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Who's Been Cooking In My Kitchen?

Chapter Text

Tony was seated at the dinner table of one of his favourite ladies as he tucked into a steaming plate of soup. Thursday night was comfort food night with the LOLs, as he jokingly referred to them, although Lil, Rae and Carla told everyone who asked, and even those that didn't ask, they were his grandmas. A happenstance which always provoked reactions in people thus informed of their relationship, ranging from outright disbelief to fond amusement since there was absolutely no homogeneity between the three LOLs, and definitely no resemblance to Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. Lillian Cramer was Caucasian, and the archetypal storybook granny, all soft round curves, snowy white hair done up in a bun and pin curl over her ears and forehead. Her friend, Carla Santiago was a Latino octogenarian and she was about as soft as polish marble, at least on the outside. The final member of the trio was Raelene Jones who was a tall thin African American lady in her early eighties, all sharp angles and incredibly wiry despite her age.

Thursday nights were always something to be looked forward to for all four of the dinner guests since the female trio loved to coddle Tony with home-cooked food and attention. Even though he didn't have a lot of practise when it came to cossetting, the LOLs had been working on him for a while now, trying to convince the little boy inside the closed-off man that he was worthy of their affection and efforts. They took it in turns to make dinner once a week and tonight it was Lil's turn to cook dinner for him, contingent on if he succeeded in getting away from NCIS at a civilised hour.

Lil watched him intently, her faded blue eyes glowing with satisfaction and affection as he devoured her cooking as he'd never had a decent meal before. Seeing she was watching him, Tony smiled back at her fondly before also extending the smile to include his two other favourite ladies.

"Eat up, Tony. There's plenty more where that came from," she smiled indulgently. "Then there's pot-roast and apple pie for dessert," She informed him, sensing that his mind was somewhere else during this revealing of what was on the menu.

Carla took a spoonful of the rich beef, barley with root vegetable soup and nodded appreciatively. "S'good soup, Lil. Add a little chilli and it would be perfect," She commented, continuing a decade's long debate that the three friends had shared about each other's cooking.

Rae weighed in, "Nonsense, Carla, chillies would overpower the subtlety of the flavours, although I do think that mustard greens could enhance the richness without overshadowing the other flavours."

Lil exchanged a placid smile with Tony before responding. "Oh, get on with you. Do I try to teach your grandmothers to suck eggs?" She asked her friends. When they looked confused, she rephrased it. "Do I come to your apartment, sit down at your table and eat the fruits of your labour and then have the bad manners to tell you how you could improve your secret family recipes? Well, do I?" She demanded, glaring at her friends.

Laughing at the outraged expression of her two friends, Tony joined the discussion. "Umm yeah, Lil, you kinda do."

Laughing as well as she conceded, "Well, maybe… but only because I'm the superior cook," She boasted, ignoring outraged snorts of laughter and eye-rolling from her two long-time friends.

The three of them had been living in the same apartment block for over 15 years and were very close friends. Each of them had been there for each other when they'd been widowed, or in Rae's case, finally tossed her good-for-nothing husband out on his ass after one floozy too many found their way into her bed when her back was turned. So, they'd been a much-needed lifeline for each other, and they'd now considered themselves to be family. And like any good family, they had their petty squabbles and attempts to one-up each other, especially when it came to their cooking.

More than four years ago, they'd adopted a young waif who had moved into their apartment block from Baltimore to become a Federal Agent. He had no family (well, none that bothered to stay in contact with him), he seemed to be everyone's friend, and he would give them the shirt off his back if anyone asked, and insist they take it anyway even if they didn't. Women adored him and clamoured to go out with him, and he seemed to be an incorrigible flirt and was always dating, yet he was very wary of anything but the most superficial of social contacts. Of course, the LOLs understood that most of the fault of Tony's standoffishness could be laid at the feet of one young music teacher who he'd been seeing when he first came to DC.

Wendy Miller had hurt their surrogate grandson when she agreed to marry him and then left him the night before their wedding. He'd also hinted that he'd left his old job at a homicide detective because his partner had betrayed his trust, and this was reason enough to doubt people and not want them getting too close. So, they watched sadly as Tony went out with a new girl more often than most people changed their bedclothes, sad because they knew it was a sign of how much he was still hurting.

Unhappily, they could see how lonely Tony really was, even if his so co-workers, who were supposed to be brilliant investigators, seemed well and truly fooled by his playboy persona. But oddly enough, Lil thought, he'd slowly allowed the trio to worm their way into his life and affections, and then several years ago when he'd been attacked while coming to the aid of a young street kid, they'd appointed themselves his protectors. What was distressing to Lil and her friends was just how clueless Tony was about accepting even the simplest of kindnesses, and yet he was so genuinely concerned about other people's troubles and needs. She didn't like the implications; both what it implied about his childhood experiences and how he lived his life now, and the LOLs redoubled their efforts to spoil him and make up for an impoverished childhood.

When he'd arrived at her apartment a while ago, it was obvious to Carla, Rae and Lil, who knew him well, that he had something on his mind. Rae finally decided to take the bull by the horns, and she smiled at her two friends before plunging in.

"What's up, Hon?"

Tony started and looked guilty, then embarrassed. "Sorry, ladies, I'm not being a good guest tonight. My apologies. And considering the wonderful food and beautiful company, that's a crime. Bad Tony!" He scolded himself jokingly. "Just thinking…I know it's rude to ask, but I was wondering if it would be okay to bring someone to Thanksgiving dinner?"

The LOLs all smiled. Tony never formally introduced any of his girlfriends to them, so perhaps he had finally met someone who had got inside his defences.

Carla was the first one off the blocks. "Silly boy, of course you can bring a guest. You don't have to ask… we would love to meet your special lady."

Tony looked at her with a look of horror and panic on his face before he was able to effectively mask it with his usual happy-go-lucky nothing fazed him, expression. "Um, no… it's not a girl, Rae."

Lil exchanged a look with Rae and Carla. Was Tony trying to tell them something? Wondering who would pick up the slack, the redoubtable Hispanic octogenarian squared off her shoulders and took a deep breath and the other LOLs sighed in relief. After all, her grandson had come climbing out of the cupboard a few years before. Strange expression that, Lil mused.

"There's nothing wrong with loving a man, Antonio, if it makes you both happy. We'd be honoured to meet your special friend."

Tony stared at his borrowed Grans like they had two heads before he started giggling wildly. Finally seeing their distress and confusion, he pulled himself together so he could explain. "Oh, sorry, my lovely Ladies, but I think we have our wires crossed. I don't want to bring a 'special friend' to Thanksgiving dinner, male OR female. But I met this old guy on a case at work a last year - he lost his wife - they didn't have any kids and he's all alone."

The expression on his face as he said that made the LOLs long to wrap him in a group hug and take away all his bad memories.

"Anyway, he was a Marine during WWII and he is a genuine hero, won the Medal of Honour for his bravery. And I spent the night with him when we were investigating his case and he's such a great old guy. He's not coping well, he is lonely, and I know how hard it can be to be alone on the holidays, so I wondered if you'd mind if Ernie had dinner with us? I really think you'll like him." He explained, eagerly tripping over the account.

The LOLS looked at him fondly, but also a little sadly. It was typical of their lad, Lil thought, that he would think about a lost soul he'd met who was suffering and alone. But how sad was it that he was still so hurt by that little piece of work that broke his heart that he couldn't or wouldn't let anyone get close enough to share the holidays with him. Lil knew that his teammates were all heading off to friends or family, and if they hadn't insisted that he come and join them since none of their families would be in DC either, Tony would have probably offered to work for one of the other teams. How sad was that?!

Carla placed her hand, ravished by time and arthritis, lovingly on his forearm. "Of course, we don't mind, Dearie," she declared fondly, her voice wavering oh so slightly as she tried not to tear up. Of the three, Carla was the most pragmatic, and as a mother and grandmother, had never been an overly demonstrative person, but somehow without even trying Tony seemed to be able to evoke reactions in all his Grans'  that bordered on over top displays of affection and obsessing over him incessantly.

So much so that even matter-of-fact Carla practically turned into a pile of goo around him. "We would be proud to meet you war hero and consider it our honour to cook for him." She looked teasingly at the remaining LOLs. "Of course, he might have to eat some dishes that are crying out for a helping of chilli or some jalapenos, but I'll make sure there's lots of properly spicy food for him to enjoy."

Chapter Text

The MCRT was in the bullpen putting the final touches to their reports for the fraud case they'd just wrapped up. In a few hours, they would all be on a four-day break. Cate, Tim and Abby would be wending their way home to family and relatives. Tony wasn't sure what Gibbs did on Thanksgiving, but he figured it would probably involve an intimate discussion with Jack Daniels and his partially built boat in his basement.

Tony put down the receiver of his office phone, concerned that Ernie hadn't answered. When Tony had called to tell him that he was invited to spend Thanksgiving with the LOLs, he could tell how moved the old guy had been, even though he didn't say much. Working with Gibbs (the world biggest emotional and verbal iceberg) nine-tenths of what Gibbs was thinking and feeling was under the surface most of the time, so Ernie's gruff exterior really didn't faze him at all.

Ernie was upset though because he wanted to contribute, and he said he didn't have the ingredients to make his wife Dorothy's famous pecan pie. Tony had promised to pick up all the fixings for him and told the Marine he would call back today to get the list.

So, it was almost knock-off time and Tony had been ringing him off and on all day. Tony's gut was starting to really bother him, and he couldn't wait to head over and check on the Medal of Honour recipient to make sure he was okay. Ever since he'd spent the night on Ernie's couch  and seen the love he'd shared with his dead wife and how sad he was, Tony had felt protective of the elderly veteran. He'd made it his business to keep an eye on him and he'd grown genuinely fond of the old guy.

Meanwhile, his constantly calling and not getting an answer had attracted the attention of the rest of the team. Gibbs had bawled him out for making personal calls on HIS time, which was why Tony had called now when Gibbs had been summoned to Morrow's office. Cate and McGee had automatically assumed that Tony's repeated phone calls had been to one of his numerous female friends and that she had dumped him.

While a part of him was gratified that his teammates didn't have a clue what made him tick because people he trusted always seemed to betray or hurt him, a part of him was heartsick because his teammates didn't have a clue what made him tick. Still, as much as he abhorred being seen as weak, he was also afraid if people learnt how sensitive and vulnerable, he really was that they would use that info against him. And really, it wasn't as if he was paranoid. His father always knew how to find his soft underbelly then twist the knife and watch him squirm, and Gibbs was also adept at it, too, as those comments when he found Gunnery Sergeant Atlas proved.

So, he smirked and pretended that it didn't bother him that they all thought he was organising his dating schedule for the holiday period while he was supposed to be working. Although mentally he wondered what was wrong with him that people were so quick to believe the worst of him. Perhaps his father had been right about him all along.

Tony looked at the clock again – 1647 and decided to try Ernie again when Gibbs came bounding down the stairs.

"Thought I told ya that personal calls were for personal time, DiNozzo? "Course, if you need more time to organise your social life then that could be arranged, too. Don't need anyone on my team that isn't 100 per cent focused," He barked before giving the rest of the team a look that the juniors couldn't identify, although it wasn't too difficult for Tony to decode.

It was relief combined with purpose, and a little bit of guilt thrown in, but all damped down as if Gibbs didn't want anyone to know what he was feeling. Snorting mentally, Tony decided that was not exactly a new phenomenon. He'd noticed as the day moved inexorably closer to their four-day holiday how morose, even grumpy Gibbs had become. Now he was almost thrumming with suppressed excitement. It was almost anticlimactic when Gibbs tried to look contrite.

"Gear up, people, Admiral's granddaughter has gone missing, suspected kidnapping and SecNav wants us to handle the case."

Tony looked at his co-workers. Probie's face fell and Cate scowled. "What about Thanksgiving, Gibbs? What happened to our four-day break?" She snarked at him, disappointed not to be going home to Indiana.

Trying to look sorry, but failing woefully, Gibbs shrugged. "There's a young girl missing, Agent Todd."

Cate looked unconvinced. "And I'm sorry about that, but why can't Balboa's team deal with it? They're rostered on, not us," She argued militantly.

Tony could have told her not to waste her breath, but the snarky profiler would just give him a withering look that made it plain that she thought he was an imbecile. Yet, even a mentally challenged male like him could have told her that when a child was in peril, in Ducky’s cricketing parlance, Gibbs wasn't going to let this one go through to the keeper or in this case, to Balboa's team.

As they entered the elevator en masse, Gibbs filled them in, begrudgingly, since their boss was a details miser from way back and Tony thought he was getting worse by the day. And while Tony just knew SecNav might have demanded Gibbs take the case, he'd lay odds that Gibbs didn't protest much, or at all. It wasn't that Gibbs wanted to spoil his team's plans for the holiday - even he wasn't that much of a bastard… well, not over something like family! It was just that Gibbs loathed holidays…probably even more than Tony did.

The difference was that Tony didn't begrudge his co-workers and teammates their enjoyment of holidays, just because he didn't usually have anyone special to share it with. He just offered to work for the people who wanted to celebrate with their loved ones. Staying busy at work took his mind off what he was missing out on while feeling like at least he was helping those people who could enjoy the holidays. Gibbs, Tony suspected would have been more than happy to be able to eradicate holidays completely, so he wasn't reminded of them. He wondered what terrible thing had happened to the Boss that he became such a holiday Grinch.

Worried about Ernie, his gut telling him that something was up, Tony bit the bullet and opened his mouth. "Um, I need to check on someone. I won't be long. I'll meet you all at the scene."

Gibbs glared and took off for the elevator. "Get your ass into gear, DiNozzo. Sure your girlfriend is fine. Just doesn't want to talk to ya."

"Not a girlfriend, Boss. I promise I'll be really quick, but I need to go and make sure…"

"Move it, DiNozzo. SecNav wants the MCRT on the case, all of us. If you want to stay on the team, get into the truck."

Sighing, Tony grabbed his backpack and yelled to the disappearing team, "I'll take the stairs."

While many people would think that Gibbs was just being a bastard, Tony excused his boss' harshness on the grounds that Gibbs hated cases involving kids, and Gibbs was a predator. Just like a wolf, once he had the scent of his prey or was given a case, he wouldn't rest until he had cornered and devoured said prey. As such, anyone that got between him and his goal did so at their peril.

Pulling out his cell phone as he ran down the stairs, he called one of his LEO contacts, Officer Trish Lopez. He was going to have to call in one of his favours to ask her to go and do a welfare check on Ernie since he couldn't check on him personally, but he didn't begrudge it. Not for Ernest Yost, MOH, and unless Tony knew he was okay, he wouldn't be able to focus on the case. "Hey, Trish… calling in a favour. Need you to do a welfare check on an elderly friend of mine. I'm worried cuz he's not answering his phone and I've just been called out on a big case." He quickly gave her a run-down about Ernie Yost and his address and asked the cop to let him know how she got on.

Diving into the truck and claiming the front passenger seat, he was relieved he'd managed to beat the rest of the team. Cate and McGee looked annoyed that he'd managed to grab the best seat. Of course, he realised that it wasn't really what had upset them; both were crushed that their holiday plans were in ruins. Still, it hurt that they took out their anger by being snarky at his expense. Cate casting aspersions on his current girlfriend – make that fictional girlfriend, and Probie who combined with his disappointment and relative safety from the back of the truck got a bit too personal about his failure to go home to New York. Frustrated, worried and more than a little hurt by his teammates, Tony contemplated telling them that his so-called girlfriend was Ernie Yost, but he honestly didn't think they'd believe him.

Cate might be a profiler, but as far as Tony was concerned, she sucked when it came to being able to see him for who he really was. It was like she had made up her mind about what he was in the first week or two that she met him, and anything about him she observed that wasn't consistent with the profile she'd formed was downplayed or ignored, while anything that fit her less than flattering opinion of him was exaggerated or filed away for  posterity. Fed up with their teasing, he was pretty sure if he did tell them he'd befriended Ernie and was worrying about him, it wouldn't matter. They only wanted to see him as a womanising clown who apart from playing fetch for Gibbs, just fooled around most of the time and got lucky occasionally, stumbling across a lead when investigating cases.

Giving himself a mental shake, he scolded himself for being selfish. Cate and Probie had been looking forward to going home to spend the holiday with their families, so, of course, they were angry and needed to lash out at someone. It wasn't as if they could take their frustration out on Gibbs. Tony was just a convenient target and needed to suck it up. After all, as Gibbs SFA, it was part of his job and he was good at it. He'd had a lot of practice!

Later on, watching Gibbs stare at Courtney-Jayne's overturned bike, the training wheels still attached, a doll ensconced in the cane basket looking sad and pathetic, he knew this was going to be a bad one. The Admiral's daughter stood crying as the Boss interviewed her about the man who'd snatched her daughter, Courtney-Jayne, while Cate and Probie processed the scene and Tony interviewed the LEOs and several witnesses. He knew there'd be no rest for the wicked tonight, or any of the rest of them, either. Gibbs was on a tear!

Tony was already feeling the effects of the new orifice that Gibbs had given him from taking Office Lopez's call to let him know that she'd found Ernie, confused and dehydrated on the floor with a broken wrist. The doctor was going to admit him to a ward and she brushed aside his thanks, telling him that she'd settle for him buying her dinner. "Sure, Trish, as long as it's not Lobster Thermidor," He joked, turning and finding Gibbs breathing down his neck with a scary expression on his face. "Got to go, Babe."

"You did good, Tony. Mr Yost could have been there for days before anyone found him. Happy Thanksgiving!"

"Ditto, Trish." He finished his call and slipped his cell phone into his pocket.

The ensuing confrontation with Gibbs wasn't pretty and Tony knew they were all in for a rocky time until they found Courtney-Jayne, one way or another. His head still ringing from the colossal head slap Gibbs had supplied didn’t do much for his morale either. Seeing Cate and Probie's distress, he figured that they both needed to call their folks and let them know not to expect them, but neither dared to make a personal call with Gibbs acting so feral. Although, Gibbs wasn't acting so it was wise not to set him off.

Shrugging since he was in deep shit with Gibbs already, he decided to take another one for the team. Telling the two juniors he'd give them both two minutes each to call their family and break the bad news while he distracted Gibbs, he told them to wait for his signal.

Proceeding to lead Gibbs off a little way and deliver a sitrep, he gave the agreed signal to his juniors and focused on pissing Gibbs off sufficiently so that his situational awareness was impaired. Of course, he got another almighty Gibbs' slap and some cutting comments about his lack of useful Intel and his obsession with calling his girlfriend. Although he did attempt to tell Gibbs that he was talking to an LEO, his boss wasn't in a listening mood, just wanting to hear himself yell to let off steam. Flicking a sneaky glance at Cate and McGee, he saw their objective had been achieved and he shrugged. Convincing Gibbs he hadn’t been slacking off when his mind was made up was an exercise in futility, so he desisted.

As a former partner of his used to say in Peoria PD – I'll die one day for want of breath! With regards to Gibbs temper tantrums and how often they occurred, it was excellent advice.

Trying not to take his superior’s comments to heart, since he knew the Boss hated cases involving kids, Tony’s attempts to brush off his hurt were only moderately successful. After all, it was his job to take Gibbs' anger and deflect it before it could do any damage to innocent targets. Well, other than him, of course. He was expendable since he wasn't the forensic extraordinaire, the psychological profiler, the computer guru or the eccentric but brilliant ME, any of which were depended upon to give Gibbs the leads he needed to find one scared little girl. Unlike Tony, they were all indispensable.

Maybe one of these days he would snoop around and find out why it was that cases involving kids seemed to really push all of Gibbs' buttons so badly. But then again, maybe not, and it had nothing to do with being scared of pissing off the Boss. Tony had far too many of his own dirty secrets that he never wanted his teammates to learn, mostly about his childhood, so even though he was curiosity personified, it was pretty clear that Gibbs didn't want anyone sticking their noses into his secrets.

~o0O0o~

Gibbs had completely forgotten that his team had had their four-day holiday cancelled pretty much as soon as they were walking out the door. And if he did remember, then he probably wouldn't have lost that much sleep over it, either, since a young child had been abducted and the only thing that mattered was finding her alive and returning her home to her parents. But he did listen when Ducky argued that the team needed to take a break since they'd already pulled a 48-hour shift without a break before they'd landed the abduction case. Although he was loath to let any of them slack off since time was crucial, Ducky had sensibly suggested that they could be sent home in shifts to get some sleep.

He had to admit that McGee and Todd had come back fresh and focused, but in Tony's case, while he was much more focused when he returned, he looked like crap, and if he found out that DiNozzo had been tomcatting around with his girlfriend instead of sleeping, he would make him sorry he was ever born. Going to the head and sleeping might be necessary functions for his agents to waste time on while they were working a case, but even eating was not something he was convinced that his team was entitled to, not until Courtney-Jayne Stephenson was back home again. So, it went without saying that his SFA letting his ‘little DiNozzo’ off the leash because he was feeling horny definitely not on the list of permissible behaviours.

Putting the matter aside, since DiNozzo was working diligently right now, Gibbs added it to his list to be addressed at some later date. His SFA often joked that he had a memory like an elephant – he never forgot – and in that regard, DiNozzo was correct.

The Stephenson's were beside themselves with worry for their six-year-old and Gibbs was equally appalled at the thought of such a baby in the hands of hardened criminals. They had thought from the get-go that the motive for the kidnapping was financial. Lieutenant Jonathon Stephenson had enjoyed a somewhat modest inheritance from his grandfather's passing, although by the time he had paid off outstanding creditors – mostly medical bills, then the amount was almost $39,000. Then again, maybe the kidnappers thought that Courtney-Jayne's grandfather,  Admiral Steele had a lot more serious cash than was the case. And it hadn't taken long for the kidnappers to make their ransom demands known – a quarter of a million dollars no less.

Immediate persons of interest, apart from the probate lawyer and extended family who knew about the inheritance that might be disgruntled at Stephenson's inheritance, were the only people that Jonathon had confided in regarding his good fortune. His teammates, Lieutenant Marty Rhone, Ensign James Reyne and Chief Petty Officer Ronnie Burns, were all under the spotlight as possible suspects, based purely upon the fact that hardly anyone else knew about Stephenson’s legacy. So, the trio was dragged into NCIS and questioned. McGee thought it was Ensign Reyne since he was in a serious amount of debt from a gambling problem. Cate thought it was Lieutenant Rhone because he had a high IQ and was obviously capable of planning the crime.

When pushed for a possible motive by Gibbs, since her reasons seemed fairly weak, she reluctantly admitted that Rhone had angry eyes. Gibbs snorted, wondering how profilers managed to get out of bed in the mornings without hurting themselves. What the Hell did that even mean because most people reckoned the NCIS agent had angry eyes? Considering that his profiler had gone soft on a terrorist because he had kind eyes, he didn't pay that much heed to Cate's reasoning or her theories on eyes.

Personally, Gibbs liked the Chief Petty Officer Ronnie Burns because the guy was acting hinky, as Abby would say. Fornell, a walking cliché for the G-Men would probably call it acting ‘real squirrelly’ but to Gibbs’ gut he was as guilty as Hell. His gut was telling him that the sailor was hiding something, and he intended to find out what it was. Time was running out and he wasn't going to let Kelly…er Courtney –Jayne down. Not this time!

DiNozzo didn't seem to like any of their suspects, which was surprising considering how quick he usually was to blame it on the most obvious suspect. As a cop, his experience had taught him that often the simplest solution or the person closest to the crime was the one responsible.

Focusing on Chief Burns, since Gibbs trusted his gut over his profiler's, he prepared to go back into interrogation and get the truth out of him, one way or another. Tom Morrow waylaid him, well aware of Gibbs' Achilles heel when it came to any case that involved children.

Quickly assessing Gibbs' mental state and deciding that he was likely to beat the shit out of the suspect, very violently, the director ordered that Tony conduct the interview. Gibbs protested vigorously… of course he did, for form's sake. He had a reputation to maintain, but a small part of him was relieved that the Director wouldn't let him interrogate the bastard. He might not be able to stop if he got started and killing the dirtbag before they found Courtney-Jayne would not be good. It would create too much paperwork.

It didn't take DiNozzo long to buddy up with the dirtbag, Gibbs thought, watching his senior field agent play the friendly, easy-going, not overly bright Navy cop, and soon the pair was joking like a couple of frat brothers. Part of him knew it was all just an act and disguised a very dangerous temper that was seriously scary when his SFA let loose, but Gibbs was still longing to head slap the agent like he'd never head slapped him before. Turns out his gut was right and wrong. Burns in short order spilled his guts to DiNozzo that the reason why he was acting guilty was because although Stephenson had requested that he keep his inheritance quiet, Burns had told his girlfriend. Idiot!

So, now they needed to talk to Pattie Amphlett, who was Ensign Burns' girlfriend, although as an EMT who was on duty pulling a double shift, she was probably not a person of interest, maybe she had told someone without meaning to. As they tossed info around in the bullpen, Gibbs could see that Tony had zoned out, and he hoped that he was about to pull off one of his famous intuitive leaps that closed out so many cases. Realising that he was thinking, he sent the two junior agents to fetch Ms. Amphlett to the office so he could interview her and left Tony to 'meditate'. This position of meditation that he adopted, lying supine in his desk chair, his feet on his desk and his eyes closed or sometimes wearing sunglasses, lead the uninitiated to leap to the erroneous conclusion that he was sleeping on the job.

