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Damage

by: Xanthe (Send Feedback)

Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 006 Word Count: 135758
Rating: ADULT
Warning(s): Disturbing Imagery or Content, Other (See Author's Note)
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo
Category(ies): Angst/Drama, First Time, Hurt/Comfort, Romance
Pairing(s): Gibbs/DiNozzo
Summary: When Gibbs investigates a minor robbery, he uncovers something much more sinister. The resulting investigation has unexpected and far-reaching consequences.

Author Notes: 1. I've tried to make this as realistic as possible in psychology, procedure, and legal process etc, and have done research and taken advice, but I'll admit that I'm not an expert on any of these things.
2. Some accuracy has been sacrificed deliberately for the sake of dramatic licence in much the same way as happens on the show.
3. I've gone with 1972 as Tony's year of birth for this story - the show hasn't been consistent about it.
4. I've used UK spelling throughout, except for the word "pedophile" for various reasons.

Massive thank you to my betas, Nikita and Liresius. And also to my audiencers and other helpers: Kateri, FlyingNorth, Bluespirit, TaylorGibbs and Sasha.

Warning: This fic contains themes and scenes of child sex abuse.

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Next Chapter

Damage- Part One: Deception

Damage
By Xanthe
Part One: Deception
Damage: n.1. Injury or harm impairing the function or condition of a person or thing.

"DiNozzo, David, McGee – with me," Gibbs barked, on his way to the elevator. He heard the familiar sound of his team scrabbling to grab their gear and then felt Tony breathing down his neck as he caught up with him.

"So what we got, Boss? Dead body? Terrorist threat? Break-in at a top-secret Naval installation?" Tony asked eagerly as the elevator door opened in front of them. Gibbs rolled his eyes as he stepped inside. It had been a slow few weeks, and he knew all his people were itching to get their teeth into a case, DiNozzo more than most.

"What's the matter, DiNozzo? McGee's new housekeeping gizmo not interesting enough for you?" he asked, as Ziva jogged into the elevator, and McGee brought up the rear.

"If I hear the words 'document imaging' and 'paperless office' one more time, then the probie is likely to suffer an unfortunate accident," Tony said, smiling at McGee threateningly.

"It's the future, Tony, but then I wouldn't expect you to appreciate the benefits of a paperless working space," McGee replied. "Besides cutting down on physical filing – something I'd have thought you would appreciate knowing your aversion to it - it also saves millions of trees from unnecessary destruction." His eyes glowed with a kind of messianic glee as he spoke.

"Interesting," Tony mused. "I hear the words, but it's just meaningless mumbo jumbo. Tell me, McGeek, how are you ever gonna get laid if this is the kind of stuff that gets you excited?"

"Please tell us that we have something to investigate," Ziva asked Gibbs in a tone of despair. "I do not know how much more of this bickering I can take."

Gibbs thought she had a point. A bored Tony was a trial to them all, and even banishing him to the cold case storage filing room for two days hadn't helped him cool his heels any – in fact, when he'd returned he'd been even more full of pent-up energy than usual. Gibbs had resorted to scheduling extra hand-to-hand combat classes for the entire team just to wear Tony out a little and make him bearable to have around.

"We have something to investigate," Gibbs confirmed as the elevator door pinged open at the parking garage.

"Thank God," McGee said, with a glare in Tony's direction. "What is it, Boss?"

"We have a case of a stolen laptop and a camera," Gibbs replied. He strode out of the elevator and then stopped, and turned. His team were still standing in the elevator, staring at him, unmoving.

"A stolen laptop and a camera?" Tony asked, in a tone of barely disguised disgust.

"That's right." Gibbs nodded. "Belonging to an Admiral Matthew Parrish. There was a break-in at his house in the early hours of the morning, and those items were reported stolen. So we are going to investigate."

"We're going to investigate a minor burglary?" Tony sighed. "No dead bodies?"

"Only yours if you don't move it, DiNozzo," Gibbs threw back over his shoulder as he turned and strode towards the van.
~*~
They were met by the admiral's housekeeper, a plump lady in her mid-fifties.

"I am so glad you're here. I wasn't sure if I did the right thing phoning NCIS, but the admiral is at sea until this afternoon, and I couldn't contact him, and I was so worried in case the laptop had top secret information on it," she said, as she ushered them into the hallway. "You can't be too careful these days. You read these stories about terrorists getting hold of information, and I couldn't sleep last night for worrying that if it got into the wrong hands, and if I hadn't called anyone, then it could all be my fault and people might die," she said.

Gibbs saw Tony and Ziva exchange a glance. The housekeeper clearly meant well but had jumped ahead of herself a little. All the same, she had a point, and he wouldn't be doing his job properly if he didn't establish exactly what was on the laptop and whether it contained any sensitive material.

"You did the right thing," he placated her, and she sighed.

"I don't know. I wasn't sure. I don't want to get Justin into trouble, but the admiral is out of contact and…" She shook her head.

"Justin? I thought the admiral's name was *Matthew* Parrish?" Ziva frowned.

"Oh it is, dear," the housekeeper said. "That's the admiral's name. Matthew Parrish."

"So who is this Justin then?" Ziva asked.

The housekeeper gave another sad sigh. "Oh dear. I feel just terrible about this…you see, Justin is the person who stole the laptop and camera."

Gibbs gazed at his team, and they gazed back at him blankly.

"So – let me get this straight - you're saying that not only were only two items taken, but you know exactly who took them?" Tony asked. "Not a lot of investigating required around here then, Boss!" he added in a cheerfully sarcastic tone of voice.

Gibbs ignored him. "Could you tell us exactly who Justin is, and why you think he stole the items?"

"Justin Merrells," she said, as if that explained everything. "And I know it was him because I saw him."

"You saw him?" Gibbs asked impatiently. He was beginning to sympathise with Tony's view of this case.

"Yes, dear. I live in you see – the admiral is often away and someone has to be here to take care of the place. I'd fallen asleep in front of the television and…"

"Time?" Gibbs asked tersely.

"Around 1.30 a.m. I'd fallen asleep, as I said, and then I heard a noise – like breaking glass – and I don't mind saying I was scared. I tiptoed out here and saw Justin coming out of the admiral's study with the laptop and camera – he was pushing them into a bag as he ran away, and he didn't see me. There's a small bathroom window in here which must be where he got in and out…"

She opened a door along the hallway, and Gibbs surveyed the broken glass scattered around the toilet. It was a small window but just about big enough for someone to climb through.

"I tried to contact the admiral but he's away overseeing a war exercise at the moment and is on radio silence, so I spent the rest of the night worrying about what to do. Justin is a dear boy, but he's very mixed up, and while I don't think he's involved with any terrorists I didn't want to take the chance and…"

"Exactly who is this Justin person?" Gibbs interrupted. "And where can we find him?"

~*~

"Justin Merrells," McGee said, pulling up a screen on his laptop as Gibbs drove. "Age 18, son of Melissa and Tom Merrells."

"His father used to be Parrish's XO," Tony said, peering over McGee's shoulder.

"That's right – they served together for years until Lieutenant-Commander Merrells was killed on active duty four years ago," McGee said. "Justin was fourteen at the time."

"He also went off the rails if this is anything to go by." Tony pointed at the screen. "Two convictions for shoplifting, one DUI, a couple of minor drug busts."

"All dating from after his father died?" Gibbs asked, his jaw tightening. This whole thing sounded like a kid crying out for help more than anything else. He'd seen it happen before in military families, and it was something that always touched him on a personal level. He understood the pressures of military life and how easily families could fall apart when a parent was killed in combat.

"Yes." McGee nodded. "It's like he went to pieces after his dad died."

"And from what the housekeeper said, it seems as if the admiral stepped in and took his dead friend's son under his wing," Tony added. "Tried to straighten him out."

"So if the admiral was so good to him, why did Justin break into his house and steal from him?" Ziva asked, with a frown.

"He's a kid," Tony shrugged. "A mixed-up kid. Kids do stuff like that – they don't need a reason."

"Yes, they do," McGee objected, glancing at Tony over his shoulder.

"I mean a reason beyond the fact that his dad died, and he's a teenager – probably just a case of rampaging hormones combined with grief," Tony said.

"We'll see," Gibbs said, bringing the van to a screeching halt outside the Merrells family home. Privately, he thought Tony probably had it about right, but something about this whole case felt off to him, and he wasn't sure what it was.

Gibbs knocked on the door, and a few seconds later a tall, skinny, blond kid opened it and blinked at them.

"Yeah?" he muttered.

"Agent Gibbs – NCIS. You Justin Merrells?"

The kid blinked at him again. "Yeah," he shrugged. "So?"

"We have a report of a burglary at Admiral Parrish's house last night," Gibbs said. "You know anything about that, Justin?"

The youth stared at him for a second, and then, without warning, he suddenly took off. He ran back into the house, grabbed something from the table, and exited out of the back door. Gibbs sighed. Tony and Ziva took off after the youth, and Gibbs followed on behind at a more leisurely pace. It looked as if Tony was right – this was just a simple burglary committed by a sullen, mixed-up teenager.

Justin almost made it to the back fence before Tony caught up with him and leapt on him, bringing him crashing down. The boy lay face down in the grass, panting, as Tony pulled his arms behind him and fastened handcuffs around his wrists.

"Justin Merrells, you're, you know, under arrest," Tony said, in a bored tone of voice that suggested he was just going through the motions.

"The laptop is here," Ziva said, picking up the computer which Justin had dropped when Tony had tackled him to the ground. “It seems unharmed.”

"Where's the camera?" Tony asked, standing up and dragging Justin to his feet.

"Here," McGee said, following them out of the house, holding up a digital camera. "It was just lying on the table, Boss."

"You know, Justin, you must be about the worst burglar I've ever had to arrest," Tony told the kid. "Couldn't you have at least *tried* to make this interesting?"

Gibbs looked at the youth, taking in the ripped, paint-stained jeans, and baggy, faded blue tee shirt. He looked scruffy and neglected, but young people these days seemed to cultivate that look, so Gibbs wasn’t reading anything into it. Justin stared up at him from under a thick wad of blond hair, and Gibbs looked straight at him, surprised. He'd expected to see defiance in the kid's blue eyes, but instead he saw something closer to fear. Justin looked like a scared animal caught in a trap.

"Justin – did you break into Admiral Parrish's house last night and steal his laptop and camera?" Gibbs asked quietly. The youth bit on his lip.

"Yeah," he muttered.

"Why?" Gibbs asked. Justin shrugged.

"I dunno," he whispered, his teenage bravado faltering under Gibbs's hard stare. He dropped his gaze to the ground.

"Uh-uh – wrong answer," Tony said, shaking the youth slightly as he shoved him towards the van. He pushed Justin into the vehicle and then took his seat behind Gibbs. "Ten bucks says you break him within two minutes, Boss," he murmured in Gibbs's ear. Then he turned and glanced at the youth who was staring sightlessly out of the window, his blue eyes empty and weary, all the fight gone out of him. "He's hardly a hardened criminal."

Gibbs gazed at the kid, feeling troubled. Justin looked younger than his eighteen years, and there was something strangely vulnerable about him that Gibbs couldn't put his finger on. Tony was right though - he definitely wasn't a hardened criminal. Gibbs couldn't help feeling sympathy for him; he was just a kid who'd lost his dad - and his way.

~*~
Justin sat across from Gibbs in the interrogation room, arms resting on the table, looking down, that thick curtain of blond hair covering his eyes. So far he'd refused to say a word. He just sat there, staring at his own hands.

"So…" Tony said, flicking through the file McGee had provided for them. "You're going to college next month, Justin. Did you think you'd steal a few things to take with you? Is that it? You took a look around the admiral's house last time you were there, saw he had a high end laptop and a classy new digital camera, and you decided you wanted them?" His tone was forceful, and Gibbs noticed Justin's shoulders hunch tightly as he shrugged in response.

Gibbs put his head on one side and gazed at the kid thoughtfully. He'd told Tony to play 'bad cop'. His senior field agent could be pretty hard-edged when he put his mind to it, and Gibbs wanted to play 'good cop' himself in this particular interrogation – not least because he felt some sympathy for this kid sitting opposite him. He hoped that between the two of them they could drag the truth out of Justin as quickly as possible.

"What are you going to study at college, Justin?" he asked quietly. Justin glanced up at him, and Gibbs could see him responding to his softer tone of voice.

