Moving Forward

by: ksl (Send Feedback)

Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 030 Word Count: 111544
Rating: ADULT
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo
Category(ies): Alternate Universe
Pairing(s): Gibbs/DiNozzo
Episode(s): 4-03 Singled Out
Summary: An AU where Tony accepts the position in Rota, Spain when Shepard offered it in season four.

Author Notes: This is an AU where Tony accepts the job in Rota.

I was intrigued by some of the maturity we saw in Tony during that season---and wanted to give myself a forum to explore it. What if he had taken the opportunity to truly become his own sort of leader?





The crap with La Grenouille that dominated season four did not happen. And while I may use some details from that season and later episodes, I will be eliminating Shepard's obsession with Rene Benoit.

Chapter 1

Tony took the job in Rota, Spain.

He knew his answer surprised Director Shepard. In some ways it had surprised him too when he said the words, but once he spoke them Tony knew he'd made the right decision. When Jenny asked if he was sure, Tony's answer had been a simple, 'Very sure, Ma'am.'

She'd clearly expected him to turn it down. Having let the deadline for considering the offer run out before he'd told her his decision, it was logical to assume he would be staying in DC. Given the six years he'd invested the job, his team, in learning from Gibbs, it would have been logical to think he'd stay. Knowing of his worry about Gibbs being less than 100%, the well being of his teammates and his own lack of confidence in his ability to lead a team, it was logical to think he'd take a pass on Rota. Logical, but wrong.

Because staying in DC wasn't really an option. He knew this. Had known it for some time, he just hadn't wanted to admit it. He'd clung stubbornly to the idea that the team was his family, that they wanted him around, that they needed him. But with Gibbs' return it was obvious he'd simply been deluding himself. Tony had been nothing but a poor substitute, the understudy while everyone wanted the star.

He'd never had any trouble recognizing when it was time to cut his losses. Experience had been a good teacher with respect to that. He'd learned the hard way to know when it was time to leave.

Tony had already gone the route of working with a team that didn't trust or respect him. It hadn't ended well. He had scars to prove it. It was definitely better to move one when a chance to move up had been so serendipitously placed in front of him.

Hell, it wasn't like he was quitting NCIS. He was just leaving DC. He was doing what most people aspired to do---move up the ladder. It wasn't how he'd envisioned his promotion, but then Gibbs leaving his team to Tony hadn't been something he'd foreseen either.

Tony sighed softly, eyeing his apartment one last time. He'd packed the things he considered irreplaceable. Things he simply couldn't and wouldn't trust to the care of a government hired moving company. There was surprisingly very little that he was shipping ahead. The rest could be replaced if need be. The DVD's, his electronic equipment, and his furniture---none of it was irreplaceable. It had no sentimental value, no personal significance, no worth beyond basic appreciation and comfort.

Tony shook his head. Apparently the same could be said of him when it came to his teammates---former teammates.

Ziva had gone to Gibbs when she was in trouble. A telltale sign of what she thought of Tony and his abilities. Not that she'd simply allowed her actions to speak for her. Oh no, since Gibbs return she'd taken every opportunity to hammer home the point verbally as well. She hadn't passed up on a single chance to rub his demotion in his face---making sure Tony knew she thought he'd never been up to the job of leading a team in the first place. He wasn't Gibbs, and clearly that meant he wasn't good enough for her.

McGee was just as bad. And maybe a bit worse in some ways. McGee seemed to have forgotten that before Gibbs got blown up and lost most of his memories, it had been Tony's job to teach him how to be a field agent. It wasn't Gibbs who had taken time to explain forms, procedures and practices. It wasn't Gibbs who helped McGee adjust to the duties and responsibilities of being an agent. It wasn't Gibbs who'd explained how to dress and speak for court, how to think outside the box and find the answers. But then Gibbs was a hero, who despite everything managed to stay on his pedestal. No feet of clay for him, and just thinking about it made Tony feel more than a little bitter. Gibbs could do no wrong, and not being Gibbs evidently meant Tony couldn't do anything right.

McGee had come right out and said he didn't think Tony deserved to have a team of his own. Maybe that justified McGee's giving less than his all to the job while Tony had been in charge. Ziva had been just as apt to slack off, showing up late or leaving early. Tony still couldn't decide if their minimal efforts were a reflection of his leadership or them as agents. Did they need someone to be a bastard to do their best? Should he have been more like Gibbs or less?

Abby had created a damn shrine to Gibbs. It galled Tony that all her faith in Gibbs apparently left no room for her to have faith in him. She clearly didn't think there was anything magical about Tony, that he could solve all the world's problems. He was a best a poor stand in for the man she was sure walked on water. He was fairly confident his leaving wouldn't result in the same sort of monument being constructed.

Ducky was so lost in his own anger and pain over Gibbs leaving that he had damn little to offer Tony in the way of assistance or encouragement. Tony didn't begrudge him that. Hell, Ducky and Gibbs had been friends for years, but would hit have killed the ME to realize he wasn't the only one pissed and hurting? Would it have been too much to ask for Ducky not to slip up and address him as Jethro when he first walked into autopsy or asked him questions at the scene? Evidently the answer was yes because it happened nine times out of ten.

Tony ran a hand tiredly over his face. The only people he'd told he was leaving were Palmer and Lee. He'd left it to Shepard to inform everyone else.

Palmer had been a better friend to Tony than Tony had been to him. It shamed Tony to realize how damn good a man his 'autopsy gremlin' truly was. Jimmy deserved better, and Tony had told him so.

Gibbs saw apologies as a sign of weakness, but Tony was no longer sure he shared that view. He'd made mistakes, errors in judgment and behavior that he was genuinely sorry for. There was no shame in admitting it. He apologized to Jimmy for being an ass.

He apologized to Lee too. He'd tried to explain to her that as a Probationary Agent a certain amount of hazing was to be expected. She shouldn't take it personally, and it didn't mean she didn't have real potential to be a good agent. All it meant was the more senior agents enjoyed passing on a little of the ration of shit they'd gotten when they were in her place. If she stuck with it, Lee would get a chance to do the same to her own probie some day. He felt awkward and clumsy with is apology, having little practice at admitting to his own shortcomings and failures aloud to anyone, but determined to see it through, feeling she deserved to know she hadn't done anything to warrant being summarily dismissed by Gibbs.

With Tony leaving there would be a spot on Gibbs' team. Tony almost hoped Michelle had enough sense not to take it if it were offered to her. She'd done okay with Tony as her boss, but he had more patience than Gibbs had ever shown. He was more inclined to follow the rules than Gibbs, letting Lee find and establish her own comfort zone when it came to applying the rules of law so ingrained in her psyche. Tony suspected she might crack under the pressure of working for Gibbs full time, but she'd surprised him more than once by being stronger than he'd expected---maybe she could handle it. Either way, it wasn't up to Tony to make that call. He wised her luck.

Of course, nothing done or not done by his teammates was truly the final straw. He could have tolerated all that, made piece with it if Gibbs given even a hint he'd remembered anything, anything at all, about their relationship. Tony would have stayed, but Gibbs had made it clear that to him Tony was nothing more than a subordinate, a guy he worked with, and one he had little time or patience for. One he clearly had little to no respect for or Gibbs' return would have come with at least some sort of heads up that didn't include the haphazard dumping of personal belongings and case files from one desk to another.

Tony suspected Gibbs really did remember. He thought Gibbs likely regretted his decision to break rule twelve, or was simply ashamed of their relationship. Not that there had been much of a relationship. At best they'd been fuck buddies, keeping each other company, using sex to get through some of the worst the job had thrown at them after Kate's death. It meant, Tony realized after Gibbs had left for Mexico, nothing to the older man. Tony clearly meant nothing if he could be so easily forgotten and then so summarily dismissed.

The first time Gibbs left with no more than 'you'll do', Tony could forgive and understand. Gibbs had lost fifteen years of his life. Had lost his wife and child all over again. But the second time he'd left without saying good-bye, Tony got the message. The team didn't matter to Gibbs. He didn't matter to Gibbs. Not enough at any rate to merit the simple courtesy afforded to total strangers.

Gibbs hadn't come back for him. And he sure as hell hadn't stayed for him. What Tony might have wanted or needed was obviously not something Gibbs had given any thought to. It wasn't an issue or concern the older man paid any attention to.

There was nothing like being swept under the rug to dismantle one's ego, Tony thought with a grimace, hefting the bags he was taking with him. He might have been slow to get the point, but once he got it there was no going back.

Tony turned off the lights and locked the door. He'd already given Palmer his spare key and asked him to let the movers in on Monday. Tony stopped by the landlady's place on the first floor to give her his key, and let her know a cleaning company would be by after the movers were finished. He told her to give his security deposit to Palmer when he returned the spare key. Palmer said he'd make sure it got deposited into Tony's account. Tony had tried to get Palmer to keep it, thinking he owed the younger man something for helping him out.

Palmer had stared at him. "You don't owe me, Tony. Friends help each other out."

They were supposed to anyway, but Tony wasn't so sure about that any more. He'd just nodded and patted Palmer on the back not seeing any point in arguing about it.

"Call me when you get there?" Palmer had asked, hesitant and unsure. "Just so I know you got there okay."

"Will do, Black Lung." Tony's use of Palmer's 'code name' made him smile.

"Take care of yourself."

"You too, Tony, you too."

Tony smiled wryly. Taking care of himself was something most of his team assumed he was no good at. He snorted. He'd had been looking after himself since his mother's death. He had gotten out of practice while working in DC, thinking he had people he could rely on to watch his back, but Tony figured it was like riding a bike. He'd get back in the habit in no time. Hell, he'd already started. If he actually expected his team to look out for him, he wouldn't be going to Rota.

With a grim determination to move forward, he loaded his bags into the rental he'd arranged for. His Mustang was staying with one of his frat brothers until he got back stateside. Dan had a passion for classic cars. He would take good care of Tony's baby for however long he was out of the country.

Tony drove to the airport. He left the rental and got through security without any fuss or fanfare. He'd turned in his gun to Director Shepard knowing he'd be issued a new weapon when he got to Spain. He'd get a new cell phone there too since his one wouldn't work in Spain. The only thing that wouldn't really change was his office e-mail and private e-mail addresses. Those were nicely global.

Tony paid for an upgrade to first class out of his own pocket. He decided there was no reason to be any more uncomfortable than necessary. He was damned lucky NCIS hadn't insisted on his taking a military transport.

Tony settled into his seat. He had the personnel files of his new team to review and become familiar with. By the time his plane landed, he'd know as much about them as possible.

He was stepping out of Gibbs' shadow. Tony promised himself that this time his team would truly be his team. He'd use what he'd learned over the years, apply what he thought worked, discard what he'd never cared for or appreciated. He would lead his team as Tony DiNozzo, not some poor substitute or pale imitation of Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He could do this. He had to do this. There was no going back. There was no future in DC, only a rehash of the past. He was done thinking about what couldn't be. It was far better to commit his energy to what might be had, to the possibility of better, to the chance of being more than second best.

Tony grinned to himself. At least if he fell on his face in Rota, it would be as himself, on his own terms. And he'd still be moving forward.

Chapter 2

Tony's new team wasn't much like his old.

Other than being good with computers, Martin Rivera was nothing like Timothy McGee. From his looks to his upbringing to his attitude about life in general, Martin was nearly the antithesis of McGee.

Martin looked every bit as Hispanic as his surname implied. He had the dark hair, dark complexion, brown eyes and straight white teeth that were all the hallmark of his heritage.

He didn't have McGee's upper middle class family. Martin was born and raised in a poor neighborhood in Southern California and had the extensive family stereotypical of Hispanic Catholics. He was the youngest of seven children, and routinely communicated with his parents and siblings, not allowing time or distance to isolate him from them.

He also apparently had no objection to nicknames, having been bequeathed his first, Mouse, when he was still an infant. Over time, the name stuck, in large part due to his quiet nature and his short stature of five foot six inches tall. He'd told Tony to feel free to use the nickname since nearly everyone did.

He differed from McGee with regard to his education as well. Martin hadn't attended a prestigious university like MIT or John Hopkins. What Martin knew about computers he'd taught himself. Oh he had a degree or two---a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from a community college and a Masters he'd earned online only because the job required him to have one, but his expertise with computers was largely the byproduct of diligent personal effort.

He might have lacked McGee's breadth on the subject, but Tony would quickly come to appreciate that Martin was still damn good at his job. More so than his skill, Tony would find he liked the younger man's attitude. He was confident without being smug, and he was not so much eager to please as determined to simply do his best.

Martin had been diagnosed with hyper activity as a child, although he apparently did not have the normally accompanying attention deficit. Martin had issues with sitting still---it was something Tony could readily understand and relate to. He and Martin would develop a habit of tossing things to one another when working a case, almost like a team of jugglers. It helped both of them think to have something and someone to play with. People in the office learned to avoid the area and keep a wary eye out for flying objects.

Martin's parents had elected to give him something to expend that energy on rather than opt for an expensive drug regimen they couldn't afford. They introduced him to every sport the local YMCA had available--anything that kept him busy enough to wear him out. Martin hadn't cared for basketball or gymnastics, but had excelled at Tae Kwon Do. He now had a black belt in several martial arts styles. And he'd apparently taken to swimming lessons like a duck to water. He kept himself in peek physical condition, predominately by swimming and surfing.

Tony would realize very quickly that surfing wasn't a hobby for Martin, it was his religion. The man lived to ride the waves. His passion was undiminished by a shark attack when he was twenty that tore a sizeable piece of muscle from his left thigh, leaving Martin with impressive scars and a limp that was only noticeable when he over did it.

Martin had joined NCIS after a stint in the Navy. He had hoped to get an assignment in Pearl Harbor, or failing that, something on the West Coast relatively close to his family. He'd accepted Rota only when he knew exactly how close to the ocean it was.

During their first case, Tony would realize another important way Martin was not like McGee. Martin didn't use techno babble or geek speak. He was the most plain spoken, unassuming person Tony had ever met. It was refreshing to work with someone who understood not everyone cared about how the information was uncovered only that it was found. Martin didn't try to show how clever he'd been or play up the difficulty of what he'd done, he just presented the results.

Tony initially thought Martin's recitation of facts without embellishment or fanfare was because he was the new boss. He suspected Martin was testing the waters, waiting to see what Tony wanted and how to best approach him. But it hadn't taken long to understand that it was just the way Martin operated. He didn't compete with his teammates for attention or vie for praise--not that he had to with Tony as the lead agent.

Gibbs had always been stingy with recognition and praise but Tony wasn't. He didn't compliment everything done well, but he made sure to notice and signal approval on a regular basis. He also made certain everyone on his team was acknowledged, that he appreciated their efforts, respected them and their ability to do the job. He didn't play favorites, nor did he insult or deride his people.

Tony didn't go easy on them either; he made it clear he expected their best and accepted nothing less, but he didn't run them into the ground. If he had to be a bastard to get the best out of his people, he didn't want them on his team. If he couldn't show respect for the people he worked with, then he couldn't expect them to show him any in return.

He kept the rules he thought made sense and discarded those he'd never seen much value in. Always carry a knife and know how to use it was just good advice. It had saved Tony's life, so he kept it. Never trust a lawyer didn't always apply because sometimes legal counsel was needed as Michelle Lee had nicely demonstrated on more than one occasion. Never go anywhere without a back up weapon, two if possible, was another good, common sense rule that had come in handy. How to keep secrets wasn't something he thought his team should know how to do, certainly not from him. Always work as a team was his first rule. Lying was acceptable when necessary but it was never, ever necessary when it came to teammates or the boss.

That rule was something Tony's senior field agent, Miri Callahan, apparently would never have trouble with. She seemed incapable of lying. It was decidedly odd to work with someone who would honestly answer whatever was asked. It was imperative that he asked the right question, because while she always, always told the truth, she typically gave only the information requested. She wasn't prone to elaborating, not because she was trying to hide information or keep secrets, she just didn't see a point in offering any more than what was asked for. Miri characterized herself has having nothing to hide, but didn't supply any more details than what was requested. In many ways, it made her more of an enigma to Tony than Ziva had ever been.

The only thing she seemed to have in common with Ziva was her gender, and being beautiful. Tony couldn't help the soft whistle of appreciation that had escaped when he'd first seen her. She had just winked and playfully flirted with him. She didn't see his instinctive reaction as a challenge to her worth as an agent, wasn't hostile or disgusted the way most other female coworkers Tony had were. She wasn't insulted by it and didn't consider it demeaning. Flirting wasn't a weapon to Miri or a way to control another person; it was just fun. It also wasn't a means to spot or exploit a weakness the way it had been for Ziva.

The same way Martin's appearance reflected the heritage his surname implied, Miri's definitely showed her Celtic ancestry. Her blonde hair was cut in a textured pixie style that nicely accentuated her high cheekbones and firm jaw line. Dark blue eyes fringed with long black lashes consistently expressed an open frankness Tony often found disconcerting. He simply wasn't used to people who saw no need to hide what they were thinking or how they were feeling.

Only four inches shorter than Tony, she looked a bit like he imagined an Amazon might have. Long and lean, with the strong build reminiscent of an Olympic athlete. She was every bit as capable as she looked, but he didn't get any 'could kill you with a paperclip' vibes that Ziva tended to project. Oh there was no doubt Miri could be lethal, her marksmanship scores attested to that, but she wasn't the sort to lie in wait to take you out. She wasn't a sniper or assassin. If Miri wanted anyone dead, they'd definitely see it coming and they'd know why.

The first time Tony met her, not only was he stunned by her beauty, he was amazed by just how friendly and approachable Miri seemed. He'd never believed in auras, but she definitely projected something that made her seem like the sort of person you could say anything too. She might not have any secrets of her own, but she could be trusted to keep someone else's. Tony figured out quickly that she was the one on the team who should talk to victims and witnesses. She was beautiful, forthright and compassionate--a trifecta that would have people telling her everything and anything she wanted to know.

Although, she'd never actually mentioned it, Tony knew from reading her file that Miri was orphaned at the age of eight when a drunk driver killed her mother, father and two brothers. She'd been at a sleep over with a friend and had been fortunate, or not so fortunate depending on one's point of view, to have not been with her family when the accident occurred. She bounced around a few foster homes before settling at ten with the family she'd remain with until she graduated from high school at the age of seventeen.

By all rights, the loss of her family and less than ideal childhood could have left her bitter and cynical, but Miri was one of the most upbeat people Tony had ever meet. Not like Abby was hyper upbeat, wound tight with sugar and caffeine. Miri was less intense, quieter, more contained; she had a ready smile, positive outlook and raw determination that kept life from beating her down or overwhelming her.

She also had extraordinary recall. Miri could remember almost anything she'd read. Tony loved being able just ask her for information about any case, knowing she wouldn't have to look it up or check her notes. It definitely saved time.

In an ideal world, they would have a probie on the team, but the budget evidently didn't allow for that. Tony found it wasn't really a problem. When he'd first started working for NCIS, Gibbs only had a three person team. And for a time, they were just a two-man team when Blackadder went back to the FBI before Kate joined. Four agents had been something of a luxury.

And unlike Gibbs, Tony preferred to help work the case. When they got called out, Tony continued to shoot and sketch the scene. He was better at it than either Miri or Martin, and he found their talents better used elsewhere. It worked well for them.

