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Thursday's Child

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On June 26, 1969, at 6:37 in the morning, in a blue-white hospital room with cold sterile fluorescent lights, he is born.

Nobody notices in particular.

His earliest memory is of Christmas lights.

They line the window: red, gold, green, and blue, the pattern repeating itself again and again. He sits in the family room, tucked under the empty, naked tree, and watches them blink in and out, counting the times until he can't count any higher.

In the kitchen, there is screaming. Her screaming, his shouting, the metallic smash of pots and pans.

The lights blink off and on, again and again. One. Two.

The room is dark. Better to see the lights that way. Better to stay hidden, under the tree.

Three. Four.

Something glass breaks in the kitchen. She shrieks, he makes a sound like a lion G saw on TV.

The TV doesn't work anymore.

Five. Six.

A smiling-face lady came to the house earlier with a box full of presents. He saw them, there on the table. There was a Tonka truck, and a Ready Ranger backpack, a G.I. Joe. He stood on his toes to peek inside.

Later, mama took the box away, but he didn't know where she took it, only that when she came back, the box was gone.

Seven. Eight.

He walks into the room, cussing. G knows what cussing is. It's bad words. He's holding a bottle in his hand, tight in his fist.

"Daddy," he whispers.

"Huh?" His father turns around.

G scoots out from under the tree. "Daddy," he says again.

"What is it?"

"Is Santa coming soon?"

He doesn't answer. Takes a drink from his bottle.

"Santa can't make it this year," he says at last, and tosses something to G under the tree. "Here."

G scrambles to pick it up off the floor. It's shiny, reflecting the red-gold-green-blue glow from the lights, and round with funny edges. The cap off the bottle.

He holds it tight in his hand, the edges cutting grooves into his palm, and scoots back under the tree.

Nine. Ten.

That's all he remembers of his real dad. He doesn't remember his face, only a shape and a shadow where a face should be.

Mama says he went to jail, and now he's dead. She doesn't have any pictures. She says he was a "deadbeat." G doesn't know what those words mean smashed up together, but he knows what they mean apart. Dead. Beat.

He knows what those words mean.

Dale lives with them, but he's not G's real dad, and G doesn't think Dale likes him very much. Hard to say, he thinks. A lot of things are hard to do when you're small like him.

Dinner comes from a box. His favorite is macaroni and cheese. They don't always eat, though. Sometimes mama falls asleep and won't wake up no matter what he does. Sometimes Dale comes home late. Sometimes he doesn't come home at all.

Those nights, he eats air: great big gulps of it, as much as he can swallow. He fills up with it, pretending it tastes like candy, so his tummy won't feel so empty, so he can sleep without waking up with pains and grumbling in the night.

One night, mama goes to sleep on the couch and won't wake up no matter how much he shakes her arm, and he thinks, I can do it myself. He's seen her do it before a lot of times. He knows where the pans are and where the boxes are in the cupboard.

He gets out a pot, the one she always uses. She always fills it up with water first. He can't quite reach the sink, but he can move the stepstool, and that extra bit is enough.

The pot is heavy, full of water, and he sloshes it around as he clambers down from the stepstool, spilling some of it on the floor. He doesn't mind, though.

He carries the pot with some difficulty over to the stove. There are dials on the front of it that make it turn on. He's watched her do it. In a while, the water will be hot and bubbly. Then he'll add the noodles.

While he waits, he wipes up the water he spilled on the floor. When he's done, the floor is cleaner. He goes back to the pot on the stove, reaches with his hand.

The scream is out of his mouth almost before the pain even registers; his hand pulls back instantly, instinctively, tight against his body. The burn is bright red, the pain fresh and new. He's still screaming.

She comes running into the kitchen, her face a mess. "Goddammit, what is it now?" she yells. She grabs him by the arm and looks at his hand. "Dammit, G," she says, smacking him upside the head and turning off the stove with two flicks of her wrist. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

He doesn't answer, just wails, his mouth open wide and wet with spit and tears. He can barely breathe from sobbing.