The first time Gibbs made this mistake and crept up to scare the living daylights out of his agent by waking him forcefully, DiNozzo had turned the tables by asking what he wanted without any change in body posture or even respiration. As relaxed as he appeared to be, DiNozzo maintained his situational awareness, but he simply let the rest of the world assume he was slacking off while his brain performed its mental gymnastics. Now, fifteen minutes later he sprung up out of his chair, his eyes sparkling with excitement as he made connections that he'd probably been grappling with from the start when he'd declared that none of Stephenson's buddies were persons of interest.

"Gibbs, what if Stephenson or his buddies told someone about his inheritance?"

Gibbs felt his stomach drop since he'd been pinning his hopes on Tony coming up with a harebrained idea or a brilliant lead. Disappointment made him more sarcastic than usual when he barked at his SFA, "We already knew that. That's why Amphlett is coming in. That's what you took two hours to figure out?" Okay slight exaggeration!  "It took ya that long to come up something a probie could have come up with?" Okay, maybe a little harsh, but Courtney-Jayne didn't have time for him to play nice when Tony was fooling around.

Seemingly ignoring Gibbs, or possibly not even hearing him, Tony continued to bounce around the bullpen like a ping pong ball on speed, muttering a mile a minute. "What about if one or all of them let the cat out of the bag, but they didn't realise that they had? I mean, these are guys after all, and they don't hang out chatting in the locker room or the car park. Guys hang out over drinks or a game of pool. They go and grab a burger or a pizza together and they have a few beers. They don't necessarily engage their brains when they open their mouths, and even if they do, how many times does anybody stop to think that the bartender or the waitress is bothering to listen to their conversation?"

Stopping in mid-rant, Tony pulled out his cell phone. "Is that Ensign Reyne? Special Agent DiNozzo, and I'm wondering if I can ask a couple of questions?" His pacing took him out of Gibbs' earshot, but he could see the excited demeanour of his agent as he strode around the office before making a second call. Finally, hanging up and grinning from ear to ear he raced back to their desks. "Not the brightest bulb in the box, but like I thought, Stephenson told them all over a burger and onion rings at the diner near the Naval base. He couldn't remember who served them since it was a while ago, but Lieutenant Rhone gave me the waitress' name. He's the only one that's single and he and the waitress were flirting," He explained, anticipating Gibbs' inquiry about why he would remember the waitress that served them so long ago.

Gibbs nodded, thinking that made sense. Hoping that this would prove to be a real lead on the kidnappers, he instructed Tony to follow it up while he questioned Burns' girlfriend. McGee had rung to say they had Amphlett and would be back at the Yard in five minutes. Gibbs was starting to get a faint flutter in his gut that usually heralded a break in a case.

~o0O0o~

Thanksgiving 0600 hours:

Tony's lead had panned out. Stephenson and his not so bright Three Musketeers had yabbered away, forgetting that the waitress serving them had ears and a brain. She also had a low-paying job and poor job prospect, plus a dirtbag on again off again boyfriend who'd just dumped her again, and she saw a way to get him back. The pair had disappeared, telling friends that they were going on a long trip after coming into a lot of money. Not very smart, but then again there wasn't some test that prospective kidnappers could take to see if they were smart enough to pull it off, either.

Now, they were searching for the waitress, Tiffany Smith and her partner in love and crime, Lloyd Henty, and looking for any connections that they had to properties, looking for anywhere they might be hiding Courtney-Jayne. So far, they hadn't managed to find them and they were preparing to make their way to the ransom drop off point, well most of the team. Gibbs was leaving their probationary agent, Tim McGee to continue doing his computer thingy searching, and if they found the dirtbags, Gibbs had teed up the on-call team to be ready to storm any properties in DC or surrounding states to search for the six-year-old. Balboa would also supervise the probie until they got back. They were headed to New York for the drop off of the ransom since the kidnappers informed the Stephensons that the exchange of their daughter for the ransom money was going to take place during the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

When Cate and McGee had wondered aloud why they would pick the parade for the exchange, Tony had pointed out that it was a good place to pick up the money since it would be full of tourists, and that would make it more difficult for any law enforcement to set up surveillance or arrest them. He also explained that if the kidnappers had watched any of the hundreds of kidnapping movies or television shows, they would renege on swapping the money for the little girl. More than likely they would take the money and run, using the crowds to lose any cops. Gibbs was glad that his SFA was educating the juniors about the reality of the situation, since he was wound tighter than a drum and just wanted to kill someone, preferably the dirtbag kidnappers, but in their absence he'd settle for annoying junior agents asking damn fool questions that he could chew up and spit out.

They were waiting for Admiral Steele to arrive, as he'd offered to deliver the ransom for his daughter and son-in-law, which he'd somehow manage to raise (all but fifty thousand dollars anyway). And Gibbs wondered if Cate and Tim realised how close they came to being history, or at the very least, to having VBM - visible bite marks from his teeth? Since Todd was so concerned about having a VPL, he assumed she at least wouldn't appreciate it overly much.

endnotes:

VPL for anyone not in the know stands for visible panty line. 

Chapter Text

Outside Tony's apartment block: 0600 hours Thanksgiving morning

The LOLs, Carla, Rae and Lil were standing around on the sidewalk, along with most of the residents in their apartment block, apart from people who like Tony weren't at home. They were all waiting in the dark November dawn for the Emergency Services to come and deal with the gas leak in one of the apartments on the ground floor. Most people had still been asleep and the ladies, along with the other residents, were mostly dressed in sleepwear, and subsequently many were shivering in what was almost DC winter weather. Some of the neighbouring apartment block residents had rushed to their aid with blankets, hot chocolate, and coffee.

Lil was fretting, knowing that their plans for Thanksgiving dinner were in disarray. Once the gas was cut, it was unlikely that they would be able to get the gas leak repaired on a holiday and even if they did, it likely wouldn't be in time for them to prepare all the food that they had been going to cook later on. Once Tony had told them that he had to work, they'd decided to cook enough food and invite the rest of his teammates, too, since they didn't get to go home. The LOLs were hardly fans of Tony’s team, at least some of his team because young Jimmy seemed a nice young man if a bit awkward, and they were yet to spend any time with Timothy McGee. However, Lil knew full well Tony wouldn’t be able to enjoy his food if he thought his team were missing out.    

Tony had begun sending brief updates after they been assigned the kidnapping case and he was hopeful that they’d find the little girl soon. So, the LOLs had decided to proceed on the basis that they could take an hour or two to at least eat dinner and they’d shopped for supplies accordingly. Now here they were. Locked out of their apartments, with a mountain load of food had a that needed to be cooked and no means of cooking it.

Lil frowned, her furrowed countenance looking decidedly ill at ease as she put her mind to work to find a solution. "Perhaps we could just borrow a kitchen, girls." She asked, not finding it odd to refer to her friends thusly. She still felt quite girlish most of the time. "Anyone have any bright ideas?" She asked hopefully.

Rae nodded, thinking, "Perhaps I could ring Sister Rosita and ask if we could use the convent kitchen?" She smirked, "Maria used to love my Mom's black-eyed peas and pecan pumpkin pie recipe when we were growing up, so she's easily corruptible." She chuckled at the thought of corrupting a convent full of nuns, crossing herself quickly just to be on the safe side.

Lil smiled, too. "Or we could maybe ask Donald if we could borrow his kitchen at Reston House. I'm sure he'd agree."

Rae nodded, "Yes, he would, but do you think that Victoria would be alright with us being in her kitchen? She might find it rather stressful. Perhaps the convent would be better, even if the Mallard kitchen would have better equipment, I'm sure," She finished thoughtfully.

Carla, who had been quiet up until now, smiled triumphantly. "I know a kitchen that's not being used, Chicas." Seeing her friends' curious expressions, she revealed her plan. "Young Leroy has a kitchen that sits virtually unused, has done for years since he lost his family. In fact, apart from his basement, the bathroom and his couch, the rest of the house might as well not exist. Honestly, the place is like a mausoleum, and I'm sure his daughter and wife would approve of it being put to good use for a good old fashion family Thanksiving dinner," she finished determinedly.

She'd been working on Tony's boss to try to convince him to deal with his grief, but the former Marine was incredibly stubborn. In venting her spleen about it, she had asked for Lil, since she’d been a former social worker. Lil had told her in her opinion, Gibbs, without realising it, actually enjoyed the pain that came with unresolved grief since it was one way to avoid letting go and moving on. Alternatively, Lil explained, it might an attempt at self-punishment if he felt that he was to blame for their death or felt guilty over their deaths. Letting go would mean forgiving himself, and maybe that was why he couldn't or wouldn’t let go of his grief.

Rae looked quite dubious at the thought of Thanksgiving Dinner at Gibbs' house. "Do ya think he'd let us, Carla. Got me the impression that he's not the most sociable of folks."

Carla nodded determinedly. "You leave that young whippersnapper to me. Do you think that Sister Rosita could help transport us and all the food to Alexandria, Rae?"

"I think so… especially if we invite her, too. She's a sucker for my Mom's pie." Rae said nostalgically.

Carla, in her Sergeant Major mode, nodded approvingly. "Plenty of food, Rae. So, as far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier. Hells bells, chica, tell her to bring one of her nun friends if she wants. And Lillian, you call Mr Yost and tell him we'll swing by and pick him up, too. That'll save Tony having to drive out to collect him, and that way our war hero isn’t alone all day," She thought out loud, marshalling her troops for the coming battle… ah, dinner.

So far, Gibbs was proving to be a recalcitrant foe, but you didn't make it to your ninth decade without learning to be ornery, too. Carla might not be able to force the damned fool to start active grieving, since that would mean he would have to let his family go, but she could force him to be sociable for a few hours and actually force him to take part in a simple Thanksgiving Dinner where he could maybe see that he still had plenty to be thankful for.

Persuade, she chided herself sternly. Force had such negative connotations, especially since her intentions were nothing but honourable. Carla fancied if the first Mrs Gibbs and her daughter could speak, that they would be cheering her on in her tough-love approach to…persuade, cajole, entice that stubborn goat into living life in celebration of the time they'd been given together, even if it had been tragically short. It was, after all, better than many people ever got.

~oO0Oo~

Tony was seated in the back of the agency sedan with Cate since the Admiral was riding shotgun beside Gibbs in the front. He deliberately chose to sit behind Gibbs on the back seat so he could send off surreptitious texts since Gibbs was on a knife's edge with his temper at the moment and the last thing, he wanted was to set the man off. Still, he had to check up on Ernie since they were going to discharge him today and he needed to organise with one of the old Marine's neighbours to pick him up from the hospital. Luckily, the first night of the Courtney-Jayne kidnapping when Ducky had bullied… um, convinced Gibbs into letting them go home and get some sleep he'd gone to the hospital instead and bullied… um, convince the staff to let him stay with Ernie who was still pretty mixed up. Aw, heck, Anthony, be honest, you bullied your way in by using your position as a federal agent, but even if you misused your badge, Ernie's an old guy who's scared and alone, so it was all for a good cause.

The fact that the old Marine recognise him despite his confusion and seemed less restless just deepened his resolve to stay with him. So, he tried to sleep in the visitor's chair, channelling Gibbs' personality traits when any of the staff tried to chuck him out. The on-duty doctor gave him a run-down on how the Veteran was responding to their treatment regime and what his prognosis was. He explained that both the fall and mental confusion was due to dehydration and would resolve with the IV fluids they were treating him with and that antibiotics would take care of the urinary tract infection. Due to the particular strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they’d needed to administer IV antibiotics initially, and deal with his dehydration was significant enough that he would need to stay overnight in the hospital.

When Tony questioned why Ernie hadn't let someone know he was sick the doctor had explained that the symptoms of a UTI in elderly people often didn't cause any pain or even discomfort during urination, so it was pretty easy to miss the fact that anything was wrong. He was grateful that his presence seemed to calm the old man, and even though Tony was dropping with exhaustion, he didn't have the heart to leave him, so he stayed and tried to sleep in the chair. In some ways when Tony looked at Ernie, old, sick and alone, he couldn't help but see himself in another 40 plus years, but thinking about it more realistically, the NCIS agent realised the chances of him making it to that age were mostly non-existent.

Gibbs and Ducky sometimes accused him of having a death wish, but that wasn't true. The truth was much, much simpler than that. People died in law enforcement – it was an inexorable fact, as Chris Pacci's death proved.  As he thought about Chris, Tony ruthlessly shut down the anger and pain that he felt at his friend and colleague’s violent death, plus how pissed off he felt regarding Cate's constant teasing about him unknowingly kissing the transgender naval officer that he'd found out, later on, had killed his friend. Cate had so little empathy for his loss or understanding that he was distressed to have kissed Pacci’s killer and had nothing to do with gender.

At least like Tony, Chris didn't have family to mourn his passing. If it was a choice between him taking a bullet or one of his teammates, he would willingly step in front of the bullet every time. That didn’t make him suicidal.

Knowing how much Gibbs hated breaking the news of someone's death to their loved ones, he knew how much worse it would be if it was a colleague. Cate and Probie had loving families, and although Gibbs didn't seem to have family, he was so secretive that it was possible that he had some family stashed away somewhere who would miss him. After all, it wasn’t like he’d emerged reptilian-like (although some people might argue he was a cold-blooded SOB ).

 Certainly, Ducky and Abby were close enough to qualify as the Boss' family even if Gibbs had no one else to grieve his death. Therefore, it was logical that if anyone should have to die that it should be him since he wouldn't be missed. Plus, it was his job as SFA to watch Gibbs' six and protect the junior agents.

So, he sat in the uncomfortable visitor's chair dozing and watching Ernie’s six, dreaming of Ernie's beautiful wife, Dorothy (who’d looked a lot like Hedy Lamarr) and a handsome strapping young Cpl Ernie Yost. When he snuck back into work early next morning, grabbing a shower and change of clothes of questionable provenance he’d had in his car, he knew he undoubtedly looked like something that the cat dragged in. Particularly when he got a scowl from Gibbs, but despite the boss’ foul mood, it had been worth it for his friend.

And yes, he’d briefly thought about coming clean and telling his supervisor where he'd been all night, really, he did. After all, Gibbs was a Marine too and he admired Ernie enough to bend the rules until they were almost breaking. He'd saved the old guy from himself when Yost thought he'd murdered his best friend - but rule ten held Tony back from confessing all.

Rule ten stated when the job was done, walk away. Getting involved in a case was one of Gibbs' no-nos and although there were times when Jethro broke that rule (broke it repeatedly) it wasn't smart to point that out to the Boss, especially not today. With an active case that involved a child, Tony figured that admitting he’d broken rule ten would probably earn him the mother of all head slaps if nothing more than a pressure release for Gibbs who was currently wound tight as a drum. He decided to forgo that oh so fun treatment since his head was already pounding with a massive headache as it was.

So, sitting behind Gibbs in the agency vehicle, he sent a series of texts using the sneaky skills he'd developed and utilised undercover. He organised for Mr and Mrs Samuels, who were neighbours of Ernie's, to go and pick him up from the hospital and tell him that Tony would call him later on when he had some private time. He texted the LOLs to explain about Ernie and promised to try to make dinner tonight even if it was a lightning visit to drop off his favourite Medal of Honour recipient. He was sure Lil, Rae and Carla would love spoiling Ernie, and it would make up for him not being there if they hadn't found Courtney-Jayne by then.

 Although a part of his brain, the pragmatic seasoned cop part (the one that Tim and Cate never bothered to notice) whispered that if they hadn't found her by tonight, then they probably never would. Not in time anyway.

Ignoring Cate's dirty looks as he finished his texting, he slipped his phone into his pocket and leaned his head back and closed his eyes to think about Lloyd Henty and what he might do next. Henty wasn't completely stupid, but on the other hand, he wasn't a career criminal either and importantly, he probably had no idea that NCIS had identified him, so they had a distinct advantage.  As he rested his eyes Tony asked himself what he would do if he was Lloyd.

Sitting up and opening his eyes, he looked at his colleagues eagerly. "Why would Henty pick New York as the drop off point?" He asked rhetorically, although Cate didn't get it.

Rolling her eyes, she said, "Well, according to you, to use the crowds from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to make surveillance problematic and to make it easier to make a quick get-away."

Gibbs had remained silent, knowing that Tony was onto something…again, so he'd learnt when it happened to give him a rope and let him run.

Tony nodded impatiently," Well, yeah, Cate, but people can have multiple reasons for deciding to act a certain way." He thought about how when the profiler started getting too personal with him, he turned up the chauvinist or the sleaze or the frat boy or the dumbass persona to derail her interest. But by being obnoxious, it had the added bonus of making her despise him and she was less likely to bother profiling him later on when he wasn't around to distract her. And he had to admit, somewhat conflicted, it had work pretty damned well.

"What if he wanted to use the parade to make a get-away." He waved away Cate's objection that they'd already figured this out. "New York has three extremely busy airports and lots of tourists over Thanksgiving holiday, plus all the people returning home to visit family. Easy enough to fly under the radar."

"You’re thinking that they might try to fly out of the country, then?" Gibbs mused hopefully.

"Yeah, Henty is not the brightest crayon in the box, Boss, and a quarter of a million wouldn't go all that far, but to someone like him, it probably seems like a fortune. So, yeah, I do think they might try and leave the country, especially since they won't think we're onto them yet." He was already pulling out his phone in anticipation of Gibbs' order.

"Call McGee and get him to check JFK, Newark and LaGuardia to see if they have tickets booked and tell him to check the trains, too."

Fifteen minutes later, McGee had called them back to confirm that Tiffany Smith had booked two seats on JetBlue to the Caribbean and was due to pick them up from the counter in the next hour. Gibbs ordered Tony to call airport security to see if they could determine if she was already at JFK and request the LEOs stake out the airport and arrest her. Tony was busy coordinating the former waitress's takedown, speaking to someone he called Chief and seemed to be well acquainted with to organise Smith's arrest.

Cate frowned, "Since when do you know Police Chiefs, Tony. You didn't work for the NYPD, did you?"

Tony looked at her briefly before replying monosyllabically with a, " No," that probably made Gibbs proud, or frustrated depending upon if he knew the answer to Cate’s query or not. Then Tony was back on the phone to McGee updating him on what they were doing and telling him to contact airport security and Lieutenant O'Halloran who was coordinating the search for Tiffany Smith. It was just a question of waiting now and Tony felt anxious and stressed coming back to what had been home until he was twelve. He decided to play possum, so he didn't have to deal with Cate's curiosity about how he knew the chief of police. Not that he would sleep, of course, but she didn't know that.

Three-quarters of an hour before they reached New York City they received confirmation from O'Halloran that they'd arrested Ms Smith without fanfare as she tried to collect their tickets from the JetBlue counter and check-in their luggage. He'd personally interrogated her, and she'd cracked inside of ten minutes, telling them that the little girl had been left tied up but unharmed in a barn in Virginia. Thanking the Lieutenant, he sent McGee a text message with the info and telling him to get Balboa to check it out ASAP and get back to them.

Looking into Gibbs impatient gaze he reported, "O'Halloran's men got her boss, at JFK and she's being questioned now." He nodded towards the Admiral knowing Gibbs would get the message.

Giving him a slight nod, he ordered. "Keep me updated, DiNozzo."

"Sure, Boss. Ya know, when we have Courtney-Jayne safely back home with her folks, I'm gonna sleep for a week, maybe two. I'm so exhausted that I could probably sleep in a barn in Virginia along with the cows and horses, I think," he shared with them, his eyes boring into Gibbs' in the rear-view mirror.

Cate snorted, "Well since you're such a pig, DiNozzo, you should fit right in."

The slight nod that Gibbs gave him confirmed that the boss had gotten his message that the target was a barn in rural Virginia between one and two hours from DC. He closed his eyes to think as Gibbs drove in his usual manic fashion, his own expression intense, but also knowing that the momentum had started to swing back their direction. By the time they arrived at the drop-off, hopefully, they would have Courtney-Jayne safe and in their custody.

~oO0Oo~

Approaching the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis, Gibbs felt relief that they had a lad as to the child’s location. Hopefully, they would soon have the child safe and sound. Now his highly tuned predator’s instinct looked forward to hunting down the vicious bastards who had abducted the six-year-old girl from her home and making them pay dearly for what they’d done. As he relaxed his focus a little bit, he remembered with annoyance the call he’d received earlier that day.  

Flashback 0750:

Gibbs phone was ringing, and he stared at the number, not recognising the caller. Answering with his usual grunt in place of a greeting, there was silence for a moment.

"Is that Gibbs?" A familiar voiced inquired, although Jethro couldn't place who it was that was calling him.

Sighing, he replied, "Yep, who wants to know?"

"It's Carla Santiago, Leroy. Antonio's grandma.

Gibbs scowled. That woman was a menace and to add insult to injury, she insisted on calling him Leroy, chiefly cuz it pissed him off. "On a case. What do ya want, Mrs Santiago?"

"I won't keep you, Leroy. I was wondering if you'd do me a favour. Lil, Rae and I are planning on cooking Thanksgiving Dinner for Tony, but the gas has been cut in our building and I was hoping that we could use your kitchen to cook? Of course, you're invited to dinner, too, and the rest of the team as there's plenty enough food to go around and people. Can’t get home for the holiday."

Gibbs couldn't believe the hide of the woman. Since when did she think they were friends, or even on good enough terms that she could call him up and ask a favour? She delighted in pissing him off about his drinking and his attitude, and now she expected that he wanted to spend Thanksgiving with her and her coven of crones. He started to tell her where to get off, but like so many other times before, he found himself agreeing to her making herself at home in his kitchen. Somehow, she managed to bewitch him, a big tough-as-leather Marine that turned into an obsequious little toad around her, and it made him furious. He consoled himself with the thought that he would be working on the case, so in reality, he wouldn't have to see her or her interfering cronies.

Cheering up he ended the call, "Have at it. Gotta go, Mrs Santiago. Enjoy your lunch!"

Glaring at his SFA, he wondered if Tony had set him up with his Granny. If he wasn't so focused on looking for Courtney-Jayne, he'd call him on his suspicions, but the case was more important right now. He just hoped that to make up for the aggravation, the damned LOLs left him some leftovers from lunch.

End of flashback

~oO0Oo~

Ernie Yost watched astonished at the trio of elderly ladies made themselves at home in the gunny's kitchen. Looking around the house he could see that it was like the gunny, no-nonsense and without fripperies, but solid. It was just over a year since he had seen Gibbs, but the man was pretty memorable, typical Marine, of course. Feeling useless, he enquired if there was anything he could help with.

Carla thought for a moment and smiled, "Actually, Mr Yost, I could do with the assistance of a strong Marine," She flattered him knowing that he was feeling fairly foolish and weak after falling and breaking his wrist. Experience had taught her that men need their sometimes fragile egos boosted rather frequently. "We need more table space since we won't all fit around this table. I was thinking that we could take the hinges off the door over there and use it along with a couple of sawhorses as an extra table. We'll just throw a tablecloth over it and Roberto's your Uncle."

She figured that Gibbs was bound to have a screwdriver down in the basement and she descended with Ernie close behind her, making admiring noises about Gibbs' man-cave, not to mention his boat. Seeing the correct tool for the job he stowed it into his pocket and grabbed one of the wooden sawhorses while the feisty Latino LOL took the other to use for their makeshift table. Carefully negotiating the stairs and depositing them back near the dining room, they returned to the basement door. Ernie, although a little slow because of the cast on his left arm, soon enough had the hinges unscrewed from the door. Sister Rosita, who was hanging out for some of Rae's mother's pie, had been waiting for the opportunity to help, noting that all the doors in Gibbs' house were of solid construction, none of those hollow core jobs. She had wanted to assist without offending either of the octogenarians as they carried the door over and set up a makeshift table.

Ernie watched as the firebrand Carla followed him back down to the basement when he returned the screwdriver to its place. He could tell by the way that the gunny had his hand tools organised that Gibbs was beyond fastidious about them. Each tool had it its place and everything in its place, so he wanted to maintain order.

He watched bemused as his companion went around the room, collecting no less than five bottles of bourbon ranging from unopened to partially full and carried them upstairs. Seeing his confusion, Carla explained.

"Gibbs has been known to become maudlin and morose, not to mention rather amorous with a bottle, so I thought I would remove the temptation," she told him, determined to make it as difficult as possible for Gibbs to use the turtle defence.

~oO0Oo~

Once they'd reached New York, they had driven straight to the NYPD precinct where Tiffany Smith was being held. Gibbs was impatient to question her to find out what their plans were regarding the collection of the ransom money. He was determined to take Henty down, and it would help if they knew in advance where to focus their manpower. In addition to the eight agents from the NCIS field office, DiNozzo's LEO connections had also managed to collect an extra six NYPD detectives, plus all of the cops that were assigned as security for the parade would be instructed to keep their eyes open during the ransom exchange.

Lieutenant O'Halloran had already distributed photos of the dirtbag and Courtney-Jayne to patrols at morning roll calls, and many of the cops, mostly Unies, were already out on the frontline and would be keeping their eyes open for any suspicious activities. At the moment, pending the results of the search of the Virginia property by Balboa's team, their instructions were to observe but not approach. Of course, should they find the little girl, then all bets were off and the order to detain him would be issued. Although with so many families, children and tourists, the Powers That Be had cautioned that discretion was the watchword. Tony snorted –obviously, the Mayor of New York City had never met Gibbs since the SAF didn't think that he even knew what that word meant.