"Art," Justin whispered. It was the first thing they'd managed to get out of him since they'd brought him in. Gibbs shot Tony a fleeting glance and knew Tony had got the message to keep going in hard.

"Not any more," Tony said flatly. "You committed a burglary last night, Justin. You broke a window, forced your way into someone's house, and you stole property that didn't belong to you. You'll be looking at a jail term for that."

Justin's shoulders hunched even more, and he glanced up at Gibbs from helpless eyes.

"Why did you do it, Justin?" Gibbs asked gently. "I thought the admiral had been good to you."

Justin's eyes flashed. "He was. He is," he whispered.

"After your father died, he looked out for you, didn't he?" Tony said forcefully. "When you got arrested for shoplifting, it was Admiral Parrish who came and picked you up. He spoke up for you."

"Yes." Justin bit on his lip.

"According to the admiral's housekeeper, you regularly visited his house. He took you to see ball games and to the movies. He even bought you materials for your art classes," Tony said.

Justin nodded. "Yes," he said again, almost inaudibly.

"And you repay him by breaking into his house and stealing his stuff?" Tony snapped the file shut with his hand and threw it onto the table. "You're a piece of work, Justin," he said, in a disgusted tone of voice, placing one hand on the back of Justin's chair and leaning over him. Tony was a big guy, and Justin was a skinny kid, so the movement, although slow and controlled, was inevitably intimidating.

"Why the laptop, Justin?" Gibbs asked softly. "Did you think the admiral had important Naval material on it? Were you going to sell it to buy drugs?"

"No!" Justin said in such an outraged tone that Gibbs was sure he was telling the truth. "I was going to put it back," he added pathetically.

"Oh, so you broke into the admiral's house, stole his stuff, and then ran off when we tried to question you – and now you say that you intended to put it back?" Tony demanded, still looming over Justin threateningly. "I don't believe a word of that crap, Justin."

"I was."

"So why steal the laptop in the first place?" Gibbs asked, in a curious, encouraging tone of voice.

"There was something on it that belonged to me," Justin muttered.

Gibbs frowned. "What do you mean, Justin?"

Justin shook his head, biting on his lip. "I was just going to delete it, and then I was going to give it back."

"What do you mean 'belonged' to you?" Gibbs asked, in that same quiet tone of voice. "What did the admiral have that you felt was yours?"

"Nothing. It doesn't matter," Justin said sullenly. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Gibbs through his hair.

"What about the camera – did you steal the laptop and then think you might as well take the camera too as you'd gone to all that effort to break in?" Tony demanded.

"Does my mom need to know I'm here?" Justin asked, ignoring Tony's question. "I don't want my mom to know about this."

"You should have thought of that before you committed a burglary," Tony snapped.

"You're over eighteen, Justin, so we won't be calling your mom. I suggest you call her though," Gibbs said. "Because you won't be able to keep this quiet. Agent DiNozzo is right, Justin. You'll be going to jail for this."

Justin gazed at him from helpless blue eyes, and Gibbs had that sensation again of a trapped animal. There was such a sense of empty resignation in the kid's expression.

"Does the admiral know I'm here?" Justin whispered. "I don't think he'd want me to go to jail."

"After you broke into his house and stole from him?" Tony asked, in an incredulous tone. "This isn't the same as the shoplifting, Justin. This is much more serious."

Justin wrapped his arms around his body and gazed at Gibbs.

"Talk to the admiral for me, Agent Gibbs. Please," he asked, in a desperate tone of voice.

Gibbs sat back in his chair and looked at the boy for a long while. Then, finally, he nodded.

"Okay, Justin. I'll talk to him. I'm sure you know that he's at sea at the moment, but I'll talk to him just as soon as I can reach him."

Gibbs got up, and, with another puzzled glance at Justin, he left the room, with Tony on his heels.

"I thought he'd be easier to break than that, Boss," Tony said. Gibbs didn't reply. "What do you think?" Tony asked persistently as they returned to the squad room.

"I think we should find out what's on the laptop." Gibbs picked up the stolen laptop lying on his desk and handed it to McGee. "Check it out," he ordered tersely.

"Uh…what am I looking for, Boss?" McGee asked as he opened up the laptop.

“I don't know, McGee – that's why I asked you to check it out," Gibbs replied irritably. "And the camera." He grabbed that and handed it to McGee, who took it with the usual look of wide-eyed alarm that he got whenever Gibbs growled at him.

"Tony – get me the admiral on the phone," Gibbs ordered, turning back to his desk.

"He's still overseeing that war game exercise, Boss," Tony reminded him. "They're maintaining radio silence at the moment."

"I know that, DiNozzo. Get him on the phone as soon as the damn exercise is over!" Gibbs snapped. "McGee – what is it?"

McGee was holding the camera in his hand with a blank expression on his face. "Oh…uh, it's the camera, Boss. There's nothing on it."

Gibbs glared at him.

"There's nothing on the memory card or the camera's own memory. It's completely clean," McGee said with a shrug.

"Wiped?" Gibbs asked.

"Or never used in the first place," McGee replied. “It’s pretty new.”

"And the laptop?" Gibbs demanded.

"I've only just booted it up, Boss," McGee said hurriedly, his fingers zipping over the keyboard in their usual blur of motion. "But at first glance there doesn't seem to be anything on it. Just the usual stuff; office programmes, couple of spreadsheets, word documents – they look like letters…" He brought them up onscreen and then shrugged. "Nothing hinky, Boss; just, you know, stuff. Like everyone has on their computers." He glanced up and caught Gibbs's raised eyebrow. "Well, most people. I mean those people who, uh, have computers…which isn't everyone, or even most people, and there's nothing wrong with not having one…"

"McGee!" Gibbs snapped. "Just take a good look at the damn thing."

"On it, Boss!" McGee nodded promptly.

"Boss – I've got the admiral for you," Tony interrupted. "They've just come out of radio silence – but only for a few minutes, so you don't have long."

Gibbs grabbed his phone and put it on speaker so he wouldn't have to repeat the conversation to his team afterwards. "Admiral Parrish? I'm Agent Gibbs."

"Agent Gibbs – hell, I'm sorry about all this," a firm, intelligent voice said, in clipped, precise tones. Gibbs knew from their files that the admiral was in his early sixties and a well-respected officer, as his high rank implied. "Agent DiNozzo just filled me in. Look, this isn't anything for NCIS to get involved in – you guys have your hands full doing important work. I don't want you wasting your time on a couple of items stolen from my house."

"We need to check if there's anything sensitive on the laptop, Sir," Gibbs said. "Any Naval material?"

"Hell no!" the admiral laughed. "That laptop is just for my own personal use, Gibbs – I use it to write my many letters of complaint to the various newspapers that have pissed me off with their inaccurate and biased reporting!" He chuckled, a deep, bass sound. "Look, I understand that Justin's behind this. Did he say why he stole it?"

Gibbs hesitated. "No," he said finally.

"He say anything at all?" the admiral asked.

"Not really. He's been pretty quiet."

There was a pause, and then the admiral gave a deep, heartfelt sigh. "Agent Gibbs, go easy on that boy. He's had a rough time of it."

"Yeah – I can see that."

"His father was a fine man – and a good friend. I've tried my best to look out for Justin since his death, but the kid took it hard. His mom had a breakdown after Tom died, and Justin doesn't have any other family. I've done what I can for the boy, Agent Gibbs. He's not a bad kid – he’s just going through a bad time, that's all."

"That's what I thought," Gibbs agreed. "Will you be pressing charges, Admiral?"

"Absolutely not!" the admiral replied. "That kid's been through enough. Look, just let him go, Agent Gibbs. I finish up here in an hour or so. I'll be home late this afternoon, and I'll drop by and see him. We'll talk it through. I expect he just wants some attention. I've been busy lately and haven't seen him as much as I used to. I'm sure that's what all this is about."

"Okay, Admiral."

"And if you could return the stuff he stole, I'd appreciate it!" the admiral laughed. "That camera cost me a fortune!"

"I'll return them myself," Gibbs said, and then he hung up the phone. That all made total sense, and it was all exactly as he'd suspected. Why then, did his gut still feel so uneasy about this case?

"McGee – you find anything?" he asked. McGee looked up.

"I'm not sure," he frowned. "There seem to be some encrypted files that I can't access. It's good encryption too…I mean, really good, because usually I can get around most encryptions pretty easily, but this one is…well, it's not just layman level, Boss. It's much more professional than that."

"Should we keep looking?" Tony asked. "I mean, this is the admiral's personal property and if he isn't pressing charges…"

Gibbs thought about it for a moment. Technically Tony was right, but some instinct made him reluctant to give up on this just yet. Everything the admiral had said and everything they knew about Justin suggested that this had just been an attention-seeking cry for help by a lonely, mixed up boy who missed his father. The one thing that didn't tie in was Justin saying there was something on the laptop that belonged to him. The boy could have been lying, but it was the one thing that didn't fit.

"Keep looking, McGee," Gibbs ordered. "You've got an hour. I'm going to speak to Justin, and if you haven't cracked those files by the time I've done the paperwork and released him then I'll take the laptop back to the admiral's house myself and draw a line under the case."

He strode off back in the direction of the interrogation room, Tony on his heels as usual.

~*~

McGee picked up the laptop and took it down to Abby's lab.

"Hey, McGee! You bored? I am!" Abby gave a heartfelt sigh. "It's not like I want anyone to be murdered or anything, but it's a lot more fun around here when there are dead bodies. That's all I'm saying!"

"I think Tony would agree with you," McGee grinned. "He's been driving us all crazy. At least now there's this kid – Justin - to question but no dead bodies. Sorry, Abby."

"What's that?" Abby nodded in the direction of the laptop.

"Oh – it's the laptop Justin stole. Gibbs is making me look through it, just in case. Actually I think he's as bored as Tony, and just trying to find something to do," McGee grinned, sitting down at Abby's desk and opening up the laptop. "I just brought it down because there's some weird encryption code – I wondered if you'd seen anything like it."

He pointed at the screen, and Abby glanced at it over his shoulder. "Wow…that's really sophisticated. Does the laptop have any top secret info on it?"

"Nope." McGee shook his head. "Not according to the admiral anyway."

"Hmmm…something smells hinky!" she said, her eyes lighting up at the thought.

McGee grinned at her and settled down to see if he could crack the encryption codes before Gibbs got back.

~*~
Justin looked up when Gibbs entered the room, his blue eyes hopeful.

"Did you speak to Uncle Matthew?" he asked. "Uh…I mean Admiral Parrish."

"Yup." Gibbs nodded, taking his seat across the table from the boy. Tony went to lean against the far wall. "He isn't pressing charges," Gibbs said. The boy’s eyes flashed with relief. “What's on the laptop, Justin?" Gibbs asked. The boy shrugged evasively.

"It doesn't matter."

"Did you even find what was on it? Did you find what you were looking for?" Gibbs pressed. "You any good with computers, Justin? I'm not. Hell, I don't understand the first thing about them. And you’re an artist, not a computer geek, so I figure they’re not your thing, either.”

Justin glanced up at him through that curtain of blond hair. "If he's not pressing charges, can I go home?" he asked quietly. "Only…my mom will be home soon and she'll be worried about me. She gets worried really easily," he added, working away at his chapped bottom lip with his teeth, making it bleed slightly.

"I hear she had a breakdown after your dad died," Gibbs said quietly. "That must have been tough."

"It was. She couldn't leave the house. She cried a lot." Justin shrugged.

"The admiral said he hadn't spent as much time with you lately as he used to," Gibbs said. "Is that why you broke into his house? Were you trying to get his attention?"

Justin's eyes flashed. "No! I just…it doesn't matter. I'm going to college next month, and then…I'll be gone then," he finished up lamely. "Can I go home now, Agent Gibbs?"

"Not yet. I have some paperwork to finish up – then you can go home," Gibbs said, with a sigh. He sat back in his chair and gazed at the kid thoughtfully, wondering if there was any other way he could get him to talk.

~*~

McGee liked working in Abby's lab. By preference he chose to work in silence but there was something soothing about the crash and boom of the loud music she liked. It sort of helped him zone out and allowed his brain to worry away at a problem while he worked.

Abby looked over his shoulder every so often, offering suggestions. Her ideas were always good, so he followed them up, adding them to his own, fingers working ceaselessly. Just when he thought he'd have to admit defeat the first layer of encryption fell away, leaving him with one accessible file. He clicked on it, and then instantly wished he hadn't.

