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Earning the Title

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Chapter 1

The cloudburst turned the landscape into smears of color beyond the car windows. Tony kept his head turned to the side, his eyes half-closed to avoid focusing. Tim had turned the wipers up as high as they would go with the defogger bouncing cold air off the glass into their faces, trying to find a small patch of clarity through the drumming rain. "This won't last," Tim murmured again, "these downpours never last," as if his words could make it so.

The car swerved and Tony rocked back and forth against the side window. Tim was pulling up under an overpass on the narrow edge of the road, parking so tight against the stone wall that Tony couldn't open his door if he tried. The sudden silence stole Tony's breath. He bent forward, coughing, a dry, hacking bark ripping through his swollen throat.

"Sorry, but I'm sure it will only be a few minutes. Boy, the bomb squad isn't going to be too happy mopping up the scene in this. Glad the boss didn't insist we stay and help out. Of course, he probably knew this storm was coming and wanted to get you back to your place before your throat problem got any worse."

Tony smirked. Gibbs, concerned about him? That taking precedence over case-work? Tony tried to raise one eyebrow in a Spockian-type query, but Tim was busy rooting around in his pockets and then in the cup holder between them, searching for something. His phone? His wallet? His mind? A knife to stab Tony in the back with – again? Tony settled back against the door, watching his teammate, his partner, his friend, and tried to fit the pieces of this weird-ass situation together.

It was like a dream. One of those dreams where you're going through your regular daily activities but they're all just a little vague, a little twisted, where each scene doesn't quite match up with the one before it. It had been a strange few weeks. First Vance puts Tony forward for that stupid NCIS recruitment campaign and then pulls the rug out from under him. He blinked – hard – trying to erase the image of that cardboard cut-out of his boss. Seriously. Gibbs? After the Reynosa cartel fiasco, with Gibbs' MOAS opening up wide and spewing dirt on Abby and Jackson and everyone else, Vance thought a lone-wolf, ex-Marine, 'second-B' with more redacted lines in his resume than Jason Bourne made for a good poster-boy for the agency? It couldn't be true. It made Tony's head spin.

Maybe it was the proximity of the CIA a week ago. Things never ended well when the team was bumping elbows with the CIA, the case of the Royal Navy ship being a particularly strange case in point. If all those rumors of drug experiments in the 60's and 70's were true, maybe the CIA's habitual black suits were still leaking the residue and anyone brushing up against them got an unintentional high. Tony huffed a painful laugh. Yeah, that would explain a lot.

And now, this case. A murdered radio shock-jock and Navy lieutenant. White bread upper middles buying bombs. Haskell, a man grieving his wife and still reeling from the crime that stole her away, is savvy enough to find terrorist bank accounts to finance his revenge. Hell, Tony figured, it wouldn't be long before the CIA and their black suits came sniffing, stealing Haskell from his holding cell so he could show them how it was done. That man would never see a trial or jail cell. More than likely, this would just be a tiny bump on his road to a very wealthy retirement.

Tim was still rooting around like a pig for truffles. Tony watched, eyes half-closed. There was another enigma. Tim McGee. Smart, snarky, loyal McGee. He had abilities Tony couldn't possibly approach but still carried a chip on his shoulder. Not a smooth operator, their McGeek. But, up until yesterday, until Tony slid into the backseat of the agency sedan with his teammates, until they dropped their little bombshell and sent shrapnel gouging deep trenches in Tony's worldview, he'd called McGee a faithful friend.

That had to be more evidence that it was all a dream. A hallucination. Tony's head was foggy, the headache biting around his temples like a freakishly large rubber band had been snapped there. Maybe the congestion was affecting his hearing. Yeah, that made sense. At the softball field he'd been kinda out of it, the possible danger barely registering until Ziva's shout. Ziva. Another enigma.

God, he was tired of enigmas.

Tony opened his mouth but the shards of glass that seemed embedded in his throat stopped him from talking. He grabbed the notebook from his pocket and threw it at his partner, smacking Tim on the side of the head.

"What??" Tim spluttered, staring at Tony from under crumpled brows.

Tony raised his to a 'what the hell, Probie?' height and threw out his arms.

"What?" Tim repeated, confused.

Rolling his eyes, Tony sighed. He gestured towards Tim, pantomiming his anxious efforts to search each and every pocket and compartment within reach.

"Oh! I thought I had some Hall's Mentholyptus Cough drops. I usually keep some in my pocket." Head down, Tim resumed searching while he talked. "It's getting wet out, and leaf mold is high. Actually, the rain should settle some of the particulates in the air, so that's a good thing – aha!"

Tim smiled, raising a victorious hand holding a tiny paper-wrapped lozenge by one end. A dirty, dusty paper-wrapped lozenge.

Tony made a face.

"Hey, the mess is on the outside, I'm sure the cough drop is fine." Tim untwisted one end and peered inside.

Tony leaned in to take a look. His grimace turned into gagging and he leaned quickly away, pointing at the sticky, spotty thing and shaking his head in a determined negative.

"Okay, maybe not." Tim sighed and plunked the nasty little thing into the handy trash bag hanging beside Tony's left knee. "Sorry."

Tony cocked his head and examined the other man. What a strange combo Timmy presented. Leave Tony hanging while he searched for a murderer – alone - but do his damnedest to produce a freaking cough drop. Tony thought they'd been doing better. Getting along. Growing pains and wacky cases and no-Ziva team and avenge-Ziva team and new-Ziva team had changed them all, but he and Tim had been solid. Teasing, sure, but they stood together more than they faced off these days. Or so he'd thought.

Hell, Tony'd been wrong before. Wrong about how partners and teammates and even a fiancé thought about him. He didn't need a rule to remind him about how wrong he could be in the relationship department.

He closed his eyes, rubbing both hands across his face. The pain in his throat and the drummer up in his head had joined forces. He was tired. Confused. Memories kept coming out of nowhere to blindside him. He wanted to go home.

"You okay?"

Tony raised his head from his hands and mouthed one word to his partner. "Home."

"I know. I promise. As soon as the rain lets up."

Tony gestured, a little angry and a lot frustrated. At Tim. At the rain. At the car. At his weapon.

Tim's expression flattened. "I've never been very good at charades, Tony. It looks like you're saying that if I don't get this car moving, rain or no rain, you're going to shoot me. Are you channeling Gibbs again?"

Tony tried a glare, but his hadn't worked on Tim for a couple of years now. Maybe familiarity did breed contempt after all. Fed up, he took out his phone and began texting.
"U R Fed Agt. With GUN. A ltl RAIN going 2 stop U?"

Tim's phone beeped and he checked the screen. "Well I don't think shooting the rain will do much, but I'll try if you want."

Dropping his phone into his lap, Tony let his head fall back against the headrest, trying to stifle another cough. Enough. He was finished. He closed his eyes and tried to keep his thoughts from streaking across his mind like the colors on the windshield. He didn't want to think about it – about Tim, Ziva, Gibbs and Ducky. About his team or his co-workers, or whatever the hell he should call them. Not now. He flicked through his memories to try to pull up one of his favorite movies and set it running on the screen behind his eyes. Settled on 'All About Eve.' Bette Davis. Anne Baxter. Little lamb Eve Harrington taken under the wing of the larger-than-life Margo Channing. Except the lamb wasn't quite so little, and more like a fox, with pointy teeth and dark eyes that took in everything and then slotted it away to use against her mentor. What a role. Eve knew just how to worm her way into Margo's house and into her life, digging in deep before she ever showed her claws. Tore up Margo's career, her 'family.' Tony raised an imaginary glass to his subconscious. Interesting choice of films.

To his left, Tim was talking in fits and starts. Trying to start a conversation or talking to himself. Tony didn't care. He was kind of done with him. With all of them. No mas, por favor. Not now.

"Hey, Tony, we're here."

He coughed, blinking open crusty eyes. Huh. He must have fallen asleep during the second act. Sometime between the underpass and his apartment building the sky had cleared into cloudless black velvet night. Tony grunted, trying to pull his fuzzy mind from the contrails his dreams had left behind. Finagling, nasty Eve Harrington didn't have long dark wavy hair and a penchant for knives as far as he remembered the movie. And Margo Channing hadn't been a six foot grey-haired Marine with relationship issues.

Tony shook his head and reached for the door handle. Tim's hand on his elbow surprised him and he turned.

"Are you okay?"

Wow. Tim actually sounded concerned. Tony frowned. Of course he was concerned. Tim was a good guy. Most of the time. He shook his head and then smiled, giving his partner a thumbs up.

"Well, text me if you need anything."

'Sure,' Tony mouthed, the promise as easy to make as it was to ignore. He struggled to get his feet arranged on the pavement and sucked in a breath of the moist, cool air, holding back the coughs by sheer force of will. He closed the car door behind him and headed towards home.

)( )( )(

The credits rolled on Margo and Eve, on Bette and Anne, two of Hollywood's most gilded in its Golden Age. Eve, the sneaky ingénue tied by iron bonds of deceit to the man she didn't want, and Margo, the mature, married woman intent on putting all the nastiness behind her and starting a new life.

"You're one classy broad, Margo," Tony whispered at the screen. He winced and tried another sip of tea, but barely managed to get it past the abraded tissues of his throat. It was cold anyway. He shivered, pulling the blanket tighter around his shoulders. Sighing, he fumbled with his phone. It was time. Time and past time. No matter what his co-workers thought of him, Tony wasn't an idiot. He knew he had to be in top physical condition to do his job. He sent a quick text, girding his loins for the conversation he didn't want to have.

When his phone rang, Tony rolled his eyes and swiped 'decline.' He texted again.

'Voice gone. Stop calling.'

'Fever?' The response came quickly.

Jimmy asked the typical doctory questions and Tony answered as best he could, including Ducky's painfully-poked diagnosis. After a few minutes of back and forth, Tony knew what was coming.

'I'll be there in half an hour. Try to drink some fluids.'

Poor Palmer. Always texting in complete sentences. Something about his medical school education or just sheer pig-headedness? Grammar-Nazi, Tony thought to himself.

'OK, mom,' he texted back.

Tony left the phone on the couch cushion and went in search of a warmer cup of tea. Maybe more honey would let it slide through the eight millimeter opening in his throat. He paused at the fish tank sitting on its stand beside the counter and dropped a few flakes into the water, watching Kate swim up after the food. Kate the fish gave him a big-eyed stare. "Should have named you Margo," Tony croaked.

)( )( )(

Jimmy sat on the coffee table, his elbows on his knees, stethoscope curled up in one hand. Behind his glasses, his eyes were bright and intense, focusing so completely on Tony that it made the agent squirm.

"Tell me again what Ducky said. No!" he held up one hand. "Write it down. Word for word if you remember it."

Tony pulled the legal pad back onto his lap, underlining the words he'd already printed in large letters. 'Inflammation. Allergic reaction. No talking.' Jimmy didn't need to know that Ducky had seemed just a little too happy with the diagnosis, a tiny bit flippant, and a lot condescending.

"And he didn't even listen to your lungs?"

Tony opened his eyes cartoon wide and shook the notepad at the young man.

"Okay, okay, I get it. It's just that-" Jimmy shrugged.

Tony understood. Ducky was Jimmy's mentor. The person he looked up to. And, generally, Ducky was a great guy, really great. But he was also human. He had his blind spots. One of them was Tony.

Dr. Mallard never had much patience with Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. He'd done his best to treat him when necessary - Ducky had a doctor's heart. But he'd also said and done some pretty nasty things to Tony over the years. Calling him a narcissist was one. Comparing him to a serial killer. While others got tea and sympathy, it seemed that Tony's brushes with injury always brought out the worst in Ducky.

Tony's ride in the back of an FBI van in a body bag after the Air Force One incident had resulted in a lot of bruises, two cracked ribs, and a mild concussion. He remembered Ducky chastising Gibbs for that stunt, but the gleam in the ME's eye had revealed his hidden amusement. Tony narrowed his eyes. He was used to pain, he'd been a college athlete for God's sake. But the doctor's laissez faire attitude had rankled. Not long after, Tony'd been pushed out of a plane with little to no training. Gibbs and Ducky had quite a few chuckles over that one, too.

The plague. Blue lights, Nurse Emma, and a stubborn Kate leaning over him. Ah Katie, Tony thought to himself with a smile. You are missed. Ducky's professionalism rose to the occasion that time. And he'd been firm with Tony, repeating Brad Pitt's instructions once Tony was released from the hell that was his hospital bed. When Tony had nearly gotten blown to hell his first day back on the job Ducky's same old exasperation had resurfaced. Then there had been the beating he'd taken after his and Ziva's first undercover mission and Ducky's prescription for Scotch. Pretty sure that wasn't usual bedside advice.

Something about Tony irritated Ducky - that was certain.

"Hey."

Tony let his dark thoughts drift away to focus on Jimmy, raising his eyebrows in question.

"I'm not doubting you, Tony." The young man adjusted his glasses. "I've seen it myself. Doctor Mallard, well, he is much better with the dead than the living," he smiled. Then his smile faltered. "But, for some reason, he treats you differently. I always thought there must be something that happened between you, some hard feelings. Still, it isn't right."
Tony mimicked Jimmy's shrug. He had no idea. None whatsoever. Whatever Ducky had against Tony was a mystery. But, then again, this last case had reminded him that he, apparently, wasn't well liked by most of the people he called his family.

"Well, that doesn't matter." Jimmy slapped his hands on his knees and then stood. He offered a hand to Tony and hauled him to his feet. "Since I don't graduate until June, I can't write prescriptions, so we're going to have to take a trip to the local Urgent Care. Unless you want to call Doctor Pitt?"

Pulling his head back like a frightened turtle, Tony grimaced an obvious 'no'.

"Okay, c'mon. I'll drive you. We need some antibiotics and maybe steroids for your lungs. I don't like what I'm hearing on the right side. That's where most of your scarring is if I remember your x-rays correctly."

)( )( )(

Of course any trip to the ER, or Urgent Care, or any doctor except Brad or Ducky always turned into a circus act. Trying to explain his medical history – again – even using Palmer as his voice, was the main reason Tony usually sucked it up and went to Ducky in the first place. When he'd finally gotten away from the well-meaning but curious medical clutches it was four hours later and all Tony wanted was his bed.

He had enough foresight to send a couple of emails before he headed for dreamland. He didn't want an irate Gibbs sending Ziva and Tim to break down his door when he didn't show up for work in the morning. Or Vance firing him for not reporting. Attaching a couple of phone pics of the doctor's orders, Tony sent emails to Gibbs and the director, requesting the next three days sick leave. That plus the long weekend ought to see him through the worst of this – and help him sort through the weirdness that seemed to be plaguing his interactions with his team.

Falling face-first into his bed, Tony let it all go.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 art

It took two days before Tony started to feel normal again. Two days of chicken soup and hot tea and meds and nebulizer treatments. Two days of hot showers and applesauce to relieve the churning of his gut from the meds. Two days of movies watched from his couch while he dozed under layers of blankets he'd wrestled from his bed and dragged down the hall. Two days of morning and evening check-ins by a concerned Autopsy Gremlin.

In the whole scheme of things, two days wasn't bad. No blue lights, no needles, no hospital stays. He didn't mind a little sack time to restart his immune system and turn down the dial on the pain and congestion. Mind and body had needed the respite.

Come Friday morning, Tony took stock. Fever – gone. Throat – much better. He'd tested out the vocal cords this morning in the shower and he'd graduated from Minnie Mouse to Christian Bale. 'I'm Batman' sounded a lot manlier than 'Oh Mickey!' The cough had deepened – just like Jimmy said it would – before it started getting better. Lung congestion was on the way out – he could feel the loosening in his chest when he breathed – but he'd keep up the steroids and breathing treatments for the full seven days to make sure.

More importantly, his head felt clear. Unfogged. The weird combination of dream images, movie scenes, and nostalgia had coalesced into real memories. Concrete concerns. Tony welcomed back his ability to see the actions and attitudes of his teammates with a clear eye and a lack of emotionalism. Today he could be the investigator he was trained to be. Today he could gather the evidence and put the pieces together so he could present them to his evening caller in a coherent, professional manner.

Today Tony DiNozzo would discover just where he stood.

After another cup of tea and his morning meds, Tony sat down to his computer and shot off an email to Abby. Not fifteen minutes later she opened a video chat window and was smiling at him.

"Tony! How's the voice? Are you feeling better?"

Tony's lips curved up into a true smile. "Looking good, Abs! That's a new shirt."

Abby preened at the compliment. She was sporting an acid green t-shirt bedazzled with white and black sequins in the shape of some kind of cartoon animal with huge ears. A mouse, maybe. Or … he tilted his head. "Is that a Pokémon?"

"Tony!" She shook her head, her pigtails spinning. "This is Kimba, the White Lion! I loved this show as a kid and just found a huge message board filled with fans! One of them sent me this." She tugged on the shirt, making the black markings on the lion cub's ears sparkle. "Cute, right?"

"Adorable," Tony agreed. Abby could make anything seem cute, even prints of a Drano-drinker's throat or shotgun pellets to the backbone. Things that made no sense in the light of day seemed perfectly reasonable when Abby danced her magic around them. Hopefully she'd be able to shine a little light on his … situation.

"Your voice sounds better – more Peter Falk than Jennifer Garner."

The images swept through Tony's mind. Cigar-smoking Columbo versus ninja-temptress Sydney Bristow. He shivered. What was up with that character contrast? Well, at least Columbo was smart as a whip even if his frumpy demeanor had all the bad guys underestimating him. Oh. He sat up straighter, suddenly not mad at all about the comparison.

"Abs, I'm trying to put my report together, but I'm missing some stuff I can't access on my home laptop. Can you hook me up?"

"You betcha. Gotta keep the Bossman off your back." He could hear her fingers clicking on her keyboard out of the line of sight of the camera. "What do you need?"

Tony kept his voice light, making sure there was no hint of anger in his tone and no creases of bitterness around his eyes to tip her off. "Let's see, I made a list." He faked bringing up a file on his laptop. "Okay, I need the transcript of Haskell's interrogation, the background Tim ran on him and Matt Lane, the postman slash bomber. I also need access to all the recordings from my gab-fest in Royal Woods, and the recording from Ziva's wire when she went undercover – I wasn't on that side of the feed, just the one from Gibbs. Gotta dot all the I's and cross all the T's."

Abby kept her head down, multi-tasking, typing, pulling up records and reports. Tony hoped he'd buried the lead well enough so that she wouldn't question it.

"Okay, I've attached the video file from interrogation, the document files on the backgrounds, hey," she looked up and Tony's stomach knotted, "do you need the case file on Haskell's wife's murder?"

He tried not to let his relief show. "Yeah, good call. Throw that in there." Once she'd gone back to typing, he kept talking, smooth and easy. "What's the word on him, anyway? I figured Homeland or the black-suits would be swooping in to collect him any minute."

Abby bounced back and forth in his video feed. "Yep. Bossman is mad. By the time he got back from the softball field, it was a done deal."

"Uh oh." Tony let a smile play along his lip. "Gee, I'm so sorry to have missed the ranting and raving."

Abby's eyes glinted. "No you're not."

"Oh, I'm so not," he chuckled darkly. Not even a little bit. Tim and Ziva left alone with Gibbs-the-Bear? Talk about karma.

"Okay, I think that's it," Abby looked up. "The Royal Woods' audio file is huge so I sent that separately in an encrypted zip file."

Tony leaned forward, ready to type. "Password?"

And just like that, everything changed. Abby Sciuto, sweet and sassy, the happiest Goth in the land disappeared and was replaced by a brilliant, loyal, tenacious friend. The set of her jaw and the narrowing of her eyes poured out anger – rage – and a bottomless depth of sadness. Her eyes blazed fire, staring through their video connection to connect with his. "Season 4, episode 13."

He couldn't move, caught up in Abby's righteous anger. His breathing sped up, his chest as tight as it had been a couple of days ago during the worst of his illness. Magnum, P.I. was their personal shorthand. Tony knew the episode titles backwards and forwards. He'd introduced Abby to the wonders of Magnum, Higgins, TC and Rick, Zeus and Apollo and the rest long ago over weekends commiserating together as the only two 'minions' on Team Gibbs. Before Vivian. Before Timmy or Kate. Long before Ziva. It was like comfort food to Tony, a solace after a grueling day or a desperate case. It was like going home.

Tony might not have had a terrific family life, or the kind of mom and dad he longed for while he'd watched Ozzie and Harriet, but he'd always had Magnum and the dream of having his own slightly dysfunctional, weird, snarky, work-family. He thought he'd gotten his wish. Found a team, a few people who would never let him down. And Abby knew that.

Tony swallowed, trying to get back to the easy, jolly tone he'd managed before. "Abs?"

"Do you think I didn't listen, Tony? Of course I listened. I had to. It was my job. And I do my job and I do it well."

"I know, Abs –" His gut churned.

"I'm a scientist. A scientist doesn't fudge results or settle for a half-assed job. She takes every piece of evidence and runs every single test that can possibly help the case. She dives down to the cellular level. She rips things to the studs." She was gesturing now, hands curled into claws. "And while, at first, I only set the recording up to run on my computer, automatically comparing voice prints while I worked on other stuff, eventually I listened. I listened to every word, every sound, and every creak of a door or shift of your coat on your shoulders. I heard your footsteps as you tried to catch up to Rose and Eliot Nelson, the 'jogger people,' and I heard your heartrate spike when Brittany, aka Mrs. Bikini, dropped her robe."

Abby pulled back, cutting herself off in mid-rant. Bad. Things were bad if Abby didn't feel like she could let go, let it out, let all the anger and frustration bubble up and out so that she could find her balance again.

Her eyes were sad when she continued. "Did they think that, after Mexico, after what I found there-" Lips pressed tight, she turned away, blinking. "Did they think this wouldn't hurt? That I was used to this now? To finding out that people I love, people I admire, have done bad things? Did they think I wouldn't care that they put my family in danger?" When she faced the camera again, her eyes were empty. Devastated. "Or did they think this was me, now. Abby Sciuto, the one who covered things up. The one who would gather up the evidence, all the pointing fingers, and bury it so deep no one would ever find it. Is that who I am now, Tony? Is that what I am?"

"No, Abby. Never." He leaned in, wishing he was next to her, pulling her into a hug, holding her together until she could find her footing. "Mexico – that was different. It was ancient history and bad choices and evil people. You are far more than Mexico, and so is Gibbs. You are the most honest, evidence-wielding, bad-ass scientist that I know and you're willing to follow the tiniest clue to the truth." God, he wanted to strangle McGee and Ziva. For betraying him, sure, but for doing this to Abby? Rage seared a trail up from his gut to lodge in the back of his throat. "Abby, you are wise and wonderful. Please don't let them do this to you. Don't let them make you doubt yourself." His hands were gripping both sides of the laptop screen so hard it creaked as he all but leaped through the connection. "Abby, please."

Her soul was in her eyes when she spoke again. "I hear you, Tony. I'm listening." Her voice was quiet, small. "Do you hear yourself?"

Tony gathered himself, eyes closed, and leaned back. "I do."

"'Don't let them make you doubt yourself.' That's what you said. That's what we both need to remember. So, I will if you will, Tony DiNozzo."

Tony rubbed his hand across his forehead, trying to urge the reawakened headache away. "Abby-"

"Tony. Look at me."

He raised dry, weary eyes to his friend. Abby's sparking anger was banked, her ferocious intensity muted, but her sorrow – her grief – shone out from the flat computer screen.

"Tony, you're my friend. Tim is my friend. Ziva is my friend."

"That's why I don't want you in the middle of this, Abby!"

"I am in the middle! There's nothing that you can do to change that. They put me there when they pulled this stunt. I mean, everything was being recorded. It was right there in front of them. Right under McGee's thumb when he reached forward to turn down the car's speaker."

The bitterness in Tony's throat tasted like poison. So it was true. It was real. It wasn't a figment of his imagination, or a bad joke, or the usual team teasing. It wasn't a dream fueled by his fever and infection, or some fiction written into Thom. E. Gemcity's newest novel. They'd done it. Tim and Ziva. His teammates. His friends.

They'd turned off the speakers and left him in the cold.

"But you're missing the point, Tony. This isn't really about me. Okay, maybe a little bit." She tilted her head to one side and then the other. "This is about you. And I'm not even in the middle, I'm totally, one-hundred percent, to infinity and beyond on your side." She backed away from the camera and lifted an external hard-drive and an NCIS file into view. "This is my report. My full report, including a copy of the recording. I will be filing it."

Tony frowned, a faint voice whispering a warning at the back of his mind. "You haven't filed your report yet? And Gibbs isn't all over you?"

Her pigtails danced as she shook her head. "He's been tied up with Vance in MTAC. I guess it's about Haskell being stolen by Homeland."

That was a break Tony hadn't expected. "I need you to give me some time, Abby. Give me today. I – I have to see for myself. Or, hear, I guess." He straightened, his voice firm. His computer dinged – twice – notifying him of files received. "Let me – let me process this. And then I'll figure out what to do."

Abby's eyes had narrowed to slits. "You're sure? Because I could take this up to Gibbs' desk right now."

Tony licked dry lips. "Ah, yeah, I'm sure. Don't tell Gibbs. Not yet."

She saw behind the mask, heard it in his voice. "Tony – you can't believe that Gibbs would be okay with this?"

Teeth clenched, Tony let his gaze drift away from hers. "I need to figure this out, Abs."