Right now, the NCIS agents from NY and the Dees were waiting on Gibbs so that they could strategize on how to cover the ransom drop. Abby had already set the Admiral up with a super small wire before they'd left headquarters and was standing by ready to monitor it so that they had remote eyes on him when he was dropping off the money. Now they were waiting on Gibbs, who was trying to find out where Henty was planning on collecting the money, so they were standing around drinking coffee and waiting to hear from Balboa.

Gibbs stormed in, supersized cup of coffee in hand, eyes stormy and lips thinned into a slash, and Tony and Cate exchanged a knowing look. Admiral Steele took one look at Gibbs and made the correct assumption that he'd gotten nothing.

Trying not to sound like he was blaming the lead agent he confirmed, "She wouldn't talk, I take it?"

Gibbs snarled, "Oh yeah, she talked. The dumbass wouldn't stop talking and crying and begging. It's just that she didn't know anything about the ransom drop off apart from the fact that it's taking place during the parade. Henty might not be a criminal genius, but Smith's as dumb as a post and her boyfriend probably figured that the less she knew the better." He explained.

Tony exchanged another amused glance at his teammate. If Gibbs had been giving them a SitRep it would have probably been the death-ray glare, but the Admiral had brought out the chatty in their boss. Now that he was here, they could get the briefing underway. Gathering around a map of the city, Tony proceeded to brief the agents and the Admiral on the parade route.

Tracing the route with his finger, he reported, "Okay, the balloons are inflated in the cordoned-off area of Amsterdam Avenue and 110 Street. St. John the Devine Cathedral is one place he might use as a drop off for the money," he suggested as the cops and agents from New York PD nodded, agreeing with his assessment.

Continuing on, he began to outline the route. "So anyway, the parade heads south on Amsterdam until106 Street where it turns east. Once they reach Columbus, the balloons need to be lowered to pass under the Elevated Subway tracks at 9th Avenue since they won't fit otherwise. Again, this may be a place where Henty might have the Admiral leave the ransom since there will be a lot of activity. Then the parade continues down 106 Street until it reaches Central Park West where it turns south and carries on until it arrives at Macy's Department store where it terminates. Again, with all the people and performers milling around, it's another place that our dirtbag might pick to stage the drop-off. Of course," Tony stopped as his cell phone indicated that a text had arrived.

He pulled it out hoping that it was the news they were waiting on. He schooled his face so as not to reveal the potential import of this call since the Admiral hadn't been informed that they were searching for his granddaughter. Until they knew whether she was there or not and if she was alive, they had kept him out of the loop. Staring at the screen, he saw that it wasn't from McGee or Balboa but Sharni Wade, Balboa's SFA, who knew that Gibbs didn't text. She'd kept it brief:

Hey Tony C-J safe : )) my boss 2 call yr boss ttyl S

Looking up and seeing Gibbs giving him the gimlet-eye, he gave his boss a minuscule nod and a small smile. Watching Gibbs intently, he saw his whole demeanour including his body language shift from frustration personified to an implacable predator as the last impediment had been removed to him taking down the animal that had dared to kidnap an innocent little girl. Henty really better hope that it wasn't Gibbs that took him down because Gibbs would make him suffer.

Knowing that the Dees and agents were all waiting for news and that it was Gibbs' place to make the announcement, Tony stayed silent, his expression masked. The first one he admitted was extremely difficult for him while the second was simply second nature after a lifetime of practice, but the tension in the room was unbearable.

Gibbs approached the Admiral, placing his hand on the man's shoulder. "Just got word that we found Courtney-Jayne in Virginia and she's alive. I'm expecting to hear more details from the agents in the next coupla minutes, Admiral. So, ya still willing to help us get that asshole kidnapper?"

The Admiral's body language relaxed appreciably when he realised that his granddaughter was safe, but his training kicked in at the thought of making her kidnapper pay for what he had put his family through. Nodding emphatically, he declared, "Absolutely. Just tell me what to do." He smiled grimly before asking, "Do my daughter and son-in-law know about Courtney-Jayne yet, Gibbs?"

"Not sure, Admiral," he cocked an eyebrow at his Tony who shrugged. "Still waiting for a proper SitRep. We just got a text message from McGee?" He asked looking at his SFA questioningly.

"Wade," he said briefly. "Said Balboa is going to ring you ASAP."

Nodding he refocused on the hunt for their dirtbag. Tony turned to one of the Dees. "I'll leave the update about this year's parade to Sergeant Thoms," He smiled at the short, slightly dour detective as she took over the briefing.

She smiled at him. Agent DiNozzo was not your average fed. He was one of them at the core and had listened to her recommendations as together they came up with the game plan that she was going to present to the NCIS agents. Obviously, when they had worked it out, it was on the assumption that they still had a hostage whose welfare was paramount so they couldn't afford to spook the perp. Plus, they had to protect Admiral Steele. The Mayor and the Secretary of the Navy would have their guts for garters if any harm should come to him, or any bystander for that matter – well, she doubted the SecNav would give a damn about bystanders, but their esteemed Mayor sure would.

Chapter Text

NYPD Detective Caroline Thoms had listened closely while the NCIS agent had delivered the briefing on the parade before asking her to take over to talk about the plans for this year’s parade. Anthony DiNozzo had been impressive, and she’d agreed with the assessments he’d made about potential spots for the kidnappers to strike along the parade route. Now it was her turn and she would address where to deploy personnel along that route.    

"Yes, thanks for that analysis, Tony. I agree. What I propose that we do is utilize the Dees and Unies, plus the New York NCIS agents by spreading out along the parade route. Since we're obviously more familiar with the city, I think we'll be the most likely to spot anything unusual. I also recommend, Gibbs, that your agents focus on watching the Admiral's back and the easiest way to do so would be if you are undercover on the floats."

She looked at the lead agent with his lethal predatory air that reminded her of a wolf, a very dangerous unpredictable lone wolf, although his demeanour seemed to have settled since the hostage had been secured by NCIS agents. She as relieved that the hostage was safe, but she was also pleased to see that the NCIS team leader had calmed down since Tony had hinted that Gibbs was difficult to contain. Plus, there were plenty of stories that backed up that impression. She was as just grateful to be coordinating with DiNozzo.

Tony stepped in smoothly to cut off his boss’ objections before he had a chance to open his mouth. "Sergeant Thoms was telling me that since 9/11, it's been common practice to have undercover cops in the parade, so we won’t be the only ones."

Thoms nodded, as that much was true, but Tony had already known about it when she mentioned the idea. Why was he playing dumb? Oh, well… hers was not to reason why, etc. "So, Gibbs, one of our officers has a costume that will fit you, I think. It also has a specially concealed holster for your sidearm and, Agent Todd, I think we can find something for you to wear. Tony's going to be at the back of the procession in the Broadway contingent."

Thoms was surprised at the snarky rejoinder from Agent Todd. "Didn't know there was a Broadway show that had a pig in it, Tony."

The cop looked at Gibbs and DiNozzo to see their response and she saw a brief flash of hurt flicker across Tony's face before his face became blank, while Gibbs seemed impervious to the remark or its impact.

Instead, the team lead nodded, "Okay, better brief us about other undercover cops so we don't shoot each other."

Caroline Thoms grinned at the thought. "I'll get you a list. Detective Chan, can you organise that?" She directed one of the other detectives to handle it. "I'll just organise your costumes." She left the conference room, which was really the precinct's lunchroom.

Caroline had agreed with Tony that Cate could be on the Polar Express Float, one of the designated floats that had undercover cops on them to be able to keep an eye on the spectators, but as she grabbed the Feds' outfits, she swiftly changed her mind. Agent Todd had been getting on her wick since she arrived. Snarky and judgemental didn't sit well with the detective sergeant. She'd heard the sotto voce comment about Tony being born with a silver spoon in his mouth when he'd briefly explained at the briefing that he was familiar with the parade route, and the pig insult infuriated her.

Thoms knew who Tony was, as did many New Yorkers, who also knew that he'd been disowned by Anthony DiNozzo, Senior, at the tender age of 12. Similarly, they were all aware his asshole of a father was doing his level best to run the company that his own father had created into the ground, as he relied on naïve heiresses instead of hard work or talent to keep the company afloat. But she and every other cop also knew that Tony was the cop that had practically single-handedly brought down the head of the Maculuso family in Baltimore, where even the FBI had failed in the past.

To say he was a legend amongst his cop brethren for his past deeds and collars was not an exaggeration, and the fact he hadn't lost his cop instincts or heart made him instantly revered by other cops. Nor did h look down on them or act like his on shit didn’t stink. To them, he would always be on their side of the thin blue line. Tony was family, and Caitlin Todd was not!

Reaching for the outfits for the three agents, impulsively Sergeant Thoms decided to change Todd's float assignation. Her superior and judgemental attitude didn't sit well with the down-to-earth sergeant; she'd met her type before when dealing with the Secret Service. They, without a doubt, viewed themselves as a cut above other agencies and LEOs, so Thoms had to wonder why Todd had resigned and ended up as a what she must see as a step down as a Navy cop. She'd made no attempt to hide her conviction she was better than the lowly NYPD, she seemed especially condescending towards male cops, and surprisingly that attitude extended to her senior field agent, too.

Thoms speculated on why the Team Leader, who was a former Marine (presumably well versed in the principles of the Chain Of Command) seemed so tolerant of her obnoxious attitude and her insubordination, as ultimately it was also disrespectful of him for his choice of Tony as his 2IC. Did Gibbs have a thing with her, she mused? It might explain a lot, she admitted wryly, not to mention her appalling habit of jabbing her colleagues in the gut with her elbow.

Caroline was just praying that she tried it on her, too, since she would take great pleasure in arresting her for assault. Unfortunately, it seemed to be reserved for male colleagues, especially Tony, and along with her snarky barbs and she felt ashamed to be a fellow female law enforcement professional. She understood the importance of banter in keeping stress to a minimum and maintaining motivation, but there was a line you didn't cross, and Todd had stepped way over it. So, while it might be a mite childish to haze the Fed, she decided that someone should take Agent Todd down a peg or two, and it might as well be her.

Thoms grabbed one of the skimpy little outfits from the Barbie float. Caroline was pretty good at reading people and she figured that the former Secret Service agent was also an ardent feminist who would be furious about being on the Barbie float. Not that the Sergeant was unsympathetic to the principles of feminism; since as a single working mother and a cop, especially one who wasn't genetically blessed with good looks, unlike Todd, she had experienced more than her fair share of discrimination, too. Probably more so, but that didn't mean it was okay to treat everyone with a dick like crap on the assumption they weren't as good as a woman or were out to subjugate you. True feminism, in Caroline's opinion, meant respecting your colleagues equally regardless of their reproductive organs.

Shrugging, Caroline grabbed the gear Tony would need to blend in with the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang group at the back of the parade. She knew that he was a specialist in undercover gigs, but it was sure handy that he knew how to clog since he'd be able to pick up the tap steps without too much difficulty. She had a DVD of the performers' earlier parade practises for him to study before they left for the parade.

~oO0Oo~

Donald 'Ducky' Mallard was hovering around Abby's lab waiting with the Goth for the young Stephenson child to be brought back to NCIS so he could check her over and they could take statements and collect evidence from her person and clothes. Special Agent Balboa assured him that the little one didn't need to go to the hospital, but of course, while an experienced field agent, the director insisted that Ducky who was also a competent MD check her out properly which he was delighted to do.

They were expecting her distraught but equally relieved parents momentarily. It was pleasing to have a happy resolution for once, although they still had to capture Lloyd Henty and bring Admiral Steele home safely, the worst was most definitely over. Now, it was all down to the waiting.

Ducky knew that Abigail was poised to monitor the wire that the admiral was wearing and that she was feeling blue about missing out on spending Thanksgiving with her family, so he'd dropped off the obligatory caffeine beverage, against his better judgement. Too much caffeine, as he had tried to explain to Gibbs more than once, was injurious to one's health, but under the circumstances, he swallowed his objection about the appalling concoction and was rewarded by a squeal of pleasure from the forensic scientist. Watching her slurping up the brew with undisguised enthusiasm, he grimaced just as his cell phone rang.

"Hello, Dr Mallard speaking. How may I help you?" he inquired politely.

"Hello, Donald, it's Lil."

"My dear, Lillian, it's wonderful to hear from you." Hearing raised voices in the background, he frowned. "Oh, my goodness! Is everything alright?"

He heard her laugh. "Yes, Donald, pay them no mind. It's just Rae and Carla having a slight disagreement over cornbread. In fact, I think that they've agreed to each cook their own version because apparently cornbread from the deep south and cornbread Mexican style is not the same. I'm afraid I needed a short break from the kitchen."

"Ah, I see. It sounds fraught, but I'm sure with your tact you'll deal with it." Ducky chuckled, knowing that his mother could be difficult when it came to her cooking. "I wouldn't have thought that there was much difference between cornbreads, but then perhaps it's like Irish and Scotch whiskey."

Lil chuckled " No doubt. Donald, I just spoke to Victoria's caregiver and she said you were called into work. So, I'm assuming that your Thanksgiving plans are in disarray?" Lil asked.

Ducky smiled wryly, even though his listener would be unable to see it. "Ah, yes, well… comes with the job, dear lady. We'll have to postpone I'm afraid, but this case has a happy ending so it's hardly the end of the world."

"Well, actually, that was why I was calling, to invite you and the team to have Thanksgiving Dinner with us. We have a heap of food so you and your mother are more than welcome, and you can bring the rest of the team. Tony was already invited, but he told us that they got called out on a case and then the gas got cut off in our building, so you could say it is a minor miracle that dinner is happening at all."

"My goodness, Lillian, I take it the gas has been re-established? Of course, it has, or you wouldn't be inviting me to dinner." The ME exclaimed.

"Actually, Donald, we are holding Thanksgiving at Gibbs' home," Lillian explained.

"Gracious, my dear, however, did you manage that? I'm been inviting Jethro to Thanksgiving Dinner ever since I began working here, and he's always given me the brush off. I get the feeling he doesn't celebrate holidays."

Lillian adroitly changed the subject. "I'm afraid I can't take any credit, Donald. Carla told us she would handle Gibbs and she gained his blessing, so I hope you and Victoria will come. Perhaps you would extend an invitation to your young assistant to join us, too. I would enjoy meeting him."

"I'll pass on the invitation, Lillian, but he will probably be spending it with his family as he hails from DC, but I will gladly accept the invitation on behalf of Mother and myself." Ducky smiled, looking forward to seeing Tony's grannies again.

"Wonderful, young man. And if you could, I’d appreciate it if you can also issue an invitation to Abby, Caitlin and Tim too, as Tony told us they missed out on going home, too. We'll look forward to seeing you later then. Bye for now."

As she hung up, Ducky laughed delightedly. It wasn't every day he was referred to a young man.

Abby looked at him curiously. "You okay there, Duckman?"

"Quite okay, Abigail. Anthony's grannies have extended an invitation for Thanksgiving Dinner since ours has been disrupted."

His phone beeped and he pulled it out and read the text message from security to inform him that Balboa's team was back with Courtney-Jayne Stephenson. "Excuse me, my dear. I must head back to my office as the child has arrived. I'll speak to you later." He promised as he departed for the lab.

~oO0Oo~

"I'm not wearing that! I absolutely refuse to buy into the patriarchal objectification of women for some misogynistic motive driven by corporate greed," Cate evangelised, her brown eyes spitting fire and her lips thinned with fury as she held up a Barbie doll disco outfit and blonde wig. "You cannot expect me to wear this crap, Gibbs. I'm a college graduate and I protected the President of the United States. I DO NOT DRESS UP LIKE PARTY GIRL BARBIE!"

Gibbs looked at her, bemused. "Get a grip, Cate. Ya think I like my outfit?" He indicated his Goofy costume that he was in the process of climbing into, even though he'd initially refused to wear it, assuming the LEOs were yanking his chain with a little interagency one-upmanship. Then one of the cops had shown him the inbuilt sophisticated digital coms and the specially designed holster that would allow Goofy to be armed and dangerous, he'd shrugged and got with the program. That said, Cate wasn't going to be so easily mollified.

Looking at the skimpy outfit, she scowled. "Why does DiNozzo get to wear normal clothes and I look like a tart, Gibbs? I'll bet he arranged it so he could get a cheap thrill seeing me rigged up in this degrading costume. Where is he anyway?"

Sergeant Thoms who had been watching the snarky agent throw a huge tantrum strolled up and entered the argument. "Tony's getting ready, but if you can tap dance maybe he'll swap with you."

"DiNozzo can't dance, either." Cate shot back.

"Apparently, he can…well, he can clog at least, so he said he'd manage. He's learning the routine now. And you better get dressed, Agent Todd, we don't have much time."

"I can't believe a female officer would assign me to the Barbie float. What did DiNozzo threaten you with?"

Thoms scowled. "That's Detective Sargeant, and everything isn't about your gender, Agent Todd. You might want to think about checking your superiority at the door next time you enter a precinct. We humble dumbass cops don't take kindly to Feds' disrespect and arrogance, regardless of what happens, and it has nothing to do with what's situated between their legs. It's all about mutual respect, and for your information, even a bumbling cop responds well to being treated with respect. Try it and see. I'm sure your male colleagues will appreciate it.

The cop regarded Gibbs critically. "Good fit. You carry off Goofy damned well, Special Agent Gibbs…briefing for all undercover cops in the parade in five."

~oO0Oo~

Tony leaned back in the leather seat as he kept his eyes on Lloyd Henty, who he'd handcuffed to the seat opposite him. Personally, it seemed a bit over the top for SecNav to send out his private jet to fly them all back to DC since it was only a few hour's drive back to the office. Still, the Admiral was a personal friend of SecNav, who had stated that he wanted his friend back home with his family ASAP for what was left of the holiday. Tony figured that Admiral Steele was probably desperate to see his granddaughter, but even so, he reckoned that his personal connection to the family wasn't the sole reason for SecNav sending his jet to New York to collect them all.

The truth was that Gibbs had somehow managed to get himself declared persona non grata with the NYC Mayor, who was incensed when the Boss managed to 'accidentally' damage a balloon animal during the parade when they were arresting Henty. It seemed that having crimes committed against innocent balloons animals during the biggest Thanksgiving Day Parade was a worse crime than homicide, or in this case, kidnapping, and they had been quick to cover up what really happened. Well, tried to cover it up, but they hadn't been terribly successful.

Flashback:

By the time he'd joined Cate and Gibbs for the final briefing of the NYPD cops who were undercover as part of the parade, they'd changed into their respective undercover outfits. Tony had to steel himself not to giggle at the sight of his boss decked out as Walt Disney's Goofy. It was just such a ludicrous disguise for the former Marine and Tony was going to make it his business to see that he took some photos of Special Agent Goofy to share with Ducky and Abby. Yeah, okay, he probably did have a death wish.

Thinking about Cate, he decided he definitely had a death wish. Expecting her to be on the Polar Express float as a passenger, he'd stared bugged eyed when she was instead dressed up like a damned Barbie doll, which would have to be her beta noire as much as vampires were his, if for very different reasons. To say he was gobsmacked to see her undercover costume was an understatement plus, he knew he was staring, but he couldn't help it. When he figured that Sergeant Thoms had decided to haze his partner, he couldn't help grinning since he had suffered more than his own share of hazing along the way being in three police departments plus latterly joining NCIS.

Knowing that Cate could easily rub people up the wrong way, just like he could, too, he was curious. Although to be fair, when he pissed people off, he was usually trying to be obnoxious. Cate though seemed oblivious to any ruffled feathers she caused, and he wondered what she'd done now. Surely, she didn't unleash the pointy elbow on Caroline. Regardless, Cate saw his astonished expression and then him grinning and typically judged his reaction based upon her opinion of him, which was admittedly less than flattering.

"You're a chauvinist pig, DiNozzo." She spat at him.

Realising that she wouldn't believe him no matter what, he slipped on his blankest mask and gave his teammates the list of floats that had undercover cops on them and what characters they were playing. He knew that Gibbs would memorise them, but to be on the safe side since Cate didn't have a lot of experience working undercover, he advised her to study and memorise as many as she could, deliberately turning away so he wouldn't observe any of her usual forms of disrespect.

A bit later as he joined the ensemble cast at the parade, he remembered watching the movie as a kid and the memories of watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang inevitably lead to memories of watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. One time his mother was 'well enough' to take him to see the parade, and that had been a truly red-letter day, but up until he was disowned at 12 years old, their housekeeper or the cook would often take him with them if they went into Manhattan to watch the parade.

Once Tony’s mother had died, his father stopped celebrating holidays unless he had a new wife to impress. Coming home to New York always made him feel sad, and he had to give himself a mental shake. Instead, he focused on Cate's obvious curiosity that had been stirred by this little trip back home.

The jokes had reached a new level of sarcasm and a part of him was used to all the jokes and jealousy that seemed to follow him around, but he wondered just how envious everyone would be if they'd had to walk in his shoes growing up. Still, Cate had been his partner for several years now, and he thought as a profiler she would have (should have) realised that his refusal to discuss his family meant that it hadn't been filled with caviar, pâté de foie gras and truffles.

In fact, Tony had never been a fan of that type of stuff. He really had to wonder if people knew how the pâté de foie gras (duck liver) was produced, would they still think it tasted so wonderful. Did they realise that the poor unfortunate animals were force-fed massive amounts of food daily by sticking a feeding tube down their throats until their livers literally swelled six to ten times what was normal in protest, that it was so full of fat that if the fowl had lived long enough it would result in death by liver failure?  Did they know or even care that they were eating diseased livers? As far as Tony was concerned, it was a metaphor for everything that was wrong with the lifestyle of conspicuous wealth and consumption that so many people aspired to. It kind of made consuming embryonic fish seem quite civilised by comparison.

As he fought off those dark musings, he questioned if Cate could ever understand how lucky she was to have a proper family. He might have been only 12 when his father disowned him, but he'd never really cared about the wealth. It was the stuff that most people took for granted that he longed for. Knowing that you were loved and important, that you would be missed if something happened to you would probably top of the list – the simple stuff.

And really, no one wanted to hear any sad poor little rich kid's horror stories, which is why he stayed mum about his early life. How could his childhood compare with kids raised in abject poverty when he'd always had enough to eat, even if there hadn't been anyone who cared enough to make sure that he actually did? So, he sucked it up and got on with things, but he wished everyone else could let it go that he was DiNozzo Junior. Thankfully, no one seemed to realise that his mother's English family was even richer than his father and that they were equally disinterested in him, too.

Speaking of metaphors, how ironic was it that here he was smiling, singing and dancing in a crowd of other performers, pretending to be someone he wasn't? All the while, inside he fought demons of doubt, insecurity and melancholy. So, how was that any different from his routine existence? He'd always felt that his life was one long performance, trying to conceal who he really was since the real Anthony couldn't ever be good enough since even his own family couldn't accept his flaws and family was supposed to accept you unconditionally.

He supposed that was why his job and working with Gibbs was so important to him. He desperately wanted to believe that if he could learn to follow all his boss' rules, those unwritten and those that were numbered, that he would accept Tony despite his obvious and numerous faults. So, even when Gibbs was harsh and made him doubt his place on the team, he knew that it was because he was a seriously defective individual, but at least Gibbs hadn't given up on him. One day he hoped to make Gibbs proud of him and vindicate his mentor's decision to give him a chance, way back in Baltimore.

Interrupting his maudlin mental meandering and self-indulgent introspection, his comm. cackled to life and Tony switched to the focused professional in an instant. One of their NY field agents spotted Henty making his way towards Admiral Steele, and they started to zero in to arrest him. Steele was putting on an act worthy of an Oscar as he berated the kidnapper and demanded to know when his granddaughter would be released. Then everything went to Hell in a handbasket, although he had to think that a handbasket wouldn't last long in Hell. Well, if Hell was anything like Dante's inferno, but then perhaps that was the point of the adage.

Anyway… something or someone spooked their dirtbag and Henty grabbed the Admiral and dragged him out into the parade, literally right in front of Tony and the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang performers. Tony could see the potential for things to turn ugly very quickly as NCIS agents and NYPD cops converged on the unfolding hostage drama. Knowing that Henty wouldn't be expecting an attack to come from the performers, Tony decided that those grim summers after his mother died when he'd been shipped off to camp and he'd learned how to clog hadn't been as useless as he'd thought. Apart from being a mean clogger, he was also one hell of a knife thrower.

Mind you, if he used his knife the Mayor would probably have apoplexy and SecNav would likely ship him to off to Alaska, but just because he couldn't use his knife, didn't mean he couldn't use his throwing arm, did it? Grabbing several pieces of fruit that were part of the props for one of the performers, Tony took a couple of deep breaths as he aimed for Henty's right arm that was holding Admiral Steele while he clutched his gun in his left, waving it menacingly at the crowd. Speaking into his comms. requesting that his colleagues distract the perp, Special Agent Jameson yelled at the crowd to get down and identifying himself as a federal agent, ordered Henty to throw down his gun and surrender. It was what Tony had been waiting for and Tony let fly with a deadly throw of a navel orange followed seconds later by another one of a particularly unripe (and very hard) large grapefruit.

Both of his throws connected with their target and caught him completely by surprise. Ow, that's gotta hurt, and leave a Hell of a bruise - and thankfully also threw their dirtbag's balance completely awry.

As the admiral sensed his opportunity and managed to pull away, Henty was also able to stumble back into the crowd and evade several agents and cops who were all on his tail. Alerting Gibbs and Todd that Henty was heading in their direction, Tony broke cover to join the chase, although he guessed he had already done just that when he'd provided the Admiral with the chance to escape. Now they had to try to make sure that Henty didn't take someone else.