"Oh shit," he said.

"What?" Abby came over and looked at his screen. Her hands came to rest on his shoulders, her fingers digging in a little too hard, making him wince. "Oh shit," she echoed. "Gibbs isn't going to like this," she added grimly. He glanced up to see that her eyes were wide and sad. "You know how he gets about stuff like this. He's really not going to like it."

"Yeah. I know." McGee took a deep breath and then reached for his cell phone. "He's going to go ballistic – I just hope he doesn't shoot the messenger."

"He won't," Abby said, still gazing sadly at the screen. "But he'll definitely want to shoot someone."

"Uh…Boss, I've found something," McGee said into his cell as soon as Gibbs picked up. He knew his boss hated being interrupted when he was in interrogation, but he figured he'd be forgiven on this occasion.

"Well – what is it, McGee?" Gibbs demanded irritably.

"Um…I'd prefer not to tell you over the phone. You really need to come down here and see it," McGee told him.

~*~
Gibbs strode into Abby's lab a few minutes later, feeling annoyed by the whole cloak and dagger approach McGee was taking. He'd left Ziva upstairs watching over Justin and brought Tony with him.

"What?" he asked tersely as he reached Abby's central workstation.

"I managed to crack one of the encryption keys," McGee said. "Only one – there are dozens of others, each of them different. If the others are anything like this one, then they've been encrypted to protect just one file each, which is a lot of effort to go to. Although having seen the contents of the file I can see why someone would make that effort. I just clicked on the top file, so I'm presuming it's the most recent, but I won't know without cracking the other files. I thought you should see this one before I go any further though, because I'm not sure how long it'll take to..."

"You said you'd found something?" Gibbs interrupted, knowing that McGee's explanations could go on interminably otherwise – and they were always especially long and convoluted when he was nervous, which he clearly was right now.

"Yeah - spit it out, McGeek," Tony said, peering over McGee's shoulder. "What have you found?"

"This." McGee clicked on a file and brought up a screen full of photographs. Gibbs felt his gut clench in response. In the first photo, Justin’s vacant eyes peered out at them from behind that block of blond hair; he was completely naked, and the torso of a man was visible behind him.

"Several of the photos are clearly from the same photo session," McGee said hurriedly. "But…and this is where I think you're not going to be happy, Boss, um, well even less happy than you are right now…but there are hundreds of photos, all of Justin, all of him in uh…this kind of position, and some of them go back years."

"Years?" Gibbs frowned. "How many years, McGee?"

"I can't tell for sure…but…look at this one."

McGee clicked on a photograph, and Gibbs found himself looking at a Justin with much shorter hair, sticking up in spiky points. He looked much younger in this photograph, his face devoid of any facial hair.

"I think…he's probably about fourteen in this one," McGee said quietly. "The date stamp on the photograph supports that, but it might not be accurate."

Gibbs felt an old, familiar wave of anger rise up inside. Cases involving children always got to him – always had. "Can you ID the man in the photographs, McGee?"

"No." McGee shook his head. "There are no facial shots. Also…" he hesitated. "I'm not sure it's the same man in all the shots, Boss. This man here – his skin seems to be considerably lighter," he pointed out, bringing up one of the pictures. "Also – this one has more chest hair, and this one…well...uh…he's less well-endowed," he muttered, his face flushing bright red. "The rooms are different as well – I think these photos were taken in several different sessions, over several years, each time with different men."

"Christ, that's sick," Gibbs hissed. He forced himself to survey the photographs with an objective eye, but it was hard. Justin didn’t look as if he was in any pain, or as if he was struggling – there was just a sense of weary, numb acceptance about him that somehow was just as poignant as if he’d shown any more visible signs of distress.

"Pedophile ring," Tony said, with a dismissive shrug. "Someone groomed Justin, and I think we've all got a pretty good idea who that must have been, and then he got passed around to the other men in the ring. Photos were taken to be shared and passed on too – just within the ring. If the admiral is anything to go by, the men in this ring are all intelligent professionals – they don't take any more risks than they have to, so they keep the ring closed and only admit new members if they're really sure about them. New recruits to the ring gain entry by bringing a child along for the others to use for sex."

McGee and Abby stared at Tony, and Gibbs glanced at him, one eyebrow raised. Tony gazed back at the three of them, looking completely unconcerned.

"What? I worked vice in Baltimore. That's how these things work," he said, with a grin.

"You just sound so matter of fact about it, Tony," Abby said. "I mean, that poor kid. First his dad dies, then his mom has a breakdown, and then the one person who befriends him turns out to be a total pervert."

Tony shrugged again. "So the kid's had some tough breaks – so what? I'm just saying I've seen this kind of stuff before, and this is how it works." He looked totally unfazed by it. "What?" he said again, when Gibbs, Abby and McGee all gazed at him. "Look, you guys have all seen more dead bodies than I bet you can even remember. Don't tell me you still get affected by each new one that shows up. I'm just saying - maybe this kind of stuff loses its ability to shock after awhile."

"I hope stuff like this never loses its ability to shock me," Abby murmured. "Just what kind of cases did you work in Baltimore anyway, Tony?"

Tony grinned. "You don't wanna know," he told her with a lascivious wink.

Gibbs frowned. Tony's reaction was very Tony - in fact it was almost stereotypically Tony – but somehow that made it all the more surprising. Tony was nosy, attention-seeking, and at times highly annoying, but over the years Gibbs had always found him to be the most empathetic of his agents. Maybe he was right, and the things he'd seen during the course of his job had dulled his reaction to them. If so, he was the only one who felt that way, judging by the expressions on the faces of the other people in the room when they looked at those photos.

"Look, there's a kid upstairs who has probably been sexually abused since he was fourteen years old. I want to catch the bastard who did that, and I want to catch every single last bastard in that ring who touched him - or any other kid - and nobody leaves this building until we've figured out how to do that. Understood?" Gibbs thundered.

"Yes, Boss," they all replied in unison.

"McGee – get those other files open. I want to know if Justin is the only kid who has been abused, or whether DiNozzo is right, and we've stumbled across a ring of pedophiles."

"On it, Boss!" McGee said, turning back to his screen.

"Abby – print out three of those photos for me," Gibbs ordered.

"Which three?"

"Oh for God's sake, Abby – I don't care. They're all equally sickening. Just do it!"

She looked at him with wide eyes but scuttled to obey all the same and a few seconds later handed him the pictures.

"DiNozzo – you're with me." Gibbs turned, photos in his hand, and strode out of Abby's lab.

"Now what, Boss?" Tony asked quietly as they got into the elevator.

"Now we go back and speak to Justin again," Gibbs replied tersely. "And this time he's a witness – and a victim – and not a suspect, Tony, so we go easy on him."

~*~
Justin looked up, startled, as Gibbs entered the room. Tony didn't lean against the wall this time – he pulled up a chair and sat at the end of the table instead, his back to the door. Gibbs took his own seat opposite the boy. He tried to keep his emotions in check, but he knew he was radiating an angry vibe – he couldn't help himself. He didn't blame Justin for any of this, but his anger at the men who had abused this vulnerable kid was so strong he couldn't hide it. Tony, on the other hand, seemed surprisingly calm.

"Hey, Justin," Tony said softly. "We know what’s on the laptop."

Justin gazed at him distrustfully, and Gibbs didn't blame him. Up until now, Tony had been an antagonist, deliberately bullying Justin to get him to open up to Gibbs's more gentle approach. Now Tony's demeanour was completely different.

"I don't know what you mean," Justin replied.

"We saw the pictures," Tony said carefully. "I can understand why you wanted to delete those, Justin. You wouldn't want anyone seeing those photographs."

"I didn't do anything wrong," Justin said, his face flushing, looking at Gibbs for confirmation. "Did I, Agent Gibbs?"

"No, Justin. You didn't," Gibbs replied gently. "But someone did." He placed the photographs on the table, and watched as Justin paled, and swallowed hard. "Did Admiral Parrish take these photographs, Justin?" he asked.

The boy shook his head.

"Was he the man in any of the photographs?" Gibbs pressed.

"No." Justin shook his head again.

"Are you scared of him hurting you?" Gibbs asked. "Is that why you're protecting him?"

"NO!" Justin yelled. "It's not him! It wasn't him!"

"Okay." Gibbs exchanged an uneasy glance with Tony, who had a thoughtful expression on his face.

"How old were you in this photograph, Justin?" Gibbs asked, pointing to the one of Justin with very short hair.

"Fourteen," Justin whispered. "It was taken a few months after my dad died."

"You do know that because you were underage, the man in the photograph and the man taking it were committing a felony, don't you?" Gibbs asked. "Even having possession of this photograph is a felony."

Justin shrugged.

"It's not your fault, Justin – you can tell us the truth," Gibbs urged. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"My dad was angry with me," Justin said. Gibbs frowned, wondering where this was going. "I told him I thought I was gay, and he got mad at me. It was the last time we talked before he died."

Gibbs sighed, and sat back in his chair. This was getting more complicated by the second. Tony leaned forward.

"That sounds pretty confusing for you, Justin," he said. Justin nodded.

"I've known since I was a little kid," he whispered. "But when I told Dad he just got angry. Then he died a few weeks later and…I just needed to talk to someone about it."

"You didn't like the idea that your father died mad at you," Tony said quietly.

"No…I mean yes but also…I thought maybe…maybe he died because he wasn't thinking clearly – because he was so upset by what I'd said to him. I mean…he was in combat, and if he was thinking about me, and what I'd said…" Justin's face crumpled up, and Gibbs saw the tears in his eyes.

"Admiral Parrish was kind to you, wasn't he?" Tony asked gently. "Did you tell him that you thought you might be gay?"

"Yes." Justin nodded. "I told him all about it. I told him about how I'd argued with my dad. Uncle Matthew was the only person I could talk to about it. He said it was okay. He's been good to me, Agent DiNozzo."

"I know, and of course that's why you want to protect him," Tony said.

Gibbs wondered where Tony was going with this. Justin had been adamant that Parrish wasn't involved in the abuse, and while Gibbs wasn't sure he believed him, he was surprised that Tony seemed to have such a good handle on the complexities of the situation.

"He was really nice to you after your dad died, wasn't he?" Tony said softly. Justin nodded. "He really took good care of you, didn't he? You found you could talk to him, and he really listened to you, didn't he?"

"Yes," Justin whispered.

"He probably said he could help you find out if you were gay," Tony added. "He told you he loved you, didn't he? Maybe he kissed you?"

Justin bit on his bottom lip again, drawing more blood. "Yes," he whispered.

Gibbs sighed. So Tony had been right – Parrish had been ‘grooming’ Justin.

"That's okay. You didn't do anything wrong. I mean, you must have needed someone to talk to after your dad died, especially if you couldn't talk to your mom," Tony added.

Justin nodded. "Uncle Matthew was so nice to me."

"Then he wanted you to meet some of his friends, didn't he?" Tony asked. Justin nodded again, mutely. "They weren't so nice, but you loved the admiral so you did what he wanted, even though it didn't feel right. Maybe he said he'd show your mom the photographs if you didn't go along with it?"

Justin flushed. "She's a nervous kind of person. I didn't want her seeing them," he said. "I thought it might make her cry – she cries a lot."

"Then you got older, and maybe the admiral seemed less interested in you?" Tony asked.

Gibbs sat back in his chair and let Tony do the work – his senior field agent was impressing him by how carefully he was conducting this interview, and his very real empathy for the kid's situation – especially considering how dispassionate he'd seemed in Abby's lab earlier.

"Yeah." Justin looked close to tears. “He said I was getting too old, and that when I went to college it’d be over. And…I was kind of glad because there were things I didn’t want to do any more, but also…I was upset because he told me he loved me, and I really thought he did. He was so cold towards me, and I got angry with him. I asked him to let me have the photos, but he refused, and I thought…I didn’t like the idea of him having them or showing them to my mom. I had to break into his house, Agent Gibbs!” He gazed at Gibbs beseechingly. “You can see that! I had to try and get them back. I thought I could make a fresh start at college – nobody had to know - but while he still had the photos…” Justin broke off and wrapped his arms around his body.

“It’s okay, Justin. We understand why you broke into the house,” Gibbs told him.