"Tony, no! You know Gibbs. He wouldn't –"

"Abby," he whispered, stopping her cold. "That's the problem. With what we know now, the way Gibbs has acted in the past." Tony shook his head. "He's covered up for Jenny. Covered up for Franks. Made assumptions about people he knew in his past – people he wasn't nearly as tight with as Ziva and McGee. We don't really know how he'll react."

Abby pursed her lips, obviously wanting to argue. Wanting to stand up for Gibbs. Her silver fox. Her father figure. The last few months made that hard, even for her – Tony knew that. Loyal, faithful Abby Sciuto had their boss teetering on a pedestal even higher than Tony's used to be. "Gibbs told me that he never meant to put me in this position. That he would never ask me do something like 'losing' that ballistics file."

"But you did. And he didn't try too hard to change your mind."

They stared at one another for a time, reading the truth behind their deep-seated loyalties. The doubt. Finally, hands on hips, Abby nodded. "Okay, Tony. But," she held up one curled pinky, "pinky-promise that you're going to let me help you with this. And that you'll talk to Gibbs."

"I will. I have to. No matter what happens." No matter what Gibbs' reaction, Tony had a responsibility. To other agents. To Abby. To himself. "I can't let it slide."

"No, you can't. Not this time." She shook her pinky finger in front of the camera. "Do it, pinky swear, do it, do it –"

Snorting, Tony matched her gesture and pretended to link up digits with her. "Thanks Abs."

He shut down the connection and double-clicked on the zip file. When the computer prompted him to type in his password he put his fingers on the keyboard. Magnum P.I., Season 4, episode 13. He typed in the title. "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

)( )( )(

Jimmy made one more trip to the supply closet, checking the number of boxes of gloves, booties, specimen containers, all sizes, and the particular brand of disposable aprons that Dr. Mallard preferred. They weren't scheduled to receive their next shipment until Tuesday and Monday was a holiday. If the long weekend turned out to follow the usual NCIS pattern there would be no end to murder and mayhem and a steady stream of dead bodies to sort through for the next 48 hours, if only to destroy Jimmy's careful record-keeping and weekend plans.

Back in the autopsy suite, Jimmy made one last notation and hung the clipboard on its hook. A few wooden tongue-depressors slid nicely into a business-sized envelope and he slipped them into his jacket pocket. He had his other instruments in his car – the beautiful stethoscope Breena had given him, the bandage scissors and reflex hammer, the pen light and tuning fork that made up his medical student kit. It made him feel like a real doctor to handle them, to use them on a patient. Even after all of his rotations in hospitals around the city, working under the looming presence of veteran doctors, Jimmy never felt as accomplished and confident as he did when he was helping out his friend.

Tony was doing a lot better. The congestion was giving way to the meds, loosening its hold on Tony's lungs. His throat tissue swelling was down; staying home and away from work and irritants – not to mention the temptation to talk - was really helping with that. But that didn't mean Jimmy was about to stop dropping in on his friend. He shook his head. The stubborn man might get it into his head to start jogging again, or go to the NCIS gym and take out his frustrations on the heavy bag. He clucked his tongue in fond exasperation. Leave it to his jock, special agent friend to feel a little bit better and decide to chuck his meds and get on with his life.

Something was bothering Tony, that much was certain. Something more than a sore throat and chest congestion. He tried to hide it behind grumpiness and silent snarking, but Jimmy wasn't a fool. Hopefully tonight over Pho and spring rolls, and a rewatch of Jimmy's favorite movie, he'd be able to tease it out of him. Now that Tony's throat had recovered it wasn't as important for him to stay silent. Which was a good thing. A quiet Tony set off all kinds of alarm bells in Jimmy's brain. And forced silence tended to make his talkative friend too introspective, brooding about what-ifs and might-have-beens and ending up with a depressed, moody Tony DiNozzo. Jimmy wouldn't let that happen.

He made sure the autopsy desk was neat – folders filed, notepads and pens in place. He frowned, considering the video link. Abby had been acting weird, too. Touchy and closed-mouthed. She'd been okay with him, but earlier, when McGee had walked into the lab to say hello, Abby had turned her back on him, clearly upset. And Tim didn't seem to have a clue what was wrong.

"Maybe it's an epidemic," Jimmy chuckled to himself.

"There's nothing funny about an epidemic, Mister Palmer." Ducky stopped short just as he entered autopsy, his face pale. "Did you receive a call from the CDC? Which virus? I hope you've made detailed notes –"

"Doctor Mallard – no, there's no epidemic, I was only -" Jimmy sighed, dropping his hands to his sides when he saw the anger in his mentor's face. "I'm sorry, but I was only talking to myself."

Ducky huffed and hurried past, head tilted dismissively. "Loose lips, Mister Palmer. If I've said it to you once, I've said it a thousand times. We do not joke about these things in a medical environment. As medical professionals we are held to a higher standard, one that, if your medical courses have not emphasized it, I certainly have. There is absolutely no excuse-"

"Doctor Mallard," Jimmy interrupted.

The older man's mouth opened in surprise. He stopped, turned, and faced Jimmy, very deliberately. "Did you just interrupt me, Mister Palmer?"

"I did. And I apologize," Jimmy added respectfully, "but I don't really think I deserve a lecture because of something I mumbled to myself in jest when we have no cases pending or bodies to process. After all," he hoped his smile would take some of the sting out of his words, "it isn't as if you and Agent Gibbs don't share jokes and chuckles over some of our patients, or even our coworkers. Even at crime scenes."

Ducky's reaction was not particularly hopeful. The friendly blue eyes turned icy as the older man raised his chin defiantly. "Really. Well I hope you can back up your accusations with actual examples, young man, because I pride myself on my professionalism. I will admit sometimes my penchant for nostalgia takes over and I do go on about some of my past cases, but it is never done in a flippant or thoughtless manner."

Maybe it was the daily reminder of Tony's illness, or Ducky's cavalier treatment of his friend, but Jimmy had had enough. Enough of Ducky's condescension, enough of being treated like a not very bright child. He loved Ducky like a grandfather, or eccentric uncle, and respected the man's decades of medical service in some of the worst parts of the world. But really, enough was enough.

"Doctor Mallard, do you respect me?"

"What kind of a question is that?" Ducky demanded.

Jimmy shoved his hands into his pockets. "A simple one, I think. We've worked together for years. I think of you as a great mentor, a gifted medical examiner, and a good man to emulate in my professional life. But, can you honestly say that you respect me?"

The older man's frosty gaze thawed. "Jimmy, my dear boy, I hope you know that I do. Perhaps I overreacted just now, but that does not mean that I don't value you highly."

Nodding, Jimmy took a deep breath and let it out. "Thank you. I – I guess I knew that, but sometimes, I'll admit, I feel like a toddler being admonished for touching something that I shouldn't have."

Ducky moved closer, one hand rising to Jimmy's shoulder. "I am a cranky old fogey, aren't I?" He smiled, waggling one finger in front of Jimmy's nose. "I did warn you, you know, long ago when you first began here. Do you remember what I said?"

Jimmy matched his mentor's grin. "I believe you described working at NCIS as dancing through a minefield of idiosyncratic personalities and egos while wearing clown shoes."

The medical examiner touched a finger to the side of his nose. "Indeed. And I'm very much afraid nothing much has changed." He patted Jimmy's shoulder again. "Now, it is Friday night, a night for a young man to indulge in frivolity and fun. I hope you and the lovely Breena have some plans for this long weekend?"

Jimmy glanced at his watch. He still had plenty of time to pick up dinner and head to Tony's. Maybe it was time to have this discussion with his mentor. To open this can of worms. Ducky was right: it was a quiet Friday night and most of the agents upstairs had gone home, so there was little chance of someone walking in on them. Jimmy frowned.

"What is it, Jimmy? There seems to be something else on your mind."

Of course Dr. Mallard would notice. Jimmy straightened his shoulders. "To answer your question, no, Breena is at her sister's this weekend. They're having a spa weekend and making tiny little favors for her sister's baby shower." He mimed tying tiny little knots with his big, blunt man-fingers. "I have no idea what that entails, but I'm sure she'll have fun." He laughed awkwardly. "I'm actually headed to Tony's for the evening. I'm going to force feed him some Vietnamese soup and watch some movies."

"Ah, very good, very good."

Was that a flare of concern he noticed in Ducky's eye before he turned away?

"While I'm asking questions, Doctor Mallard…"

Ducky seemed to deflate in front of him, hitching one hip up onto the desk. "Yes, I believe I can anticipate this one, Mister Palmer. You're wondering why I did not perform a more thorough examination of our Anthony on Tuesday when he first presented symptoms."

"That's part of it," Jimmy admitted.

Ducky's thoughts seemed to turn inward. "I do owe the young man an apology. I hope he is recovering well?"

"Yes. The meds are working, the steroids and breathing treatments have made quite a difference."

"Good, good." Chin lifting again, Ducky met Jimmy's gaze. "I will admit I am at somewhat of a loss to explain my dismissive attitude towards his symptoms. Especially with Anthony's sordid medical history."

"'Sordid'?" Jimmy tilted his head. "That's an odd word to use."

The medical examiner's feathers seemed to immediately ruffle. "Is it?"

"Well, yes. Doesn't sordid imply a sleazy or immoral condition?" Jimmy blinked nervously, his gut churning. "Do you – is that why you don't like treating Tony? You think he's sleazy?"

"Please do not put words into my mouth, young man."

"I didn't put it there, you put it there yourself," Jimmy insisted. When his mentor snapped his mouth shut, fire in his eyes, Jimmy's own anger flared. "You think Tony's some kind of degenerate, don't you?" Hands flapping in the air, Jimmy spun around, beside himself. "Good grief, you actually believe his playboy image! That he sleeps with a new bimbo every night and twice on Sundays! That he deserves every infection, every virus, every illness that he gets. That's it, isn't it?"

"That is ridiculous, Mister Palmer, and I will not dignify your wild conjectures with any further response. How Agent DiNozzo spends his free time is completely up to him. It's only here at NCIS that I must concern myself for how his lifestyle impinges his health and well-being and how he does his job."

"Oh my goodness, do you hear yourself?" Jimmy couldn't believe it. Dr. Mallard had an advanced degree in psychology. He was usually a great judge of character, the fairest of fair men who was always able to see both sides of an argument. Or maybe had Jimmy gotten that all wrong. "'His lifestyle.'" Jimmy echoed. "'How it impinges how he does his job.'" Head shaking back and forth, Jimmy put his hands on his hips. "You are! You are blaming Tony for his illness. Please, please explain to me how Tony's supposed 'lifestyle' caused him to contract the plague? Or how it pushed him out of a plane. Or made a criminal beat him up while he was tied to a chair? Tell me how losing his voice while following orders to get voice samples while he was already coming down with a chest infection was because of his 'lifestyle.'"

A loud bang made him jump. Jimmy watched the older man, red-faced with rage, shake out the fist he'd brought down hard on the metal desk. "How dare you!" the doctor shouted.

"Hey!"

Jimmy hadn't heard the doors open behind him, but he sure heard the loud bark of Agent Gibbs, and felt the impact of the man's hand as he pushed Jimmy aside to rush to his friend's side.

"What the hell is going on?" Gibbs’ glared sharply in Jimmy’s direction.

Rubbing at his shoulder, Jimmy stood tall, refusing to be intimidated by Gibbs or the doctor. "I just learned something about a friend of mine, Agent Gibbs. Something that makes me wonder if I ever knew him at all."

"Mister Palmer! I refuse to be spoken of in this manner!"

"You'd better explain yourself, Palmer. Duck, here," Gibbs grabbed the wheeled stool nearby and slid it behind the doctor's knees, "sit down. And calm down. You're going to give yourself a heart attack."

Dr. Mallard sputtered, muttering about disrespectful and ungrateful young men. Jimmy crossed his arms over his chest and waited.

"Well?" Gibbs was clearly exasperated, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "This isn't like you, Duck. And Palmer here doesn't usually open his mouth much less shout. So what's going on?"

When Jimmy refused to answer, Gibbs took a menacing step towards him.

"Jethro, please." The older man took a deep breath and seemed to get a hold of himself. "There is a misunderstanding at the bottom of this. And some overreaction on both sides, I believe."

Jimmy was pissed. "Oh, a misunderstanding? So, you didn't mean it when you called Tony 'sordid'? I've never known you to choose your words with anything but exacting standards, Doctor Mallard. Even when they are words like 'immature' or 'narcissist' or 'sociopath.'"

The doctor seemed to feel Jimmy's words like bullets to the chest. His right hand spread over his sternum, his face paling to white until it blended seamlessly with the collar of his dress shirt. "I – I –"

"If there's nothing else, I have a sick friend to visit. A sick friend who needs someone to remind him that his lungs are scarred so he has to take his pills and rest, and, yes, even eat soup because, for some reason, he doesn't seem to take his own needs too seriously. I wonder why that is?"

Jimmy knew he shouldn't leave on this note, shouldn't go while he was angry. He was going to regret all this in about ten minutes and probably have a panic attack in DC traffic, but, right now, he didn't have it in him to continue this discussion. To try to get the doctor to see and admit to his horrible attitude. "Agent Gibbs, I'd appreciate it if you'd get Doctor Mallard home safely. I believe I've upset him."

"You think, Palmer?" Gibbs' growled.

Jimmy met the fierce stare with one of his own. "Yes, 'I think,' Agent Gibbs. I think far more than either of you give me credit for." He strode towards the automatic doors. "Oh, and I'll be sure to let Tony know that you asked about him," he threw over his shoulder.

)( )( )( )(

Ducky gulped in a breath and then looked up at Gibbs over his shoulder. "I fear I've made a grave mistake, Jethro."

Gibbs closed his eyes, anger and regret twisting his features. "Not alone there, Duck."

Even as shocked as his old friend seemed, Ducky was quick to narrow his eyes, his mind assessing, diagnosing Gibbs' tone, his words. "Jethro?" The doctor hauled himself around until he faced Gibbs.
"What is going on? Is Anthony that sick? Mister Palmer said that he –"

"No. DiNozzo's fine." He tried a smile but it felt foreign on his face. "Abby keeps me in the loop. Whether I want her to or not."

"And why would you not want to know how Anthony is doing?"

Damn it. Gibbs was screwing this up. Screwed it up from the beginning. And the damn thing was about to blow up in his face. DiNozzo was hiding, licking his wounds. Abby was stalking Gibbs, trying to pin him down so she could vent all over him. Ziva and McGee had kept their heads down, obviously feeling the pressure of their boss' stress and DiNozzo's absence. Patience was never going to be one of Gibbs' virtues and this time he might just have that stroke that DiNozzo kept warning him about.

And now Palmer. Just when Gibbs didn't need another complication, Palmer decided to grow a backbone and confront Ducky about his attitude. And then left Gibbs to pick up the pieces.

He was so damned bad at that.

"C'mon, Duck. It's been a long week."

"Yes. Yes it has." Ducky crossed his arms over his chest, making it obvious that he was not going to move from that spot until he got some answers. "But no worse than many others. No one is in hospital. No one is missing. No enemies – past or present – are on the radar. And yet the tension in and around your team has reached stratospheric heights as evidenced by Mister Palmer's tirade. And your meetings with Director Vance have gone from weekly to almost daily."

Of course the older man noticed. Even buried down here in the bowels of the building with the dead, Dr. Mallard could sniff out problems, notice behavioral changes, and sense the pressure and strain that wound Gibbs' gut up tight. Gibbs' old friend was a genius at reading other people. Most other people. Not so good at figuring himself out, maybe, but who the hell was Gibbs to judge?

"Let's get out of here," Gibbs tried. "I could use a drink."

"As could I. However, it has been my experience that once the two of us have alcohol in our systems I become even more of a raconteur and you proceed as if your lips are actually sewn shut. So, I believe I'll stay right here, thank you, and expect some answers." Ducky leaned back against his desk as if settling in for the night.

Gibbs didn't want to get into this. Not now. Not here. He'd sent Ziva and McGee home, but Vance was still upstairs, the spider at the top of the web, waiting for the particular touch on the strands that would bring him running. Gibbs had been able to put him off for the weekend, claiming complications now that their perp, Haskell, had been swept up by Homeland. He'd drawn out the multi-agency conference in MTAC for hours longer than he should have. That, plus DiNozzo's sick days, had given him just enough leeway to keep the reports from hitting Vance's desk before the long weekend.

That would be enough time to get a handle on this. It had to be. Gibbs was out of options.

"Change is coming, Duck. I'm just trying to keep the damage to a minimum. Keep the family together." He swallowed. Not much chance of that, but Gibbs had to try. Couldn't give up now. Not after all this time. A flash of anger had him seeing red, turning away from his friend to hide the emotion written plain on his face.

"Jethro." Ducky's voice was gentle. "What has happened?"

Gibbs shook his head. "I'll tell you what I can when I can. You know that."

Ducky's hand on his elbow insisted he turn back.

"And if I can help in any way, you have but to ask. I hope you know that."

Frowning down at the older man, Gibbs nodded. "Guess I'm going to have to ask you one thing."

"And what's that?"

"Not going to be easy, Duck. Especially with what I overheard down here when I came in."

The doctor drew back, withdrawing his absolute support behind a shell of caution.

This was one thing Gibbs couldn't wait on. He had to know. Had to at least get the ME to start thinking in these terms. "Gotta know if you had to choose, choose a side, whose you'd be on."

"Well yours, of course," Ducky answered, laughing, relieved at the easy question.

"Not one of the choices." Gibbs pointed towards the bullpen. "After what I heard, what Palmer said, question is, would you be on Tony's side?"

He could see the older man weighing his assistant's remarks and his own attitudes. He watched Ducky's feathers ruffle at the insinuations, the accusations that he didn't think well of DiNozzo. "I have always done my best for each and every member of your team. I do not understand the heinous statements Mister Palmer has made, or your continuation of this theme."

"Doctor Mallard."

Gibbs use of the man's title brought him up short. "What exactly are you asking me, Jethro?"

"Would you help Ziva, no matter what?"

"Yes, of course."

"And McGee?"

"Naturally," Ducky grimaced, obviously not liking this line of questioning.

Gibbs let his shoulders fall, tried to drain all the stored-up tension out of the question. "What about DiNozzo?"

Ducky's head shook back and forth, back and forth, his face a mask of confusion. "Against whom?"

Gut churning, Gibbs nodded. "Funny, you didn't ask that question about the other two."

Anger splashed a red road-rash across Ducky's pale features "Jethro! How dare you! That is twice in the past ten minutes that my word choice and syntax has been called into question regarding that young man! It is unconscionable!"

"Is it?" Gibbs demanded. "You've always told me that words are important. Haven't you said that 'word clues' can predict behavior? Underlying, unconscious attitudes on the part of the speaker? Don’t you use them in your psychological profiles?" Gibbs was too loud, too aggressive. He was as bad as Palmer, damn it. He rubbed one hand across his forehead. "Look. We shouldn't be having this discussion here. Not here. Not now. Now, are you ready to go? 'Cause Palmer will, apparently, have my head if I leave you to drive home yourself."

"Leroy Jethro Gibbs, you are the most infuriating man I have ever met, have I told you that?"

"Time after time. And stop using my names like my mother did when I was in trouble."

Ducky heaved a huge sigh, still angry. He strode towards the coat rack in the corner, taking down his overcoat and hat and putting them on with little bursts of anger and snapping movements. "You have quite a lot of explaining to do," he growled, motioning towards the doors.

"I do," Gibbs agreed. "But, over this weekend, I'd like you to think about it. Think about what Palmer said. Because he wasn't wrong. Not from where I'm standing." Gibbs drew up next to his friend. His oldest friend. "And, over the next week, everything is gonna change. And how you answer that question, about DiNozzo, is going to make all the difference."

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 artwork

Last night hadn't been what Tony had expected. He'd had Jimmy's favorite movie ready to go, the coffee table set with bottles of water and napkins in expectation of enjoying some four-star Pho while kicking back with The Matrix before the real show began. Before Tony let Jimmy in on Ziva and McGee's actions, let him listen to the recording, read Tony's case notes, and the analysis that would never make it to a formal report - and make his own judgment.

After Tony's conversation with Abby, he'd spent the rest of the day listening to the recordings, writing up his report – and re-writing – noting down the important time stamps for Haskell as well as for any action he might bring against Ziva and Tim. Then he'd put it aside and scrubbed his bathroom, cleaned out his refrigerator and made a grocery list, made lunch, and started all over again. Started his report with a blank page, shoving his anger and bitterness aside to deal with the Military At Home case as if nothing had happened. The second time through he had found more to frown at, more strange decision-making, more threads he wanted to pull to unravel the whole mess.

Why were both Ziva and Tim assigned as back-up for Tony's voice-print retrieval? Usually only one back-up agent is required on an assignment like that. Tim could have done it himself, done it well, and things would have gone differently. What was Gibbs doing while the rest of them were in Royal Oaks? Why was Ziva tapped to meet with Haskell? Why erase the past five years of her existence and put her back into the Mossad mind-set when she had just made abrupt changes to her life? Tony remembered his confusion, the way his thoughts kept going back in time to her first months on the team. After Jenny Shepard came on board. After Kate.

Laying all the files out in front of him, Tony had picked through the evidence, put together the time-line of the case, following one individual's 'fingerprints.' One trail. One mind behind the decision-making. Emotions aside, the sharp bite of betrayal pushed away, Tony investigated. Dug. Noted each and every glance, every action. And found an answer.

He didn't like it, but it made sense. It made sense of everything. By six-thirty, he was ready to present it to Jimmy, to talk it out, to face the questions he knew his friend would ask.

He hadn't expected Jimmy to show up with blood in his eye, unable to utter three coherent sentences. Honestly, Tony had peeked into the bag from Pho Nam with trepidation, wondering what the man might have ordered in his current state. Happily, pointing to menu items hadn't been beyond the younger man and they didn’t end up with six orders of Tofu Rad Nah. Pushing Jimmy into a seat, Tony had let him fume and rant, setting the movie to play and portioning out soup - and eventually shoving a dumpling into his friend's mouth to shut him up for a moment.

Once Neo had taken the red pill and had woken up on the submarine, Tony had hit pause and insisted on the whole story. Funny, the irony. Maybe Tony – and Neo – would have been happier if they'd just taken the blue pill, closed their eyes to reality, and had gone on their blinkered way. Between Jimmy's description of Ducky's attitude and Tony's revelation of his teammates' betrayal, he and Jimmy seemed stuck with pasty skin, scars up and down their backs, slimy white gruel, and the painful and ugly reality around them.

The ugly reality that maybe their co-workers weren't the friends – weren't the family – that they both assumed. The fact that things were about to get a lot worse before they got better.

They'd talked it out. Finished the movie. Tony had bundled Jimmy into his car after promising to take his meds and get some sleep.

Fat chance.

Sometimes Tony agreed with Cypher - taking that blue pill, ignoring reality, would make Tony's life a whole lot easier. But, that was the point, wasn't it? The sharp point on which the next step on Tony's life's journey balanced. If Tony dismissed Tim and Ziva's actions, if he let it go, tucked it into some internal file labeled "only kidding," or "team pranks," or even "if anyone deserved it, Tony did," what then? Just like Neo, Tony had to face a reality that kept slipping out from under his feet. Kept changing. What was real? What was shady manipulation?

Exactly. The sticky fingers pulling on the strings had a strong scent of over-brewed coffee. Who had chosen assignments? Made the decisions? Who had placed Ziva and Tim in a car together and Tony out in the cold? That was something he could not possibly ignore. Not this time. Tony had a lot of questions and he wasn't going to find any answers sitting on his ass and living in a dream world. If he was the hero of this particular story, it was up to him to follow his instincts, his 'gut,' and take that leap. Even if the pavement came up to smack him in the face.

He snorted. The hero. Who was he kidding? Tony hadn't felt like a hero in a long time. A puppet? Yeah, pretty much daily. A foot-soldier who was to do what he was told and shut up about it. A mushroom left to grow in the dark and fed horse-shit. Worse.

Saturday morning had come too early, demanding a decision. Tony closed the car door and straightened his shoulders, looking towards the simple, plain house in front of him. Gibbs' house. It was a perfect fall day, framing the homey place with blue skies, turning leaves, and the scent of change in the air. A humble abode for the ruthless, closed-mouth giant Gibbs had become. Laptop bag over his shoulder, Tony paused, memories skittering across his thoughts, the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly. He shook his head. That was a different movie, and although Gibbs reminded Tony much more of the silent, cheroot smoking, narrow-eyed Clint Eastwood than he did Laurence Fishburne, Tony was stuck with his metaphor. Gibbs had answers. Tony had questions.

He trudged up the sidewalk towards the perpetually unlocked door. He'd always thought of his boss as a hero. He wondered if, in a couple of hours, after they'd talked, he would feel the same.

The truck had been in the driveway so Tony didn't bother shouting. Didn't head down the stairs to step into the sawdust-carpeted inner sanctum. He knew Gibbs was there, and since Tony hadn't tried to muffle his steps, Gibbs knew exactly who was visiting and where he was. Tony moved to the kitchen table and set up his laptop, setting the files out in order. He opened the audio file Abby had sent him, already cued to start fifteen minutes in. Then he turned to the counter, rinsed out the coffee pot, and set a new one brewing. It was too early for bourbon, even today.

Naturally, Gibbs waited. Waited a good twenty minutes. Couldn't act too interested, too concerned about what Tony might be doing in his house on a Saturday morning. Tony leaned back in his chair, balancing it on two legs as he sipped from his cup, heavily dosed with sugar and creamer from the stash he kept in his computer bag.