"Fuck," she says, and drags him to the sink by the same arm. "Wash it off," she commands, sticking his hand under the tap and turning the cold water on. He shrieks as the iciness hits his burned hand and tries to get away from it, but she's holding him by the arm and he can't do anything but cry.

Then she pulls him along to the bathroom, still sobbing, and makes him sit down on the edge of the tub while she slathers some goop on the red mark and wraps it up in a Band-Aid. She takes him by the shoulders and shakes him hard. "Don't play with the stove," she says. He sniffles. She leaves, pulling her cigarettes out of her pocket as she goes. He looks down at the Band-Aid on his hand and sniffles some more.

When he's bad, he gets whupped. But he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't whupped, so maybe he's always been bad. Maybe he was born bad.

Usually it's just a spanking. Sometimes he gets hit other places, though, like on the head. Sometimes it makes him feel dizzy. Sometimes he gets bruises. The bruises mostly happen when mama or Dale has been drinking. He doesn't like them. They hurt, and when he looks at them, they remind him of how bad he was. He tries to hide them under his clothes, so nobody else will see them and know how bad he really is, all the time. If he covers himself up, if he is quiet enough and small enough, he won't be in the way.

Late summer when he's five, a carnival comes to Reseda, bringing Ferris wheels, pony rides, and popcorn. The older boys who live across the street went and rode a ride that spun them upside down. Their stepdad won them each a football. G has never been to a fair, never seen a pony except in pictures. He begs and begs his mama and Dale to take him, but they tell him no, get lost, leave them alone.

The carnival is close. Scents of fried food, dry hay, and exhaust fumes waft over the fields and buildings. He can smell them sometimes when the wind is right, playing by himself in the front yard. The older boys across the street won't play with him, so he plays alone, chasing downy clusters of dandelion fuzz carried by the breeze. Nobody notices when he follows one down the street, down the sidewalk, leaving the yard and the house behind.

As he chases after it, the smells from the fair grow stronger and more pungent, filling his nose with promises. Distracted, he changes course, following the scents, eventually blending with the crowds of families and gaggles of teenagers making their way inside the gates.

It's overwhelming: the lights, the colors, the noise, the people! He wanders, wide-eyed, ducking around and between people's legs, taking it all in. There are games, food, rides that spin, animals he's only ever seen in books. There's a magician doing tricks. A girl not much bigger than he is gives him a piece of her pink cotton candy, and he eats it quickly, licking the sweet residue off his fingers. There's so much happening and so much to see that he forgets the passing of time and doesn't notice the sun setting until it's almost gone.

In the growing darkness, even more people appear, the crowds growing denser and harder to navigate. He spins around, dazed and dizzy from the multicolored lights, the carnival music, and realizes that he doesn't know where he is.

Panic starts to well up in him, starting in his tummy and moving to his throat, choking him. He breathes heavily, turning again and searching for something, anything familiar. People surround him, ignoring him, and they seem to have grown bigger and taller. There's nobody his size around. The girl with the cotton candy is long gone. All the children that were there earlier are gone.

A hand lands heavily on his shoulder and he spins around.

It's a policeman, big and blue-clad, kneeling to speak to him. "Where are your folks, son?"

G is silent, suddenly frozen, his tongue caught in his mouth and all explanations dying in his throat. He starts to shake and knows that in a moment he's going to cry.

The policeman smiles kindly. "That's all right, son, that's all right. We'll find them and get you home safe."

The policeman pats him on his shoulder, gently, and they wind their way through the fair.

The police car pulls up at his house. The lights are on. G looks out at it through the car window and feels a powerful mix of relief and dread coil in his belly.

The policeman walks him to the front door, hand still on his shoulder, and rings the bell.

Mama answers. Her face is red and puffy, but G knows that that's how it always looks when she's been in the bottle. She grabs him by the arm between his shoulder and his elbow and yanks him inside the door so hard that he trips over the sill and nearly falls face-first inside.