Just as he'd predicted, Henty used the crowd to duck and weave as he attempted to escape. When they made their way parallel to the Barbie float, he gave Cate the heads up to get ready in case he joined the parade again. When he didn't, the crowd was startled when one of Barbie's friends leapt off the float, brandish a lethal-looking gun and running up the side of the parade route beside the procession. Tony figured that lots of little girls were going to be requesting Cop Barbie complete with miniature Sig Saurs from Santa this Christmas, after watching the parade. He had a momentary flash of Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality.

As Henty was approaching Gibbs' float at the front end of the parade, the Boss was waiting like a lethal predator - well, okay - a lanky lethal Goofy, but still a sniper, nevertheless. The LEOs and several of their own agents were slowly but inexorably driving him back into the open, back toward the empty space between the crowd and the floats. Finally they corralled him into open space, and with Cate and Tony coming up on his flank on the other side of the parade along with a heap of cops and fellow agents, Gibbs was preparing to take a shot, knowing there could be no collateral damage, not unless he wasn't too attached to his balls. He waited until he was sure of his shot.

As he fired in all the chaos of seeing an armed badass Goofy with a gun taking aim, one of Donald Duck's nephews bumped into the Boss sending his shot wide of the mark, but fortunately, it didn't hit anyone else. Tony didn't know if it was Huey, Dewey or Louie, but Gibbs had been totally pissed and the senior field agent figured it was probably lucky that Gibbs didn't know who it was either or he might have shot them in the ass!

Anyway, the upshot was that Lloyd managed to slip underneath the giant purple balloon of the perennial crowd favourite Barney, rolling under the dinosaur and exiting at the other side of the parade and into the waiting arms of Cate, Tony, Sergeant Thoms, Special Agent Jameson and a posse of NYPD unies, who quickly disarmed him and hauled him to his feet, arresting him on abduction charges. Calling into his comms that the dirtbag was secure, Tony jumped as he heard the familiar sound of a gunshot as Barney collapsed beside them. According to witnesses, Goofy got angry and shot Barney in the foot, although authorities insisted that Barney had been damaged by a streetlight. SecNav and the NY Mayor were both ropable, especially when Gibbs hadn't even tried to sugarcoat his attack on an innocent and crowds' favourite balloon animal.

End of flashback:

Things had gotten pretty messy after what should have been a celebration for the successful conclusion of the case. They'd managed to co-ordinate with the NYPD without any spilling of blood (although Cate and Sergeant Thoms had come close) and no one had been hurt… well, apart from some pretty wicked bruising from his direct hit on Henty with a deadly fruit… and Barney getting his foot shot off in front of a whole lot of witnesses.

When asked to justify his actions in attacking a harmless and much-loved dinosaur, Gibbs had explained unrepentantly that the purple jackass had been pissing him off since the start of the parade and then Barney aided and abetted the escape of Henty, making him an accessory after the fact. When the Mayor demanded to know how an innocent and much-loved children's icon could possibly have pissed him off, he replied somewhat cryptically and utterly incomprehensibly, “My Princess loved that purple monstrosity and since she isn't enjoying Thanksgiving neither should he."

Neither of those explanations was likely to win him any favours with the Powers-That-Be, and it didn't, by the way, especially when the younger spectators had almost started a riot after witnessing the callous maiming of their Barney, beloved purple dinosaur by a mean, vicious Goofy. Adults, meanwhile, were divided into two distinct camps. Those that were seriously concerned about their offspring's traumatisation and those celebrating the demise of the dinosaur because of the amount of hard-earned money they had spent on buying Barney toys and merchandise which would probably rival the Gross National Product of a small third-world nation.

Any way you spun it, Tony concluded it had gotten pretty damned ugly, and according to SecNav, the Disney Corporation was threatening to sue the Navy for damages caused to the reputation of Goofy, who they insisted was an avowed pacifist and registered conscientious objector. The Mayor was issuing a series of press releases about the tragic accident to befall Barney and providing medical updates, assuring everyone that Barney was in fact, fine and would make a full recovery and would return to the parade in 2006. Then the owners of Barney got in on the act, deciding to sue both Disney and the Navy for the attempted murder of Barney. They were alleging it was a government/multi-conglomerate conspiracy to rob a generation of its favourite character.

Although the whole thing seemed ludicrous, Tony figured the lawyers smelled the chance to make some serious cash and generating some serious publicity. Consequently, Gibbs was extremely unpopular in the rarefied circles of government, both local and federal. The only thing that saved Gibbs’ ass wit SecNav was that they had found Courtney-Jane, managed to capture her kidnappers and had the eternal gratitude of Admiral Steele.

Sinking back into the luxurious leather seat as they approached the national capital, Tony stared out the window of the plane and wondered how Ernie was making out with the LOLs. Rae had left him a voicemail to say that he was spending the day with them and he was going to be coddled. With a bit of luck, he decided he might still make it in time for dinner, perhaps even manage a power nap for 30 minutes to make up for last night.

End Notes:

According to my research, there were two casualties during the 2005 parade which included the M & M and the Barney balloons being damaged by street lighting although I am not sure how Barney's foot managed to be damaged, frankly. (Sounds hinky to me.) With that fact in mind, I decided to weave fact and fiction together and come up with an alternative explanation i.e. I’d blame it on Goofy!  I also have no idea if NYPD has undercover cops in the parade although it isn't a completely unreasonable theory.

Chapter Text

Ducky watched as Courtney-Jane was helped off the stainless-steel table in Autopsy by her father. It had been an emotional reunion between overwrought parents and child, but all's well that ends well, he mused. After examining the child, he found that she was a little dehydrated, which was not so surprising, and she had quite a few cuts, scrapes and bruises, but essentially, she was in pretty good shape.

Of course, psychologically he suspected that it may well be another matter. The little girl would probably need counselling to help overcome the trauma, and it would probably be a good idea for the parents to attend a few sessions, too. He gave Courtney Jane's parents the names of several therapists and trauma counsellors, including ones that specialised in childhood trauma.

Looking at the clock in autopsy indicating it was 1630, he decided that he had time to head home to take a bracing shower before heading over to Gibbs' place with his mother for dinner. He was sure she would be pleased to see Lillian, Carla and Raelene again. They all got on like a house on fire and the dear ladies were very tolerant of his mother's eccentricities. Of course, that might be because they never knew Victoria before dementia began to rob her of the memories which made her who she'd been, but he also thought it was because they were all strong admirable women. Each one of them had overcome significant life challenges and ended up becoming stronger for it.

He had nothing but admiration for his mother's generation. They'd survive world wars, the Great Depression and terrible hardships but were stoic and dealt with appalling deprivations without complaint. They were most definitely a force to be reckoned with, both collectively as a generation and individually. Of course, when it came to the trio, they were a package deal and Ducky was fine with that. In fact, he had become rather fond of the LOLs as they were affectionately referred to, chiefly because they had taken young Anthony under their wings when he'd first come to DC after resigning from Baltimore PD.

Then two years ago when they had first made the acquaintance of the inestimable threesome, it had come to his attention that young Anthony was even more damaged than Ducky had previously suspected. Although the young agent swore up and down that he'd never been physically abused as a child, and Ducky wasn't altogether sure that he believed him, there were other forms of abuse other than physically beating a child.

Neglect was an insidious form of abuse and there was ample evidence that this at the very least had occurred, growing up. Disowning a motherless child at the age of 12 was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel as far as Ducky was concerned. He'd never had a child of his own, but Ducky couldn't imagine a scenario where he'd disown his own flesh and blood like that if he'd ever been fortunate enough to have had a child. Especially if he'd had a son like Anthony with such a generous spirit; his father was both an odious bastard and an imbecile, notwithstanding the obvious alcoholism that he suffered from.

In the ME's book, that was never an excuse to abuse a child though. What it was, was a bloody-good reason to man up and accept treatment for his addiction so he could be the kind of father that young Anthony had deserved.

Oh, not that he thought that Anthony was a saint or anything like that. He had faults, just as much as the rest of them but no one on Jethro's team was perfect. Far from it! Still, he doubted very much that he would list the same flaws as the rest of Anthony's teammates, who had been effectively blinded by his convincingly annoying act like a buffoon or class clown.

Thinking about the crumpled piece of paper he'd discovered in which he'd listed what Anthony saw as his faults (convinced by his pathetic parents no doubt) Ducky winced. Everyone had been so damned concerned about young Anthony, initially when he returned to work after being injured shortly after that unfortunate situation with Suzanne McNeill and Anthony's heating issues in his apartment. They had hurt him quite badly with their unthinking rejection of his plea for help. It wasn't just that they had all refused to help him, but the fact that the first time he had trusted them enough to reach out and ask his team for help, not one of them had had his six, despite Gibbs repeatedly insisting that he did.

The consequences of their rejection and their over the top, guilt-tinged reaction when he was injured had not surprisingly driven him away to lick his wounds in private. Then upon his return from New York, he'd attempted to refashion his professional persona into what he thought they wanted him to be. Being a highly skilled undercover operative, the new incarnation of Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo had been practically flawless when he returned to work and everybody hated it. Well, almost everybody he thought, recalling a team meeting that had taken place several years before…

"Personally, I don't see a problem, Gibbs. I like not having him make chauvinist remarks every five seconds or trying to find out what I did the night before last, and no constant harping on about his dumb movies. Ow, Abby, what was that for?" She glared at her gal pal, rubbing her arm where Abby had punched her.

"That was for Tony, Cate! I want him back, not this pod person who returned from New York. He's decided that he needs to reinvent himself again after we rejected him 'cause he thinks he isn't good enough for us. And I've apologised to him ‘til I'm blue in the face, but he just smiles at me and tell me I didn't do anything wrong. Do something, Gibbs. Fix Tony, please!" Abby pouted, stamping her foot as Gibbs rolled his eyes and grimaced.

"Like what, Abbs? I've tried, you've tried, Ducky's talked him into a coma… sorry, Duck," the ME smiled to show he hadn't taken offence. "But when I tried to explain to him, he wouldn't listen. Just kept fobbing me off, saying I shouldn't feel guilty…that his parents didn't want him around, sent him off to boarding school and even they asked him to leave, so he didn't blame his co-workers. Just kept telling me he was fine. Made me feel like crap," Gibbs admitted scowling.

"Look, people, Tony's just moping. I tried to apologise, but he was too childish to accept it. He'll get over it, stop pandering to him. You're reinforcing his juvenile behaviour by making a mountain out of a molehill. If we ignore him, he'll come around, trust me. I know what I'm talking about, I've got two brothers." Cate preached, obviously feeling her psychological insights qualified her to lecture them. "Oww… will you stop punching me, Abby?! You're supposed to be my friend."

"Yeah, well, I never realised how judgemental you were, Cate. And Tony's NOT sulking. He really has managed to convince himself that our meanness is due to his failings, ergo we have nothing to apologise for. That's why he won't accept it. Haven't you notice that he is always quick to take to the blame for stuff? Call yourself a profiler..."

They'd expected Ducky to tell them how to fix things with Anthony because as Abby had said, his new persona was just so alien, although Ducky wasn't convinced. In fact, he was pretty sure that the former one wasn't any closer to Anthony's true personality either. Perhaps simply more entrenched since he'd had longer to perfect it, but nevertheless it wasn't any more authentic either. But behaving out of character (the one they were all used to anyway) was a constant reminder about their own failure to have his six so they wanted him back the way he was before the Suzanne McNeill fiasco. He knew it was human nature, so he'd enlisted Caitlyn's assistance, even if she had failed to understand the significance of him asking her to explain to the others about the power of automatic thoughts.

He wasn't sure if she understood that the information, she supplied at their team meeting was directly applicable to young Anthony, but the others had gotten the point pretty bloody quickly. Oh, it wasn’t as if Caitlin was stupid but when it came to assimilating data sets that didn’t meld with her preconceived theories and beliefs, she could be incredibly obtuse, if not out and out dense. For the others, as he had hoped, along with the guilt they were already experiencing, it had persuaded them to commit to earning back their team member's trust.

It had proved to be a challenging proposition, namely because Anthony's trust was hard-earned at the best of times, and when he had tested them by seeking assistance, they had all, for various reasons failed him comprehensively. So, it was not going to be an easy proposition and they would need to be in it for the long haul, but everyone had committed to putting in the hard yards.

Yet Ducky had been concerned, knowing that it was never going to be a quick fix and he really wasn't sure that the team would be prepared to do what it took to help their friend. Being a keen student of the human condition which he'd had the opportunity to observe over many decades, he sadly had his doubts. And unfortunately, subsequent events had proved him right. Regrettably, tragedy had a way of reducing everything to its most base level, which was exactly what had happened, and they had then all reverted to the default settings in relating to each other.

When Anthony's good friend and colleague, Christopher Pacci had been killed working on a supposedly cold case in the most horrific of circumstances, everything had gone all pear-shaped with their 'Operation Regain Anthony's Trust' biting the dust. Anthony, in his determination to bring Pacci's killer to justice, had rather intemperately approached someone that Chris had been watching, a young rather attractive young lady, and they had set up a stake-out. Like Gibbs who would throw personal safety concerns to the wind when one of his people were threatened or harmed in his haste to solve the case, Anthony had (to borrow parlance  from the gentleman’s game of cricket) ended up on a rather sticky wicket, concerning the attractive woman that they were convinced had some connection to Christopher's death. Unbeknownst to Christopher or the team until Abigail matched the DNA from their person of interest, they had no idea that she was their missing Marine who was in the process of undergoing gender reassignment surgery and who’d made a move on Anthony.

After the truth emerged and they'd arrested the killer, Caitlyn had delighted in tormenting Anthony about kissing a he/she as she’d erroneously put it. Sadly, the fact that he was quite distressed, struggling to control his emotions only seemed to feed her unkind taunts even more. It appeared she was quite unable to grasp that what was really upsetting their senior field agent was not the fact that he kissed a transgender female, but that he had kissed his friend's killer. Anthony, like himself, had been educated at an all-boys' boarding school and he rather suspected that there had probably been some experimentation (needs must and so forth) if RIMA had been anything like Eton where Ducky had been educated. If that supposition was true, then Ducky concluded that kissing a female who had been deemed to be male was unlikely to be what had perturbed his young friend.

Christopher's death impacted upon all of them, of course, but none more so than Jethro and Anthony, and the poor lad didn't even get a chance to attend his funeral since he was on stake-out duty. Yet, seemingly, all Caitlyn could see was that Anthony, the skirt-chasing jock which he had always pretended to be in her presence, had kissed a man. And she proceeded to rub his nose in it at every opportunity.

Unfortunately, although Gibbs should have slapped his junior agent, Caitlin down and slapped her down hard for her inappropriate behaviour, he was struggling over Pacci's death, too. Jethro was consumed by guilt, having fobbed the agent off when he'd come looking for help the day before he died.

Not surprisingly, Anthony's new persona of bland, professional agent had crumbled in the face of his pain over Christopher's death and Caitlyn's unremitting harassment. Placed under such enormous mental pressures, his old default persona had quickly reappeared. Not so surprising really, since Anthony had so much longer to perfect that frat boy image than his newest robotically professional one.  

Ducky couldn’t say that he was all that surprised, although he was very disappointed. Unhappily, when it occurred, everyone just assumed that Anthony was finally back to normal and had simply gotten on with their own lives.  All apart from Ducky, who didn't see it as a victory, but rather a sign that his friend was hurting and even less willing to trust the team than ever.

Over the coming months, the ME had even more reason to wonder about the training of their profiler and her psychological background, which seemed increasingly to be incompatible with the task of criminal profiling. There had been numerous cases and situations that made him question her suitability for the role.

Unbeknownst to anyone except the HR department at NCIS, Ducky had decided to complete a Master's degree in Forensic Psychology. At one of his numerous Forensic conferences where he’d been invited to present a paper, he had the opportunity to listen to a forensic psychologist give a fascinating presentation on conducting psychological autopsies, especially during equivocal deaths. Quickly seeing the benefits of being able to conduct his own psychological autopsies, Ducky had decided to gain the knowledge and training to be able to determine the manner of the death when a post-mortem failed to determine if it was accidental, suicide or homicide. He loved to learn and took to his new endeavour with gusto, but as he plunged into the various psychological units, he had also become increasingly aware of the work product of their resident profiler.

He knew that Caitlyn was a devout Catholic, having been educated at a parochial school. To be bunt, the dear girl was also something of a prude. Possibly it was why Anthony had seized upon the tactic of making off-colour remarks when he felt trapped by her and needed to deflect her attention away from him personally. It was a technique that was certainly effective, too. It made Ducky suspect that Anthony knew far more about profiling Caitlyn, than she did about him or anyone else.

Plus, over the last couple of years, Ducky had catalogued a rather disturbing trait of Caitlyn regarding her bigoted attitudes to anything outside the so-called normal sexual mores recognised by her own religious doctrine.

The transsexual Commander Voss was just the start. There had been the unfortunate case of that poor young transvestite, Petty Officer Benjamin Horlacher, which had been yet another excuse for her to mock Anthony again about kissing, in her offensive description, a he/she. But equally disturbing had been the disgraceful photo she and Abigail had falsified to suggest that Anthony was in a homosexual relationship with a leather-clad foppish male. She’d also scorned him unmercifully about dressing like a gay icon of the seventies-era during a case trying to catch a serial killer murdering Marine recruiters.

And while he couldn't actually prove it, Ducky had suspicions that she’d caused dissent between Anthony and the young probie on the team over his perceived masculinity. The lad, Timothy McGee, was one of the greenest young probationary agents that Ducky had encountered in a very long time. When he wasn't sitting behind a computer keyboard, he was a curious mixture of stuttering, stammering, vomiting rookie combined with an overly confident, know-it-all who thought that his degrees at Ivy League colleges and a six-month stint at FLETC had equipped him with the tools to be a successful agent. What he didn't seem to realise and given his upbringing as a military brat (it was quite surprising to Ducky) Timothy’s superior attitude, coupled with his nervousness made him a perfect target for hazing from his fellow agents.

Not the sort of pranks that Anthony used to try to toughen him up as an agent who worked for the infamously demanding and inflexible L J. Gibbs, but the sort of hazing that could easily turn dangerous. Ducky had overheard some of the horror stories that Anthony had shared with young Mr Palmer about his hazing at various police precincts in that disturbing fashion he had, of making the most appalling abuse sound like it was some gigantic lark. Much the same way he shrugged off his parental neglect and abuse as a child.

With young Timothy, Ducky could see that Anthony was trying to have his six and trying to harden the youngster up so he wouldn't be targeted by the homophobic, aggressive jackass that could be found within the agency. The same ones who’d given Anthony a hard time when he'd first joined NCIS. Anthony had tried to point out to the probie that he was making a target of himself by projecting a rather hackneyed metrosexual perhaps even gay persona in the bullpen. He, like Anthony, was also very aware that there was already a lot of ill will toward the rookie agent for earning a place on the premiere team purely on the basis of his computer skills. Add to that his metrosexual image on top of his weak stomach in the face of blood and other bodily fluids, his fastidiousness with his teeth, skin and his cuticles and it made him a prime target for the bullies.

In Ducky's humble opinion, Anthony was not in the least homophobic. He’d related to all and sundry with much fanfare and amusement how he and Jethro had been mistaken by a landlord for being in a committed gay relationship when they had been looking at renting an apartment for a stake-out. He was also good friends with various gay agents and wouldn’t dream of revealing their sexual orientation, knowing it could be dangerous.

So, when Caitlyn informed Timothy that Anthony had told all the young ladies in the secretarial pool that Timothy was gay to narrow down the competition for dates, Ducky was dubious about the allegation. Why on earth would he spend time trying to rub off the overly metrosexual image that Tim was exuding and then deliberately spread untruths about him?

It didn't make any sense, and the idea that Anthony would feel threatened by Timothy was equally ludicrous. While Ducky knew that he wasn't the playboy he pretended to be, having had his heart torn asunder by that cold-hearted little hussy, Miss Miller who’d left him practically at the altar, the man was a professional flirt, using it frequently as a tool in his work. He utilised it during undercover missions and could gain young ladies' phone numbers and dates almost as easily as breathing. Anthony as never short of offers even if he didn't follow through on them nearly as often as he would have them all believe, because it suited his facade.

So, Ducky was unable to reconcile his facility with Anthony viewing Timothy as a threat to Anthony in the dating department. It would be like saying that Anthony was jealous of Timothy's basketball abilities or that Timothy would be threatened by Anthony's computer-hacking abilities. Then try as he might, the elderly ME was unable to actually find anyone who admitted to witnessing the alleged comments taking place, apart from their profiler that is.

Anthony certainly had many faults. He was no saint by any means and could be annoying and tactless, but he didn't lie to protect himself when he screwed up. Yet when confronted about Caitlin’s allegation, Anthony had categorically denied starting that rumour and Ducky believed him. Oh, he would lie to protect those he loved or considered family, but he didn't care enough about himself to lie to save his own backside. Which left Ducky dubious about the veracity of the rumour at all and he couldn't help but harbour suspicions, given Caitlyn's attitudes towards gay individuals, although truly hoped that he was mistaken in his suspicions.

Given her attitude to sexuality, especially anything that she would consider aberrant sexual behaviour, Ducky was rapidly reaching the conclusion that those extremely rigid spiritual beliefs seriously impeded her ability to profile NCIS cases effectively. While her work as a profiler in the Secret Service would be mostly profiling potential terrorist groups and the profiling of the odd psychotic stalker determined to attack the POTUS, the work of a criminal profiler was a vastly different one. Most murders were prompted by either lust or greed, and it was important to be able to enter the mind of the killer. Being able to understand the sexual deviant was very important, although not to the extent of becoming emotionally enmeshed with them.

Which was something else that young Caitlyn still found extremely difficult. She had become attached to a terrorist because of his kind eyes, bonded with a rapist/ killer, and had also latched onto another killer and mad bomber, Suzanne McNeill. who was also a killer. Then there was that poor unfortunate lad, Seaman McDonald who became obsessed with his MMORPG fantasy and decided he could walk on water. She flatly refused to consider the possibility that he had contributed to his own death because he had been brought up Catholic, as had she. This lack of detachment was quite contrary to the tenets of criminal profiling, not to mention that it would impede investigatory techniques where it was important to keep an open mind. Sighing, he started making preparations to leave to go home, putting on his hat and trench coat as he switched off the lights and his thoughts turned to the Thanksgiving dinner.

Ducky recalled the impact the Little Old Ladies had had on Jethro, Caitlin and Abby when they'd first met them and hoped that they might shake the team up once again during dinner. He was convinced that Caitlin would probably go to extreme lengths to avoid sharing the same air as them, so he decided a little subterfuge was in order. Rule 19, he told himself firmly.

Reaching for the phone he called Abigail and asked her to inform them they were invited to Thanksgiving Dinner, but not to tell Caitlin or Timothy that it was the LOLs who were the issuers of the invitation. While Abigail was not skilled in the art of subterfuge, she was a great one for family, and since they couldn't be with their own families for the holiday, she was keen for their team to spend what was left of it altogether. She giggled and agreed to make sure they were there.

"Roger wilco, Duck Man. Leave everything to me and we'll be there with bells on. I wonder if Lil will whack Cate with her handbag and if she'll let me watch," She chuckled.

Ducky chortled, too. "Perhaps, my dear, perhaps."

"Um… are we supposed to bring anything, Ducky?"

"I shouldn't think so, Abigail. Lillian said they had plenty of food. I do believe the ladies were trying to outdo themselves," He advised, remembering the conversation about cornbread. "Perhaps if you want to drink anything other than coffee or bourbon, since we are at Jethro's abode, you might want to bring something somewhat more palatable. I will probably raid my wine cellar and also bring some fine leafed china tea since I don't believe Jethro drinks tea."

"Righty ho," Abigail smirked in a rather painful parody of an upper -class British accent. "One will see you soon."

Chapter Text

 

Ducky alighted from his beloved vintage Morgan and entered the gracious home that he shared with his aging mother, Victoria Eugenia Mallard. Smiling at his mother's caregiver, Martha Benson, he explained that he and Victoria had received a last-minute invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, so Martha was free to spend what was left of the holiday with her friends or family. He requested that before she left, Martha help her mother change for dinner, knowing that Victoria had been a woman who prided herself on her impeccable decorum and flawless sense of style. Well, she had before her Alzheimer's increasingly robbed her of the most essential part of herself – her memories. She would have always dressed for company, taking especial care of her clothes and coiffure for special occasions, so her son felt it would be remiss of him not to help her maintain that tradition. Even if that meant she required assistance these days to fix her face and choose appropriate attire.

Whilst Martha was attending to Victoria's ablutions, Ducky slipped into his own bathroom and took a quick shower before changing into his Sunday best Savile Row dark grey suit and a scarlet shot silk bow tie. He stopped to admire Victoria when she came into the sitting room. She was tastefully dressed in one of her outfits modelled upon Queen Elizabeth's style, a turquoise A-line dress and matching coat ensemble replete with a pillbox hat and veil several shades lighter and he noted the beautiful old pearl and sapphire broach pinned to her dress which was a family heirloom. Her makeup had been judiciously applied and the distinctive scent of Chanel No 5 wafted about her person, and he smiled his thanks to Martha.

