the long road to djibouti
But why did my own
love desert me? He came too late. He was
another foolish gesture from another age. What I tried
to cover with dust was the past, was anger, was revenge.
from Antigone Today by Richard Jackson
A phone rings.
Macy is in the middle of making another list so she ignores it. After a while the shrill tone stops, and she exhales, grateful for the silence. No voicemail for the disregarded, so she doesn't have to worry about taking a message. If it's important, they'll call again.
Djibouti in the fall is sand, sand, and more sand. In this way it's no different to Djibouti in high summer or late spring. Her shirt is cotton, once white, now gray with dust. It will never be clean again. This used to bother her; now it's just another thing in a long line of things that she can't do anything about. She has a list of these things, too. It starts with Djibouti and hasn't ended yet.
The list she's working on is for tomorrow, and possibly the day after that. Medical stock-take, ammo stores, reports on local unrest and civil disobedience; it's Macy's job to make the chaos look like calm and she's very good at what she does. Lists are comforting, a way to mark the passage of time. Since arriving in Africa she hasn't thrown a single one away, wanting proof of her efforts. When the Director makes his weekly call, the lists are better than scars: look, they say, look what I've achieved here. Nate would say she's trying to control a situation in which she has no control. Macy would say that Nate needs to stay out of her head and let her do her job.
Except Nate is in Los Angeles with the rest of the OSP, and she, Lara Macy, is in out in the wild. With Yemen across the Red Sea, Djibouti is a hot bed of activity, home to arms dealers, escaping moguls, and professional shit-stirrers alike. It's a good placement, better than she could have hoped for, all things considered. But it's still a demotion. Macy is on her own and her team is far away, maybe in one piece, maybe not. She tries not to think of gunfire in urban California.
The phone rings again.
This is what her mind conjures from Sam's reports:
rapid gunfire, the shuck-shuck-shuck of bullets ejected in slow-motion from an automated firearm, the ribbon rattling against the chassis;
asphalt thick beneath the midday sun, and then smoke and powder, and then a bittersweet hint of copper, just enough to make her sick;
the dual drumbeat of Sam's feet heavy on the sidewalk and his heart hammering full-steam in his chest;
Callen bleeding, breathing, and then not;
Leroy Jethro Gibbs turns up on her watch in May and, like the bad omen he has always been, he brings with him her end of days. Between the mess with the Israelis, Callen's continuing refusal to heed her instructions, and Nate's inability to let sleeping dogs lie, Macy is performing a balancing act too good for most traveling circuses. She takes a deep breath when Gibbs lands in California, and holds it for the duration of his stay.
Two days is all it takes for nineteen years of self-preservation to fall apart, and she doesn't forgive Nate for selling her secrets. When Gibbs smiles at her from the surveillance feed, the part of her that should loosen chooses instead to contract. What should be an end feels instead portentous. She doesn't exhale.
She's admonishing Kensi -- you realize this is the third vehicle you've butchered in ten days? -- when the call comes.
"It's G, Mace. They got him-- they got him good--"
"I tried to stop the bleed, but Jesus, Macy, these guys came out of nowhere, and I saw it and I couldn't get there, and goddamn--"
"Sam, slow down. What's going on?"
"Macy, they shot him."
This is the problem Lara Macy faces with one G Callen: the man will not take an order as writ.
She's heard stories, of course – boy wonder, can do no wrong, does what he wants because he gets the job done. And she can't deny it, the man has a knack for getting out of trouble as quickly as he lands himself in it, but that doesn't make him any easier to work with. His irreverence is infuriating; his chronic inability to report for duty would be a black mark in any other agent's file, except for the part where Callen is always where he should be when he should be there. Relax, Mace, I got this. His voice is cock-sure in her ear, kick-starting both relief and irritation.
Macy was military police for three years, and she's been running ops for three more on top of that. She comes to OSP with Management written across her forehead and she steps neatly into the role, no fuss, no bother. If Nate Getz, Operational Psychologist, is the worst NCIS has to throw at her, Macy knows she's going to be just fine. She can handle him; the MP taught her the fine art of deflection.
Turns out handling Callen isn't quite the same.
His history is impressive, and reports of his deep-cover work surpass her expectations. There are hints in the file – his whole folio is scored with the word improvise and more than one partner has noted his ability to think on his feet. But it's the unwritten details that set alarm bells ringing. Never the same partner for more than two years. Never a resident of the same building for more than two months. Never the same name twice; never the same legend. Macy's adept at reading between the lines: G Callen is a loose cannon. Yeah. That's going to work out real well.
Macy has no time for insubordination. When she gives an order, it's an absolute order. She believes in honorifics, yes ma'am, no ma'am; she believes in punctuality, chain-of-command, and rules. She likes rules. She likes order. This is why she's Operations Manager and Callen is not.
It turns out: this is why Callen is an operative and Macy is not.
A List of Reasons Why Macy Loathes Callen:
if it is at all possible, in any way, shape or form, for Callen to do the direct opposite of what Macy wants him to do and still track down the perp by day-end, then Callen will choose that option;
if there is going to be trouble on an op, Callen will be at its root;
if there is a 1% chance of getting out of a bad job alive, Callen will find it and exploit it until his chances have increased 500%;
then he'll shoot those chances in the foot;
then he'll shoot the perp;
then their leads will run dry.
"Damn it, Callen, pull back!" The southern view of the plaza is obscured in two directions by the unexpected arrival of a heavy good vehicle, but Macy already knows what Callen's going to try next. This is the last chance they'll have at getting word on who it is that's shipping crate-loads of ammo to fringe groups in the Middle East, and Callen's not going to let it go, but Macy knows ops instructions the way she knows the skin on her hands, and she knows that right now Callen needs to back up and pull out. Does he?
Does he ever.
"Callen's taking a hike after Laboutin." That's Callen's latest partner, Lewis, or Louis, or something like that. They're all anonymous once they burn out next to Callen. "Should I pursue?"