"Thank you, officer," she says, voice clipped and tight, words slurred.

"Ma'am," the policeman starts to say, but she cuts him off.

"This won't happen again," she says, then adds "Thank you" again and closes the door.

Hand still firm around his arm, she marches him inside to the kitchen, where she sits him down on a chair and slaps him across the face.

"Don't move!" she shouts, and then leaves him there, leaves the room.

He stays in the chair, too stunned to move even if he wanted to. The sobs come over him and he tries with everything he has to keep them quiet, burying his face in his sleeve to muffle the sound. He wishes he was invisible.

He doesn't know how long he sits in the chair, crying, but it feels like forever before Dale comes home and comes into the kitchen, his big boots making stomping noises on the floor. Dale crosses the room and grabs G by the collar of his t-shirt, lifting him clear out of the chair.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Dale screams at him. He lets go, and G drops to the floor, hitting it with his feet before falling down. Then Dale kicks him, right in the middle. "Get up!"

He can't breathe. He gasps desperately, trying to get back the air that was just knocked clean out of him.

"Get up!" Dale screams again, and then reaches down and pulls G up himself, only to hit him and knock him down again.

"Dale!" G hears mama's voice as if from a distance, chiding.

But Dale pays her no mind, just hits G again, kicks him again, grabs him by the arm and hauls him up again, shoving his back against the fridge.

G's head hits the fridge with a dull thunk and his world goes gray.

Faint, steady beeping wakes him out of his slumber. From further away, he hears people talking, quiet and business-like, voices he does not recognize. He hears words and they sound familiar, although he doesn't know what they mean. Custody. Abuse. Child services.

He knows they're talking about him, but nothing more than that.

He opens his eyes slowly, thickly, like wading through a cloud made of the cotton candy he ate at the fair, soft and light and sticky sweet. He doesn't know where he is, but for now, where he is doesn't seem all that important. He's in a bed, and the sheets are scratchy, but he's warm. He's warm and he's safe.

A lady in a nurse's uniform appears at the side of the bed. "How are you feeling, dear?"

Oh, thinks G. He's in the hospital. "My head hurts," he says, his voice as scratchy as the bedsheets.

"You'll feel better soon," the nurse says reassuringly.

G nods carefully, trying not to shake his already aching head, and has no idea how wrong she is.

After that, he goes to the red house to live for a while. A lady from the county takes him there from the hospital, and he gets a new bed, a little one, in a room with other boys, some his age, some older and some younger. He starts going to a new school in the fall. He doesn't see mama and Dale anymore.

At first he's scared. He cries a lot. He wants to go home, back to the familiar bed and house he knows. He promises he'll be good this time. He won't make mama and Dale mad at him anymore.

But after a while, he sleeps better, surrounded by the other boys, all of them like him in some way. In some way, it's the happiest he's ever been.

After few weeks at the red house, he goes to the first of his foster homes.

There are a lot of homes over the years, a lot of people making the rules, and they blur together in his memory, a kaleidoscope of images, scents and sounds, disjointed and out of order. Dirty brown-gray carpet, a dead balloon, orange flowers on wallpaper, a lime green refrigerator, a child screaming, a lady sobbing, babies in diapers and nothing else, broken toys, clothes that don't fit. All of his belongings in a plastic garbage bag, toting them from house to apartment to house again. He collects bottle caps, a remembrance of the father he never knew and who never wanted him to begin with, and they rattle around in the bags every time he moves.

Sometimes a new home means a new school, and sometimes not, but it doesn't really matter, because he doesn't have friends at any of them. He's always the funny-looking kid, the kid with the ill-fitting clothes and bad haircut and messed up home life, and he gets picked on for it everywhere he goes. He keeps to himself, stays out of the way, out of the line of fire. If he is quiet enough and small enough, they won't be able to hurt him.

