Sam's with Dom on the Pereira investigation when the whole thing starts to go sideways, starting with their cover. The issue of whether Dom is a born agent is still up for debate: Dom needs the security of a uniform and props. Hetty's top-notch at easing agents into the field.
They're at Amalfi, up on La Brea, and Sam's playing the dutiful bartender while Dom cleans up nicely in the standard waiter's penguin suit. They both have mics in their lapels; if Dom loses another camera, Hetty will pocket his next few paychecks. It's after lunchtime and the restaurant is nearly empty. Pereira and his associates are seated at a table near the bar and Dom makes a perfectly attentive server, hovering close at all times.
The tricky part comes when one of Pereira's associates makes Sam.
Sam's seen the look before, starting with do I know you? and moving to how would I know you? as the guy flips through his mental Rolodex. Most associates are thugs, hired muscle whose IQs match their shoe sizes. But Pereira is known for recruiting and promoting brains in favor of brawn. The real muscle sits a few tables away, pretending to know what to do with the $300 bottle of wine that Dom delivered.
It's possible that the guy does know Sam, especially if he's been coming around to Amalfi for as long as Sam has. The restaurant was built on the former site of the Swanee Inn, where the then-budding jazz musicians in Nat Cole's Trio became famous. After he moved to L.A., Sam looked up every old-time entertainment place he could think of, even if it's long gone, torn down to make room for Starbucks and 7-11.
Sam picked up some shifts at a few places in Hollywood when he was waiting for approval on his application to NCIS, and it's well-known that this has been Pereira's favorite restaurant for years. Sam never thought a right-hand man would remember him. Pereira seems oblivious enough, but his associates never relax their guard. As soon as the guy tilts his head, a thoughtful expression drawing his eyebrows together, Sam pulls his beret down, shading his face. Smoothly, he mixes a martini, spears two olives on the end of a cocktail sword, and sets it on the edge of the bar. He risks a quick glance at Dom, who's staring at the unclaimed drink.
The guy looks from Sam to Dom, then at the martini. Sam keeps his face neutral, but when the guy motions at Dom to approach, his expression is predatory.
"Been working here long?" He nods at the decanter of red on the table.
Sam watches furtively. Dom's hands tremble as he refills the man's glass, and he takes his time setting the carafe down.
"No, sir," Dom replies, and inwardly Sam grins. Never volunteer information.
The guy doesn't touch the glass. He looks at Dom expectantly. "New in L.A.?"
"No, sir," Dom repeats. His eyes are wide and he looks terrified.
Sam's fingers itch. He takes a slow breath, and then moves casually to the other end of the bar. He's not out of earshot, but he can't risk too much attention right now.
"You like it here?" The man asks carefully, pausing between the first couple of words.
Pereira breaks off his conversation with the second associate, watching as the first man studies Dom closely, and Sam thinks that Dom is about to crack under the careful scrutiny of three sets of eyes. Two tables away, the bodyguards sense a change in the air and sit up straight, their expressions menacing, meaty hands spread flat on the table.
Sam's certain that he sees a drop of sweat working its way down the side of Dom's face. He's crouching down, reaching for the gun in his ankle holster, about to call in an abort command to G and Kensi, when Dom starts to cry.
Oh shit, ohshitshit, Sam thinks, we'll be mopping up blood and brains tonight.
It's too late.
Dom's mouth opens.
Dom blurts, "I'm sorry, sir. I did it. It's my fault. I forgot the tarragon!" His face looks stricken, chin sinking down in humility. He clutches at the sides of his apron. "I mean, I ordered it, I put the order in, I told them. I'm so sorry. Please don't tell. Please, I really need this job."
"Everyone turned to watch Pereira making a waiter cry," Sam says. "Thought we were screwed, but he made such a scene the guy totally forgot that he noticed the mysterious bartender." He laughs, stepping close enough to Dom to sling an arm around his shoulders, squeezing briefly, then letting go. "Then Kensi switched with me, and we got we needed."
Dom's a smart guy, cautious but not anxious, and Sam's proud of the kid for thinking on his feet. It was a great performance, even had him fooled. The scales are tipping toward born agent. "Dom saved the day."
Hetty smiles at Dom and Sam. "Well done. Well done." She stares at Dom until he helps her into her coat, and then takes her purse down from its hook. Turning, she seems surprised to see them both still standing there. She gestures, shooing them away. "Go on, go home. Paperwork on my desk by tomorrow morning. You have extra time due to your thrilling success."