Gibbs' steps were slow and deliberate. In no hurry. He stopped as entered the kitchen, one hand still on the basement door, taking in what Tony had set up on his table. His face blanked of any expression, Gibbs seemed to file every piece of evidence away, his eyes flicking from file to file, from computer screen to report folder to the calm, determined set of Tony's shoulders. After a moment, he closed the door, walked to the counter and filled his cup. Leaning back against his refrigerator Gibbs sipped, staring straight into Tony's eyes. Waiting.

Tony nodded and let his chair down to rest quietly on all four legs. "She failed, Gibbs. Ziva failed your little test. So did McGee."

Gibbs didn't flinch.

Leaning forward, his hands curled around his cup so he didn't throw it in his boss's face, Tony tilted his head. "So, how did I do? What's my score on this test? Am I being graded on a pass/fail basis? Do I get points off for getting sick, for waiting until now to bring this to you? What would my grade have been if I'd been ambushed out on the peaceful streets of Royal Oaks while my 'friends' were supposed to be listening?" He rose to his feet, to all six-feet-two inches of his height, the chair sliding backwards with an ear-piercing shriek to bounce off the wall. "Would my dead body have been enough evidence for you? Evidence that Ziva wasn't finished playing us? That her connections to Mossad are ingrained so deep that she could never be trusted as an agent? That McGee will always – always – follow her lead, even if it leads to the death of a friend?" He stepped into Gibbs' personal space, forcing the man to look up into his eyes. To look up to him. "Or maybe getting rid of me was worth it. Two – or three – birds, one stone. A clean sweep for Team Gibbs."

Tony didn't let up. The acid in his gut, the pounding in his head – he had to get it out. All of it. All of the disgusting, nasty truth. "Let me guess, this is just another game. Another time when you didn't have to tell me what you were doing. Didn't have to let me in on the real plan because, hey, you're Gibbs and you don't answer to anyone!" Tony let his voice drop to a whisper. "Or is it that you didn't trust me. Again."

The hand against his chest stopped him. It wasn't a slap, wasn't a punch. Gibbs' hand didn't push him backwards, force Tony to step away, to acknowledge his boss's superiority. It felt more like it was bracing him, shoring Tony up against the rage and betrayal that left him shaking.

"I trust you. I trust you, DiNozzo." Gibbs' blue eyes were clear. Unclouded by anger. His voice was low and even. "And I will always have your back."

"What?" The word sneaked out from between Tony's clenched teeth. No. Gibbs had left him hanging. Purposefully. He might not have known it would happen, known McGee would cave to Ziva's convincing, but he'd sure as hell believed it was possible. "You didn't."

"Where do you think I was while you were getting those recordings?"

"Getting coffee?" Tony snarled. "Isn't that where you always are?"

Gibbs' hand rose. Tony flinched, but his boss wasn't delivering a whack to the back of his head. He laid his hand on Tony's cheek in a move that reminded him of a desperate ex-detective from Baltimore visiting NCIS for the first time.

"You put it together, most of it, already." A flash of approval brightened the man's blue eyes. "You knew I'd chosen to run this case in a particular way. Chose the assignments. Think, DiNozzo. Where was I?"

Tony swallowed, his mind flipping back to Royal Woods. To his sore throat and his sore feet. His churning gut. The silence on the other end of the line, no matter what crazy-crap he was spewing. The unfailing feeling that he was safe. "Gibbs?"

His boss nodded. "I was there. In the cable-tv van. Remember seeing it?"

Out of the corner of his eye. A white van with a familiar red logo, one workman in overalls and a cap, always right at the edge of vision. Normal. Ignored. A ubiquitous sight on any suburban street. Like the postman in that old mystery story. No one looked twice.

"I will always have your back. Always."

Tony stumbled backwards, brought up short by the kitchen table. "What the hell, Gibbs?" Yeah, he'd figured it out. He'd seen the patterns, recognized the touch of a master manipulator in how the case shook out. The duties assigned to each of them. He'd seen the focus on Ziva, on her past, on her connections to the team, or lack thereof. Tony saw that she'd been played to reveal her real loyalties, and McGee along with her. But clearly he was missing something.

"So, I wasn't a part of this? You weren't testing me, too?"

Gibbs sighed. "I wasn't testing any of you."

Tony closed his eyes, that sick feeling in his stomach back in full force. "Vance."

"Who else?" Gibbs replied. Bitter. Angry.

"God damn it." Tony should have known. He should have seen it. Vance. Vance who still hated Tony, no matter how many times he pretended he didn't. Vance, who had broken up Gibbs' team as his first act as director. To find a mole, right, sure, but mostly because he couldn't stand that the team would always look to Gibbs first, the director second. Vance, who had been blindsided by Gibbs' Mexican crimes and Abby's intention to bury the evidence.

Tony fell into a chair. "This is more fallout from Mexico, isn't it?"

"Maybe." Gibbs hauled another chair around to sit on it backwards, arms crossed over the top. "Maybe it's just his excuse this time."

"His excuse to break up the team?"

Gibbs gestured towards Tony's evidence. "Looks like the outcome, doesn't it?"

"But they really did it, Gibbs. Ziva and Tim. They shut off the radio. Nobody made them do that, manipulated them into it."

"No." Gibbs rubbed one hand over his face, the dry skin sounding like sleet against the windows. "That's on them. That's why I won't fight it."

Ziva was toast. This would give Vance everything he needed to kick her out, to withdraw NCIS' support. To send her home. But, McGee? Vance's golden boy? There was no way in hell Vance expected Tim to follow Ziva into such a boneheaded move. Into breaking protocol. Not like this. McGee was all things to Vance, the future of the agency. Letting Ziva screw Tony over might have been Vance's plan, but adding McGee into the mix? That smelled like Ben-Gay and sawdust – it had Gibbs written all over it.

"Vance. He wanted –" The words stuck in his throat. "He wanted me dead at Ziva's hand. An obvious betrayal. Something so big, so overt, that Eli David would have to swallow it."

"Don't know that he was trying to get you killed."

"Oh, you 'don't know' he was. Right. Maybe just a little beat up. Or shot. Hell, DiNozzos are tough to put down, he probably figured a light-weight like Haskell would just hit me over the head, give me yet another concussion. Like Franks did." He saw the flinch, the momentary flash of guilt in Gibbs' eyes. Good. "The hell with the fact that there were two dead guys in Ducky's morgue already." Tony nodded, his muscles locked and aching. "Sure. Vance didn't plan on me ending up dead. That would have just been a cherry on his manipulative bastard sundae."

"Wasn't going to happen," Gibbs reminded him.

Tony jerked forward at a sudden realization. "And Abby?" Tony's eyes widened. "You were okay with what this is doing to Abby? Making her doubt herself again?"

Gibbs' jaw clenched tight, the muscle there jumping. "Vance said he had to know she wouldn't do it again. Wouldn't cover for me. For us." He knocked his fist on the hard wood of the chair. "That she'd make a clear report if someone else from the team –"

"Ziva."

"Ziva," Gibbs nodded, "acted against the law. Or broke protocol." He pointed a finger at Tony. "Something's coming. Something that's got Vance circling the wagons, making sure his ass is covered. He's scared. Cornered. Most dangerous enemy is one that can't see a way out."

"Holy shit, Boss." Tony stood and wandered away, aimless, speechless, completely drained. When he reached Gibbs' back door he stopped and leaned his head against the glass, relishing the cool feel against his overheated skin. He let his mind drift as he watched the breeze flip the colored leaves back and forth. When had his life – their lives – become so cheap? When had they stopped making informed, rational choices and started to have their strings yanked and wrenched by someone higher up? How far back did it go?

Back to the beginning. Back to Ari. To Kate. To a bullet in her skull and a splash of blood across Tony's face. To Jennifer Shepard's shark-smile. To a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman with a bastard father who'd demanded that she kill her brother to earn a place on Gibbs' team. She'd been a spy from the very beginning, and it had all blown up – literally – after Tony had confronted Rivkin in her apartment. After Tony'd killed the man intent on killing him. After Israel, Eli David's slip, and Ziva's ultimatum. That ball that had started as a pebble on a sunny roof in Norfolk had turned into a giant boulder mowing down everything in its path, putting Tim and Tony in a terrorist camp, tied up and bleeding, until had it rolled right back to NCIS. Back to Kate's desk. Back to half-assed apologies and dark eyes that hid a bottomless well of anger and vengeance.

Back to Gibbs. To a team that was not a team; a family left in ruins. That giant time-bomb of a ball had started with master manipulator Eli David. Leon Vance's old pal.

"Where the hell is that blue pill?" Tony mumbled to himself, eyes closed, forehead rocking back and forth against the cool glass.

Behind him he heard a rustle, a click, and then Ziva's voice, tinny and sharp, sounding from his computer's speakers.

"He is driving me crazy."

Papers rattled. "Well, he's certainly getting everyone to talk to him."

Tony closed his eyes, his head hanging. Tim. God, Tim, why?

"And talk and talk and talk and talk –"

On the recording, McGee snorted. "You have to admit Tony is the perfect person to handle this assignment. The boss is getting him to use his gift of gab for some positive results for a change."

"I suppose," Ziva sighed dramatically. "But we are the ones forced to listen. For hours."

More rattling. "It's only been forty-five minutes. I'm sure Tony's going as fast as he can."

In the background, Tony's chattering was easily audible. He'd been knocking on a wooden fence, helloing the backyard full of people on the other side. The smell of the barbecue had made him hungry. Now he felt like he wanted to throw up.

"Ugh. I cannot stand it," Ziva groaned. Suddenly, Tony's voice was barely audible.

"What are you doing?" The sound on the speaker resumed full volume. "I can hardly hear him."

"And that is a good thing, no?" Ziva's tone was sultry, cajoling. "We are in the middle of a quiet suburban street. Nothing is going to happen to him here."

"We don't know that, Ziva," Tim responded. "We're looking for a murderer, a member of a domestic terrorist organization. That doesn't sound particularly safe to me."

"Don't be silly, McGee. Gibbs would not have us waiting many streets away in a car if he thought Tony was in any danger. One of us would be right beside him. There is no danger here, Gibbs knows that. And I, for one, am not about to second guess Gibbs."

"I'm not second guessing the boss." Tim's reluctance was obvious.

"We aren't even able to see him. You know as well as I do that a real back-up team would have eyes and ears on their teammate. It is ridiculous to think this is anything like a real assignment. Not with Tony out there getting statements."

The degree of sarcasm in the way she said Tony's name was legendary.

"Maybe not. But still, we have our orders-"

Ziva interrupted. "No maybe. This assignment is a way to get us out of the office and into a beautiful day. Even Gibbs knows how hard we've all been working. All the stress on us. He is letting Tony do what he loves while you and I take ten."

"Take five."

"Whatever." It sounded like a magazine flapping. "Would you have brought reading material if you were really supposed to be backing him up?"

A dozen undercover ops flipped through Tony's memory. Sitting in a van for nights on end, or in an empty apartment, keeping an eye or an ear on a suspect, on a teammate. You brought food. You brought coffee. You brought magazines or books. Down time was limited, but you trained yourself to listen for a tense word, for a change of tone or background noise, for the tiniest hints that would tell you your partner needed you. But Tim wasn't as seasoned. He didn't have Tony's background. And Ziva was persuasive. Intimidating. 'Mossad training' was a card she never stopped pulling and Tim never stopped falling for it.

"I don't know-"

"But I do. Now, turn it off."
The click of the speaker turning off was loud. Like a gunshot.

"Relax, McGee. Tony is fine. He is in his element, no? Flirting with every woman, smiling that toothy smile and talking about nothing?"

"You're sure?"

"Read your book," Ziva answered, the satisfaction in her voice pouring out like a layer of honey. "You'll see that I'm right."

The silence on the recording spoke for itself. A few moments later a page turned. Then another. Then nothing.

Despair flooded him, weighing him down, keeping him lingering in the darkness behind his closed eyes. The emotions that he'd been denying fell on him. Despair. Doubt. Exhaustion.

"Ask," Gibbs urged, his tone somber, subdued.

Tony shook his head. Shrugged. He didn't want to. Didn't want to know the answer.

"Ask, DiNozzo."

The despair threatened to drown him. "Did you send McGee with her to protect her?"

"Not exactly."

That was 'not exactly' the answer Tony had feared and definitely not the one he'd hoped to get. He had expected the worst. That Gibbs had been the mastermind behind this plan, that he'd been the one to hang Tony out to dry, to set him up for his partners to betray. And to do it all to make sure that Ziva was still safe. Still his. His agent. His confidante. His daughter-figure. To let Ziva prove to herself that she was trusted. That she was a real agent now, more really, truly Gibbs' than she'd ever been. After Gibbs' act in the ballpark, the game of catch, the father/daughter bonding, what else could it have been?

He'd been wrong. Gibbs hadn't been stringing Tony along, hadn't been proving to himself and everyone that Ziva was a good little agent. But to find that it had been Vance's plan, Vance's idea to prove that Ziva was anything but good, anything but loyal and trustworthy, that still left a churning cauldron of questions in Tony's gut.

Tony raised his eyes to his boss. His mentor. "So you didn't send McGee as a way to mitigate Vance's plan? So that Tim could be a good influence on her – or a hostile witness if she tried to pull something? You didn't set McGee up as a last chance, some kind of human firewall to keep her on the straight and narrow?" Tony's hands had balled into fists at his sides. "Or did you set Tim up to fail? Did you figure that, if Vance wanted dirt on Ziva, he was going to have to accept that his favorite agent was culpable, too? Figure the toothpick might be willing to brush Ziva's actions under the table if Tim was also implicated?" Tony shook his head, laughing. "Were you still protecting her?"

"No." Gibbs held Tony's accusing glare, accepted it. He didn't shout, he didn't snap, didn't turn Tony's accusations back on him as he'd always done before. "Nothing is getting brushed anywhere. I'm not in this to protect Ziva. Not this time."

"Really." Tony crossed his arms over his chest to hide his shaking hands.

"Really." Gibbs stood, not to tower over Tony, not to lift his chin and intimidate his SFA into kowtowing to his all-knowing, all-mighty ways. Gibbs stood like he felt every one of his years, every grey hair, every crease and callus and sore joint. He stood next to the table, accepting the evidence, Tony's accusations and doubts, and offered something Tony hadn't seen in a long time. A hand held out in friendship. In partnership. The hand of an equal.

"The team is broken. It's time to protect the individuals that I can. The people who've been innocent, who've been tarred by my own actions – or inactions - and never deserved it. People I've let down and people I've let get away with attitudes and arrogance I should have called them on years ago. Ducky. Tim. They both need some, what do you call it?" Gibbs' half-smile was bitter. "Tough love."

"And Abby? Me?" Tony kept his arms folded. His hands tucked away. Not yet. He couldn't accept that handshake yet.

"You and Abby – and Palmer. I made sure none of this would touch you. That you'd never be in danger – not physically and not of losing your jobs. Not this time." Gibbs let his hand hang there, empty and waiting. "Gotta take this up the chain. My report is ready. Evidence. Recordings of Vance's orders." He glanced down at the table. "So's yours."

"Abby has had hers ready for days."

Gibbs nodded. "I kinda hoped you'd help me out. You and Abby. Tie Vance up in his own webs. Whatever he's afraid of, it'll be big. We've got to be bigger."

Tony took a half-step forward, pulled in by that hope. By the thought that Gibbs could be sincere, that he might actually be offering Tony a real partnership, not the one-upmanship, put-in-his-place pseudo-relationship they'd had for years.

And then he remembered.

"This was Vance's idea. All of it."

"All of it." Gibbs nodded.

"Because of Mexico. Because of Jenny. Because of Eli. Because Ziva came back different."

Gibbs lowered his hand, slow and steady. Wary. "Yes."

"And yet." Tony paused, letting the anger and the disappointment in his voice full rein. "And yet, you didn't – not once – think to come to me. To tell me. To explain what was happening so that I could 'help you out with that.'" Eyes narrowed, Tony spat contempt with his last words. "Just like always."

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 artwork

Tony shook out his arms, let his body relax into its usual slouch, and grabbed his coffee cup off the table, finishing the cold dregs with one swallow. He turned his back on his boss, on the shuttered expression, the beginning signs of anger that he'd trained himself to watch for over the past ten years. Pouring more coffee into his cup, he added two sugars and a squirt of hazelnut creamer slowly and deliberately, in no hurry.

"Tell me, Gibbs. How Vance tied your hands. How he threatened to fire us all if you said a word. How reasonable and rational your reasons were for denying me intel. Or you could just act superior and remind me that I have no right to be on the inside of any of your little plans. Remind me, with a bark or a smack, how subordinate I am to you and therefore, the trust you demand of me cannot possibly be expected to go both ways. Go ahead," Tony turned, leaning lazily against the counter, his smile big and wide, "I can't wait to hear it. This version. This time. Tell me how you and Vance are so different."

Watching from behind his coffee cup, Tony expected the usual grunt of exasperation. The 'I don't have to tell you' crap Gibbs pulled after Domino. The 'shut up and like it' every bully in the history of the world used on his kids or his wife or the people he felt were beneath him. Not worth a five minute conversation, a word of warning, or an instant of thought about how they felt.

But that's not what Tony got. Instead, emotions chased themselves across Gibbs' face, right out there in the open. Hurt. Anger. Grief. Guilt. And then a new one. One Tony had only ever caught a glimpse of before. Noticed out of the corner of his eye before his boss shut it down. Fear.

Gibbs looked down at his hands, strong, rough hands that were twisting around one another as if he was washing them, the callused skin sounding like the sandpaper he used on his precious boats. "Had something to prove," he muttered.

"Yeah, that's what I figured," Tony replied. "Vance's test gave you the perfect opportunity, didn't it? Why not jump on board with one of your own?" Snorting, Tony shook his head. "Why not find out if I was still loyal at the same time? After all, if I didn't come to you with the facts about Ziva and Tim, about how they turned off the speaker and left me without backup in a neighborhood where a murderer lived, then you'd know. You'd know that I didn't trust you. That I wasn't the obedient lapdog you always wanted me to be."

"Saint Bernard."

"What?"

When he lifted his head, Gibbs' eyes were clear. "You were never a lapdog, DiNozzo. A lapdog doesn't get in its owner's face when he's got his head up his ass. Or growl about Moby Dick and Captain Ahab. I didn't need you to prove anything to me. I needed you to prove it to Vance. To make that prick swallow his damned toothpick when he realized the only person who was doing his job, who was following orders and protocols, was the one guy he's figured wrong from the very beginning. Let you be the one to take him out. He'd never see it coming."

Tony stared, his cup raised halfway to his mouth.

"See, I knew you'd figure it out. Once you got your head clear of that cold or bronchitis that hit you. I've said it before, you're the best investigator I've ever worked with." Gibbs bit off his words so hard Tony could hear the crack of his teeth. "Vance is an idiot. His arrogance stands in his own way. Never looks beyond the surface. Had to prove to him that, of all of them, Mossad trained or geek golden boy, you're the least likely to screw up. To take down the whole damned team- the whole damned agency."

Gibbs was right about one thing – this could take down the agency. Like Jenny before him, Vance was well on the way to screwing up so badly nothing could wash it away. But –

"So you kept me out of the loop so that Vance would see I don't need a roadmap to find my ass in the dark?" Tony didn't try to keep his confusion, his incredulity, out of his tone. "What the hell, Gibbs."

"I know you've proved it. Beyond proved it," Gibbs insisted, coming closer with every word. "Every day you came to work and did your job under the shadow of your bastard boss and Vance's disapproval. You proved it every day on that air craft carrier. You did it in Somalia, tied to a chair and shot up with drugs. And you did it when he sent you to Mexico after me. But it still wasn't enough for Vance. And this time," Gibbs stepped in close, his voice a low growl filled with eager vengeance and unholy glee, "this time I wanted it in black and white, in a report as thorough as I knew you'd make it once you'd realized the truth. A report that I had absolutely no hand in writing."

Tony couldn't look away. Trapped in Gibbs' gaze, his gut twisted and clenched. He turned over the other man's words, the passion of his speech, and the fear that seemed to lay behind everything. Fear. For Tony. For himself. For the fallout of Gibbs' pigheaded insistence on doing this his own way, on shutting Tony out in order to do what his boss insisted was the right thing for Tony.

"Boss," Tony whispered, seething, "many people have told me they only hurt me, they only hung me out to dry because they were trying to do the right thing. Because it was 'for my own good.' You included."

"Not this time. That's not what I'm saying." Gibbs' low, intense tone matched Tony's. "You were not hung out to dry. I have had your back, I have been on your six this whole time. I trusted you, Tony. Trusted you to be the investigator I knew you were. Trusted in the strength of your character. That's what this is about. You and Abby. You two are the ones I've never doubted. And now you've both done me proud. Put together the facts. Stood up for yourselves, on your own two feet." The half-shake of Gibbs' head wasn't a denial, but an affirmation. "Even when you thought I was the bastard behind this crapfest. That I was the one setting you up. You came here to lay it out, to shove it in my face." His mouth flipped into a smile. "I couldn't be more proud if you were my own."

Tony took Gibbs' words, his expression, wrapped it all up and put it away somewhere deep inside along with his reaction. Not the time. Not the place. He swallowed the warmth, the pride, the knowledge that the taciturn, bastard Marine meant every word, and nodded. "So, what now? We can't go to Vance – he's at the center of this. He'd just spin it to his credit for seeing behind Ziva's mask. SecNav?"

Gibbs' smile was nasty. "Davenport and Vance have always worked together, covered each other's backs. We can't go up." He tilted his head. "So we go sideways."

"Can't be lawyers. You hate lawyers. Especially now." M. Allison Hart. What a whack-job.

"Worse."

Tony's eyebrows rose high. "Worse than lawyers? What the hell could be worse than lawyers, Gibbs?"

Gibbs smirked. "How fast do you think Abby can get out of her bat pajamas to join us?"

"How much do you want to bet she's already in her hearse sitting at the end of your street?"

Gibbs shook his head as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. "No bet."

Before Gibbs could dial, Tony raised one hand to stop him. "What about Ziva?" Tim was in trouble, yes, but Vance's trap would close tighter around Ziva than anyone else. Not that Tony should care. But, somehow, he did.

"Ziva David is no longer my responsibility." Gibbs stated. Flat out. No anger, no disappointment. His gaze was steady. "She made her choice – more than once – to sideline you. Act behind your back. Put you in danger. And I made mine."

Tony swallowed hard. "Vance keeping tabs on her?" Yeah, Tony already knew the answer. Of course he was. Probably had a man on each of them. More than one on someone with Ziva's history, not to mention her contacts.

"Our reports first, Tony. Then we let the rest shake out." He cupped the back of Tony's neck. "Sooner we get this started, the sooner we can finish it."

Tony's nostrils flared at the thought of leaving Tim without a heads up. Even though McGee had betrayed him - followed Ziva down the rabbit hole - Tony couldn't think of the man as anything but a partner. He lurched towards the table, taking care to put his files back in order, his written report front and center, his laptop cued up properly. He didn't want to waste any time. Whoever they were going to see must be a heavy hitter. Someone Vance – and SecNav - couldn't ignore.

"Abs." Gibbs spoke into his phone. Then waited. Waited through what Tony was sure was a typical Abby-in-distress tirade. "Abs. Abby!" he finally barked. "Get over here. Bring that report you keep trying to shove in my face. Yes, and the zip-thingy." He'd shut the phone before Abby could start up again.

"So?" Tony threw over his shoulder.

"Five minutes out. Was waiting at the donut shop on Market Street."

Tony's head came up like a prairie dog in the desert. "Otto's? The one with the blood orange jelly donuts with the balsamic glaze?"

Gibbs smiled, shaking his head. "Already has a take-out box ready for us."

Tony slung his laptop case over his shoulder. "That's our girl. Always a couple of steps ahead."

As Tony headed towards the door, Gibbs stopped him, one hand on Tony's elbow. "You ready for this? It's going to get messy. A lot of fallout. Finger pointing."

"Not to mention regret, recriminations, and blame." Tony quelled the rising nausea and slipped a cocky grin on his face. "Haven't you been listening to me all these years, Boss? DiNozzos are born ready."

The smack on the back of his head was more like a comforting pat. "Smart ass. Let's go."

)( )( )( )(

Even Abby's enthusiasm had been restrained during the meeting. Must have been the atmosphere, Tony figured. All that granite and leather and brass. Without the psychedelic orange walls or her made-to-measure lab around her, Abby had been subdued. Professional. She'd been wearing her court face even if the Career-Girl Barbie suit was stuffed into the bottom of her hamper at home.

The DCIS main office wasn't exactly the Pentagon, but Tony had been wishing for his best Dolce and Gabbana when they crossed the marble foyer in Alexandria. Happily, Senior Agent Richard Carruthers must have come right from the golf course – at least Tony's button-down and jeans weren't a bright pink polo shirt and rumpled khakis with grass stains on the cuffs. Sitting there in Carruthers office was a familiar face Tony hadn't expected, and suddenly Gibbs' promise of the 'worse' that was in store for Vance made perfect sense.

Gibbs wasn't pulling his punches. The Defense Criminal Investigative Service - the investigators who investigated the investigators - was one thing, but siccing bureaucrats on the director was a whole 'nother level of hell.

"Gibbs. Tony." NCIS Internal Affairs Agent Elliot Paul was built like a bull moose, an ex-Marine who took absolutely none of the shit that field agents tried to dish out. "Thanks for the heads-up. I appreciate being included in this meeting." No snark, no attitude, Paul could have had a head of steam already building since Gibbs and Tony hadn't come to him first with their issues, but the agent seemed to realize that this was big. Bigger than forgetting a search warrant. Bigger than whispering in a suspect's ear.