The lab tech in Rota was nothing like Abby. Caleb Sanders never wore black and didn't have a single tattoo. He was into bright colors, the brighter the better. The brilliant blue dye in his hair reminded Tony of some exotic jungle bird. He resisted commenting on it, thinking it better to just go with the flow the same way he had with many of Abby's unique outfits. It was better to err on the side of caution when it came to lab techs. Tony didn't want to risk insulting someone whose skill and expertise might be needed.

Caleb wore the same sort of wireless frames Sarah Palin had made famous. He didn't really need corrective lenses; he just liked wearing them. He said they made him look smarter. Not that he really needed to look smart. If Caleb wasn't a genius, he wasn't far from it. When it came to forensics, Tony wasn't sure if Caleb was in Abby's class, or if he belonged in one of his own, either way he was damned good at what he did.

He always delivered his results while standing at parade rest. Tony knew for a fact Caleb had never served in any branch of the military. Caleb never had any desire to serve in any branch. Tony suspected Caleb wanted him to comment on his stance, and that was the reason he never did. It was fun to subtly tease the tech.

Their ME wasn't an American. He was on loan from the Spanish government. The American base in Rota was actually within the confines of a Spanish naval base; they shared many of the facilities and some of the personnel. The base itself was under the Spanish flag and under the command of a Spanish Vice Admiral. Tony reported to him as much as he did Director Shepard.

By having one of their people on hand to assist with any NCIS investigation the Spanish government could be actively involved without actually interfering. It seemed to work well enough, and Tony was politically savvy enough to know he wasn't going to be able to change it.

Unlike, Ducky, Doctor Jose Franco was fresh out of med school. He reminded Tony of Jimmy Palmer, without the glasses or the tendency to ramble. He was shy and awkward, especially around Miri with whom he was clearly infatuated. She didn't encourage him, but she wasn't rude or dismissive either.

A month after Tony had taken the job, he and Martin had a running bet on how long it would take Franco to figure out that he wasn't Miri's type. He'd stand a better chance if he were female. Miri was bisexual with a heavy leaning toward the lesbian side of the scale. She didn't advertize it but she didn't lie about it either.

Tony had only found out by noticing that Miri gave pretty women the same appreciative looks he did. And coming into the office one morning he'd seen her giving another woman a kiss that was a damn sight more than friendly and sure wasn't sisterly. When he asked her about it, in her characteristically blunt, honest fashion, Miri told him about her orientation. That she didn't deny it or try to hide it, was apparently unafraid to admit it, and clearly not ashamed, impressed Tony. He wasn't sure he'd ever have the courage to do that.

"This going to be a problem?" She'd asked. The question wasn't challenging. She didn't get in his face; she simply wanted to know if he had issues with her now that he knew.

"No." Tony might not be coming out of the closet, but he wasn't a hypocrite. He wouldn't judge her ability to do the job based on who she had sex with. He said as much, thinking being blunt was the way to go.

She'd nodded. "Okay."

And that was all the more that was said on the subject.

Given how slow Franco was to pick up on things, it was probably good that there weren't a lot of accidental deaths or homicides to be dealt with in Rota. It kept Franco's involvement in their cases to a minimum. He was good enough--understanding of and experience with women notwithstanding--but Tony found himself wishing for a more seasoned ME. Even Palmer had Ducky looking over his shoulder, guiding him through the process and teaching him. Franco was learning on the job and Tony knew how easy it was to make mistakes in that situation.

Most of their cases involved break ins, muggings, and harassment of military personnel and their families when off base. The Spanish government might welcome US Military presence but the Spanish people weren't always so keen on having them around. It was another reason Tony had Miri do most of the talking when it came to dealing with civilians. She could put people at ease, making American agents seem less intrusive, getting more cooperation than someone else would have.

Tony also made a point of making friends with local law enforcement, ensuring they were involved in crimes committed by American military personnel and offering assistance whenever possible. Tony saw the value in making allies. They were the minority, outsiders, interlopers and whether he liked it or not, making nice was fundamentally necessary to doing his job. He didn't have the latitude to act like Gibbs and simply throw his weight around or ignore the laws.

Tony tried not to think about what Gibbs would do. It didn't matter any more. He didn't work for Gibbs. He didn't answer to him now. There was no need to measure himself with Gibbs as his yardstick. None of his new team had ever worked for Gibbs. None of his new team even knew who Gibbs was.

The first time Miri called him 'Boss' Tony flinched. There was a time when he'd have reveled in the title; a time when it was something he aspired to, a badge of respect. Now, he found hearing it hurt, and it had him looking over his shoulder for Gibbs. Gibbs was 'boss' to nearly everyone Tony had worked it at NCIS---it wasn't his rank to assume. Something in his unease and pain communicated itself to Miri.

She asked him, "Would you rather I address you another way?"

He smiled wanly. "Caught that, did you?"

She nodded. "I did."

Tony hesitated. He shouldn't let it bother him. It shouldn't matter.

He expected Miri to ask, to want an explanation. She waited patiently, blue eyes studying him, no condemnation or judgment in her expression. With a sigh, Tony realized he had no idea what to tell her.

He'd been in Spain for just over a week at that point; he didn't want to dredge up all the shit that had been part and parcel to his leaving DC. Hell, he spent most of his time trying hard not to think about it at all. How was he supposed to explain that he been promoted and then demoted? That Gibbs had dumped his team only to retake them? That his old team had never thought he was good enough to be the lead agent? That he was never more than a stand in for the guy they all wanted? Would Miri and Martin end up question his ability to if he told them? Would they think like McGee and Ziva, that he wasn't capable of doing the job? Did he trust her enough to admit to having a relationship, one he couldn't even define, with his former boss that still left him aching for a man he was certain had not even liked much less respected Tony?

He didn't want to lie to her. It was a bad precedent to set. Especially when he'd already decided to be honest with his team. Leaving things out was one thing, an outright lie was another entirely. But he didn't want to tell her the truth either. No matter how trustworthy she seemed Tony still hesitated to tell answer Miri's unvoiced question.

After a moment, Miri smiled gently, reaching out to lay a compassionate hand on his shoulder. "Hey, it's okay."

He arched an eyebrow. "You're going to let me get away with not saying anything?"

"This isn't an interrogation, Tony. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. Just remember I gave you a pass if our positions are ever reversed."

She shrugged. "Everyone's got buttons. Not always a good idea to press them."

Tony didn't think anyone on his old team would have let him off so easily. But then no one on his old team would likely have even noticed his reaction to the word 'boss'. Or if they had it would have been to rub in the fact that the word no longer applied to him, that it was never his to begin with.

For not pushing and being so damned understanding, Tony could have kissed Miri.

"How about I just call you, Sir?"

"Sir?" Tony blinked. Gibbs had never liked being addressed as sir. Tony hadn't even considered it before.

"I'm sure you've heard the word before." Miri chuckled, blue eyes dancing. "It can be a polite way to address a stranger when you haven't been formally introduced." She patted his arm. "Or it can be a way to address a male superior, a sign of respect."

Tony snorted. "You think I've earned being a Sir?"

He seriously doubted her answer would be yes. They barely knew one another. He'd flirted with her not two seconds after they met which was hardly the mark of a serious agent or someone qualified to lead a team. He'd started the practice of tossing office supplies back and forth with Martin while working on the report for their first case nearly knocking out one of the clerks when the guy didn't duck the stapler. He'd already made a dozen movie references, quoting lines in a way that had always made his old team roll their eyes in annoyance. A plot detail from The Thomas Crowne Affair had ultimately broken the case, that his inspiration had come from a movie was the sort of thing his old team found worthy of derision rather than praise.

Again Miri surprised him.

"I gather from the look on your face someone told you weren't worthy of a sign of respect." She looked him in the eye, her gaze unflinching.

More than one actually, Tony thought but didn't say aloud. From his father to damn near everyone he'd worked with and for. Hell even Gibbs had only given him faint praise, and left him his team with 'you'll do'. It wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of his ability.

"Mouse, Caleb and I...we read your file. Did a little checking on you. Figured it was prudent to know something about the guy who was taking over." She held up a hand, stopping him from speaking before the words had even formed. "Don't get your panties in a bunch. Nothing in your file, nothing we found elsewhere, led us to believe you hadn't earned the right to be a lead agent."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing."

"Not my degree in gym, my job jumping, the plague--"

"Nothing." She smiled. "And if any of us minded your approach to the job, we'd have said so."

Given what he'd already learned about his team, he knew that much already. They weren't shy about speaking their minds.

"Until you do something I consider unforgiveable, and there isn't much on the list, just so you know, I'm willing to follow your lead."

Her smile broadened. "I don't give a shit whoever told you, you weren't good enough. Their opinion doesn't matter. I think Sir suits you. And that's good enough for me."

She looked askance at him. "Is that good enough for you?"

Having this woman who barely knew him say he was good enough until he showed her otherwise rendered him speechless for a moment. No one had given him the benefit of the doubt. Ever. No one had assumed he might be capable until he had the chance to mess up. Usually they just assumed from the moment they met him he wasn't up to the job, and were shocked to find out not only was he up to it, he was good at it. He'd always had to prove himself first---boarding school, college, as a cop and again as an agent. His new team's acceptance and faith was a decidedly novel concept.

Tony grinned brightly. "Yeah, it's good enough for me."

"All right then. If it's okay with you, Sir, let's get back to work."

Chapter 3

Gibbs tried very hard not to look at what had been Tony's desk.

Tony had been gone for two months, and the team's new probie now sat at what was Tony's desk. Gibbs wasn't sure what the kid's name was. Dwight? Dwayne? Daryl? Something with a 'D' was all he knew. Not that it mattered. It didn't look like the kid would be staying with the team for long. He had some sort of nervous twitch and stuttered badly every time Gibbs asked him for what he'd found. It was annoying as hell.

Initially, Gibbs had some reservations about putting the probie in what had been Tony's desk. It had been Tony's for as long as he'd been on Gibbs' team. Giving it to someone else felt wrong. Kate's desk had sat empty for months after her death, a quasi shrine to her, but Tony hadn't died, he'd left. And Gibbs' anger over that kept him giving into any sentimentality. It was just a piece of furniture, no more, no less. It didn't matter who had used it or who would be using it in the future.

He didn't question why it still bothered him so much, two months after Tony left for Rota, to look over and see someone else sitting there. It was a stupid, knee jerk reaction. A force of habit that he knew would fade in time. Tony had been there for years, it was perfectly natural to look over and expect to see him sitting there; to imagine him lounging back in the chair with his feet up on the desk, playing some stupid video game on his phone.

It was also natural to look for Tony at a crime scene to give orders to. It wasn't strange at all that he had to stop himself from barking out 'DiNozzo' when he wanted or needed something. He'd been doing it for years; it would take him a bit to undo that. There was nothing odd about expecting to hear inappropriate jokes during an investigation and being disappointed when none were forthcoming. It was normal to miss hearing obscure movie reference made that didn't relate in any way to what they were working except to the guy making them.

It would fade, Gibbs told himself. He'd gotten used to DiNozzo. He could get unused to him.

Ziva hadn't commented on his assigning their new probie to Tony's desk. But then she'd been the one to point out the impracticality of treating Kate's desk like it was a shrine. To her any desk was just another piece of furniture. And without all of Tony's things it looked just like any of a dozen others NCIS had.

The lack of personal items had been Gibbs' first clue that something wasn't quite right. He'd hesitated that Monday morning, scanning the area, looking for what it was that had made him feel so uneasy. That was when he noticed how clean Tony's desk was. Not clean as in orderly, neat and tidy. No, it was clean as in it looked like no one was using it, like no one had ever used it.

Gibbs couldn't remember what all used to be on the desk; there were still gaps in his memory from the explosion he'd been in months before, and he hadn't honestly ever paid that much attention, but he knew things were missing. There wasn't one single personal item. No pictures, no calendar, no coffee mug. No post it notes, no files, no forms recently completed or waiting to be completed. Gibbs had shivered looking at the barren surface, his gut telling him it was a harbinger of something he wasn't going to like.

McGee had looked like he might protest having the new probie sit at Tony's desk, but one sharp look from Gibbs had been enough to silence him. He was Gibbs' second in command; he should know it didn't matter where anyone sat as long as they got the damn job done. Gibbs ignored the little voice inside that kept asking if he really believed that why was had he been so determined to take back what was his desk from Tony when he returned from Mexico. Why not just take any empty desk?

Gibbs would have expected Tony to announce his promotion to everyone in the building. He thought the younger man would have rubbed his plum new assignment in his coworkers' faces. It was the sort of showboating behavior Tony was known for. But he'd left quietly, no fuss, no fanfare. He didn't even say goodbye. Gibbs still wasn't sure what to make of it.

Not that Gibbs expected Tony to say good-bye to him. It wasn't like there was anything between them other than the job. They were coworkers, nothing more. Gibbs didn't even count Tony as a friend--not really.

Gibbs ignored the little voice that continued to prod him, telling him they weren't anything more because had made it clear that's what he wanted. He hadn't come right out and said their sleeping together was a mistake, but he implied it with enough force for the point to be made.

Sleeping with Shepard had been a mistake. A huge, monumental mistake that resulted in a shuffling of Gibbs' rules to reflect the importance of the lesson learned. No dating coworkers made it into the top 20. He couldn't clearly remember why he'd broken his own rule with Tony. And he wasn't sure how they'd ended up in bed together--multiple times--how long they'd been doing it or how often. It didn't really matter because he'd made it clear on his return from Mexico that aspect of their relationship would not resume.

He told himself Tony not saying good-bye was because it was well known Gibbs had no tolerance or patience for any sort of emotional display. Tony had just been saving them both from what would likely have been embarrassing moment--well embarrassing for Tony because Gibbs didn't get embarrassed.

He told himself it didn't hurt to have Tony walk out without saying a word. He didn't feel abandoned. Gibbs wasn't upset six years together didn't warrant even a handshake or a thank you. He was immune to the irony of being treated the same way he'd treated Tony when he'd left for Mexico the second time. Gibbs wasn't pissed. No matter what Ducky had to say on the subject.

He thought for sure Tony would have said something to Abby. They'd always been close. Obviously something happened in the time Gibbs had been gone, but he didn't know what, and he wasn't sure if he should ask. From the hurt and bewildered look on Abby's face when she found out Tony had left, Gibbs didn't think she knew why Tony would have left without saying good-bye. He wasn't sure how she could not know, but then she probably hadn't known why Gibbs had left without saying anything either. At least he'd made sure she had a number to get in touch with him, in case of an emergency. Tony hadn't even done that much.

Tony hadn't said anything to McGee or Ziva either. They were just as surprised as Gibbs had been to walk in Monday morning to find out Tony had been offered and accepted the position as lead agent in Rota, Spain. The reassignment had been effective immediately.

For an agent being assigned overseas time to get affairs in order was usually the rule, and Gibbs knew there was nothing that pressing going on in Spain that Tony had to rush getting there. Tony could have had up to a month to move if he wanted. The choice to be there within two days of being offered the position had likely been his decision.

McGee had looked chagrined when he'd found out about the job and Tony leaving immediately. Gibbs knew McGee's reaction related to the conversation he'd over heard between the two younger men. McGee's derisive comment about Tony not deserving to be a team leader had been said in anger, fueled by resentment of his own demotion from second in command. To the best of Gibbs' knowledge neither man had addressed it before Tony left. It was unfinished business between DiNozzo and McGee. Gibbs told himself he didn't care if it ever got resolved. It wasn't his problem.

Ziva hadn't shown any emotion other than surprise at hearing of Tony's reassignment, but Gibbs knew she was hurt by his abrupt departure. He'd heard that she and Tony had spent some time together while he'd been in Mexico. He didn't know if there was anything romantic between them, and he firmly dismissed the surge of jealousy thinking about the two of them together brought. It wasn't any of his business. It wasn't like he wanted Tony for himself or anything. And really, it was clear that Tony didn't want anything serious with Gibbs if the older man being gone for a few months was enough to have him turning to Ziva.

If there had been anything between Tony and Ziva it was obviously over. Ziva had called Gibbs for help, and had made pointed comments about Tony's ability as a leader getting in digs whenever the situation arose once Gibbs came back. If there had been something between them, Gibbs thought she'd probably been the one to end it.

Tony running off to Rota made more sense that way. Being demoted and dismissed by a beautiful woman were big blows to the ego. Gibbs didn't need to feel guilty or responsible for Tony not being able to suck it up and deal with it like a man. It was Tony's decision to leave. Gibbs hadn't made him go, any more than he'd made his ex-wife Diane leave. It wasn't his fault she couldn't handle him being a little intense over catching a serial killer or always being focused on the job. Ducky said he'd left her no choice but to leave, that Gibbs had shut her out, but what the hell did Ducky know about it? He'd never been married.

Tony also hadn't said anything to Ducky about leaving. Ducky seemed baffled and hurt by that, even more so when it came to light that Tony had spoken to Jimmy Palmer about leaving.

Palmer of all people. Gibbs couldn't believe that was who Tony elected to talk to. Palmer wasn't a bad guy, but Gibbs couldn't see where he and Tony had anything in common. He couldn't even remember them being friends. All he could remember was Tony teasing Palmer. It didn't make any sense that the 'autopsy gremlin' would be the one Tony confided in.

Why would he tell Palmer he was leaving? Why would he trust Palmer with taking care of last minute details? Hadn't Gibbs been the one to watch Tony's back? Shouldn't Gibbs have been the one he came to? Gibbs deliberately ignored the fact that Tony had four months without him around to find a new confidant. And that maybe his trust in Gibbs had reason to be less solid since Gibbs departure for Mexico. Not to mention the fact that he'd called Tony by the wrong name more than once since his return. His curt resumption of his place as team leader and subsequent demotion of Tony likely hadn't helped any.

Tony had talked to Lee too. It was another thing that baffled Gibbs. Lee was a probie. Why would Tony talk to her? Maybe he needed legal advice. Gibbs knew she was well versed in that arena if not overly qualified as a field agent.

When Shepard approached her about resuming her position as probie on the MRCT, Lee had politely declined. She said she was looking for more regular hours with less potentially dangerous situations because she had recently assumed responsibility for the care of her younger sister.

Gibbs hadn't known she had a sister. It was apparently news to everyone else as well. He shrugged it off. It wasn't an issue for him if she didn't want to be a field agent. She wasn't terribly well suited to it in his opinion. Neither was Dwayne, or Derek or whatever the hell his name was.

Gibbs sighed, sipping his coffee and staring at his computer and refusing to look at what had been Tony's desk. At zero six hundred he was the only one in the office. The quiet should have made it easier to concentrate but it was proving to be more of a distraction.

Gibbs grimaced forcing himself to focus. He had a boatload of paperwork to complete. He'd forgotten how much of that stuff Tony had done for him as his second. Gibbs had been passing off more and more to McGee. McGee was looking a little shell shocked these days. Apparently when he was Tony's second he'd been unaware of how much paperwork had to be completed. Why Tony had elected to go easy on McGee Gibbs couldn't fathom until he realized how much the younger man was struggling with it.

Gibbs leaving the way he had thrust McGee into a senior position before he was really ready for it. He didn't have the experience Tony had when he'd started at NCIS and for all his intelligence McGee was remarkably ill equipped to deal with red tape. He didn't seem to understand logic had nothing to do with the process and that it was better not to ask why. Just do whatever was needed to be done the way it had to be done and don't question it. Simple.

