Author's Note: How is Nell Jones recovering…?


Something buzzes, and Nell redoubles her efforts at scouring the discolored piece of grout between the bathroom tiles behind the toilet. Almost there. Just a few more passes of the coarsely bristled brush. There's the buzzing again. Is it the kitchen timer? She better go check on the batch of cookies currently in the oven's gullet. Nobody likes burnt cookies. Especially not her.

She walks briskly, but doesn't run, to the kitchen. The timer is still blinking '0:02' at her. She opens the oven and peeks in at the dough, which has taken on the flattened, round cookie shape but is still glossy in the middle, and therefore not completely cooked.

There's the buzzing noise again and she realizes finally that it's her apartment door. She wonders who the hell it could be, but only for a fraction of a second before her brain informs her. G Callen. He is coming over for dinner and a movie. They're pretending that they can be friends still. But is it really that time already?

Nell glances at the clock, realizes that yes, it's a little past 7pm. She must have lost track of time whilst giving the apartment its daily scrub down. Yes, daily. She knows she's getting a little out of control. Except the cleanliness of her apartment is one of the only things she can control.

"Just a minute," she calls down the hall towards her front door before scurrying off to her bedroom to add a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and bra to her otherwise skimpy attire. It's odd that she feels comfortable going about her chores in just a camisole and boy short panties, because she knows if she really wanted to be prepared for every eventuality, she would be clothed to run for her life through any terrain. At least, she wouldn't walk around barefoot in what was basically only her underwear. But she'd tried to wear jeans and shoes. The jeans were uncomfortable to 'bum around' in. And the shoes... oh god, she could feel the dirt being tracked around her apartment, even though she'd thoroughly washed her indoor shoes, a pair of pink girl's cons with teal laces. That lasted all of half a day. And she feels safe in her apartment, besides, with the Glock 26 nestled in its holster nearby, accompanying her into whichever room she's currently making busywork.

There's another buzz. This time it is the kitchen timer. She rushes to the front door, however, checks the peep hole, unlocks both deadbolts and invites in the blue-eyed agent with the large paper bag of take-out. It smells like... curry. And then she's off to the kitchen, the sharp jab of worry about the security of the front door dissipating as she hears the click of the deadbolts at Callen's hands. He knows her so well. He's such a good friend.

Just a friend?

Yes. That's all he would ever be. She will not ask him for more. Because she is being silly. So silly. So stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Jabbing the button to silence the squawking timer, Nell pulls open the oven door, the warm, mouth-watering scent of chocolate chip cookies billowing out in a heavenly cloud. Yup. They're done. Grabbing mitts, she pulls out the sheet and deciding that they've baked for just the precisely right amount, begins to remove them to the bare, clean -freshly scrubbed to within an inch of its life, and a little beyond- counter top. She hears Callen plop the bag of steaming foodstuffs onto the opposite counter behind her, the aroma of masala battling with hot, gooey baked goodness in the smallish kitchen. And lord, she is hungry. Did she even eat lunch today?

There's a soft pressure that comes to rest on her shoulder after she settles the last chocolate chip cookie in its home to cool -finishing off the neatly, evenly spaced rows- and places the spatula aside. She knows it well, the large, warm calloused hand of her... friend.

"How are you doing, Nell?"

The question.

Just the same as always.

She turns and there's the blue eyes, simultaneously unnerving for their perceptiveness and comforting for their affectionate concern.

Just the same as always.

And then his hands are at the hem of her camisole as he gazes steadily down into her face -which she hopes isn't flushed…

Just the same as always.

His evaluative gaze drops as he gently pulls up the soft cotton fabric of her top, his warm hands brushing against her skin and forcing her to swallow the gasp that threatens.

Just the same as always,

he's so tender...

He so very tenderly peels away the medical tape adhering to her skin, revealing the nasty, partially healed wound beneath the gauze covering her belly. He studies it for a moment, calloused fingers lightly touching the surrounding skin but not the fragile nascent scar.

Just the same as always.

Soft and careful and electric. And she stares at the wall behind him because she just can't... can't...

There's a spot. Is it new? Where did it come from? How did it get on her nice, pristine wall that she just washed yester-

Oh. It feels like a caress, the way his hand passes over her stomach, diligently smoothing the adhesive tape back into place,

Just the same as always.