Macy is already thinking ahead. If Eric's tech is right then Callen is heading north. "Eric, get me surveillance from upcoming traffic cams. Lewis--"
"--pursue on foot, keep me updated. I want eyes on Laboutin and I want visual confirmation of Callen's status." She keeps one eye on the aerial map, pulls the GPS tracker up as a grid across the live feed, and then she pulls across the surveillance Eric hacks from the city's database. "I need a way to block his access to the boulevard," she says, as much to herself as anyone else. Callen's running in a straight line to his target because that's what he can see, but if she can work out where Laboutin's going, maybe she can cut him off when he gets there.
Macy is a big-picture kind of gal.
"Nate, if you're a low-level trader with nothing to lose but your liberty, do you make a break for the marina, or rabbit it in the alleys?"
He doesn't miss a beat. "Marina. I have no money, no friends, no plan B. Take a boat; ride it out."
"That's what I thought."
Eric pulls up cams from the marina and swings them onto the board at the same time Macy drags the map west in anticipation of where Callen is going to end up. As she does, she buzzes Lewis/Louis and tells him to bypass the main road and run straight for the jetty. "Turn right, go forward."
"Do not pass go, do not collect et cetera." Nate is at her shoulder, but he's irrelevant to her right now. What she needs is a way to end this chase before Laboutin can cut loose.
"Callen, he's heading for the docks. We're going to try to circle him before he gets there but if we can't, do not, I repeat, do not shoot him." There's no indication that Callen's even heard her at this point, but it doesn't matter – Laboutin will reach the jetty any second now, and if Callen doesn't get him now then the whole op has been for naught.
She hears him over the coms - "Get your hands up, Laboutin!" - and she thinks, oh god, please don't shoot him, please don't be this stupid.
"Callen, we need him alive."
Eric's pulled up every cam in sight; Macy can see Callen, can see Lewis/Louis approach from behind, too late to be of much use. She can't see Laboutin, though, and she can't gauge the situation from this side. "Eric, I need another angle."
"There isn't one."
On the marina, Macy can see that Laboutin has his hands up at least. He's trying to bargain; his voice is thick across the coms, and she can barely make out what he's saying. Callen is trying to bring the situation under some sort of control, but Laboutin is shaky, and he can see Lewis coming in too.
"Lewis, you're coming in too fast. He's going to spook. You need to back off."
Except Lewis – Louis, whatever – has his partner's back, or some misguided idea of that fashion, and he keeps coming forward, pulling the coms from his ear. What the hell does he think he's doing? Laboutin is getting nervous, and Callen too is taking steps closer towards him.
"Guys, hold still. Callen, I swear to god, do not take another step--"
The shot is inevitable.
"You going to push harder?" That's Nate, lounging on the threshold as though he has nothing better to do.
Macy says: "Go away, Nate."
Nate doesn't go away.
"We got him. Laboutin is in cuffs, we have the name of his primary contact – we have his network. Callen did this." He pauses, changes tac. "Callen is what he is. Exerting your control over him only makes him run circles twice as fast. You need to show some flex."
"Go away, Nate."
He steps fully into the room, hands shoved casually in his trouser pockets. Any moment now he's going to start bouncing on the balls of his feet and Macy will be forced to throw her pen at him. That's what this place has done to her: stripped her of a sense of decorum.
"I get it," he says, his tone placating. "Every time Callen disobeys a direct order, it reflects badly on you, on your perceived ability to manage your staff. But it doesn't have to be perceived that way, Macy."
She leans back in her seat and finally makes eye-contact with him. Nate Getz: not just a pretty face. "Go on."
He gives a half-shrug. "Maybe he's not disobeying orders. Maybe he's intuiting some leeway on your part that better allows him to do his job."
"Nate." The tone of her voice is a warning.
"Maybe," he continues, unperturbed, "maybe they're less orders than, say, suggestions. Maybe you're showing trust in your team's ability to get the job done."
She considers this. "You're telling me to back off?"
"I never said that."
"Don't equivocate." She takes a breath. "I say less, they do more?"
Nate smiles, spreads his hands amiably. "Give it a go. What do you have to lose?"
Nothing, she thinks. Everything.
She finds him in the weight room, contemplating the barbell. He's surprised to see her.
"So," he says, finding the silence heavy, "about today."
"Good job, Callen." She folds her arms, and crosses her ankles. Uses the doorjamb to keep her upright. The Nate in her head mutters defensive position. She tries not to analyze why she has a Nate in her head. "You did a good job today."
Callen's thrown by the sincerity, or maybe the hint of warmth in her voice, she doesn't know. Either way, he doesn't answer straight away. He runs a finger intently across the bar separating the weights. "Thanks, Mace," he says, the grin evident in his voice. "That must have been hard to say."
"You have no idea." It's not a joke, though it sounds like one. "You were right, though. To pursue on foot. We needed what Laboutin had."
Callen turns to face her, slips his hands into his jeans pockets. "I know." A beat. "What are we doing about Louis?" It's another I told you so. I told you he wouldn't cut it.
"We're not doing anything. He's being transferred. Agent Afloat."
Callen smirks. "We're sure he won't sink the ship?"
Macy straightens, makes to leave. She's too tired to have a pissing contest right now. "Go home, Callen. Tomorrow's another day."
"You want to get a drink?"
The offer comes out of nowhere, and it stops her in her tracks. The answer is obvious, but she takes her time getting to it.
"I know a place," he adds, "round the corner? Beer's cheap. Horrible, godawful beer, but it is cheap."
Macy looks him up and down, and shakes her head. There isn't a rule he won't break, social convention or otherwise. "I'm going home, Callen. Goodnight."
"You don't know what you're missing!" he calls after her. "Macy? Mace!"
She doesn't give him the satisfaction of a retort.
He asks again after every case. Nate's eyebrows disappear into his hairline when he sees Callen leave her office last thing at night, but she doesn't have anything to say to either of them that won't keep until morning. Or next week. Or next ever.
She thinks Callen will give up once he gets a stable partner – which, after a year and a half, still hasn't happened – when one day Sam Hanna shows up at their proverbial door and suddenly the team clicks and runs in a way it hasn't done before. The ex-SEAL brings a gravitas and respectability to her wayward crew that she hadn't anticipated and he respects her, which helps a lot. Callen tones down the overacting, not because Sam threatens him in any way, but because Sam works with him. They're a partnership. They're a machine.
Callen still invites her out for that beer, but it's less hostile. Sometimes she considers saying yes.