“I took the camera as well in case there were any on that. He took some on that camera a couple of months ago, when he first bought it – he said he wanted to christen it. That was before he told me it would be over when I went to college. But the camera was clean – and I couldn’t figure out how to get at the ones on his laptop. You’re right, Agent Gibbs, I’m not good at that kind of stuff. I didn’t think he’d have put those weird security codes on them.”

"Do you know who the other men are, Justin?" Gibbs asked, leaning forward. "The men in the photos - how many were there?"

"Four," Justin said quietly. "I don't know who they were. I mean, Uncle Matthew introduced them to me, but…they sounded like made-up names, and it was just first names. This is Frank, or Bob, or whatever. He took me to a hotel…"

Tony scraped back his chair, startling Gibbs and Justin. "Sorry," he smiled apologetically. "Do you know which hotel, Justin?"

"Yes." The boy nodded.

"You could take us there and identify the rooms where the photos were taken?" Gibbs asked.

"Yes." Justin nodded again, looking profoundly uncomfortable.

"Would you be prepared to testify against Admiral Parrish in court, Justin?" Gibbs asked him quietly.

"No!" Justin looked panic-stricken. "It wasn’t his fault, Agent Gibbs! It was mine. He was just trying to help me figure out about being gay – it was me who wanted more. I can’t testify against him – I love him.”

Gibbs wished he had an answer to that. He wasn't a specialist in this kind of thing. Maybe he'd just assumed that all abused kids hated their abusers, but he was starting to see that it was a lot more complicated than that. The ‘grooming’ process Tony had mentioned had clearly fucked with this kid's mind. Maybe it was similar to the kind of brain-washing techniques he'd been taught about in the military. Tony glanced at him, an unreadable expression in his eyes, and then glanced back at the kid.

"I can understand that, Justin," Tony said. Gibbs clenched his hands into fists – he sure as hell couldn't, and he couldn't bring himself to tell Justin that he could either. A wave of anger shot through him.

"The admiral abused you, Justin, plain and simple," Gibbs said bluntly. "That wasn't love. He was just messing with your head, so that you'd do what he wanted. He wanted you compliant so he could have sex with you, and so that he could give you to other men for them to have sex with you too. Can't you see that?"

Tony winced, and Justin gazed at Gibbs from wide, scared eyes, clearly terrified of his palpable anger. Somehow, he and Tony had flipped roles – and now Tony was the good cop, and Gibbs was the one to be frightened of. Gibbs could have kicked himself.

"Look – we can talk about this some more later, Justin," Tony said soothingly. "You must be hungry. Why don't I get Officer David to take you to the cafeteria so you can get something to eat?"

He glanced at Gibbs, a pleading look in his eyes, and Gibbs nodded, brusquely. Tony got up and nodded at the mirror, and a second later Ziva came into the room, her dark brown eyes gentle and sympathetic. She smiled at Justin and gestured to him to follow her. Tony closed the door shut behind her and turned on Gibbs.

"That wasn't smart, Boss," he snapped, much to Gibbs's surprise. Tony rarely argued with him about his handling of a case, but right now Tony's eyes were dark and angry. "He won't agree to testify just because you bully him into it," he said. "And frankly, he's been bullied and manipulated enough. He doesn't need you starting in on him."

"I wasn't trying to bully him!" Gibbs snapped back angrily. "We need him to testify against Parrish, Tony, or we can't bring that bastard to justice."

"We have the photographs…" Tony began.

"The laptop was stolen!" Gibbs interrupted. "Justin admits that. Parrish’s lawyer will say that Justin put those pictures on it himself to blackmail the admiral. Besides, it's not clear if Parrish is one of the men in the photographs. No, we *need* Justin to testify, or Parrish will walk free."

Tony nodded, the anger fading from his eyes. “Okay.” He shrugged and gave one of his easy, casual grins, as if he hadn’t just almost lost his temper with his boss.

“I thought you were the one who’d seen this all before and didn’t let it get to you?” Gibbs commented dryly.

“Oh, I was just pissed off that you might have screwed up the case by scaring the kid shitless like that after all my hard work getting him to trust me,” Tony grinned. “Like you said, we need his testimony.”

Gibbs slapped the back of his head for that. “I don’t screw up cases,” he growled, striding towards the door.

“No, Boss!” Tony replied cheerfully, chasing after him. “Uh - where are we going?"

"To get two warrants," Gibbs replied. "One to search Parrish's house and one to arrest him. We might find the evidence we need at his house – and I'm damn well going to bring him in the minute he gets off that ship."

He strode down to the squad room, a dozen little things niggling away at him. This case, which had seemed so easily solvable a few hours ago, had suddenly opened up to reveal a massive chasm – and he still had no idea just how deep it went. He wasn’t an expert in child sex abuse cases, but it wasn’t outside his remit, and he knew there were people he could call in if need be.

Some things were still bothering him though - such as the fact that Justin had stolen the laptop - because that could prejudice any case they tried to make against Parrish.

Then there was his gut feeling that this was just the tip of the iceberg and more digging could reveal a whole network of men like Admiral Parrish.

Finally, there was his irritation with Tony. His agent had viewed those photos without a flicker of revulsion – but had flipped out with *him* when he'd tried to persuade Justin to testify. It was almost like Tony was protecting the damn abusers, as if he didn’t *care* about what that kid had gone through, despite the empathetic way he’d questioned Justin back there.

Still, that was Tony – very little ever got under the surface. Gibbs could count on the fingers of one hand the times he’d seen Tony really affected by anything they encountered in their work – or, at least, the times Tony had *shown* he was affected, which was something different.

~*~

McGee cracked the last encrypted folder and then sat back with a sigh. Abby put her hands on his shoulders and massaged them helpfully.

“52 files,” McGee muttered. “I hope they’re all photos of Justin because otherwise that’s another 51 kids who’ve been abused.”

“And if they aren’t all of Justin – let’s hope it’s just one kid per file,” Abby said to him. He glanced up at her. “Or else it’s more than 52 kids,” she told him quietly.

“You okay with this?” He pointed his mouse at one of the files, poised, ready to click.

“No. You?” she asked, her eyes glowing unhappily.

“No,” he agreed.

“Then let’s do it,” she said. “They had to live through it – all we have to do is view and catalogue the evidence.”

He nodded and clicked.

~*~

“Uh, Boss, it’s me. I’ve finished opening up all the files,” McGee’s voice said in his ear.

“And?” Gibbs asked shortly, wishing he could tone down his irritation but having a suspicion that it would be with him for the duration of this case. He’d seen many things in his life, but anything involving hurt or abused children always got under his skin and made him want to lash out.

“Again, I think you should come down here,” McGee said apologetically. Gibbs sighed. This just got worse and worse.

“On my way,” he said tersely, slamming down the phone. “DiNozzo – do you have those warrants for me yet?”

“Working on it!” Tony replied, glancing up at him from his desk as he passed.

“Well work on it faster,” he snapped, striding out of the squad room.

McGee and Abby both turned anxiously towards him as he entered the forensics lab, and he could see by the expressions on their faces that it wasn’t good news. McGee read his mood and knew to just give it to him straight.

“There are 52 files,” McGee said, clicking on one. “We’ve taken a brief look at all of them. All contain photographs of boys who certainly appear to be underage. All the files, except one, contain just one boy per file. The final file contains photos of several different boys. I'm not sure yet whether those are boys from the other files or different boys."

"So we don't know if we're looking at 51 abuse cases or more than that?" Gibbs demanded.

"No," McGee agreed.

"Well get on it, McGee. I want to know just how many kids these bastards abused," Gibbs ordered. McGee nodded.

"Anything else?" Gibbs asked.

"Sometimes there are only a handful of photographs in a file, and sometimes there are hundreds," McGee replied. "There are more photos of Justin than any of the other boys – presumably because the abuse took place over a longer time period. And the first fifteen or so files contain photos taken on digital cameras.”

“Must be a godsend for pedophiles,” Abby commented grimly. “No need to take film to be developed anywhere, and you get instant results – which can be emailed directly to the other members of the ring.”

“Maybe Tony’s right, and technology isn’t always a good thing,” McGee said with a little shake of his head. “In the older files, it’s clear the photos have been taken on film and scanned so those photos pre-date digital cameras.”

“How far back does this go?” Gibbs asked.

“Impossible to say,” McGee shrugged. “Although judging by the hairstyles and the furnishings in the various rooms…” He brought up a picture of a boy with longish red hair and pointed the mouse at the psychedelic green wallpaper behind him. “I’d place this one some time in the seventies,” he said. “That’s one of the earliest I’ve found.”

“Okay – I want to know how many different boys were abused and any clues as to locations,” Gibbs said. “Or identities,” he added, although he thought he was pushing his luck with that. The boys were all visible, but the men abusing them had been carefully photographed so that their faces weren’t clear in any of the pictures.

McGee glanced up at him, an aghast expression on his face.

“Boss that could take days!” he protested. “I mean there are thousands of photographs here!”

“Then you’d better get started,” Gibbs growled, turning on his heel. “Both of you.”

He winced as he got into the elevator, out of their view. He wouldn’t wish that task on his worst enemy, but it was necessary. If they could identify any of the boys or men in the photos, then they stood more of a chance of cracking this ring and bringing the main perpetrators to justice. Just the thought that this ring had been abusing boys – and getting away with it – for decades…

Gibbs snapped his hand angrily on the elevator stop button, breathing heavily. He couldn’t help all those kids in the files, with their haunting, empty eyes, but if he did his job, and brought those bastards to justice, then he could prevent there being any future victims.

How did men like this get away with it for so long? He remembered what Tony had said about this particular ring presumably being made up of intelligent, ruthless men who knew exactly what they were doing and how to cover their tracks. He also supposed that the membership of the ring hadn’t stayed static over the years – presumably men entered it, bringing a child or pictures of children as their membership fee, and then got access to the other children and pictures. Some of the men might have died and been replaced by others, and maybe some had even been discovered and sent to prison – without revealing the names of their fellow perpetrators. That laptop downstairs had certainly been well protected. Gibbs doubted that anyone other than McGee would have been able to hack those encryption codes, so those files had been very well hidden.

Gibbs took a few deep breaths, and then he snapped his hand onto the elevator button again. He had a job to do, and he was damn well going to do it to the best of his ability – for the sake of every single kid these men had abused over the years.

Gibbs strode into the Squad Room to find Tony staring at a picture on the plasma.

“Did you get me those warrants?” Gibbs barked out.

“Yes, Boss. Here, Boss.” Tony handed them over.

“That Admiral Parrish?” Gibbs glanced at the plasma.

“Yeah. I was just trying to see if there’s something in his eyes that gives him away, but there’s nothing,” Tony said. “It’s just hard to believe that a guy like this, with all his years in the military and with all the commendations he’s had, could be capable of something like this.”

He turned his head on one side and gazed at the picture again. The man onscreen was a tall, well-built officer in his early sixties. He had silver hair and a genial smile, although his firm jaw and dark grey eyes spoke of a more ruthless character than was, perhaps, obvious at first sight. Even so, Tony was right – the man looked ordinary.

“Like all the best murderers, rapists and pedophiles,” Gibbs grunted. “They look just like us, Tony – you should know that by now.”

“Yeah.” Tony shrugged.

“Okay, let’s get moving.” Gibbs reached for his gun and badge and started striding towards the elevator.

“Uh…Boss, I was wondering – could you take Ziva instead of me?” Tony asked, trotting along behind him. Gibbs turned and gave him his glare – the one that usually silenced Tony immediately and brought him into line. Except that this time it didn’t. “It’s just…I want to build up more of a rapport with Justin,” Tony continued, ignoring the glare. “I thought he and I were - you know, that he was starting to trust me. And if we need him to testify against Parrish then…” He shrugged.

Gibbs stared at him. Something about Tony was out of focus right now, but he had too much on his plate to figure out what it was. Whatever it was, it was annoying. He needed Tony to be on top of his game with this one; hell, he needed ALL his team to be at their best, and Tony kept wrong-footing him by being slightly ‘off’ somehow. It was nothing he could put his finger on, but it niggled at him all the same.

“Okay,” he said eventually, because the request was reasonable enough – it just wasn’t *Tony* somehow. Since when did Tony ask to stay behind to talk to a kid rather than accompany Gibbs out in the field, especially if he was going to make an arrest for God's sake? Since when did Tony not want to be wherever Gibbs was for that matter? His senior field agent was like his shadow most of the time.