She had done a wonderful job and Ducky was certain his mother would approve quite heartily if she was more compos mentis. Offering his mother his arm with an old-worldly charm he escorted her out to the Morgan, wishing Martha a good evening.

Of course, Victoria was a little distressed, not understanding where they were going.

"We're going to Jethro's house for Thanksgiving Dinner, Mother. Those lovely ladies, Carla, Lillian and Raelene invited us to join them since I had to work unexpectedly."

"Jethro… who is Jethro, Donald? I don't believe I know any Jethro. Is he a plantation owner…does he grow cotton or tobacco in Georgia or is he perchance a bootlegger? It sounds rather exciting. I've never met a genuine bootlegger before."

"No, Mother, Jethro is a colleague and a friend. We work together at NCIS. And his team will be there, too. Do you remember young Anthony DiNozzo and Caitlin Todd? They came and stayed with you when I had that little problem at work," He said referring to the psychotic mortician who had tried to kill him some time ago.

"DiNozzo, that's an Italian name! I remember him, he was a gigolo who was after my virtue, but so handsome. I nearly succumbed to his allure you know. He was quite charming, too. But I did not approve of that hussy you brought home, Donald. Her knickers were a disgrace and she was after your money. I know a gold digger when I see one. I forbid you to marry her."

"Poppycock!" He scolded her fondly. "Young Caitlin isn't a gold digger, nor is she interested in me. And you be nice to her." He had forgotten that Victoria had taken a dislike to the young agent and he hoped she would behave herself tonight.

"And of course, young Abigail will be there for dinner, too. Do you remember she showed you around her laboratory?"

"The witch? Yes, I do remember her. She showed me her cauldron where she mixes up her potions, Donald. I like her; she would produce very intelligent offspring. I'm not getting any younger, you know, Donald…"

"Mother!" the ME remonstrated. "First off, Abigail is hardly a witch. Well, not to my knowledge, and she showed you Major Mass Spectrometer, not a cauldron, and she doesn't mix up potions. Last but not least, she already has babies."

"Donald, why didn't you tell me you two have love children? Well, unless you two secretly married, of course. I insist that you introduce me to my grandbabies."

Ducky tuned out his mother's rambling discourse on grandchildren and their upbringing as he drove towards Alexandria. Returning to the musings about the team's good intentions to regain Anthony's trust and how it had been derailed so easily, his thoughts turned to what was probably the second major factor that had gotten in the way.

Jethro was a man of fierce obsessions, and while that could be a really good thing, especially during a difficult investigation, it also had a serious downside. It meant that he was prone to developing tunnel vision and he became blind to anything that he considered to be extraneous to his focus.

So, initially, Gibbs had been committed to helping Anthony re-establish the trust that they had built up with his SFA since he hired him before they'd carelessly destroyed it. Then Ari Haswari had happened along, and all bets were suddenly off. Jethro had become utterly fixated on capturing the terrorist who they now knew to be a Mossad plant, but despite Caitlin's intuition regarding the kindness of his eyes, Ducky didn't believe it for even a millisecond. There had been a ferocity and primal joy that Ducky had observed when Haswari shot his assistant.

Poor Gerald almost lost his arm. Indeed, he would have but for the fact that Ducky had prior surgical prowess that a regular ME simply wouldn't possess and the odd surgical instrument that MEs didn’t need. There had been absolutely no need to shoot Gerald so savagely. Ari could have easily shot him in the fleshy part of his arm and maintained his cover of terrorist, but the truth was the bastard enjoyed causing maximum pain and suffering.

And of course, in outsmarting Jethro, escaping, and adding insult to injury by shooting the Marine sniper in the shoulder in the process, it was the ultimate slur as far as Jethro was concerned. He, not surprisingly, lost sight of the big picture and entered his scary sniper goal-directed state, blind to how his team was imploding around him in the pursuit of his prey. Rather than being aware of the worrying dynamic of insubordination gradually creeping into the day-to-day functioning of the team and nipping it in the bud, he exacerbated it. His desire to capture Ari saw him desperate to wrap up incoming cases ASAP so he could continue searching for Ari and he used the most effective means to solve cases. Ruthlessly sussing out each member of his team's vulnerabilities like the predator he had been trained to be, he then pitted his SFA, junior agent and the new probationary agent all against each other in order to get results quickly.

While in terms of closing cases, it was a clearly effective tool since their solve rate remained unchanged, the damage done to the team dynamic, not to mention certain individuals, was immense. Anthony's position was undermined within the team as the juniors felt like they were his equal in rank and experience and he lost faith in his own abilities and role within the team. And any trust that they had excruciatingly rebuilt with him was shattered.

Oh, Ducky agreed with Gibbs that Haswari was a tangible threat, one that needed to be taken out, and done so with an equal degree of ruthlessness that he displayed with his fixation on Gibbs and his team. Still, Ducky couldn't help but wonder if Ari hadn't already won the war which he and Jethro seem inexorably locked into. Gibbs was barely eating or sleeping and was quite literally running his team into the ground. Then there was the kidnapping of Caitlin (who Ari seemed to have developed some sort of obtuse sexual attraction to) which could so easily have ended up with her wounded like Gerald, or conceivably worse, in the highly dangerous game of brinksmanship that he and Gibbs were engaged in.

Even if Gibbs' team wasn't physically in danger from Haswari, which Ducky didn't believe for a minute, he had Gibbs so riled up that his management of the team was potentially a cause for concern. It was so easy for insubordination to lead to possible injury or death in life-threatening situations out in the field. A prime example, which fortunately had ended safely, was when Gibbs had sent Caitlyn down to Paraguay with Anthony.

It should have been abundantly clear to the junior agent that NCIS wouldn't allow two junior agents of equal rank to undertake an operation to apprehend a fugitive and liaise with the Central Intelligence Agency in a foreign country. After all, she was a smart young lady who had worked her way up the chain of command in the Secret Service and it simply wasn't protocol. And while Gibbs might play by his own rules, a trip outside of the United States would have to been sanctioned by the director, Thomas Morrow, and there was no way he would permit two equally ranked agents to work in such a dangerously volatile location without supervision or a clear chain of command.

It, therefore, should have been painfully obvious to the team profiler that someone with her rather limited investigative field experience wouldn't be allowed to venture overseas without a superior with far more experience than she had to supervise her. It was simply the way that the chain of command worked. And therein lay the crux of the matter as Ducky saw it.

Special Agent Todd was an ambitious young woman who had worked her way up the ladder, all the way to be guarding the President of the United States, and clearly felt her skills were transferable. Transferable and that they were superior to Anthony's so she didn't respect him, although she still should have respected the position. Of course, practically the first thing that Gibbs had told her when she worked her first or second case with them and she reported that Anthony had already directed her on what to do had been a completely thoughtless and stupid comment that only he got to tell her what to do.

Little wonder then why she felt justified in questioning Anthony's orders constantly, but still she had been an experienced agent before joining them and there wasn't really an excuse even with Gibbs' stupid remarks. Simply put, she should have known better. And perhaps if Ari hadn't rattled Gibbs so badly everything would have settled down, but alas it had not, and in the case in point in Paraguay, her insubordination could easily have thwarted their attempt to track their suspect, Guyman Purcell. They also might not have had time to save that poor child, Anna Real, who was the sister of one of their victims before Purcell killed her since it had been a close thing by all accounts.

Not to mention that in hostile territory, she should have been watching her partner's six, not arguing over following Anthony’s orders. While things had fortuitously worked out all right, it was still a recipe for disaster and shouldn't have happened. Ducky hoped it would never have happened if Gibbs hadn't become so obsessed. That it was a classic case of being distracted and dropping a catch.

So, all things considered, it wasn't surprising that Anthony was once again hiding behind his persona of dumb frat boy to protect himself from the disarray that was currently the much-vaunted MCRT.

~oO0Oo~

They were all assembled at Gibbs' house, everyone except Gibbs and Tony. Gibbs, not unexpectedly, was still being debriefed over the discharge of his weapon during the parade and the 'accidental' shooting of a much-loved children's icon. Word was that Director Morrow had ordered an IA righteous shooting investigation at the behest of SecNav, but Ducky knew that it was all bunkum. Merely one of those wild rumours that somehow got started inexplicably and then it spread throughout the office and beyond like wildfire.

Ducky knew that Jethro would be home soon because SecNav and the Director both had families to go home to and dinners to attend. He wasn't so sure about where young Anthony had gotten to, but he doubted he would let his grannies down, or Mr Yost either. It seemed their young agent was just full of surprises.

Meanwhile, Caitlyn had been horrified when she'd discovered Carla, Raelene and Lillian, especially Lillian, at the dinner and Ducky suspected she would have turned tail and run. Abigail had been rather sneaky, though, and offered to drive Gibbs' two junior agents to his house, and it wasn't exactly in the middle of the public transport route, especially on a holiday. So, Caitlyn had little choice but accept the situation, even if it was somewhat grudgingly. 

She did look a little relieved when she was introduced to the nun who was such a good friend to Abigail, as that young lady had squealed with joy when she found that her best nun buddy had been invited to dinner. Caitlyn relaxed even more when she saw Corporal Ernest Yost who they'd exonerated last year. He had been quite the charmer even in the midst of his grief and guilt. He'd wondered what the Veteran was doing in Jethro's house, but Raelene whispered that Anthony had invited him. Ducky noticed that the old Marine had brought out the protector in them all; obviously, Anthony had carried his protective role on by the looks of things.

Then his mother had returned from the 'powder room' as Victoria referred to it coyly and the octogenarian immediately recognised Caitlyn. It seemed that today was one of his mother's increasingly rare good days where her lucidity was much better than normal.

Approaching the junior agent and giving her the gimlet eye that the younger Donald had learnt to fear, she demanded. "Show me your knickers, Missy."

Caitlyn got a stubborn look on her face. "I don't wear knickers, Mrs Mallard," She answered sweetly as everyone in the room snorted, choked or stared at her with jaws agape, depending upon their temperament and personality

"I knew you were a hussy and a gold digger, Little Miss Floozy. Don't think you'll be having my grandbabies. I'm keeping my eye on you!" She warned her nemesis sternly.

Caitlyn shrugged, leaned over and whispered to Abby but loud enough for most everyone else to hear, too, "Do you think she'd be happy if I told her I'm going commando or that I'm wearing a thong?" She asked the Goth.

Abigail giggled, "Don't tell me you wear a thong at work, Cate? That has to be pretty darned uncomfortable when you're chasing down a dirtbag."

"Boy's-leg panties," was the succinct reply.

Meanwhile, Victoria had spied Abigail and greeted her with enthusiasm, enquiring if she could put a hex on that floozy, gold digger to make sure she kept her grubby mitts off her son. She requested she made a love potion and also add in a fertility potion since Donald wasn't getting any younger and she wanted grandchildren. At which point Ducky became outraged and Abby adroitly managed to distract his mother by introducing her to Timothy. Victoria Mallard examined young Timothy intently, reminding Ducky of how an entomologist inspects a bug under a microscope, before scowling at him.

"Donald, why does this boy have such a smug expression on his face? He reminds me of my Great Aunt Elspeth's youngest son, Julian. He embezzled the family's fortune before running off with a scullery maid from Northern Ireland. It was quite the scandal," She confessed in a stage whisper that everyone could hear.

Ducky was mortified, even if he had to concede that young Timothy did indeed have rather a complacent countenance, but the lad couldn't help that. "Mother, leave the poor boy alone. He can't help the way he looks; it's how he was born. You should know that you can't judge a book by its cover," He admonished, taking his mother's arm and steering her towards Ernest even as he shot an apologetic look at McGee.

Luckily Ducky mused, Corporal Yost was quite a charmer and along with the LOLs managed to deflect the attentions of his mother. Then Carla asked her if she would like a Clayton's Kola Tonic and dry ginger ale, knowing it was his mother's favourite non-alcoholic drink, and appreciating that she hadn't offered her anything stronger. Good lord, there was no telling what she might say if she became tipsy, which his mother could do fairly quickly after consuming even a couple of Pimms or sweet sherries – her favourite alcoholic tipples. He was a little surprised that Lillian had procured the Clayton's and when he expressed his gratitude she shrugged.

"We all became quite fond of it after trying it when you had us over for dinner. Found a place in DC that sells imported British grocery items," She explained before introducing Sister Rosito to Victoria who looked perturbed. As a staunch life-long member of the Church of Scotland, it seemed she had a natural antipathy to Catholicism.

Pointing her slender, slightly arthritic finger at the nun, she warned. "We Mallards have been members of the Church of Scotland since the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century. Do not attempt to convert me, since your proselytizing will not succeed."

Ducky rolled his eyes, sending another apologetic glance at Abigail's bowling chum who smiled at him, amused. "Alright, Victoria, I will attempt to restrain myself. I appreciate your candour."

Lillian smirked, patting her on the hand comfortingly. "Don't be too harsh on her, Vicki, Sister Rosito has brought some of her famous homemade elderberry wine for dinner. It's sublime."

Ducky grinned; dear Lillian was probably the only person he knew that his mother would allow to call her Vicki.

~oO0Oo~

Ernie tucked one of the partially drunk bottles of bourbon inside his sling and carefully traversed the stairs to the basement. Gibbs had disappeared down the stairs not long after he arrived, his dismay at finding people in his house apparent. As soon as possible he had slipped downstairs and Ernie had seen the same grief he saw in his own eyes every day since he'd lost his darling, Dorothy. Seeing Gibbs searching for something in his basement, Ernie had a pretty good idea what the gunny was trying to find.

"Looking for this, Gunny?" he asked as Gibbs turned to see him holding up the bottle of Jack.

"Yeah, Ernie. Where'd you find it?"

"Um, I think that someone might have been a little concerned that you might overindulge, Marine," He said without giving too much away.

"That damned interfering woman can't mind her own business," He cursed irritably. "I guess she took my door, too?" He nodded to the non-existent door at the top of the basement stairs.

Ernie shuffled uncomfortably. "No, Gunny, that would be me. Look, I didn't realise we're invading your space. I'll tell them all to clear out. I know how hard it is when you've lost a loved one, even harder on the holidays. But Tony's been so kind to me that I couldn't refuse his invitation and then they had the gas leak and Carla said you'd okayed us using your place for dinner. I'm sorry we intruded." He paused, looking at the pain and anger in Gibbs' expression.

Gibbs had poured them both a shot of bourbon in a couple of coffee mugs of questionable cleanliness and despite his closed-off expression Ernie dared to ask the question as he sipped the liquor slowly.

"Your wife, Gunny?"

"And daughter."

"My condolences, Gibbs. How long's it been?" The veteran Marine asked gently.

"Fifteen years," Gibbs responded gruffly looking surprised that he was telling Corporal Yost his deepest darkest secrets, but Ernie reckoned it was probably because he was a fellow Marine and a recipient of the Medal of Honor. And because he'd lost his wife and suffered survivor guilt after what he'd been forced to do on Iwo Jima. Shared pain! 

Ernie supposed he must have looked surprised at the Gunny's verbal response even if he'd tried to remain impassive because Gibbs immediately became bitter and defensive.

"Ya going to tell me that it's time to move on? That time heals all wounds. Well… I…can't. And time doesn't heal a goddamned thing, so don't ya dare lecture me, Yost. You got to spend… what fifty years with your soul mate? And you've never lost a kid."

Kelly was only eight when she died…and it wasn't fair! Shannon and me only had been together for less than a dozen years and lots of it was me being deployed. So, don't tell me you know what I went through… what I'm going through. Ya haven't got a freakin' clue," He barked out spitefully, obviously intent on driving the old man away.

"That's true, Gibbs, and I'm sorry for your loss. You know, some people try to quantify grief," Yost mused quietly. "They think that having spent a long time with a loved one makes it easier to lose them. That being robbed of getting to spend half a century of happiness, love and laughter is so much more devastating and tragic than having it and then having it ripped away even if you've become as accustomed to it as breathing or your heart beating. Then there's another school of thought that says that the degree of grief is related directly to the amount of time you spent with a person… the longer you spent together the more grief and pain you experience when they have died before you.” Yost took a sip of the bourbon before continuing to talk conversationally.

 “It's like the old argument about it being easier to lose someone if ya know they're dying versus someone dying suddenly and having no warning. Me… I don't think that there is any damned formula for mourning and loss. I grieve for all the years of memories Dorothy and I spent creating and you mourn because you didn't get to make fifty plus years of memories and feel like fate cheated you," Ernie stated softly, gently but with a touch of censure nevertheless.

"But, Gunny, grief is grief and pain is pain. We all deal with it in our own ways and no one knows what someone else is truly feeling, but it isn't a competition, and no one has the right to think that their grief is stronger or nobler than another's. I may have been married to Dorothy for almost sixty years, but we also lost us almost a dozen little uns before we finally gave up trying to have a family." His face expressed deep pain and sadness.

"Most of them were miscarriages or stillbirths, but three of our precious babies were born alive and we lost them within days of being born, so I understand what it feels like to lose children before they had a chance to grow up and live a full life, and I can tell you that we mourned every last one of them. It almost killed my Dorothy, so ya see although I do know how much it hurts to lose someone I've known almost as long as I've known myself I also know how much it hurts to lose someone I never got a chance to know and I can tell you, Gunny, that it hurts just as much, just a different hurt." Ernie paused and noticed that Gibbs had poured them a second shot of bourbon and had already drunk his down.

"Ain't no timetable to say when you need to move on and get on with your life, Gunny, but maybe you gotta ask yourself if you' re trying to get over the grief or if yer wallowing in it." He held up a hand to forestall Gibbs. "No, look, Gibbs, I listened when you had your say, so give me the same respect, Marine. Honestly, it's no skin off my nose if you want to grieve for your family for the rest of your life, but keep in mind that you're probably hurting your family or at the very least, you're worrying the crap outta them."

"Don't have any family." Gibbs snarked, fed up that everyone tried to tell him to move on.

"You might be able to delude y'self, but don't try and fool me, Gunny. You're a Marine and you've got brothers in arms, and blind Freddy can see that that team of yours is the closest thing without actually sharing DNA. Young DiNozzo thinks you can almost walk on water and he's loyal and caring - he adopted an old confused man that he met on a case and became a grandson to him. Trust me… he's family, the best sort…the sort that chooses you and the others up there seem pretty darn concerned about you, too. But don't worry about it, Gibbs, I'll tell them you need to be alone and we can go to my place, I guess. Just don't forget that no one has the right to think that their grief is stronger than another's."

Ernie turned and climbed slowly up the stairs, pausing at the top.

"By the way, Carla hid your bourbon in the pantry cupboard behind the cereal. She confiscated it because she didn't want ya to drink yourself paralytic, but you're a grown man. You want to destroy your liver, far be it for me to stand in your way."

"Ernie," Gibbs called out to him, surly but slightly chastened, "They can stay."

Chapter Text

Ducky noticed that Gibbs was far from happy to find them all in his home and he wondered how he and Carla had managed to get their wires crossed so badly. Possibly because Gibbs was uber focused upon that poor little mite and bringing her home to her parents. Sometimes when they worked a case that involved children there was something so fierce, so primal about Jethro's rage he wondered what secrets he was hiding, because hiding he most certainly was.

They all hated cases that involved children, but Gibbs seemed to take it as a personal affront, and Ducky could only speculate about the cause. Perhaps a former girlfriend or an ex-wife who may have unilaterally decided to terminate a pregnancy? Would it explain the raw ferocity that he was unable to mask on these occasions…possibly?

When Jethro headed off towards the basement, Ducky sighed sadly and wondered if he should go down and poke the bear to see if said Ursidae Carnivora was okay or he should leave him alone to lick its wounds in private. Then he’d noticed Ernest watching Jethro shuffle off towards the basement and following in his wake.  In the end, he decided to let the veteran Marine deal with Gibbs since Ernest was no doubt accustomed to dealing with dangerous situations, he settled back, focusing on what was going on around him.

It seemed that young Caitlin was giving Abigail and McGee a blow by blow and also a highly entertaining description of the life-threatening injury to a children's balloon character, although she as close-mouthed about her undercover role. He wondered why that was. Although the NY Mayor had tried very hard to explain away the injury to the balloon dinosaur as an accident, not wanting to alarm all the tourists about their safety at the hands of a crazed federal agent, Ducky was dubious about his chances of success. In this day and age of digital cameras with everyone recording footage, that piece of fiction was going to be extremely hard to sell to the general public.

Then that had prompted McGee to share some college hi-jinks that he and his computer alumni had perpetrated on their classmates when he’d attended MIT while studying for his master’s in computer forensics. Apparently, the prank had something to do with the purple dinosaur, Barney and a computer virus.

Frankly, he wasn't too sure what one had to do with another, but he was afraid to ask. Not that he was afraid of looking like an ignoramus, but the lad did have a tendency to rave on for hours when he climbed on board his favourite hobbyhorses of computers and online gaming.

Ducky stared, as he saw Abigail scowl. Unlike a typical Goth, their scientist was a sunshiny lass, but she also had a hidden vein of steel hidden just below the surface. Although, even knowing that about her, he was quite shocked at what happened next.

Punching young Timothy on the bicep she growled at him, exasperatedly, "Why do you always gotta go there, Timmy?"

Rubbing his arm sulkily he glared at her. "Go where Abs?"

"Tell everyone you went to MIT and Johns Hopkins, McGee. It's getting old real fast." She whined, grumpily.

"Do not"

"Do, too."

"No. I. Don't. Abby."

"Cate, help me out here," She appealed to Caitlyn as Abigail and Timothy both turn to the team profiler to adjudicate their argument, although they sounded like siblings having a spat.

Sighing deeply, she flashed an apologetic look over at McGee. "Sorry, Tim, but yeah ya kinda do. You already mentioned it once in the car on the way over."

Now Timothy was wearing a scowl, too. "So, it’s a crime that I’m proud of my degrees? I’ll have you know that I worked my butt off to complete them and not everyone who applies gets accepted into Johns Hopkins and MIT! So, shoot me for mentioning it on rare occasions," he countered peevishly, folding his arms and thrusting out his lower lip.

Abby scowled. "See, you did it again. Rare my butt!"

"So, what… you’re saying everyone else can talk about college, but not me? Tony is always going on about his frat brothers. How is that fair?" Timothy complained sullenly.

Ducky entered the debate, internally concluding that pouty was not a good look on him, despite his babyface. "No one's saying that you can't talk about your college degrees and experience, Timothy. Just that it can be seen as rather," He searched in vain for the right word.

"I believe is the word that you were looking for is gauche, Donald," Victoria Mallard supplied her son helpfully. "In polite circles, it's considered to be skiting, Julian,” the Mallard matriarch sniffed disapprovingly.

"Um, ah, it's Tim, Mrs. Mallard, and what has a kite got to do with anything?" McGee asked feeling confused and angry. Everyone was ganging up on him.

Ducky sighed. "Skite not kite, Timothy, and means to boast, big-note or brag. To individuals of my mother's generation, big-noting yourself is considered to be in bad taste, a sign of ill-breeding if you like. And the word skite is more commonly used in Scotland and Northern England, although I have it on good authority that is also used by residents of the Antipodes, too."

"Well, I worked my butt off to get my degrees from two of the country’s prestigious institutions and I don't see anything wrong in being proud of my achievements or my high intelligence quotient. No-one handed me my education on a silver platter or greased a few palms for me to get admitted to college.” He said snidely and Ducky assumed he as talking about Anthony, not that his family had facilitated him into college.

“People are just jealous because I got to attend colleges that they never could because I’m smarter than they are," McGee argued bitterly.

Sister Rosito snorted inelegantly. " My goodness! Hasn't anyone ever taught you that pride goeth before a fall, young man?"

Raelene entered the fray, too right on the nun’s slipstream. "There's not that much to be prideful about, just because you happen to have a high IQ, Tim. That's a gift from God. In fact, a little humility and gratefulness wouldn't go astray.

For a start, plenty of people are smart enough to go to John's Hopkins, MIT or Harvard, but can't; my son for example.  He wanted to find a cure for cancer after he watched his little sister die of leukaemia. Brilliant boy, a score of colleges offered him a place, but I couldn't afford to send him. He ended up working on a construction crew until he was killed in a building site collapse when he was only 29."

McGee looked unconvinced and unimpressed with being taken to task by a nun and the octogenarian. "If he was really as smart as you say, he would have got a scholarship that would have paid his tuition." He argued, mulishly.

Sister Rosito shot him a glare to curdle milk. "He did win a scholarship, several actually. His mama had eight children to clothe and feed and no husband to speak of. Needed Zeke's help as the eldest to help her feed the family. She couldn't afford for him to not to be bringing in a wage for four years or more before he could contribute to the family finances."

Rae crossed herself and wiped her eyes, "Not the only ones in that situation, I'm afraid. The real poor can't go to those fancy colleges no matter how smart they are."

"Still, I had to work my butt off while I was there, and I don't see why I can't be proud that I graduated and mention it in conversation. Still think that it's old fashioned jealousy." McGee insisted, still not getting why he shouldn't constantly name drop about where he got his degrees. After all, they were prestigious colleges and his mom and Penny had always been darned proud of him, too."

Sister Rosito sighed. "Because, boy, you are making yourself look like a braggart. Abby doesn't go around spouting off about where she obtained her PhD or even insisting upon being addresses as Dr. Scuito, which she is more than entitled to do. And she graduated from Marshall University, the best forensics college in the country."

"And my Donald has a degree from Oxford," Victoria stated unexpectedly as Ducky scowled at her.

Cate looked surprised. "But you told Ari you graduated from Edinburgh Medical College?"