While Ziva was gaining in skill and ability as an investigator, she wasn't an NCIS agent. There were things that legally she simply couldn't do so it wasn't like McGee could share the duties. McGee technically outranked Ziva, but in reality he couldn't order her around or pass off the shit detail.

The probie was barely out of FLETC. He wasn't going to be much help. Gibbs had made training him another of McGee's duties. He tried not to pay too much attention, not wanting to see McGee falling back on what he knew and applying the same words and techniques he'd learned from Tony. He doubted McGee was even aware he was doing it. He was just copying Tony the way Tony had copied Gibbs and Gibbs had copied Franks, following the example set for them.

It made Gibbs' gut hurt to hear Tony's words coming from someone other than Tony. McGee put his own spin on it, changing the inflection and adding emphasis in places but it was still Tony's material. It was as wrong as the probie sitting at Tony's desk, but Gibbs couldn't and wouldn't undo that. It was done. He was not going acknowledge or even consider that it might have been a mistake.

Gibbs glanced at the clock. McGee, Ziva and whatever his name was should be coming in soon. Ziva had only been late once and Gibbs had told her if she couldn't be in on time to not bother coming in at all. DiNozzo wasn't in charge any more; slacking off wasn't going to be tolerated. It never occurred to Gibbs that Tony had no more authority when it came to Ziva than McGee did. In his mind, if Ziva hadn't toed the line when Tony was in charge it was because he allowed it. It never occurred to Gibbs that the only reason she followed his orders was out of personal loyalty, and because her father made it clear her roll was to gain his trust.

Gibbs' thoughts were interrupted by the approach of Jimmy Palmer. He'd heard the elevator and the younger man's steps as he came closer, but Gibbs didn't look up or acknowledge his presence. Palmer cleared his throat nervously. Gibbs turned his head to look at him. Palmer held out a folder, offering it to Gibbs.

"Doctor Mallard asked me to deliver these autopsy reports to you."

Gibbs knew Ducky hadn't sent Palmer to deliver the reports because he was still pissed at him; it was simply expedient. Ducky and Gibbs made their peace when Gibbs had finally apologized to him. He hadn't liked doing it, but it was obvious he'd hurt Ducky's feelings, and for the sake of one of the longest friendships he had, Gibbs had sucked it up and offered what he knew Ducky needed.

He took the file from Palmer. "You're here early."

"I came in early to get caught up on things since I've got classes this afternoon. I'd meant to drop these off last night but I lost track of time when Doctor Mallard was telling me about his time at...and you don't really care about any of that." Palmer blushed. "I'll just be going."

"Palmer?" Gibbs called out before he'd gone more than a few steps.

Palmer turned, eyebrows rising. He clearly hadn't expected Gibbs to call him back. He wasn't the only one surprised. Gibbs had spoke without even realizing it.

"Was there something you needed, Agent Gibbs?"

"Have you talked to DiNozzo lately?" Gibbs asked. He wasn't sure why he asked. It wasn't like Tony was on his team any more. But Tony had been his second for years; it was only natural to want to check up on him. And Palmer was one of the few people Tony has spoken to before leaving. It was possible they'd stayed in touch.

"I haven't actually talked to Tony since he first got to Spain. The time difference between Rota, his hours and mine here makes it hard to find time to talk directly. Tony had some issues getting a new cell phone that worked, something about, well, I'm not really sure, he wasn't clear--"
Palmer stopped abruptly. He took a breath. "We e-mail each other. It's easier."

E-mail? Gibbs arched an eyebrow. He hadn't expected that, but then he didn't use his computer for any more than he absolutely had to.

"You get an e-mail from him recently?"

Palmer fidgeted nervously. Gibbs' gut clenched, but he tried not to read too much into Palmer's hesitation. He knew Palmer was wary of him. That Palmer looked uncomfortable didn't mean there was anything wrong.

"Tony sent me a message yesterday."

"He doing okay?" Gibbs asked wanting to be sure there wasn't anything he should be worried about.

Palmer nodded. "He says he likes Rota. This time of year, it's a lot warmer than DC. He hasn't gotten to the beach yet, but he was hoping to go this weekend. One of his team surfs regularly and Tony said he wanted to try it."

Palmer smiled hesitantly. "If you want to send him a message, his work addy hasn't changed. It's just his first initial, last name at NCIS.gov. Same as mine or yours."

Gibbs glared at Palmer and the younger man began to back away. "But you knew that, of course. You didn't need me to tell you that. I'll, ah, I'll just be getting back to work now."

Gibbs sighed softly once Palmer was out of sight. He hadn't known Tony's work e-mail address. He'd never sent anyone on his team an e-mail.

McGee, Ziva and Abby would know doubt have known. If they'd had been in touch with Tony, they hadn't mentioned it. Not that they would have said anything to Gibbs. He'd made a point of not mentioning Tony's name or saying anything about him since coming in and finding out Tony had left. Assigning the probie to Tony's desk had been a blatant indication of Gibbs' feelings on the subject of his former second in command.

He decided it wasn't petty for him to feel justified in trying to wipe the slate clean. Tony was the one who'd left. He stayed in touch with Palmer; he could have stayed in touch with Gibbs just as easily. He'd obviously chosen not to.

Gibbs looked at Tony's desk. His jaw clenched when a sudden wave of loss swept over him. He missed Tony. Damn it. He slammed his hand down as he thrust himself out of his chair.

He'd go get a cup of coffee. By the time he got back, Ziva and McGee and the probie would be in. With them around maybe he could finally concentrate and get something done. With them around, he could continue to ignore that nagging ache in his chest that appeared the day he found out Tony had left for Spain and hadn't lessened since.

Chapter 4

Tony hated bombs.

Not that anyone in their right mind liked bombs, but he absolutely hated them. It wasn't just the destructive potential or the inherent danger that spawned his antipathy, it was the fact that bombs and their deadly force had been the catalyst in the past two years to some fundamental changes in his life. His nearly been blown up not long after Tony had recovered from he plague, and Kate had died shortly there after. The two were inexorably linked in his mind forever, so while Kate wasn't killed by a bomb, he still thought of her as dying because of one. Gibbs had gotten blown up and lost his memories, robbing Tony of not only his place in Gibbs' life, but ultimately his place on the team. A bomb hadn't actually sent him to Rota, but like with Kate's death, the two were forever linked in his mind.

Tony shook his head. None of that really mattered now. He had a case to work on, whether he liked the details of it or not wasn't really important.

He walked confidently toward his team. He nodded in passing to the local police that he'd been getting to secure the area and keep the lookie lous back while his people started working. He would have preferred to not have the locals anywhere near the crime scene, but he didn't have enough manpower to work the case and secure the area. It was better to work with the Spanish authorities. This way they were a part of the case rather than a hindrance to it. And they preferred to take suggestions, always suggestions never orders, from someone they thought of as being in charge. It still felt a bit odd to Tony to realize that meant him, but he was getting used to it.

"What have we got Miri?"

"One hell of a lot of luck is what we got, Sir," she pointed to the debris field around the playground used predominantly by families of American military personnel living off the base. "No one was hurt when this damn thing went off."

"Small mercies." Tony muttered, grateful they wouldn't have to remove little bodies or parts of little bodies.

"Amen." She grimaced. "If the numb nuts that planted this thing had known what they were doing, this could have been really ugly."

Tony arched an eyebrow. "Misfire or incompetence?"

Mouse shook his head. "We're not sure yet."

He gestured toward an area just to the east of what appeared to be the epicenter of the blast. It was not far from the bleachers that would allow spectators to watch children playing on the ball field. A game had been scheduled for later in the day.

"We found what looks like the timer, and several bits and pieces from the bomb there. I'm guessing, but I'd say the original plan had been for the bomb to detonate sometime during the game. Given that it went off well before then, while the playground was empty, I'd say someone didn't wire it correctly, there was a faulty trigger or the explosives used were more sensitive than our bombers realized and something other than the timer set it off."

Tony pursed his lips. "All right, I'll shoot and sketch. Mouse, you bag and tag. We'll need to get as much of this back to Caleb as quickly as possible. Miri, take one of the local cops with you and canvass the neighborhood. See if anyone saw or heard anything in the last few days that might give some idea of who planted this thing."

"Will do, Sir."

Tony didn't like sending any of his people off on their own. Miri was capable, and she likely wouldn't need back up, but he wanted her to have it just the same. Taking one of the local cops was the best Tony could do on short notice. Miri just nodded, accepting the order without batting an eye. She knew it wasn't a reflection of her abilities.

"Check in every half hour."

"Roger that."

He and Mouse worked the scene, marking and recording, bagging and tagging at a steady pace with little need for conversation. Mouse didn't talk much when working a scene, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand and completing it. Any other time, he could talk someone's ears off, words flying with dizzying speeds complete with hand gestures and pantomime if Mouse felt they were needed to make his point. Tony found he didn't mind the smaller man's silence when in the field. He'd grown accustomed to working with him, and found it easy to stifle any idle chatter that might prove distracting for both of them.

Miri had checked in three times, reporting that few people noticed anything out of the ordinary. So far the only suspicious activity anyone had noticed was a landscaping grew working in the area yesterday. Typically the landscapers who maintain the grounds only show up every two weeks. She was trying to find out who they were and what they were doing in the playground but hadn't made much progress as yet.

"Mouse, take what we've got back to Caleb. I'll do one final walk through to make sure we got everything and then I'll pick up Miri."

"Will do, Sir." Mouse tossed off a crisp salute that Tony had told him repeatedly was unnecessary. Tony wasn't an officer, had never been one and likely never would be. He shot the other man a dirty look and got an unrepentant grin for his trouble.

"Asshole."

"Ah you love me and you know it."

Tony snorted. "Not the word I'd use for it."

Mouse batted his eyelashes playfully. "Bet it means the same thing."

Tony rolled his eyes, smiling in spite of himself. "We are going to have to talk about getting you a decent dictionary. These sorts of misconceptions would be easier to clear up for you."

He waved his hand to toward the car Mouse and Miri had driven to the crime scene. "Go. Back to the office. Have something for me when I get there."

"I'll do my best, Sir."

Tony scanned the area, slowly going over ground they'd already covered and then broadening his search again just in case. He didn't think they'd missed anything, but he wanted to be certain. No one had gotten hurt in this bomb blast, which would likely make who'd ever set the thing eager to try again. The only solid link they had to who made the bomb were the pieces of it. He didn't want to miss anything that might keep whoever did this from succeeding in killing a lot of people the next time.

Tony found himself wishing the case had been just another mugging or a bar fight. Those didn't involve children or genuine fanatics, at least not most of the time.

Tony stopped to speak with the local police. He thanked them for their time and assistance and asked them to continue to secure the area for at least another day. He doubted that they would, and Tony would have to send some Marines from the base to make sure it got done, but being polite never hurt.

And speaking with them whenever necessary gave him a chance to improve his Castilian Spanish. Even after five months in Spain he tended to speak Spanish like a Cuban. Most of the staff who'd worked for his father were Cuban refugees and they were the ones who'd taught him the language. His accent was improving, but he was not as good as he'd like to be. At least no one laughed at his efforts any more. Although, playing the fool and being the butt of a few jokes had been useful establishing a rapport with the locals.

Tony called Miri. "Are you done?"

"Unfortunately, yes."

"Nothing else to go on then?"

"Nada." She sighed heavily. "Things going on in the playground aren't a high priority for most people unless their kids are there. Anything done at night was likely overlooked or ignored. Most of the time, when they are at the playground they are watching out for their kids. So they might be on the lookout for a pedophile, bully, or a skinned knee, but not someone planting a bomb. Other than our landscapers who may or may not be legit nothing stands out. No security cameras either."

Tony didn't have to see her to know Miri was running a hand through her hair in frustration. "Would it be too much to ask for someone to have just seen something, anything at all?"

"Probably." Tony shrugged even though she couldn't see him. "That would make this far too easy."

"I like easy."

Tony smiled. He did too, but it rarely worked out that way.

"I'll be by to pick you up in two."

"I'll be waiting." Miri terminated the call.

Tony had made a point of not hanging up on his people, but waiting for them to cut the connection. It had always seemed so rude when Gibbs just hung up, not giving the other person a chance to finish or any signal at all that the conversation was over.

He drove his car over to where Miri was. She waved good-bye to the officer who'd been with her, smiling brightly at him. The young man's smile was shy. He was blushing too.

"Callahan are you flirting with the locals again?"

"Yep." She grinned. Miri might prefer women, but she still liked men. And she liked to flirt with anyone willing to flirt back.

"He's cute. Kind of like a lost puppy."

Tony smirked. "Just don't let him follow you home, and for god sake don't feed him."

"I know better than that." She chuckled, a low and throaty sound. "I don't want to keep them, I just want play with them awhile."

Some times Miri reminded him a lot of Paula Cassidy. They were both rather open minded with regard to sex, but still had rules and were careful about who they played around with. One of the reasons Miri didn't flirt with Franco, despite his being a decent looking guy and obviously interested in her, was because he was looking for something serious. Miri wasn't interested in being someone's wife. She didn't flirt or play with people who might want or expect more. She said it wasn't fair to them when she couldn't give them what they needed.

"You know, you should really--"

"Don't go there." Tony shot her a hard look, making sure she got the point. Miri thought he needed to relax more. She thought going out and getting laid would be good for him. Her interest in his social life, or lack thereof, was something they argued about on a regular basis.

He'd make the mistake of letting it slip his last relationship had ended badly and that was part of the reason he'd come to Spain. He hadn't mentioned who his relationship was with. Admitting he'd fucked and been fucked over by his boss wasn't something he felt comfortable doing. And he was relieved when Miri hadn't pressed for details. He hadn't wanted to lie to her, but he wasn't sure he could tell her the truth.

Miri didn't see him as heartbroken. A little damaged maybe, battered and bruised, but not broken. Tony wasn't sure what heartbroken should feel like, so he was willing to go with her assessment. Mostly what he felt was stupid for thinking he mattered more to Gibbs than he had, for assuming the sex they'd had was more than just a physical reaction and that there were deeper emotions at play than just lust.

He should have known better. It wasn't like they'd made any sort of declarations or promises to one another. Gibbs had never said 'I love you' and even hinted at establishing something more long term. And for that matter neither had Tony.

Tony had never said 'I love you' to any one. He'd come closest with Gibbs, nearly saying it several times, but had never uttered the words uncertain of how Gibbs might react if he did. Given everything that happened, he was glad he'd kept his mouth shut. It was one less regret he had to deal with.

Miri thought Tony needed to get out more and urged him to get back into dating. Tony wasn't so sure. He'd thought about dating, trying to have a one night stand or two, get back into the game so to speak. Maybe it would get him over Gibbs. But every time he gave it serious thought, he just couldn't do it. He hadn't had sex with another person since Gibbs left for Mexico. His right hand was seeing more action than it had when he was fourteen and discovered the joys of masturbation for the first time. It was depressing when he thought about it, so Tony tried not to think about it.

"Abstinence isn't healthy, no matter what the Catholic Church would have you believe."

"I'm not exactly what anyone would call a good Catholic, Miri."

"You keep going like you are and someone might well mistake you for one." She gave him a pointed look. "You're damn near a monk."

"I am not."

"You don't do anything but work."

"Not true," Tony protested. "I go out."

"Yeah, with us." She pointed a finger at him. "You go rock climbing with me. You surf with Mouse. Movie night is with us and Caleb. And for the record, Caleb is never allowed to pick the movie ever again. Mouse and I both agree on that."

Tony fought down a smile. Caleb had picked a French film that had left them all confused as to what the plot was. It was more fun to just make up the dialog than to actually read it. He still had no clear idea what the film had been about.

"It wasn't that bad."

"Yes, yes it was." Miri grimaced. "Don't change the subject."

"I didn't."

"No you just let me do it." She lightly slapped his arm as a reprimand. Tony didn't mind taking the occasional hit from her. He liked that she expressed herself physically as well as verbally. And really, it wasn't like she hit him hard enough to hurt. Not like Kate used to with her pointy elbows. Or Gibbs did with his head slaps. Miri's were more playful, affectionate than anything else.

"My point is, all your non work stuff is with your team when we can convince you to do it. That's not exactly a social life, DiNozzo, and you know it."

He enjoyed spending time with his teammates. It was nice to be included in their plans. But he didn't always say yes to their invitations, not wanting to wear out his welcome or infringe overly much on them. It seemed like a bad idea to be too familiar with his subordinates.

He didn't try to maintain the same sort of distance Gibbs had with his team, but he was doing his best not to confide as much in them as he had his old team. His old team had repeatedly accused him of over sharing---so Tony was trying not to do as much of that. He was in charge and he needed them to have at least some modicum of respect for him; them knowing too much about him could hinder that. Although, they continued to press the issue, deepening the connection almost on a daily basis whether he liked it or not. And Tony liked it, a lot, not that he'd told them. It seemed too much like a Sally Field and award acceptance speech moment.

Tony didn't think it mattered that he had no friends in Spain outside of his teammates, or that he didn't have many people he regularly communicated with. He traded e-mails with Palmer, and checked up on Lee now and again, and talked to a few buddies he had in other agencies, but that was it.

He'd sent one e-mail to McGee, Ziva and Abby a week after he'd been in Spain, not bothering to send one to Gibbs knowing he wouldn't read it anyway and not knowing what to say to him. None of them had responded. He assumed they were either pissed over the way he'd left or relieved he was gone. Either way he didn't send anything else. There was no point is pouring salt in his own wounds by trying to maintain some sort of friendship they obviously weren't interested in having.

He and his frat buddies hadn't talked to one another regularly even before he'd moved to Spain. Even before Gibbs, none of his girlfriends had lasted more than a few weeks. And once he stopped dating, it wasn't like he was any less social in Spain than he'd been in DC. It really wasn't that much different. Not really.

"It's enough, Miri. You guys are all I need."

Miri smiled warmly at him. "I love that you think so, Sir, but really, you know better."

"What I know is we've got some whack job on the loose who planted a bomb. We need to focus on that."

"I can focus on your dismal social life and the whack job. I multi task well."

"Callahan." Tony's tone and use of her last name made it clear the subject was closed.

"Yeah, okay."

Tony didn't think for a minute the topic had been tabled for good. It would no doubt come up again. But it helped that Miri was willing to let it go when he'd had enough. She didn't harp incessantly. She was just--well--persistent in her effort to make him happy. She was his very own Pollyanna---without the supporting cast and sappy music.

"Mouse and Caleb should have something when we get back."

"Your lips to God's ear." Tony murmured.

"You got a bad feeling about this one?"

"Yeah."

"Me too." Miri sighed. "I hate bombs."

Small Blessings

Tony hung up his phone and stood up from his desk chair knowing the movement would draw his team's attention.

"Okay, people, campfire. Mouse, let Caleb know I'd like him to join us."

Mouse hit a button on his phone. He'd keyed it to the forensics lab. It wouldn't ring the lab phone, but it would cause a small light to flash letting Caleb know his presence had been requested in the bullpen. The team had taken to referring to the button as the 'igniter', voting down Miri's suggestion of 'bat signal'.