Federal charges big.

Carruthers had been brusque. To the point. He'd settled down behind his desk to listen to the facts while his recording secretary sat on a side chair and took it all down. The obvious video camera hadn't been as intimidating as six-foot-tall Mrs. Reid with her knee-high riding boots, jodhpurs, and long black braid. But the reminder that Carruthers had the Defense Department Inspector General waiting on his return call definitely cast a pall over the NCIS circus.

Strangely enough, Gibbs had let Tony lead. And Tony had sat up and done just that. Walked them through the case from beginning to end. Gave Carruthers the facts. Played him the recording. Then he pointed out his analysis – how he'd come to the conclusion that the way the assignments had been given out and the way Gibbs kept disappearing had added up to something. He told the Senior Agent his suspicions that someone wanted him dead – and it was only a combination of Tony's luck and Gibbs' protectiveness that it hadn't happened.

The DCIS agent hadn't said a word, he'd just given his secretary a nod and she'd held out a jump drive to Tony, expecting a copy of everything. Then it was Abby's turn. And, just like on the stand, it was the scientist who showed up, not the sensitive Goth. Abby had kept her findings to the evidence and handed over a second external hard drive to Mrs. Reid without being asked. Then she'd sat back in her chair, her arms crossed protectively across her chest. Angry. Hurt.

It was Gibbs' turn.

"Before you begin, Agent Gibbs," Carruthers had interrupted, "if you're going to be witness number three to the insubordination, dereliction of duty, and possible criminal negligence of these two agents, ah," he consulted his notes, "David and McGee, then I'll take a copy of your report for the records, but I don't think it's necessary." He held up one hand. "Let me be clear. These two former agents will be dealt with." He nodded at Elliot who'd turned beet red and seemed on the verge of leaping out of his chair to act. "Between your IA office and the Inspector General, this is not a situation that should be or will be swept under the rug, no matter what has happened in your agency previously."

The agent leaned in. "However, I'm far more interested in Agent DiNozzo's suspicions of a conspiracy to commit murder. His, in particular. Especially if, as your agent's testimony hinted, the subject of this suspicion is the NCIS agency director, Leon Vance."

"Sir," Gibbs added quickly, "I have that information. In Leon Vance's own words."

Carruthers was too good a poker player to express surprise. "Very well. Let's have it."

Gibbs pulled a jump drive from his pocket and tossed it to Tony. Swallowing his questions about his Boss and high tech equipment, Tony jammed it into his laptop and opened the folders. And then whistled.

Audio files. Fifteen separate audio files ranging back to a month previous. Holy crap.

"Little over a month ago, Director Vance called me into his office. That first meeting isn't recorded. I assumed it was a case. Something he wanted to bring up to me in private." Gibbs shoulders were stiff, his back away from the chair. Tony could read the anger in his Boss, and the guilt. "I was blindsided. He told me he wasn't happy with Ziva's – Agent David's - performance. Even though he'd signed off on her becoming a full-fledged agent, some information that he received across confidential channels made him suspect she still had ties to Mossad. Ties beyond her blood relationship with her father. Told me her oath to both the United States and to NCIS was questionable. And he was going to find out, once and for all, if it had any meaning to her whatsoever, or if it was just another layer she'd added to her cover story."

"He felt she had not left Mossad. The rift between her and her father was manufactured."

Gibbs nodded at Carruthers' statement.

"And your response?"

Gibbs eyes narrowed. "Had my own doubts. Hard not to. She'd played us from the very beginning."

Dark-eyed flirting across his dead partner's desk. Vindictive insults and small betrayals mixed up with seductive smiles and hints of more on offer. Ziva had Tony wrong-footed from the very beginning. She'd squirmed into Gibbs' confidence with one bullet and some tears. He sighed. She was a good partner, sometimes. Fierce. Smart. Tony had given her leeway because of her upbringing. Her training. The fact was that she had developed no loyalty to the US Constitution or the Rule of Law.

And then Tony was back in Tel Aviv, slammed to his back on a cement slab, his broken arm shrieking. Ziva, blood in her eye, shoving a loaded gun into his chest. He'd thought she was going to do it – he saw the intention behind her rage and believed he would bleed out on an Israeli street.

Since then … since then there'd been grief. Guilt. And a trace of anger in Tony's gut that would not be washed away. He'd stalked the world for her, put himself – and Tim – in enemy hands to avenge her. Even then, she'd hated him. Hated that he was the one to rescue her. And her empty words in the NCIS men's room were just that – words. A hoop to jump through to set her life back on course. To get her way. The assignment she wanted.

Maybe if Gibbs had been suspicious a little sooner. Maybe, when Kate wasn't even cold in a drawer in autopsy, if the man hadn't been so ready to find a new daughter to replace her. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Tony dragged himself from his thoughts and focused. Took it all in. He had to understand.

The DCIS agent was leaning forward, hands folded on his desk. "And Vance's evidence against Agent David? I assume he'd brought specific charges, showed you his findings?"

Tony caught the tic at the corner of Gibbs' eye. "Didn't have evidence. Just a suspicion."

Carruthers' eyebrows rose up towards his receding hairline. "And you believed that?"

"Oh, hell no," Gibbs replied immediately. "But this was the same director who'd split up my team, the Major Case Response Team of the DC office, within 24-hours of losing friend and colleague Jennifer Shepard because he wanted to use my gut to find a mole in the agency."

The DCIS senior agent must have done his homework. Either that or the inspector general's office knew a hell of a lot more about Leon Vance's actions at NCIS than regular agency house-keeping would account for. Just why would that be, Tony asked himself. Maybe Vance was already on someone's radar. Maybe Big Brother really was watching. God, Tony hoped so. At least this time.

"We're familiar with Director Vance's history. And his more than cordial relationship with Eli David of Mossad. My office had assumed that his offer of a permanent position to Miss David must have come after a particularly deep round of vetting." Carruthers' pursed his lips. "That he changed his mind so quickly is telling. I'm sure you thought the same?"

Gibbs nodded. "After that first meeting I checked in with some people. Contacts of my own. Found out Eli David was on his way out. A woman, Orli Elbaz, seems likely to succeed him."

"Force him out, you mean," Carruthers snorted. "Yes, Director Vance's connections to Mossad are about to be severed. You assumed he was cutting his losses by trying to dig up dirt on the man's daughter, perhaps endearing himself to the new leadership there by undermining David's status here?"

Tony watched his boss almost squirm at the word 'assume.' "Something like that."

"You didn't believe Agent David was acting against the United States' best interests? You believed her oaths to be genuine?"

The grinding of Gibbs' teeth was audible. "Didn't have any evidence against it."

"Huh," Carruthers grunted. "Damning with faint praise, Agent Gibbs."

Gibbs' stare would have burned a hole straight through most people. "Can't read minds. Can only go by what a person says, what she does."

Richard Carruthers wasn't most people. "And did you have any reason to suspect that Ziva David's change of loyalty was not completely honest and sincere?"

Gibbs stayed quiet, but the blue eyes flicked towards Tony.

Carruthers caught it. "Agent DiNozzo? You have something to add?"

Tony fought with himself. Wrestled the hurt and betrayal down so he could find the truth. The facts. "All I know is that Ziva hates me. And I don't think that will ever change. Or maybe hate is too strong a word. She believes I'm useless. Dead weight on the team. And her instincts, her training, everything that Ziva is at the heart of her will always act on that belief. Now, that doesn't speak to her loyalty –"

Abby sat up, even in her careful, professional mode, a staunch supporter and fiercely loyal friend. "It does, though." She turned her warm gaze from Tony to the agent across the desk. "She doesn't believe in the NCIS chain of command. She never has. Back when Gibbs quit – retired –" her hands flew up to sketch awkward patterns in the air, "-left – she wouldn't follow Tony. She won't follow anyone but Gibbs. It's the Mossad way, apparently. Or the David way. Her father raised her to be loyal only to him. So, she trusts Gibbs, mostly," Abby tilted her head, "but no one else."

The silent IA agent cleared his throat. "This is something I can speak to, Agent Carruthers."

"Please."

"During Senior Agent Gibbs' sabbatical, I received quite a few complaints about Miss David."

"Not from me," Tony denied, frowning.

"No. These were complaints from other agents. Other team leads. Security personnel. Miss David often circumvented proper procedure, claiming, when questioned, that 'Gibbs would not have a problem with it.'"

Beside Tony, Gibbs winced.

Elliot wasn't finished. "There was one instance that sent her to Director Vance. I was a witness to their confrontation and I was left with the distinct impression that Miss David had little to no respect for the man. That his reproaches fell on decidedly deaf ears." He shifted his weight in his seat. "Since then we've kept a separate file on Miss David – since she was not actually within the purview of IA as she was not an American agent, under the umbrella of our laws and regulations, we sent any further paperwork directly to Vance for him to pass on – or not – to Mossad."

"That wouldn't have endeared her to Leon," Carruthers chuckled. "And now?"

The IA officer folded his hands, thick knuckles cracking. "Not much has changed. She's attended FLETC. Received good marks. As an American citizen and full-fledged agent she's responsible to follow the law. But, so far, as I said, nothing's changed. She continues to try to circumvent procedure, uses too much force, and argues with everyone who isn't Agent Gibbs."

"Which would be definite problems in an agent, but not grounds for revoking her citizenship."
Carruthers turned back to Gibbs. "Am I wrong?"

Gibbs' mouth was set into a straight line. "If the only reason she became a citizen was to work with me at NCIS it could be. She's out –" he gestured towards Tony's laptop and the evidence they'd all heard, "-there's nowhere for a probationary agent to go but out based on this. So, that leaves a recent foreign agent on the loose in the United States with questionable loyalty and a boatload of contacts in the intelligence community." Gibbs shrugged. "Is that a risk to national security? Above my pay grade."

"Very well. Let's table that discussion for the moment. Agent Gibbs," Carruthers jerked his chin at the computer set up with Gibbs' audio files, "these are recordings that you made? You wired yourself?"

"Old school, but it worked." Gibbs turned to smile at Abby. "Everyone knows I hate technology. What they don't remember is that back at NIS, we handled our own tech. Such as it was."

Microphones and duct tape, micro-cassettes in a jacket pocket. Vance, the technophile, would never suspect. Tony couldn’t help the shiver that crept down his back. Fifteen recordings. Fifteen conversations with Leon Vance, setting Gibbs' team up to fall. Setting Tony up for betrayal. His mouth dry, he buried his teeth in his cheek and hit play.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 artwork

Ducky smiled up at his server. Pretty little thing, barely into her twenties if he was to judge. Her smile to him was one of a grandchild to a doddering old man. Polite, kind, careful to set the two tea pots inside their cozies within his reach, to make sure the table was precisely set to offer him the least amount of trouble.

'Doddering.' He snorted. She might well be right.

"Would you like me to lower the blinds, sir?"

He shook his head. "Thank you, no. I am enjoying the sunshine while we have it."

She looked wistfully at the blue sky and warmth separated from them by a few centimeters of glass. "It is a beautiful day, isn't it?"

Sighing, Ducky allowed his smile to slip away. "That remains to be seen, my dear."

Frowning, she seemed about to ask if he needed anything and Ducky waved her away. "Ah, here's my friend, right on time."

Jimmy Palmer paused in the foyer of the 'Olde English Tea Shoppe,' extra e's no extra charge, Ducky hoped. His assistant glanced around, taking in the atmosphere with an approving eye. The small establishment doubled as a pub after noon and so there were no ruffles or frills, just good dark wood tables set with plain white tea pots and wide cups. Just what the doctor ordered, Ducky mused, after the fretful night he'd just had.

Thankfully, Jimmy had arrived promptly, allowing Ducky to stop mulling over the same words, the same scenes, the years-long history he had with one man in particular on Jethro's team. His stomach could not take much more of that.

He rose, reaching out a hand as Jimmy approached. "Thank you, my dear boy. I appreciate you meeting me at what you must imagine is an ungodly hour on a rare case-less Saturday morning."

Jimmy's grip was firm and friendly. His smile not the least bit hesitant. "Not at all, Doctor Mallard. Who could stay in bed on a day like this?" He sat in the only other chair, set across the corner to Ducky's own. "I must have passed this place twenty-five times and I've never tried it. Do you come here often?"

Ducky huffed a laugh at the unintended pick-up line. "I've found that taking tea here is both a balm to the spirit and a surreptitious way to observe those around me. To keep my hand in, as it were. The dead," he sighed, "do not allow me much practice in my continued study of human nature. And," he lifted the lid of his teapot to make sure the brew had the correct depth of color, "if I linger over my leaves long enough, I am just in time for a pint and some fish and chips."

Jimmy did not reply. He waited, watching and mimicking Ducky's movements with the tea, sugar, and milk.

Well then, Ducky thought. That was as it should be. Ducky had invited him to this meeting and the proverbial ball was indeed in his court.

"First and foremost, I wish you'd tell me how Anthony is feeling?"

The young man took a sip of his tea. "Physically, he's healing. The fever is down, the headache and sore throat are much better, there's still some pressure in his ears. The inflammation is clearing up. I've checked his lungs. There was a concern that the infection would persist there, but they sound good."

"Very good, very good."

"Unfortunately, he didn't get much sleep the last few nights, so I'm glad he has the weekend to try to catch up." Jimmy's eyes revealed his concern for his friend. "I hope that happens."

There was so much underlying Jimmy's words, so much unsaid. Worry was colored with a trace of anger and fear. Ducky had missed quite a lot, it seemed. More, perhaps, than his long-term negligence of Anthony's well-being, the young man's psyche if not his material body. Ducky had a lot of catching up to do.

Keeping his hands curled around his tea cup, Ducky looked into his assistant's curious gaze. "We said some words to each other last evening, Mister Palmer. Words of anger and disappointment. I do not like the way we left each other."

Jimmy's sigh was loud and relieved. He glanced around sheepishly before leaning closer and lowering his voice. "Me either. I was so glad you called this morning. I think I owe you an apology –"

Ducky held up a hand. "I believe I must stop you there, Jimmy. I have had an entire evening to think about our conversation. Not to mention the one I had with Agent Gibbs after you departed, which was largely on the same theme."

"It was?" Jimmy seemed astonished.

"Yes. Agent Gibbs, too, questioned my feelings and attitudes towards Agent DiNozzo. Since two of my closest friends," Ducky took a moment to get a grip on his emotions, "people I have great regard and respect for, have brought something to my attention, I must consider that these accusations have merit."

Jimmy nodded, eyes on his cup, on his fingers fidgeting with the spoon and napkin. Along with his deep loyalty to his friends, Ducky admired this about his young assistant as well – the acts of kindness he routinely displayed. Such as giving an old man a few minutes to pull himself together.

Shaking his head, Ducky continued. "It was only after searching last night, far into the wee hours, that I finally stumbled upon the only explanation I can find for my attitude towards our Very Special Agent DiNozzo. It does not show me in a very good light, I will admit. In fact, it seems so ingrained in my character that I did not notice it until both you and Jethro brought up my choice of language to describe the young man." He snorted. "'Sordid.' 'Immature.' And, as you so rightly threw in my face, the unmitigated gall it took to compare the faithful, upstanding agent to a serial killer."

Ducky frowned, turning his gaze to the beautiful October day out the window. "Why is it that we must fall into the pattern that our parents created for us?" he mused. "Why do the hurtful things that cut us the most deeply in our youths come spewing out of our own mouths in later years?"

"I can't imagine Mrs. Mallard as a harsh parent."

Ducky chuckled, his chin falling to his chest. "Our friends never seem to see our parents with the same jaded eye as we do. Living day-to-day with a person can bring the kind of familiarity often quoted as that which breeds contempt. As a single, divorced mother, Victoria Mallard did a marvelous job. However," he ducked his head, "the only child sees only what he is missing, the greener grass on the other side of the fence, if you will. Many of my own friends thought I had the best situation, believed that mother and I lived a life to envy. I remember a very good friend, Angus, revering her, bringing her flowers, always a twinkle in his eye." He lifted his gaze to meet Jimmy's. "I see quite a bit of Angus in Anthony, come to think of it."

Jimmy hummed, sipping his tea, his face revealing some inner thought he did not wish to speak.

"I met Anthony when he and Jethro worked together on a case in Baltimore. To me, he seemed the epitome of the jock, the ladies' man, the cocky, brash youth who neither respects nor appreciates others." He allowed himself a mouthful of the excellent Darjeeling before continuing. "I'd heard all those words before, of course, directed towards me. That did not stop me from repeating them to Detective DiNozzo. I did not hide my animosity, nor my disapproval of the way he seemed to be treating those around him." He shook his head. "That similarity with my old friend, Angus – handsome, well-bred, with a too-easy smile and an unbreakable ego – also colored my judgment."

"You told Tony you didn't like him?"

Ducky squirmed in his seat. "Indeed. And I know what you are going to say, Mister Palmer."

"Huh. Well, don't let me stop you." Jimmy's smile had a bitter edge.

"You're going to say that Anthony took that rather harsh rejection to heart. And, as I have seen him do time and time again with witnesses, with other agents, or sometimes with his very own team members, Anthony made sure that all I saw from that time forward were the characteristics that I did not like."

Jimmy made a face. "I'm sure that's true. At least, at the beginning. But I can't believe that you weren't able to see his true nature after a while. That you – and Tim and Ziva – can't see beneath his mask. You've all spent a lot of time with him. You know there's more to him than what's on the surface. You're all smarter than that." Anger tightened Jimmy's lips and creased his forehead. "Didn't his actions over these long years speak louder than his words?"

"Of course," Ducky agreed. "And whether you believe it or not, I do very much like the Anthony DiNozzo that I've come to know."

"Except that, for some reason, he is always the last one on your agenda to care about. And, before you disagree, I think I know why."

Setting his cup down with deliberate gentleness, Ducky gestured for his friend to continue.

"Now," Jimmy adjusted his glasses, "I can't speak to your first meeting, since I wasn't there. But I've seen you – all of you – interact with Tony. I've seen him interview witnesses and stand up to Gibbs. I've seen him follow orders he didn't like and face down military officers. When he's at NCIS, he's every bit Gibbs' second and a veteran agent. He shows no fear in the face of killers, and kidnappers, and all sorts of evil people. And I've seen him joke about needles and stitches and being beaten to a pulp by that man when he and Ziva were undercover. But what I don't see unless I look, unless I catch him at an off moment, unless I really seek him out and make him talk - what none of you sees is Tony vulnerable."

Ducky tasted acid in his throat. Perhaps it was the taste of unwanted truth.

"Down deep, you don't believe Tony needs your help. That he needs any compassion, pity, or even sympathy. Not even at the worst of times. You figure that he wouldn't take it if you'd even think to give it. He is the one, the only one on Team Gibbs, who is not allowed to be vulnerable. Weak. To be human. If he shows a moment of frailty, a flicker of exhaustion, you're all on him. Pushing him. Asking him the most insulting questions. Picking at him. You suggest things like hangovers, bad dates, or, even worse, angry husbands, as if Tony makes a habit of cheating. Would you ever ask Tim those questions? Or, if Tony looks under the weather on a Monday morning, do you offer a cup of tea and some sympathy?" The young man visibly pulled himself away from the edge of temper. "If Tony is guarded, if he hides behind masks that say 'jock' or 'flirt' or 'immature' it's because we've trained him that that is all we want to see."

"If we won't let Tony be human, what does that leave him?" Jimmy ticked off points on his fingers. "Abby is crazy and cool; she sucks up love, and affection, and compassion. She's the mad scientist. Tim is seen as the underdog, or bullied, so we're to walk on eggshells around him, respect his brain and give him lots of leeway because he works hard to be on par physically with the other agents. He's the egghead. And since you value intellectual skills more than athletic ability, Tim will always be considered someone to protect." He moved on to the next finger. "Even Agent Gibbs has an utterly tragic backstory, so, regardless that he is larger-than-life, completely unbeatable, and without peer as an agent, you've seen him brittle, exposed, and vulnerable. The tragic hero."

Jimmy wiggled his index finger. "Let's talk about Ziva, our femme fatal. Ruthless Mossad agent. Highly trained, excelling at so many things. But," his assistant smiled, "she is a woman. And no matter how much we pride ourselves on our equality, we will always see her as vulnerable as only a woman can be."

Sighing, Jimmy made a fist of those four fingers, leaving his thumb sticking up. "Then we come to Tony. Odd man out. He can't be the strong one, the great investigator, that's Gibbs. Or the smart one, that's Tim. He can't be a sensitive genius like Abby, or a cold, calculating ninja like Ziva. So what does that leave?" he repeated. Spreading his hand, Jimmy touched the thumb to each of the other fingers. "He said it himself in that terrorist camp in Somalia. We've all seen the tapes, heard the recordings. Tony's the wild card. He sees what others don't. But no one – no one – sees him."

Eyes closed, Ducky searched for the evidence behind his assistant's pronouncements. He fanned out his memories, plucking each one that featured young Anthony. His unhesitating stance at Jethro's right hand. In every scene where Team Gibbs dominated, front and center, there was Anthony, strong and supportive, funny and teasing, able to take a punch from an enemy, an elbow from the much grieved Kate, or a piercing dig from the lovely Ziva. He stood beside Gibbs. Whispered in Tim's ear. Memory after memory drifted past, the role, the raison d'etre of one Anthony DiNozzo becoming clearer and clearer.

Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. Wild card. Anthony wasn't one of the familiar archetypes, the 'stock characters' that Jimmy had just described. What place did Anthony have in the drama of their lives? What place had they allowed him?

The Foil. Always there. Always present in the scene. The character that existed only to highlight the qualities of the others. Static, unchanging, the foil had no real character of his own, but was a mirror for others. Never a real man. Never one the audience cared about. Nor even the other characters.

Instead of seeing Anthony as the complex, respected, sensitive man and unparalleled investigator that he was, Ducky only saw him as a prop. There, but ignored. Used. Twisted and turned, handed off, placed with deliberation to further the story, but never, ever regarded as anything but hollow. Unimportant. Lifeless. Invulnerable to time or hurt or grief because, at the heart of it all, he was not real.

Eyes still closed, hiding behind that darkness, Ducky asked a question. "Does he know? Does Anthony realize-?"

"Yes," Jimmy interrupted, his voice low and sorrowful, "he does. Tony knows that, in the scheme of things, what he does and who he is is not important. Why do you think he takes such risks with himself? Puts himself in the path of bullets, knives, and fists again and again? Accepts all the insults, the slams from you, from Ziva and Tim, the put-downs from Gibbs, the disrespect from the director?" Jimmy's smile grew wistful. "But Tony is stronger, more resilient than you can imagine. And he loves us."

Ducky blinked away unwanted moisture to see the grief on his assistant's face.

"Tony loves us. So he forgives us. For treating him badly. Or, to say it plainly, for not treating him like a person at all." Jimmy shrugged. "His father trained him well."

"James Palmer," Ducky breathed. "You are an amazingly insightful man." He leaned forward, grim, focused, and resolute. "Now, let's discuss how we can change all that."

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 artwork

It hadn't taken long for Carruthers to hear everything he needed to. For Vance – in his own words recorded on Gibbs' primitive wire - to convince the DCIS agent that the director of NCIS had taken Morrow's intensity, jammed on Shepard's obsession, and multiplied them into a personal mandate to do anything he pleased to keep himself in power. DCIS had confiscated Tony's laptop, Gibbs' recordings already downloaded. He'd thanked Tony, Abby, and IA Agent Paul and ushered them out, one hand already reaching for the phone and the Inspector General.

Elliot had arranged to meet with Gibbs and Tony later that day to discuss McGee – the only part of this farce that might still be redeemable. Tony had smiled and agreed, nodded, and tried to act like this was all normal, just another day in the life of a Very Special Agent. The IA agent bought it. He was busy juggling the copies of the evidence the elegant and imposing Mrs. Reid had made for him, his mind spinning out consequences and possibilities. Abby, hanging off of Tony's elbow, was harder to convince.

They strolled along the Alexandria sidewalk towards the parking lot, arm in arm, Abby's parasol shading them both from the autumn sunshine. Tony wore his sunglasses and his smile like armor, the words he'd heard from Gibbs' recordings running on an infinite loop behind eyes that would give too much away.

Before the door shut on Carruthers and Gibbs - the higher ups intent on their power plays, covering asses and making back-room deals to keep the corruption of another NCIS director out of sight - Tony had made the mistake of meeting Gibbs' gaze. Still smarting, chewing at his cheek to keep from shouting, from screaming, swallowing blood into the roiling bile of his gut, Tony hadn't had a chance to clear the stark betrayal from his eyes, to hide the bitterness, the blistering pain. Gibbs had seen it all. Recognized it. Locked into meetings with these men who outranked him, Gibbs' hands were tied - for the moment. He couldn't come after Tony. Explain. Soften what Tony had heard on those recordings with assurances and rationalizations.

Now Tony just had to ditch Abby. He glanced down at her, taking in the lacy fingerless gloves, the pale skin, spider web tattoo on her neck seeming to cradle her carefully today, holding her together. Abby was a constant in Tony's life. A friend. The little sister he'd never had. He felt his smile turn real. As annoying and irritating and wonderful as a real sister, Abby could make him laugh or make him cry. Make Tony want to pound the wall with his fists in frustration or stand between her and everyone else in the world to keep her safe. She knew him and he knew her. Honesty, real emotions – all masks and facades laid aside - it was a gift they gave each other every day.

But not today.