" Yes, and so I did, Caitlyn, but before I decided to become a doctor, I won a scholarship to Oxford and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and anthropology, my dear."

"Wow, Ducky, that's just totally cool." Abby enthused.

"But, Ducky," McGee persisted, unwilling to concede the point, "You always tell people that you went to Edinburgh University and even Tony mentions that he went to OSU. Why's it wrong for me to do the same?"

He looked truculent and Ducky shook his head, knowing that McGee couldn't understand that it was all about intention, He didn't mention Edinburgh University to name drop, he was a raconteur. He was willing to admit that some might find him an annoyance, but he wasn't trying to impress people, nonetheless. He preferred for his forensic abilities to rest on their laurels and his medical alma mater wasn't that prestigious.

"Timmy, "Abby responded testily, "Tony is usually talking about his frat brothers or his beloved Buckeyes when he talks about college. But he doesn't go around rubbing in everybody's faces' that he played in two different varsity OSU teams."

"Yes, he does, Abby, he talks about playing football and basketball, I've heard him," Tim objected heatedly at the same time as Ernie exclaimed. "Tony played Varsity football AND basketball? Wow, he never mentioned it was Varsity! I thought it was social teams. Why didn't he turn pro?"

"Broken leg," Abby supplied responding to Ernest.

"Nor does he doesn't go around flouting his Master's degree either," Carla stated tartly.

Cate shook her head. " There’s a reason for that, Carla. DiNozzo doesn't have a Masters because they don't award them for Phys. Ed," she stated derisively as McGee sniggered.

"Actually, they do, Cate, but his degree is in something else," Abigail objected.

"If Tony got a Masters it must be in some soft subject like films studies," McGee stated smugly to Cate who nodded seriously.

Lillian came in from Gibbs' kitchen and heard the junior agents making derogatory comments about her surrogate grandson and sprang to his defence. "Oh, for Pete's sake, since he never told you about it, I'm not going to either, but it is certainly not a fine arts degree or something frivolous.”

Mind, you do realise that some of the course work for a Phys. Ed. degree is similar to a medical or nursing course with subjects like anatomy and physiology?” the former social worker replied. “He finished the Masters not long after he came to DC when Gibbs hired him as Senior Field Agent to replace his previous agent who transferred." She made air quotes as she stressed the word transferred.

Ducky smirked at the shocked expressed on Caitlyn and Timothy's faces.

"No, that's wrong… um, er, Lillian?" McGee said, unsure if he got her name correct until she nodded. "Gibbs only appointed DiNozzo as the team SFA after he and Cate came back from Paraguay." He looked across at the junior agent for confirmation as Cate nodded emphatically

Abby snorted. "Where did you get a hinky idea like that, guys? Tony's been SFA since the Bossman dragged him back from Baltimore. Well, almost. He had to go to FLETC, oh, yeah and serve a probationary period, but Gibbs got it cut in half, down to six months and part of that included his stint at FLETC. But it was just a formality. He as SFA before either of you guys were hired."

Cate was shaking her head in disbelief and Ducky decided that since the topic was on the table, he might as well have his two cents worth, too. "Come now, Caitlyn, Gibbs lost his senior field agent, Stan Burley who he’d depended upon to watch his six. Do you really think when he had to rebuild his team again that Jethro would pick a probie or a junior agent BEFORE he replaced his 2IC?”

Seeing her look of befuddlement paired with her default expression of stubbornness at the confronting information he’d raised, Ducky felt quite cross with her. How the devil could she be so bloody well obtuse and protect the POTUS?

“Surely you didn't think that you would be allowed to travel overseas on an investigation with another junior agent of equal rank to you to watch your six. Really, you've been a federal agent for some time now and know that the Secret Service would never do that.” He told her tersely.

“Why would you think that NCIS would be any different? Director Morrow would never allow such a situation to occur because there always needs to be a clear chain of command when you are out in the field. Especially when you are out of country and one of the two agents has very little experience as an investigator." Ducky pointed out bluntly, ignoring Todd’s scowl.  

Abby tagged-teamed Ducky ably. "And despite Tony telling you he got the job because he smiled, he was being modest. He was one of the youngest detectives ever and had an impressive closure rate that rivalled my silver fox's. He aced his detective’s exam just like he did with his Police Academy training and FLETC. But apart from his awesome undercover work, one reason he was awarded a gold shield so soon after joining the force was because he was enrolled in a Masters course.

“Progressive police departments are rejecting the old-fashioned type of cops with minimum educational levels. Nowadays, the more educational qualifications recruits have, the better and the quicker they progress up the ladder. Although Tony said he really started studying again because he was bored on a long undercover op."

She glared at her friends, "And before you ask, I know all this because Gibbs asked Chris Pacci to check Tony out before he convinced him to come to NCIS and Chris asked me to do the digging for him. I’m not going to tell you details but let's just say that Tony is way more than just a pretty face. Underestimate him at your peril."

"But Gibbs announced his promotion after we came home from Paraguay, Ducky," Cate objected looking very uncomfortable at Abby’s anger while McGee nodded vigorously.

“Yeah, he did, Abbs.”

"Did he my dear, or did he simply introduce him to a LEO in your presence as his senior field agent for the first time since you joined the team and Tony was excited at being recognised for his proper rank for a change?" Ducky asked Cate mildly.

He already knew what had happened though, since Anthony had been so thrilled by the rare acknowledgement of his rank since the new members of the team had joined them that he'd rushed down to Autopsy to share the good news. How sad is that?

"But, Abby, Gibbs told me on my second case after Tony tried to boss me around in the field that he was the only one that could give me orders. Why would he do that if DiNozzo was really our SFA?"

Shaking his head, Ducky replied diplomatically. "I believe that is a question that you would be best to direct to the man himself, dear Caitlyn, but I will say this. Jethro is something of a micromanager and in the recent times... well, he's been somewhat reluctant to delegate…"

"What he's trying not to say is that the second B in Gibbs is for bastard and your boss has his head up his ass. It's one reason why he can't keep agents. They'll even volunteer to be agents afloat to get away from him and he's going try to do better by his SFA. That right, Duck?" Gibbs deadpanned looking at Ducky enigmatically, making everyone in the room jump except for the ME who'd notice his friend slink into the room unnoticed some time ago.

Ducky held his gaze and replied earnestly, "From your lips to God's ears, my friend."

Changing the subject swiftly Gibbs barked, back to his usual bastard mode, "Where's DiNozzo? Has anyone called him?"

"I did, Bossman, but it went to voicemail," Abby said as she rushed across the room to hug him tight." As she clasped him, she whispered in his ear, "Glad you shot that hinky purple dinosaur, I never liked him."

"He’s probably hooked up with his latest skanky girlfriend," McGee offered helpfully.

While Gibbs privately agreed with that assessment, if not the skanky part, he luckily didn't have a chance to verbalise it before Ernie, seeing the look of outrage on the LOLs faces mixed with worry, interrupted.

Patting Lillian on the shoulder he soothed them. "Now, don't go borrowing trouble, ladies, he's probably just fallen asleep. I'm sure he'll be here soon. He looked exhausted when I last saw him."

Cate snorted. "If he actually went home when he was supposed to instead of cavorting around with a new girlfriend every night…" She trailed off realising his surrogate grannies were all glaring daggers at her and they were all really, really mean, angry grannies.

"Well, he does. He spent most of Thanksgiving eve at work harassing his latest bimbo, ringing her constantly, instead of working like the rest of us," she tried to justify herself, but just ended up digging herself an even deeper hole with the LOLs.

Ernie started laughing uproariously. "Oh, dear girl, might it be that you're a tad jealous he's never asked you out? And by the way, he wasn't on the phone to his girlfriend."

Cate looked outraged at the suggestion she wanted DiNozzo to ask her out, flush bright red. "What is this, the DiNozzo Appreciation Society?” she demanded.

“Well, let me tell you that your paragon of virtue isn't as perfect as you like to think. When Gibbs sent us home to get some sleep, he was actually out… I believe you would say he was sowing his wild oats. He came into work the next day looking like something the cat dragged in." She looked at Gibbs for confirmation and he nodded affirming her statement.

Rae, who was now seated beside Cate on the couch, reacted by elbowing her sharply in the gut and the profiler let out a sharp cry of pain while Lillian seemed to be looking around for something specific (her handbag) and Carla shot a feral glance at the team before directing her piercing glare towards Ernest. "Do you want to set them straight Mr Yost or shall I?" She asked the decorated war hero, who was looking visibly upset too.

"Oh, for the love of Mike," He huffed out irritably. "Call yourselves investigators, dont'cha?"

And Lillian piped up, directing her ire unsurprisingly at Caitlin. "And you, Missy, are supposed to be a profiler and a Christian. How come you let hardened terrorists, rapists and killers convince you that they're misunderstood or victims of society, yet the man who would willingly take a bullet for one of your team, you view as a piece of trash? What kind of a person does that make you?"

Just then, Anthony came rushing through Gibbs' unlocked front door. Ducky noted he looked stressed and deeply apologetic.

"Hey there, lovely Ladies. Ernie my apologies for being late. I stopped to have forty winks and I ended up having one hundred and forty," He said contritely, doing the rounds and kissing each of his so-called grannies and hugging Yost gently before seeing Ducky's mother. Grinning despite the fact that he'd picked up on the tense atmosphere, he crossed to Victoria and bowed low before kissing her hand.

Ducky's mother simpered like a schoolgirl. "It's my Italian Gigolo furniture-mover, Antonio. Donald, why didn’t you tell me my beau would be here?” Patting his hand, she said, “You must sit beside me for dinner, but no hanky-panky at the table, young man, and don’t be jealous of Matthew," She shot a glance at Gibbs. "He means nothing to me any more," She assured DiNozzo.

Ducky noted that Gibbs looked embarrassed and shot him a sympathetic glance. For some reason, Victoria was convinced he was actually a former paramour of her’s and Ducky really didn't want to know the details of that affair. While he might be a mature and worldly adult, who, by dint of his vocation (where he saw depravity daily and his lifelong travels to every corner of the globe) understood the ways of the world. But… the idea of his mother engaging in sexual activities, even with his father, was enough to turn him into an embarrassed adolescent again.

McGee now seemed rather relieved that his mother hadn't taken to him, while the others seemed mostly amused. Anthony was unfazed, effortlessly slipping into the role of jealous suitor that Victoria had cast him into like a hand into a glove. In fact, he looked like he was relishing it. No doubt in part due to his undercover skills, but also thanks to his love of classic black and white films from the Golden Years of Hollywood.

"My Love," He began in a suitably melodramatic tone, "He'd better not try to steal your affections, or I will have to challenge him to a duel." He warned the elderly woman sternly, " Remember, I will not share you, Victoria."

Ducky chuckled at his mother's coy delight and he decided to thank Anthony later for entering into her fantasy. It was heart-warming to see how his mother responded to his charm and manners. She looked so happy.

Looking at the LOLs and the team, Tony shot Ernie an inquiring look. "Is everything alright, guys?" Spying Cate rubbing her abdomen, he frowned. "You okay there, Cate?"

She shot him a look that could strip paint and he sighed. "Okay, what have I done now, apart from being late and breaking Rule 6?" He inquired tiredly.

Ernie patted him on the shoulder. "You haven't done anything wrong, Son, I was just about to disabuse your teammates of some cockamamie notions they've got in their darn fool heads about you, pardon my French, dear ladies."

Ducky knew that Anthony tried to deflect or defuse bitter conflict, making a habit of de-escalating confrontations in the bullpen. Now he watched Anthony perform a well-worn dance once more."Ernie, you should just let it go, it's not worth getting upset over. Let's just eat."

The ME shuddered to think about what had gone on behind closed doors when Anthony was growing up. It was a sad fact that drunks could be particularly vicious, even verbally, and Ducky didn't ascribe to the maxim that sticks and stone may break your bones, but words will never hurt you. Words did enormous damage, especially to an impressionable and vulnerable child, which is why he tried to educate the team about automatic thoughts. He’d also hoped that Jethro might curb his vitriol because even though the lad seemingly laughed them off, Ducky knew damned well that he was still processing and internalising the insults.

He looked over at the LOLs who were all visibly upset, but what Anthony couldn't know was that they were angry with Anthony's team, and more than happy to have Ernest say whatever it was he'd planned. Actually, Ducky as an incurably inquisitive individual was itching to find out too what it was that Anthony had interrupted.

“Afraid I can’t let it go, Tony. These lovely ladies would never forgive me,” Ernie told Anthony regretfully, while Carla nodded emphatically.

Turning to Cate and Tim, he said, "The reason your teammate was on the phone so much during the case was that I didn't pick up the phone when he called as he’d promised. I got an infection, became really dizzy and couldn't tell up from down, then I fell, breaking my arm and passing out cold on the ground. When I came around, I was too muddled and dizzy to get myself up off the floor and call for help. So, when I didn't answer his calls, he organised one of his cop buddies to come and check on me because he couldn't. And the reason he came in looking like the wreck of the Hesperus is that…"

"Ernie, please leave it alone. It doesn't matter," Tony pleaded with the elderly man, desperate to forestall him.  Ducky like the others were curious and wondering what could be so bad that Tony didn't want to reveal it to the team.

"No, Tony, they should darn well know that you spent the night staying beside my bedside at the hospital 'cause I was delirious and kept calling for Dorothy and getting upset when she didn't come. I'm not gonna sit here and let them say you didn't do your job properly because you were looking after my six, Son." He said, gently, suddenly aware of just how upset Tony was that the team knew what he had done, even if the old man didn't understand why he was distraught.

Carla clearly concerned about Tony state of mind deflected attention away from him swiftly by saying. "Come on. Let's everyone sit down and eat dinner."

Ernie, desperate to soothe the unexplained tension, too, asked Tony mischievously, "Any chance that that pretty little police officer friend of yours might go out to dinner with me, Tony?"

Tony chuckled, "Sure, Ernie, long as you don't mind her husband tagging along, too. He's a jealous bastard."

As they were making their way to Gibbs' improvised extended dining table the NCIS team leader, who had exceptional hearing even if his up-close eyesight was crap, overheard Ernie apologising to DiNozzo for upsetting him. Tony smiled and said not to worry about it, but it was a patently fake grin, typical of his habit of downplaying his pain and Ducky and Gibbs both recognised it as such. Then Ernie asked him what the big secret was and DiNozzo had sighed.

"I broke the rules, Ernie." He said softly, leaving the old man looking confused.

What rules would they be, Tony? Seems to me you done good, kid."

Exhaling loudly, the young agent counted off the transgressions on his fingers. "Rule 10 and 11, Ernie; don't get emotionally involved and when the job's done -walk away. Then just now when I came in, I apologised for being late, breaking rule 6. And… I also broke the unspoken rule about making personal calls during work hours."

Looking at the exhausted agent who had wormed his way into Ernie's heart and stirred up paternal feelings that he thought were long dead, he shook his head. I don't know about Rules 10 and 11, Son but there's nothing wrong with apologies. Nothing at all."

"It's a sign of weakness," DiNozzo explained, looking exhausted and defeated.

Ernie burst out laughing. "Oh Tony, you pattern your rule on a two-bit actor called Marion Morrison who earned a living pretending to be something he wasn't? I'd much rather take the words of a writer, like Alexander Pope, a poet as my moral compass. He said, "A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying that he is wiser today than he was yesterday."

 Hearing Jethro’s snort, Ducky couldn’t resist flashing a glance Gibbs’ way at how he was handling the esteemed Marine pronouncing judgement on one of his friend’s cardinal rules and saw that Jethro was not best pleased. Well phooey to that – he’d always said it as an asinine rule. Not that Jethro had listened to him, of course.    

“And as to making personal calls at work; you often work 18-hour days and you frequently don't come home for days on end.” Yost pointed out mildly.  “So, when the heck you supposed to make personal calls or aren't you supposed to have a private life?” he argued. “I'm eternally grateful that you saw fit to break that foolish rule or I might have died, lying on that floor all alone.

"As I said; YOU DONE GOOD."

Chapter Text

Gibbs was shamelessly listening in on the conversation between Cpl Yost and DiNozzo although, technically since the conversation was taking place in his living room, as far as Jethro was concerned, he wasn’t eavesdropping.  He couldn’t help but feel pissed off at his SFA and the elderly Marine and oddly, he found himself even more furious with Ernie, like he’d broken some Marine Corps bro-code, taking DiNozzo side.

Aside from the contraventions he'd listed, Tony had also deliberately withheld from him... er his teammates the truth about what he was doing and let them assume he was off cavorting with his girlfriend.  He felt his ire rising at the thought - his 2IC had made him look like a total tool in front of everyone. What was so all damned top-secret about talking to Cpl Ernie Yost that he couldn't just come out and tell him what was going on?

He remembered DiNozzo trying to get away when they were supposed to be en route to the crime scene. Why hadn't he come clean then about why he wanted to make a detour instead of all the cloak and dagger? Then when he took what Gibbs thought was a call at the crime scene from his current flavour of the week, why the devil didn't he tell him the truth instead of letting Gibbs go off half-cocked at him?

Becoming more incensed by the second, Jethro recalled how he’d come into work looking like death warmed over after Gibbs sent him home to sleep. He’d deliberately disobeyed a direct order and visited Yost in the hospital instead of doing as he’d been told. Little wonder then that the team had jumped to the most obvious conclusion... okay that he’d leapt to the wrong assumption.

Why didn't DiNozzo just explain? Why the secrets, subterfuge and the sneaking around lying to him. Why couldn't his SFA just trust him, goddamn it? Why... why... why?

'You know very well why he did it, Leroy,' his good angel whispered inside his head, and he wondered inconsequentially why his good angel always called him Leroy since no one, but his old man ever called him that. He hated the name Leroy and h e wasn’t feeling all that well disposed to his good angel either .

'He doesn't trust you because too many people have betrayed him, including you. Didn't you vow to try and win back his trust? So, what the Hell happened to you, hey?'

And he only needed one word to answer that accusation – Ari. The fount of all that was evil in his world revolved around that psychopath.

"And it's NO excuse,' his good angel shot back at him before he could draw breath.

Oh yeah, his good angel was right about that. Plus Cate was right about the DiNozzo appreciation society convening, but how pathetic that it wasn't his team that is doing the appreciating or defending!

His good angel chimed in again…always with the tough questions. 'When did ya stop being on his cheer squad, Leroy? You saw his potential when you hired him but what's that saying - familiarity breeds contempt? It sure seems to apply in this case.

Gibbs scowled; even Tom Morrow had been on his back lately about how he treated of his SFA, warning that there were plenty of other agencies lining up to recruit him if he didn't feel like a valued member of Gibbs team. The director had reamed him out viciously and systematically about what had occurred down in Cuidad de Este when Cate had been openly insubordinate in front of witnesses including a POI while they were tracking down that loathsome piece of scum, Purcell. Morrow was scathing about how she'd almost scuppered the plan to locate the dirtbag by resisting a direct order by DiNozzo to hand over her NCIS issued cell phone.

According to Morrow, it could have resulted in the spook, Guyman Purcell having ample opportunity to get rid of his 17-year old "wife" who had so much dirt on him he'd already sanctioned one-fated attempt to kill her. But instead of killing Purcell's wife, the bumbling assassin he'd recruited (in a Monty Python-esque screw up) had killed Ana Real's little 14-year-old sister by mistake. Despairing of her being killed, the odious spook decided to do the deed himself and had been thwarted by DiNozzo and Todd by the barest of margins.

Morrow had torn Gibbs a new one for not taking action over the insubordination when he'd read DiNozzo's report, plus the Tactical Analysis Team's Joe Tabarez who'd also witnessed the incident and submitted a report on it too. Morrow was furious that it had occurred, and even more enraged that Gibbs had let it slide and he’d insisted his lead agent make it right. He'd threatened that unless Gibbs resolved the issue satisfactorily that he wouldn't authorise either of the junior agents, Todd and McGee on any more international missions. Instead, he would send a junior agent from another team that could be trusted to follow orders and observe the chain of command.

He also threated to announce the ban and embarrassingly, the reason for it. The MCRT and their leader would be a laughingstock. Morrow really knew how to play dirty. In the director's mind, the buck stopped with Gibbs.

And as much as Gibbs liked and respected Director Morrow he absolutely hated being dictated to about his team, which was why Gibbs had, instead of taking the bull by the horns and dealing directly with the issue as ordered, chosen to do so obliquely. He'd figured that if he reminded McGee and Todd of Tony's rank, they'd fall into line PDQ. So, he’d introduced DiNozzo to the LEOs on their very next case they’d work, by his rank (a basic courtesy he hadn't afforded him in a very long time) and it had seemed to mollify DiNozzo, judging by the huge grin he’d sported all day.

He'd thought the issue was resolved. Consequently, he was shocked to hear the conversation in his living room revealing that his gormless junior agents 'seemed' unaware that Tony was their direct superior. What a FUBAR! So much for him having DiNozzo's six.

 He remembered back to another time when he'd almost lost DiNozzo. Now, if the DiNozzo Appreciation Society and Morrow were correct, he was once again feeling isolated and underappreciated. That didn't bode well, and he recalled that team meeting they'd held done it Abby's lab where they'd all expressed the desire to regain his confidence…

...Ducky had turned and regarded Gibbs, before addressing them all seriously, "You wanted to know how we fix this? I'm not sure if we can since we didn't cause it, although we were just starting to break through his defences. We had begun to earn his trust so that he could show us a little of 'who' the true Anthony really is. Even if it wasn't our intention, we have proved to him that his deepest fears were correct and that he still doesn't make the grade…"

He'd promised to have his six; it was his most important rule after all, but since Haswari he'd been neglecting his responsibilities. He’d depended on his SFA holding the team together while in Tony's vernacular, he went off on his Great White Whale hunt, but he wasn't giving him the tools or support he needed to do the job properly. He cut the ground out from under his feet constantly by not enforcing chain of command and he'd gotten distracted just like Ducky had predicted at the meeting…

He'd dropped the ball… they'd all dropped the ball and when DiNozzo had appeared to bounce back to the wise-cracking frat boy that let all the insults roll off his back like they didn't bother him, they all forgotten about him. They’d all gone back to treating him like a pile of crap once more.

Was there any wonder that DiNozzo didn't choose to share anything not work-related with them or him and really what right did he have to be pissed about it either? But his bad angel playing devil's advocate and was feeling argumentative., ‘He disobeyed your direct order to go home and sleep. What was so damned important about keeping you and the team in the dark about Ernie. Does he get off on playing games and making you look small,' he cussed?

But his good angel wouldn't let go, refusing to let him blame his SFA.

'You know why, Leroy. He told Yost why, even if the veteran had no idea what it meant. He broke your Rule 10 and 11 for reasons that he believed in and he thought you'd be pissed at him and you know what? You probably would have been, even if you rarely manage to follow any of your own rules apart from the ones relating to lawyers. YOU ARE A DAMNED HYPOCRITE, LEROY!'

Jethro winced at his good angel. Why the hell did they have to yell so freakin loud?

'He was doing something kind, but all he can think about is you're pissed because he broke your damned rules. Rules he follows a darn sight better than anyone else you've ever had on your team - rules you don't bother to follow - even if you expect the team to, you phony.

It's what made him a good cop and a better agent, Leroy. He cares and he does what's right, even when he thinks he's disappointing you. It's why people open up to him, people like Ernie.

As he made his way to the table, Jethro noticed Tony sitting beside Ducky's mother who was flirting with him in her old-worldly Gone-with-the-Wind style and he smirked at Ducky, wondering what his own mom would be like in her golden years if she was still alive. He missed her, almost as much as Kelly and Shannon.

He looked at Ernie sitting beside Abby and he noticed that the old Marine was watching Tony fondly. Just how close were they? Sure, he'd said downstairs that DiNozzo had been looking out for him, but he figured it was an exaggeration, something to make his point as he pontificated about his grief. Now Gibbs wasn't so sure.

It was a little over a year since they first met Cpl Yost and he'd made DiNozzo babysit the war hero. He went home with the old guy, he recalled suddenly. Was it just that with the holiday approaching his SFA decided to look up the old Marine to be kind or had he gone looking for a surrogate father figure? The man had called him Son after all.

Damn it, why had DiNozzo lied to him, letting him think that he was calling his latest conquest? He felt his face grow heated as he remembered reaming him out about a call he’d made at the crime scene. A phone call which Jethro now realised was one of his cop buddies who he'd sent to check on Ernie giving him a sitrep.

Had they heard him screaming at his 2IC over the phone, he wondered. Damn DiNozzo, he was hard work with all his complexities and insecurities. Either that or he was deliberately trying to make him crazy!

As Jethro went to sit down, Rae pushed him up towards the head of the makeshift dining table, informing him that he should be the one to carve the turkey. Meanwhile, the LOLs and Sister Rosito started loading up the table with so much food he expected it might collapse under the weight of it all. And in the silence that ensued which was more than a little uncomfortable, Ducky's mother chose to fill it, leaning over and patting his hand to get his attention.

"Now, now Matthew, don't pout, it isn't becoming, my love. Don’t be jealous, I'm sure that you can have a dance with me later on. I'll pencil you into my dance card, but I wonder where the bootlegger is?”

Leaning forward conspiratorially Victoria announced in a theatrical stage whisper which could b heard by the entire table, “Donald says this is his house, although I expected something a little more ostentatious than this bland domicile from such a colourful character. Are you acquainted with the rascal too, Matthew? What did you say the bootlegger’s name was, Donny dear?"