He gives a similar treatment to the fabric of her top and then takes a step back. Nell quickly turns away, pretending to rotate the cookies so they don't stick to the countertop, hiding the deep sighing breath she can't squash.

It's just the same as always.

It's become some sort of bizarre ceremony. He's done it every time he's come over since she's been released from the hospital. She doesn't bat his hand away, assert she's fine, or make any sort of attempt to dissuade him from checking her wound. She doesn't say anything at all. And neither does he. There's a tension in it, in between them, in that moment, as if they know it's a strange, almost elicit or forbidden intimacy. But they both of them need it. She knows he feels compelled to check on her, that he needs to see with his own two eyes that she's healing, feel her warm, living flesh. And god help her, she needs the touch of his hands. Because he's stopped holding her close at night. He's stopped spending the night, stopped touching her in any other form than the brief intimacy of examining her wound. And she aches for him.

Oh, god. Stop being ridiculous, Nell Jones.

When she finally wills herself to face the man once more, she discovers he's already set the table and spread out the contents of the take-out bag to be sampled. Nell takes her seat -the one she always uses- and smiles when Callen likewise takes his traditional place. They divvy up the rice, masala and naan and after the first few greedy bites (she'd worked up more of an appetite doing chores than she had thought), she looks up, smiles at his blue eyes, and asks, 'How was your day?'

And with that, they instantly fall into the old rhythm, to the way things used to be, before Elise attacked her, before... Well, she doesn't like to think about that day, how stupid she'd been not to see what was going on, not to listen to that subconscious prickle of unease the woman caused her, not to notice Elise had been following her in random little stints, from Callen's place to her apartment, from her apartment to the store, from the gym to the Mission.

Callen makes it easy for her to forget her lapse, all that unnecessary violence and pain, as he amiably relays the development of the case they wrapped up that day. Working from home on various background searches, Nell is aware of the general gist, as well as many of the specifics, but she doesn't interrupt him but to make incredulous interjections such as 'Deeks didn't!' and 'Was Sam hurt?' as Callen spins the tale. He's an excellent story teller, his eyes lighting up with amusement, his voice varying to match the tone befitting the particular events, whether they be light or sober, amusing or heartbreaking.

It used to be a daily thing for the two of them, sharing stories about their day, including the other in those portions of their time when the other was not directly involved, and in so doing becoming even closer, their lives becoming further and further intertwined. She missed it. God, how she missed the sound of his voice, the restrained -and not so restrained amusement- over the antics of his team mates, the genuine passion he held for justice, protecting the innocent and catching bad guys. Two nights a week was simply not enough of G Callen to sustain her. Especially, when her days were filled with just her empty apartment. Not that she resented it. It felt... safe. But soon she would be back to work, real work, not just logging in from home and coordinating with Eric to run the tech back up for the team.

"So..." G Callen says after a minute of silence after he finished sharing his story with Nell. "How was your day?"

"Well, the morning was busy, as you know." She spent the early hours of her day tracking down a particularly wily suspect via electronic signatures, until she'd pinpointed the known assassin's current alias, and Eric was able to locate him in real time via Kaleidoscope, and the case then fell into the purview of the field agents. "And then I just puttered about a bit."

She shrugs off the rest of her day, and sees Callen raise an incredulous eyebrow at her out of the corner of her eye.

"Puttered about a bit?" He chuckles. "I think your idea of being idle puts the most industrious soul to shame." He indicates the tuberculosis ward level of cleanliness in her apartment. "Are you secretly dating Mr. Clean? Or did you kidnap him? Is he locked in the closet somewhere?"

Nell laughs. It feels nice to laugh. Spending so much time alone... It's not that she doesn't have cause to feel merry. She often finds amusement in her daily life. It's the idea that she just might seem a crazy person laughing out loud in her empty apartment. She needs to get back to her old life. she needs to get back to normal. She needs him.

No.

She needs to get over him. How could she have been so stupid as to fall in love with the man? Oh, she knows now it had been coming on for a while, but she hadn't realized, forced herself into ignorance for months. And maybe she would've succeeded in continuing on in oblivious bliss, had Elise's psychotic episode not happened. But everything changed when she felt herself bleeding to death, comforted by his presence, resigned to whatever fate was in store for her, waking in the hospital to an entirely different world than the one she'd lived in before, a more dangerous, sad and lonely world. And she misses him, needs him. No. No, she does not. They will be coworkers and friends. She wants to be friends. She can do this.

Um... Callen?"