Thursday is a good day for lists – shopping lists, to-do lists, inventory lists. Macy tallies up the number of pens left in the stationery store cupboard and mentally lists every single place she'd rather be than here.
Thursday afternoons involve trips to the market and a long and involved bargaining session with the stall owners. She's been here for two months now and still her skin is paler than pale. They know her as an outsider, and whilst her Arabic and French are both passable, the locals speak a patois that heavily features Somali. She's trying to work out how much of the fruit is edible and how much she's going to have to pay for the punishment of finding out, and in her head the list goes Los Angeles, in her apartment; OSP, running an op; Sotto's Bar, with Callen and Sam and a cold, no-good, watered-down beer, each location another coin that's being shanked from her hand.
Laden in over-priced, probably-inedible fruit, she makes her way towards the shore to meet another contact. Today she is a tourist; tonight she'll be an operative again; tomorrow she'll have to report to the Director and explain why there's still no movement on this four-month-old case. The answer is that her predecessor wasn't worth a damn and his record-keeping skills left much to be desired; the answer is that she's a white woman in the Horn of Africa, failing to pass herself off as anything but an outsider. Macy never did learn how to blend in. White face, blonde hair, tall as a flagpole, her daddy used to say. She could be a wall. She could be the sand. But she'd always, always be an outsider.
Eventually she gives in.
Not because Callen forces her hand, or because he's finally worn her down. No, at the end of that particularly long and futile fight they get a case that deserves a drink. Sam comes too, his big hands flexing comfortably around the pint glass, everything he says a deflection of everything he keeps hidden.
That's the Nate in her head talking, of course.
Macy drinks her first beer in one go, nurses the second and sets to peeling the label in small shreds. Callen and Sam argue about which one of them can hold their breath the longest, or some such crap, and Nate and Eric are at the bar deciding who's getting the next round. She lets the noise, the camaraderie wash over her, but she doesn't participate. She doesn't have that luxury.
"How come you never call me G?"
When Macy looks up, Sam's gone. Callen nods to the men's room by way of explanation. "Had to hit the head. You going to answer me?"
Macy shrugs, takes another swig of her beer. Callen was right – it's cheap, and it's awful, and that's likely what makes it worth it. She'll probably wake with a headache tomorrow. "Callen's a name. G isn't."
"G's my name."
"G's your moniker." She pulls off more of the label. "It doesn't sound right."
Callen smirks. "Well, I can relate. I don't think I can call you Lara."
"No-one asked you to."
"Sure." It's his turn to shrug. "But I didn't want you to think it was weird and all, what with us being friends now. Hanging out after hours, swapping banter. It's nice."
He's laughing at her. Very much right now: he is laughing at her.
Macy's saved from having to conjure a response by Nate and Eric's return with the next round, but she knows her mouth is half-open in surprise. Callen grabs another beer from the round in front of him and Sam comes back to finish his own. Macy downs what's left in her bottle then makes to leave.
"Aw, come on, Mace, have another." Sam is open, non-judgmental. There's something about him she can relate to, but the day has been weird enough without having to participate in more of this out-of-hours social-bonding bullshit. She's humored Nate – and Callen – enough for one day.
Things Macy should never have done:
she shouldn't have gone to Sotto's with the team. She's in command; there has to be a line between her and the guys. How else can she retain their respect?
she shouldn't have given in to Callen. Now who has the upper hand?
she shouldn't have gotten so comfortable. She shouldn't have stopped pushing. She shouldn't have let Callen get away with flaunting the rules. That's how a man gets shot: carelessness.
Macy should never have been so careless.
Macy knows that there are two kinds of ballistic wound: fatal and non-fatal. The chances of one being fatal are slim if directed away from primary arteries and organs. You can survive a gunshot to the liver if they get to you fast enough, but nothing can save you from a bullet to the brain. Barring critical impact, the greater dangers are: hypovolemic shock, exsanguination, and hypoxia.
She knows Sam will have put his hands firmly on Callen's wounds, would have gotten someone else to make the 911 call and held his partner still. She knows Sam will have tried to keep Callen lucid and focused, no matter that half his weight in blood was pouring out his chest. She knows Sam will have assessed the damage even as the paramedics approached – too slow, too slow – will have guessed at the ballistic evidence, the weapon, the bullet caliber.
She knows all this but when she sees him in the ER the first thing she says is: "Tell me every detail. Everything, Sam, don't you skip on a thing."
Lara Macy: consummate professional, personal fuck-up.
After Rivkin-- so, that's not the first time Callen gets shot. Callen gets shot a lot, actually, though it's mostly minor injuries, superficial wounds and so on. The ER staff know him pretty well which is unsurprising considering the number of times he's played it too fast and too loose. The nurses know to turn heel and walk away when Macy bursts through the doors.
"Hold on now, Mace, there's no way he could have--"
He takes a step backwards, hands up. She knows she shouldn't push; she can see he's already berating himself. But this is no game. This is the closest call Callen's had yet. Macy crowds in on Sam, finger to his chest, meeting him eye-to-eye. She's grateful for her genetics. "Didn't I tell you to keep an eye on him?"
"Didn't I say, don't let him run wild? Don't let him make those decisions?"
"The guy outranks me, Mace, plus he doesn't listen!"
Excuses. Callen is bleeding out and Sam is handing her excuses. "Didn't I tell you to sit on his ass?" She punctuates every word with a jab of her finger. "What the hell happened out there?"
"He ran!" Sam puts a little extra what-do-you-think-happened? on every syllable. "The guy is psycho. He just does what he wants. I can't be responsible for that shit, Macy. When he goes, he goes." He sighs heavily, takes a seat against the wall. "Anyway, we didn't know the guy was packing heat."
Breathe, Macy-- inhale, hold, exhale. Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Slowly her fists unclench. She drops into the seat next to Sam and stretches her legs. This job is exhausting. If you're not running into something, you're having to run away from it. Macy knows that, and she knows that it can take less than a second for the direction to change. But Callen always runs in. Lack of self-worth or something, something, she needs to ask Nate to be sure.
"How is he?" she asks at last.
"Doctor say's he'll live. Tore up some muscle, lost a lot of blood." Sam leans forwards, spreads his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. "Stubborn sonofabitch. He'll be fine."