“Thanks. I’ll go tell Ziva to meet you in the parking garage,” Tony said, running off.

~*~
"What you got for me, Abs?" Tony said, in a mock-Gibbs tone of voice as he entered the forensics lab. McGee glanced up as Tony handed Abby a Caf-Pow.

"Tony! Gibbs has only been gone, like, an hour!" Abby grinned. "Isn't it a bit too early for you to start impersonating him?"

She took the Caf-Pow anyway and offered her cheek for Tony to kiss, which he did with a happy grin. McGee rolled his eyes.

"And this, McProbie, is for you, so don't say I never do anything for you," Tony said, handing him a coffee. McGee sniffed at it suspiciously. "I didn't put liquid soap in it this time," Tony added. "I promise."

McGee gazed at him through narrowed eyes, and he then took a chance and sipped. It was coffee, and just the way he liked it; warm and milky, no soap.

"Why thank you, Tony. Why are you being nice? It's not like you."

"Well…I figure that out of all of us you guys drew the short straw on this one," Tony said, with a nod at McGee's screen. "Why do we never get to catalogue good porn?" he sighed. "With adults, and, you know, hot women."

"Tony!" Abby elbowed him in the stomach, and he grinned at her.

"I'm just saying!" he protested. "This stuff here will warp the poor probie's delicate brain. Hell…it'd warp anyone's brain." He glanced over McGee's shoulder, and his forehead wrinkled up in a theatrical frown. "Man, this stuff is fucked up."

"Yeah. I feel like I want to scrub out my brain with bleach," McGee sighed. "What are you doing down here anyway, Tony? I thought you were babysitting Justin?"

"I was – but then I showed him Autopsy and he went all 'cool!' on me, so I left him with Palmer. Justin was talking about wanting to paint one of the bodies. Eww." Tony gave a dramatic shiver. "Why are some people so into dead bodies? It's creepy. Uh, present company excepted, Abs," he grinned at her. "So where are we at on this? What have you found?" he asked, standing too close to McGee as he stared over his shoulder. McGee elbowed him back a step.

"We have 52 files full of abused kids, and Gibbs wants us to look at every single photograph for clues as to who they are and who the abusers are," McGee told him.

"Gibbs wants you to ID all those kids?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "Good luck with that."

"Yeah," McGee sighed.

"I mean, it's not really possible, is it?" Tony asked.

"Well, we can do a search on missing kids over the past few decades to see if we can match any of the pictures but…" McGee began.

"Decades? These photos go back that far?" Tony sounded shocked. "No wonder Gibbs is marching around yelling at everyone."

"You know Gibbs. He really hates anything involving cruelty to kids," Abby sighed. "And this – right here – looks like being the kind of case that'll drive him crazy."

"And looking for missing kids might not be much use," Tony said. "If this whole ring operates like the admiral, then these kids weren't missing at any point. They weren't abducted and raped. They were groomed for abuse and manipulated by their abusers into thinking they'd somehow agreed to it – maybe that they even wanted it or enjoyed it."

"In some ways that's even more horrible," Abby said. "It sounds so premeditated. I mean, how could anyone do that to a kid?"

Tony shrugged. "People do all kinds of stuff to get what they want, Abs."

"Hey - maybe Tony can help us with our conundrum?" Abby suggested, glancing at McGee.

"Fire away." Tony nodded.

"Well, like I said, we have 52 files, and there's a different boy in each file," McGee said, pointing his mouse at the screen and zipping through some of them. "But just one boy per file - except this one." He brought up the final file. "This one has hundreds of photos of different boys in it."

"Are they the same boys as in the other files or new ones?" Tony asked, taking the mouse away from McGee and scrolling through the photos at lightning speed.

"Well, we've only just started working on that, but so far we've been able to cross-reference them back to photos we've seen in the other files," McGee replied. "So they're duplicates."

"Well then that's easy," Tony said.

McGee and Abby gazed at him, waiting. Tony didn't elaborate – he just kept on zipping through the photos, a look of concentration on his face.

"Tony!" McGee said, elbowing him again. "Were you planning on sharing the answer with us any time soon?"

"What?" Tony gazed intently at the screen and then clicked away. He looked up with a bright grin. "Oh yeah – this is the admiral's 'favourites' file, Probie. All good porn collections have a favourites file – I know mine does." He gave them a knowing little wink and an even broader grin. "So he's picked all his favourite photos from the other files and dumped them into this one."

"I don't even like to think about him having favourites among boys who’ve been abused," Abby said quietly.

"I agree. It's sick." Tony pulled the grin off his face immediately. McGee glared at him. Tony's humour could be annoying at the best of times, but right now it seemed downright inappropriate. "You know, I should get back to Justin before he ends up sketching every dead body in Autopsy," Tony said, and then he turned on his heel and left, with a jaunty wave of his hand, humming to himself as he went.

"Do you ever get the urge to hit him really hard?" McGee asked Abby conversationally.

"Oh yeah," she grinned. "All the time. Luckily Gibbs does it for us." She glanced at him sideways and mimed slapping the back of McGee's head, and they both laughed.

~*~

Tony stopped humming the minute he stepped inside the elevator. He waited until the door closed and then flicked the emergency button to give himself some thinking time. He wasn't getting this right; he knew that. His game was off, and people kept giving him strange looks, so he knew he wasn't hitting the right note. Maybe he was trying too hard.

He had to be more focussed, or this whole situation could end up getting out of hand. He knew Gibbs though – the man was like a dog with a bone when he got hold of something. There was no way he'd give this up easily, but it was going to take him some time to figure it all out. Tony had to use that time to his advantage.

Tony gazed at his reflection in the mirrored elevator wall; a couple of spikes of his hair were sticking up at a weird angle, looking out of place. He smoothed the hair down, robotically. He frowned as he noticed his hand shaking slightly; this was exactly the kind of reaction he couldn't afford. This morning he'd had no idea that this would blow up. Who the hell could have predicted this? If he had known, then maybe he could have prepared himself for it better, but he was thinking on his feet right now and that wasn't easy. No wonder he kept getting these adrenaline spikes; it was the shock of the unexpected. Once he recovered, he'd hit his stride again for sure.

He was still one step ahead of Gibbs, and if he played this right he could keep it that way. There was no reason why the old man should ever find out – McGee hadn't. Okay, so Gibbs was a hell of a lot more observant than the probie, but it was a long shot, even for Gibbs. If Tony could just keep focussed, then everything would be okay. It would be tough for a few weeks, sure - he had to resign himself to that - but then this would all go away and things could go back to how they'd been before. No need to panic. He just had to stay calm and ride it out.

He nodded at himself, and realised he was still smoothing his hair down compulsively so that it was now flat against his skull, giving him an oddly skeletal appearance. He adjusted it back to how it usually looked and then flicked the emergency button again and went down to Autopsy to reclaim Justin.

He was humming again the minute he stepped out of the elevator.

~*~

Gibbs looked up expectantly as Ziva came down the stairs.

"Nothing," she said, with a sigh, gesturing with her palms up, empty. "I can find nothing at all, Gibbs."

"It would help if you'd let me know what you're looking for, Agent Gibbs," the housekeeper said anxiously, hovering beside him as he went through all the drawers in the sleek mahogany bureau in the hallway. "I take care of the admiral – I do all his washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning. I know everything there is to know about him."

"I doubt that," Gibbs muttered brusquely, finishing with the bureau and turning back to Ziva.

"Were you worried that Justin stole anything else?" the housekeeper asked. "I don't see how that's possible. I mean, I saw him leave with that bag, and he didn't have time…"

"We are not here because of that," Ziva interrupted her.

At that moment, there was a noise at the front door, and Ziva drew her gun, glancing at Gibbs.

"I thought that the admiral was not due back until late this afternoon?" Ziva hissed.

"I'm guessing that he found a way to get off that ship sooner rather than later," Gibbs growled back at her. "Wouldn't you, in the circumstances? He has some damage control on his hands right now."

The door opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man in full military uniform entered the house. He was self-assured and imposing, with silver-grey hair and dark grey eyes.

"Admiral Parrish? I'm Agent Gibbs – we spoke on the phone earlier," Gibbs said coldly. The admiral looked confused.

"Agent Gibbs – I'm surprised to see you here," he said, glancing around at the untidy state of the house following their search. "I thought I told you that I didn't want to press charges against Justin?"

"We're not here about that," Gibbs replied. "We're here to arrest you."

The admiral went very still. "On what charge?" he asked quietly.

"I think you know," Gibbs told him, glancing at the housekeeper, unwilling to go into too much detail in front of her. He pulled out his cuffs and went over to the admiral. "For what you did to Justin," he hissed quietly in the man's ear. "And God knows how many other kids."

"I don't know what you mean," Parrish replied, a shocked expression on his face. Gibbs had to hand it to him – the man was a consummate actor. "What are you implying?" Parrish demanded, allowing Gibbs to pull his hands behind his back and fasten the cuffs on him without resistance. "You should be very careful, Agent Gibbs," Parrish said, in a hard tone. Gibbs straightened up and looked him in the eye. "I hope that you're very sure of your facts, Gibbs, because I don't appreciate that kind of accusation – and I'm not someone you want to upset." He gestured with his head in the direction of the rank insignia on his uniform.

"Oh, trust me, neither am I – and you have - big time," Gibbs told him, pushing him in the direction of the door.

~*~

Ziva gazed through the two-way mirror into the interrogation room where Gibbs was glaring at the admiral, who was sitting easily in his chair, staring back. She glanced up as Tony came into the observation room.

"I think that Gibbs has finally met his game," she said.

“It’s ‘match’, Ziva,” Tony corrected her. "So the admiral's playing tough guy, is he?" he asked, coming to stand next to her.

"Yes – he is demanding a lawyer and refuses to answer any of Gibbs's questions."

"Well, he's an experienced military commander – an admiral no less. He isn't likely to be intimidated by the Gibbs death glare, however scary it is to us mere mortals," Tony grinned. He gazed through the mirror at the admiral.

"Where have you been?" Ziva asked him. "Gibbs was looking for you."

"Did he want me in there?" Tony gestured with his head towards the window.

"I do not know, but he was annoyed when he could not find you."

"I was babysitting Justin," Tony replied with a shrug. “Must have had my cell phone switched off by mistake.”

"Where is he?" Ziva glanced around as if she expected to see Justin standing there.

"I left him with Abby – she wanted a break from staring at all those photos, so she's taken him to get a coffee. He really wants to go home though."

"Gibbs will not let him go home until he agrees to testify and makes a statement," Ziva told him.

"I know. That's why I've been spending all this time with him. Just need to make the kid see what would be best," Tony said, with a firm nod.

Next door, Gibbs leaned forward and took a sheaf of photos out of the file he was holding. "We found these on your laptop, Admiral, and thousands more like them."

The admiral stared at them, aghast. "My God! These are…Agent Gibbs – these are photographs of Justin," he said in an appalled voice. "Oh God, the poor kid…"

"Are you saying you didn't know these photographs were on your laptop?" Gibbs asked.

"I didn't know because they weren't!" the admiral protested. "Agent Gibbs – I have never seen these photographs before now."

"Then how did they get there?"

"I can only assume that Justin put them there himself," the admiral sighed.

"Why?"

"To blackmail me." The admiral buried his face in his hands.

"He is a good actor, yes?" Ziva said to Tony.

"What makes you think he's acting?" Tony asked, never taking his eyes off the admiral.

"Come on, Tony. He is surely guilty!" Ziva glanced at him, surprised.

"We might not have all the facts yet, Ziva, that's all I'm saying," Tony said to her. "Sometimes you just need to alter the perspective a little and everything gets turned on its head. Remember when I got framed for murder that time? All the evidence pointed to me, but I was being set up."

“It is a possibility, but I do not believe that is what has happened here,” she said. He didn’t reply, and when she glanced at him, she found he was staring intently at Admiral Parrish, completely engrossed.

"Why would he want to blackmail you, Admiral?" Gibbs asked.