Ducky looked mortified. Jethro… his name is Jethro, Mother and I said he was a colleague from work, not a bootlegger."

Abby giggled. "He couldn't make it Mrs Mallard. The rapacious bootlegger is hiding out from the G-Men at the moment, especially the big bad Special Agent Fornell," she confided impishly.

"My goodness, "Victoria exclaimed. "How exciting. But will they be after us too for drinking elderberry wine? Are we going to end up in the hoosegow?"

Sister Rosito entered good-naturedly into the fantasy, "No Victoria, my homemade elderberry wine is purely for medicinal purposes. I call it my rheumatism medicine," The nun confided to the octogenarian.

Victoria Mallard frowned. "But I don't have rheumatism."

"Neither do I," Abby's bowling buddy revealed, winking wickedly. "That's why I drink it."

~oO0Oo~

Sister Rosito looked around the table with interest. She had been hearing about these people from Abby for quite a few years now. First, it had been Gibbs and Ducky that she prattled on about when she first started working at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and there had been someone else called Stan Burley who Abby seemingly idolised. He'd apparently developed a peptic ulcer and taken a job onboard a ship as a form of self-preservation against being at Gibbs' beck and call 24/7.

Although Abby had been inconsolable with his departure, she'd soon started talking about a young interloper that thought he could replace the irreplaceable Stan. Gradually she had warmed to the former detective Anthony DiNozzo and over the coming months the nuns listened, amused at how she became enamoured by him - almost against her will.

Apparently he was everything that she abhorred, brought up with wealth, a jock, conventionally good looking and with an attitude that seemed to not take anything seriously, all of which wasn't exactly compatible with the tales she told of a dedicated hard worker who obviously felt a call to serve and protect. Soon ‘The Jerk’ as she had labelled him had become Tony-boy and my Tony in her stories and he seemed to have been accepted into her inner circle of trust. Then came Vivian Blackadder, a former FBI agent who never really gelled with the group and then committed the unforgivable sin – at least in Abby's opinion of almost getting Gibbs and Tony killed in an ambush in Rota, Spain when she'd been blindly pursuing a personal agenda.

Then about two years ago Abby had become excited when a female agent, a former Secret Service agent, Caitlyn Todd joined them. And then just over twelve months ago she started to ramble about a Timmy that they finally learnt was one Timothy McGee, a computer expert who’d finally joined Gibbs team as their probationary field agent. Sister Rosito smiled at the memory of Abby trying to be coy about her short-lived romantic liaison with said Probie when talking to the nuns. None of the nuns was exactly naïve and Sister Teresa began to refer to the situation as Abby and the Agnostic since he apparently was more wedded to his computer games and String Theory than a concept of a higher power.

Just as they were aware when the short-lived affair had begun, they also knew when came to an abrupt halt when the young man became too serious for Abby's comfort. They were aware that Abby was something of a wild child and that she shied away from commitment. While they may not have been totally approving of her peccadillos, Abby volunteered tirelessly, and she wasn't actually a Catholic, but she did have a generous spirit and a kind heart, and the nuns were all quite fond of her.

Of course, Sister Rosito's Order was a progressive one, and extremely open-minded so they tended to ignore idiosyncrasies like her obsession with vampires, aliens and her interest in fringe religions like voodoo and witchcraft. Then again, hailing from Louisiana it was not altogether surprising pastime either.

Then a couple of years ago, Sister Rosito discovered her old friend Raelene Jones nee Richmond had, adopted Anthony DiNozzo along with a pair of octogenarian friends who referred to themselves as the LOLs. Her friend's observations of the team had provided a rather different point of view of the team to Abby's, though. Raelene had been Sister Rosito's nursery schoolteacher back when she had been plain Judith Terry and they had always kept in contact over the years.

The good sister had been shocked when she heard how Tony's so-called friends and colleagues had turned their back on him when he needed somewhere to stay. While she didn't know any of them apart from Abby, her glowing reports about how they were all such a loving family didn't exactly gel with what Rae had recounted.

So, when the LOLs invited her to the impromptu Thanksgiving Dinner and explained that Cpl Yost and Victoria Mallard would also be joining them it was an opportunity too good to pass up to meet them all. So far it had been interesting, to say the least. Now as they were all seated with the table laden with food, Rae had smiled at her and invited her to say grace which she proceeded to do with humility, humour and grace. Then she suggested that they'd each take a turn telling those gathered what they were thankful. That proposal brought forth a mixture of groans, grimaces, scowls and squeals.

Abby bounced up and down in her chair demanding to be first and the nun was struck with how much she acted like the spoiled baby of the family, even Gibbs smiled self-indulgently at her antics. Sister Rosito found it disconcerting because this Abby was rather different from the one that volunteered at the convent or supervised a construction squad of contractors when they worked together for Habit for Humanity. The Goth girl was a much more mature individual there and the nun wasn't sure that she liked the infantile version nearly so much. Her Abby was smart, sassy and well able to look out for herself without all the coy affectations.

Typically, Abby’s thanks were for her family in Louisiana and her work family at NCIS. She squealed excitedly that she was pleased that if they couldn't be home for Thanksgiving that it was wonderful that their NCIS family were together. The nun noted that Cate threw her a look that could probably kill, and she wondered about it.  It seemed she didn’t share her sentiments.

Victoria, who was sitting beside her, went next and in a rare moment of lucidity, she announced that she was grateful to have such a devoted son, even if he'd failed to give her much longed for grandchildren. And she simpered coquettishly.  shooting admiring looks at Anthony and Jethro, that she was thankful to have the attention of two such debonair male suitors, which earned chuckles around the table. And she made special mention of the corgi crew, remembering each by name.

Tony seemed reserved which was certainly out of character going by the accounts she'd heard but he'd seemed upset when he arrived. He simply said he was thankful for his apartment, his work and friends.

Lillian stated that she was thankful that her family was all safe and well, even if they weren't together for the holiday. Sister Rosito knew that they were living overseas in Spain or Portugal and that Lil missed her daughter and her grandchildren dreadfully. Which probably explained why the motherly woman had latched onto Tony; his subtle air of melancholy even if it was skillfully disguised by a happy-go-lucky façade obviously made people want to take care of him. But the Sister Rosito like everyone else at the table was totally unprepared for what Lil had to say next.

"I'm also really thankful that a cruel joke played by my surrogate grandson's teammates in faking up a photo of him appearing to be homosexual relationship didn't end up costing him his job, his health and safety. Personally, I'm shocked that people tasked with making sure others uphold the law would decide to break it in so cavalierly a fashion and with such arrogant disregard for the consequences of their actions. I hope they are thankful that due to his forgiving nature they still have their jobs."

The nun felt her jaw drop at the bombshell and she noticed that Ernie looked shocked too. Upset and furious – clearly the young man had collected a surrogate grandfather too she concluded. But it was Abby and Cate's response that was most interesting, along with Tony who looked as if he wished the ground would open and swallow him up. Abby looked guilty and crestfallen so the nun hazarded a guess that Abby had played a part in the joke, while Cate appeared truculent and defensive and the sister decided she must be the other guilty party.

Frankly, she was surprised at Abby, wondering what would possess her to treat a friend like that. Still, she was totally unprepared for what happened next. Carla who was sitting next to Cate produced Lil's handbag from under the table and whacked the agent over the head.

"Ouch…Why don't you whack him, too? He threatened to show everyone an embarrassing photo of me. He's hardly blameless," Cate whined angrily.

“And this embarrassing photo of you; was it faked in any way? Did Tony steal it from someplace private like your home or your desk, or was the photo taken without your knowledge or consent?” Cate’s silence on the topic spoke volumes to those guests at the table, but Lillian wasn’t done yet.  

“And if people did view this embarrassing photo of you, could it cost you your job or have the potential to cause your colleagues to verbally and physically harass you or fail to provide back up in the field due to bigoted attitudes?

Cate glared at her nemesis before directing a poisonous scowl at Tony

"I'll take that as a no and don't be getting all shirty with Tony, Madam. He didn't tell me. I have my own sources. But be that as it may, a photo of you in a wet T-shirt competition when you were in college might not have been the smartest thing you could have done but it was not the end of the world either. Your embarrassment comes about since you make such a show of being an ardent feminist and complaining loudly about the objectification of women and the photo makes you look like a hypocrite. Is that really any justification for committing fraud?"

Nodding to Carla who whacked her again with her friend's handbag, Lil scolded her. "Shame on you, Missy and what did Father Julius have to say when you went to confession and told him what you’d done?"

The nun noticed that Cate dropped her eyes and blushed.

"Guessing you're going to rat me out," she muttered petulantly.

Sister Rosito decided to enter the discussion. "No, she won't but I suspect that God already knows about it, my dear. But until you can see the enormity of your transgression, making a confession would be a waste of everyone's time. And you Abigail – were you a party to this appalling behaviour too?"

As the Goth nodded, her eyes welling with tears, the nun regarded her dispassionately. “I am really disappointed with you. I've always admired your strong sense of justice and I always believed that you weren't a bigoted person. There are enough gay hate crimes in the world without adding to it. And,”  she admonished sternly, “Tears won't make amends nor improve my opinion of your behaviour, young lady. "

The nun stared at her shrewdly. "I doubt that you would have been crying if Lil hadn't decided to share your transgression. Which leads me to conclude your tears are because you have been found out. Not because you are any more contrite than Agent Todd.  Did you even apologised to Anthony?"

Seeing tears overflowing Abby's pale green eyes and her downcast expression, she decided not. "Well, it might have been more convincing if you had shown contrition. As it stands, it looks like you got caught out and are feeling sorry for yourself. Like those transgressors, you help to catch, Abigail."

Ducky, though he was less than impressed with the two young ladies empathised with Tony's extreme discomfort and got things back on track. "Timothy, I do believe it is your turn to tell us what you are giving thanks for," the ME nodded encouragingly.

"Umm, I'm grateful for my Mom and my little sister Sarah and my Grandmother Penny. And I'm thankful that I'm just about to achieve a long-held ambition that is the result of many hours toil." He finished mysteriously.

Everyone looked at Special Agent Gibbs who glowered at them all before he gave in with bad grace. "Fine, I'm glad that damned stupid dinosaur didn't make it… What, it's true!" Evidently feeling that he had failed in his social obligations he added, "And I'm thankful for having my best friend, my boat." Folding his arms, his jaw jutting out, Gibbs' body language screamed he was done.

Dr Mallard, or Ducky as he'd insisted Sister Rosito call him, chortled at Gibbs abrupt contribution. "Yes, well my turn, I believe. I'm thankful to have Mother here, even if no one can embarrass me quite as well as Victoria can. I'm also thankful that that precious child Courtney-Jayne is safe and sound at home with her family thanks to everyone's hard efforts," Smiling at the team. "And finally, I'm grateful that we have all come through intact for another year, even if Caitlyn was abducted by terrorists and Anthony was chained to a serial killer who tried to kill him."

Sister Rosito smiled as Ernie took his turn. She'd had the pleasure of chatting to the man earlier on and he was a real sweetheart. It wasn't every day you got a chance to meet a genuine hero. These days the term was bandied about way too often as far as she was concerned. A sports star or an entertainer was frequently proclaimed a legend or a hero, but it took more than being talented to be a hero, she thought. Whilst Ernie was a true war hero he was typically like other heroes, endearingly modest.

He smiled, "Well I guess I'm thankful that Tony was watching my six and found me before it was too late. This time last year I probably wouldn't have wanted to be found but this year I'm glad to still be here, even though Dorothy isn't with me. And this last year even if it has been very difficult, I've been lucky enough to find a great friend, perhaps he may even allow an old man the folly of considering him a surrogate grandson and now today I have all of you helping me to keep my promise to my beloved Dotty.”

 His voice grew slightly quivery with motion as he continued, “We promised each other that whoever was left behind had to live their life and not spend what was left of it mourning instead of living. That's not to say I don't miss her; I do every hour of every day. But life is too precious to waste it feeling sorry for myself and she didn't want that. When we're together again, I want to be able to look Dorothy in the eye and tell her I kept my promise to her, so thank-you for letting me share the holiday with you all."

At this point most everyone was teary-eyed or had a lump in their throats' and Sister Rosito figured that Ernie was aware of this because he grinned. "And last but not least I gotta thank the lovely Lil for helping me make sure that Dotty's very special secret pumpkin pecan pie made it to the table this year since this cast makes it difficult to roll out the pastry."

He grinned charmingly and gestured to Rae to continue who gave him a one-armed brief hug. While not being the most demonstrative of women, she'd been moved like everyone else by his grief and determination to keep his promise to his soul mate.

Rae said she was thankful for her friendships that had seen her through the best and worst times with her family, and proud that one of her troublemaker students had made something of her life as she flashed a grin at Sister Rosito.

"And I'm thankful to have Tony, who watches out for me and makes me proud even if he hasn't yet learned to appreciate the superiority of Southern Cuisine over pizza. But then, I'm still trying to teach Lil and Rae how to cook properly too, so I can't be too hard on him, I suppose. He’s still very young."

Everyone chuckled and Tony grinned. "Tried to make me eat a pizza with hogs’ jowls and collard greens," He revealed in mock horror. "And Carla's not a whole heap better, puts jalapeño peppers and refried beans on hers. At least I'm thankful that Lillian knows how to make good old fashion classic Italian pizza. Have I told you you're my favourite, Lil? He joked fondly before falling quiet.

Everyone looked expectantly at Cate and the junior agent grimaced before contributing. "Well, I guess I'm thankful that my brother made me an auntie this year and that since I ended up working for Thanksgiving, they're going to try to come down one weekend before Christmas so I can see my new nephew. And I'm grateful that I listened to my intuition and didn't kill someone who we mistakenly thought was a terrorist but turned out to be a good guy pretending to be a dirtbag."

Sister Rosito was intrigued by the agent's last statement. While the tension had dissipated markedly as people gave thanks, this seemed to have ratcheted up the tension once more. Gibbs looked positively lethal while Ducky looked disturbed; Tim looked scared while Tony shot Cate a look that could curdle cream.  Meanwhile, Abby and Cate seemed engaged in a silent dialogue and the nun noticed that Cate had a goofy smile on her face, seemingly unaware of the tension her proclamation had caused.

Carla apparently decided to move things along before Gibbs throttled someone which he was clearly tempted to if looks were anything to go by. "I'm grateful to still be here for another Thanksgiving," she smirked. "At my age, that's not a given. I'm also thankful that my family have all made it through another year, even if there have been some tough times and I wish that I saw more of them.

She paused, looking proud. “I'm also grateful that my youngest grandbaby has been accepted into medical school and she will become a doctor. And I'm grateful that my grandson, who only came out of the cupboard last year has found someone that makes him happy."

At the tittering that went around the table, she looked very offended, but Tony jumped in quickly before she got the wrong idea. "It's closet not cupboard, Carla… remember we had that conversation already and that's wonderful news about both Sofia and Carlos, no wonder you're so proud."

As Carla smiled, Ducky's mother leaned forward and tugged on Tony's arm. "What was her grandson doing hiding in the closet, Antonio?"

"He's gay, Mrs Mallard and was hiding it from his family."

"Oh…why? Didn't he want them to know he was happy?"

Ducky leapt into the breach, "Mother when people say they are gay now, they mean that they are homosexual." He explained.

"Really… how extraordinary… when I was a girl it meant we were joyful. But I still don't see what he was doing in the closet, Donald?"

"So, he's a lapsed Catholic then?" Cate murmured before letting out a sharp oww as Rae delivered another sharp jab to her abdomen, glowering at her. Sister Rosito winced since her old friend was all sharp bony angles and that elbow must have hurt.

Still, it seemed like she was getting a bit of a taste of her own medicine if Abby could be believed since Agent Todd apparently made a habit of elbow jabbing her male colleagues, especially Tony in the gut. Wouldn't hurt her to know what it felt like and it was a pretty tactless comment after all.

Abby had shared tales of the banter that went on amongst the team with the nuns during visits and bowling nights and she'd detected some comments that seemed to be rather closed-minded. Coupled with what she'd learnt tonight, especially the gay photo episode, Sister Rosito decided to have a chat with Cate if she had an opportunity.

Lil smiled at Sister Rosito, "Your turn, Dear."

"Well, I'm thankful for everything that the Lord has provided, the convent and all the good sisters. I'm grateful that the Lord in his infinite wisdom decided that Sister Teresa still had work to do and sent her back to us after her heart attack. And I'm glad that Sister Augustine survived cleaning her teeth with Sister Claude's haemorrhoid cream instead of toothpaste and that she finally agreed to get glasses.” She revealed, eyes twinkling with mischief as she remembered Gus foaming at the mouth, insisting she had been poisoned.

"And last but not least I'm grateful to be here with you all to share all this wonderful food and I'm thrilled to bits to be sharing it with Corporal Yost, who with his brave fellow soldiers fought heroically so that we all have our freedom."

 Picking up her glass Sister Rosito continued, "Join me in giving thanks to Ernie and those mostly unsung warriors like him for their sacrifices that allow us to be free and safe. We owe you so much, so thank you," she finished as everyone seconded her toast before Tony softly added; knowing they'd both served their countries too.

"And Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs and Dr Mallard," which brought forth another round of raised glasses and three self-conscious men. And with a knowing looking at the three men who wished desperately to have everyone's attention directed elsewhere, Tony did what he did so well – he deflected.

Grinning at his LOLs with big green pleading puppy dog eyes he begged, "Now please can we eat yet? I'm so hungry I could even eat hogs’ jowl pizza."

Chapter Text

Later that night after everyone went home following the mammoth feast, there had been a feeling of quiet reflection, which was probably due at least in part, to Sister Rosita's challenge to everyone to identify what they wanted to give thanks for. But it was also because of several conversations that had taken place over the course of the evening, too. Some people were in a pensive mood, while some were feeling belligerent but all the team found themselves mulling over what had been talked about that night as they prepared to go to sleep. 

~oO0Oo~

Gibbs replaced the final screws into the hinges of his basement door which they'd used as a makeshift table during dinner. Although he'd never wanted to spend Thanksgiving with a houseful of people, he had to admit that parts of the holiday hadn't sucked too badly. Shooting Barney had felt good, damned good. Reuniting Courtney-Jayne had been good too and it had been nice to eat some great home cooking again. He hadn’t had a Thanksgiving Dinner like that since his Mom as still alive. Those old women sure were the biggest pains in his ass but damn it, could they cook!

Apart from the holidays that he'd been forced to spend with his ex-wives under extreme sufferance, this was the first time in many years that he had chosen even if it had been grudgingly, to spend a Thanksgiving with real people. Spending the day with Jack Daniels probably didn't count. And it kinda felt nice to be going to bed with a gut full of wholesome food rather than bourbon. Make a change to be waking up without a hangover tomorrow.

Other bits of the day had been less enjoyable, the 'chat' with Ernie who, without lecturing had managed to make him feel like a self-absorbed jackass who was using his grief to avoid living. Made him admit, even if it was only to himself that what he did was little more than going through the motions and revelling in being a judgemental fool for insisting that his grief was more deeply intense and righteous than anyone else's. He chose to wallow in his pain like a coward while others chose to make the best of the rest of their lives and had the courage to move on.

Sure, he'd never actually pulled the trigger and top himself, but he also didn’t have the courage to do what he needed to live, either. He'd been marking time, feeling noble just because he'd resisted the compulsion to eat his gun after Shannon and Kelly. He knew, unlike Ernie, he wouldn't be able to look Shannon in the eyes and swear to her that he'd really tried to live his life, not spent it in flounder around in his own grief.

He knew that she would have been more courageous and moved on despite how much it hurt to rebuild her life as she said that life is precious. So now he couldn’t help wondering would she forgive him for wasting such a precious gift, would she and Kelly even want to share eternity with someone as self-absorbed as him?

Did he deserve to be with them?  He kinda suspected that he didn’t merit admission into paradise, at last not at this point in time.

The question was, did he have the fortitude to turn his life around and make his girls proud? He wasn’t sure that he could stay on the path to the light side when his dark angel called him.

Plus, it wasn't as if he could point to what a bang-up job he was doing at work as mitigation for his failure to move on either, not after today anyway. Ari was driving him crazy and Cate was totally convinced she'd been vindicated in not taking out that psychopath when she had the chance. That freaked him out, Jethro really didn't like the weird sexually charged relationship seemed to be going on between them. No good would come of it – his gut was certain of that if nothing else.

And his team was in a mess if the conversation he was privy to had been anything to go by. If an agent should have juniors well trained in COC issues it should be a former Marine gunnery sergeant, yet clearly, he didn't. So no, he didn't think that Shannon would approve of his half-assed efforts and he knew deep down that neither of his girls would approve of his act of revenge, taken after their death. So that added up to a whole lot of him having to lift his game one hell of a lot.

Finally, he had to concede that Ernie was right about one thing. Abby and Tony seem to have adopted him along with Ducky over the years as a surrogate family and he really would hate to be without either of them now, but unless he did something different, he just might. DiNozzo who had always looked up to him, hell he put him on a pedestal ten-foot-high but now the kid had another idol.

Clearly his SFA was extremely fond of Ernie and frankly, Gibbs had to ask why wouldn't he hero-worship the guy? Not only was he a genuine hero, he obviously needed someone to love as much as DiNozzo did. But damn it, DiNozzo was supposed to think Gibbs walked on water, trust Gibbs to have his six, to trust GIBBS with his secrets. And Ernie had stolen him away!

And those damned interfering old women with their mother- henning of Tony were helping to drive him away from his team, too. DiNozzo belonged to him, he'd found him and brought him back to DC from Baltimore. That had to count for something, surely. Tony was his. Everyone else could just butt out.

~oO0Oo~

Abby was preparing for bed, well actually preparing for coffin might be a more accurate description since she didn’t sleep in a bed she slept in a coffin when she was home on her own. And what a fine coffin it was too, with its shiny ebony exterior with a blood-red satin interior of she'd had custom made. It was snug and comforting and made Abby feel safe.

Tonight, she really needed to feel safe. The Goth was feeling sad and more than a little bit sorry for herself.

Sister Rosita was mad at her… no worse she was mad AND disappointed in her in equal measures and she seemed impervious to Abby's time-honoured method of making amends. She'd found from an early age that tears were an effective strategy to diffusing her family's anger at her. As she got older, crying didn't work so well with her friends and teachers but after starting at NCIS (which was a very male-dominated workplace) she found that she could twist the guys around her little finger easily.

Moreover, they all turned to mush when she cried or got upset but females were usually a harder nut to crack and tears weren't nearly as effective. It had made her increasingly manipulative and less amenable to being held accountable for her actions.

Feeling agitated she decided to make herself a cup of cocoa before settling down in her coffin. Growing up in a family with two deaf parents, Abby had never had to deal with verbal censure, and she found it surprisingly difficult to deal with. Gibbs never criticised her, she was his favourite, after all, so she was more than a little unsettled by Sister Rosita's denunciation of her behaviour. Truth be told, she was a teeny tiny bit disappointed that her Silver Fox hadn't leapt to her defence.

Okay, she’d done something bad, but no one had been hurt after all. Abby ignored a voice inside her head that said, ‘No, that's not true! You know that Tony would have been really hurt by your actions and he could have been physically hurt if anyone else had seen it. It was stupid and childish, Abby Sciuto and you broke the law. If Tony wasn't such a nice guy you could have been in big trouble.'

It was really, really ironic, like irony of the highest order. She'd been sort of hoping to see Lil whack Cate with her handbag – and she did, and it had been awesome to watch but Abby hadn't bargained on getting her own butt kicked either. It was always pretty funny watching Gibbs' head slap his agents’, but she had to say it wasn't nearly as much fun being on the other end of a dressing down and damn, the usually mild-mannered nun who was their top bowler on their team was too good at it.

Abby also suspected that Cate had been on the end of another ass whooping, courtesy of Sister Rosita, too. When they had returned to the table after making tea and coffee for everyone Cate literally looked like she'd been sucking on a lemon. Her friend was downright ornery but she wouldn't discuss it in the car going home. She'd been spitting nails about Rae jabbing her in the solar plexus though!

Rather ironic since Cate made a habit of doing it to her male colleagues, who if they’d retaliated, would likely result in her making a complaint to Human Resources. Fortunately for Rae, Abby concluded, she had ovaries and as an octogenarian, it would be waaaay too embarrassing for the ex-secret service agent to press charges against such a little old lady. After all, Cate had protected the POTUS.  

~oO0Oo~

As Tony snuggled down on Ernie's couch, he thought about the impromptu team dinner tonight. It was certainly not what he'd envisaged when the LOLs had informed him several weeks before that he was invited to dinner and expect to be 'spoilt.' But then again, the LOLs had long ago sensed his discomfort with all things connected to family and holidays. His memories of holidays as a child were generally not happy ones. They generally fell into three categories.

There were the holidays spent with people his father was attempting to impress who were so-called 'friends' but in reality, they were simply investors, dupes or at best his business associates.  Tony would be dressed up in ridiculous costumes by his mother and like a performing poodle, expected to entertain everyone. But worse was that his parents would also put on a show too, pretending that they were normal loving parents when both had been alcoholics, who barely acknowledged his existence unless it was to point out all the ways they regretted it. But when everybody had gone home, that was when the monsters would re-emerge from their self-imposed exile once again with messages of how worthless, how weak he was.