There are some teachers he likes. Ms. Martin, beautiful and blonde and smart and kind. Ms. Frisch, sweet and warm and smelling like fresh-baked cookies, like someone's grandmother. He always misses them when a move means changing schools, but by then he's learned not to miss things too much, not to get close enough to miss them.

He meets lots of other kids in foster care. Some of them are foster kids like him, and some of them have real parents and real homes—his "born-to" brothers and sisters. Some of them are kind, and some are cruel, and out of self-preservation, he learns to expect the latter.

Some of his foster families take him to church, where he learns about God and Jesus Christ and love and forgiveness. He sits quietly in Sunday School and dutifully crayon-colors the line drawings of the apostles and saints. But he's not a believer, not deep down inside where it counts. He's heard over and over again about God's will and faith, and he quietly thinks it's all a lot of crap. There's no great architect of his world, his life, unless it's someone playing a real sick joke.

When he's ten, his parents' custodial rights are terminated, and he technically becomes available for adoption. There's a small part of him that even believes it might happen, although he knows it won't. "Behavioral problems," they say. Too old and too damaged to be any good.

He imagines that he is not G Callen at all, that somewhere, somehow, a mistake has been made. A kidnapping! Yes, that's it, he must have been kidnapped, stolen away as a baby from the tender arms of his real mother, who was—a princess. Yes. Or like a princess, at least, young and with a beautiful, loving face.

His father—he would be kind, too. Firm, but always gentle. He would—play baseball. Teach G how to throw a pitch, how to hit a home run.

There might have been brothers, sisters. People almost his size, but bigger, so much bigger, and they would have played with him, been proud of him, teased him—just a little—but always made up before long.

Surely they missed him, his real family. Had his real mother cried, thinking of her stolen child? Had his real father searched tirelessly for him, desperate to bring him back home?

For a year, wherever he went, he scanned the faces he saw for any trace of familiarity, any recognition. They could be anywhere.

But they weren't, and with time, he stopped looking for what wasn't there.

He grows up, intense and quiet. He learns to obey the rules, or at least to hide it better when he breaks them. The beatings from his foster parents—and there are many—become less and less frequent. Truthfully, his caretakers seem to notice him less overall.

Some of the homes aren't so bad. Some of the families are nice to him, treat him like one of their own. Sometimes there are little kids there who look up to him, and he gets to take care of them a little bit, look after them for as long as they're under the same roof. But then one of them always gets moved, and he never sees them again.

When things at the foster homes get really bad, he runs away. He usually manages to stay gone three or four days at a time before the cops pick him up, longer than most runaways in the system. He starts to earn a reputation for being a sort of Houdini, for being able to slip through the knots of even the hardest escape. He goes through ten different caseworkers; none of them can get a handle on him.

He languishes and grows, older and older every day. He gets bigger: first taller, awkward and gangly, and then muscles start to develop almost in spite of themselves. When he's fourteen, he loses his virginity to an older girl in the same foster home. It's awkward and a little embarrassing, and they're moved to separate places the next day.

There are still no friends, no people his age. He's always the new kid, the weird one, the one nobody bothers to get to know. For the most part, he's okay with that, so long as it means they leave him alone.

But sometimes they don't. When he's seventeen, he's cornered behind the school by a group of older boys. He doesn't know why; he doesn't have anything for them to steal. They beat him up anyway, knocking him around like any number of his foster and real parents have done before, and even though G gets in a few good punches before he goes down, it's not a fair fight.

The next day, he walks past an army recruitment center. Black-eyed and with a bloodied lip, he goes inside and signs up without hesitation.

The recruiter takes his forms and looks them over with a deep frown. He beckons G over and points to the first line. "'G' Callen. Haven't you got a first name, son?"

G stands upright, all five feet, eight inches of him. "Sir," he says, "you've got all I've got. Just 'G'. That's all."

He sleeps in a bunk bed in Basic Combat Training, surrounded by a dozen other recruits, listening to the sounds of their breathing, the soft snores. It's the most rest he's had in as long as he can remember.