Macy nods. She can tell Sam is being genuine, but she won't believe it until she sees him. Until she can be sure her team is still in one piece.
She makes Sam go back to OSP and she spend the afternoon drinking terrible coffee, waiting for Callen to come out of surgery, and then for him to wake up. It's past 8pm when he does, and both Sam and Nate have been and gone in that time. Macy stands in the door to Callen's room, watching the saline drip, drip, drip and the blood running through the lines to Callen's wrist. She takes another mouthful of caffeine and forces herself to swallow.
Callen's eyes flutter – once, twice – and then he's back, there in the room with her, looking her straight in the eye.
Stubborn sonofabitch, she thinks. Sounds about right.
Dreams she dreams in Djibouti:
it's high summer, so she barely sleeps, but when she does she's in that dry Californian heat, drying out beneath a bight blue sky. Callen passes her an iced tea – coffee for Sam, water for himself – and they walk down the coastline briefing each other on the case;
it's high summer, so she barely sleeps, but when she does she's back in the OSP, working out Plans B-Z whilst Eric pulls up as much data as he can find on the next ring they're tackling;
it's high summer, so she barely sleeps, and she stares at the ceiling thinking – realizing – jesus, we were so good. She doesn't understand what happened to her, just that Callen kept pushing her buttons and she kept pushing back, and then suddenly the machine came to life and they were so good.
This time, when Callen makes a break for it, Macy's ready. Sam's already in pursuit, but Kensi's in an SUV three blocks down. "Kensi, take the third right and then gun it to the boulevard. Callen and Sam are headed your way."
As she speaks she enlarges the live feed Eric's pulled from the traffic cams and watches as their asshole du jour cuts across three lanes of traffic. Callen jumps on a truck to follow him – "Ill-advised, Mr Callen," Macy mutters into the coms – and beyond him is Sam, playing dodgems with the traffic.
Kensi next, up on the split-screen, swinging sharply onto the boulevard and breaking every speed limit in a five-mile radius. Macy can't think about damage costs right now, not in the middle of a hot pursuit, but there's a small part of her that wonders why the hell Kensi always ends up in the damn car.
Nate is behind her, arms crossed, chewing his pen lid. "Nate, tell me what's going to happen."
"I'm not a fortune teller," he notes, wryly, but he obliges all the same. "We trap him, we've got him cornered. He'll try to run – that's instinct – but he's too stupid. He'll make a dash for Kensi." He chances a sideways glance at Macy.
"Kensi's a big girl, Nate." She doesn't take her eyes off the plasma. "She'll do fine." She switches coms, then; "Kensi, we're going to herd him your way. Stand your ground."
This is the part that she loves, the part where everything comes together, forging something out of nothing; creating calm from the chaos. She taps her foot impatiently, so close now, so close to the end game. On cue, Callen rounds the corner as Sam vaults the wire fence enclosing the scrap yard. Kensi's already inside, and they have their guy, three of them on one. Trapped.
"Come on, come on," Macy murmurs, eyes on the perp flailing dangerously in the middle of the screen. "Make a choice."
He chooses Kensi.
He goes down.
"You're coming with us." Not even a question – not even a knock on the door to announce himself. Callen swaggers in and lands in the chair across from her desk. "To Sotto's, I mean." He gesticulates half-heartedly, slouched low in the seat. "This can wait till tomorrow."
"I'll be the judge of that, thank you." She notices the pale skin beneath his eyes but doesn't mention it. Those lines had settled in after he'd all but run from the ER upon waking. Now, two months later, he was mostly healed, but he couldn't rub those lines from his face if he tried.
"Macy, come on. We just bagged our biggest hit of the year, and you're sitting in here drowning in the paperwork? Come and have a drink with us." He's grinning like the cat that got the cream, and Macy's hard-pressed to resent him for it. His happiness is infectious.
"I'll have you know that if I wasn't 'drowning in this paperwork', you would be." She softens a little. "Let me finish this, and then I'll come out."
"You're a terrible liar."
"And you're a pain in the ass."
Callen gives a bark of laughter. "Truer words et cetera, et cetera."
That should be the end of it, but when he's still there five minutes later, Macy gives him a questioning glare.
"I'll wait," he answers. "I don't want you pussying out at the last minute. And besides," he shrugs, "that's my paperwork you're doing. Wouldn't want to leave you without backup."
"Callen, are you offering to help?" she asks, feigning incredulity. "On my honor," she mocks as he reaches for a file, "you are a chivalrous man."
"Sure," he says, reaching for a pen, "seeing as you're buying the first round and all."
-- damn him.
So he drives her home. Macy's no lightweight but matching Sam shot-for-shot on double vodkas was probably not a contest she should have put in for. She's forgetting her boundaries out here.
Not that Callen ever had any.
Her apartment is four floors up and the elevator, like in all drunken escapades, is down. Callen doesn't do much in the way to help her but she manages to get to her door without falling on her ass, so she's calling this one a win. Another five minutes and she's got a key in the lock, though apparently not the right one.
"Damn," she mutters, rattling it ineffectually before leaving it there and turning to slide down the door. Her head's in her hands by the time she hits the floor. Callen smiles affectionately; takes the key gently out of the lock, then joins her, his back scraping slowing against the door.
"You feeling okay, Mace?"
It could be a barb, but it isn't. He's asking because he's asking. Macy's head is a thunderous pit of noise but she manages to nod.
He laughs quietly, stretching out his legs. "Guess I won't be twisting your arm into a repeat performance any time soon?" He laughs again. "Though, you know, I think you got Sam pretty good. He was still standing at the end there, but his eyes were crossed, so that's got to mean something."
Macy laughs involuntarily and every muscle in her head contracts painfully. Threading her fingers through her hair, she grips her scalp tightly. The pressure eases around her temple, and there's the slightest breeze coming from a half-open window at the end of the hall. She's grateful for the reprieve it brings.
They sit like that for a while, not talking, not moving. Eventually Macy pulls her hands from her head and leans back against the door. Callen is watching her carefully, smiling. He's buzzed, too, on a few bottles of that godawful beer, and a couple shots. He looks relaxed. It surprises her because Callen had always seemed louche to her, completely at ease. But it's just another mask he wears. She wonders where he keeps them all.