After the case in DC where the computerized recording of the team's campfires had been hacked and given away vital information, Tony no longer recorded them. He simply had all the team members involved at the same time. This way everyone had access to what had been discovered without him having to repeat the details. To Tony is just seemed more efficient than having him go to Autopsy, and to the lab and then pass on the information the way Gibbs did. That McGee and Ziva had hated Tony's 'campfires' hadn't changed his mind on how useful they were. His new team hadn't commented on them, but Tony took their willing participation as a good sign.

Initially, he'd had his new team meet in Caleb's lab, but Caleb didn't like having so many people in his space. He was very territorial of his lab, and Tony could respect that. Meeting there hadn't given the field agents access to their equipment, if anything was discovered during a campfire being away from the bullpen slowed down their ability to act on the new information. So they'd rigged the igniter and had Caleb come to them.

It would have been easier if the office were equipped with the same sort of video feed that was available in DC. But even that video link only allowed for Ducky and Abby to communicate, it didn't feed to the bullpen. Tony and his team made do with what they had.

Caleb jogged into the bullpen, entering from the stairwell. He never took the elevator and Tony suspected he was mildly claustrophobic. Everything in his lab had been arranged not for ease of access but to give Caleb the most room to maneuver.

Caleb's lab coat was a dark teal color that Tony was fairly certain he'd dyed himself. Although, for all Tony knew, it was possible to order lab apparel in any number of colors. Abby, Ducky and Palmer had only ever worn white, but that certainly didn't mean it was the only color available.

Tony tossed a nerf ball to Mouse. Mouse caught it with ease and tossed it to Caleb. They'd taken to stocking up on the soft toys when it became apparent that tossing office supplies back and forth could do some damage. During a campfire the one holding the ball usually started.

"Okay, Caleb, what can you tell us?"

Caleb adopted his usual at ease stance, holding the ball behind him. "The explosives used in the bomb were high quality, and should have been very stable. My initial analysis would make it comparable to Semtex. If what I found is correct, then odds are good the ordinance isn't the reason the bomb exploded early. I'm still running further analysis on the chemical components to confirm my initial assessment and pin down the exact make up. With that we should have a better idea of how and where it was manufactured."

"Faulty wiring?" Tony asked.

Caleb shook his head. "What you recovered of the trigger was good. Not the best, mind you, but more than adequate to do the job. From what I could piece together, it looks more like the bomb was built by an amateur. They didn't put it together correctly and that was what caused it to detonate."

Caleb sighed softly. "If he'd known what he was doing, we'd be having a much different conversation."

Tony grimaced. A few more hours and there would have been untold numbers of injuries and fatalities. That was a conversation he'd like to avoid having. Tony wondered how long their luck would hold. They couldn't rely on their perp being stupid forever.

"Miri, what do you have?"

Caleb tossed the ball to her. She caught is easily with her left hand, pointing the remote she held in her right hand at the plasma screen. Several of the photos Tony had taken at the crime scene appeared.

"We are operating under the assumption that the bomb was placed in the ball field of the playground because the area is predominately used by Americans. The way it was placed and where doesn't seem to indicate any particular person was the target. We've got nothing to indicate this was intended to be a personal attack."

"Just hoping to hit anyone in the area." Mouse gave the screen a disgusted look.

"Pretty much," Miri hit another button the remote. A close up of the debris appeared. "We've got nails, ball bearings and metal shavings for shrapnel so I think it safe to say whoever set it wasn't looking for precision, they just wanted to inflict maximum damage. With this claymore set up they could have easily killed a lot of people."

She brought up another picture. This one displayed a number of anti American groups.

"We've got three groups active in the area that have been the most vocal in their anti-American sentiment. Most of their organized protests have been non-violent, more shouting slogans and rhetoric, carrying signs and making a nuisance of themselves than anything truly violent. Backgrounds on the leaders and key members don't indicate any leanings toward militant action. Except for a few more outspoken members of a relatively new group calling itself Spain for Spaniards."

She hit another button on the remote. The pictures of four men and a woman appeared. "These guys are the leaders and have been touting a harder line. Not exactly death to Americans or kill all the infidels, but similar stuff."

She isolated one photo. "Marco Sanchez. He's the founding father of this little band of malcontents. And he's by far the most vocal."

Tony studied the photo, committing the man's image to memory. "Any military background?"

Miri shook her head. "No military service or demolition experience or anything else that would indicate a familiarity with explosives. But you know as well as I do you can find everything you really want to know on the internet without much difficulty. Of course, being able to apply it is something else. And that would explain our less than stellar construction of this bomb. They didn't quite understand the instructions."

"Any thing to link him directly to our bomb?"

Miri tossed the ball to Mouse. He caught it, bouncing it back and forth between his hands.

"Not him, no, but the landscape company van spotted in the area might give us something to go on. The landscaping company, Greenway Lawn Care, is legit. They are contracted to do maintenance at the playground, but according to the owner, Jesus Valderez, they haven't been there all week. In fact they weren't planning to be there until after the game. He checked the schedule, but couldn't find anyone on his staff who should have even been in the area."

Mouse nodded to Miri and she hit the remote. The picture of the woman that had been up earlier reappeared. She looked young to Tony, way too young to be wrapped up on something like this.

"Maria Martinez. She recently started working for Greenway and she's a member of Spain for Spaniards. She's the only link between the two we've got."

"What else do we know about her?

"Not a lot. She was born in Madrid, and moved to Rota four years ago. She bounced around from job to job for a bit before getting hired with Greenway. Talked to her boss a bit more and found out Maria was dating a Marine, Lance Corporal Dale Johnson. He was married, but the wife was stateside and apparently they were considering getting divorced. I'm guessing his fooling around might have been part of the problem."

Tony snorted. "You think?"

Mouse shrugged, unfazed by the sarcasm in Tony's voice. "They apparently reconciled, because his file still lists him as married. Johnson shipped out to Iraq about twelve months ago after spending six months stateside. As far as I can tell his relationship with Martinez ended when he went back to the US eighteen months ago."

Tony pursed his lips, eyes once more on Maria's photo. "Women scorned?"

"Possible, Sir." Mouse shrugged again. "If he promised to leave the wife and kids for her and then left her high and dry when he the wife forgave him and he got new orders, it might explain her decision to join an anti American group. She became one of the founding members about the same time Johnson went home. I've got a call into his CO to see if we can speak to him directly, but it may be awhile."

Mouse tossed the ball to Tony. It was Tony's turn to fill them in on what he had.

"I've checked with everyone here in Spain and overseas that I can think of. No chatter anywhere about a terrorist threat or an upsurge in activity. No one is claiming responsibility for this and that adds credence to our amateur bomber theory."

"Why, Sir?" Caleb frowned.

"Because if they had a good spin doctor, they'd know to claim the explosion as a warning. They'd make it seem like not hurting anyone had been the intention, not a mistake. They could still drum up press for their cause."

Caleb nodded. "Gotcha."

"Could be they just aren't that bright," Miri mused.

"Here's hoping they are idiots. That should make them easier to catch," Mouse muttered.

"Caleb?"

"Yes, Sir?"

"You said this stuff was stable?"

"Yes, Sir." Caleb nodded.

"Definitely not homemade then?"

"Won't know until I get a full analysis back, but I don't think so. It's possible, anything is, but I would have expected someone with the knowledge of how to make explosives to know how to wire the bomb correctly. Although, whoever produced the explosives could have sold them to our bomb maker and not had any more to do with it than that."

Tony nodded. He thought as much. That was why he'd checked into more than just terrorist groups while his team was working their angles.

"I checked on explosive ordinance here in Spain. There are no reports of anything stolen or coming up missing. Although, there is no guarantee our Spanish hosts would tell me the truth if it is something of theirs that got misplaced. But I do know the Navy and Marine Corps would be honest with me; they haven't had anything go missing, but they are double checking everything to confirm."

"So we're looking for someone with the skill to make the explosives, or the wherewithal to smuggle it in?" Miri asked quietly.

"Looks that way."

Tony's phone rang. He answered it with a curt "DiNozzo." He'd stopped being overly pleasant when answering the phone not long after he'd taken over for Gibbs and hadn't gotten back into the habit. The only people he'd made a point of being polite to on the phone were standing in the same room with him.

Tony's jaw clenched as he listened to what the caller had to say. "We'll be there in ten minutes. Keep everyone back and don't let anyone touch anything."

Tony hung up. "Grab your gear. We got another bomb. This one hasn't exploded yet."

Miri and Mouse moved quickly, pulling their guns and equipment.

"Caleb call EOD. Tell them we're going to need help."

No one on his team had experience in defusing a bomb. Ziva or Gibbs might have been willing to handle it themselves, but Tony wasn't eager to put himself or his team in unnecessary danger. He wanted his team on site to help secure the area so no got hurt if the damn thing went off. And to be there to recover evidence so they could catch the bastard who'd set it.

It was far better to call in the experts and let them deal with it rather than risk killing himself or his team. The only reason they'd gotten the call was because the second bomb had been spotted by a Navy Corpsman who knew about the earlier explosion and that NCIS was handling the investigation.

Tony handed the lab tech a slip of paper with the address on it. It was another playground. "That's where we are headed."

Whoever set the bombs was clearly targeting non-combatants. While Tony didn't have any children of his own, and likely wouldn't at this rate, he hated knowing there were people in the world who saw children as nothing more than pawns or acceptable collateral damage.

"Call me as soon as you find out anything more about the first bomb. It might be useful for defusing this one."

"Will do, Sir."

Tony drove with a controlled sort of recklessness, determined to get to the scene and keep anyone from getting hurt. Miri was in the front seat, pulling on a flack jacket, surprisingly at ease with his driving. Mouse was in the backseat, looking a lot less comfortable than his teammates, but otherwise calm. He'd gotten his flack jacket on before they'd left the garage. He also carried a shotgun. It was the sort of firepower Tony's old team hadn't usually gone to a scene with, but in this case, Tony figured Mouse was probably justified in wanting something with more knock down power than their side arms. Just because the bomb was the danger they knew about didn't mean it was the only danger they could be facing.

Miri laid a flack jacket on the seat. "Put that on before you get out of the car."

He arched an eyebrow, giving her a hard look. "Telling me what to do now, Callahan?"

"Only when it comes to keeping your ass in one piece, Sir." She grinned at him. "Rest of the time, you're in charge."

"Good to know."

They arrived at the scene in just under ten minutes. Tony put on the flack jacket before leaving the car, ignoring the approving look he got from Miri and the satisfied smirk on Mouse's face. He wasn't so stupid as to go into a dangerous situation unprepared, but it was nice to know his team would look out for him.

Tony eyed the off duty, obviously military personnel keeping everyone well away from where the bomb had been reported. The crowd appeared to be made up of military families--women in casual dress and children in baseball uniforms. They were all calm, but the number of anxious expressions made it clear they were fully aware they were being kept at a distance from something dangerous.

He strode forward, keeping his pace measured, expression calm. He held up his badge.

"I'm Special Agent DiNozzo. Who's in charge here?"

"That would be me, Sir." A well built man who looked to be a few years younger than Tony stepped forward. He was in casual dress, but the ramrod straight posture, high and tight haircut, and the crisp 'sir' were all indications he was military.

"And you are?"

"Lieutenant Dale Anders, Sir. I work at the infirmary on the base."

"You called in the bomb?" That was the name Tony had been given, but it never hurt to be sure.

"Yes, Sir."

"Good work, Lieutenant, and good thinking on keeping everyone back."

"Thank you, Sir."

Tony gave the younger man a tight smile; surprised Anders seemed pleased by his praise. He hadn't thought his opinion would matter much to the man.

"How did you spot the bomb?" All indications were that the first bomb had been partially buried. If there was a change in MO that could be significant and Tony wanted the details. If Anders has messed with the scene, he wanted to know that to so he could account for it.

"I spotted a duffle bag on the bleachers when I arrived." Anders pointed to the seating area. "I help coach the team and I always come out to the field a little early just to look things over. Make sure everything is ready. There shouldn't have been anything on the bleachers, so when I saw the bag I went to check it out. I opened it." Anders grimaced. "As soon as I saw what was in side, I backed away, called NCIS, and started working on keeping people away from it."

Tony patted the man on the shoulder. "We're going to help you with keeping everyone out of harms way while we wait on EOD to get here."

"You are not going to defuse it, Sir?"

"If it's all the same to you Lieutenant, I prefer to let the experts handle shit like this."

"I hear that." Anders shuddered. "I've worked on guys who've been hurt by shit like that. Would just as soon never be one of them."

Tony turned toward his team. "Callahan, Rivera, we're going to help them secure the area and make sure no one leaves. Just to be on the safe side, let's get everyone to back up a few more feet. EOD should be here shortly. We'll let them deal with the bomb. Our job here is to make sure no one gets hurt in the mean time."

"Roger that, Sir." Came from Mire and Mouse at the same time.

They moved forward, identifying themselves, and politely requesting people stay together and move back even further. No one in the crowd protested, although many looked anxious to leave. Tony didn't want them going anywhere until he had a chance to talk to them.

It was a long shot, but it was possible one of them saw or knew something. And it was equally possible that one of them might be affiliated with whoever placed the bomb. Arsonists like to watch the fire, it wasn't impossible that their bomber wanted to stay and see the affects of the bomb. Especially in light of the first one being a failure. Tony discreetly took out his camera and got several shots of the crowd as well as the cars nearby and the surrounding area. Documenting as much as he could would only help them in the long run.

If EOD could defuse their bomb, they should have a lot more information on their bomber to work with. If they couldn't, well, at least no one got hurt with this one either. It would be a small blessing; one Tony was more than willing to accept. He'd learned a long time ago that small blessings were often the best most people ever got.

Not looking a gift horse in the mouth wasn't one of his rules, but when this was all send and done, it might well make the list.

Chapter 6

Gibbs hated it when a case went cold.

Staff Sergeant Randall Brown had died while transporting materials from the Naval Surface Warfare Dahlgren Division in Northern Virginia to the Naval Research Lab just outside Washington, DC. Evidence at the scene didn't indicate foul play. Ducky's autopsy later confirmed that Brown had died from a congenital heart defect. So while his death was a tragedy, it was not a crime.

Gibbs' frustration didn't lie in confirming why or how Brown died, but in what happened with the explosive ordinance he was transporting. The manifest for his shipment was not a perfect match for what was found in the truck. Brown's load was missing a few pounds of a new Semtex like compound recently developed at the R & D center at Dahlgren. It was being shipped out for final testing before being included in the Marine Corps' arsenal. But further review of previous shipments put the total amount missing at closer to several hundred pounds that had been lost, mislabeled or stolen over the last few months.

Due to the inconsistencies in the record keeping and turnover in personnel it was virtually impossible to know when the new explosive started turning up missing. The amounts missing from any one shipment were always relatively small and were attributed to accounting errors if they were noticed at all. Given that it had been going on for some time, it was increasingly obvious that the discrepancies were not merely mistakes, but deliberate.

McGee hadn't uncovered anything suspicious in Brown's financial records. He hadn't bought a new car or house. His bank account had a modest amount that was in line with his salary. He didn't seem to have a gambling problem or drug addition. His credit cards had a small balance that was easily traced to a new brake job for his wife's car and a computer for his son.

Ziva and their probie, who had surprisingly managed to last almost the entire six months since Tony left, hadn't turned up any evidence of Brown being unfaithful to his wife. No mistress on the side to support, no hookers, nothing that would indicate he wasn't as happily married as his wife claimed. There were also no health issues that might have prompted a desire for quick cash. His coworkers all considered him an okay guy to work with, if not exactly the most ambitious when it came to getting the job done. He didn't help load the trucks, he just drove them.

Neither Abby nor Ducky turned up anything that would indicate he'd handled the material directly. There was no residue on his skin or clothing. There was nothing in the truck itself to suggest the material had been removed during transport. Video footage available for part of Brown's route didn't show him stopping anywhere, and the timing from when he left Dahlgren and ultimately died didn't allow for him to offload anything.

The only direct link with Brown to the missing ordinance was his signature indicating he'd counted the boxes in the truck and was accepting responsibility for their transport. If Abby hadn't noticed the still sealed boxes didn't have the correct weight when she was cataloging evidence, it would have been impossible to tell anything was missing.

Someone at Dahlgren had to have facilitated the theft, but Gibbs and his team hadn't been able to find anything yet. Like Brown, everyone they'd looked into seemed clean.

Gibbs grimaced. No one stole explosives for fun. Someone had to be getting paid for it.

Gibbs was starting to wonder if McGee wasn't as good at the computer crap as he claimed. He knew of at least once case the team had worked on while Gibbs had been in Mexico where stolen funds were never recovered. McGee hadn't been able to follow the trail then either so this time wasn't an isolated incident.

It was possible whoever arranged for the theft and sale was simply better at hiding their activities than McGee was at finding them. Thinking that was far from comforting because McGee, even if he wasn't a good as he seemed, was still the best computer person Gibbs knew. If these people were better, catching them was going to be damned difficult.

It was also possible that who ever had stolen the explosives hadn't sold them yet, meaning no money trail to follow. If that was the case then they were stockpiling it for some reason. This new compound wasn't on the market. It didn't even have a name yet. Whoever took it obviously recognized its potential on the black market, but might not know how to make contact with a buyer or know how to sell something so unique. They could also be a terrorist group waiting for the right opportunity to use it themselves. That thought made Gibbs' blood run cold. Failing to prevent another Oklahoma City sort of bombing was not an option.

Ziva hadn't uncovered any ties to terrorist organizations or cults or any other group that might have an immediate use for it. No one at Dahlgren was a card carrying member of any known militant group. And no one harbored an obvious grudge against the government--at least not that Ziva had been able to locate.

He sipped his coffee, reviewing the case notes. He'd go over it again with his team when they came in. There had to be something they were missing.

It had to be someone on the inside. All the shipments of raw materials checked out. Everything that was supposed to be delivered had been. All the testing done accurately accounted for how much had been used. Nothing went missing until the new product was getting shipped out of Dahlgren for final review.

There was no suspicious activity prior to that, nothing to give away the fact that each shipment was missing bits and pieces. If Brown hadn't died, whoever it was could have continued to steal the explosives indefinitely.
Whoever set this up was smart enough to know how to cover their tracks.

It had to be someone familiar with how the explosives were accounted for, when and how they'd be shipped. They were content to take small quantities over time. That wasn't the normal MO for someone stealing weapons or selling them.

"Gibbs?"

Gibbs blinked, looking up to see Director Shepard standing in front of his desk. He'd been so engrossed in his review of the case that he hadn't even noticed her approaching.

"Yeah?"

"I may have a lead on your case."

Gibbs glared at her. "We talked about you messing around in my cases."

Shepard stared back at him coolly. "I haven't been, as you put it, messing around in your cases. I realize it may come as a surprise to you, but I get reports from all NCIS teams, not just yours, and that occasionally what is happening on one case is related to another."

Gibbs stood up from his desk to face her. He didn't like having to look up at her. It made him feel like she already had the high ground. He gestured with his right hand for her to continue.

"Some of the missing explosives apparently found their way to Spain."

Gibbs blinked. He hadn't expected that. The Middle East, Eastern Europe or South America were possibilities he'd considered.

"Spain?"

"Rota, actually."