Everybody there is different and new, like him. Almost all of them grew up poor. Some of them even grew up like him, moving from place to place, never having anywhere to put down roots or anyone to put them down with. He doesn't make friends, exactly, but he feels something he has never felt before in his life: stability, a sense that he is where he belongs.

Training is tough, physically and mentally, but he finds himself relishing the challenge, the chance to prove himself, to prove that he can do something worthwhile. He pushes his body to its limits, exhausting himself, growing stronger every day.

That first year, he learns that his mother—his real mother, his birth mother—has died. He feels an odd sense of emptiness, and an odd sense of relief. He doesn't cry or ask for time off to attend the service.

He excels, landing at or near the top of everything he does: marksmanship, combat training, weapons training. For the first time in his life, he's good at something.

When he graduates, nobody notices. There's nobody in the audience for him, nobody cheering for him in particular, no proud tears shed for G Callen.

He's okay with that.

Over time, he moves up in the ranks, without any pomp and circumstance, largely by volunteering for everything that's dangerous or unpleasant or lonely. He's not reckless, just capable. He doesn't have the same ties—the same baggage—as most of the others.

He masters the art of quietly getting the job done, of blending in with the background, of always being there and never being noticed. He's so low-profile, so good at being invisible, that when Desert Storm comes, instead of being sent into combat, he's placed safely in an intelligence division, special training, without even asking.

He's so good that nobody even notices when, while a group of them are out a bar near the base, he slips out the back with a guy from another table, a civilian who'd been making eyes at him all evening. Nobody notices he's gone, and nobody notices when he comes back, flushed slightly and with his shirt untucked.

He doesn't have relationships. He sleeps with women when the need and opportunity arise, fucks around with men on the same basis. Anything else is just asking for trouble that he can't afford.

He's content in the army, but towards the end of his enlistment, he starts to feel restless. He's been in one place too long—not literally, of course, but in the sense that he's been an army guy for too many years. The only thing he's been longer than an army guy is a foster kid.

After his four years are up, he takes his discharge. He's a free man again, the world is his oyster, and all he knows is that he never wants to go back to Los Angeles again.

He picks up a map of the United States, closes his eyes, and stabs a finger at it. He lands somewhere in the Midwest, with no cities around. He takes another try at it and this time hits San Francisco.

He joins the SFPD, because they cover his tuition for night classes at San Francisco state. He pours himself into the work and into getting his degree, and just like in the army, the hours he devotes to these things give him a buffer from the rest of the world. He goes out sometimes with people from work, of course, to be polite, but the friendships never move any further than that.

Until Maribel. They work in the same division. She's two years younger than him, from Oakland, strong as hell, with a raunchy sense of humor. She speaks Spanish as well as she speaks English and can drink him under the table. She also has the most beautiful eyes Callen has ever seen. He finds himself thinking about her eyes while on patrol, getting distracted. When they go out for drinks, a whole bunch of them after work, he has to stop himself from staring at her, from smiling too much when she laughs, from leaning in too close to the jasmine scent of her dark hair.

He stares instead at the tiny diamond on her left ring finger.

Callen has never met the guy, but knows that she's been engaged forever, since before she joined the force. The knowledge keeps him from doing anything more than thinking about it—but it doesn't stop him from thinking about it, night and day.

He's served four years in the U.S. military and one as an SFPD cop. He's lived in nearly 40 different homes, attended a dozen different schools, been to three countries—and now he's a fish out of water, utterly out of his element, and more afraid than he's ever been in his life.

Then one day Maribel shows up at work without the ring.

She doesn't say anything to him, or to anyone else, as far as he can tell. He wants to ask, but he realizes it's none of his business. Even if they are friends—and Callen sort of thinks they might be—it's really none of his business.

So it comes as a surprise later in the week when, without any preface, she smiles tightly and tells him, "Go ahead, G. I can see you staring, you can ask."