Slowly, lightly, she traces his nose with her finger tips. When he looks at her, his eyes are wide and glassy. It's like moving underwater, the way she reaches for him, her fingers flat against his cheek. He could move now, dislodge her, push her firmly away, but he doesn't. He just watches, still beneath her touch--
--then the lightest of breaths on her hand. Callen barely strains forward, brushing Macy's palm with his lips, and it's all the encouragement she needs. Pulling his face towards her she kisses the corner of his mouth, quickly, gently, still waiting for a response. His lips part uncertainly, and she kisses him again, more firmly now. The angle is awkward, but she doesn't want to chance more movement lest the moment pass.
Things she notices: Callen's hands are large and square; he has the barest of five o'clock shadows; he smells faintly of cheap beer and long-faded aftershave.
Macy feels his hand come to rest on hers on his face, warm and solid, before he turns into the kiss, his mouth open against hers, applying a little more pressure. Her hand is caught in his grip as he captures her lower lip between his and tugs gently, encouraging her to open her mouth a little more.
Suddenly Callen's tongue brushes against the ridge of her teeth and Macy inhales sharply with surprise. Callen takes advantage of the increased access and makes a broad sweep of her mouth-- Macy can't breathe, forced back against the door bracket, her newly-freed hand curling round Callen's head. He groans into her mouth as his hands find their way beneath the hem of her shirt. A sharp burst of cool air flits across her stomach, Callen's hand firm and warm on her hip, his thumb brushing circles against her skin. He breaks the contact, pressing kisses down her jaw and further still into the hollow of her neck. Macy arches towards him, her breath hitching when Callen's tongue flicks out across her collarbone--
The sound of movement two floors above brings Macy crashing back to reality. They're sprawled messily in the corridor where anyone could find them – Callen still kissing her neck, his hands roaming south. She puts the details together too quickly – who she is, who he is, what they're doing.
"Callen, no--" she musters, his hands splayed across her ribcage. She pries his fingers away, paying no heed to the disgruntled sound he makes. He leans forward to kiss her again, and she almost relents, but she take his hands and pushes him away. It's not unkind, but it is a rejection, and she sees the information filter across Callen's face.
"No." She says, softly. "I'm sorry, Callen, but. No."
He nods, unable to look her in the eye. He wipes a hand across his face and stands to go.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he says, not turning to look at her. "Get some rest."
Macy stays alert until she hears him exit the building, then slumps dejectedly back against the door. Her lips are swollen, and probably red. What the fuck was she thinking? Eventually she rouses herself to stand and lets herself into her apartment, head still pounding violently. It's four in the morning when she finally falls onto her bed. Outside the dawn chorus begins.
Things Macy never asks Callen:
what the G stands for - she knows he doesn't know, knows it makes him curl up inside like a wounded cat. Macy's read enough of his file to know that Callen is as much of an enigma to himself as he is to those around him;
why he can never stay in one place long enough to call it home. Nate has a theory about displaced identities and socialized patterns of behavior, but Macy thinks it's simpler than that: Callen's home is the world, and it welcomes him;
why he doesn't have a lover – male, female, long-term, short-term. It's not a question she has any right to ask, and it's not a question she cares to have answered;
why he kissed her back.
G Callen is a man of many faces, but Macy thinks perhaps momentarily she'd seen beneath the veneer. Now he's a closed book, which is A-Okay with her. They both have jobs to do, and they have to work together to get them done. Nobody compartmentalizes better than Macy.
She catches herself, sometimes, thinking of the kiss, of the feel of his face beneath her hands and his thumb on her hip, drawing circles into her flesh. Nate is dying to dive into Macy's head and work out what's going on, but Callen is very good at what he does – good enough to fool the resident shrink and Macy, too.
Things don't go back to normal, but they don't change, either. They both play their roles to perfection. They both hold up the mask.
Three days post-Gibbs – three days post-omen – three days after Callen gets shot in a drive-by that makes absolutely no sense - Kensi ghosts the door to her office.
"There's no word, Kensi." Macy doesn't even look up from her paperwork. It's true: Callen is still unconscious, and they still have no leads on who took a shot at him. Right now Macy has to prep a brief for the Director, and then she needs to decide if they can afford to bring on a new team member. She doesn't have time to hold anyone's hand. If Kensi needs the comfort, she can go to Nate or Sam.
It's not Macy's job to be her mother.
But Kensi stays in the doorway, a little bit of Callen in the set of her shoulders. She's a natural; Macy knew that the moment she set eyes on her. Finally Macy looks up. "What is it, Blye?"
"He'll come out of it, right?" Kensi frowns. Macy's not sure if the question's rhetorical or not. Sometimes with Kensi you just had to be an audience to both sides of her externalized internal debate. Which is to say: Kensi likes to think out loud. "I mean, this is G we're talking about. Sam told me he took a hit to the abdomen last year and the two of you walked him out of the hospital a day later, so, he'll be fine, right? He'll wake up?"
It's not really a question, so Macy doesn't really answer.
"We didn't walk him out so much as follow him."
Kensi gives a half-smile.
"I need to you do your job now, Kensi." Macy tries to be kind, she really does. Kensi gets it, she thinks, because Kensi has to work twice as hard as anyone to be noticed half as much, and Macy's all been there, done that. But it's true: the Director has them on Callen's shooting, but there's always the next thing to get around to and it's just landed on Macy's desk. She needs her team functioning. She needs to forget about Callen for a little while.
One week and counting. She's still holding her breath.
Most nights she doesn't sleep. This desert is humid, not arid like Los Angeles, and Macy doesn't count sheep – she counts mistakes. Every single one, from her mother in San Diego to Gibbs in Mexico to Callen in Los Angeles. She thinks of every choice she made that landed her in this no man's land where everybody knows her but nobody knows her name.
But she is adapting as well as she can. Macy doesn't lose well because she always plays to win but that doesn't mean she's going to lose face. The Director put her out here to keep her out of trouble, but she knows that the slight goes deeper than that – she challenged his authority and is bearing the brunt of his vindictive temper. She can live with that because she knows – absolutely, even now – she knows that she was right. She can live with the decisions she has made; they're her decisions.