Gibbs froze for a moment. Rota. Tony was in Rota. He hadn't mentioned Tony's name in months, but he thought of him every day. He constantly had to fight down the urge to ask Palmer if he'd heard from Tony, to ask McGee, Ziva or Abby if he'd been in touch. After six months, Gibbs thought the urge would lessen but it hadn't.

"According to Agent DiNozzo's report, they've encountered two bombs made from it."

"Why am I only hearing about this now?" Gibbs bit out the question harshly.

She didn't roll her eyes, but Gibbs could tell she wanted to. "Because there wasn't enough left from the first bomb to accurately identify the explosive. And it wasn't until two weeks after they encountered the second bomb that what was missing from Dahlgren was brought to our attention. The composition of the explosive was available for comparison. Until it went missing, the composition was proprietary. They didn't have anything to compare the bomb to in order to identify it. Until they could identify it, they had no idea where it came from."

She gave him a glare that rivaled his own. "And if you bothered to check your e-mail, Jethro, you likely would have heard about this before now. Briefings about what is going on with other teams are regular posted to the intranet. Two bombs made from an unidentified material were mentioned."

Gibbs ignored the look and her jibe at his lack of technological savvy. "I need to see DiNozzo's report."

He managed not to choke or stumble over Tony's name.

"I'll do you one better." She smiled tightly. "He'll be calling MTAC in fifteen minutes. You're welcome to sit in."

"I'll be there."

Shepard nodded curtly and walked away. Gibbs watched her go, waiting until she was up the stairs before sitting down at his desk with a sigh. Six months ago he'd wanted to rip her a new one for offering Tony a team of his own without talking to him. He was still pissed at her, and consistently found reasons to be at odds with her. He knew she didn't understand his animosity. It wasn't like offering the job wasn't within her purview as Director, or that Tony wasn't worthy of the position. And she wasn't the one who set Tony's reporting date; he'd done that himself.

Gibbs certainly wasn't going to tell Shepard that he was upset over losing his second when he'd spent the last few months acting like he didn't care one way or another. And he definitely wasn't going to tell her he was pissed that Tony hadn't said good-bye--it was the truth, but it was entirely too petty to mention. He also wasn't going to tell her he was hurt that Tony hadn't made any effort to stay in touch. Ducky harping at him to admit it was enough for him to deal with. He didn't need her on his case as well.

Gibbs finished his coffee. He took a deep breath and headed up the stairs. He passed through the security protocols without much thought. He'd done it so often he could probably do it in his sleep.

He took another deep breath as he stepped into the dimly lit room. The large screen that dominated the far wall had always made him think of Tony. The whole room was set up like a personal viewing theater, and he could clearly remember Tony mentioning more than once how much he'd like to use the equipment to showcase a favorite film.

The screen lit up and suddenly Tony appeared in front of him. Gibbs heart rate accelerated, his breath hitching at the first sight of the younger man in six months. He managed to keep his face impassive, even though no one could see him from his position in the shadows.

He couldn't help noticing that Tony looked good. Green eyes were more vibrant than Gibbs remembered, looking warm and bright against the backdrop of smooth, tanned skin. His hair was longer, and although his suit hid it well, it looked like he'd lost a few pounds. His features were more angular looking, cheekbones and jaw more sharply defined than Gibbs remembered.

Gibbs found himself wondering if Tony was eating right. Ducky had always said Tony's eating habits were appalling. Gibbs rolled his eyes, annoyed for thinking such things. What did it matter if DiNozzo was living off candy bars and coffee? It wasn't his concern. As long as his health didn't affect his ability to do the job it wasn't an issue.

Small physical changes not withstanding, what Gibbs noticed the most was that Tony looked relaxed. He wasn't on edge, defensive and wary the way he'd been when Gibbs had come back from Mexico. He looked poised and confident. It was a good look for him. A very, very good look for him.

Gibbs reined in his thoughts. He wasn't going to go there. What happened between them was over. It never should have happened in the first place. Breaking Rule 12 was a mistake, and he should be pleased Tony had enough sense to take the promotion.

"Hello, Tony." Shepard greeted him. She sounded very pleased to see him.

"Jenny." Tony smiled. "You're looking good."

"You too. I'd say Spain agrees with you."

"Definitely prefer the warmer weather." Tony grinned, white teeth gleaming. "Hell of a lot easier on my lungs."

Gibbs stepped forward to where he could be seen. He wanted to cut short Tony's interaction with Shepard. It wouldn't do for them to get too friendly. She'd screwed him over once in Paris, and he wasn't so sure she wouldn't screw over Tony as well if given the chance. Tony wasn't on his team any more but that didn't mean Gibbs wanted to see him get handed the shaft by his old partner. The fact he didn't like that Tony's smile for her was warm and genuine, and he hadn't smiled at Gibbs like that since even before his time in Mexico, was immaterial.

Tony's countenance immediately sobered, his posture straightening. It could have been a knee jerk reaction, the same sort of response that usually happened back when Tony worked for him and Gibbs had caught him goofing off, except it wasn't. Gibbs couldn't identify exactly what it was--he only knew what it wasn't. He wasn't sure what it meant either.

Tony studied him for a moment, assessing and measuring him. It was familiar but it took a moment for Gibbs to place it. Tony had given him a similar look any time after Gibbs had been hurt. It was a visual once over that judged his fitness. And at one time, he'd thought it an expression of Tony's concern for his well being, a mark of affection that he would take the time to make sure Gibbs was as okay as he claimed to be, but now it just pissed him off.

What right did Tony have to question his ability to do the damn job? He'd always done his job. Even with his brains scrambled. If Tony had any doubts about his ability then the younger man should have stayed in DC on his team. He should have been willing to look out for Gibb, to watch his six. Never mind that Gibbs had insisted on more than one occasion he didn't need a babysitter, that he didn't want or need Tony's help with anything.

And so what if Gibbs called off whatever it was they'd had? That didn't mean Tony had to leave. He could have stuck it out. It wasn't like them sleeping together meant that much.

"DiNozzo." Gibbs' greeting was curt, irritation and anger bleeding into his voice.

Tony's tone by contrast was neutral, neither hostile nor welcoming. "Gibbs."

It reminded Gibbs rather forcefully of meeting with his first ex-wife years after their divorce. She had the same tone. She told him later if he'd been even half way decent, even remotely friendly, she would have welcomed him with open arms, pleased to see him again.

He could still hear her saying, "You bristling up like a pissed off porcupine the second you saw me, Jethro, made me even more glad I wasn't the one who had to put up with you and your shit any more."

Did Tony feel the same way? Gibbs stifled a wince at that thought, unwilling to ask the question--definitely not where Shepard could hear him and not when he wasn't sure he really wanted to hear the answer. This wasn't the time or the place for that.

Gibbs had no idea what would be the right time or place. He'd never known. It was one of the main reasons his first ex has left him. She said she still cared about him, but she wasn't willing to live with some one who so consistently failed to express himself in any meaningful way she could understand.

"I hear you found some of our missing explosives." Gibbs decided it was best to stick to business.

Tony nodded, accepting Gibbs request to move passed their initial less than ideal greeting and focus on the case. For that, Gibbs was grateful.

"Our two bombs account for about ten pounds of what you're missing. No where near all of it, but it's a start." Tony gave them a quick briefing on what he and his team had uncovered. It was a neat, concise report, without a single inappropriate comment or movie reference.

"You interrogate this Maria Martinez yet?" She would be the one to answer the obvious questions as to how the explosives had made it to Spain, when they got there, who had sold it, how much had her radical group purchased and how much was still being offered on the open market.

"No."

"Why the hell not?' She was their only link. Talking to her should have been Tony's number one priority. He'd trained him better than that.

Tony glared at Gibbs, jaw clenching before relaxing. It was obvious he read the censure in Gibbs' question. When Tony spoke his voice had a deliberate evenness that Gibbs knew was forced.

"Obviously you haven't been listening, Gibbs. She's a Spanish National in Spain. I don't exactly have the authority to question her. You may recall that I already mentioned we've got no evidence to link her directly to the two bombs we found. It's all circumstantial and conjecture."

Gibbs frowned. "You've got fingerprints from the second bomb--"

"Yeah, and she's not in any system. I can't confirm they're hers."

Tony's careful control slipped as some anger leaked through. "She's not wanted by Interpol or any local authority. And apparently neither are any of her Spain for Spaniards cohorts. None of them have ever been arrested for so much as a parking ticket."

Tony sighed. "Other than the explosives, the components for the bombs were not distinctive. You can get wiring, nails and a clock just about anywhere. And until I can actually tie her or anyone in the group to the bombs, I can't legally look into their credit card records and purchases."

Gibbs caught the 'legal' reference. He knew Tony had likely put his team to work on illegal methods. But he was smart enough not to say anything about that in front of the Director.

She likely caught the emphasis as well. Shepard, for all her faults, was no fool. But she knew better than to comment on what Tony might have done.

"Both of the bombs we've found were placed on Spanish soil. Technically I don't have jurisdiction. The only reason they called us in was because the playgrounds are predominately used by Americans and we've got a better equipped lab. We now know the explosives originated in the US, but that still doesn't give me much clout."

Gibbs nodded, trying to signal his understanding and let Tony know he was wrong to judge the younger man's actions. Gibbs had been involved in covert ops, but he had never worked on foreign soil as a legitimate agent. He knew there were constraints but had never had to live within them. Tony nodded back, a small smile appearing.

Gibbs felt something relax in his chest knowing the ability to communicate silently hadn't been irrevocably damaged. There was no one else he'd worked with that Gibbs had been able to do that with. He'd taken it for granted while Tony was around and missed it with him gone.

"Do you need me to make some calls?" Shepard asked.

"If you would, Jenny, I'd appreciate it."

Tony smiled at her. Gibbs wasn't sure who he wanted to smack for that--Tony for doing it, or Shepard for getting it. Tony had even used her first name. He'd thought he'd at least get the familiar 'boss', but from their first greeting and throughout the briefing, Tony had consistently called him 'Gibbs'. If not for their brief moment of silent communication, Tony could have been addressing a stranger.

"A little pressure from above wouldn't hurt. I've already called in a few favors with the local police. The Chief of Police agreed to help us monitor the movements of the key members of the group."

"How'd you pull that off?" Gibbs asked, sounding impressed in spite of himself. He'd never had much luck getting local law enforcement to cooperate.

"His kid plays baseball at one of the playgrounds." Tony shrugged. "Just because it's used mostly by Americans doesn't mean we're the only ones who do."

"How did you know that?"

Tony smirked. "I talk to people. And I listen when they talk to me."

Gibbs opened his mouth to ask another question but didn't get the chance to voice it. A tall, beautiful blonde woman appeared behind Tony. She cleared her throat.

"Sir, I'm sorry to interrupt but we've got a situation."

Tony turned to face her. She leaned into to speak to him, making it impossible to hear what was said. Gibbs couldn't read her lips clearly, but he thought he caught the word bomb.

Tony turned back to the screen. "We've got another bomb. I need to go."

"Call me when you're free." Shepard ordered. I'll want a full briefing."

"Will do, Ma'am."

He was already stepping away when Gibbs called out. "Tony!"

Tony looked over his shoulder, eyebrows raised. "Yeah?"

Gibbs hesitated. There was so much he wanted to say, so many things he had no idea where to start. He silently cursed his inability to just speak his mind.

"Gibbs, I have to--"

"Be careful."

Tony smiled, clearly pleased by the small display of concern. "I always am."

"Don't make me wait another six months to talk you."

Tony paused. His smile stayed in place but lost its warmth. That's when Gibbs realized what he said hadn't come out the way he'd meant it. He'd only wanted to encourage Tony to stay in touch. He wasn't finding fault or blaming Tony, but clearly he'd just made it sound as though he were.

"I never made you do anything. Pretty damn sure Satan will have mastered ice skating and moved on the luge before anyone makes you do anything you don't want to do."

Green eyes met blue--open and honest, unforgiving in their mute assessment. "It's a two way street, Gibbs. You could have called. Sent me an e-mail. I hear they still deliver mail by hand if you were really desperate. I didn't run off to parts unknown. I was never hard to find. The entire agency knows where I am. If you wanted to talk, you could have, Gibbs. No one stopped you."

Tony's smile turned bitter. "No one stopped the others either. Guess I was a case of out of sight out of mind. Not all that surprising, I suppose. Not like I was irreplaceable or anything."

Tony looked like he might say something more, but just shook his head. He made a slashing motion across his throat signaling an end to the connection.

Gibbs closed his eyes rather than stare at a blank screen. He took a deep breath and released it slowly. He hadn't expected Tony to place any blame on him. No one else did. And Tony never had before.

What did he mean no one stopped the others either? Had no one but Palmer actually been in touch with Tony? Surely McGee or Abby had contacted him. It didn't make any sense that they wouldn't. They were Tony's friends. Or at least they had been.

Shepard touched his arm, reminding him he wasn't alone in the room. "Jethro, are you al--"

"I'm going back to work. Call me when you know something."

Chapter 7

Tony hated waking up in the hospital.

He didn't mind it so much when he was aware of what resulted in him being there in the first place. Unfortunately, most of the time when he woke in a hospital it was with no clear memory of how he got there or why he was there. That was disconcerting enough, but adding in the scent of antiseptic, pain not entirely dulled by medication, a feeling of lost time and worry about his teammates, it was down right frightening. This time was no different.

Tony blinked hard trying to get his eyes to focus. Various body parts were reporting in letting him know they weren't happy, but his head hurt too much to untangle the messages. He couldn't tell what hurt or how badly. And he had no clear idea of why he hurt in the first place.

The last thing he remembered was a third bomb and his team going to deal with it. He vaguely remembered finding their suspects, a possible chase and a timer counting down. He remembered a feeling of urgency, running while making sure everyone else was ahead of him. He thought something powerful slammed into him, but it was more a vague impression rather than clear recollection. He didn't remember anything after that.

"You with me, Sir?"

Tony turned his head to see Miri sitting by his bed reading something. He hadn't expected anyone to be in the room with him. Other than the time he'd gotten the plague, and Kate had stayed with him the first night as he recovered, no one had ever been by his bed when he woke up in the hospital. Oh they might have stopped by to visit, but they hadn't stayed or held a vigil. He was on his own more often than not.

From the look of it, Miri had been sitting by his bed for some time. There were several cups nearby, and her clothing was rumpled. She looked tired, but otherwise unharmed. Still, Tony couldn't assume that she was fine just because he didn't see any obvious injury.

"You okay?" Tony asked, his voice surprisingly hoarse. He remembered her being with him. Mouse too. Whatever the hell got him could have gotten them too.

She winced, hearing him speak. Miri put down whatever she'd been reading and got up. She reached for a small cup on the nightstand. She gently lifted his head, and helped him drink. If not for how damn good the cool water felt and tasted, Tony would have been embarrassed about needing her help.

After only two swallows, Tony was disappointed when the cup was empty. He hadn't even realized how thirsty he was until then. Miri refilled the cup from a small pitcher on the nightstand.

Even as thirsty as he was, Tony wanted an answer to his question more than he wanted another drink. "Miri, are you okay?"

"I've got a lot of bruises, and I might have cracked a rib, but nothing major." Miri smiled at him, offering him the cup again. "I'm faster than you or Mouse--just like I told you. So I was further away when the damn thing blew."

"Mouse?" Tony asked between sips, trying to be careful and not take in too much at once. He'd made that mistake before when he'd had the plague and had nearly choked himself unconscious. Fortunately only Nurse Emma knew about that embarrassing moment.

"Mouse broke his collarbone. Blast took him right off his feet and was none too gentle when it put him down." She clucked her tongue. "He won't be surfing for a bit, but he'll be fine. And since the cute little nurse taking care of him was impressed by his heroic efforts, not too mention his scars, I'm thinking he'll at least get a date out of all this."

She grinned. "Hell, he might even get laid, so for him, not so bad."

Tony smirked. "We betting on that?"

"Nah." She shook her head. "Wouldn't want to jinx it for him."

"Big of you."

"Very." She nodded solemnly but the laughter in her eyes gave her away. "You want more water?"

Tony considered that. He was okay for now. "No, thank you."

"No problem." She stepped back. "You want the rundown on you?"

"Please." He was reluctant to even try moving on his own until he had some idea of how much damage had been done.

"You've got one hell of a concussion, but no skull fracture or bleeding on the brain. They're planning to keep an eye because you've been unconscious for most of the day."

Tony grimaced. That meant he was stuck here until they were satisfied he hadn't suffered permanent brain damage. It also meant at least half a dozen tests. He hated getting CAT scans.

"Shit."

"Yeah, I know." She sat down, her hand reaching out to hold his, squeezing gently. "You also got hit in the leg with something heavy enough to put a hairline fracture in your right femur. It was sharp too. You've got thirty stitches to your credit and will probably have a new scar to add to the collection."

She sighed softly. "You lost a lot of blood before they got you stitched back together."

Tony could easily hear the fear and concern in her voice. The lingering stress had left a mark. It couldn't have been easy on her to have been the most able bodied of the team left to deal with what happened. Miri wasn't used to seeing stuff like that the way Ziva was.

There was no way Miri could be as prosaic about it as Ziva was prone to being. She hadn't grown up in a country constantly on alert and exposed to danger. She hadn't been trained on how to create explosives or defuse them. She wasn't trained for combat and dealing with multiple casualties wasn't exactly a standard part of FLETC. And she'd likely never lost anyone to a bomb or dealt with the aftermath before.

"I'm sorry," Tony whispered.

Miri frowned. "For what?"

Tony wasn't quite shore how to articulate what it was he was sorry for. Sorry he hadn't been there when she needed him? Sorry she'd been exposed to all of that in the first place? Sorry there were people out there who thought nothing of hurting others? Really, none of that was his fault. But he was still sorry. And from the look on her face, Miri understood. She lightly slapped his arm and rolled her eyes.

"Don't be greedy about taking on more blame than anything you've done warrants. Nothing about any of this was your fault, Sir. Besides, life may have succeeded in cracking me once or twice," she smiled grimly, "but I'm not the type to end up shattered."

"Tough as nails," Tony parroted back how he'd heard her describe herself on more than one occasion.

"Damn right." She nodded. "I come from the same genetic stock that kicked Rome's ass. No pansies allowed."

Tony snorted, amused in spite of himself. He'd come to appreciate his second in command for more than just her ability on the job.

"I should be thanking you," Miri told him.

Ton frowned. "What for?"

"You took out two of our nut jobs."

"I did?"

"You did." She sounded impressed. "Damn good aim too."

"I don't remember doing that."

Miri shrugged one shoulder. "Concussions can leave a few gaps."

Tony scowled. He hated missing details. "Report."

Miri nodded. "Can do, Sir." She proceeded to fill in the gaps, telling him everything that had happened from when they got the call until he woke up.

The local police had alerted them when Martinez took her Greenway Lawn Care van on a course that deviated from what they knew to be the scheduled route. She'd picked up a few friends long the way. Clearly something was up. The police suspected another bomb, and as per the agreement Tony had with the Chief of Police, NCIS was notified.

No one was supposed to engage the suspects. Tony wanted to make sure the suspects had space to do something blatant that would allow them to be called in for questioning. He also wanted to make sure no one got hurt. The bomb which had detonated early and the one they'd defused had both been wired incorrectly. If their suspects hadn't realized their mistakes, it was possible they'd blow themselves up and anyone nearby. Better to err on the side of caution and not have anyone move in until the danger could be better assessed.