Then there were the holidays that were spent alone with his parents where alcohol-fuelled the verbal arguments about his father's infidelity and obsession with his business and his mother's family's refusal to invest in his father's business. They’d consumed copious quantities of alcohol, (even more than they did normally) because they hadn't been invited to spend the holiday with the glitterati for some social 'event' of the season. Then the insults became more and more personal and malicious and inevitably he was drawn into the fray too. Apparently, he was the cause of all the ills that behest the DiNozzos, he was weak, stupid, the reason why his parents drank, he would end up in the gutter and hurt everyone that cared for him or tried to help him. He'd never understood that maxim about words never hurting or perhaps he really was just weak.

Then there were a few holidays that had been spent with family before his mother died. His father's parents and his uncle, aunt and cousins were occasionally invited to spend Christmas at the DiNozzo mansion and there had been one vague memory of a Christmas spent in England with his mother's family. But even those special memories were bittersweet because it illustrated to him that normal families didn't drink themselves into a stupor or argue with words that hurt just as much as the abnormally harsh punishments he earned for being bad… laughing or talking too much or running through the house with muddy shoes. And those rare family holidays had taught him that ordinary parents laughed and hugged their kids, told them how great they were and didn't argue with each other constantly.

Tony guessed that once he realised what he was missing out on… what other kids took for granted, it was even harder to spend time with either of his extended families. And then, of course, there was the undercurrent of disapproval that ran between the two sides of the family. His Nonno and Nona thought that Senior should have married a nice Italian girl and had lots of bambinos and raised them up Catholic of course. Instead, his father had fallen in love with a rich blue-blood English rose, one that had proved to be a rather a handful and a non-Catholic to boot. Yes, she'd allowed her husband to name him since he was his heir and with the difficulty, she'd had in carrying him to full term, was more than likely to be the only son.

What she had remained firm about though, was that he was going to be raised protestant and she duly had Tony christened in the Church of England. Tony had always figured his mother had been trying to regain favour with her family, who were appalled at her decision to marry an American of Italian descent. One who according to their standards, came from peasant stock no less. The problem was that while he wasn't raised Catholic like his DiNozzo cousins, Tony's Paddington family curled their lip at his mongrel blood too. His Uncle Clive had been the only one that had treated him as if he wasn't flawed or second-rate, but it seemed that neither set of grandparents could love him unconditionally. So, time that he spent with extended families always served to reinforce that he wasn't good enough for either family or that no matter what, he would never fit in properly anywhere.

Tony figured that was why his time at college had been such an incredibly happy experience for him. He was accepted for simply being Tony who was great at basketball and football primarily and all sports, really.  A guy who loved to play piano and guitar and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies, especially old black and white films, who loved English Lit classes and acting, too. Finally, at OSU he was accepted unconditionally and made lifelong friends who didn't care about his DNA, bloodline or religion.

Even at College though, holidays weren't the happiest of occasions, since his friends would worry that he had no family to share his with since his father had disowned him when he was twelve. His frat brothers would try to drag him home with them but while he appreciated the gesture, it also reinforced what was missing from his life and reminded him how flawed he was. Even back then, he preferred to spend holidays alone curled up with some good movies or working shifts instead so people who enjoyed the holidays, could.

Since he'd moved to D.C and his LOLs had adopted him, they had insisted on inviting him to spend the holidays with them if they weren't off with their own kids. And as much as he appreciated their kindness just like he did when he'd been in college, spending holidays alone was simpler than having to pretend when he was with normal people. The only other person that he ever thought about spending the holidays with was Gibbs. Something about misery loving company because his boss appeared to hate the holidays as much as Tony did, so they could just pretend it was a normal day.

From the time when that mess with Suzanne McNeill occurred and his Boss let him know how he really felt about him hanging out at his house, he'd stopped going over. And Gibbs always refused his invitation to come to his. So, he tried to work the holidays to have a legitimate excuse to refuse his adopted grans without seeming like an ungrateful brat or just plain antisocial.

This year, he'd been hanging out with Ernie when he had free time and he knew how much the old guy was dreading the holidays…could relate, so he'd decided to accept the LOLs invitation since Tom Morrow had given the MCRT the holiday off, much to Gibbs disgust. Tony figured he could do Thanksgiving with Ernie, Rae, Carla and Lil and they would excuse him if he was morose. But he'd never envisaged having to spend dinner with the whole team, bar Palmer, plus Victoria and a bowling nun. It meant that he’d had to put on his happy face and act like a perfect guest and that was a little too like the dinners that his parents had held with business partners and society types where he'd been expected to play his part like Little Lord Fauntleroy or a trained seal.

Then when he got there – late, which his father would have killed him for - it was clear that there had been arguments. The tension was so thick that you could cut the air with a knife when he walked in and clearly, they'd been talking him.  Oh, joy! No doubt they’d been complaining about him slacking off, talking too much or going on about movies but whatever it was, he was pretty sure he was better off not knowing.

Seriously, it was bad enough being there when Lil lit into Abby and Cate about that stupid damned photo and god only knows how the LOLs found out about it. Sometimes he thought that they had their very own informant in the building. Initially, he thought it was Chris Pacci, but now that Chris was dead Tony suspected that Ducky might be the leaky tap. The ME and Victoria were as thick as thieves with the trio.

Snuggling down under the hand-made quilt that had been made with love by Ernie's beloved Dorothy he was glad he was spending the night with the old Marine. Neither of them had felt like being alone tonight and much as he loved his grans and appreciated their spoiling, Ernie's matter-of-fact treatment tonight was a balm to his troubled soul.  Ernie was lonely too, so he didn't feel like he was being quite so needy as he otherwise might. All in all, Tony guessed that he had a lot to be thankful for.

~oO0Oo~

 

After Abby dropped them back at NCIS to collect their cars Cate had gone back into the office and headed down to the gym to punish the poop out of a punching bag for an hour. It hadn't really done the trick but unfortunately, there was no one around that she could persuade to grapple with her on the mats and burn off her frustrations. If it hadn't been a holiday, she would have stopped off at her local kendo dojo but sadly it was closed today. She had to settle for taking her frustrations out on an inanimate object instead. And now she was luxuriating in a soothing hot bubble bath to soothe her aching muscles since today had been a real shocker.

She couldn't believe that Gibbs had made her wear that objectionable and highly offensive Barbie doll costume when they were undercover in the Macy's Parade today. And somehow it had added insult to injury that it was a female cop who had set her up for that little humiliation, although she still suspected that Tony had played the Thin Blue Line card and convinced the Sergeant to go with the most demeaning get-up possible.

Cate really had difficulty accepting that a woman who’d had to fight her way into a position of authority in a patriarchal organisation could be so blind to the tyranny of males over females in traditionally male-dominated roles like law enforcement. If anyone had any doubts about it, they only had to look at the composition of her team – while representing half of the population she was only twenty-five per cent of Gibbs' team.

Then, as if the disrespect she encountered at the hands of the NYPD wasn't enough, along with their snotty attitude because they were federal agents – all except DiNozzo who they'd fawned over sickeningly like some sort of tin god– Abby had tricked her about dinner. Her friends knew darned well how much she despised those horrible LOLs, especially Lil who was much too free with her handbag and her ill-informed opinions. What did she know about feminism?

Now she'd decided that Carla could be Lil's understudy as a handbag whacker which was pretty dang annoying, not to mention it was very painful, too. While that scraggy whippet-like Rae person, had really pointy elbows and they truly hurt. She had bruises on her abs.

No way she would have gone to Gibbs place tonight if she'd been expecting the Trolls to be there. Victoria Mallard's presence- well that had just been the piece de resistance, hadn't it?

Abby was so darned determined (some would say obsessed really) for them to play happy families, she'd plotted to get Cate there at the Thanksgiving dinner by hook or by crook. The evidence was clear with her insisting on them all going in Abby's vehicle, so Cate couldn't leave when she discovered the four old crones after they got to Gibbs house. And DiNozzo's adoptive grans were deluded, no make that delusional about their precious Tony and had the hide to take her to task for trying to teach him a lesson. They had no idea how incredibly obnoxious he could be at times, although he sure could charm females. Luckily, as a trained profiler she wasn't affected by his cheesiness and could see who he really was.

Yet it was the little 'talk' that she'd had, with Sister Rosita no less, had managed to get under her skin worse than everything else all day. That as saying a lot since it had bn a horribly horrific day! Still, it wasn’t that surprising that the encounter with the Sister had affected hr so much, Cate mused as she searched for her favourite bath oil.  After all, she'd grown up around nuns since she'd had a parochial school education.

So, when the nun volunteered them both to go out to the kitchen to make coffee and tea for everyone (and drain-cleaner strength coffee for Gibbs) she'd never sensed the ambush. Sure, she was a bit disgruntled about being thrust into a stereotypical gender role of making the coffee because her reproductive organs were internal rather than external. Yes, okay, she resented that the good Sister hadn't singled out Tony or McGee for the domestic duties, but she hadn't suspected for a minute though, that Sister Rosita had an ulterior motive in getting her on her own.

Sighing as she recalled the ensuing talk (lecture) Cate felt the muscles in her shoulders and neck tense painfully as she tried to breathe deeply and relax.

Flashback:

As they bustled around Gibbs’ kitchen, Sister Rosita mentioned that Abby had told her that her friend was a former Secret Service Agent and had protected the President. Cate had nodded and smiled, glad to see that someone was able to acknowledge her worth.

"So that's a pretty dangerous job, isn't it?" The nun asked knowingly.

Cate nodded. "Potentially it can be since you could be called on to take a bullet for the POTUS or the VIP you've been assigned to protect."

"Ever have a good friend that has been killed on the job, Cate?"

"No Sister Rosita, I can't say that I have. I've known people who were wounded but not someone I was close to. Although I had a good friend though who joined the Secret Service with me. She went into the Investigative branch and I joined the Protective branch. When she got married and decided to start a family, she was head-hunted by a Financial Consultancy firm and she left the agency because she thought it would be safer for the baby.

The irony was she was killed in a workplace mass shooting by a disgruntled former employee having an affair with one of the partners of the financial consultancy. The killer threatened to tell his wife he was cheating on her, so he promptly fired her, and she came back with an automatic rifle and mowed everyone down. My friend Cherie was five months pregnant at the time." Cate said sadly.

The nun bowed her head and spoke a brief prayer. "How tragic; I'm sorry for your loss my dear. So, have you ever wondered how you would feel if you encountered the person who was responsible?"

"I would relish the opportunity to hold them accountable, Sister but they are still at large," Cate spoke fervently.

"Yes, I'm sure you would, dear. Anyone would but I imagine as a federal agent you would be driven to find her killer if you had the chance to be involved in the investigation. You probably would be keen to wrap up the investigation as quickly as possible. Perhaps that is why like doctors, it isn't considered prudent to be assigned to the case when you have a close personal involvement."

Cate shrugged, "Maybe."

"Perhaps you could understand why a colleague who had a woman in their sights who they believed to be connected in some way to a case where another agent – a good friend who had been murdered – might choose to get close to the woman to find the killer? To ignore orders to keep their distance. "

"I guess I could make that mistake, knowing how much I wanted to make Cherie's killer pay.” Cate acknowledged, pursing her lips. “Her killer was a former private in the USAF and she disappeared, unfortunately, and the case went cold. Obviously, she'd had help to evade arrest," Cate growled.

"So, if you found someone who appeared to have a connection to your friend's killer, a highly attractive looking young man you might be tempted to befriend them? What if they flirted with you, tried to kiss you? Would you play along, hoping that they'd tell you something or that you could get access to their personal information - would you do it?"

Cate shrugged a second time not sure where this was going. "I guess I would. You do things that get the job done, pretend to be friendly with dirtbags to find out what you need to know but when it's a friend, I’d go the extra mile. What's with all the questions, Sister?" Cate asked suspiciously.

"Nearly there!” the nun assured her calmly. “So just after you've exchanged saliva with the man, you suddenly find out he isn't a he, at all. He is really a she and she is the killer of your friend, hiding in plain sight all this time. How would you feel?"

Cate scowled at the nun, knowing she'd sucker-punched her. "I'd want to disinfect my mouth for a month."

"Because why?"

"Because I was kissing a killer; more importantly the scum who killed my friend and her workmates, "She said grudgingly.

"And how would you feel if your teammates took every opportunity to taunt you unmercifully about kissing a woman instead of a man? Who never seemed to realise the reason you were upset wasn't that you were homophobic but because you were sickened that you kissed your friend's killer?" The nun asked seriously.

"I'm not homophobic, Sister Rosita!" Cate declared, irritably.

"Perhaps not dear but people could be forgiven for making that assumption with your behaviour, especially when you also take into account the fake photo of Tony” the nun argued.

“Perhaps you might grant Tony the same benefit of the doubt too. Don't you think that continually taunting him about unknowingly kissing Agent Pacci's killer and trivialising it by making it about the killer's gender is cruel and unfeeling behaviour, Cate? Would you stand for it if someone did it to you or would you make a formal complaint against your workmates? You don't strike me as the type to tolerate such behaviour, I have to say."

The nun had placed all the cups of coffee, tea and drain cleaner um Marine strength coffee on a tray to carry back inside but paused and looked at her searchingly.

"And despite your seemingly low opinion of him, I don't believe he would do the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot." She held up her hand to forestall any objection. "Oh, I know about the joking around and the pranks… Abby tells me about what you all get up to. Well, obviously, not everything, she left out about fabricating a fraudulent photograph. But I'm a pretty decent judge of character and having met him I think Tony has a great capacity for empathy, and I suspect that he’s far more sensitive than you could imagine."

The nun stared intently at her. "Just think about what we've discussed before you decide to harass him yet again over kissing that killer. You really aren't in Kindergarten anymore, Agent Todd. Grow up!"

And with that she stepped out into the living room, effectively ensuring she had the last word on the subject, interfering old busy body. Just who the heck did she think she was anyway? The only one that had the right to call her on it was Gibbs, he was her superior.

Although an annoying little voice inside her head spoke to her – and DiNozzo is too – which peeved her no end.

End of Flashback:

Feeling irritation tense her muscles again, she realised that the water had cooled noticeably. Cate expertly toed on the hot water tap with her foot, topping up the bath since she needed to relax her stressed muscles so she would sleep. Cate decided that she'd give her sister a quick call before bed to find out how the family dinner had gone off.

Her youngest brother John had been bringing his girlfriend home to meet the family and she had been curious to meet her. Apparently, Marie was a left-wing activist, plus her father was a Baptist Minister, either of which she suspected would doom her forever in her parent's eyes. But she was most upset to have missed spending time with her brand- new baby nephew.

As she climbed into bed a little while later, she scowled. The thing that annoyed Cate about Sister Rosita's tirade was that what she said was eminently reasonable and had made her seem like an obnoxious brat!

~oO0Oo~

Timothy McGee arrived home after attending dinner at his Boss' house which they'd been invited to at the last minute. After they caught the kidnapping case of the Admiral's granddaughter, he knew that he wasn't going to be heading home this year. As if missing Thanksgiving with his family wasn't bad enough, he'd been relegated to the office while the others got to go to New York and go undercover in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. But he got the last laugh since he'd been on Balboa's team for the rescue of Courtney-Jayne. Cate and DiNozzo would have been spitting nails.

It had been an out-there kind of Thanksgiving Dinner and it had fired him up and when he got fired up it always inspired him to write. As he sat banging away at his antique typewriter, he realised that he hadn't finished the case of the 'eyeballs in the mail killer spy and the transvestite' yet. The problem had been that trying to write the whole scene that had gone on in Paraguay when he wasn't there was difficult, as he was working from the case notes and reports filed by Agents Tommy and Tait Codd.

Deciding to leave that particular chapter, for now, he set to writing down some of the pure gold scenes from the Thanksgiving Dinner tonight. Those LOLs were amazing characters the way they kicked ass. Those old ladies reminded him of his grandmother who was a real kick-ass gran, the only one prepared to take on the Admiral and win.

He knew that the family dinner he'd missed would have been full of tension, with Penny and the Admiral disagreeing on just about every topic imaginable. He could also see that his little sister Sarah, was going to be a strongly opinionated firecracker, just like his grandmother. But then again, she’d bossed him around for years.

As his fingers flew across the keys, the chapter seemed to practically write itself. Ernie Yost was such a truly honourably and decent person, although of course, he would be…Bernie Most. And a bowling nun who was almost as over- the- top- out- there as Abby - he just wouldn't have been able to come up with these people if he'd tried for a month of Sundays. He couldn’t help wondering what she and Cate had been talking about when they came in from the kitchen because Cate sure looked mad. Mind you, it had been funny watching Tait getting whacked over the head with Lillian… erm, Gillian's handbag.

Cate’s expression when Rae - make that Fae, jabbed her elbow into her gut had been utterly priceless. Having been on the wrong end of her elbow on more than one occasion had been extremely painful, so it seemed like poetic justice in his opinion.

Being the probie on the team he'd taken a degree of sadistic pleasure in seeing Special Agent I-guarded-the- POTUS brought down a peg or two, although he didn't appreciate them attacking him. Still, he'd been mocked his entire life just because he so much smarter than everyone else, so Tim was used to it. These people were just envious of his achievements, although he was hurt that Abby was so jealous of his high intelligence.

He ruthlessly pushed down the doubts that said that Abby had a PhD in Forensic Science, so it was unlikely that she was green with envy over his master's degree. What other reason would she have for insisting he shouldn't talk about his prestigious alma maters but jealousy?

He was also trying very hard to ignore the conversation he'd shared with Raelene over coffee when she'd informed him that they had a mutual friend in Special Agent Jim Nelson.* She was a friend of the Nelson family; specifically, his grandparents and she'd even babysat Jim on numerous occasions, apparently. McGee tried to brush her off, downplaying their friendship since she was so close to DiNozzo. He really didn't want DiNosy to ferret out his secret.

He'd boasted to Tony once when he was trying to boss him around at a crime scene that he'd graduated first in his FLETC class but that hadn't been entirely accurate. Three other graduates had received the same mark as him, and Jim had helped him out with some of the more practical aspects of the course. Jim had coached, cajoled, challenged Tim and plain gotten in his face when he'd mention dropping out.

Frankly, he wouldn't have graduated - let alone got such good marks without Special Agent Nelson's help. While he aced the more academic subjects, the physical aspects of the course were what he'd struggled with. If that jackass, DiNozzo found out about his FLETC scores, he'd never hear the end of it.  It simply never occurred to Tim that both Gibbs and Tony had made it their business to make enquiries before he joined the team and knew full well where his strengths and weaknesses lay, including his performance at FLETC, before he joined the MCRT.

In McGee’s opinion, Agent Tommy was a total jerk and he couldn't understand why everyone was so enamoured by him. He was way smarter than the former cop, no matter what the others said. As his fingers flew across the typewriter keys, he thought about the advance he’d received from the publisher for his novel Deep Six. His editor suggested that it needed additional chapters and Tim realised that the abduction of little six-year-old Tiffany-Jan was the perfect ending to the book.

He quickly sketched out the plot for the chapter. While the messianically alcoholic Agent Gibbs took the probie agents, Tait Codd and the socially repugnant Agent Tommy off on a wild goose chase, shooting an innocent bystander at the parade, Agent McGregor had saved the day. He found out where Tiffany-Jan was being held captive and had saved her life at great risk to his own, backed up by Agent Baladoa’s team of raw impressionable rookies. Tim decided to end the book with the scene around the Thanksgiving dinner table as they lavished praise on Agent McGregor with Bernie presenting him with his medal and proclaiming him a hero.

Since the dinner had given him a perfect way to finish off his novel, McGee decided the Thanksgiving dinner hadn’t been a total waste of his time. With luck, this time next year he would be a celebrated best-selling author. Suck on that Agent Tommy!      

~oO0Oo~

Driving back home Donald Mallard noted happily that his mother was animated, chattering away and he was glad that she seemed to have enjoyed herself. Concentrating on the road, he let most of his mother's prattle wash over him but some of it penetrated his consciousness:

"You know Donald, Americans are the oddest creatures. I don't understand why people of a certain persuasion would want to live in a closet…"

"…Do you think that Antonio might come over for dinner soon? I have that Edwardian armoire that needs moving to the other end of the room…"

"… and dear Contessa was quite taken with my Italian Gigolo, do you think he would bathe her for me again. She has rather a testy disposition, but he knew just how to handle her…"

"…Matthew was rather quiet tonight. I think that he was upset to learn that he has competition for my affections, you know…"

"…Antonio promised that he would dance the tango with me…"

"…I don't think that Julian was very happy about people telling him to be more circumspect and less boastful. I blame the parents; mark my words they will have given him a big head instead of teaching him that intelligence was a gift from God. One that could be just as easily taken away…"

"…Donald, is the Medal of Honour a Decoration in America?"

He responded to that question. "Yes, Mother, their highest military honour… awarded only for personal acts of valour above and beyond the call of duty. It's the equivalent to our Victoria Cross which is given for valour in the face of the enemy."

"Goodness me, Donald; he's a real hero! What a self-effacing individual he is. Julian could do worse than take a leaf out of his book. I like Mr Yost."

"Timothy Mother, his name is Timothy… not Julian. And I like Ernest too. Perhaps we could have him over for a meal sometimes. He's a widower, you know."

"Are you sure Donald? He looks like Julian to me, sulky and smug. Not Mr Yost…"

Ducky zoned out again, thinking about the dinner and how things had played out. Tony had seemed very downcast and he didn't think that the senior field agent had enjoyed himself all that much. At least he was glad to see he'd found himself a positive male role model in Ernest Yost. They filled a mutual need in each other and unlike Jethro, the man was not afraid to show his emotions to Anthony which was sorely lacking in the relationship Anthony shared with his mentor, who had all the emotional warmth of a constipated boa constrictor. Well, except for emotions that didn't involve anger, of course. Then Gibbs was a champion at emoting.

Still, between the LOLs and Ernest, they were giving the lad some long-needed emotional support that was sorely lacking, in his life and his Grans surely had his six. Ducky wondered how they were obtaining their Intel. Before Christopher's unfortunate passing Ducky had suspected that he had been leaking info to the LOLs. Since that appalling case of the faked photo had occurred after Pacci's death…well, it would seem that he wasn't the leak or that they had an additional source. And as much as Anthony was distressed when Lillian raised the matter, Ducky decided that it was important for the culprits to be publicly admonished and for Tony to know that he had support.

His thoughts returning to the dinner earlier, he decided Cate most definitely hadn't enjoyed herself, either but he hoped when she took time to reflect that the profiler might change her attitude to Anthony. He also had to agree with Lillian, the fact that she and Abigail didn't seem to understand the seriousness of fabricating that photo of Anthony was deeply concerning.

It was alarming to the medical examiner that a federal agent, a profiler no less, who’d guarded the President, and a top-class forensic scientist could not see how wrong their behaviour had been. They still seemed to think it as a harmless prank.

Ducky was also quite surprised that Ernest had managed to coax Jethro up out of the basement where he'd taken refuge. He had no idea what the older Marine had said to him… he figured it must be a Marine thing. Perhaps to use a Gibbs' vernacular he'd told him to pull his head out of his ass. He chuckled as he thought how colourful the Americans vernacular could be at times.

Nonetheless whatever Mr Yost had said it had worked and he'd returned, albeit in a rare contemplative mood. Well, it was until he realised that Anthony had adopted the war veteran or Mr Yost had adopted the lad and then Ducky had seen the stirring of Gibb's green-eyed monster. Jethro was so used to being the recipient of his protégé's unwavering admiration that he'd taken him for granted for far too long.

"…such a usual combination of pecans and pumpkin. Mr Yost promised to give me his wife's secret pie recipe…"

"…looked like she could curdle milk when she came back…"

"I do hope that the Prohibitionists won't come after us… that elderberry wine was exceptional...  haven’t tasted any as good as that since my Aunt Edwina died. .."

"…Do you think that the bootlegger will get away from the G-Man Donald?...what did the young witch say his name was…Porsmell?"

"…Donald when do I get to meet my grandbabies..."

Ducky smiled. It had certainly been an interesting day. The team had caught some dirtbags in Gibbs' parlance, reunited a little girl with her family which in kidnapping cases, was a rare but welcome outcome and they'd come together to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner as a team. Hopefully, some people had their eyes opened a little. Ducky wasn't such a hopeless romantic that he believed in sudden overwhelming epiphanies and grand gestures, but a little realisation and reflection, a small change of attitude – that he would settle for.

To top off the day, his mother had been unexpectedly lucid and with the bad days rapidly outweighing the good ones it had been a precious gift to have Victoria Mallard back again, even a slightly muddled one back again. For that Ducky could be eternally grateful.

Little did he know what fate had in store for them all but later he would look back in horror. In the next few weeks, a crazy woman with an inoperable brain tumour would imperil the sanctity of their workplace and compromise Tony's life.

Shortly afterwards, Ari would come roaring back into DC threatening everyone's life once again, manipulating them all, with the fallout costing lives. His actions would also set up a chain of consequences that would reverberate through the team and the agency for the next decade.

Perhaps it was a good thing that it was impossible to tell the future but in looking back over the months and years to come, Ducky couldn't help but wonder. If they'd been able to see into the future would it have been possible to change what came to pass?

~finis~

End Notes: * Jim Wilson was on Paula Cassidy's NCIS Pentagon team and was blown up by the terrorists in the season 4-episode, Grace Period. In the lab, Tim tells Abby that he never would have graduated from FLETC if it hadn't been for Jim Nelson's help and Abby replies that then they would never have met. Tim then says that maybe Jim would still be alive.