Macy isn't Callen. She can't hide herself in plain sight, can only make herself doubly-visible against tan bodies and off-white garb. So she doesn't hide. She makes herself a target – tall, white, Western. Ray bans in the summer sun. Loafers at the weekend. Blouses with the creases ironed in. Hair pulled back from her face at all times. Let them know who is here. Let them know who is coming. And if she's alone, then so be it.
Would she do it all again? In a heartbeat.
Macy always chooses her own over others.
Is it a cliché that putting her in the path of fire is what startles him to his senses? Is it a cliché when he keeps an eye on her every move from the relative safety of the OSP floor? Is it a cliché that he wants to go to her himself when the smoke from the blast clears and she's face down on the ground, bleeding from god knows where?
It's not Macy's job to don the legend, but she's done it before and this time around she can't send Kensi. The job has specific requirements – female, tall, blonde. It's a simple snatch and grab. Snatch the intel, grab the informant. Callen's got eyes and ears on this one, though Macy would rather it was Sam back at ops and Callen at her back. He hasn't switched channels on the coms, and she can hear his every thought.
Something goes wrong. Macy isn't convincing enough, or she doesn't know enough about who she's playing to sell it right, and either way the informant is already edgy enough to point the gun straight in her face. Macy doesn't flinch. Maybe that's what gives her away. Maybe.
Nobody expects the blast. -- Macy? Macy? -- When she comes to, arms bruised and jaw scraped, she can feel the heat of the explosion behind her. It's difficult to breathe, more difficult to stand, but she manages to do both of her own accord. -- Mace! Talk to me! -- Instinctively she looks out for Sam – finds him across the street, muscles tensing as he tries to stand. He cups her face, trying to assess the damage. "I'm still here, Sam."
Macy, goddammit, what the hell is going on?
A taste of his own medicine, Macy thinks, see how you like it. The blast will have knocked out cam surveillance in the neighborhood and even if Eric manages to scramble together a signal, they won't be able to see the smoke for the dust.
"Is that G screaming in your ear?" Sam asks, wry smile on his lips. He shows her his own coms, already disengaged. "I took him out as soon as I could move."
"Let him scream a little longer," Macy says. "Can't hear anything anyway."
"Got to get you checked out, Mace."
"SOP, boss." Sam herds her towards the EMTs. "We lost the intel, but I think it's moot."
Macy shakes her head. "Should have sent someone else."
"You did fine."
"Obviously not." She sighs, running a hand through her unkempt hair, and tugging once. "Let's get the site contained and see what forensics can bag. Then I want to go over the surveillance from before the blast; see what he used, where he got his tech."
Damn it, I'm coming down there.
"Like hell you are, Callen," Macy snaps, pressing her finger to the coms. "This is your job right now. Oversee transpo, pull up the tapes, and make sure everyone gets back in one piece."
-- Macy --
"That's an order, Callen." She pulls the bud from her ear, surprised at its resilience to the blast, and drops it in Sam's hand. "I'll be back once they clear me," she tells him. "Under no circumstances let Callen leave headquarters, do you hear me?"
Sam's expression is answer enough.
Getting checked out of the ER takes longer than Macy imagined possible, so when she gets back to the OSP only the skeletal staff remain. There's a light on in Nate's office, but his seat is empty and the PC is switched off. Macy snaps off the desk lamp before heading up to her own room.
There's paperwork to finish, the team's reports to review, and her own to write up. She needs a coffee, a shower, and three days' sleep, but all that's going to have to wait. The Director will demand an explanation at first light. She pulls a clean shirt from the bottom drawer of her desk, closing it with her knee. Next, she takes an aspirin and a mouthful of tepid water from a bottle that's been on her desk for two days. Her muscles are sore, and bruises are beginning to blossom in places she didn't know she could bleed. Unbuttoning her shirt takes time.
"You're an idiot, you know that?"
Callen is lounging in the doorway; Macy's shirt is half undone.
"Jesus, Callen, do you have any manners?" She doesn't turn away entirely. The Marine Corps was never a place for modesty. It's more the principle of the matter.
"You're a goddamn idiot," he says again.
"You watch your mouth, Callen."
He smacks the doorjamb with the flat of his hand, startling her. The noise echoes through the hall. "What's the first rule of any op? Hey, Mace? The first rule, the first thing they teach us."
"Know your cover."
"Know your cover!" He slams the frame again in frustration. "You made a probie mistake today."
Macy doesn't answer. She takes her time with the last of the buttons. Already the skin on her abdomen is turning blue. If she ignores him, will Callen leave? Previous experience doesn't give a definitive answer.
But Callen isn't done yet. "Second mistake: you hesitated." He steps into the room, counting the errors on his fingers. "You can't ever, ever hesitate. You can't let them catch you in the lie." He shakes his head. "What were you thinking? Were you thinking at all?"
Macy hates to be patronized; hates it even more when she knows Callen is right. She'd spent the afternoon cataloging her every decision, noting every wrong turn. She hates to be patronized. She hates to be wrong.
"Third mistake: you let him block your exit. Never put a body between you and the door. I mean, jesus, Macy, you should know better!"
"You think I don't?" Macy snaps. "You think I haven't already had this exact conversation with myself?" She pulls off her shirt faster than she should and throws it on to the desk. It's stained with dried blood from superficial cuts and is dark with smoke from the explosion. "I fucked up, I get it. I should never have been out there--"
"Damn right you shouldn't have been out there," Callen shouts. "Goddamn bureaucrats, want to show they're in touch with the world, nearly get themselves and everyone else killed."
"How was I to know the place was rigged?"
"That's not the point!"
"Then what?" She throws the soiled shirt into the trash can, knocking it over in the process. The metal rattles against the floorboards. "What the hell was I supposed to do, Mr Callen? Tell me, oh mighty oracle."
Callen takes a breath, and then another. His voice drops. "I should have been there. Not cooped up in here. I should have been out on that street."
Macy shakes her head as she pulls on the clean blouse. She winces as she snaps the collar, ignores the flash of pain that bursts across her shoulders. "You were next in the chain of command--"
"--and that's why you were required to stay in the building--"
"--absolutely no use to anyone--"
"--for the duration of the op, Callen, you know this." Macy is suddenly exhausted. "You know all of this. You know why I went out there; you know why you had to stay behind."