"Not exactly the fun part of town, is it?" he began, looking around at the empty office buildings. Mark Center was not the yuppie hang-out, brunching, and window-shopping part of Alexandria. A couple of high-end restaurants and hotels to service bureaucratic America and clogged multi-lane roads didn't create a good vibe.

Pressed against his side, Abby shivered. "None of this feels right. It's like we're caught up in a spy thriller, but we're not James Bond or Angelina Jolie or the part of the IMF that gets the secret missions. We're the dumb characters who watch everything happen. Or the ones sitting in the restaurant when the car comes crashing through the window." She huffed out a frustrated breath. "We're the SHIELD agents on the Helicarrier who are in the bathroom when hunky Jeremy Renner attacks."

Tony's head spun at Abby's mish-mash of characters, actors, and franchises. "Hey, maybe we should be grateful. At least The Powers That Be," he made sure she could hear the capital letters, "are listening. Doing something about it."

Abby stalled, turning to face him. She squinted as if by peering closely at him she could get behind his shades and drill directly into his brain. "You don't believe that."

Tony didn't have to fake his sigh. "Maybe not. But I'm tired. Exhausted. And happy that Gibbs is on the case." He wasn't faking any of that. He took her by the hand. "And these meds are still messing with my gut. So I think I need a few hours with my bed before I can face IA across the conference room table at NCIS." He plucked at his shirt as if it was sticking to his chilled skin. "Not to mention a shower and change of clothes."

Abby tilted her head. "I was going to ask you to take me to lunch." Her fake pout only lasted a moment. "But you do like to have your Dolce & Gabbana on when you're feeling vulnerable. I get that." She let her hand slip down from his elbow until she was holding his hand. "I'm sorry, Tony."

He wasn't faking his surprise, either. "What for? Abby, you've been great. Outstanding. You've always had my back."

She gripped tighter. "For ever being her friend. For even once siding with her in a joke or a tease, or a – or a put-down. I did. I know I did. I missed Kate so much. She was my friend. My awesome friend. And having a girlfriend on the team … and Timmy." Anger made her quieter, set her teeth together so that the words could hardly squeeze out. "I had him all wrong. I thought he had such a good heart underneath all that competitiveness. All that 'geeks rock and jocks can't even spell rock' mentality."

Tony cut her off with a finger laid against her lips, smears of black lipstick be damned. "You'll always see the good in people, Abs. I'll never be sorry for that." He pulled her in for a hug. "Now. I want you to go to the convent. Check in with the sisters. I know you were going to help them with some maintenance today before all this started. Let Sister Rosita take care of you."

She held on tight. "Who's going to take care of you?"

A childlike voice rose up within him, echoing Abby's words. The voice of a little boy standing beside his mother's grave. A confused twelve-year-old sent off to boarding school with one suitcase and a chauffeur to keep him company on the ride. Tony laid his cheek against Abby's hair. "You. And Gibbs. And Jimmy. You all take care of me the best way you know how. What more can a man ask for?"

"It's not enough," Abby mumbled against his shirt.

'It has to be,' Tony said to himself. "I can take care of myself for one afternoon, Abs. But," he gently unlocked her arms and pushed her away until he could look into her face, "I'll rest better knowing you're going to be with the sisters. This isn't just about me. It's about tearing apart the family. We're all feeling it."

Abby latched on again, faster than Tony could react. "You're a good man, Tony DiNozzo." She let go just as fast. "Call me later?"

"I will." It was an easy promise to make. Even easier to open her door and hand her into her beautiful red car, closing up her parasol. "Sisters. No detours," he warned. "And don't take any phone calls unless they're from me or Gibbs. Not before this all shakes out."

Tony watched her drive away, hands in his pockets, sunglasses shading him from the world. Once she was out of sight, he drew them off and tucked them into the neckline of his shirt. Finally alone, he let the weight of what he'd heard that morning, of the knowledge he'd gained, the insight into so-called friends and always-known enemies pile up, high and deep, on his shoulders. Head bowing, Tony let the voices roll over him. Tim laughing. Agreeing with Ziva. Not easily. Not all at once. But eventually. Shutting Tony out. Cutting off his lifeline.

Vance. Laying it out so reasonably with phrases like 'worth the risk,' and 'weighing the pros and cons.' How, on the off chance they 'had to break a few eggs' or 'deal with a regrettable loss,' at least it would result in lives saved. Lives of agents that meant something. Important lives. Leon Vance's smooth, deep voice sounded almost sincere when he offered platitudes about Tony's 'smarts' and how, as a seasoned veteran, he should be able to take care of himself by now. Almost sincere. He could picture the exact look on Vance's face as he said it. The spark in his eye. The twitch of his lips into a smile he couldn't quite control.

Tony was sure the man would have spoken eloquently at his funeral. With a tear in his eye Vance would have laid out his agenda, set up the crowd with quotes about bravery, how their loss was a great gain for NCIS, the flag, and democracy everywhere. It would serve Vance right if no one showed up to mourn Tony, if the guy's well-designed words were spoken to an empty church.

A familiar inner voice reverberated, snatching him from his dark musings. 'Snap out of it, DiNozzo!'

One hand on his car door, Tony looked back at the imposing DCIS building. Tracked the floors and the turns to where he guessed Carruthers' office was located. There he was, a stark silhouette Tony would recognize anywhere, silver hair gleaming in the sunlight. Gibbs. His boss. Blue eyes tracking him. Glaring a head-slap down at his SFA. Communicating his disapproval of Tony's maudlin thoughts.

Too bad.

Tony straightened, staring right back. Challenging. Demanding. He wasn't Gibbs. He didn't need others to tell him that – never had. Tony DiNozzo didn't deny pain. He didn't shove it all in a box and tie it down tight, allowing it to seep out in thrusts and slaps, in arrogance and casual cruelty. He couldn't be Gibbs, and, more important, he wouldn't be Gibbs. Tony accepted pain. All the aching, throbbing, agony of it. He felt his emotions all the way down, even the dark, dangerous ones. And then he damned well dealt with them. That was the DiNozzo way. His way. It was how he survived. And not even the all-powerful Gibbs was going to change that.

The past year had been crap. Every day since killing Rivkin – even long before – had been a struggle. Tony thought he'd had his eyes wide open about Ziva David. For years he'd begun each day reminding himself that he couldn't trust her. That she had an agenda outside of NCIS. That she was sitting in Kate's chair because her operative had killed Tony's partner. Jenny had finagled a place for her at NCIS before Kate was cold. Somehow, somewhere in all those years between that rooftop in Norfolk with blood on his face and staring at Ziva's assassin boyfriend with a piece of glass in one hand, Tony had gotten soft. He'd forgotten. Tony had begun worrying more about protecting a foreign operative than protecting himself.

It had taken getting knocked to the street in Israel, a gun shoved into his chest, for Tony to see the pure hatred in Ziva's eyes. To see past all the barriers, the twisted friendship, the manipulation. To see into her soul. After that, he couldn't unsee it. It had changed him. Changed how he saw the world around him, how he saw himself. Yes, he'd chased her trail to Somalia, sat in a terrorist's torture chamber, trusted Tim, and Gibbs, and the military men behind them to cover him. But once the bag came off of Ziva's face, once Tony had taken one look, he'd known that what they'd rescued was the real Ziva. Scalded and sanded and scraped down to bedrock by her ordeal. Ziva without masks. Without skills. Without the power to pull the wool over his eyes ever again.

Without Tony's trust in Gibbs and McGee, in Palmer and Abby waiting and praying state-side, he would not have made it back. Physically, maybe. But not emotionally. It was his faith in their loyalty that let him feel Ziva's betrayal, her rage, her murderous intent, and still function. Smile real smiles. Laugh. Joke. Be happy.

Vance's betrayal didn't hurt. Not even the NCIS director's blatant instigation of Tony's death had resulted in Tony's clenched teeth drawing blood. Tony had been on borrowed time as soon as Leon Vance set eyes on him and weighed him as a fool. Tony would cooperate with DCIS, he'd do what he could to take the man down, but that wasn't personal – it was being a good agent.

Tony blinked, taking a deep breath. Gibbs was still there, at the window on the second floor, one hand against the glass. The other held his cell phone. Only then did Tony realize that his pocket was vibrating.

No, Vance's betrayal didn't hurt. But listening while Gibbs gave in to Vance? Ever-so-reluctantly agreed to use Tony as a stalking goat to weigh Ziva's loyalty? The last conversation between the two men, hearing Gibbs' words, the words he had deliberately chosen to cement Vance's agreement with him, setting Vance up for the fall - those words nearly killed him.

Tony raised his phone to his ear. "I'll get over it," he hissed.

"DiNozzo –"

"I don't want to hear about Rule 3 today, Gibbs. I'm officially off the clock until we meet with IA. You owe me that much."

He could hear Gibbs breathing. Thinking. Gears grinding.

"Owe you more, Tony. Just – we need to talk."

Tony smiled up into the sunlight. "Imagine that."

The huffed laugh on the other end was laced with equal measures of guilt and hope.

Gibbs' words echoed on that loop, tinny and hissing, caught on a wrinkled cassette tape and now running non-stop in Tony's brain. Words Tony had heard before. Words that had cut and slashed at his confidence, at the value of friendships. At his self-worth.

The words Gibbs had chosen to say to Vance that last time played again, Tony's imagination filling in the scene.

"So, you're on board, Gibbs?"

Tony could see Vance leaning back in his desk chair, eyes half-lidded, like a smug villain stroking his white cat.

"Worth it to make sure about Ziva. And I'm sure. She's a good girl."

Vance had hummed. "You trust her."

"More than any of the rest of them. Came back from Mexico for her."

"And no reluctance in case I'm right? In case your boy goes down?"

"Better him than any of the others."

"You surprise me, Gibbs."

I think you have the wrong idea of DiNozzo's and my relationship."

"How so?"

"You know," the humor in Gibbs' voice was unmistakable, "I once told DiNozzo that he was irreplaceable."

"Why the hell would you do that?" Vance had shot back.

"It's the carrot and stick approach. Feed him a little something once in a while. Keeps him close, eager. Gotta dole it out once every few years, some kind of mealy-mouthed crap about how proud I am or what a great investigator he is."

Vance's curse had been filled with dark laughter. "That must hurt."

Gibbs sighed. "It frees me up to treat him the way I want to the rest of the time. Keeps him stringing along."

"And yet you haunted my office like a military wife trying to get him home from his Afloat duties. Explain that." The man was wary, still not convinced.

Tony could practically see Gibbs' arms flung out to the side as the recording fuzzed out, came back. "Well where the hell else am I going to get a guy so willing to throw himself in front of a bullet for any one of us, so damn eager to lick my boots? He fills a slot on the team, told you that."

"And what slot would that be?" Vance was practically vibrating with excitement. "The Charmer? Do you send him in to smile and flirt, get the dirt no one else can? I always thought of him as your muscle. Dumb but fast."

"Nah," Gibbs had laughed, "not anymore. Too old and fat for that crap now. Hell no, this is a tough job, Leon. The stress will kill you if the dirt bags don't. McGee and Ziva are too good to let them burn out that way."

Tony pressed the phone harder against his ear, hoping Gibbs' shouting down the line would drown out the voice in his head. He wasn't so lucky.

"C'mon, Leon, you know what he is. DiNozzo is the comic relief."

The men's laughter had scooped out the last of Tony's self-control.

"DiNozzo, damn it, are you listening to me?"

Tony opened his eyes. "Gotta figure some things out, Gibbs," Tony finally said. "Get some answers."

He could hear Gibbs grinding his teeth, wanting to insist – to explain – but Carruthers and the IG were waiting – and listening. "Don’t go anywhere unarmed. And wear your vest."

Aw, wasn't that sweet? Tony shook his head. That was almost a declaration of love from Leroy Jethro Gibbs. "Not exactly Vance's style, is it?"

"Not worried about Vance," Gibbs shot back. "If Ziva gets any warning, any hint of what's coming …"

Ah. Yes. It would be foolish to assume that Ziva's network had been dismantled when she'd quit Mossad. "Gotcha."

"We will talk about this later."

Tony snapped the phone closed before Gibbs could, giving the man in the window a two fingered salute. "I'll pencil you in," he muttered, sliding behind the wheel. First things first. It was time to deal with the elephant in the room. The smart, geeky, underhanded, pathetically betraying son-of-a-bitch elephant in the room.

Turning his car towards the beltway, Tony hoped McGee was out of his pjs. He'd had enough shocks for one day.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 artwork

Tim's headphones were in and his iPod was tuned to his writing playlist. A cup of tea sat off to the left of his typewriter, far from the carriage return that, in the early days, had sent the cup flying every time he typed to the end of a line. Tim grimaced, fingers poised over the keys, arched and ready. It was Saturday afternoon. His chores were finished. Groceries bought. Apartment cleaned. Dry cleaning exchanged.

Why couldn't he concentrate?

Tim sat back, hands falling to his lap, staring at the one line he'd typed. "New Blog Post." That was it. A few black letters on a plain white page. Nothing could be more intimidating to an author with no ideas. Not even Gibbs on a tear. Or DiNozzo armed with superglue. Or Ziva with a knife in her hand and a gleam in her eye.

Okay, maybe Ziva.

Tim was long past the days when he'd tear out an almost blank page and toss it away. Abby had gone ballistic when she'd visited one day and saw his waste basket overflowing with barely used paper. She'd gone on and on about saving trees, and the Lorax, and horrible people like him who were killing entire species in the rainforest. Tim agreed, it had been kind of childish. But it had always felt very dramatic to pull a page from the typewriter as the bail whizzed, crumple it up, and toss it away. Like he was Ernest Hemingway sitting on a porch in Key West, drinking whiskey and grumbling over his characters.

It was about that same time that Tim had figured out that he would never be Ernest Hemingway. Or even James Patterson. At least Patterson had come up with his own characters; he didn't steal the worst characteristics of his co-workers, his friends, and make fools out of them so he could lure in readers. As a kind of pay-back for all the slights and slams, the insults he'd endured from Tony and Gibbs, from Ziva and Kate, it had felt damned good. But, in the end, it had been awfully expensive. Jimmy Palmer's lawyers had forced Tim's publisher to recall his last Deep Six book and to take the rest of them off of the shelf when the man had made a damn good claim for libel and defamation of character.

Tim had offered to change the name of the character from Pimmy Jalmer to something more generic, but his publisher had shaken her head and told him the damage had been done.

Thom E. Gemcity was dead. He'd been blacklisted in the publishing world. It turned out corporations took things like million dollar lawsuits seriously. Stupid Palmer. Couldn't even take a joke. Tony hadn't put up half the stink the autopsy gremlin had about Agent Tommy, and Tim had actually felt a tiny bit of guilty about the way he'd treated that character.

Tim took a deep breath and let it out. He had been trying to reinvent himself, to write a completely organic, utterly original novel ever since. And failing miserably.

To clear his mind, Tim had gone back to gaming. To MMORPGs, to FPSs, burying himself in new characters and adventures that created themselves around him without any work on his part. While he was playing Bioshock he'd suddenly stopped, eyes opening wide. Forget detectives, forget spies and mysteries. What about using his biomedical and IT degrees, instead? The popular books and television shows were all post-apocalyptic – zombies, the undead, out of control viruses that threatened mankind. Surely someone with his degrees could write the best apocafic yet.

Tim had been twelve chapters in when he realized his ass-kicking female lead was still Ziva, the half-zombie, half-robot was a blue, plague-tinged Tony, and, all along, he'd been writing Resident Evil.

Determined to find a new path, to get away from clichés and borrowed plots and characters that were all too familiar, Tim had started blogging. Blogging about writing. About originality. About starting over. He'd taken on a new nom de plume, "Plato," based on the ancient Greek's idea that every soul started out eternal and beautiful, and then, when it fell into sin and forgetfulness, it became human, to toil towards its own eventual redemption.

Tim was pretty sure that the people who commented on his blog thought PLATO referenced the educational computer system.

He sighed, shoved his chair back, and began to move. Walk ten minutes, sit twenty minutes. Even if he just walked around and around his small apartment, Tim would do it. He'd keep moving. He wasn't going to go back to the soft, doughy McGee that his partners had joked about. He straightened, pulling his shoulders back and his head up. He liked the way he felt without that added weight, the way he could keep up with Tony, with Gibbs, and especially the lack of insults based on him never seeing the inside of a gym. He smiled. Yes, McGee had finally gotten into shape – just when Tony seemed to be losing his.

Every author loved irony.

When his writing career had stalled, Tim had thrown himself back into his role as an NCIS agent, realizing that his future wasn't going to be made up of author interviews and book signings, but the day to day grind of investigation. Chasing criminals. Defending America's military. With Director Vance in charge, Tim had a shot at a great career path, one that would lead him past the MCRT and to the director's chair, eventually. To get there, he had to snap out of his fantasy world and get himself into shape.

It was Ziva who had helped him. She'd found Tim in the NCIS gym one Sunday morning, sweating, red in the face from using the jump rope, and had gotten the whole story out of him. How his writing had tanked. How he couldn't count on that sideline. How he needed to get in shape, to get the others, the jocks and natural athletes like Gibbs and Tony to take him seriously as an agent. Not just as a computer geek with a gun.

She'd listened. Quiet and intent, she'd let him talk, urged him to continue, and then, when he'd finished, she'd sworn to help him. "We are partners, McGee. And we are both outsiders, to some extent. Not because I am Israeli, but because I am a woman and you are –"

"What," Tim remembered sticking his chin out, angry and defensive.

"You," Ziva had said gently, one hand on his arm, "are not what I believe is the American stereotype of a federal agent, yes? You are kinder, more thoughtful, and less physical than, for example, Tony."

"Not to mention smarter," Tim had added, still a little stung.

Ziva's smile had been like a shared joke between close friends. "I did not think that needed to be said. Everyone knows that. Especially Tony."

That sparkle in Ziva's eyes had been wonderful to see. Ever since she'd been back, since they'd found her – alive – in that death camp, she'd been different. Sadder. More closed off. She said less, flirted less, and snapped out in anger less. But she watched more. She followed Gibbs every move with her eyes. And Tony's, too. Instead of sharing every thought, every argument, Tim could see her waiting, considering. As if she, too, was reinventing herself. Trying to figure out what the character 'Ziva David, American Agent' would do and say.

Tony had been right when he'd said as much to Tim during the last case. Ziva wasn't the woman she used to be. She'd been wilder. Louder. More arrogant. Eager to fight, to strike out, to be seen as superior. Tony had seemed angry about the contrast. He'd told Tim that Gibbs' choice of assignments, choosing to put Ziva back into her old identity, the Ziva of five years ago, of Mossad, as an undercover role to catch their killer had been a mistake. On the inside, Tim had agreed with him. But this new connection Tim and Ziva had, this private understanding was something he had wanted to keep just that. Private. Personal.

They'd all changed over the years. Tony had quieted, his irritating energy leveling out, tentatively reaching out for more of a friendship with Tim. Tim, obviously, had stepped up and worked on himself. In most people these kind of changes would be welcome. But in Ziva? Tim shook his head. It felt off. Too drastic. As if something was going on inside her that she didn't want anyone to see.

Tim had kept close to her. As close as she would let him. He'd continued working out with her on Sundays. Shared a meal once or twice during the week. But, if he was honest with himself, he knew he learned very little during those meetings – he found himself talking much more than he listened.

Ever since this case had wrapped up, since Tony got sick, the feeling in the squad room had changed. Something had happened. Something Tim had missed. And no matter how hard he looked or how much he went back over every word, every interaction, he couldn't figure it out.

He was beginning to think that, whatever it was, it was all about Tony. Again. Tim yanked the earbuds out of his ears, the music a constant irritant. Like Tony. An irritant that got under your skin, fried your brain cells, and then, when it was suddenly removed, you missed it. Like a crack addict missed his drug. Tim huffed, frustrated, hands on his hips. He should be past this. Past needing his hand held by Tony DiNozzo. But in these past few days it was as if the vacuum Tony left had thinned the air around the rest of them, made the edges sharper, the colors harsher, and the few words they spoke to one another layered with hidden meaning.

A meaning that Tim could not figure out.

Sighing, he dragged his phone from his pocket. He'd meant to call Tony days ago. To check on him. But Ducky had told them that Palmer had been there. Had taken Tony to Urgent Care. Was bringing him soup and watching old movies with him. And Tim didn't want to be anywhere near Jimmy Palmer, the guy who'd ruined his writing career.

A knock at his door distracted him.

)( )( )( )(

Ziva opened her door to a face she had not expected to see. "Hadar? What are you doing here?"

The tall Mossad operative rushed her, pressing her back into her apartment and slamming the door behind him. His dark eyes searched beyond her for threats. "Get your bag. We are leaving."

Frowning, Ziva backed off, left arm outstretched to keep him at a distance as she reached behind her for a knife. "What has happened? Is it father?"

"Your father sent me to the United States to watch over you, to be your contact, yes, but it is I who found the threat. Now. With your bag or without it," Hadar moved further into her apartment, sharp eyes flicking from corner to corner, "we are leaving."

"What threat?" Ziva filled her voice with scorn. "What has happened since we met last that makes you believe there is a threat? Nothing has happened –"

"Something has happened," the Mossad operative snarled. "Something that has sent your trusted Gibbs to the Defense Department – over even Leon Vance and the Secretary of the Navy's heads."

Ziva turned away, waving one hand in the air as if to brush off his concerns. "He was very angry this week concerning a suspect – a criminal – who was removed from NCIS against his orders and taken by another agency. You are overreacting." She slid the knife back into its sheath beneath her shirt.

A painful grip on her arm spun her around. "Yes, we know about Haskell and his identification of terrorist accounts. It was our operative in Homeland that made sure his transfer was made so that we could continue to access his information."

She yanked her arm from his grip. "Then you have everything under control. Gibbs may whine and stomp his feet about his case, but he is not powerful enough to overrule Homeland Security." Hands on her hips, Ziva strafed him with a withering stare. "It is you who are putting our operation at risk by coming here."

Hadar latched onto her shoulders, his fingers grinding straight down to the bone. "You are a fool. This is not about Haskell. NCIS is moving against you. They have seen through your act. Gibbs and DiNozzo," he growled. He shook her. "What have you done? What fool thing have you put in motion?"

Ziva's mind blanked, her mouth hanging open, ready to shout a denial into her handler's face. Instead, images from the past few days pasted themselves across her mind's eye. Gibbs' gruffness. Tony's stare following her wherever she went. Abby's odd behavior after the case was completed. No. This could not be. Nothing had happened.

"I have done nothing!" No, it had been such a small thing. A tiny temptation she had given in to in the surveillance car with McGee. Even if her pulse had raced, her imagination painting pictures of Tony DiNozzo bleeding on the sidewalk of a rich American suburb, alone, pleading for back-up. Nothing had happened. And McGee would never say a word, she was absolutely sure of that.

Tim and Tony were so invested in their idea of Ziva as the helpless woman they rescued from torture and death that they would never believe she had a hidden agenda. Soft eyes and quiet assurances kept McGee firmly on her leash. And Tony – well, he wasn't even smart enough to take cover when a bomb blew. Oh how she had wanted to let him burn, let the fool stand there, oblivious, as the bomb reached critical temperature. But she had saved him, cementing her new persona.

Hadar was a fool. Ziva smiled, twisting, twining her leg around Hadar's ankle, using his weight against him.

He shifted, avoiding her throw, and spun her around, pinning her against his chest, one arm tight around her neck. "Do not prove to both of us how powerless you are, Ziva David," the Mossad operative hissed into her ear. "Your father was counting on you, on your intel from NCIS to keep Orli off his back. How you managed to turn Leon against you, to turn even Gibbs against you, I cannot fathom. You were given the perfect cover and you have failed us all!"

"Gibbs would never turn against me!" She panted, overwhelmed by Hadar's size and strength. "Even when he knew I had orders to kill Ari, still he cannot help but think of me as his daughter!"

Hadar held her easily, trapped against him, unable to move. He lowered his voice, cheek pressed to her hair. "Ziva. I have known you since you were a child. I have been your father's right hand for many years. This arrogance, these blinders you have regarding Gibbs and DiNozzo." He sighed. "I had hoped their take-down of Saleem would make you understand."

Rage burned through Ziva's nerves. "Do not patronize me –"

His grip tightened, cutting off her words, her air. "You do not talk now, Ziva. Now, you listen." He waited. "Nod, my girl."

Teeth clenched, Ziva nodded, gulping in air as Hadar loosened his grip.

"Good. Now, listen to me. Vance has turned against us, against Eli. Gibbs and DiNozzo are conspiring to act. You are going to pack your bag and I am going to activate the device that will destroy anything you leave in this place, just as I did after your last mistake. But this is the last time. The very last time that your father will have the power to call you home, to cover up for you."

She managed to keep herself from moving, from reaching for another knife. Projecting meekness, subservience, she let her muscles go slack.

"Ziva, you do not fool me." Hadar laughed, his hands moving along her body, ripping knives from their hidden sheaths and dropping them on the floor, one by one. He slid the garrote from her hair, tore the belt from her pants, the lock picks and other small tools flying from their sewn-in pockets. "Now, I will subdue you, take you home in manacles if that is what you wish. If not, for once in your life, do as you are told."

Hadar smacked his hand against her back, making her stumble forward, trip over her coffee table and land sprawled on her side between couch and table. She tracked him as he gathered her weapons. Removed her guns from their caches. He upended a small basket filled with yarn and knitting needles and dumped everything inside - blades, guns, and the other tools of her spycraft. He strode to her laptop, plugging a familiar flash drive into its slot. It would download a virus that would destroy all her data. Even McGee would not be able to put it back together.