Dom's rocking back and forth next to Sam, practically bouncing with energy, still riding the adrenaline high of getting away with something, of doing his job well.
Sam smiles in bemusement.
Dom turns to Sam and asks, "You want to, um, go out and have a drink or something? I mean, everyone can come. They're welcome to... or um, just us. If you want."
"Thanks, D, but I can't. Got plans," Sam replies, pretending that he doesn't notice how Dom stammered over the invitation. It's a bad idea to get involved with anyone who's that much younger, even when they have long eyelashes and smooth skin. Plus, there's someone else Sam is serious about.
As if on cue, G strides into the foyer, which proves to have excellent acoustics when he asks, "Plans? Kinda late for a date, Sam."
"It's not a date," Sam replies, rolling his eyes, sharing a conspiratorial half-smile with Dom. "Night, Dom. See you tomorrow."
Leaving Hetty's office, he heads over to his desk, G trailing behind.
"Should I make you stay?" G challenges, throwing out a reminder of his authority over Sam - at work, anyway.
"It's not a secret," Sam says. He stuffs papers into his bag and turns off the desk lamp.
G slants him a look of disbelief.
"And do not be following me," Sam warns, one finger raised in admonishment.
"I wouldn't," G says, stung. He looks affronted.
Sam nods. "'Cause I see enough of your ass as it is," he jokes.
"Who has a cute ass?" Kensi interrupts, nudging her way between them.
"You," Sam replies reflexively. He shrugs half-heartedly at G's stare. "She does."
Kensi beams at him. "I love these new jeans!"
"Did Hetty pick them out for you?" Sam asks.
"How did you know?" Kensi runs her hands over her denim-clad thighs.
Sam thinks about G's wardrobe makeover, courtesy of Hetty, and takes a quick glance at G's ass. "Wild guess," he says dryly.
They say goodnight to Kensi. Sam waits while G grabs some folders and tucks a pen behind his ear. Walking out to the parking lot, Sam follows G closely, crowding on purpose, pressing against him as they maneuver the narrow space between two cars. Sam keeps his expression blank but he loves the way that G pushes back for a moment before throwing an elbow back to dislodge him.
They stop at G's car first, and G tosses the folders inside, then leans on the door frame.
"You got someplace to stay?" Sam asks for what feels like the millionth time.
"You worry too much." G smiles, basking in the attention.
Sam wonders how G made it through the system, through the Marines, all the way to NCIS, without ever finding someone who saw in him what Sam sees, and worked to draw him out.
"Have to, 'specially when you're opening your big mouth, telling Kensi about the cinnamon rolls!" Sam glares in mock anger.
"What?" G asks innocently. "She has the right to know your favorite breakfast pastry. In fact," he says, warming to his logic, "you should be thanking me. What if you're on stakeout together and she goes for doughnuts and comes back with Boston Cremes?" He maintains a straight face, his tone deadpan.
"You said spicy! Spicy? What the hell is that about?" Sam keeps the banter going.
G looks at him.
Sam smirks. "You mean when you serve it to me. The rise and shine special?" He raises an eyebrow.
G's expression doesn't change, so Sam stares fondly at a spot on G's right shoulder where he'd once spent several particularly enjoyable minutes licking at a drizzle of icing. Cinnamon rolls are messy. He purses his lips, raising his gaze when G clears his throat.
"Just reminding you how good you've got it," G says, his stare boring into Sam, his expression vulnerable for the briefest moment.
"I'll never need to be reminded of that," Sam says. It's the most honest thing he's said today.
It's nearly ten at night when Sam gets home. There's no set time he needs to adhere to, since it's more like a standing engagement, but still, he hurries. He dumps his work bag onto the counter between kitchen and dining room, then undresses as he makes his way to the bedroom closet. The red light of the answering machine blinks at him insistently from the nightstand.
Pulling on a pair of black slacks, he hits the play button, and then strips out of his Henley, exchanging it for a sleeveless undershirt and white button-down shirt. He shrugs into a pinstriped vest and listens to the recording.
"Samuel, this is your mama. Remember you have one? You can't call your mother anymore? You called me every night when you were in basic training, remember that? Call me, baby. Love, your mama."
Sam grins. His mother always ends messages as though she's signing a letter.
He has to call her, of course. It's after midnight where his parents live, but she's expecting him to; if he doesn't call, she'll be calling G, Hetty, and Sam's emergency number every five minutes until he answers. She's done it before. G thinks it's cute in a detached way, not completely understanding why Sam's mom counts on a check-in every few days.