All bets were off when it became apparent that the target wasn't just a playground this time but a school. The school was attended by both American and Spanish children. Clearly their suspects were upping the ante.

That's when Tony felt they had to move in. He wasn't sure if they'd intended to use the van as a suicide bomb or if they were hoping to actually place the bomb somewhere in the building itself. School was in session, so either way, his team and the local cops had to stop them. They made their presence known via flashing lights and sirens. They forced the van to veer away from its obvious destination.

They'd tried to herd the van away from well-populated areas, but they hadn't been able to box them in completely. A missed timed run through a red light had the van coming to an abrupt halt when truck clipped the front end, spinning the van into a light pole. That it hadn't exploded immediately was a small blessing. One that was negated by the suspects leaping from the vehicle waving guns and firing indiscriminately at people gathered around the accident scene.

Efforts to get them to stand down were in effective. Trying to talk only drew their fire. Having their suspects focus on them at least meant the civilians who hadn't fled the scene weren't being targeted.

According to Miri, Tony had dropped two of the suspects while hiding behind the open door of their car. When Martinez broke and ran, the local cops gave chase. Miri, Mouse and Tony had converged on the van, kicking away the guns from the downs suspects and checking for proof of life before cautiously opening the back door of the van.

Tony vaguely recalled seeing numbers counting down and realized that the timer had either been inadvertently triggered by the accident, or the suspects had set it to explode before leaving the van. He remembered the feeling of panic and need to get away.

"You told me and Mouse to run. You were yelling at everyone to get back. Wasn't but a few seconds later the damn thing blew up." Miri shuddered. "I don't know if the first two were a test run or what, but they definitely used a lot more explosives in this one. There aren't any parts of that van left any bigger than a shoebox."

"Were there any casualties besides us?"

Miri hesitated for a moment. Tony knew the answer was yes. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and released it slowly. He opened his eyes to look at Miri again.

"How bad?"

"Three people were close enough to get second degree burns. At least a dozen ended up with lacerations and broken bones."

Miri sighed softly. "Worst is a kid and his mother. They were hiding behind a car when the shooting started. They thought it was over when the shooting stopped. They were totally exposed when the bomb went off. The blast slammed both of them into a building. She died instantly. He's got a fractured skull and spinal damage. If he wakes up, it's likely he won't walk again."

"Damn."

"Yeah." Miri raised a hand to rub her forehead, covering her eyes for a moment and physically shielding her feelings.

Tony gave her a moment to collect herself. It wasn't like he didn't need it too.

"Did they catch that bitch?" Tony asked when Miri was looking at him again.

Miri nodded. "She's in police custody."

Police custody? That wasn't the same as locking her ass in the brig on the base.

"I want her--"

"I know." Miri nodded. "Believe me, Sir, I know."

"Then why the hell--"

"We'll be able to interrogate her in two days."

"Two days?!" Tony glared at her. "Jesus Miri--"

Miri held up a hand before stopping Tony's rant before he could really even get started. "Sir, I know you'd prefer to question her immediately. I would too, but everyone other than us who got hurt is Spanish. It's there right to have first crack at her."

Miri sat back in her chair. "It is worth remembering that the laws here in Spain are different than ours. Here, they don't have to charge her right away. And they don't have to be nice. She's not going to get a lawyer. She's not going to be allowed to make a phone call. She's not going to be in a reasonably well appointed cell. She's not going to get a good meal. She's not going to be allowed to shower. She's not going to be allowed to go anywhere without shackles, even in her cell."

Miri's expression hardened. "She put a lot of people in danger today. She caused a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering. And if they been allowed to do what they'd planned, a lot of innocent people could have died. Two days will giver her time to reflect on that."

Tony's eyebrows rose. "Reflect?"

Miri smiled. There was nothing friendly about her expression. It reminded Tony of a shark.

"I'm thinking all her self-righteous fury will be exhausted by then. She's not a hardened criminal. I doubt she thought this course of action through beyond how good getting revenge would feel. She didn't see the end game. She will now."

Tony's eyes narrowed. Miri sounded a bit too sure of herself. "What did you do?"

"I suggested to the Chief that he not ask her any questions, but show her the photos of the people she has hurt. Tell her the names of each one. Tell her about their families. Don't let her talk. Don't let her defend her actions. Don't give her a chance to spout any slogans."

Miri's expression hardened. "I told him to place the blame for every injury squarely on her shoulders. I told him to show her people bloodied and broken, and let her know they mattered to someone who would now like to do the same to her."

"By the time we get to talk to her, I'm thinking she'll have a hell of a lot to tell us."

Miri cocked her head to one side, studying him. "And they are going to keep you here for at least another day, Sir. You wouldn't be able to talk to her anyway, so the two days isn't really a bad thing."

Tony glared at her. "Callahan, I don't need to stay here."

"Not your call." She shrugged nonchalantly. "You made me your medical proxy, remember?"

Tony had asked Miri to assume that responsibility a week after he'd started working in Spain. He'd always used someone on his team. It just made sense. It wasn't like any of his biological family would be shouldering that burden. Hell, half the time his father didn't even take his calls. It was doubtful he'd respond to anyone else calling on Tony's behalf.

Tony tried really hard not to think about how the person who used to fulfill that role had run off to Mexico. He'd kept Gibbs has his emergency contact and medical proxy for four months, never knowing the man was coming back or not. In hindsight that had been a stupid thing to do. If he'd been incapacitated or needed surgery, Tony didn't even have a number to call.

And really, Gibbs made it clear without ever saying a word that he didn't give a shit about Tony. He hadn't come back to DC for Tony. He'd put a stop to whatever it was they shared. He'd never given Tony's thoughts or feelings consideration when he waltzed back in and summarily demoted Tony. He never bothered to stay in touch after Tony left for Spain. Tony might have been carrying a torch, hell he was still carrying it in some ways, but he wasn't stupid. He needed someone he could trust to look out for him. That wasn't Gibbs any more--if it ever had been. Miri had been a good choice.

Tony shook his head. That didn't matter at the moment. He needed to address Miri committing him to more time in the hospital than he felt was needed.

"Miri, that medical proxy thing was only for you to make decisions if I couldn't make them for myself."

"And when you got here, you couldn't," she pointed out reasonably. "Until fifteen minutes ago, you weren't even awake. So when I agreed to the test they wanted to do, and have already scheduled, I was well within my right to do so."

"Damn it, Callahan--"

"No." She cut him off firmly, blue eyes fierce. She poked him in the arm hard with two fingers. "You were unresponsive and bleeding like a stuck pig, DiNozzo."

Miri rarely used his surname. Between the look, the hard poke and his last name, he knew she meant business.

"I put a tourniquet on your leg and prayed to a god I don't even fucking believe in that you'd live. So if they want to keep you here for another day, you will damn well stay here and let them do whatever tests they feel are necessary. Are we clear?"

"Clear." Tony caught her hand and held it for a moment. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"I know that." She smiled and squeezed his hand before pulling back. "But you did, so you get to deal with the fallout. Suck it up and take it like a man."

Tony sighed. His head hurt. His leg hurt. Hell his whole body ached. "Yeah, okay. But just for you and only this one time."

"Thank you, Sir. I appreciate that."

Tony flipped her off, getting a chuckle in reply. "Did you report to the Director?"

"Not yet. Figured it could wait until we'd had a chance to interrogate Martinez. By then we might have something concrete to tell her. And Caleb will have something definitive on what was left from the bomb. So far the best guess is that it was damn near seventy five pounds worth of explosives used."

That was still a lot less than what was discovered to have been missing. Hopefully, Martinez would have some answers for them on how much her group had, who they bought it from and how it had gotten to Spain in the first place.

"I need to get back to the office." Miri stood up.

She pulled a black bag toward her that Tony hadn't noticed before. "I brought your cell phone." She pulled it out of the bag and put it on the night stand within easy reach. "Yeah, yeah, I know, you aren't supposed to use those in the hospital, but I figured you could play Tetras or something if you get board. And it's not like you are life supports so I doubt you'll screw up anything vital if you call for an update or I call you."

Tony grinned. "Well done, Callahan."

"Thank you, Sir." She pulled out a laptop and set on the small bed tray. "I also brought this. If the staff here gives you shit about the phone, you can still check in via e-mail. I'll send anything I get to you."

She ran the power cord from the laptop to an outlet. "You can amuse yourself by surfing the internet or reviewing the case notes until I have something to send you. Or if you are feeling particularly ambitious, weed through the ever-growing pile of crap the spam filter catches. I think I liked that best when Mouse was bored and started experimenting with the filters. He tightened them up until everything coming in went into the spam folder."

"When did that happen?"

Miri shrugged. "A couple of days before you started I think. He fixed it a few weeks later. I doubt you would have noticed because you didn't even have a password to log in as you until the powers that be deigned to give you one. Should have just had Mouse set you up but some anal retentive idiot in the cyber division doesn't want to give us too much authority."

Miri rolled her eyes. "Shame they gave Mouse shit about the filter and made him turn it back. I sort of liked having an empty inbox. Was probably a good thing he turned off the auto dump feature. I'm sure some incredibly important interoffice memo would have lost to posterity otherwise. Come to think of it I'm not sure he ever turned that back on."

She laughed quietly. "You might have a ton of spam to sort through. Six months worth at least. That should keep you busy until they come take you way for whatever tests they scheduled."

"I hate you."

"No you don't." She patted his arm. "I'll bring you something good to eat when I come back."

"You're coming back?" Tony blinked. He hadn't expected that.

"Of course, I'll be back. And if I can't make it, it'll be Mouse. Or Caleb." She tossed the collection of empty cups Tony had noticed earlier into the trash. "Don't know how it is in other places, Sir, but here we look out for each other. That includes on and off the job."

Tony smiled. It was such a little thing, but damn it made him feel good to know his new team understood teamwork was more than just getting the job done.

"Watch your back, Miri."

"Will do, Sir."

Chapter 8

Tony's overnight stay in the hospital ended up becoming three.

He wasn't sure who on his team had provided a detailed copy of his medical records, but one of them had definitely made a point of making sure his attending physician was aware Tony had once had the plague. He hadn't even injured his lungs for crying out loud. That shouldn't have even been an issue. Although, he couldn't help feeling just a little pleased that his team was concerned about his health to look out for him, even if he wished they'd gone about it a different way.

And staying a few days was hardly a big deal. It wasn't like he honestly felt up to moving much. He already knew how much getting caught in an explosion hurt, this little memory refresher wasn't something he wanted or needed. But having some good drugs certainly made it easier to take.

Making sure the stitches on his leg held was worth staying in bed rather than risking tearing out too many of them. He didn't want to risk an infection either. A scar was no big deal, but he didn't want to do irreparable damage to himself.

And navigating the stairs to his up to his second floor apartment would have been impossible in the wheel chair the doctor originally thought he should be using. Tony had managed to con the man into letting him use crutches, provided he spent another night at the hospital. It wasn't exactly a fair trade off in Tony's eyes, but he'd take it. At least he didn't have to worry about some heavier than hell cast because the gash on his leg and its thirty plus stitches ruled that out as an option.

What he hadn't expected was for his team to make alternative arrangements for him. When the boiler went out in his apartment building in DC several years ago, no one on his old team would even consider putting him up for a night or two much less for several weeks. Gibbs had reluctantly offered him the use of his couch but the grudging hospitality had Tony making sure he was gone as soon as possible. Even when they started sleeping together, Tony never spent the night, leery of wearing out his welcome.
But his team in Spain hadn't even waited for him to ask for help. Not that he would have, and they likely knew that. Tony never expected them to volunteer to help him.

It wasn't until he was due to be released Tony found out they'd already made plans. He wasn't entirely sure how it was decided, but he was made aware that he'd be staying with Mouse until his leg healed well enough to make navigating the stairs a simple task. Apparently Miri had thought that since Mouse had only one fully functional arm, and Tony only had one solid leg, that staying with each other would be good for both of them. Tony had protested, not wanting to be a burden or cramp Mouse's style. He wasn't going to force himself on anyone.

Miri had just pointed a finger at him and told him to stop being an ass. He needed help, so he was getting it. She ordered him to stay put while she got a wheelchair. Tony might have conned the doctor into letting him use crutches, but he'd still have to use the wheelchair to leave.

Mouse had rolled his eyes, shaking his head at Tony. "Sir, I didn't even have a room to myself until after I mustered out of the Navy. You using the second bedroom in my place won't be a problem. Trust me."

He pointed to the brace he was wearing to support his broken collarbone. "Until my busted wing heals, I'm not going to have much style."

He grinned brightly. "Miri already stocked my fridge with food. I'm not stupid enough to turn down a home cooked meal. There is no way in hell I can eat that much by myself, so if it helps consider it doing me a favor and making sure all the food doesn't go bad."

Mouse leaned in to whisper to Tony, eyeing the hospital room doorway nervously. "The woman is a force of nature, my friend. It is best for both of us if we just go along."

"You afraid of her, Mouse?"

"Like you aren't?" Mouse gave him a pointed look. "It was a token protest you put up, Sir."

There was nothing token about his protest. It was forceful. Manly even. Tony glared at Mouse.

"It was not."

"It was too."

"Was not."

"Was--"

"If you two are done arguing, we can leave." Miri stood in the doorway looking decidedly amused.

Tony scowled and did his best to look pissed off. But the truth was he was relieved they were willing to help him out and felt reassured by the completely normal interactions between them. He'd felt a bit off kilter since he'd taken Miri up on her suggestion to wade through the spam folder.

Even he couldn't play Tetras forever, and by the start of his second day in the hospital, with limited updates on the case, he'd been alert enough to be seriously bored. So he'd started going through the thousands of messages in the spam folder. He figured it would be better than counting the tiles again or staring out the window.

There were at least a dozen messages from Abby. All of them had been sent within the first two weeks of Tony arriving in Spain. Five of them had been sent on the Monday after he'd left.

Tony was somewhat bemused, wondering why Palmer's emails hadn't been lost the same way until he remembered that they'd still been trying to communicate by phone then. They'd given up on using the phone because there had been a delaying issuing a cell phone to Tony. When they did finally get him one it had limited coverage and dropped calls on a regular basis. With the time difference, using the phones at the office just wasn't a good option, and by the time Tony had gotten a cell phone that worked, he and Jimmy had found e-mail simply worked better.

Tony had hesitated to read Abby's emails, wary of what he'd find in them. She'd given up contacting him after just two weeks. He couldn't decide if that was a good sign or bad.

He'd taken a deep breath, trying to fortify himself for what he might find, and opened the oldest message, the one she'd sent first. It proved to be along, rambling and angry rant. She was obviously upset that he'd taken the job in Spain. In her view he was breaking up the team when things were finally going to be back to normal. He was being selfish by leaving, letting down Gibbs and the team by not being there to watch their backs.

Reading that pissed Tony off. So he'd upset her perfect little world and happy little fantasy that everything could just go back to the way things were. What if he hadn't wanted things to go back to normal? And just what the hell qualified as normal? For four months, Tony leading the team was normal. But that obviously wasn't good enough once Gibbs returned.

Lee being dismissed without a word was okay? McGee thinking Tony lacked the intelligence and ability to lead his own team and essentially didn't respect him was supposed to be something he should just forget? Ziva acting all smug about his loss of status and letting him know she thought he should never have been in charge in the first place didn't matter? Gibbs making it clear he had no interest in Tony as anything other than his senior field agent, and even that was questionable. He should have just stayed and gotten over it so the rest of them could be safe and happy? What did it matter that none of them were watching out for him as long as he looked out for them?

Fuck you, Tony had thought viciously. Wanting something for me might be selfish, but I'm not the only one thinking just about themselves sister. He had nearly deleted the rest of her messages without reading them.

Her second message was less biting. She apparently realized that accusing him of breaking up the team and being selfish were maybe not the best way to make her case. She told him she knew he deserved the promotion. He'd earned it, but she didn't understand why he had taken the job when he'd loved being in DC, loved the team. And he did love them, didn't he? Of course he did. They were family. He would have other promotions. There would be other chances. But when they had just gotten Gibbs back was not a good time to break up the team. Surely Tony got that.

She wanted to know why he hadn't told her himself he was leaving. Why hadn't he mentioned the job offer? Why hadn't he said good-bye?

"Because I might not have been able to follow through with it if I had," Tony had murmured to himself.

He had loved living in DC. He'd cared deeply for his teammates. He'd even admit, to himself at least, he might have been in love with Gibbs. But it was better to walk away when it was painfully obvious all his feelings were one-sided. And it was easier to do it without having to face any of them. Hell, it was what Gibbs had done--twice--and to Tony's knowledge Abby had never called him on it. But then, as they'd all reminded him on more than one occasion he wasn't Gibbs. Clearly any transgressions Tony made would not be so easily forgiven.

Her third message was back to biting again. She seemed to think his lack of response meant he was being childish and ignoring her. That he was sulking like a child who had his favorite toy taken away. She obviously knew about McGee and Ziva's reactions to Gibbs return. It wasn't like anyone had been discreet about how glad they were to have Gibbs back, how happy they were to see Tony put in his place. She told him he should grow up and realize they were only teasing. It didn't mean anything. They were family.

Twice she'd mentioned family; as if that term should sway him. But what the hell did he know about family? His mother died when he was eight. He was in boarding school by the time he was ten. And his father had disinherited him when he was twelve. He didn't know how families were supposed to work, but he was fairly certain whatever Abby thought was okay wasn't okay for him. Not any more.

He was once again very tempted to simply delete the remaining messages. But he continued reading them, curious to see what she had to say and why she'd stopped trying to reach him after two weeks. Each successive message had less and less anger, fewer inflammatory remarks and accusations, and took on a more desperate, pleading, sorrowful tone.

Why hadn't he said something? Why hadn't he called her? Why wouldn't he write back? What had she done that made him so angry? Whatever it was, she was sorry, she'd make it up to him. Wouldn't he give her a chance to fix it? She missed him. Things weren't the same without him around.

Her last message she'd written that she would leave it up to him to get in touch whenever he was ready. She was sorry he didn't want to be friends with her any longer. She didn't know what she'd done wrong but hoped he'd forgive her some day. She hoped he was doing okay in Spain and that his new team was looking out for him.

Tony had spent several hours reviewing her messages and trying to decide what to do. Before Gibbs had run off to Mexico, Abby had been a friend. And while her reaction to Gibbs' leaving and subsequent return had hurt Tony, he knew it hadn't been deliberate. Abby might be overly exuberant, high-strung at times, occasionally childish, self-centered and thoughtless, but she wasn't mean or vindictive. Nothing in her actions or comments when he was in DC had been anywhere near as pointed and hurtful as what he'd gotten from McGee or Ziva. And it wasn't anything like the cold silence he'd gotten from Gibbs.

He finally opted to respond to her last missive. He kept it short, telling there her there had been some issue with his email and he hadn't gotten her messages until recently. Letting her know he hadn't ignored her, he'd simply been unaware of her efforts to get in touch. He told her he wasn't angry with her.

And he wasn't, at least not any more. He'd been more hurt than angry, and over the course of the past few months most of that had faded. He'd come to terms with the fact that he was always second best in her eyes, and while he didn't begrudge her choosing Gibbs as the favorite, he was disappointed she couldn't have spared a little something for him when Gibbs had run off to Mexico and after he came back.