YoucandothisYoucandothisYoucandothis.

The man gives her the full attention of those blue eyes of his and the nerve almost entirely flees her. Why, oh why did she ever think this was a good plan?!

Why? Because she has three more weeks until she's allowed back onto full active duty, and she is going stir crazy. She doesn't yet feel safe in the high density population of LA (okay, just 'high density' compared to where she grew up, what used to be -and seems to have become again- her anxiety-prone comfort zone). She needs a middle ground, a space that's new and pushes her limits but also feels safe. And G Callen makes her feel safe. Plus, she also needs to prove to herself she can be around him, continue to work with him without all of her silly schoolgirl lovesickness getting in the way.

"What is it, Nell?" He asks, obviously sensing her indecision, her stress, in the hesitation.

"The favor you owe me," she blurts out, hating the way it sounds, like he's obligated to grant whatever request she's about to make of him, like she even has the right after the way things turned out. If anything, she owes him. "I mean, I would like it very much if..." Oh just do it. "If you would go on vacation with me."

He gives her a blatantly shocked, and rather confused look, and then averts his eyes. She bites her lip, hard. It was wrong of her. What does he think she's asking him for- oh, crap.

"Not like that," she says, and his eyes snap back to her. "Oh, wow. I'm doing a terrible job at this. Blame being basically a shut-in for the past month." She takes a deep breath. "Honestly, I'm not doing all that well, if you haven't noticed my OCD flare-up."

Callen smiles at her, but it's got a sympathetic, concerned edge to it. In a gesture doubtless meant to be comforting but precisely what she doesn't need as she's trying to marshal her stupid feelings (that have festered horribly without any decent distraction to her psyche), he reaches across the table and takes her hand in his larger, rougher one.

"I've noticed, Nell." Again, in an uncharacteristically shy action, he looks away, and mutters in such a low tone that she can barely make out his words even straining her ears, knowing it's not meant for her. "How could I not?"

She presses on, because there's nothing else to do now that she's made the muddled, embarrassing proposal.

"Hetty won't let me come back to work until I've finished 'convalescing'. And I need to get away from here, for my own sanity. One of my girlfriends from college has connections. She got a group of us a deal on renting a home, well, an island I think it is, in the Florida keys. We'd already paid for the rental by the time the others backed out for various personal reasons. They insisted I still go if I could." She finally meets his eyes and holds them, firm of purpose. "But I don't want to go alone."

Callen doesn't speak right away, and damn all of those anxieties that she had spent so many years tamping down and gaining control over just to flare up when she was jumped and stabbed in a parking lot, helpless and stupid, because now she feels pressured to fill the silence. Before, she never would have done, knowing the man, feeling so comfortable around him. But now, now...

"It's quiet. I'm not making you promise to do tourist things with me. I just want a peaceful place to rest, a change of scenery. You can just lay in a hammock and sip a drink with an umbrella in it and read all day long if you want. You don't even have to talk to me or see me-"

He interrupts her without words, rising to his feet, and pulling her up to stand before him, cupping her face in his hands. Her skin feels so hot beneath his touch she finds herself wishing that he would release her, and leave so she can go and take a cold, a very cold shower.

"Nell, I would be happy to keep you company while you rest up."

There's an understanding in his eyes and she knows that he knows she's made this request because she would not feel safe without him nearby, that she doesn't feel safe without him. Even with her Glock constantly sitting within two feet of her person like a vigilant guard dog. Even with various knives hidden about her apartment. Even with deadbolts and some um... borrowed surveillance equipment setup in the halls and entry points to her building. She has the incredible urge to ask him why, why has he distanced himself from her so much, when she needs him more than ever? But he's agreed to her request of him and she's so very grateful for it, she crushes the fleeting sense of hurt abandonment and shoves it deep down.

"Thank you," she says, looking up into his blue, blue eyes and knowing she's not capable of being upset with the man over anything, not for long. Not when he looks into her like that, and his hands make her skin burn. And then he releases her, and begins to clean up the dishes. She takes a deep steadying breath and wills away the flush heating her skin.

There. Step one done. She can do this. She can unlearn being in love with G Callen. (For her own sanity's sake, she has to.)


A/N: Will Nell get over her anxiety… and her feelings for Callen? Or will the stubborn, independent agents maybe actually communicate with another and discover they're not alone in their affections? Or will some interesting, unexpected developments set things awry? ;-)