Anger, fear, and scathing bitterness erupted along her nerves, bathing Ziva in cold sweat. No. This could not be true. This could not be the end. She had endured so much, laid her plans so neatly. Her father had spun the web for her from the safety of his desk in Israel, manipulated the terrorist, and sent his own hand-picked team to die on the Damocles, knowing Gibbs and Tony could not resist his lure. All this to mend the rift in the NCIS team that she and Rivkin had created. Her fault, her father had insisted that it had been her fault. Her faulty intel about Gibbs' vulnerabilities and DiNozzo's weaknesses, and her own mishandling of Michael had led her down a twisted path to regain their trust.

She'd fixed it. She'd aimed at McGee and slid in close beside him to boost his confidence. She’d tempered his already bitter attitude towards Tony with smug insistence on the younger man's intelligence and growing physical prowess. It was good, what she had done. It was perfect.

Tears sprang to her eyes as she followed Hadar's movements, watching all of her planning fall to pieces. She'd never get her revenge now. She'd never see Tony squirm at the knowledge of her betrayal before she killed him. She'd never get to console Gibbs through his grief at Tony's loss.

All of it was breaking apart.

When he was finished, Hadar looked down at her, contempt and menace in his cold stare. "Are you ready? Or would you prefer to leave this country over my shoulder like the petulant child you are?"

Ziva pushed herself to her feet, wincing at the bruises, the pain in her ribs and her neck. "I am ready," she whispered, head hanging.

"That is the first intelligent remark I have heard from you today." Hadar drew a remote from his pocket – the switch that would ignite the gas line to her water heater and blow up her apartment, her life. The American citizen Ziva David would die.

What she would be reborn as was still a mystery.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 artwork

Tim had been surprised to see him. Honestly surprised. His teammate's open, concerned face when he saw Tony standing at his door took the wind out of Tony's sails and stole the bitter accusations right out of his mouth.

"Hey, you must be feeling better! Great! I was meaning to call, but, well, you know how it is." McGee rambled, moving around his apartment, fetching a couple of bottles of water from the fridge and handing one to Tony without even asking.

Tony took a long drink, trying to regain the anger that had kept him company on the way from Alexandria. He let his gaze roam across Tim's shelves and his writing set-up - the neat, efficient apartment of a perpetual bachelor. Not like Tony's. Tony's apartment was about style and comfort. About enjoying the things that made him happy. His gaze lit on the gaming console. The multiple computer screens. The writing nook. Okay, maybe exactly like Tony's. While he would be luxuriating in his leather couch, his single malt scotch and his complete James Bond DVD set, McGee would be killing orcs and writing his memoirs while chomping on that fake pipe of his.

To each his own.

"Tony?"

He spun, catching a confused frown on McGee's face. Like he'd been talking to Tony for a while without a response.

"We need to talk."

"O-kay," Tim drawled. "That doesn't sound good."

Tony sat on the edge of Tim's couch, watching his partner, waiting for any sign of the kind of man who would hang a friend out to dry. A friend. Maybe that was the point.

"Are we friends, Tim?"

McGee pulled his head back like a startled hedgehog – all prickly and defensive. "What kind of question is that?"

"An honest one. No jokes. No teasing. No good-natured buddy-cop bantering. You up for that?" Tony set his water down on the floor beside him, not trusting himself not to fidget with the thing. He folded his hands in his lap.

McGee unconsciously tightened his grip on his bottle, the plastic crackling in the sudden silence. "I – I don't know. It sounds like what someone says when he wants to tell the other person that he's dying. Or sleeping with his wife. Or that he's a Russian spy and his whole life has been a lie."

"Oh how very movie-of-the-week of you, Probie." Tony's smile flicked on and off.

"What's up? Really." Tim straightened in his seat. "Something feels off. I just don't know what it is."

Tilting his head, Tony considered the other man. "You really don't know."

"No, Tony, I really don't." A little anger peeked through McGee's confusion. A little anger and a little hurt. "I'm on the outside again, out of the loop. I can honestly tell you that I don't like that."

Tony rubbed one hand across his mouth. Good grief. Tim didn't see it. He really didn't understand. "Nobody likes that. Being the one on the outside. The one that's exposed. It's a lonely feeling, isn't it? Like no one is looking out for you? No one is listening?" Tony pressed hard on that image, hoping to clue in his partner.

"More like no one's talking, but, yes, it feels exactly like that. Like I'm not good enough. Not really part of the team. Or I don't have the right to be read in on something. Something that affects me." Tim's frown grew deeper. He crossed his arms over his chest. Stuck out his chin.

"How very ironic," Tony muttered, pressing the heel of his hand against his breastbone. Yes, Tim described it well. That feeling of a knife sliding between your ribs so slowly that you don't notice it until you're bleeding out. Before Tim could demand a better answer, Tony went on. "I'll answer your questions, all of them. I'll answer them honestly and plainly if you agree to do the same for me." He raised his eyebrows. "Sound like a deal?"

"Okay." Tim still held onto the defensive, wary body language.

Tony opened his hands, as if to reveal all. "I mean it, Tim. This is important."

Finally, McGee nodded. Maybe he saw something behind Tony's honesty, something tired and hurting, completely without masks or facades or the usual one-upmanship that characterized their relationship. His arms loosened, his hands falling to his lap. "What happened?" Tim asked quietly.

Pointing a finger at his partner, Tony smiled. "That's my question. What happened in Royal Woods, Tim? What happened with you and Ziva in the surveillance car?"

"Nothing." The younger man paused, thinking. Shook his head. "I – no, I can't think of anything. We sat there for three hours, you came back, we went back to NCIS." He jerked forward. "Tony, did something happen to you?"

Tony wanted to shake him. To take his partner by the shoulders and rattle that big brain around in his head until some semblance of thought fell out. "Well, you would know if something happened, since you were listening to my feed the whole time."

The frown was back. "No, we told you. We turned off the volume on our end after about forty-five minutes."

Tony waited for the clue bus to hit him. And waited. Eyes wide open, leaning forward, hands curled into a 'c'mon, give' gesture, Tony waited. "Special Agent Timothy McGee, did you hear what you just said?"

His partner's eyes rolled. "Yes, I heard what I just said, I said that we … that we weren't …" Tim's mouth snapped closed.

"Eureka," Tony whispered.

That clue bus had smacked his partner into next week. And then backed up and rolled over him a couple more times. Tim's already pale face went stark white, his eyes closing as he watched his own actions pile up in his memories. Re-played the conversation in the car, watched as his own fingers turn off the speaker and let go of Tony's lifeline.

Tony rose and headed for the kitchen. Tim was going to need more than water to get through this. And so was he. He pulled a couple of bottles of beer from the fridge, popped off the caps, and carried them back to the couch.

"Here." He shoved one into Tim's chest, forcing the man to take it or let the beer spill all over him.

"Tony. Oh my God, Tony."

"Uh huh," Tony agreed, drinking down half his beer in one long swallow. Ugh. His gut was already revolting at the mixture of meds and an empty stomach. Suddenly, Tim's hand was fused to Tony's forearm, holding tight.

"Are you okay? Did something happen? Is that why you took time off? Why you seemed so weird during the rest of the case?" Beer discarded on the table, the bottle teetering before deciding to stay upright, Tim lunged for him, hands checking for wounds. "Did you go to the hospital? Are there stitches? Tony-"

"Hey!" Tony grabbed Tim's wrists, holding him stiffly away from his body. "Stop the groping McFeelmeup! I'm fine. I had a virus. My lungs were a little congested. I had a fever and a lot to freaking think about, like my partner leaving my ass to swing in the wind, so I'm sorry if I was acting 'so weird' for the rest of the case!"

He shoved Tim away to fall back against the couch cushions. The man stayed there, swallowing, blinking, his hands still half-raised in front of him as if expecting Tony to haul off and hit him.

"I'm not going to hit you, McGee."

"Why the hell not!?" Tim demanded. "Tony, anything could have happened! We were looking for terrorists, murderers, they'd already killed two people! What the hell was I thinking?" Tim's voice grew loud and piercing, his expression filled with self-loathing. "Why did I listen to her? Why didn't Gibbs take me out and shoot me when he found out!?"

Tony watched his partner fall apart right in front of his eyes. A flip-book of emotions on Tim's face prompted an echo within him. Guilt. Regret. Fear. Sorrow. Anger. They circled round and round, eating at Tony's resolve to get answers. To finish things with McGee – one way or another.

"I don't understand, Tim," he finally said, shaking his head sadly. "I came here to try to understand. To find out when we stopped being friends. When you started thinking I was expendable, not worth a couple of hours on coms as my back-up. Why you put up with me at all when you obviously didn't care if I lived or died."

Tony rose to his feet, unable to keep still, and drifted around Tim's small living room, eyes focused on nothing at all. "We've come a long way. Or, I thought we had. I thought there was mutual respect going on. But, when I listen to your conversation with Ziva, I don't find that. I find a guy who's willing to believe anything she says even to the point of leaving me without backup. And, I have to ask myself, how many other times has it happened? This time it was on tape, but have there been other times? Have you and Ziva been laughing behind my back on every assignment? When did you two come to the realization that I was not worth doing your jobs over? That it was too irritating, too time consuming, too much of a bother to watch my back? Has it been weeks? Months? Or has this been going on for years and I was just too much of an idiot to realize it?"

He ended up at Tim's bookshelves, tracing one finger aimlessly along the spines of the entire Thom E. Gemcity collection. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. After all, your attitude towards me came out pretty clearly in your books." He pulled one down at random, paged through it until he found what he was looking for.

"'Agent Tommy picked himself up off the ground, brushing road grit from the side of his face. "What the hell was that?" he asked, dazed. "That," barked Tibbs, "was you letting our suspect escape because you were too busy ogling that blonde. I thought you learned your lesson the last ten times that happened!"'"

Tony shook his head. "Yeah, I should have known."

Tony heard Tim get to his feet. Felt the man come up behind him. He didn't stand too close, not close enough to touch, but Tony heard the labored breathing even if he didn't feel it on the back of his neck. He turned to face his partner.

"Tony. I don’t – I never – I would never -"

Tony couldn't help reaching out. He put a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Tim, you didn't even realize you did it this time until I specifically asked about it. So, how do you know? How do you know you'd never leave me without backup?"

There were tears in McGee's eyes. "I'm not – I don't think you're expendable. I don't not care about whether you live or die. I'm not like that."

"That's exactly how you acted. You told yourself that backing me up was not a real assignment. That it couldn't be. You believed it when Ziva said, 'hey, this is Tony. Gibbs wouldn't actually give him something important to do.'"

Tim's head shook back and forth in denial. "That's not –"

"Do you want to hear the recording? The recording that Abby heard?" Tony couldn't help the growl in his voice. "The one she listened to as part of her job and then realized you expected her to cover it up for you?"

McGee was trembling under Tony's hand. Shaking. "This is a dream. A nightmare. This isn't happening."

"Been there, wished that, McGee. But it isn't a dream and it isn't a fantasy. There's no pill for this to wake you up. This is happening. And you're going to have to gird your loins, get real, and answer some questions for me. Because, in about four hours, you're going to be answering them for someone a whole lot more important."

Tony watched his partner mentally pull himself together. Watched Tim's jaw muscles clench, his hands curl into fists at his sides. Tim's mouth a straight line and his eyes fixed on Tony's, he took a deep breath and let it out, nodding to signal his readiness. Tony clapped his hand on his Probie's shoulder and jerked his head towards Tim's writing nook.

"I'm going to ask you some questions, Tim. And, I'm warning you ahead of time, they're going to be hard questions. You might feel like I'm trying to rub something in, that I'm being a jerk, and a peacock, and a Prima Dona, but I just want you to think and answer." When Tim turned towards him, mouth open as if to argue, to explain away the very words he'd used over the years to describe Tony's leadership skills, Tony gave him another little shake to shut him up. "We've got a limited amount of time to figure this all out and it's going to take both of us. Your smarts and my ability to pull evidence together. You got me?"

Tim let Tony sit him in his chair in front of his typewriter. He stared straight ahead at the blank white page, hands reaching towards the keys.

He looked up. "Tony?"

"Yeah, Probie?"

"I'm really sorry, Tony."

Closing his eyes, Tony grabbed onto Tim's apology, the slight catch in his partner's voice, the utter sincerity in that simple expression and held it close. "I know you are."

He could hear Tim swallow. Clear his throat. Wanting to go on, to say something else.

Tony opened his eyes.

Tim's gaze was open and honest. "To answer your question - the one you asked me a while ago - I think we're friends. I want us to be friends although, after this, I don't know why you'd want to be mine." Tim's lips pressed together, his chin wobbling. "Even if I lose my job. Even if I'll never work in law enforcement again, if you'll have me, I want to stay friends."

Nodding, Tony patted Tim's shoulder. "Me, too. So, let's get our act together and do something to make it happen."

Fingers trembling on the keys, Tim laughed nervously. "You think that's possible?"

"What I think, McDoubter, is that I'm not going to let Ziva take one more thing - one more person - from my life." The anger he'd misplaced was now waving its arms for attention in Tony's gut. No. Not one more. Ziva had taken Kate. She'd set Gibbs against him time after time. Ducky, well, he'd always thought little of Tony, long before Ziva was in the picture. But Tony'd be damned if she would be allowed to rip Tim from his life.

"Okay. So." Tim pulled the sheet from the typewriter, taking what looked like immense pleasure in crumpling the paper and tossing it into his wastebasket. He lined up a new sheet and cranked the bail until it was ready for ink. "Tell me why we're doing this at my typewriter and not my computer."

"Because," Tony sighed, "there are eyes on us, Tim. High-level eyes. So technology is out – especially technology that's been at NCIS."

Anger rolled off the younger man. "Someone's been at my computer? MY computer?"

Today, Tony didn't find his outrage funny. "Yes. Maybe. The same someone who set this all up, who watched and waited until he was sure Ziva was ready to betray me. Someone who wanted me left dangling in the wind and hoped the dirt bags would be helpful enough to get rid of me. The very same someone who, in your books, is referred to as Velon Lance."

He let Tim choke and spit, let him curse and rage for a minute. Then Tony cut him off. "Yeah, and if I thought you were half as concerned about me dying as you are about your precious laptop being touched, I'd let you be angry for as long as you liked. But, not now." He held up both hands to keep Tim from another awkward apology. "You're on my time, McGee. I don't have to do this. I could have let you get called into the IA meeting without a heads up or a well-thought-out explanation." Tony leaned away from the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. "Is that what you want?"

"No! No. Okay." Tim settled down. "What are we doing?"

"We're going back to the beginning. To a dark and stormy night five long years ago. Right now, we're going to examine each and every interaction you had with Mossad Officer Ziva David and follow the breadcrumbs."

Tim typed, glancing up to Tony out of the corner of his eye. "Follow the breadcrumbs to where?"

Tony glared. "To find your brain, McGee. To find out when you stopped thinking like a federal agent – like the friend you claim to be – and started letting your strings be jerked by our own darling foreign agent. We're going to trace her manipulation of you back to the beginning, so that we can show IA that you are not entirely responsible for your actions in the surveillance car. So we can save your ass."

"I didn't-"

"Hey!" Tony shouted, slamming his hand down on the table. "No questions! No comments! Just answering me and typing, can you do that or not?"

Tim hunched his shoulders, facing forward again. "I can. I can."

"Good. Let's go back. To that dark and stormy night, you and me on a rooftop in Norfolk doing fingertip searches for evidence while our partner lay cold and silent in one of Ducky's trays."

"Kate," Tim murmured.

"Kate." Tony would always feel that pang, taste the blood on his lips, and see the way the light turned to murky darkness in her eyes. It was a wound that never quite scarred over, lying in a jagged row next to all the others. His mother. Jason King's sister, screaming as the fire grew hotter. Glen Nettles, his partner in Peoria, falling under a PCP junkie's feral attack. Little Peter Berwick, the last victim of the Philadelphia child killer, his blood still dripping from the knife as Tony put six bullets in the madman's chest. Chris Pacci, beer and baseball buddy, eviscerated by a transgender murderer. And Paula, tears still in her eyes because of her team, flinging herself on a bomb for him. He'd never forget them. Never. No one should.

"That was – that was," Tim frowned, his fingers moving, black letters appearing on the paper. "Tony that wasn't Ziva's fault."

"And so it begins," Tony sighed. "Ziva was Ari's control officer. She put together the profiles for his team." He spun, hands flailing. "I feel like I've explained this hundreds of times and yet no one ever listens. Who told Ari that Gibbs had lost a daughter? Who described the team to that bastard so that he knew exactly who to aim for on that roof?" Tony swung back, leaning down to stare into Tim's startled eyes. "If we can't get past the beginning, I'm never going to convince you of the rest of the pattern."

Tim was frowning but listening. Listening hard. "Ziva's pattern."

"Yes, Probie. Ziva's pattern of isolation and manipulation," he explained, curt and dismissive. "I'm not going to justify any of this, Tim. You freaking listen to me this time. And you type. You type this list of situations and circumstances. Only then do I want to hear words coming out of your mouth."

Tim typed, visibly swallowing demands and arguments. Black words came to life on the white page.

'Control Officer for Ari Haswari. Gathered intel on MCRT. Deep backgrounds. Knew about Gibbs' lost family before anyone else did. Targeted Kate.' Tim stopped typing, his eyes flicking back and forth as if watching a movie behind his eyes. 'Targeted Kate to make a space available on the MCRT.'

Something clenched in Tony's chest started to loosen. "Attaboy, Probie."

"What's next?” Tim asked.

"Next, Ziva tried to endear herself to Ducky and Abby. To you. Eventually, it worked with all of you. Abby was the hardest nut to crack, but Ziva did it."

He could tell Tim wanted to ask the obvious question. What about Tony? Yeah, Ziva flirted with him, right out there in front of everyone. "She tried to make me look foolish. Make me look like I thought with my dick. Always hot and cold with me, the seductress one minute and the arrogant know-it-all the next. But that's not evidence." Tony brushed it away with a curt gesture.

"Next, I was framed for murder. Thereby undercutting my position and my authority. Even after I was cleared there were questions and quips and lively little insults." Jenny and Ziva were always joined at the hip in those days. Obviously worked as a team. Jenny was behind hiring Chip – Tony had always had his suspicions about that little coincidence.

Tim typed. "Chip Sterling was hired by Director Shepard who also insisted Ziva join Gibbs' team."

"Now you're getting it. You ready for the next one?"

"Yeah?" Tim looked up.

Tony narrowed his eyes. "And then you shot a cop, Tim. And while we were searching for the slug that almost got away, Ziva intentionally distracted me. And she was the first to suggest that you were probably guilty."

Tim paled. "She came to me in the stairwell. Told me she was behind me one hundred per cent. That you and the others weren't doing your jobs to protect me from Metro. That, if I was in Mossad, the team would stand between me and the people accusing me."

Nodding slowly, Tony chuckled. "That explains a lot. Type it up." He watched over McGee's shoulder as more words appeared, the facts taking on life and depth under Tim's fingers. "While you're at it, you might as well document the party that everyone was invited to but me. You remember that, right?" Tim's fingers faltered. "Your smug little smile in the bullpen told me you were in on that one. Write down how she got you to do that. I'll be curious to read it."

The thread of Ziva's manipulation played out as Tony recounted situations from the team's past. The ways she'd teased information from Tim, appealed to his intelligence, his resentment of Tony's jibes and jokes. How she got the probie firmly on her side in the ongoing war against Tony's authority and confidence. Her undermining of Tony's command when Gibbs took his Mexican siesta. Tony doled out the facts and Tim sweated and squirmed and noted them on the timeline he was creating.

Three pages later, Tim was cracking his knuckles and shifting in his seat.

"What, McGee? Do you need a potty break? A Scooby snack?"

"No. No, Tony. I just – I don't know why you didn't bring all this up before." He turned, pushing his chair back from the desk. "You saw all this a long time ago. Didn't you tell someone? Didn't you talk to Gibbs?"

Tony hung his head, shame and anger battling for dominance. He rubbed one hand on the back of his neck. "When, Tim? When Gibbs was telling me to shut up and do my job? When he barked that this was his team, not mine, and if I didn't like the personnel I could find another one? When he handed me his gun and said, 'you'll do'? Or when you were telling me I'd never rate my own team?"

He lifted his eyes and speared his teammate in place. "Do you think Director Shepard gave me that undercover assignment to reward me? To show me that she supported me? Or did she keep me working 24/7, trying to lead the MCRT during the day and then attempting to infiltrate La Grenouille's daughter's life after hours and every weekend, so that I wouldn't have the time or energy to think about anything else?"

"I never thought of it that way."

Tony chuckled. "Neither did I. Not for a long time. But, looking back, 20/20 hindsight and all that, I saw that what the Frog case did was isolate me even further. And put you and Ziva together, against me, like you never would have been if I'd been hitting on all cylinders. If I wasn't too exhausted, too drained to see what was happening." He remembered the way his heart lifted whenever he got to Jeanne's apartment. How her love had held him together. And how it had all ended. "And if I wasn't isolated then, you all sure put me in my place when you found out I'd been lying to you for a year."

Someday – maybe - Tim and Tony would be able to talk about those months. The era of their interaction that Tony labeled Smug Tim and Broken Tony. Someday. Not now. He gestured towards the typewriter. "Let's keep going."

Tim was nodding, his expressive eyes promising a future talk over stronger alcohol and maybe a few rounds of beat-downs in the NCIS gym. "I think I can take it from here, Tony. I see it now. Now that you've practically hit me over the head with the 'breadcrumbs.'" He shrugged. "I was an easy mark for someone with Ziva's training. I was stupid and arrogant and all too ready to preen under her petting. All I can do is apologize for that."

"Yeah, you've done that."

His partner stood, holding out one hand. "And I'm going to do it again. You didn't have to come here. You didn't have to warn me about the IA call, or show me how to put some backspin on my actions." Tim's sincerity was warm and unaffected. "Thank you."

Tony shook his friend's hand. "You're welcome." As if the connection, skin to skin, had opened a vein, all the rest of Tony's nervous energy drained away, leaving him swaying. Tim caught him around the shoulders. "You sure you got this?" Tony managed, trying to get his eyes to open more than halfway.

"I'm sure. Let me work here for a couple of hours while you rest. You can use my couch. Or my bed." Tim led him away from the noise of the typewriter. "Because you still haven't told me about Vance."

Tony let the exhaustion pull him down to Tim's couch. He toed off his shoes. "There's a lot more to explain, Probie."

Tim grabbed an afghan from the back of the couch and laid it over Tony's limp form. "Okay. But, for now, I think I'm full up of self-truths, and conspiracies, and people being not who I always thought they were. So, if you won't rest for your sake, how about doing it for mine?"

"Whatever," Tony murmured, the weight of Tim's betrayal lifting from his shoulders. Fraying. Dissolving on the breeze of a crisp autumn day. He let himself sink into the cushions. A second later he lunged up, eyes snapping open, the recording of Tim and Ziva's voice in the surveillance car too loud to ignore. "You have my back, Tim?"

Guilt and grief shone from his partner's eyes. "I do. I promise."

Tony had a choice. Believe his Probie, his friend, or gather what little energy he had and get away. Drive away from the partnership, the friendship, and leave Tim to his own fate.

He closed his eyes. "I believe you."

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 artwork

Gibbs strode from the elevator, scowling. Carruthers had kept him too long, jawing about the damned implications of taking down the director of a federal agency. The Inspector General kept emphasizing how careful they had to be, how they had to be seen as transparent and above-board while kicking up as much dust as they could to hide the fact that Vance had all but sold out his agents to keep some kind of personal attachment to Mossad.

He'd been choking on talk for hours now, all the time wanting to get out there and find DiNozzo, corner the man until Gibbs could get him through what he'd heard on those recordings. Guzzling the last few swallows in his coffee cup, Gibbs hurled it into the trash can next to his desk. He could head-slap himself. He should have done it differently – should have let Tony hear the recordings he'd made of Vance's meetings before they got to the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, played them for Tony at his house, where Gibbs could sit right beside his agent and do damage control, joke and tease about how Vance couldn't see through a plate-glass window if he didn't realize Gibbs was lying about his regard for his SFA.

Now it was too late. DiNozzo had gone dark, calls to his phone going straight to voice mail. Then Elliot Paul had called from IA, left a message that the meeting with DiNozzo and McGee had been moved up to 5 PM. Gibbs didn't have time to swing by DiNozzo's place and settle his agent's mind – he'd have to wait until after. He didn't like it, but it would have to do. At least Gibbs would be in the same room with DiNozzo while the meeting went on, when his SFA heard McGee's testimony about his decision to not back up his partner.

"Boss!"

Gibbs looked up. McGee was hustling out of the stairwell, a thick file folder in his hand.

He looked at his watch. "Ten minutes, McGee." He looked the young agent over. The well-pressed suit and tie didn't distract much from McGee's pale skin and the deep-cut lines around his mouth. McGee looked both more anxious and more put together than Gibbs expected after the kind of out-of-the-blue phone call he must have received. Maybe he should have had more faith in the kid. The call from IA might have been something he was expecting. Dreading. That was, if McGee had any sense of just how much he'd screwed up his back-up detail at Royal Woods.

Gibbs moved around his desk, eyes cold. "Have anything you want to tell me?"

The young man stood his ground just in front of Gibbs' desk, head high. "No excuse, Gibbs," McGee said, his voice barely wavering.