He told her he hoped she wasn't angry with him for taking so long to respond, but he understood if she was. He reiterated it was a technological problem. Given that he was only slightly better than Gibbs when it came to most technical things, Tony thought she'd give him the benefit of the doubt.

He told her he hadn't called because it had taken awhile to get a working cell phone. And since he hadn't heard from her in the interim he'd assumed she hadn't wanted to stay in touch. It wasn't exactly a bad assumption; they didn't normally call one another even when he lived in DC.

They hadn't done anything outside of work together in months before he'd left for Spain. Even before that, from the time he first joined NCIS, he and Abby rarely got together during their off hours. It wasn't like they'd ever dated the way she had with McGee. Or shared similar taste in music and went to concerts together. He wasn't into helping build houses for charity, and she wasn't passionate about old movies. Outside of work they had remarkably little in common, something Tony had become more aware of since his arrival in Spain.

Mouse had taught Tony to surf, and he'd in turn introduced the other man to the beauty of old films. Mouse had become almost as much a fan as Tony. Tony had learned to rock climb with Miri, and he'd found out she loved old muscle cars as much as he did. They talked about cars and compared notes, and shared dreams about what they'd like to own. Caleb had a similar taste in music. When he found out Tony could play the piano, he asked Tony to sit in with his jazz group whenever he was in the mood to tickle the ivories.

His new team might not have the full skill set his old team had, but he was already closer to them in six months than he was with most of his old team in four years. The only thing really lacking was having a satisfying sex life. Tony wasn't sure it was a fair trade, but he wasn't really complaining either. Sex with Gibbs might have been incredible, mind blowing amazing, but once Tony realized he meant nothing to the older man, he found himself questioning those encounters. Were they really that good? Was it truly as satisfying as he thought? Was he reading too much into it and deluding himself?

Letting Miri push his wheelchair down the hall, and out of the hospital, Tony decided to stop thinking about shit that shouldn't matter to him now. He had a new life in Spain. He was going to live it.

If Abby wrote back, he'd reply. There was no reason they couldn't forge something new, but he'd let her decide on whether or not they would. If she didn't write back it wasn't a big deal. He'd already gone six months thinking she'd forgotten about him. Or if she spewed forth some vitriol, he could put her back on the spam list. It wasn't like she'd deigned to use the office phone list to find out his cell phone number or contact him at the office in Rota. He could avoid her easily enough.

"You okay, Sir?"

"Yeah, Miri, I'm fine."

"You're quiet."

"Just thinking about the case."

He didn't need to see Mouse and Miri exchange a look over his head to know they'd done it. Some days it sucked to work with people who knew him so well. But at least they knew enough not to press the issue either.

When they got to the car, Tony maneuvered himself into the front seat easily enough. It wasn't like he'd never had to work around a bum leg before. It was a skill he could have done without ever having to learn, but was grateful for it just the same. He was also glad moving was easier now than it had been two days ago. He might not have appreciated the enforced inactivity, but it had definitely helped ease the aches and pains of getting caught in a bomb blast.

Mouse slid into the back seat. He never called shotgun. Tony figured it had something to do with being the youngest in his family and knowing he'd never get the coveted position. Mouse managed to get Tony's crutches in the back seat with him without any trouble.

When Miri buckled into the driver's seat, Tony told her, "We are going to the office."

There had never been any doubt about that, but Tony was making sure his team understood he might have bowed to their concerns regarding his health, but he was still in charge.

"Yes, Sir." Miri nodded. "Maria Martinez should be arriving at two."

The Chief of Police hadn't minded holding her for another day. Miri told Tony he'd evidently taking her suggestions to heart. He had shown her pictures of the victims, and told her all about them. He'd also taken Miri's directive to not let Martinez speak to defend herself and her actions rather literally. He'd evidently gagged her. That was definitely not something they could have gotten away with.

Tony was looking forward to questioning her. He'd already worked it out with Miri and Mouse how they'd run the interrogation. Tony couldn't walk in and take ownership of the room the way Gibbs was wont to do. Limping in on crutches wouldn't present the image of strength and control Tony wanted to project. So he'd already be seated in the room when Miri would escort Martinez in.

Miri would stay in the room with him. He wasn't worried about Martinez being a problem, but he wouldn't be able to put her down easily if she got rowdy. And Miri could easily play 'good cop, bad cop' with him if need be.

Martinez wouldn't be staying in their custody, no matter what she told them. She was going to be charged as a Spanish national by the Spanish authorities. For that reason, Tony agreed to having her police escort watch the interrogation. They could verify that, one, he didn't do anything to endanger their case, and two, he was willing to share whatever information they found.

Tracing how this new explosive made its way from a testing facility in Virginia to Europe was important to more than just NCIS. Tony wanted the local police to know he appreciated their concerns and desire to protect their people. Fighting terrorism wasn't a solo effort. And it obviously wasn't limited to any one religious, ethnic or political affiliation.

Finding out who'd stolen the explosives and stopping whoever sold them were NCIS's primary concern. But making sure there weren't more bombs ready made, waiting to be placed was also high on the list.

The two suspects Tony had killed were part of the founding members, but that didn't mean the group was now without leadership. They hadn't gotten everyone. And getting Martinez to tell them what else she and her merry band of crackpots had planned was something Tony wanted to know.

"You ready for this, Sir?"

Tony smiled, recognizing the inquiry for what it was--a simple statement of concern, not a question of his ability. "I am."

Miri returned his smile. "Nice to have you back, Sir."

"Nice to be back."

Chapter 9

Gibbs had expected to hear some news from Tony and his team within a day.

Not hearing anything for several days made Gibbs antsy. He didn't believe in the adage 'no news was good news'. His gut was telling him something had happened, but he had no idea what.

He was equally certain Shepard suspected the same thing, but he doubted she was in the dark as much as he was. She would have been updated, Gibbs was sure. The Director was kept in the loop about a lot of things. At least Morrow always had been, and it was likely Shepard hadn't changed anything with regards to that. Gibbs wanted to ask her; his stubborn pride kept him from making the first move though. He would not, could not, admit to being worried.

Gibbs' eyes drifted away from the information on the desk in front of him toward the stairs that led up to MTAC. His pride notwithstanding, Gibbs was sorely tempted to go up and demand Shepard tell him whatever she knew. He stayed firmly seated. If she had anything concrete to tell him, she would--eventually.

He'd always watched ZNN, but now he kept an even closer eye on the news. He went so far as to check every international news report, regardless of the reporting affiliation. He figured out how to track the news on line as well. But what was happening in Spain wasn't exactly a hotbed of concern. Most of the reports he'd seen focused on the economy, the war in Iraq, and plans to expand efforts in Afghanistan. If something had happened in Spain, none of the international affiliates had made note of it.

Gibbs sighed silently. He tried to focus on the paper in front of him. It was important, but he simply couldn't concentrate.

He'd put McGee to work looking over the information DiNozzo's team had compiled about the two bombs they'd encountered and the militant group they suspected as being responsible for them as soon as he'd left MTAC three days earlier. He'd also given the younger man a quiet but serious reaming out for not checking the intranet bulletins. As Shepard pointed out to him, news about the two bombs Tony's team had encountered had been posted, alerting the entire agency to the danger posed by the then unidentified explosive.

McGee had the good sense to look embarrassed by his oversight. Computers were his thing. It wasn't something he should have missed. It was exactly the sort of thing DiNozzo routinely updated and would have known to check when he was Gibbs' senior agent. It was one of the reasons Gibbs didn't pay attention to that sort of thing; he'd gotten used to having DiNozzo take care of those details.

McGee knew not to apologize. Letting Gibbs know it wouldn't happen again was better than saying he was sorry. Gibbs knew it wasn't going to happen again, not only because McGee would be diligent going forward, but because he made a point of checking the intranet every morning for updates. He wasn't going to be missing out on anything in the future do to negligence. And he wouldn't make the mistake again of relying on an untried senior agent to know all his responsibilities without direct guidance from him.

Gibbs also instructed the younger man to broaden his search with regard to people who had access to the explosives. He wanted close friends, wives, significant others examined. Someone on the inside had to have been involved. If there was no money trail to them directly then it had be someone they knew, someone they'd shared information with, someone who had second hand access to the material, shipping procedures and delivery dates.

When McGee looked a little shell-shocked by what that directive would entail, Gibbs told him to get Abby to help. It wasn't like they had much physical evidence for her to pick apart. She should have time to help him work whatever magic they did with the computers.

He'd put Ziva and the probie to work trying to find out how and when the explosive had left the country. It had to have been transported to Spain somehow. Even if all they'd found so far was ten pounds of the several hundred that were missing, it was the only solid lead they had.

Tony's team had encountered the first bomb a month ago. That gave them at least an idea of when some of the material had left the country. The new explosive compound was very stable, and assuming whoever had taken it knew that, then they could have shipped it by boat or plane without having to worry about triggering an accidental explosion.

Reviewing flight and shipping manifests was going to take time, and there was no guarantee that anything would stand out as being unusual. Whoever had arranged for the explosives to be taken in the first place had covered their tracks very well. If the persons shipping it overseas had been equally diligent it was unlikely anything would stand out, but it had to be checked just the same.

There were also private planes and boats that could have easily been used to transport it. Gibbs called in several favors to get an idea of just how many there might have been leaving the mid-Atlantic coast in the past three months. The number was staggering. But with no way to narrow it down, every one would have to be checked. Pilots, captains, crewmembers and passengers would all have to be looked into as well.

So far McGee and Abby had located at least half a dozen possible suspects. There were two wives who'd recently filed for divorce and had dual citizenship in France and the United States. There was a former employee whose access code and badge had been revoked but according to the site records it had been used within the last two weeks. And there was a cleaning crew that had more access than they should have.

Ziva and the probie had no luck in narrowing down how the explosives had gotten to Spain. They were crosschecking any shipments against the suspect list to see if they were link in any way.

Ziva was also checking with her contacts overseas to see what, if anything, they knew about the new explosive being available on the black market. Gibbs was annoyed that Mossad hadn't provided any insight. Apparently they weren't the all seeing organization they made themselves out to be. Although, when Gibbs last checked, NSA, the CIA and Homeland Security didn't have anything either.

Gibbs sipped from his ever present coffee cup. He felt someone's eyes on him and looked up. Shepard was standing on the landing above the bullpen. She made a small 'come here' motion before turning and walking away.

Gibbs stood up quickly and headed up the stairs. He ignored the looks he knew were passing back and forth between Ziva, McGee and Dwight or Daryl or David or whatever the hell the probie's name was. If they wanted to know, they should be bold enough to ask.

He wasn't sure what he expected from them when he made it known the one new lead they had was courtesy of DiNozzo. McGee had looked surprised, vaguely guilty and immediately asked how Tony was doing. That's when Gibbs knew for sure McGee hadn't been in touch with Tony. He didn't know why, but clearly McGee had kept his distance.

Ziva had accepted the information without batting an eye and didn't ask a single question about Tony. Gibbs couldn't tell if it was because she didn't care or if she was simply much better at controlling her reactions than McGee. He'd bet his last dollar that she hadn't been in contact with Tony either.

He didn't know about Abby. Gibbs hadn't figured out how to broach the subject with her. And despite having apologized to Ducky, he didn't feel comfortable raising the question with him either.

But with what he'd learned, he had confirmation that what Tony had said about his being out of sight and out of mind was apparently well founded. The only one who'd bothered to stay in touch was Palmer. Gibbs wasn't sure what that said about his team.

Ducky had known Tony for nearly six years. McGee had known him for four. Ziva for two. And none of them had bothered to initiate contact. Were they all waiting for Tony to make the first move? Why would they leave it up to him? Because they always had, Gibbs realized with belated insight.

Tony was the one who initiated conversations, who invaded their space and asked questions, he was the one who checked to make sure they were doing okay. He could be an idiot at times, acting like a clown, but Tony looked out for his teammates. Given the nature of Tony's last conversation with McGee and the fact that he and Ziva might have been romantically involved in some fashion with her apparently putting an end to it, it wasn't hard to believe Tony wouldn't be stepping up to the plate to talk to them first. And clearly they weren't up to the task of bridging the distance, assuming they even wanted to.

Hearing about Tony's team and their involvement, the probie had asked, "Isn't DiNozzo the guy I replaced?"

Gibbs had snapped at him. "You aren't his replacement."

The probie was so damn green he practically glowed. No fucking way was he a replacement for a man who had been Gibbs' senior agent for six years. He would never, ever, consider giving this kid his badge and gun. Hell, at the moment he wouldn't consider giving it to McGee either.

Gibbs jogged up the stairs. He headed for Shepard's office. He nodded to her secretary before walking in without knocking. It wasn't like she wasn't expecting him.

"Jethro," she nodded to him.

"You got something?" Gibbs skipped the niceties.

"The bomb DiNozzo's team was checking out when we spoke to him in MTAC exploded that same day."

"Why the hell am I--"

"Because I didn't have any more information to give you. And until I had something concrete there was no point in mentioning it." She glared at him. "All I knew then was that it happened, nothing more. I was getting sketchy reports until today."

Gibbs took a breath. He really had to get a handle on his knee jerk reactions to her.

"Was anyone hurt?"

Shepard hesitated for a moment before she answered. "There were several casualties, and two fatalities."

"Tony?" He couldn't help asking, his gut clenching painfully.

"He fractured his femur and suffered a laceration severe enough to warrant several stitches, but he's otherwise okay. One of his team came away with a broken collarbone. The other got away without major injury."

Gibbs relaxed slightly. That didn't sound too bad. But he should have known about this when it happened. "Why didn't they call me? I'm DiNozzo's emergency contact."

Shepard frowned. "No, his emergency contact is Miri Callahan, his second in command. She has his authority to act as his medical proxy too."

That bit of information hit Gibbs as almost a physical blow. Tony had changed his medical proxy? Of course he had. Why wouldn't he? Tony had always made it a member of his team. Now that they weren't on the same team any more--Gibbs winced. He hadn't even thought about that. Who had he used when Gibbs was in Mexico?

Shepard sighed, drawing his attention back to her. "The two fatalities were Spanish citizens. A woman and her son."

Gibbs bit back a curse. He hated it when children got hurt. He hated it when their lives were cut short. It wasn't right.

"Two suspects were killed. They have one in custody. She's been questioned and Agent DiNozzo has requested a video conference to bring me up to speed. I thought you might like to sit in."

Gibbs nodded. "When?"

"Just as soon as we get there." She was already headed for the door.

"Jenny?"

She turned to look at him. "Yes?"

"Thank you." She didn't have to keep him informed, or make sure that their conversation was private. It didn't hurt to acknowledge that she'd done him a favor.

She smiled. "You're welcome."

He opened the door for her and then followed her to MTAC. Shepard signaled to one of the techs to make the connection. He nodded and hit a few buttons that Gibbs couldn't even guess were for. Most of the equipment in the room was simply beyond his ability to deal with.

The big screen went from a color test pattern to showing Tony a moment later. Gibbs was quick to note the younger man was sitting down. He looked tired and pale.

"Thought I told you to be careful," Gibbs said, lips curling upward in a little smile so Tony would know he was teasing, not finding fault. He didn't want a repeat of the way their last conversation ended. He was hoping Tony would accept the overture and wasn"t still be pissed at him.

"I was careful." Tony rolled his eyes. "I just zigged when I should have zagged."

"You doing okay, DiNozzo?" Gibbs couldn't keep the concern out of his voice and he wasn't sure why he thought he should. He expected to here the usual 'never better, boss'.

"Might be a little battered, but I'm okay." Tony smiled as he said it. He looked over at someone not on screen, his expression one of fond exasperation. It wasn't a look Gibbs had ever been on the receiving end of, and it bothered him. Who was Tony looking at? What had they done to warrant such tolerant affection?

"My team is taking good care of me, whether I like it or not."

Gibbs didn't think that was intended to be a dig at his old team, but he still felt a sting. Especially now that he knew they hadn't made any more effort to stay in touch than Gibbs had. Tony's anger when they last spoke was at least somewhat justified. No one appreciated being forgotten or ignored, especially not by people who had been as close as Gibbs had always thought his team to be.

"What have you got for me, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked, drawing Tony's attention back to him and the business at hand.

"Martinez and her group bought one hundred and fifty pounds of your missing explosives."

That left over six hundred pounds unaccounted for. Assuming all the records they'd reviewed were accurate that is. And there was no way to know for certain they were. They still hadn't been able to determine how long the thefts had been going on.

"They used ten pounds making the first two bombs. Martinez claims she and the others had no idea how much was necessary to inflict the sort of damage they were hoping for. They made the first two essentially to test the strength of the explosive they'd bought."

Tony shook his head, looking equally bemused and disgusted. "Since both bombs were wired incorrectly, I think she's probably telling the truth about what they knew when it came to bombs."

Tony sighed tiredly. "All hail the internet and its ready supply of information."

He ran a hand through his hair, carelessly rearranging his usually well ordered style. Gibbs was hit with a sudden memory of Tony's hair looking just as wild, but it had been Gibbs' hands that had caused the disarray. He quickly banished the distracting memory and the other images it brought with it. He forced himself to focus on Tony's briefing, and do is best to ignore everything else.

"They used a little less than hundred pounds in the third bomb. Evidently they were upset that the first two hadn't accomplished their objective. So they were going for bigger and better and picked a target they were sure would guarantee a reaction. They thought blowing up a school while classes were in session made for an ideal target."

"A school?" Shepard asked, looking as outraged as Gibbs felt.

"We managed to redirect them." Tony grimaced, green eyes betraying the guilt he obviously felt. "It wasn't exactly ideal, but there wasn't a lot of time to plan for anything better. The goal was to get them the hell away from as many people as possible. Unfortunately, they weren't all that keen on cooperating, and the damn bomb went off while there were still civilians in the area. There were casualties. But most of those were relatively minor injuries."

Tony's posture straightened and swallowed hard. "There were two fatalities."

"Still better than the alternative, DiNozzo," Gibbs told him, catching Tony's gaze and making sure the younger man understood he meant what he was saying. There was no reason for Tony to carry a burden for what he hadn't been able to stop. Had the bomb actually reached the intended destination far more would have died than the two who did.

Tony nodded curtly. Gibbs knew it was really more an acknowledgement of what he said than an agreement with it. Gibbs carried his own misplaced guilt; he knew it wasn't a burden easy to lay down.

"We located the last forty-three pounds. They were right where Martinez said they were. If you would arrange for transport, Director, I'll see to it that it gets back to the US."

"I'll make the arrangements, Tony."

"Thank you, Ma'am."

"What did Martinez tell you about how they got the explosives in the first place?" Gibbs asked.

"Spain for Spaniards bought the explosives and a number of firearms from an arms dealer here in Spain. Emmanuel Sanchez. The Spanish authorities have been trying to pin something on Sanchez for the last five years, but so far they haven't had much luck."

Tony made a meaningless gesture with one hand. Gibbs got the impression the younger man was frustrated by the need to remain seated. Tony wasn't one to sit still for long and he'd always reported to Gibbs while standing, usually while playing with the TV remote or a file in his hands.