They're at their usual after-work place, but the other guys have all gone home. Most of them have wives, girlfriends—some of them parents—to go home to. Normally Maribel would be gone by this time of night, too, but not this night.

Callen stares dumbly at her for a moment before stammering, "It's none of my business—"

"We broke up," she says. "It's okay. It was a long time coming. We were just too young, you know?"

Callen doesn't know, but he nods sympathetically, since it seems like the appropriate thing to do.

"I moved out. I'm staying with my sister for a while. Gave back the ring." She looks at her empty finger in the dim bar light.

"I'm sorry," Callen says.

"Don't be," Maribel says. "I'm not." Then she grins widely at him. "So, are you gonna take me home, G Callen, or what?"

He takes her home. He takes her home, she takes him to bed, and a week later, she moves in. All of her things mingled with his handful of piddling possessions. Red nail polish in the medicine cabinet, a second toothbrush in the holder. His kitchen is suddenly stocked with real cooking implements for the first time. They make love twice a day—sometimes more. They talk about getting a dog.

He thinks about buying her a new ring. He made a decent living in the army, even better now as a cop, and he never spends money on anything. He could get her a ring with a bigger, better diamond than the last. Maybe they could get a house in a few years. A yard for the dog, maybe even some kids.

It's 1992. There are riots in LA and all over the country in the spring, a siege in Idaho that summer—not a proud time to be a cop. His allegiances are torn. He's in law enforcement, but he's also a survivor of the foster care system. He works for the state, but doesn't trust the state. He knows what too much power in the wrong hands can do.

But not anymore. His life with Maribel is like the realization of a dream he never knew he had. Growing up, and even as an adult, he never dared to think of this, to plan for this.

One night in September, he buys a bouquet of roses. Arranges them in one of Maribel's funky vases on the kitchen table and washes dishes while he waits for her shift to end.

The call comes half an hour before she's due to be home. Half an hour after she's shot, five minutes after she bleeds out in a parking garage. He hears the words I'm sorry, Callen. The roses on the table, his hands wet from the dishwater, the phone pressed between his ear and shoulder.

"Yes, sir," he says.

We all understand if you need to take some time, he hears.

"Yes, sir," he says.

He quits the force. He lets Maribel's family take her things, sells his own things, and throws what can't be sold in a dumpster. He sublets the apartment and leaves California behind without looking back.

He spends two months on the road, sometimes sleeping in his car, sometimes crashing in cheap roadside motel rooms, depending on where he is and what time he stops driving. He doesn't have a particular destination in mind. He drives down the Pacific Coast Highway for a while, to LA, then heads east—it doesn't really matter to him.

He doesn't eat much. All the food at the rest stops and diners and drive-thus tastes like cardboard. He feels himself dropping weight, getting thinner, and remembers when he was a child and thought that if he didn't eat, if he stayed small and thin, then he could hide better. No one would see him. No one would hurt him.

Fat chance.

He keeps driving. He passes through Arizona and New Mexico, still headed east with no destination. Maybe he'll just keep driving until the money runs out. Maybe he'll go to Vegas and blow it all at once.

Instead, he heads south. He has an old army pal in San Antonio.

What else can he do? He's tried running before, but it never worked out for long. All he can do now is what he's always done. He survives.

Through his friend in San Antonio, he connects with the Houston DEA recruitment office. They're definitely looking for someone with his background and skills, they say. He'd be a great candidate for Special Agent.

So joins the DEA. It's what he knows how to do.

For the next seven years of his life, he vanishes. He's trained in more languages, undercover operations, the sort of thing they never dreamed of in the SFPD. He's sent to Mexico, Moscow, Baghdad, Bogotá. It's easy for him to be moved around from base to base. He doesn't throw his belongings in a trash bag anymore—he has an Army duffle, and access to real luggage for covert ops, naturally—but the same principle applies.