"Sam!" She's smiling, he can hear it.
"Hi, Mama," he says, smiling back.
He tucks in his shirt while she peppers him with questions.
"I'm fine. G's fine too. Work is fine. Kensi says thank you for the note, and she'll write you back as soon as she can. Mmhmm." Sam shifts the receiver to his other ear, fastening his watch with one hand.
"Ten o'clock there! Do you know what time it is here?" She demands. "But I'm glad that you called, baby. I worry about you."
"I know," he says. He can hear his father coughing in the background. "I worry about you, too. Both of you."
"Oh, you don't need to worry about us, honey. We're just fine." They're both quiet, listening as the coughing trails away. "Say, did you get the package I sent out last week? It should be there by now."
Sam selects a pair of shiny black wingtips from the closet and sits down on the bed to put them on, balancing the phone between head and shoulder.
"I did. Thank you. Mmm. Yes, cashew turtles are still my favorite. Uh-huh. No, I didn't know that they were sugar-free." Sam makes a face. "I don't know. They did taste a little different." He grins. "No, I wasn't raised by wolves. I'll call sooner next time."
She huffs, mollified. "And you're being careful? Have you met any nice girls out there?"
Sam chuckles. "Only Kensi and Hetty."
"They're both too good for you," she says matter-of-factly.
"I know," he replies. The only piece missing is a hat, and Sam picks out a black felt Trilby. It reminds him of the hat that Chu Berry wore at one of the Minton Playhouse jam sessions back in the 1930s.
"Okay, baby. I have to go, your daddy needs me. You call us soon, you hear?" She pauses. "You're about to go play, aren't you?"
Sam loves her so much that his chest feels tight. "Yeah," he says quietly. He pictures her sharp, affirmative nod, her earrings bouncing with the motion, and decides that he'll find a way to explain to G what these check-ins feel like, because there's no way he'd ever want to go without them. "I love you too, Mama. Tell Pop I miss him. 'Night."
Standing, he gathers his wallet, phone, and keys from the dresser and slips them into a pocket. He adjusts his hat, takes in the whole ensemble in the mirror and winks at himself. Hell yeah, he's going to go play.
Marissa's behind the bar when he gets downstairs. One of the advantages of living above the place is his own entrance around back, so he can always avoid the crowd out front. She waves at him, lifting her chin in the direction of the stage. He nods, threading between the rickety tables to find the one with a white card proclaiming it Reserved. The jar candle flickers merrily and Sam snickers. It has to be seventy degrees outside and at least eighty in here, even with the fans, but Marissa says they're for ambiance. He lifts a leather case onto the table, the buckles gleaming in the candlelight.
The sax comes out of the case just like it had gone in. The metal's polished to a shine, his reflection distorted on the curve of the horn as he fits pieces together. The keys seem to ripple enticingly. Sam is fastidious about cleaning it - once before he goes on stage, and once when he comes off. The clicking and sliding of parts always reminds him of disassembling a gun.
Marissa collapses into the chair next to him as he's fitting the single reed mouthpiece to the curved neck of the saxophone.
"Sam," she says, smiling. Her curly brown hair's pulled back by a headband, and she's wearing her standard uniform of jeans and a t-shirt with the logo of the club.
"Rissa," he responds, leaning forward to kiss her cheek. He puts the sax down, resting it on the cushioned insides of the case. "Busy night?"
"They're all busy." She laughs. "Thankfully."
He nods. "How's Jackson?"
"Grumpy as ever. He'll be in later. Said he was bringing his horn, hoped you'd show." She studies him. "Long day?"
"Every single one," Sam says. His mind's already on the music. He'll start light, maybe fiddle around with Mobley's Soul Station, and then go into something by his man Chu, and after that -
Marissa drops a hand on his shoulder affectionately. "See you later, Sam," she says.
He nods distractedly, his mind on Jackson. They can noodle with a piece that's long and full of room for interpretation. There's a guy who looks familiar onstage, cheeks puffed, sliding the arm of a trombone. Sam absorbs the luxurious, buttery roundness of the notes, and he smiles with anticipation. He's feeling bluesy, and he'll end his set with something mellow and warm, maybe some Sonny Stitt.
G thinks Sam's nuts for living above a nightclub. Too loud, G said. Too screechy.
Sam forgave him after a while. The real reason is that there aren't enough escape routes for G's liking. It's not the safest neighborhood, but the garage is secure, and the whole block's covered by security cameras from neighboring businesses. Sam couldn't pass up the chance to go to sleep each night listening to the music coming up through the floorboards. Sometimes he's even luckier and G's quick, light breaths are part of the performance.