The admiral shook his head. "That poor kid – he has so many emotional problems. The shoplifting, the drinking, the drugs…he just never got over Tom's death. He started asking me for money a few months ago – said he needed it for college, although I know that Tom and Melissa have provided him with a good college fund. I think it's more likely that he wanted the money for drugs. I refused – but he wouldn't let it go. He said that he'd tell people I'd been abusing him. I thought it was just a teenage rage – I couldn't believe that he'd really make up such a terrible thing. I mean, I know he's a good kid really, Agent Gibbs, even if he is unstable. He's like his mom, you see – she's a fragile kind of personality – you can see that by how she fell apart after Tom died, and Justin is just like her. I had no idea Justin would go this far though."

"You think he set this up to blackmail you into giving him money?" Gibbs asked. "Isn't taking naked photos of himself and planting them on your laptop going just a bit too far for an 18 year old?"

"Oh, it's not that simple, I'm afraid, Agent Gibbs," the admiral sighed. "You see, Justin blames me for his father's death. He always has. I was Tom's military commander, and I ordered him into the combat situation that led to his death. Justin has never forgiven me for that. So it wasn't just blackmail – it was also revenge."

Ziva glanced at Tony. "That was unexpected," she murmured. "Maybe you are right, Tony. Maybe we do not have all the facts."

Tony's jaw tightened, and she thought he looked very tense as he stared through the window. "Maybe, Ziva," he said softly. "Maybe."

~*~

Gibbs was in a foul mood when he left the interrogation room. Tony exited the observation room at the same time, straight into his path, and Gibbs glared at him.

"Where the hell have you been, DiNozzo?"

"Sorry, Boss – I was just…" Tony waved his hand in a vague way.

"Never be unreachable, DiNozzo – didn't I drum that into you?"

"Yes, Boss. Sorry, Boss. It won't happen again, Boss," Tony said, trotting along after him as he strode into the squad room.

"I know it won't," Gibbs snapped meaningfully. "And where the hell is Justin? I thought you were supposed to be keeping an eye on him?"

"I was, Boss – I just…I left him with Abby," Tony said.

"Well get him back!" Gibbs roared. "Parrish is playing hardball on this – he's thought up a good story and he's sticking to it. We *need* Justin's testimony if we're going to make a case against him."

"You're sure it's Parrish who is lying and not Justin?" Tony asked.

Gibbs turned, slowly, his expression murderous. "Oh yes, Tony. I'm sure," he said grimly.

"How?" Tony asked, seemingly undaunted by the glare Gibbs was giving him.

"My gut," Gibbs grunted.

"It has been wrong before," Tony pointed out. Gibbs stiffened. "I'm just saying – maybe you want the admiral to be guilty," Tony muttered. "It'd be simpler that way."

"Someone took those damn photos, Tony, and Parrish is our most likely suspect. Now go and get Justin," Gibbs said, in a low, even voice, struggling to get his temper under control. "Take him into interrogation room two and get him to agree to testify. That way, we can bring this bastard to justice."

"Yes, Boss." Tony nodded, turning and running off in the direction of the elevator.

Gibbs scratched the side of his head absently as he watched him go. What the hell was wrong with DiNozzo today? He kept pushing at him – and precisely at those times when Gibbs *really* didn't want to be pushed. Nobody liked cases like this, but Gibbs knew his own reactions were intense and extreme. He didn't want to lose it with Tony, but he thought that might be the way this was headed if his agent didn't stop playing devil's advocate. Just what the hell was Tony trying to achieve by it anyway?

~*~

“Agent DiNozzo, I’d really like to go home,” Justin said, gazing at him pleadingly from his blue eyes. He really did look like a kicked puppy.

“I know, Justin.” Tony nodded. “Not much longer now. Agent Gibbs asked me to bring you in here to see if you’d changed your mind about testifying against the admiral.”

Justin gazed at him pathetically. It would be so easy to bend and twist him into doing whatever he wanted. The kid was so clearly vulnerable and that made him malleable. Tony had to give Parrish credit for knowing his dark art so well. He’d got this kid responding to any older, male authority figure. Gibbs would know how to play him without even realising he was playing him. Tony could play him too, so easily. All it would take was just a few firm words mixed up with a little bit of kindness…he could have Justin eating out of his hand in only a slightly longer time than it would take Gibbs.

“I don’t want to testify against Uncle Matthew,” Justin said miserably. “I just want this to go away.”

“I understand.” Tony nodded. “And I think you’re right.”

Justin looked at him through that curtain of blond hair, surprised.

“You just want a fresh start don’t you, Justin?” Tony sighed. “You’re leaving to go to college next month, and you can put all this behind you. But if you make a statement, if you formally accuse the admiral of sexually abusing you, and if you agree to stand up in court and recount that abuse…well this is going to stay with you a hell of a lot longer, isn’t it?”

“I don’t want my mom knowing,” Justin confided. “She isn’t very well, Agent DiNozzo, and I’m worried this might kill her. I already killed my dad…”

“You didn’t kill your dad, Justin,” Tony said firmly. “You were just honest with him. And I’ll be honest with you.” He leaned forward. “Don’t testify,” he said quietly, looking straight into Justin’s eyes. “Don’t make a statement, don’t go to court. The admiral is a wealthy, powerful man, and you're a kid with a criminal record. There's the shoplifting, the DUI, the drugs, and the fact you broke into the admiral's house and stole the laptop. They’ll take you apart in court, Justin. Don’t do it – and don’t let anyone talk you into doing it, either. Not me, not Agent Gibbs – not anyone. Just walk away from this. Get as far away from Parrish as you can – never see him again, never talk to him again. Go to college and be someone else. Be someone this never happened to. You can be someone different – hell, you can be whoever you damn well want. Just put all this in a box, stow it away in a corner of your mind, and never think about it again. Do you think you can do that?”

Justin bit on his lip. “I don’t know, Agent DiNozzo. How does that work? How can I just not think about it?”

“It won't be easy – you'll have to work at it – but you can do it. It’s kind of like a magic trick - every time you think about it, all you have to do is distract yourself,” Tony told him. “Think about something else – something you like. Think about a movie, or a song, or a guy you like, or about something you want to paint. Talk to yourself if it helps, or goof around, or kick a ball around, or hum…anything to distract yourself, and then you’ll find it goes away. It’ll take time, but it’ll get easier to the point where you don’t think about it at all.”

“Supposing Uncle Matthew comes after me?”

“Are you scared of him?” Tony asked quietly.

“No…" Justin hesitated. "Yes," he said softly. "I'm terrified of him, Agent DiNozzo. He can be so nice but then sometimes…sometimes he goes really cold and mean, and he says these things…things that really freak me out. It’s like he’s got this whole other side to him, Agent DiNozzo, and if I don’t testify against him then he’ll be free to come after me.”

“He won’t come after you, Justin,” Tony said confidently.

“How do you know that?”

“Just trust me – he won’t come after you.” Tony leaned forward and spoke into the teenager’s ear in a whisper. “I’ll take care of that. I promise.” He leaned back again, crossed his arms over his chest, and gazed at the kid. Justin stared at him.

“You think it’s the right thing not to testify?” Justin asked uncertainly. “Only…Agent Gibbs…he got mad at me when I said I wouldn’t.”

“I know, but you make your own decisions, Justin. You can’t let anyone push you around any more. People – men – have been doing that for far too long, haven’t they? First your dad, and then Admiral Parrish, and then the men he gave you to, and now Agent Gibbs. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do any more, Justin. Gibbs has his own agenda – he wants to see Parrish sent to jail for what he did to you, and he wants him out of the way so he can’t hurt any more kids.”

“Maybe Agent Gibbs is right,” Justin murmured. Tony nodded.

“He is – but that’s his agenda, Justin, not yours. You’ll just get caught in the crossfire. They’ll crucify you in court. Your mom will be dragged into this, and you won’t be able to enjoy college because this will be hanging over you - and it will *always* hang over you. You’ll never be free of it. People will always know that you were the kid who was abused. Or worse, that you were the kid who made a false accusation - because there’s every chance the admiral will get off even if you do testify against him. I believe you, and Agent Gibbs believes you, but there’s no guarantee a jury will.”

Justin bit on his lower lip, drawing yet more blood. It welled up in the split and a tiny droplet splashed onto the table. Tony gazed at him steadily.

“Do as I say, Justin,” he said firmly. “You know it makes sense.”

Justin nodded. “I do. I will. I was scared that Agent Gibbs would…that he’d make me do something I didn’t want to do.”

“Yeah, I know, but nobody is going to do that to you again, Justin. You have to make that decision - right here, right now – nobody is ever going to make you do anything you don’t want to do ever again. Agreed?”

Justin nodded eagerly, looking like a weight had been lifted from his mind. “Yes – thank you, Agent DiNozzo.”

“Good. If Agent Gibbs comes after you, tell him you won’t testify and stick to that whatever he says. I know he can be pretty scary but just stand up to him. He can’t make you testify if you don’t want to.”

“I guess not.” Justin still looked uncertain.

"You have to look after yourself now, Justin," Tony told him softly. "Nobody else will, so you have to be strong. You have to step up and take care of yourself, and that means not doing anything you don't want to do, no matter who asks. Understand?"

Justin's eyes flashed, and he nodded slowly. "Yes, Agent DiNozzo. I really do."

"Good. That's good." Tony grinned at him, and Justin gave him a little smile in response. The kid looked happier than he had all day. “Okay then – do you want me to give you a lift home?”

“I can go home now?”

“Sure.” Tony shrugged. “We’re all done here.”

He got up and watched as the kid got to his feet and almost ran for the door. Tony caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he left the room. That annoying bit of hair was sticking up again. He flattened it down with his hand, humming to himself.

Really, that had been too easy.

~*~

Gibbs stormed out of interrogation room one after another lengthy and entirely pointless interview with Admiral Parrish. The man was sticking to his story, and he was smart – too smart to be waylaid by any of the traps Gibbs set for him and too sure of himself to be intimidated – and God knows, Gibbs had done his best to intimidate the man. Without a confession, or more evidence, or Justin’s testimony, the admiral would walk – and Gibbs gut churned at the thought of him being free to prey on more innocent kids.

Gibbs hoped that Tony had talked Justin into making a statement. He had every faith in his senior field agent – Tony might goof off occasionally, but he was excellent at his job and rarely failed to do whatever Gibbs asked of him.

Gibbs glanced into interrogation room two but was surprised to find it was empty. Surely Tony couldn’t have written up Justin’s statement already? And if Justin was still refusing to testify then Tony would be sitting here, waiting for Gibbs to come back in and take over the task.

Gibbs strode back to the squad room but there was no sign of Tony there, either.

“Where’s DiNozzo?” he asked Ziva.

“He left,” she said, looking up, a surprised expression on her face.

“Left to go where?” Gibbs growled, just barely keeping his temper under control. What the hell was going on around here?

“He left to take Justin home – I thought you knew.” Ziva looked just as puzzled as he felt right now.

“No I didn’t damn well know.” Gibbs dialled Tony’s cell phone number. “Where the hell are you, DiNozzo?” he snapped when Tony picked up.

“Justin wouldn’t agree to testify – he wanted to be taken home, so that’s what I’m doing,” Tony replied cheerfully.

“No you’re not. Get your ass back here,” Gibbs growled. “And bring Justin with you.”

“I can’t do that, Boss. He’s insisting I take him home,” Tony replied. “And we can’t keep him at NCIS – he hasn’t done anything wrong.”

“At the very least he broke into the admiral’s house,” Gibbs barked, clutching at straws.

“But the admiral isn’t pressing charges,” Tony rebutted. “Look, you can speak to him yourself. He’s very insistent.”

There was silence, and then Justin’s voice came on the line.

“I’m not testifying, Agent Gibbs, and you can’t make me,” he said in tones of hesitant defiance. There was a pause, and Gibbs heard a whispering sound. “Uh…I asked Agent DiNozzo to take me home. I don’t want to make a statement. I don’t have anything to talk to you about now. I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. You can't make me. I have to look after myself now.”

“Hey, Boss.” Tony’s voice again. “You heard him – he’s made up his mind. Nothing I said would change it. Hang on…I think the line’s breaking up…”

The phone went dead, and Gibbs threw it down in disgust. Ziva looked up at him, alarmed.

“Is everything okay?”

“No, everything is not okay,” he growled. “Everything is very far from okay.”

Something about this whole thing smelled wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he was determined to track it down. There was no way – *no way* - he was going to allow a whole ring of pedophiles to continue to operate when he had a chance to bring them down, starting with the man sitting in interrogation room one right now…which gave him a thought.