"There's a reason," Callen says, jabbing the desk with a finger, "there's a reason why I'm a field agent and you're management. There's a reason why you're not supposed to be out there."
"I get it. I'm liable to get people killed."
"You're liable to get yourself killed."
There's a pause in the conversation as they both collect their wits. Macy finishes buttoning up her blouse and runs her hands through her hair. She looks like a ruin – shirt untucked, hair out of place, her face and palms cut up from her intimate encounter with the sidewalk. The aspirin will take time to kick in, but she needs to start the briefing reports now, before she wastes any more time.
Callen is still staring at her. He rubs a hand across his mouth, unable to let it go. "You should stick to what you know."
Macy hates being patronized, and her temper is fierce.
"Get out of this office, before I do something we both regret."
Things Macy doesn't expect to happen next:
Callen takes a step forward, not a step back, bringing the challenge back to her;
"Or what, Macy? What are you going to do?"
Macy rounds the table so that they're standing face-to-face;
"Take your sanctimonious, condescending, ego-driven bullshit out of this office, or so help me god, Callen, I will turf your ass."
Callen takes another step forward. "Try it."
Macy slaps him;
the silence is overwhelming;
Callen grabs her by the arms;
and kisses her.
Callen is insistent, his lips seeking out hers in an attempt to open her mouth. Macy struggles at first, hindered by her bruises, and then Callen licks her lips and she gasps involuntarily. He brings a hand up to her hair and tugs gently, opening her mouth further. When he slips in his tongue – lightly at first, then more probing – she loses control and reaches for him, her hands bunching in his shirt. There is nothing hesitant about Callen's touch. He uses his hold on Macy's hair to keep her in place, his other hand seeking out her waist. Macy pulls on his lower lip, drawing it into her mouth. She brings her hands up to cradle his head, his short hair grazing her palms. She doesn't think about what she's doing; she just reacts.
If there is ever a better word to describe Callen than demanding, Macy can't find it. Pressing light kisses along her jaw, he pulls back her hair so he can kiss behind her ear. The sensation is not unpleasant; Macy shivers at the light contact, Callen's breath warm against her skin.
Callen maneuvers her backwards until the backs of her knees meet her desk. He gives a gentle nudge so that she's leaning back across it. She lets go of his head to support herself and Callen finds her mouth again, this time biting her lips until they're red and swollen, soothing each nip with a sweep of his tongue. Macy moans into his mouth, a stuttering, guttural sound that causes him to lean further into the embrace, and she grips his forearm as it curls around her to keep her upright.
He is warm and solid between her legs; she tilts her hips upwards instinctively and he holds her flush against him, one leg half-curling round his hips. His reaction is immediate and unmistakable against her thigh. She stiffens in surprise and pulls her face away, her breath heavy and moist. Callen's lips land on the corner of her mouth but he doesn't stop her as she slowly brings down her leg and tries to stand upright.
As they break apart, Callen's hands rest firmly on her hips, and he presses his forehead to hers; their breath mingles in the space between them. Macy rests her hands on his arms knowing she should step away but reluctant to disturb the already-fragile peace.
He thumbs small circles into her hip. She exhales.
This is what she dreams of, sometimes.
In nearly twenty years of service Macy's used to having her motives and actions scrutinized. She's used to the accusations of gross incompetence and having holes sewn into her airtight plans. She takes it on the chin: she's good at what she does, and not accounting for the unaccountable, every op that runs through her house is clean. She checks and double-checks every angle before she sends in her team. Their lives are in her hands; it's not something she takes lightly.
The case is what it is. LAPD narcos busted a drug run that came straight through the navy and that lands half the jurisdiction in Macy's lap. The money's going in circles, cleaning out somewhere in Chinatown before being spread across the city, and the FBI's passed on word that it's probably fueling some delicate transactions that eventually land in Bahrain.
Macy hates joint ops – another sign of her inability to delegate, or so Nate says – and yes, that's true, because delegating out of company means putting her guys in others' care, and she's never been comfortable doing that. Now, with Callen still in intensive care and her team fraying at the edges the last thing she needs to do is fan them out. They need to be a unit, now more than ever.
Plus-- "Does this seem right to you?" Nate asks, pouring over the ops briefing. He's seated in the chair opposite her desk, ankle on his knee and glasses sliding down his nose. "Why go through the bother of trading coke from the Colombians if you're going to wash the cash in Chinatown? Why not go straight to the source, buy and clean with the Chinese, and then funnel the cash? And why Bahrain? Why not Somalia, or Palestine?"
Macy's been asking the same questions, though she's not sure if it's better or worse that Nate's on her page. "Something about this smells wrong," he says.
"Everything about this smells wrong." Macy rolls her shoulders, trying to get at the crick in her neck. She wonders briefly if Callen has stirred yet – tries to remember when the ballistic evidence is due back from central lab. "Why are we still rolling in the sandpit with local PD? Why are the Feds playing ball all of a sudden when normally I have to get their balls in a vice just to get them to acknowledge us?" Something in her neck cracks, causing Nate to wince.
"So what are we doing?"
"I'm going to talk to the Director."
Conversations Macy never wants to have again:
The Talk with her mother;
the interrogation with Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs;
the debate with Director Vance which led to;
the meeting that ended her career.
Someone somewhere's screwed the pooch because forty-eight hours after Vance orders Macy to play ball with the LAPD and the FBI, nine law enforcement personnel are dead, six more are heavily wounded, and Macy loses her job.
She makes a tactical error in going toe-to-toe with the Director, but she knows she's right. Too many people had too much classified information that wasn't being pooled efficiently. Too many team leaders had tried to take the lead resulting in poor management decisions, blatant disregard of ops provisions, and no clear chain of command. Rules and regs, these are what Macy knows, and if they'd been properly applied – if Macy had been able to see the whole plan before it was enacted - then maybe she could have salvaged this shipwreck. As it is, those decisions went over her head and landed in Vance's lap, and she's not shy about telling him what she thinks.
"It was reckless!"
"Watch your tone, Special Agent."