His eyes narrowing, Gibbs watched and waited. A suspicion was sparking in the back of his mind. "No excuse for what, Ma-Gee," he drawled.

McGee's lips pressed together. "I'd rather we wait until we're all together." The red-rimmed eyes flicked up towards the balcony before settling back on Gibbs. "To make sure it's all on the record."

The sparking turned into a roaring fire in Gibbs' gut. "DiNozzo," Gibbs sighed, one hand wiping across his forehead. Damn it. That stupid idiot had gone haring off to McGee to warn him. If he was standing here Gibbs would head-slap him so hard his grandchildren would feel it. Figured. McGee might have left his teammate hanging but it wasn't in DiNozzo's nature to do the same. "Had a visitor this afternoon, did you? Told you some home truths?"

Regret and sorrow shone from McGee's eyes. "I had a discussion with a friend. He'd have to tell you about it."

Gibbs cocked his head and let the most sarcastic smile he could muster spread across his face. "Oh, so now you're worried about betraying a teammate. Little late, don't you think?"

"Yes, Agent Gibbs. I think it's a lot late." McGee clutched the folder tighter, his sweaty fingers slipping.

Stepping close, well inside McGee's space, Gibbs lowered his voice. "If you think whatever you and DiNozzo cooked up or that your 'in' with a certain Director can keep you from some serious fall-out, you're mistaken, Former Agent McGee."

McGee didn't step back. He nodded. Looked straight into Gibbs' eyes. "I realize that, Agent Gibbs. I know there will be consequences for my actions – and inactions."

Watching the younger man's tells, the unconscious reactions and expressions that McGee could never quite control, Gibbs believed him. He stepped back and gestured to the folder. "So what's that?"

"It's not an excuse. And, no matter what the friend who helped me pull this together might think, I don't believe it will mitigate any charges or consequences from IA." He held the folder out towards Gibbs. "In fact, I didn't bring it for my meeting. I brought it for you."

Off balance, Gibbs frowned. "For me."

McGee continued to hold the file out. "Yes. My friend, well, it turns out he's a lot more insightful than I ever imagined. I always knew he was a good investigator, that he could find the patterns and weird connections that everyone else missed. But today has given me new appreciation for his skills." McGee flashed a tight smile. "He's opened my eyes. I can only hope these notes can do the same for you."

Gibbs took the folder in both hands, his mind churning. "There's only ten minutes until your interview and you want me to digest all this before we go on?"

"No, Agent Gibbs."

Gibbs narrowed his eyes. The echo of his title wasn't lost on him, nor the fact that McGee had only called him 'Boss' once. "So?"

"I don't need your presence in this interview. Not right away. What I'm going to hear and say is obvious. I'm not going to challenge what Tony says or what's clear on the recording. When you're finished with that," he jerked his chin towards the typed pages Gibbs had begun leafing through, "I would appreciate it if you'd join us."

Oh, there was no doubt that Gibbs would join McGee and DiNozzo in that meeting. But, McGee was right. DiNozzo was the SFA and it was his complaint that had launched the IA investigation. Agent Paul only needed McGee and his supervising agent to begin the interview.

"This is that important," Gibbs stated, still unsure.

"I believe it is. So does my friend. But," McGee's gaze grew stern, "we both know that you will do whatever you please. And that none of this information is new to you." The young man shrugged. "My friend explained that he's said it all to you before. So you might decide it was a complete waste of time reading it. But I hope, for my friend's sake, not mine, that you don't."

Gibbs watched McGee walk away and head towards the conference rooms, leaving Gibbs alone in a deserted bullpen, floundering. This is not what he expected. Not the way he'd planned for this to go.

He tossed the folder onto his desk, the black and white pages fanning out. Maybe going to DCIS had been a mistake. Maybe Gibbs and Tony should have handled this themselves. Blackmailed Vance with the recordings, told him to resign or they'd give them to the authorities. Taken the charges against Ziva and McGee directly to IA without the Inspector General getting involved. His muscles tight, his jaw clenching, Gibbs cursed himself. He'd let this get away from him.

The tighter he closed his hands around this crapfest – Vance's set-up, his focus on catching Ziva out so he could hold onto his own power, Tony's vulnerability – the more the situation flowed out through Gibbs' fingers.

Gibbs breathed deep. DiNozzo. Always a wild card. The man was completely predictable except when he wasn't. When DiNozzo got going, when he found himself at the center of a puzzle or a trap or felt someone else's hands pulling his strings, there was no telling which way he'd jump. Gibbs laughed, harsh, bitter, and loud. Who was he trying to fool, standing here alone on a Saturday evening, his team in tatters, pretending he was surprised? He knew. He knew Tony. He'd always known.

After all the years working with his SFA, studying him, watching Tony maneuver through the hits and misses of his life, Gibbs knew better. He'd met the young investigator on the streets of Baltimore and he'd known, right then, that DiNozzo was something special. He'd known it when the detective walked away from his dirty partner, his eyes empty and a patently false smile on his face. Partnership – the bond of cop to cop, the special trust and loyalty owed to those who put on the shield and the gun and stood between innocents and evil – that was what fueled DiNozzo. Kept him going when life turned sideways on him, when circumstances – and people – let him down.

A threat to one of Tony's team, to a partner, was like waving a red cape to a short-tempered bull. Nothing stood between DiNozzo and what he felt he should do to protect his NCIS family, not Gibbs' rules, not Gibbs' demands. Tony would see his role, his responsibilities, plainly. This ungodly mess of Vance's put him in danger, yes, but that was the least of the man's worries. His team was in harm's way. And DiNozzo would deal with it.

Just like Domino. Gibbs threw himself into his chair and smacked one hand down on McGee's paperwork. Gibbs had known the alarm would go off. That had been part of the plan to let Lee get inside the control room. He'd counted on DiNozzo and David following his orders to not engage – not to fight back if caught. He'd told them to surrender, hell, it was all a 'game' to them after all. What had DiNozzo done? He'd seen the guards go after his partner and he'd discarded all of Gibbs' instructions, threw them all away because a member of his team was in danger. And got a gun butt to the face and another concussion to put on his scorecard.

Rivkin. That was another example. Gibbs had told Tony to keep following the evidence, to figure out where Rivkin was, and how he was getting his intel. But once he'd realized the encrypted laptop had connected to the internet at Ziva's apartment, Tony had thrown away any sense of self-preservation and hurried off to warn his partner about her lover.

And ended up with a fractured arm, a woman who swore herself his enemy, and an almost one-way ticket to Israel.

Gibbs rubbed both hands over his face and growled. Even when Gibbs was being the worst kind of partner, the worst kind of leader, Tony's character never faltered. He'd guarded a secretive and scornful Franks when Gibbs asked him to. Put himself between what should have been Franks and Russian agents. And ended up with a concussion when Gibbs' former boss brained him. Tony had dived into the icy, dirty Anacostia River to save an innocent girl – and to haul Gibbs from a watery grave. With minimal information, left out of the loop by his boss – again – DiNozzo had not hesitated. He'd shot the dirt bags, raced to the edge and jumped in. Just like always. Eyes wide open, smart enough to know he might not survive, DiNozzo led with his heart, with his loyalty.

"Semper Fi," Gibbs murmured behind his hands. Always faithful. That was DiNozzo. Of course he'd gone to McGee. McGee was Tony's probie. McGee's failure as an agent, as a partner, would cut DiNozzo to the heart. And he'd do anything to try to - how had McGee put it? - mitigate the damage. Distract, disarm, wave his arms, jump up and down to try to get IA from coming down too hard on the man.

Tony DiNozzo would have made an excellent Marine. He'd have earned the title. Gibbs would have been proud to have him in his unit.

Gibbs dropped his hands, eying the folder and the typed pages with impatience. He wanted coffee. Or something stronger. Whatever DiNozzo had McGee type on these pages promised to be important. Complicated. If the only way he could make sure Gibbs would listen was to write it all out in black and white that meant DiNozzo was out of other options.

He opened the folder. Dug a pair of reading glasses from his drawer. Gibbs would be damned if he'd let the man down again.

)( )( )( )(

"Agent McGee. Thank you for coming in on such short notice."

Elliot Paul stood up, offering his hand. McGee looked around the empty conference room, trying to find his footing. The room seemed too big, cavernous. A table for eight set just for them. Paul sat on one side flanked by a video camera with a couple of file folders on the table in front of him. He had a laptop, screen tilted in McGee's direction, ready, the audio recording files cued up.

Tim swallowed and stepped up, nodding. "I appreciate your call."

Paul gestured. "Have a seat. I don't think this will take too long."

"No," Tim breathed, "I guess not."

He sat, unbuttoned his jacket and straightened his tie.

The IA agent adjusted the video camera and set it to record, the red light staring accusingly at McGee. "Special Agent Timothy McGee, do you waive your rights to representation and agree to the recording of this interview?"

"Yes. I, Special Agent Timothy McGee do hereby waive my rights to representation and agree to answer all questions honestly as per my oath to NCIS and to the United States of America." He nodded towards the camera. "I submit to recording, both audio and video, of these proceedings."

"Very good," Agent Paul stated, adjusting his seat. "Let's begin."

McGee frowned. "Um, I thought Tony – Special Agent DiNozzo - would be sitting in on this interview?"

Paul checked his watch, obviously impatient. "It looks like Agent DiNozzo is running late." He speared Tim with a heated stare, his disdain coming through loud and clear. "I don't think we should wait, Agent McGee. This is a serious matter."

"No. I mean, yes. All right." Tim took a deep breath. Tony had probably been caught by Gibbs on his way in. The two of them would be showing up soon. "I'm ready."

)( )( )( )(

Gibbs walked back from the coffee shop, his coat curling around his legs in the cool breeze. He lifted his gaze to the blue sky, the trailing clouds grey now as the sunlight faded. He didn't hurry: there was no hot case pending, no criminal to pursue, and no one to save.

Not today.

Maybe five years ago. If Gibbs had acted then, had reined back his obsession with Ari long enough for his second in command to have a five minute discussion, maybe there would have been a chance to save someone. To save Kate. If he'd listened to Tony back then, heard out his suspicions about Mossad, about their sudden new teammate, if Gibbs had been able to see through his grief and past a pair of tearful brown eyes in a young woman's face, well, everything would be different.

None of that was implied in the pages McGee had handed him. No accusations or pointing fingers came Gibbs' way. But they should have. Gibbs was the leader. The boss. It was his decision to welcome Ziva onto the team, even if he'd been maneuvered into that decision by a former lover and a carefully planned Mossad operation. The buck stopped with Gibbs. Always. And everything that happened since then was fall-out from that one decision.

He thought he'd put it all behind him during a conversation in his basement after they'd pulled Ziva out of Somalia. He thought he'd faced down those demons, accepted that he'd been played, and forgiven her. Turned out that forgiveness wasn't his to give. It belonged to DiNozzo.

Vance hadn't been wrong. It was Ziva who'd convinced McGee to turn off the speakers, to leave Tony without backup. Gibbs had acknowledged that, told DiNozzo the truth about not protecting her any more. Vance was a puppet-master, looking for connections to powerful people, and willing to put his own agents in harm's way to get them. He needed to be taken down. But the man had been right about Ziva.

So had Tony.

The timeline set down in McGee's papers left no doubt. No doubt that Ziva had an agenda from day one. That her manipulations, her distractions, every twist of the knife in Tony's back and every soft word in McGee's ear had a purpose. Gibbs wasn't blind and he wasn't stupid – he'd seen them. Heard the teasing flirtation one minute and the snappish insults the next. He'd said something to McGee during that undercover mission he'd hurried Tony and Ziva into as married assassins – told him to be careful of becoming Ziva's mule. When had he closed his eyes? Started to ignore his second? Turned his back on the broken dynamics of his own team?

That explosion had stolen more than Gibbs' memory – it had turned off his ability to know who his friends were. And his enemies. Yeah, Gibbs said to himself, bitter and self-loathing. Yeah. Blame it all on the bomb. On the concussion. Blame how he'd fled from his team, his friends, and had left Tony holding the bag. Trying to hold together a team that had no loyalty to him. And then blame DiNozzo for being competent, for getting used to his leadership position, for expecting his orders to be followed, expecting some respect, some gratitude for stepping aside and letting Gibbs back in.

As he turned into the building, Gibbs stopped to face the gathering darkness. The pages McGee had handed him were damning. Every word, every scenario, every insight painted a picture in exact detail, a picture that Gibbs had blinded himself to years ago. But, McGee was right. Tony's insights might not help him in the interview with IA. McGee had made a decision to break protocol. To disobey orders. To leave an agent without backup. At the very least, he'd be reprimanded, demoted, forced into retraining and stripped of field agent status. But Gibbs owed it to the younger man to come clean. To testify. To tell Paul, the IA agent, and get it in the record. Explain how McGee's boss had failed him. Failed to curb David. Failed to see the way she undermined not only DiNozzo, but McGee. How she'd trained the green agent, day after day and year after year, to believe that DiNozzo was nothing and Ziva was everything.

Gibbs needed to open his mouth and say all that while looking DiNozzo square in the eye and hoping he forgave him.

Settled, resolved, Gibbs entered the building and climbed the stairs to the third floor. He found the interview room, knocked once and entered. One hand still on the doorknob, Gibbs frowned, glancing between the IA agent and McGee.

"Where's DiNozzo?"

McGee's mouth snapped shut. "I –I thought he was with you?"

Gibbs' stare snapped to the Internal Affairs agent.

"I haven't heard from Agent DiNozzo. Agent McGee agreed to get started without him. But now that you're here –"

"No," Gibbs barked, pulling his phone from his pocket. His gut was spewing acid, his mind racing. "DiNozzo never checked in. When did you see him last, McGee?"

The younger man climbed to his feet, his eyes wide. "Not since he left my apartment this afternoon. About four o'clock. He said he was going home to change and would meet me here."

Gibbs listened to Tony's voice mail message. "DiNozzo! Rule Three!" He snapped the phone closed. "Can you track him?"

McGee nodded. "On it, Boss." He swept out of the room.

Paul rose from his chair, obviously confused. "Agent Gibbs, we weren't finished –"

"DiNozzo is missing," Gibbs snarled. "They're moving on Vance and David and the one guy they both have in their sights is missing."

Instantly transforming back into the field agent he'd once been, Elliot Paul hurried around the table. "What can I do?"

"Get with DCIS and the IG. Find out if they have eyes on Vance and David. Tie them down until I get some answers." Gibbs spun and headed back to the bullpen at a run, Paul on his heels.

"Where will you be?"

"McGee!" Gibbs shouted, half-way between the stairwell and the agent's desk where McGee was typing frantically on his keyboard.

"Tony's phone is at his apartment." He took two steps towards Gibbs and then stopped, his gaze flicking between Gibbs and the IA Agent. "Gibbs. Can I – am I still an agent? Can I –"

"Get your ass in gear, McGee," Gibbs spat, turning away, thankful that he heard the man's hurried footsteps behind him. "You're an agent as long as I say you are."

The two raced down the stairs towards the garage. Once they reached the metal door, Gibbs stopped, grabbed McGee, and slammed his back against the concrete wall. "You screwed up. You broke rule number one, you know that, don't you?"

His mouth a tight line, McGee nodded. "I know that."

"You ready to back up your partner now? Because," Gibbs twisted his head from side to side, "I swear, if you –"

"Agent Gibbs we're wasting time." McGee didn't flinch. "Our partner needs help. I am not going to fail him. Not this time." He grabbed Gibbs' wrist and pulled the man in even closer. "What about you?"

A flare of respect, of relief, multiplied Gibbs' determination to get to his man. "Let's go."

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 artwork

Tony let his door slam behind him, threw his keys onto the counter, and pulled open his refrigerator. He'd never finished that water at McGee's and sleeping always made him thirsty. He reached inside, leaning against the shiny stainless-steel door, and grabbed a bottle of orange juice, drinking it down in three long swallows. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, his eyes closed. The headache was back. The tickle at the back of his throat. The fever.

"Take your meds, DiNozzo," he muttered to himself. No time for weakness. For hesitation. All hands on deck. Fire in the hole. Red alert. Man the torpedoes. Hell, Tony would usually give himself a hard time for sleeping at a time like this, lying down on the job while Probie was up to his ears in problems. He shook his head – gently – and sighed. Too much talking, not enough sleep. "I am officially giving myself a break," he croaked to the empty room.

A break. A nice hot shower to loosen things up. More liquids, his meds, and he would be ready to sit down with IA and have it out.

Twenty minutes later and Tony felt seventy-five percent better. The heat of the shower had liquefied the remaining congestion, making his nose run and his right ear gurgle and pop. His head was less throbbing and more aching, and his throat was behaving itself. He stood in front of his closet in a white button-down, boxer briefs, and socks still towel-drying his hair. Today was not an Armani day. This was team-solidarity day, not a day to remind everyone how Very Special he was. It wasn't a day for his armor or his bravado - he wasn't going to pull one of his personas or masks out of his drawer and play it for all he was worth. He grabbed a pair of black pants, well-tailored but basic, and drew them on.

"Fat, my ass," he mumbled, doing up the button and zipper. If his clothes still fit and his fitness ratings during his yearly evals were up to snuff, Tony wasn't going to let Gibbs' comments make him doubt himself. Gibbs, the perennial poster boy for the Marines, no matter how old he got. Tony smiled. Even the normal sags and bags of the aging process stood up and saluted when Gibbs gave an order.

Reaching for his tie rack, Tony stopped, listening. His ear was still stuffed, the sound going on and off like a bad AM/FM radio. But the hairs on the back of his neck were rising and Tony reacted, eyes narrowing. He kept moving, no jerks or hesitation in his actions to give himself away, his hand hidden by the half-open closet door as he reached past the tie-rack and towards the pocket where he kept his back-up gun.

"That's far enough."

Tony paused. He might make it. He was fast, well-trained, and at the top of his game. The guy behind him hadn't worked in the field for ten years.

"Two empty hands in my sight or I will shoot you in that fat ass of yours. Now wouldn't that be embarrassing?"

Damn it. Tony raised both hands, slow and steady, and turned. "I suppose you expect me to thank you for letting me put my pants on."

Vance half-smiled, the gun steady in his hand. "No one wants to see what you have on offer, DiNozzo, no matter what you may think."

Tony didn't respond. He shifted his weight to his right leg, muscles loose, as if he hadn't a care in the world, while his mind whipped from one possible scenario to another. This was Tony's space; he knew every inch of it. Every hidden weapon, every angle, every line of sight. He was younger and stronger than Vance. Trained by the best. He ignored the chill he felt from the lingering fever, the headache, and the catch in his breathing and let his gaze slide across the older man. The scuffed knees of Vance's khakis. The sweat stains around the neck of his pullover shirt. The set of his jaw and the haunted shadows in his eyes.

Tony backed off from an immediate physical reaction. Vance might be slower and older, but the man was desperate. And desperate men did desperate things.

Leon Vance. Ex-director. Ex-agent. Ex-boxer. Failed at all three. The man had been a pain in Tony's ass for years, ever since the pompous toothpick-chewer had looked him up and down in the California desert and found him wanting. DiNozzo was not Vance's kind of agent. He didn't have a computer attached to one hand and a 'yessir, how high, sir' ready on his lips. Tony followed his instincts, his well-honed street smarts. He never claimed to be smarter than his fellow agents, just a little better at putting the clues together, at fitting together the puzzle pieces to show the picture. And pretty damned great at getting a read on people, at knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and which direction they were going to jump. Including Vance.

Vance's decision to send Tony a-floating hadn't surprised him. It had gutted him, pissed him off, made his self-doubt and self-loathing deeper and wider than ever before, but it hadn't surprised him. He'd taken Vance's measure long before, when Jeanne had arrived, spouting tears and lies to try to send Tony to prison for her father's murder. If Vance's cold black eyes could kill, Tony would have been lying dead on the orange-carpeted floor for messing with the man's precious agency. Tony and Jenny, both.

When Vance had dragged Tony to Israel at the urgings of his old buddy Eli David, Tony had seen that icy blackness again. Vance wanted Tony to pay, to drop him in a heap at Eli's feet as some kind of sacrifice. But Tony had made the director choke on his betrayal, shoved it back down the man's throat even as he got Eli to confess to his manipulation of Rivkin, of Ziva, of all of them. And that had made Vance hate him even more.

Looking at Vance's eyes now, Tony saw only darkness. The blackness of rage coupled with the certain knowledge of his own demise. Vance couldn’t save himself – he hadn't left himself any outs, any plays that would save his reputation or his career. His only choice now was to take Tony with him.

Inch by inch, Tony let his hands fall to his sides. "So, I guess we're done pretending to like each other. Well," he added quickly, "I'm done pretending to like you. Or respect you. You've never been able to hide how you feel about me. I'm honestly surprised it's taken you this long to try to get rid of me permanently."

The fingers wrapped around Vance's gun stretched and then fell into place again. Nervous tell. Tony set his mind to watch for it, to record how long it took for the man's trigger finger to respond. He could use that.

"You think I waste any of my time thinking about you, DiNozzo? I guess you are as egotistical and narcissistic as everyone says you are."

"Oh, I don't think, I know." Tony smiled, big and nasty. "Tony DiNozzo has a vacation home right inside your brain, ex-Director Vance. Le-on," he drawled. "You can't stop thinking about me."

Vance's fingers unfurled again. Tony counted. One-Mississippi. Two-Mississippi. Almost two. He could work with that. He edged to the right. Vance was standing just inside the bedroom door to his left. If Tony could get closer to the bed, he might be able to fall behind it and reach the metal shelf he'd attached to the underside. That might give him just enough time.

"Stop moving. A bullet in the kneecap is quite painful, I'm told."

Vance's expression told him that the thought of Tony in pain was all too tempting.

Jaw clenching, Tony stared at the other man. "What do you want, Leon? You're toast, you already know that or you wouldn't be here, waving your gun around. You want to go out in a blaze of glory? Think they'll put your cold dead body in your house and burn it down like they did with Jenny? Let people – your wife, your kids - believe you died a hero? Fat chance, but, hey, let me get to my weapon and I'll be happy to help you along."

"Shut up. Shut up and move," Vance snarled, rage pulling his skin taut along the bones of his skull. "I don't want to have to drag your bleeding body to my car, but if you give me no other choice I suppose I'll be okay with it."

Tony raised his eyebrows. Yeah, no. He would not be going anywhere with Leon Vance. That was not happening. The guy would probably put Tony in the trunk and drive his car over a cliff, just to make sure Tony wouldn't survive him. "Sure, sure. Let me just get some shoes –"

Vance's gun steadied, pointing at Tony's left knee. "You won't need them."

"No? So you're taking me to the beach?" Tony was out of patience and too damned tired of this – of all of this – to pretend to be afraid. "Thanks, but I burn so easily." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Tell you what, why don't you just tell me what you've come to tell me, get it all off your chest. Because I'm not going anywhere."

"You'll do as I tell you to do, DiNozzo. For once, you'll follow my orders or, so help me, I will shoot you." Vance spat the words, trembling with fury. "And I'll make sure it doesn't kill you. But it will hurt. It will fucking cripple you." He took a step closer. "Do you know what you've done? What you've stolen from me?"

"Oh, please tell me," Tony urged, not backing down. "Tell me how you've lost your family – your white picket fence and cushy life as the director of a national agency. Poor, poor Leon," Tony mocked. "The guy who brought it all on himself. Who built himself up, wedged himself so deeply in Eli David's back pocket that you couldn't get out. You couldn't see that all the bowing and scraping to Mossad, all the ways you bent over backwards to make him indebted to you, to tie his ambition up with yours, would come back to bite you when David was finally out?" Tony moved another step closer, cocking his head to one side. "Did you think he was immortal? Did you think you were?" Tony's sarcasm was like a samurai sword cutting the other man's pride to ribbons. "I mean, you're not that stupid, are you Leon?"

The man struck before Tony could blink, backhanding him, the gun sight ripping a long gouge in Tony's cheek. Tony lunged forward, trying to grapple with the man, but Vance had already backed away, his left fist knocking Tony to the floor.

Tony closed his eyes, wincing, the pain draining away his anger. He rolled onto his back, hands half-raised, blinking up at Vance. His head was pounding, his vision blurred, blood from his split cheek dripping down his neck. "Yeah, so you've still got it, huh? Still have some of those boxing moves."

"You want to see some more, keep moving your lips," Vance promised with a toothy grimace. He very obviously looked at his weapon, keeping one eye on Tony, and moved his thumb along the side. "Clumsy of me. I didn't realize I had the safety on." A click sounded. "That's better. Next time I won't swing, I promise you that."

"Must have hit a nerve," Tony muttered. "Most trained agents don't strike out like that, blind rage and all. They have more control."

"Like you?" Vance laughed. "Although calling you a 'trained agent' is laughable in itself. You're just an upstart pretty boy who rides on other people's coattails. I had your number before I ever set foot in this office, DiNozzo. Poor little rich kid who never met a real consequence for any of his brainless, reckless, frat-boy antics." He used the gun to gesture, the barrel flicking up and down. "Get up."

Tony shifted as if he was following orders. "Nice, but you forgot fat, old, and the comic relief."

"Ah, so Gibbs was taping me. I gotta admit," Vance's smile looked almost appreciative, "that two-faced dinosaur fooled me. Probably had an old Walkman in his pocket." He shook his head. "Any tech newer than twenty-five years old would have set off my scanner."