Gibbs strode back to the observation room for interrogation room two. Mike, one of the technicians, was sitting there, drinking a cup of coffee and munching on a sandwich.

“Mike – play me back the tape of the interview Agent DiNozzo just conducted in here,” Gibbs ordered. Mike nodded and rewound the tape. A few seconds later it began playing on the TV screen.

Gibbs watched in total silence.

~*~

Tony hummed to himself as he exited the elevator. That was Justin out of the way. Gibbs would no doubt be pissed off, but Tony could handle that. He wouldn’t *like* it, because a pissed off Gibbs was a thing to fear, but he could handle it.

Tony sauntered into the squad room, still humming. “Hey Ziva!” he announced cheerfully. "What's going on?"

She glanced up, her eyes full of warning. I know, Tony thought to himself. I know. But I’m still one step ahead, and if I can just keep it that way...

He saw a scrunched up piece of paper on the floor beside her waste basket and bent down to pick it up, then turned seamlessly, in one smooth motion, and tossed it straight towards McGee's waste basket…only for it to hit someone's leg instead. Oh shit. Tony looked up into a pair of stony blue eyes.

“Hey, Boss. Sorry about Justin.” He gave an apologetic shrug. “The kid just wouldn’t budge. I did my best.”

“Did you?” Gibbs raised an eyebrow. “With me, DiNozzo. Now!” he barked. Tony made a face at Ziva and trotted obediently along behind Gibbs.

Gibbs led him to the conference room, opened the door for Tony to walk through, and then he closed it behind them.

“Sit,” he ordered. Tony sat.

“What kind of a game are you playing, Tony?” Gibbs asked, in a quiet, deadly tone of voice.

A dangerous one, the little voice in Tony’s head whispered.

"Me? I’m not playing any games, Boss,” he replied nonchalantly.

“Watch,” Gibbs ordered tersely.

He picked up the remote lying on the table, clicked a button, and the plasma screen opposite Tony flickered into life. His heart sank as he saw himself and Justin sitting in the interrogation room. He hadn’t thought for a moment that Gibbs would go this far – the man never checked over his footage. He trusted him enough to take his word for what had gone down unless there was something specific he wanted to look at.

So he’d made a mistake – it was inevitable when he was thinking on his feet like this. The situation could still be salvaged though, he was sure of that. It might cost him – so he had to decide, quickly, just how much he was prepared to lose.

Gibbs was looking at him, as if waiting for him to say something. Tony looked at the screen. He could see that annoying tuft of hair sticking up on the back of his head, and it irritated him. Unconsciously, he moved his hand up to his head to stroke it back down, even though he was viewing footage of himself and not looking in a mirror.

The tape played through from the beginning. Tony barely heard it. He was too busy thinking, and stroking, and thinking…

It came to an end, and Gibbs turned it off with an angry click of his fingers. Tony flinched. This was going to be bad.

“I want an explanation, Tony,” Gibbs said, leaning in, looming over him. “If you have one.”

“There’s always an explanation,” Tony replied, with a cheery grin. He realised his hand was shaking, so he moved it down to his lap and held it there, out of sight. “It’s like I was saying to Ziva earlier…sometimes you just have to shift the perspective, turn things upside down, and view them from a different angle…”

“Answer me!” Gibbs slammed his hand down on the table, and Tony jumped. His grin faded. He scraped back his chair to get away from Gibbs and stood up.

“That kid has been through enough,” he said quietly. “Everything I said to him was true. If this goes to court they’ll tear him apart, and I doubt you’ll get the conviction you want, Gibbs. Parrish’s lawyer will say that Justin put the photos on the laptop himself, after he stole it. Justin isn’t a reliable witness. Nobody will believe him, Gibbs, trust me. He’s just a kid, and Parrish is an admiral for God’s sake! He’s a war hero, he’s been decorated, he has commendations for bravery, and there has never been a word said against him, by anyone. There is no other evidence, none at all, to show that he’s a pedophile. He’s too smart, and he's covered his tracks too well.”

“It’s not up to you!” Gibbs told him. “It is not up to you to decide who is guilty and who isn’t.”

“It isn’t up to you, either, Boss. I don’t regret what I said to Justin. I was right. You’re right too – but you’re just thinking about the law, and the case, and putting away a bad guy. I’m thinking about Justin.”

“So am I! And I’m thinking about all the other kids that men like Parrish and his friends have abused or will abuse if we don’t do something!” Gibbs yelled.

“Well, it’s too late for the ones who have already been abused,” Tony told him. “So don’t worry about them. They’ve found ways of dealing with it. Justin needs to find his own way of dealing with it too, and putting himself through a long, ugly court case isn’t it.”

“You manipulated the kid into thinking that,” Gibbs said quietly.

“Oh, and you’re saying that you wouldn’t have manipulated him into giving a statement?” Tony challenged. “The admiral did a good job on Justin, Gibbs. He responds to older male authority figures. He’ll do whatever they want if they’re just firm enough about it. You know that. You know how easy it would have been. You felt it when we were talking to him together earlier – you know you did. The admiral might have been the one to twist Justin in the first place, but you’d have taken advantage of it. You'd have used him, just like Parrish used him.”

Gibbs’s jaw tightened, and Tony thought that was the point at which he had gone too far.

“Give me your badge and gun,” Gibbs said quietly. Tony stared at him. “Now, DiNozzo!” Gibbs barked. “I don’t know what the hell is going on with you, but I can’t trust you right now, so I’m suspending you from duty.”

Okay, so that wasn’t the outcome he had been expecting, but maybe it was for the best. At least it bought him some thinking time, and it made what he had to do later easier.

He surrendered his badge and gun without hesitation, grateful for the fact that his hand didn’t shake as he put them quietly on the table.

“Go home and stay there,” Gibbs ordered. “I’m not done with you yet.”

It should have hurt more, and maybe it would have if he could feel anything at all right now. He loved his job. This was his family, his home – it was where he belonged – the only place he’d *ever* belonged, and Gibbs…well, Gibbs was everything to him. He hated it when Gibbs was mad at him – properly mad, and not just mildly exasperated. He actually liked mild exasperation because it showed Gibbs was noticing him, but anger – he didn’t like that, and he went out of his way never to disappoint his boss, or give him cause to be genuinely angry with him.

This had been unavoidable though, given the options open to him. If he’d had more time to think…if it had been easier to think…but he hadn’t, and it wasn’t.

He started humming to himself as he left the room.

~*~

Gibbs went to get himself a coffee, lost in thought. His anger had faded, leaving him feeling empty and disappointed. He was fond of DiNozzo – more than fond if he was honest with himself – but, more importantly, he had always been able to trust the man before. Of all his team, Tony was the one he trusted the most, implicitly, without reservation. He’d rely on Tony to have his six in any given situation, and would trust him with his life. So how had it come to this?

He sipped on his coffee thoughtfully as he went through the admiral’s service record. He spent a long time on it, just reading and thinking, trying to find a breakthrough. If he could just talk to Justin again…but Tony had been right about that much at least. That boy would do or say anything he wanted if Gibbs just asked him in the right tone of voice and with the right degree of authority. Gibbs felt sorry for Justin, and didn’t want to make this situation any worse for him, but equally he wanted Parrish to face charges for what he'd done.

Gibbs returned to the interrogation room for one last attempt at breaking Parrish, but the man was too good, and he didn't get any further with him this time than he had the last.

“If you aren’t going to charge me with anything, then you have to let me go, Agent Gibbs,” Parrish told him with a cold smile.

“Just don’t try and go anywhere, Admiral,” Gibbs warned. “And if you go near Justin Merrells, if you try to contact him – call him, visit him, email him, whatever - then I promise you that I will come after you, and I will break both your legs.”

Parrish raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re resorting to crude threats now, Agent Gibbs."

Gibbs shrugged. “Crude? Yes. A threat? No. More like a promise,” he said, as he opened the door to the interrogation room.

Parrish walked towards the door and paused when he got close. Parrish looked at Gibbs with a coolly assessing gaze, taking measure of just how tough an opponent he might prove to be. Gibbs had never yet backed down from a fight, and he sure as hell wasn't going to start now, so he returned that hard stare with one of his own. Parrish's eyes flickered, and then his face broke into a slow, icy smile.

In that instant, Gibbs knew everything he needed to know about this man. Admiral Parrish was guilty as hell – not just of abusing Justin but also countless other boys before him. He was a sly, intelligent bastard who, just like Gibbs, never backed down from a fight and didn't like to lose. In that brief moment, the battle lines were drawn, and both men knew they were facing a formidable opponent.

Then the moment was over, and Parrish stalked past him and left. It stuck in Gibbs's craw to watch that man walk out of his custody, but he was determined he’d still find a way to nail him. Gibbs wasn’t done with this yet. He didn’t *let* pedophiles walk free.

Allowing Parrish to leave, upsetting though it was, made it possible for Gibbs to set a trap for him. Gibbs put a round-the-clock watch on the admiral’s house and ordered a communications surveillance as well, so that every call he made and every email he sent would be monitored. If that bastard tried to contact the other members of the ring to warn them, then he’d lead NCIS straight to them. Not that Gibbs really expected the man to give himself or anyone else away; he was too smart for that. It was worth a try though.

Gibbs also decided to post a couple of agents discreetly outside Justin’s house – just to be on the safe side. That kid had been through enough.

It was late by the time Gibbs returned to Abby’s lab. McGee was sitting where he’d left him, his shoulders wilting. Abby was sitting beside him, looking equally depressed. Neither of them was speaking. Their hands were moving, and Gibbs could hear repeated clicks as they worked, but they both looked hollow, worn out, and utterly exhausted. Gibbs didn’t blame them.

“What do you have for me?” he asked, knowing he was working them too hard but unwilling to let up for even a second.

McGee glanced up. “There are 51 boys,” he said. “At least, I think so. We’re still cross-referencing the boys in File 52 with the boys in the other files. It’s not always easy…the photos were taken at various times and some of the boys are older, or younger, or just look different – their hair has changed or whatever.”

“Oh, and we figured out what File 52 was for,” Abby said. McGee brought it up onscreen.

“Well, Tony figured it out really,” McGee said. Gibbs’s jaw tightened. He hadn’t told them he’d suspended Tony from duty yet, and he really didn’t want to go into that right now.

“Well?” he demanded.

“It’s a ‘favourites’ file,” McGee said.

“Although who knows why that scumbag likes these photos the most,” Abby shrugged.

Gibbs gazed at the screen as McGee scrolled through a selection of the photos.

“Fear,” he said quietly as he looked at them. Abby and McGee glanced up at him. “Fear and distress. In some of the other photos the boys look numb - or even bored and disinterested. What the photos in this file have in common is that the boys all look scared or in pain. He must like that look.”

He pointed to a kid onscreen with blond-brown hair. There was a man behind him, holding him up, his big hands covering the child’s slender hips. The boy wasn't struggling, but his mouth was slightly open in a silent scream. What really got to Gibbs was the expression in the boy’s eyes. They were absolutely desperate, and he was looking straight at Gibbs as if he was pleading with him to help, begging him to make it stop. Gibbs realised, with a sickening wrench, that judging by the angle of the man behind him, and the position of the boy, he was being raped. He was one of the younger ones – perhaps about thirteen, maybe even younger judging by his size and undeveloped body.

“That photo is so horrible,” Abby said, gazing at the screen. "Poor Boy 43."

"Boy 43?" Gibbs raised an eyebrow.

"We numbered the files in order as McGee broke each of the encryptions – Justin is Boy One," Abby sighed.

“Uh Boss…” McGee glanced up at him. “Could we take a break? It’s just…I know it sounds terrible, but all these kids are starting to look the same to me. I’m finding it hard to match them back to their individual files – I keep thinking I’ve seen a shot before, but then it turns out that I haven’t. They’re all going around and around in my head. See - this kid, Boy 43, seems familiar – but we haven’t even started cataloguing his file yet.” He pointed at the boy with the blond-brown hair.

Gibbs gazed at the photograph. What was it Tony had said? Sometimes you had to shift the perspective? Turn things upside down, view them from a different angle? If you took Tony’s behaviour today and shifted the perspective, adjusted the focus a little…

Gibbs shut the laptop with a snap of his fingers.

“You’re right – you should take a break,” he said. “You deserve a break – both of you. It’s late. Go home. This will still be here tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Bossman.” Abby got up, groaning slightly as she stretched.