"With all due respect, Director, if OSP had been running the op--"
"--I'm warning you, Macy--"
"--there's no way I would let something like this--"
"--the kind of rampant pigheadedness--"
"It's your mess, Lara."
Vance's words are a slap to her face.
"Team went in too fast. Your people did this."
Macy is speechless. She crosses her arms defensively, mouth opening and closing in an attempt to find the words to match her incredulity. She knows he's wrong. She knows that her team is being set up to take the fall for something that wasn't their doing.
"We had perfect entry," she musters. "A four-point spread with a man down, and every exit covered. We had coms, we had visual confirmation of the suspect--"
"--we were exactly where we were supposed--"
"--too soon, Macy. You went in before PD gave the signal. They weren't ready."
"We weren't waiting for a signal!" Macy shouts. "We weren't even on their coms. It was a synchronized entry – nobody had a damn signal!"
Vance slams his fist on the table. "PD did. The ops went straight to your desk." His voice softens. "Macy, this is on you."
She shakes her head, unable to look Vance in the eye. She can hardly contain her frustration – her anger. No. Her team was in position. There was no signal.
Vance sighs heavily. "You realize I have to do something about this?"
And that's the end of the road.
Nate finds her sitting in her office, but having nothing of value to say he squeezes her shoulder, then leaves her be. It's Sam who comes to sit with her, his arm patched where a bullet had grazed the flesh. With Callen still down for the count, he comes to Macy because he's got nowhere else to go. It's not a comforting thought.
"The only easy day was yesterday," he says, meaning it as a comfort, or maybe as a motivation, but Macy is sitting in an office that just got taken away from her and the words mean nothing, nothing at all.
She can't verbalize what she feels – too many years playing for the other side, keeping things boxed up and locked away, and now she can't even say what the hell is this, Sam? Can't form the words; can barely think them. This feels like failure. It feels like a betrayal.
Later she stops by the ICU and looks at Callen through the perspex. He's tied up to machines that monitor his every function, and his lungs are being operated by a whistling ventilator. Somehow this too feels like her fault.
Hetty meets her at the door to what used to be her office.
"Henrietta." She tries not to sound surprised. But who else could step into the role so quickly? Sam was made to run the field, not stacks of paperwork. Hetty Lange is the perfect replacement for Macy: no-nonsense, efficient, and able to make molehills out of mountains. "It's been a long time. You're here to--?"
"Yes." The diminutive woman smiles at her sadly, though not unkindly. She nods at the duffel in Macy's hand. "Where are you headed?"
"Horn of Africa," she says, as matter-of-fact as she can be. "Djibouti."
Hetty's vehemence is absolute and comforting. "My goodness!" Macy smiles, despite herself.
There is a beat whilst she tries to condense what Hetty needs to hear into a few sentences. Around them, the building is being cleared out, ready for the move to the new, undisclosed location. Macy is being cut out from her own world, like someone is digging her from her native soil and hacking away at her roots. Sam and Kensi are negotiating who gets to carry the heavier boxes and Eric is overseeing the removal of the touchscreens. Macy feels the pain keenly. She feels bereft.
"Lara," Hetty says, taking two steps forward and then halting, thinking the better of it, "I will do everything in my power to keep them safe. I would never disappoint you in that."
Macy nods, unable to answer. There are so many things that Hetty needs to know – never to indulge Sam's pride when a SEAL is the primary suspect; never to treat Kensi as anything less than one of the boys; never to let Nate feel like he has the upper hand – but as is often the case of late, she can't form the words. Instead she says, "Don't let Callen run from you." It's not at all what she means, but Hetty seems to understand.
"Good luck, Lara."
Callen is still unconscious when Macy leaves for the last time.
She's grateful. Mostly. And if she's not, then oh well, too late now. She's on the next flight out to Europe, and from there on to Africa, and the desert, and a whole other kind of exile.
The phone rings; Macy is making lists, but she answers on the second peal. "NCIS." She doesn't give her name. If they don't know who they're talking to then they shouldn't be calling at all. Not at four in the morning.
"Hey, Mace. Long time, no see. Speak. I mean speak."
She almost drops her pen.
"Macy? Mace, you there?" She can imagine him shuffling against the wall, phone cradled against his ear. "They made me AIC, can you believe it? Hetty's running Ops Management but they gave me the promotion. Something about separate and distinct roles." He muses on that momentarily. "I never saw it giving you much trouble but you know how it is – divide and conquer." He laughs, suddenly distracted. "You'd fucking hate these new digs, Mace, I swear to god."
It takes everything she has not to whisper his name. Instead she swallows sharply, asks when he got out of hospital.
"It's been a month now, but I came back in today. You know, got to keep Sam on his toes. Kensi's been doing a great job but you can't leave everything to the kids."
Macy does the math. It's four am in Djibouti, and there's eleven hours difference at most, so it must be early afternoon in L.A. She presses her hand to her temple, trying to rub out the tension in her head.
"Where did you get this number?"
"I have my sources."
"Okay, okay, I took it off Hetty's desk. But don't tell her. I don't want to get in trouble my first day back."
He's talking to her and it sounds so easy, but Macy finds it difficult all the same. She hadn't been any good at the camaraderie even when they were in the same country; how could it be any easier across whole continents? He sounds well, though, not like a man who survived an impossible number of bullet wounds. He sounds alive.
"Mace, you still there?"
She doesn't answer him directly. "You know it's nearly dawn here, right?"
"Weren't worried about waking me, obviously." She allows herself a small smile. G Callen: still not on board with societal norms.
He laughs at the other end, far away and yet remarkably close. "You're awake, aren't you? I know you. You'll sleep when you're dead--"
"-- and I'll die when I'm done, yeah, yeah." It's nothing they haven't said before, but if she sounds a little fond, who can blame her? It's been four months since he nearly died, and as many since she last set foot on American soil. In a few hours the Director will call to ask her to account for her actions, miniscule and inconsequential as they are this far from home, and she will have to keep that stiff upper lip if she's going to get through another day. She can spare time for this – for this reconnection. She hadn't even known he was conscious, and there he is, upright and genial, and breathing down the line.
"So Mace," he says, and she can hear him shift again, "tell me about Djibouti. And don't skimp on the details."