He used to worry that this hobby could compromise him as an undercover agent, but he always comes in late and doesn't stay too long. It's not as though he's Coltrane or Charlie Parker, packing the club night after night. This is his therapy, how he unwinds and shakes off the week. Anyway, Hetty knows. She asked his opinion on a vintage Conn New Wonder tenor sax with a mother-of-pearl touchpiece exactly one week after she took over from Mace, so clearly she knows what Sam does with his down time.
Some people write about their lives, or paint, or dance. One of his best friends from the SEALs is an amateur chef. Everyone has their creative outlets. Sam embraces music.
The trombonist finishes his song and raises his glass to the audience. Excitement flares in Sam's belly, and he takes a last look around for Jackson before he mounts the stairs to the stage.
He touches the brim of his hat, then raises the sax, wets his lips, and plays. He loses himself in the music, sweating under the stage lights, gulping water by the glassful, coming up for air occasionally and acknowledging the applause. The blue and orange neons shine patterns onto his fingers. He's working his way through an intense, ruminative spiral when his cell phone vibrates against his leg. Somehow he knows it's G, and the thought sends him down a happier path, turns the music joyous and sweet.
There are some things that are hard for Sam to talk about, even with his partner. It's not because G couldn't handle it or that he doesn't want to know, because Sam knows that G will have his back for as long as Sam wants him there. They both know what it is to make a commitment.
He knows he should confide in a living person once in a while instead of letting it all out through the styling of his favorite musicians, most of whom have been dead for decades. Maybe someday he'll feel comfortable with Nate, see him as more than a well-intentioned, gullible goof, but until then, this is how he'll talk.
Jackson shows up halfway through the set, and he brings a bassist and a drummer. Sam grins at them around the mouthpiece of his sax, and swerves into a piece of music that they all can appreciate.
It's not until he's sitting at the bar, watching the servers wiping down tables and putting up the chairs, that he remembers G called. Marissa's about to refill his drink, but Sam puts his hand over his glass. Jackson crooks an inquisitive eyebrow at him when Sam puts down the unlit cigar to search for his phone.
Sam smiles. "Gotta go."
Jackson shakes his head. "You got a better offer?" He teases.
"Sure do," Sam says, letting a slow grin cross his face.
They bump fists. Marissa blows Sam a kiss, and he catches it in mid-air.
"See you next week," Jackson says.
"I'll be here." Sam can't remember how many times they've had this exchange. He puts on his hat and digs his phone out of his pocket. Grabbing his case, he heads toward the back of the club.
He's at the foot of the stairs when he reads the missed text message. I'm upstairs.
G has a key, and as far as Sam's concerned, G's welcome to help himself to anything and make himself at home. He knows that G would sooner knock himself unconscious than snoop through Sam's stuff; it took more than half a year before he'd go inside the apartment when Sam wasn't there.
Sam's at the top of the stairs when the door opens, and his first thought is how good G looks against the backdrop of Sam's home. He's wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and he's barefoot, which Sam finds especially gratifying. For a man who's almost always on high alert, it pleases him to see that G feels comfortable enough to take off his shoes.
G backs up when Sam comes through the door. He doesn't say anything about the instrument case in Sam's hand, or the fact that Sam reeks, acrid smoke and whiskey mingled with the state of his clothes after a gig.
Sam puts the case down, takes off his hat, and runs a hand over his head. He's opening his mouth to say something when G lunges forward, plastering himself against Sam. He curls a hand around the back of Sam's neck and pulls him in for a hard kiss.
I missed you today, the kiss says. I worried about you. I wanted you by my side.
There's deep longing there, chased away with a jolt of desire when their tongues brush. Sam groans into G's mouth.
G pulls back, his breath warm against Sam's neck. Sam wraps an arm around G and holds him close.
"You stink," G says, his voice muffled, face pushed against Sam's shoulder.
"Brilliant observation." Sam laughs.
"Hah," G snorts. He uncurls the fist pressed against Sam's chest, revealing a pair of orange foam earplugs.
Sam looks at them, then spots G's canvas duffle and bedroll against the far wall of the living room.
G tilts his head back, looks up at Sam. "For a few days," he says. There's a warning in his tone, but his eyes are soft.
Sam nods. "I'm good with that."
"You'd be better after a shower," G says.
"Let's go." Keeping his arm around G, Sam propels them toward the bathroom.
He'll come back for the sax.