgive him. It's the only gift he could think to give her that would convey what he couldn't, how deep he's in, how inextricably entwined.

She stares in shock at the metal in her hands, and Callen waits an excruciatingly long time for her to speak.

"You're a fucking idiot, G Callen," she finally manages, and looks back up at him, searching his eyes.

"How do I know you won't do this again? Change your mind?" She asks evenly.

Callen gives a brief shrug of his shoulders. "You don't. But you can't tell me you won't either," he says reasonably. He reaches out a hand to cup her cheek, serious and solemn.

"No more masks. No more running. We both know this isn't going to be easy, and it's going to throw us places we're terrified of being in. We've lost too much along the way, Kens. I'm not going to lose us, too." He runs a thumb tenderly down her jaw, ghosting across her lips. "I want to do this together. I choose this."

Kensi considers him, a long, probing look, and he waits with bated breath and a quickening pulse, exposed and vulnerable, for her response. She understands too well the heft of his words, of what it took to bring him – them – here.

"So does this mean I don't have to worry about you breaking into my place again?" Her tone is somber, but there's a wry twist of her mouth, a spark in her eyes.

Callen grins at her ruefully. "Can't let my lock-picking skills get rusty."

Kensi reaches out both hands to frame his face, her expression etched fierce and resolute. He leans down, capturing her lips slowly in a kiss that is soft and poignant, communicating all his regret, all his repentance, all his joy. Callen circles his arms around her, feeling the smooth lines and tough edges that make up Kensi, the sunshine and the danger, feeling the hope and exhilaration and the ache he knows will be coming.

There are no promises pledged, no lingering assurances, because neither of them can give any.

It is enough, for now.

It is real.

A few weeks later he returns to his house late one night from an undercover operation and lets himself through his front door noiselessly, surveying his darkened surroundings. Kensi's jacket and sweatshirt are thrown haphazardly on the couch, her shoes piled untidily near the front door, books thrown on the new dining table they bought together. His lips quirk up in a half smile as he notes that her things are slowly migrating here, inadvertently.

He hasn't seen her in over three weeks, unable to extricate himself from his current assignment, but he's finally home, and he steps into his bedroom to find her sleeping peacefully, wearing one of his old T-shirts. He watches her for a few minutes, feeling something delicate and inexplicable turn over in his chest.

He sheds his clothes and crawls in next to her, covering her fully with his body, sinking gentle kisses into her shoulder to wake her up.

"Mmm, hello stranger," she murmurs, voice thick with sleep. "Welcome home."

He shushes her with his mouth, letting his hands do his talking for him, fingers tracing a line down her silken skin, allowing himself to melt into her familiar curves. Kensi responds unequivocally underneath him, bowing her spine, reaching for him, pressing herself ever closer. He buries himself in the taste of her, the heat of her, her pliancy and urgency.

After the fervor, when they're fused together skin to skin, bare, (raw) and she's pressing languid kisses to his collarbone, he whispers against her hair, "You see me."

Kensi grips his hand tightly, and he waits until her breathing evens, her hands loosen, the quiet rise and fall of her chest providing a reassuring counterpoint to the steady beating of his heart.

Callen closes his eyes and succumbs to sleep.