He works closely with people like him, people without identities, people with pasts as fucked up as his, and for the first time in his life, he has friends. CIA, FBI, Marines—he develops connections everywhere. He doesn't know if it's his new position as a fed, or maybe some residual desperate loneliness mixed with no longer giving a fuck—after Maribel's death, nothing can hurt him anymore.

And he loves the work. Busting drug lords and traffickers, bringing cartels to their knees; it's easy to see who the bad guys are and to see the harm they cause.

He loves undercover work, too: taking on the story of a stranger and making it his own. He loves the lying, loves the risk, loves disappearing into dangerous situations under assumed identities and coming out the other side alive—and he's good at it, very good at it. As in the Army, he distinguishes himself by his talent for being indistinguishable. For being nobody. For becoming a ghost.

There are close calls, sure, but the constant threat of danger only makes the work more exciting, more appealing. He revels in the rush he gets from narrowly dodging a bullet, metaphorical or otherwise. The buzz is better than sex.

He still gets that, too. He doesn't date, not that dating is even possible, but he fucks: an itch that needs to be scratched. It's easy, in a way, doing what he does: impossible for anyone to pursue a relationship with an invisible man. He never needs false excuses. His whole life is an excuse.

He spends six years with the DEA before the restlessness settles in again, telling him it's time for a change of scenery. It's different this time, though. When he left the army, the one and only thing he wanted was to go somewhere that wasn't LA. Now, he feels a strange sense of homelessness, something drawing him out west again. And if there's one thing he's learned in the DEA, it's to trust his instincts. He can't trust much else.

It's been twelve years since he was last in Los Angeles. Twelve years is a lifetime, an eon, especially in LA. So many old haunts changed, razed, rebuilt as shiny new shopping centers.

He drives around the city, recognizing old landmarks, being surprised by new ones. He visits some of the houses where he used to live while in the foster system. Most of them he's forgotten. Some of them aren't where he thought they'd be. He never knocks, just drives around, sometimes parking and sitting for a while, just watching, waiting for he doesn't know what.

He drives out to Reseda. He hasn't been here since he was five years old; it's almost eerie to him that he remembers where to go. A lot has changed in the last decade plus, but mostly the streets have stayed the same.

The house is very much like he remembers it, when he lets himself remember it: a split-level, dilapidated—although he has to admit that it was probably less so when he lived there—off-white with green shutters. Warped aluminum fence, dry unkempt lawn where he used to play by himself.

He was an idiot for thinking he could ever truly get away.

The next morning, he reports for duty at NCIS.

"Don't tell me," Sam says with a wry smile, pinning a paper snowman to the bulletin board, "you've never gotten a Christmas card, either."

"Nope," Callen answers evenly.

"No birthday cards, no Christmas cards." Sam shakes his head. "I know you've gotten Christmas presents."

"You gave me one last year," Callen agrees.

"I did."

"It was good coffee."

"Yes, it was."

"Did I say it wasn't?" Callen holds his hands up in self-defense. "I appreciated it. I said thank you."

"I know you did." Sam looks at him warmly, and then appears to make a decision. "I'm going to send you a Christmas card this year."

Callen raises an eyebrow. "We see each other every day, work together, and you're going to mail me a Christmas card?"

"I might drop it in your inbox. Save the stamp."

"Aren't you supposed to Christmas cards to people you don't see every day of your life?"

"I'm gonna stamp you," Sam threatens.

"What if I'm Jewish?"

"You're not Jewish."

"Yeah, but what if I was?"

Sam just gives him a look, a Seal look, the kind that means business. Callen surrenders.

"You still coming over Christmas Eve?" Sam asks.

"I don't know," Callen hedges. "I might have some stuff to do."

"Let me rephrase that. You're coming over Christmas Eve," Sam says. This time it's not a question. "My mom always makes too much food."

"Jeez, you're pushy today," Callen says. "What gives?"

"It's the holidays. Someone has to look after you," Sam says, eyes locked on his laptop screen.

Callen snorts, but thinks that maybe this year he'll let him.