“McGee – this is an NCIS laptop isn’t it?” Gibbs asked, gesturing to the laptop.

“Of course.” McGee nodded. “I wouldn’t work directly on Admiral Parrish’s laptop – that’s in the evidence garage. I copied his hard drive over – twice; Abby has one copy on her PC, and I have the other on this laptop…uh, why?”

Gibbs just glared at him.

“Okay, well, I don’t need to know why. Uh, are you sure we can go home, Boss?”

“Just go,” Gibbs said. “Before I change my mind. Take Ziva with you – she’s still upstairs.”

“What about Tony?” Abby asked innocently.

“I’ll take care of Tony,” Gibbs replied grimly.

He waited until Abby and McGee left the room, and then he opened the laptop and stared at the photograph again. The boy’s eyes were haunted – he looked out at Gibbs with that terrible pleading expression, silently begging for help.

“I’m too late,” he told the boy. “By about 25 years. I’m sorry.”

Gibbs sat down in the chair McGee had vacated and rested his forehead on his hands. He didn’t want to do this. He really didn’t want to do this but since when had that ever mattered?

Someone had to do it, and that someone had to be him.

~*~

Tony took a shower the minute he got home, scattering his clothes everywhere, abandoning his work suit, shirt, tie and underwear in an untidy path between his front door and his bathroom. He just needed to get clean. It had been a difficult day, and his muscles were tense. The warm water would help.

He stepped under the water and rested his forehead against the tiled shower wall, allowing the warm water to soothe him as it flowed over his back.

“Not your finest hour, DiNozzo,” he told himself, still reeling from the loss of his gun and badge. He flinched as he remembered the expression in Gibbs's eyes when he'd taken them from him. “You could have handled that better.”

He had been thrown though, and, good as he was at thinking on his feet, his mind didn’t seem to be working as well as it usually did. He felt fuzzy, and not as sharp as he liked to be.

The water felt good. He might need to stay here for some time. There was nothing else he could do yet anyway – not until later. Gibbs wouldn’t admit defeat with Parrish for some time knowing Gibbs, and there was nothing Tony could do until Gibbs released the admiral.

Comforted by the warm water, he started to mull over the day’s events. It wasn't easy keeping everything where it needed to be though. It was as if someone had opened up a box and strewn the contents directly in his path; it wasn't easy finding a way to step over them without looking. It was hard not to trip up when he was covering his eyes the whole time.

The first photos had been a shock, but he’d covered that well – maybe a little ‘off’ but not too much. The second time had been harder…Tony found himself humming loudly, which helped. He didn’t have to think about the photos. He could watch a movie maybe, or listen to some music, although right now he didn’t want to move from under the water. Images flashed vividly before his eyes, and he hummed more loudly. He was annoyed with himself. This really shouldn’t be so difficult. He’d done it before.

He turned off the water, dried himself, wrapped his towel around his waist, and then glanced at his watch. He’d spent an hour in the shower. It hadn’t seemed that long – he thought maybe it had only been twenty minutes, if that. If he was losing time then that was bad – it meant he wasn’t concentrating, wasn’t staying focussed, and he needed to concentrate if he was going to get through the next few days. He needed to stay in the moment.

His job was gone – he had to accept that. There was no need for Gibbs to find out the rest, but what he was going to do tonight would ensure he lost his job, if nothing else. He sat on the couch for a long time, dressed only in his towel, staring into space.

When he came to, he was cold, so he went into his bedroom and got dressed; black jeans, black sweater, and black boots. Then he reached for his cell phone. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he did so. His hair was still damp, sticking up. He paused and smoothed it back down again, stroking gently. He started humming, gazing at himself absently.

When he looked around again he realised he’d lost another ten minutes, and he was angry with himself. He sat down on the side of the bed and called Abby.

“Hey Abs!” he said cheerfully when she answered.

“Tony! Where are you?”

“Where are you?” he asked, ignoring her question.

“Starbucks!” she laughed. “Want to join us? Me and McGee wanted to unwind. It’s been such a horrible day. What a nightmare.”

“I know, Abs - it’s been a nightmare,” he echoed. He thought he got the tone of voice right. It *sounded* right, but he wasn’t sure at the moment because he kept getting things wrong.

“Gibbs has been patrolling the building like a bear with a sore head, and me and McGee had to look at all those hinky photographs…” He could hear the shudder in her voice. He frowned, and stroked his hair fiercely.

“I know, I know,” he said soothingly. He wondered if Gibbs had told her about suspending him from duty but decided to take a chance that he hadn't. “So, I got called away early. What’s been happening? Did Gibbs release Parrish, or is he going to charge him?”

“He released him,” Abby replied. “I don't think he's finished with him yet, but he released him for now. He wasn't happy about it though.”

“Hmmm.” Tony looked at himself in the mirror. “Uh…yeah. That sucks. Gibbs must be mad.”

“He is. So, are you going to come down here and join us, Tony?”

“No, Abs. I’m feeling kind of tired. I think I’ll call it a day,” Tony replied. “See you tomorrow.” He disconnected before she could reply. He doubted he’d see her tomorrow, but it sounded like the right thing to say.

It was dark outside. Late. He opened his closet and found a black leather jacket – his favourite – and pulled it on. He opened his nightstand drawer, reached for the knife inside, and then stopped. He remembered Gibbs’s rule number nine – never go anywhere without a knife - but maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to take the knife with him tonight. He might use it and that wasn’t what tonight was about. All the same, he liked following Gibbs’s rules, so he hesitated. Then, finally, he left the knife where it was and closed the drawer. It was probably a good thing Gibbs had suspended him; he didn’t want the temptation of being able to get his hands on a gun right now.

He glanced at his watch and then stepped over his abandoned clothes on his way to the front door. He turned off the light and then hesitated. Gibbs had told him to go home and stay there, but he didn’t have to do what Gibbs said, even though the compulsion right now was much stronger than it usually was. Finally, he managed to open the door, close it behind him, and walk slowly down the stairs.

His car was parked in the building parking lot. He was aware of a knot of anxiety in the pit of his stomach. This had seemed to be the simplest solution earlier, but now he wasn’t so sure. It was the right thing to do, he knew that, but he was unsure about his own capacity for doing it. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to access the emotions he needed for this, and that he wouldn’t be able to follow through. Or that he’d lose control and go too far, and then not even Gibbs would be able to protect him – if he even wanted to after today.

He hesitated, hand on the car door.

“Going somewhere, DiNozzo?” a voice asked quietly behind him. He stiffened. “I thought I told you to stay put.”

Tony turned, an easy grin on his face. Gibbs was standing there, in the darkness of the shadows beside the building, watching him. He had a bag slung over his shoulder, and he looked about as dangerous as Tony had ever seen him.

“Just needed to buy some groceries, Boss – no food in the house."

“That’s not where you were going, Tony.”

“Isn’t it?” Tony felt his jaw tighten. He didn’t like the way Gibbs was looking at him.

“No. You were going to visit Admiral Parrish,” Gibbs said quietly.

“Why would I do that?”

“To knock him around. To scare him. To frighten him so much that he doesn’t touch any more kids like Justin. You boxed yourself into a corner today, Tony. You genuinely didn’t want to put Justin through a court case, but you also didn’t want this can of worms opened up any more than it already was. So you had to persuade Justin not to testify. All the same, you knew you couldn’t leave Parrish out there, unchecked. So you thought you’d head on over there and deal with him.”

“Do I look like I’m dressed to go beating someone up?” Tony gestured at his clothes.

“Yes,” Gibbs replied curtly. “That’s exactly how you’re dressed. I know you don’t have a gun – do you have a knife?”

“No.” Tony shook his head. It seemed pointless to keep up this charade – Gibbs always could see through him. “I know it’s breaking rule number nine, but I didn’t want the temptation.”

“Smart move.” Gibbs nodded. “You couldn’t be sure how you’d feel when you got there. It might have got out of hand.”

“You weren’t going to get a conviction, Boss,” Tony explained. “I’m just doing what you wanted to do yourself. We might not get him through the courts, but we can stop him hurting another kid. I know I’m not as good at this as you are, but I can do it. I can make him scared enough of me that he won’t touch any more kids.”

“I know you can, Tony.” Gibbs nodded. “But you’re not going to. Let’s go inside.”

Tony hesitated. This wasn’t playing out how he’d expected. All day long he’d been one step ahead of Gibbs, but now he had the feeling he was one step behind. Gibbs didn’t even seem angry with him any more – he was watchful though, and tense, as if unsure what Tony would do.

“Now, Tony,” Gibbs ordered, with a curt nod of his head towards the door.

Tony moved his hand to smooth his hair. He wasn’t sure where this was headed, but he felt like an animal caught in a trap. If he went in there, with Gibbs and that bag he was holding…well he didn’t know what would happen. He just had a bad feeling about it.

“Tony,” Gibbs said softly.

Tony blinked. Gibbs was standing in front of him now, and a second ago he’d been standing by the building. His boss could move surprisingly fast of course, but even so…

“You need to go back inside now,” Gibbs told him, in a strangely gentle tone of voice. “Back into your apartment, with me.”

“How long…?” Tony cleared his throat.

“About three minutes,” Gibbs replied. “I called your name several times, but you didn’t seem to hear me.”

“Going deaf. Getting old,” Tony said, with a grin.

Gibbs smiled back at him, allowing him to get away with the lie. He put out a hand to guide Tony into the building, and Tony found himself flinching. Gibbs’s hand stopped just a fraction away from touching him.

“Come on, Tony. We need to handle this,” Gibbs told him, in a brisk tone.

Tony nodded and walked slowly back inside and up the stairs towards his apartment. He could hear Gibbs behind him. Gibbs and that damn bag of his. He could make a run for it, but he knew there wasn’t any point. Gibbs was, well, Gibbs, and there wasn’t any getting away from him, from this, or from what he was carrying in that bag.

Tony opened the door and turned on the light. Gibbs stepped inside and shut the door behind them. Tony noticed his discarded clothes on the floor and grimaced.

“Sorry – place is a mess,” he muttered, bending over to pick up his shirt.

“Leave it,” Gibbs ordered. “Sit down, Tony.”

Tony moved warily over to the couch and sat down on it. Gibbs sat down on the armchair opposite him and placed his bag on the coffee table between them. He opened up the bag and pulled out a laptop.

“You see, I thought I had more time,” Tony said, watching as Gibbs opened the laptop with slow, smooth movements of his hands, like he was being careful not to make any sudden, jerky gestures.

“Uh-huh.” Gibbs nodded.

“I didn’t think you’d figure it out,” Tony said. “Probie didn’t. Even if you did, I thought it’d take longer; weeks - or days at least. So I thought I had more time.”

“Uh-huh.” Gibbs nodded again as he powered up the laptop.

“I was thinking on my feet,” Tony added, trying to explain.

“I know.”

“That’s why I got things wrong. If I’d known, or if I’d had time to prepare…”

“You did good, Tony.”

“I did? Felt to me like I was screwing things up all day. Then you suspended me.”

“Well, like you said, I was looking at it from the wrong perspective,” Gibbs said. “Once I turned it around…”

He swung the laptop towards Tony, so that the screen was facing him. Tony glanced at it and then glanced away. He moved his hand to smooth down his hair.

“Tony – would you look at the photograph on the laptop please,” Gibbs requested.

Tony did as he was told. He looked into the terrified eyes of a boy who seemed to be asking something of him; begging him, pleading with him, which was fucking pointless because there was nothing Tony could do. The kid had blond-brown hair and there was a guy behind him, fucking him, big hands holding him in place. Tony began stroking his hair absently.

“Tony - that man in the photograph – is that Admiral Parrish?” Gibbs asked.

Tony frowned and squinted at the photo. Everything seemed jumbled up in his mind. He wished he had all his wits about him right now, but he couldn’t seem to gather his thoughts. The room was so noisy – there seemed to be some sort of buzzing noise, like a swarm of bees, or a circling fan. Whatever it was, it was far too loud for him to think straight.

“No,” he replied.

Gibbs was gazing at him intently. “Tony,” he said, “That boy in the photograph - is he you?”

The noise stopped, and the room was suddenly plunged into silence. Tony looked at the boy, and the boy looked back at him from desperate, pleading eyes. Tony stopped stroking his hair and looked straight at Gibbs.

“Yes.”

~*~

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MTAC - NCIS Fic