"Yeah, the old guy still has a few tricks up his sleeve. And, it helped that you were blinded by your own overweening ego. Figuring no one would be able to outthink you." Tony shrugged. "Figuring everybody must feel the same way about me that you do, since you're such a good judge of character and all." Tony grunted, jerking his knees around, leaning up on his elbows, panting as if he was hurting a lot more than he was.

"Tell me, Leon," Tony tried again, "how many other higher ups have you scouted out? Did you have lunch with Tom Morrow, hoping to dig up some dirt on me? Jenny, God rest her dark, secretive soul, would have offered me up quick enough if she'd been around. Told you how easy it was to play me, to get me to follow her lead into the bowels of hell on that sweet little unsanctioned op of hers. But I'm sure that clever lady didn't leave a trace of evidence behind." He grunted, getting to a half-sitting position, legs stretched out in front of him. "There's always Fornell and his Fibbie friends, they don't like me much. At least, that's what he tells people. You," Tony chuckled, "you probably don't know that I have his director's card and a standing offer for a SAC job whenever I feel like flipping agencies." Tony peered up at Vance's whitening lips, the sheer hate in the man's eyes. "Oh, well, maybe you do. Too bad you couldn't get anybody else in your old boy network to see it your way, huh?"

"Blind fools," Vance hissed. "You're a loser. A jerk. You are not worth an ounce of my time."

He took a step closer and Tony measured the distance. Not yet. Not quite yet.

"Yes, yes, tell me how worthless I am. How using my death to get in good with the new regime at Mossad was a perfect set-up. How everyone would cry at my funeral and then forget about me in five minutes when you installed another one of your perfect agents at my desk. Perfect. Like McGee." Tony's eyebrows lifted. "Oh, whoops. Perfect Agent Timmy is in trouble, isn't he? Liable to lose his job for breaking protocol." He tilted his head to one side. "Let me guess, you were going to use Abby's mislaid report on the Hernandez shooting to get her to erase the recordings of your boy's betrayal."

"Shut up! You have no idea – you and Gibbs have screwed not just me, but the whole intelligence community with your stunts!" Vance's resentment led him another step closer to Tony's stocking feet. "You think we don't need connections to Mossad? That the US will be well served when Eli David is out and Orli Elbaz is in? When any strings we thought we could pull in the mid-east are severed? You're as big a fool as I ever thought you were. And so's your boss," Vance snarled.

"You are not more important than the welfare of this nation, DiNozzo. You and your team." Vance spewed his fury in a dangerous undertone, his gun-hand steady, his eyes narrowed to slits. "You've never had to pay for the consequences of your actions – you, Gibbs - and Ziva? She should have damn well died in that Somali prison – and so should you!" He leaned down, spittle white and foaming at the edge of his mouth. "Well, let me introduce myself. I'm the consequence, DiNozzo." Left fist tight, knuckles bulging, Vance crouched over Tony like a snorting bull. "Now get the hell up," he bellowed.

Legs scissoring, Tony rose up on his shoulders, hands beside his ears, and kicked Vance's gun one way and his fist the other, spinning the man around to bang solidly against his bureau. From his knees, Tony lunged, taking Vance around the waist from the back and slamming him face-first into the bedroom door jamb, knocking the top hinge loose. He heard the crack of Vance's head hitting, but he couldn't stop – not until Vance was down. The guy was built like a bull, low to the ground and leading with his head, ready to trample Tony into jello. Vance had weight and reach even if he didn't have Tony's height. In a brawl, height was not an advantage.

Close in and shut him down – that was Tony's only option.

Vance pushed back, got his hands between his chest and the wall and heaved, trying to throw Tony over backwards so he could land on top of him. Tony danced back, his weight forward, socks slipping on his hardwood floor, and changed his hold, grabbing Vance's right arm and wrenching it backwards, his left arm around the director's neck, squeezing hard.

He dodged Vance's head butt – but not well enough. The director hit him on the right side, smacking hard into Tony's already mauled cheek. He heard his cheekbone crack, felt the break like a flash of light, his vision tunneling down to a single narrow focus. Hold on, Tony told himself, his left arm tightening. Hold on.

Vance ripped his right arm from Tony's weakening grasp and fumbled for something inside his back pocket.

"Uh-uh," Tony whispered, twisting so that his right hip trapped Vance's hand and whatever weapon he had stashed there.

The director growled, reaching over his head with his left arm to grab a handful of Tony's hair. Tony set his jaw and hung on, his right hand joining his left to try to cut off the older man's air, to press hard on the carotid arteries to cut off blood-flow to Vance's brain.

Vance's hand slipped, pulling out a chunk of hair and scalp, then caught again, tighter, jerking Tony to the side as he hurled himself to the right.

Tony lost his grip, feet sliding out from under him. His right knee came down with a loud crack. Struggling to stay upright, Tony punched forward, missing Vance's crotch by inches to glance off the man's belt buckle.

The older man was on him in a second. Tony rocked from one, two punches from Vance's left before the man gripped him by the throat, his large hands clamped tight. Unmovable. Tony fumbled for a grip, a weakness; he clawed and scraped, tried to pry one finger backwards, to break it, bend it far enough to get Vance to ease up. He wanted his knife – he should have his knife. No belt. No hidden blade. Gibbs would kill him for breaking Rule Nine.

His throat was on fire, his lungs empty, starving. Head throbbing, blood beating black and purple across his vision, Tony fought.

Vance leaned in, bloody mouth grinning like a skull. He spit in Tony's face.

"You can't beat me, you useless piece of shit. A man fifteen years your senior, sitting on his ass in an office for years, and you," Vance's chuckle gurgled, his breath rank, "you pretending to be a trained field agent. You're pathetic. You think you are man enough to take me down?"

Vision greying, Tony's arms fell limp to his sides. He blinked to try to get the spit and blood out of his eyes, to try to see. Something – do something – too many figures blurring together – smears of color behind Vance's head, pink and white –

Vance shook him, rattling his teeth and bones. "You're not going to walk away from this one. I'll fucking cut you to pieces, leave you on Gibbs' doorstep. I've got nothing to lose. But Gibbs? He won't survive, not again. He'll eat his gun this time." Vance laughed. "Let that be your last image. You did this. You caused Gibbs' death just as surely as –"

Vance's hands fell away and Tony dropped to the floor, eyelids fluttering. Seeing things. Hearing things. He couldn't breathe – couldn't get air in through his wide-open mouth. Panicked, both hands at his throat, Tony's eyes flew open.

Lying there, inches away, motionless, was Vance, the right side of his head a bloody mess.

Hands turned Tony on his back. Small hands, but strong, capable. Words tried to make it through his panic, his confusion. Voices.

"You've called 9-1-1, Mister Palmer?"

"Yes, Doctor. What – what's wrong with Tony?"

"Vance has perhaps crushed Anthony's windpipe with his grip. It's all right. It's all right, young man, calm down."

The pink and white blur turned into Ducky's concerned face, bending over him.

"I will need a knife and some of that plastic tubing from Anthony's fish tank. Find that for me. And some hydrogen peroxide from the bathroom. Whiskey if you can't find that. Hurry now, my boy."

Palmer. Up high. Hovering far above Tony. And then he was gone.

Ducky turned away. "And find something to tie up our former director. I hit him quite hard with that cricket bat, still a bit of a biffer, if I do say so myself. But he may recover," the ME yelled. Winking, Ducky leaned in. "Although, between just the two of us, I don't really think so."

Ducky. Ducky and Jimmy. Cracked Vance across the head with a cricket bat. Where the hell did he get a cricket bat? Saved him. Tony wanted to laugh, wanted to curl up and cackle at the irony. A seventy-year old doctor bested the arrogant bastard. Nice. 'Hit him again,' Tony wanted to say, 'once more for the Gipper.' But he couldn't breathe. His arms and legs were lead, too heavy, his chest too tight. Hurt. He hurt.

The voices were weaker. Farther away, far behind the blackness that had come for him. Cold across his throat. Pain. And then – Tony's cramped lungs expanded with a whoosh.

"There we are. Very good. In and out. Yes, yes, let's open your eyes now, Anthony. Come on – don't keep us waiting."

Not good to keep Ducky waiting. Tony heaved against the weight that held his eyelids down. The man had all kinds of cold, sharp things to hand if he got impatient. His eyes opened. Closed. Sounds. Scuffling. Squeaky wheels on his hardwood. 'Gotta get a rug in here,' Tony thought. 'No traction on hardwood.'

A strong, callused hand against his cheek. Coffee. Sawdust. "Open your eyes, Spanky."

Tony frowned. No. No blue lights. No Katie waiting outside.

"Jethro, let the EMTs do their job."

"In a minute."

Gibbs. Harsh. Grumpy. Scared. Tony's eyes fluttered open. Scared? "Boss?" Lips moved, but nothing came out.

Gibbs' face was close, right above his, blue eyes dark with worry. "There you are." A grin flashed across the man's tight lips. "I think you spoiled the IG's take-down there, DiNozzo." The hand against his left cheek brushed lightly. "Attaboy."

Tony smiled.

Chapter Text

Epilogue artwork

Epilogue – Three Weeks Later

It had been a long day. A long week. Tony stood on the balcony overlooking the bullpen, feeling the exhaustion in every bone and muscle, from his hair to the soles of his feet. Even so, he didn't lean, he didn’t brace both hands on the rail to stare down at the agents below like some kind of bird of prey. Like Vance had done. It wasn't Tony DiNozzo's style. And it wasn't like he was the new director, lording it over his peons. Deputy Director – Interim Deputy Director – was as high in the NCIS stratosphere that Tony ever wanted to climb. Higher, even.

Strategy meetings. Digging deep into files Tony never had the clearance to see before. Filtering personnel through the heaviest screens the DOD could muster. Reorganization from the top down. Tony had spent the past week following the thinnest threads Vance's web-spinning had shot out into intelligence communities all over the world. He'd tracked them through time and distance and in and out of all of the maze-like structures of federal agencies. He'd hunted out Vance's connections, those he'd used and those he'd abused and those he would be trying to explain for the next few years as he rotted in federal prison.

Carruthers and the Inspector General had been behind Tony's abrupt advancement. Securing Davenport's resignation as SecNav after Vance's meltdown had left the upper echelons of the agency so hollow that you could hear the wind whistling through the ivory towers. Nobody was on hand to step in or step up as director. And nobody – from the ground floor up – wanted another slapdash, hurry-up candidate like Vance to come in with his big stompy boots and hidden agenda. Not again. So Tony and Gibbs were tackling the job of unwinding Vance's puppet strings while keeping the agency running. Gibbs had the name recognition and years of service – and the reputation as a hard ass who took exactly no shit from anyone – to represent NCIS with the other players while Tony stayed in the background doing what he did best: figuring it all out.

Tony turned, eying the door to the director's suite behind him. It was a different life. Challenging, yes. It used all of Tony's investigative skills and deep-rooted suspicions, his wild theories and logical jumps. But it wasn't field work. He raised one hand to touch the healing incision along his throat. Until his doctors signed off, until he'd given his body time to recover from the surgery to repair his pharynx, to see if there would be any long-term complications, Tony DiNozzo's feet had been nailed to the floor. So, all in all, considering that he could be dead, or permanently impaired and kicked out on his ass, Tony shouldn't complain.

But he did. Quietly. And only among his closest friends. Because too much talking was still out.

The DCIS agent had come by Tony's hospital room looking like the weight of the world had been taken off his shoulders. Vance's assault on and attempted murder of Tony took precedence over any other charges. Carruthers had managed to appear appropriately concerned for Tony's injuries while at the same time he looked like he wanted to kiss him. Now all of Gibbs' recordings and Tony's notes had become evidence in a much more straight-forward trial and Leon Vance became the concern of the FBI.

No one deserved him more.

There weren't too many sad faces about that around the alphabet soup of DC. Even as high level visitors had trailed past Tony's hospital bed while he was drugged to the gills, wishing him well and hoping for a speedy recovery, he'd heard what they didn't say. "Thanks for being our stalking goat, DiNozzo. We appreciate that your face managed to get in the way of the damage." Maybe they hadn't done it on purpose. Maybe Vance had really slipped their tails, acted before the Inspector General could collect him. Gibbs had been convinced of it. Tony, well, he kept his suspicions – and his bitterness – to himself.

Suit coat flung over one shoulder, Tony rolled down his sleeves, buttoning the cuffs, as the teams below moved back and forth in the same old song and dance of investigation. Jameson's team was just schlepping back from a crime scene in the boonies, wet and cold and dragging bits of leaves and mud from their boots along the carpeting. Rita Roman, Jameson's SFA, was waving a couple of black trash bags towards her team, chastising them like the mother hen she was. Tony smiled, catching her glance and sharing an eye-roll.

In the far right corner, Tony watched Dolores Bromstead leading the next group of recruits through their paces. Tweed suit, white shirt tied in a loose bow at the neck, sensible shoes. Dolores used to be Tony's bogeyman in HR, the one who regularly questioned his expense reports and seemed to live to make taking his annual leave a Herculean task. One button still undone, he paused to watch her. Watch her stand up to the ego-tripping, shoulder-chipped new agents who thought that carrying a gun and a badge meant they were better than the likes of her.

They'd learn, Tony smiled to himself. They'd learn that those who controlled the paperwork and the red tape were strong and clever warriors – and without people like Dolores the agents couldn't do their jobs. Not to mention that they'd never get their tax forms on time.

"Ready to go?"

Tony flashed a smile at Jimmy Palmer. His friend had stopped halfway up the stairs, waiting out Tony's moment of brooding. What the hell would Tony have done without Palmer? He looked over his best friend - the open smile, the clear, intelligent gaze. What made people – people like Gibbs and Ziva and McGee – brush off a guy like him? Consign Palmer to the background, as not quite up to their level? Find him wanting of whatever qualities they decided made up a person of consequence?

"If not but for the grace of God," Tony murmured. He'd been that guy, once upon a time. The guy who didn't look past his tight group of friends, of co-workers. Who didn't bother with the 'little people.' Somewhere along the way, however, Tony had opened his eyes and found that the only one standing beside him had been Palmer. Tony would try to make it up to him. Some day. Somehow.

He finished buttoning his cuff and tugged his coat on, trotting down the steps to walk side-by-side with his friend.

"Abby is going to catch a ride with Doctor Mallard."

Tony twitched his eyebrows up and down. "No hearses allowed?" he quipped.

Palmer snorted. "I'm still not going to tell you."

Damn it. It was usually easy to get Jimmy to spill. Secrets and the talkative medical student were not good friends. Unfortunately, the guy was still just a little bit afraid of Gibbs – scared enough to follow the man's rule about secrets. And Abby, Tony's other source, had been left in the dark. Gibbs was altogether too pleased with himself that no one was talking, that Tony was going to be walking into whatever his boss had planned without clue one.

Today was the first day Gibbs hadn't plastered himself to Tony's side, a self-proclaimed bodyguard and nursemaid all rolled into one. Gibbs had been staying close. Practically moved into the hospital with Tony until he was on the road to recovery. Brought him clothes and books and movies from his apartment – the apartment that had been turned into a crime scene. Again. At least Tony knew who to call to get blood out of hardwood floors. When he'd been released – finally – from his hospital prison, Jimmy's apartment had been too small for Tony to crash in – not to mention that Tony would be a third wheel between Jimmy and Breena. Tony had been biting his fingernails, sure that Gibbs would insist that Tony sleep on his old, uncomfortable sofa, stuck with a tiny black and white television that only got the Farm Report until he could get back home. Surprisingly, his boss had driven Tony out to Ducky's formidable home where he found the ME had set him up with an entire suite all to himself with all the creature comforts – including Tony's fish, Kate.

"After all," Ducky had chuckled, "Kate did very nearly save your life, my boy."

Apparently plastic filter tubing from his fish tank had been just what the doctor needed to complete the tracheotomy that let air into Tony's starving lungs. That had kept him alive after Vance had crushed his windpipe. And Kate didn't seem to mind sharing.

It had been awkward at the Mallard home at first. Ducky had wrung his hands and dithered, offering more pillows, gallons of tea, his usual stories and jokes dying on his lips before he'd gotten too far. Tony had almost wished for a visit from the ghost of Victoria Mallard, insisting that Tony show her his knickers and threatening him with the knife in her bra. Between Tony's medically prescribed silence and Ducky's natural chatty nature, they'd finally gotten through it. Through Ducky's sincere apology. His full mea culpa for his attitude towards Tony for all these years. His long, involved stories of a friend named Angus and the psychological ruts a man's thoughts can fall into.

Tony had accepted the ME's repentance without hesitation. Ducky was a good man – he'd never doubted that. And, now, he was willing to admit that maybe Tony was one, too.

"Good to see you getting out of here early, Agent DiNozzo."

He nodded to Irvin, the security guard on duty at the gate, and let Jimmy answer.

"Tony has an appointment this afternoon. And," Palmer added, turning to stare down his nose at Tony, "he will be taking the rest of the day. Because he knows he's not Superman and he did just get out of the hospital a week ago."

Tony opened his eyes comically wide and raised both hands in surrender. "Wow. Back off, there, Black Lung," he chuckled. "I'm all yours."

Jimmy blushed and hurried them off towards his car.

"So, did you ever get the explanation you wanted from Doctor Mallard?" Jimmy pulled out into the heavy Friday afternoon traffic, cutting across multiple lanes to head west on M Street. "You know, about the cricket bat?"

For a while, Tony thought it had been a dream. Part of his 'not quite enough oxygen to stay conscious' fantasy. Tiny Donald Mallard hitting Leon Vance upside the head with a cricket bat – he would have loved to have seen that. "Yeah, Ducky was really upset that part of his gift for me has been taken into evidence for Vance's trial." Tony dug a piece of hard candy out of his pocket. "He told me how he wanted me to have it – the bat he'd used in his last tournament at Eton." He shook his head. "And now he wants to take me to a cricket match. You do know that those things can last an entire weekend, right?"

Jimmy watched the road, making a right onto New Jersey, frowning. "He feels bad," he finally stated. "And he has no idea how to make it up to you for years of what he describes as benign neglect."

"Ducky's never neglected me," Tony argued. He sucked on the candy – something he'd gotten addicted to lately. "And you're going to miss the turn onto I Street if you don't get into the left lane."

"Oh! You're right." Jimmy signaled and turned, flashing a smile at Tony. "I don't usually go this way."

"Uh huh. Because you don't usually drive to Gibbs' house, I get it." Tony dangled out the bait, hoping to get a nibble.

"No, but we're not going to Gibbs' house. We're going to – hey!"

Tony laughed, snapping his fingers. "This close." He held up his thumb and forefinger, barely a millimeter apart.

"Be quiet and let me drive," Jimmy admonished, tuning the radio to Tony's favorite oldies station. "And no singing! You're not ready for singing yet."

Knowing he was beaten, Tony laid his head against the head-rest and closed his eyes, humming along with Old Blue Eyes as the warm sun slanted across his face.

Half an hour later, Tony sat up like a shot as Jimmy pulled up to a guard post at the Pentagon. The Marine on duty took both of their IDs and Tony's credentials, made a check against his clipboard, and then handed them back, gesturing for his partner to open the gate.

"Thank you," Jimmy said sweetly.

"No, thank you, sir." Tony stared as the Marine caught his gaze, snapped to attention, and saluted.
"What the –"

"Sh," Jimmy insisted. "I'm nervous enough. Just keep still while I find the right – oh, there it is."

Tony managed to keep his mouth from hanging open as Jimmy pulled up at the sidewalk where a strange welcoming committee appeared to be waiting for them. Three uniformed Marines, the Inspector General, Gibbs, and Tom Morrow, of all people, stood watching him. Him. Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo.

"Time to go, Tony," Jimmy whispered, putting his car in park. His eyes glittered. "You ready?"

"I have no idea," Tony murmured in reply, his mouth dry. He smoothed one hand through his hair and stepped out of the car and into a hearty handshake from his former director.

"Good to see you up and around, Tony," Morrow stated. He gestured, inviting Tony to walk at his side up the steps and through another security checkpoint. Morrow kept up a running commentary on life, DC, and his work at Homeland as they walked.

Tony kept shooting Gibbs insistent glances, but his boss never met his eyes, an annoying smile hovering around his lips as he and Morrow and Tony removed and registered their firearms before being allowed to return them to their holsters. A half-mile walk and two different elevators later and the group finally reached its destination.

Flags stood on either side of the double doors. A Marine captain waited in full dress uniform, his heels clicking together as he stood to attention, saluting, before he stepped to one side and allowed Tony's group to go inside.

Tony found himself stepping through first, Morrow's hand on his elbow guiding him. Inside was a large meeting room, eight rows of chairs to either side, leaving a carpeted aisle down the middle. Tony cleared his throat, adjusted his jacket, and squared his shoulders before moving slowly towards the front. The chairs were filled with people in Marine and Navy uniforms, some civilians, and a few faces that seemed familiar, but right now Tony wasn't sure if he'd be able to recognize his own mother.

And then he made it to the front row. Abby, black-gloved hands clapping together in excitement sat on the end. Next to her was Ducky, his bow tie as sharp as usual, waving Palmer into the only empty seat on his right. Beside him sat Tim McGee, smiling, looking no worse for wear for being stuck back at FLETC for a mandatory retraining course before he could get back to the MCRT. Towards the end of the row Tony recognized a few more faces from NCIS. Balboa. Nikki Jardine. Abigail Boren of CGIS. Even Fornell was sitting there dressed in his Sunday best. Tony managed a nod and a smile for most of them before he glanced to the other side.

Gibbs was just settling into the first seat, wearing the best suit Tony had ever seen the man in. Morrow, after another encouraging press of Tony's arm, moved to sit beside him. The Inspector General sat next to him.

And then Tony was alone, standing in front of this crowd of friends, family, and people he didn't know. Waiting beside the podium stood General James F. Amos, Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and Acting Secretary of the Navy. Holy –

Amos' chest was filled with medals and ribbons, the fruit salad of a long career as a Naval Aviator. His eyes were ice blue, but the creases beside his mouth betrayed a penchant for laughter. He gestured, welcoming Tony to his side and then faced the room.

"Since its inception in 1992, the Honorary Marine Program has awarded the title, Honorary Marine, to individuals in the civilian community who have made extraordinary contributions to the Corps."

“The title of Honorary Marine is different from actual Marine,” the Commandant continued. “They’re not receiving a paycheck or housing allowance but a title of respect for doing amazing things for Marines. The Marine Corps has awarded the title to 71 individuals ranging from the flag raising on Iwo Jima photographer, Joe Rosenthal, to philanthropist and famous actor, Chuck Norris."

The general paused, letting his gaze light on the uniformed men and women in the room. “Everyone knows how difficult it is to become a Marine, so to be called an Honorary Marine is even greater.”

Tony figured he was stuck back there, lying on his bedroom floor, his brain slowly dying of oxygen deprivation. That was the only explanation that made sense. He couldn't help it – he turned to look at Gibbs, looking to his Boss, his mentor, for answers as he had so many times before.

This time Gibbs met his gaze. He jerked his chin up – just the tiniest movement, barely visible to anyone who wasn't looking, his face open and honest. Tony got it. His shoulders straightened. He lifted his head. Ready. Got it, Boss.

"According to Marine Corps Order 5060.19B, only commanding generals, commanding officers, officers-in-charge and retired general officers are authorized to nominate individuals deemed deserving of the title Honorary Marine. That is the only reason that this award has taken so long to be awarded. Since his first day as an NCIS agent, Anthony DiNozzo, Junior has amassed more commendations, more requests for this award, than any other civilian in recent memory. Unfortunately, none of these requests were made by an authorized individual."

General Amos glanced to the side, smiling. "Today, an exception is being made."

A female Marine Major stepped to the general's side with a folder. She saluted, the general returned the salute and took the folder. Amos turned to face Tony.

"The following individuals have each written the Commandant's office, requesting that Anthony DiNozzo, Junior be awarded the title of an Honorary Marine. Major Danny O'Donnell. Sergeant Bill Atlas. Medal of Honor recipient Corporal Ernest Yost, deceased. Major Ken Meyers. JAG officer Josh Cooper, son of Colonel Frederick Cooper, deceased. The tactical team leads of the Somali strike team, Major John L. Simons and Captain Nate Stalwert. And Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Jethro Gibbs."

 

Tony was frowning, blinking hard to keep the moisture from his eyes. Danny O'Donnell, the man he and Kate had saved from his crooked CIA handler all those years ago. Bill Atlas, targeted by a crazy waitress and chained up in the sewers to die. Ernie Yost, the guilt-laden man who had introduced Tony to whiskey and buttermilk. Ken Meyers, father of Cody Meyers, a mixed-up kid who had taken his schoolroom hostage. Josh Cooper, whose father had died from a bomb on a golf course.

And Jethro Gibbs. Boss. Mentor. Bastard. Mother Hen. Friend. A man who doled out praise with a teaspoon, who Tony thought he'd never please. Gibbs had done this.

Amos closed the file and set it down on the podium. He looked over Tony's right shoulder into the crowd. "Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs?"

And then Gibbs was beside him, shaking Amos' hand and accepting a replica of the Marine Corps symbol, the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, attached to a blue and white ribbon. Amos then stepped back, ceding his place to Gibbs. Gibbs moved to face Tony, holding the ribbon with both hands.

A voice from the back of the room spoke out loud. "Attention!"

The crowd rose to their feet.

Gibbs held Tony's gaze easily. "Anthony DiNozzo, Junior, you are hereby considered an Honorary Marine." He settled the ribbon around Tony's neck and stepped back. Applause rose up around them, but Tony only heard two words, whispered in his ear.

"Semper Fi."