"Sanchez doesn't have the resources or ability to have gotten the explosives to Spain directly from the US. His usual means involve smuggling in weapons and drugs across the French boarder. The mountain regions are tough to patrol and some Basque people still aren't all keen on taking orders from outsiders. There are a number of groups actively pushing for self-determination for the Basque people, and independence from Spain. Odds are good that Sanchez is working with them to maintain a steady supply of goods for his black market operation."

France---Gibbs nodded to himself. Two of the people McGee and Abby had on their list of possible suspects had ties to that country. "Do we know anything about his contacts in France?"

"Unfortunately, not much as yet." Tony shrugged one shoulder. "Rumor has it there is only one arms dealer with the connections to not only know about a new explosive not even on the market yet but also have the wherewithal to get his hands on it. He's most likely the person Sanchez has dealt with, and is known by the code name La Grenouille." Tony looked faintly amused. "Not sure why anyone would want to be know as 'The Frog', but then I never claimed to understand the way the French think."

"Are you sure La Grenouille is involved?" Shepard asked sharply.

"No direct link, Ma'am. But from what we've learned so far, he is probably the ultimate source for Sanchez." Tony's eyes narrowed as he studied her. "You know him?"

"I know of him." Shepard's posture stiffened, her jaw tightening in a way that indicated a lot of anger.

There was a story there, Gibbs was sure. He and Tony traded looks. It would be up to Gibbs to figure out what. He nodded minutely, letting Tony know he'd look into it. It felt good to know they were on the same page.

Shepard cleared her throat. "La Grenouille may be French but it's not the only country he operates in. Interpol has been after him for years."

Tony's brow furrowed as he met her gaze. "Any chance they'd play ball with us on this?"

"It is hard to know for sure." Shepard frowned. "I can ask but I doubt they'll be keen on offering assistance unless we can tie La Grenouille directly to something they could use to bring him down."

Tony nodded. "I'll keep working things on my end then."

He looked at Gibbs. "Anything on your end that would help me here?"

"We haven't gotten the full details yet on how the explosives were stolen. We do have a few suspects that have ties to France though. They may give us a better connection to this Grenouille guy."

After what Tony had said, Gibbs had good reason to bring them in for interrogation. "I'll be questioning them later today."

Tony nodded, and muttered something too low for the microphone to catch. But Gibbs could read his lips and expression easily enough. Tony clearly thought asking to be kept in the loop was pointless because Gibbs didn't know the meaning of the word cooperation.

"I'll call you later if I get anything useful," Gibbs said, suddenly determined to prove Tony wrong. He wasn't a 'selfish, information hording prick'.

Telling Tony to keep in touch the last time had pissed him off--and not without reason. Maybe this offer to share information would help fix things, and show Gibbs was at least willing to make an effort.

Tony arched an eyebrow, green eyes measuring Gibbs. "Really?"

There was a time when Tony wouldn't have questioned him about anything. Gibbs squared his shoulders. He wasn't going to show how much that disbelief, no matter minor hurt.

"Really."

Tony smirked. "You voluntarily sharing information on an active case, Gibbs? I don't know. That might well destroy the fabric of the universe."

Gibbs rolled his eyes, enjoying the playful response. "I think we can risk it."

"Well, okay then." Tony grinned. "You have my number?"

"No."

Tony didn't look surprised. "You know, little things like that are posted on the personnel information site for each NCIS office."

Gibbs snorted. "Like I even know where to look for that."

"Right." Tony chuckled. "You and technology, not a good mix."

Tony told him his number. Gibbs repeated it back. He already had it memorized.

"Anything else, Director?"

"Not at this time."

"Very good, Ma'am. I'll send my full report to you once I've got it typed up."

"Thank you."

Tony nodded to Gibbs. "I'll be waiting, Boss."

Gibbs suddenly felt his heart beating a little faster, and found himself breathing easier. Tony called him 'boss'. The term wasn't just his rank or a title the way Tony said it. The younger man always managed to infuse an odd blend of affection and deference into the word.

Gibbs had missed that. Ziva rarely called him anything but Gibbs. McGee and the probie just didn't say it the same way Tony did.

"Take care of yourself, Tony." Gibbs smiled. "Better than you did the last time, you hear? No more zigging when you should zag."

"I'll do my best." Tony tossed off a sloppy salute and ended the call.

Gibbs suddenly found himself with new incentive to get information from their suspects. He wanted to have a reason to talk to Tony. He was looking forward to working with him again, even if remotely.

Gibbs thought he wouldn't miss Tony or think about him any more by now, but six months hadn't lessened the sense of loss he'd tried so hard to deny existed. Not that he was ever going to say anything to Tony. He wasn't going to admit to feeling regret over calling things off between them. He wasn't going to tell Tony that DC and NCIS held a lot less appeal without him around. He wasn't comfortable even admitting that to himself.

All he cared about for the moment was he had a lead on his case, and if he could get the information he needed, he'd have a legitimate reason to call Tony. It was more than he had before. And it was enough to feel like he was no longer standing still.

Chapter 10

The first thing Gibbs did every morning for the past three weeks was check his e-mail.

He still wasn’t proficient with computers but he’d gotten better. Necessity ensuring he could use what he needed. He could use e-mail now and routinely checked the intranet for updates. Both were important to him because they were his primary way of staying in touch with Tony.

His first phone call with Tony had also been his only one. He’d quickly come to realize what Palmer and Tony had already learned--time zone differences and work schedules made it hard to converse in real time. Particularly when the only reason he had to justifying calling was their joint case and they weren’t exactly making the sort of progress that required immediate or constant communication.

Gibbs had never really known how to make small talk, or how to have a meaningful conversation about anything when he wasn’t face to face with someone. And sometimes even when face to face he couldn’t find the right words, preferring to let the other person do most of the talking. But during their one brief call, Tony didn’t seem inclined to discuss anything with him that wasn’t work related.

The call had taken less than ten minutes. It was far too short, but Gibbs hadn’t known how to draw it out. He was at a loss as to how to do more than simply relay information on the case and discuss where they should go next with the investigation.

It bothered him that Tony hadn’t include movie references, hadn’t made any jokes or even asked any personal questions about Gibbs or his former teammates. Gibbs had taken those things for granted when Tony was in DC. During all the years he’d worked for Gibbs, the younger man habitually drifted off topic, referencing movies or anything else that came to mind, needing to be brought back into line with a stern look or a head slap. He got overly curious about every aspect of his teammates activities and lives, expressing amusement and concern in equal measure. He wasted time, procrastinating until the last possible minute with paperwork. He played video games and planned practical jokes. Tony had rarely stayed serious long.

But now--in his e-mails, Tony’s approach was more focused and mature. He didn’t embellish his missives with details unrelated to the case. He didn’t add anything of a personal nature. He didn’t ramble or get side tracked. He didn’t suggest they should speak again or try to arrange a time to do it.

Gibbs found himself hating it. He couldn’t tell if this was a byproduct of Tony suddenly growing up or if it was just something that he was doing to Gibbs now that he wasn’t on his team. There was nothing for Gibbs to use to push things in a direction other than work related topics. There was no obvious opening for him to ask about Tony’s new team or his life in Spain. Gibbs felt like he had no avenue for finding other things to discuss without acting out of character and endangering the limited communication he had with Tony. If he got to pushy, or did something Tony didn’t like, the younger man was fully capable of shutting Gibbs out completely. Nothing case related had to be discussed directly between them when Shepard could easily act as a go between. So no matter how much he wanted to, Gibbs simply couldn’t figure out how to just have a conversation. He had no idea how to connect on a more personal level.

It was new territory for Gibbs. Back when they had a sexual side to their work relationship, he’d never wanted anything more from Tony than for him to be a willing participant and to keep his mouth shut about what they did. And when Tony was working for him, all Gibbs cared about was that he got the job done. It was a bonus that Tony hadn’t been reserved; he threw himself into his job and life in general with joie de vivre so counter to Gibbs more cynical, wary nature. He shared nearly every thought and feeling whether his audience wanted it or not. Back then Gibbs hadn’t wanted it--now that he did, it was no longer being freely offered and he had no idea how to ask for it. Gibbs wasn’t immune to the irony.

The only thing he and Tony had as common ground that made communicating easy now was what Gibbs had mentally dubbed ‘the explosives case’. They were continuing to make progress but at a much slower pace than Gibbs expected or was used to. And for once he wasn’t entirely disappointed by the slow going. It gave him a reason to continue staying in touch with Tony, even if it did happen to be through a stupid computer rather than the phone or face to face.

Interrogating the two suspects McGee and Abby had found with dual citizenship in France and the US, Gibbs had found the one who’d initiated the theft of the explosives beginning nearly a year ago. That was much longer than the six months they had initially suspected. And the thefts then were for even smaller amounts than the later thefts Gibbs and his team had known about.

Mrs. Sonya Danson was a native of France by birth and an American by marriage. She was an angry, bitter woman, and when confronted by Gibbs she had no problem telling him everything he wanted to know. She ranted for more than an hour, slipping between French and English, making Gibbs glad he still remembered most of the French he’d learned and that Ziva was fluent in the language.

Sonya’s husband and soon to be ex, Carl Danson, had been one of the main researchers working on the new explosive. Sonya was decidedly disappointed to find that his work wouldn’t generate the sort of revenue she’d expected when she’d married him. She’d thought his work as a contractor for the US Military meant big money and an easy lifestyle.

She reminded Gibbs of his second ex-wife and he felt a certain amount of empathy for Carl Danson. The man had apparently been blind to her ambition, her desire for wealth and prestige. He probably had no idea how much credit card debt Sonya had run up, or had any inkling of her plans to take him for everything he owned.

She’d started looking for a way to get enough money to indulge in the lifestyle she’d always wanted and felt Carl was denying her. She wanted financial freedom to ditch her husband and start over somewhere new. Preferably with a new husband who would be capable of maintaining the standard of living she sought to achieve.

She knew about the new material, and its value on the black market. She’d even managed to connect with a buyer--ironically by using contacts Carl had with the State Department. She sold the explosives to a Victor Molynuex. Molynuex spoke French, but Sonya was sure he was Canadian. She’d haughtily informed Gibbs that his accent was provincial and for all his money he claimed to possess she thought Molynuex lacked class. He was, in her opinion, just a hired thug, but really, who else could she sell explosives to?

Gibbs had his team researching Molynuex to see what they could come up with on him. Other than his name, a cell phone number and her suspicions about his origins, Sonya didn’t know much about him. He always paid in cash, Euro’s not dollars. She’d wanted funds she could use when she ‘escaped America’ and had horded as much of the money as possible in a safety deposit box under her maiden name. The money, by its very nature, was essentially untraceable via any computer simply because it hadn’t ever been officially logged into the banking system.

McGee had secured a warrant for the deposit box. There was nearly a million dollars in Euros inside. It was a staggering amount of money to find in one place, but not to Sonya. She didn’t get nearly what she believed the material to be worth and she wasn’t happy about having to share the proceeds.

Despite her knowledge of the material and access to a buyer, she didn’t have a way to get her hands on it directly. She had to have help. Her paramour, another member of the research staff at Dahlgren, Michael Blevit, was more than happy to help her out once he knew she had a buyer. He was the same one whose access card and code had been in use for more than a month after he’d been fired. According to Sonya, he was the one who suggested stealing a little at a time. It created a delay she found intolerable, but she couldn’t convince him to actually go for a ‘big score’.

Tracking down Blevit wasn’t difficult. Gibbs found out he’d been dead for nearly three months, a victim of a hit and run. Gibbs couldn’t prove it was murder, because the body had been cremated when no one claimed it. Blevit had no family and evidently had no friends close enough to report him missing.

None of his coworkers have given his absence more than a passing notice because they’d been told he was being reassigned to new project at a facility in California. The facility in California never reported him as missing because they weren’t expecting him to show up until about the time Randall Brown died while transporting the explosives from Dahlgren to the Naval Research Lab and NCIS got involved. Blevit’s personnel record listing him as fired rather than transferred was evidently a clerical error, and that was not brought to light until Gibbs and his team began their investigation.

Given the situation, the only person who would have noticed Blevit missing was Sonya. And she thought he’d skipped town taking the money from the last sale to Molynuex that he’d gone on alone.

Even though there was nothing left of Blevit’s body to examine, both Gibbs and Tony agreed the circumstances were decidedly suspicious. Sonya wasn’t a suspect in Blevit’s death because she had a solid alibi and seemed to be genuinely surprised to find out he was dead.

When he stopped returning her phone calls and there was no one at his home she thought he’d gotten greedy, and had decided to cut her out of the deal. She was livid over it, spewing the sort of angry comments Gibbs hadn’t heard since his third ex-wife stopped calling on their anniversary. She’d been convinced that he’d finally grown balls big enough to actually take more than the minor amount they’d been stealing and had secured a fortune that was rightfully hers.

Molyneux had cut her off about the same time which she assumed was because without Blevit she could no longer supply the explosives. She wasn’t in a position to challenge him, having no way to find him. And she certainly couldn’t accuse him of anything without implicating herself. Having no immediate recourse, she’d continued with her plans to divorce her husband and leave the country with the money she’d already amassed. It was just dumb luck Gibbs and his team had gotten to her before she could.

The most recent thefts had obviously not been done by Sonya. And with Blevit dead, it had to be someone else who’d picked up where he’d left off. Probably the same person who’d run him down with a car, taken his pass and had gotten his access code. At some point whoever it was had to have realized that eventually someone would catch on that Blevit was no longer employed as a researcher and his code would no longer work. It was likely that was when they stepped up the amount being taken, although not by a great deal obviously understanding that too much would be noticed immediately. They clearly knew the time was short and that they couldn’t get away with it forever.

It was small consolation that there weren’t any more thefts, but as Tony pointed out, it was one less thing they had to worry about. Security had been noticeably tightened and better controls were now in place to prevent any more unauthorized removal of material.

Now they were focused on figuring out who’d killed Blevit and what connection Molyneux might have to La Grenouille. So far it had been slow going. If Tony had restricted authority in Spain it was even more limited in France. Interpol was willing to offer their assistance, but only on narrowly defined basis.

Gibbs sighed, sitting down at his desk and turning on his computer. They’d had other cases to handle as well as this one. Several of which came with unwelcomed distractions like US Army Col. Mann. She was pretty enough, and her efforts to flirt with Gibbs had been flattering, but Gibbs hadn’t been interested. He hadn’t been interested in anyone since ending things with Tony. He’d been ignoring that fact with the same diligence he put into ignoring most things he simply hadn’t wanted to deal with.

Gibbs shook his head. That wasn’t important now. What was important was he and Tony were talking--sort of. And they had a reason to keep doing it. So far Shepard hadn’t asked them to declare it a cold case yet. And he suspected that was largely due to the potential La Grenouille was involved.

It was Tony who’d actually found the connection between Shepard and La Grenouille. Gibbs was torn between being annoyed and proud that Tony had beaten him to the punch. Interpol had collected a detailed dossier on Rene Benoit, AKA La Grenouille, that they had shared with Tony. It included information on possible dealings with Jenny Shepard’s father, Col. Jasper Shepard, in the late eighties and early nineties.

Tony had dug into it as much as he could. Nothing had ever been proven, in part because Jasper Shepard died before he could be formally charged with anything. His suicide twelve years ago certainly suggested at least some level of guilt.

Gibbs had raised the subject with Shepard. She’d glared at him, and had done her best to avoid answering him, but Gibbs wasn’t going to be put off. He’d continued pressing for an answer. He wasn’t going to get caught up in some messed up vendetta.

She had ultimately admitted knowing about the charges against her father, and what his suicide implied about his guilt. She wanted to question Benoit, to find out the truth. On one hand, Gibbs felt for her, understanding the need to know if her faith in her father’s integrity was misplaced, if he wasn’t the man she’d always believed him to be. But on the other hand, he seriously doubted she simply wanted to talk to Benoit. She had too much barely controlled rage for him believe that.

Gibbs opened his office e-mail. He couldn’t help smiling when he saw a new message from Tony. It wouldn’t be quite what he wanted to get from him, but it was definitely better than nothing.

He’d found out by accident that Tony and Abby were also communicating via e-mail. He’d overheard her commenting on how pleased she was to hear from him to Palmer. It was evidently something recent. She alluded to some sort of technical glitch, and how relieved she was that Tony didn’t hate her.

Gibbs wasn’t sure why Tony would have reason to hate Abby. Or why Abby thought he did. Gibbs was sorely tempted to ask her what she and Tony talked about, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. The messages Tony send Gibbs were always short, work related and lacked almost all evidence of Tony’s personality. Gibbs wasn’t sure he could take finding out Abby was getting all the things he couldn’t find a way to ask Tony for. It was better not to know.

He read Tony’s e-mail.

Gibbs,

We’ve managed to track down a possible connection between Molynuex and Benoit. But he isn’t French or Canadian. And we might have bigger problems than missing explosives.


Gibbs blinked at that. Bigger problems?

We’ve uncovered an Israeli arms dealer who sells to a number of terrorist groups, and who has worked with both Molynuex and Benoit in the past. I haven’t found anyone who seems to know what his actual name is but his code name is ‘Goliath’.

Gibbs could almost see Tony shaking his head at that name. He was disappointed there wasn’t a movie reference or a joke made about it. An Israeli calling himself 'Goliath’ was just ripe for comments about slingshots.

He’s been known to buy a lot of merchandize from sellers in the US and smuggle them into African countries. Zaire was one of his favorites, although from the sounds of it he won’t be doing business there for a long time. He evidently sold some inferior weapons that were more dangerous to the user than whoever they're pointing them at.

Again Gibbs expected a movie reference. The Lords of War with Nicholas Gage, or maybe Blackhawk Down, some other action film involving warlords and weapons. He shook his head and kept reading.

According to some of the chatter we’ve been hearing, something big is on the market. Something Goliath has been acting as intermediary between the seller and the buyers with deeper pockets than he has. No word on exactly what it is or who is trying to sell it, but La Grenouille is rumored to be on the list of interested buyers.

Gibbs arched his eyebrows. Something big? He’d also heard similar rumors recently. And one of the possible targets on the list was ARES. It was a cruise missile guidance system and would be very valuable on the open market.

Goliath is supposed to be flying to the US sometime in the next three weeks. I’ve attached a photo of the man Interpol suspects is him. At the moment, he’s on vacation here in Spain.

In his head, Gibbs clearly heard Tony saying, ‘I didn’t know arms dealers took vacations, but I suppose everyone needs a little R & R now and again. Where better to do it than the beach with pretty women and bikinis? A little sun, some sand, and hey, all the comforts money can buy. What’s not to like?’

Given his connection to Israel, I’m thinking Officer David might have a better chance of finding out for certain if the guy I’ve got my team following is really Goliath, and what exactly he’s acting as a broker for. If the guy isn’t on Mossad’s watch list someone there isn’t doing their job.

Gibbs smirked at that. He wouldn’t be at all surprised Mossad knew about ‘Goliath’, but they probably weren’t going to share anything they knew with someone outside their organization. Tony was right to suggest Ziva ask the questions. Of course, they might not tell her the truth either. She’d been assigned to duty in the US long enough that someone in Mossad might consider her an outsider. Especially if they had any plans to do anything about Goliath themselves.

So far it seems the only information I have on your missing explosives is that no one else here in Spain seems to have any. This is a good thing for me, but clearly not good for someone else. My team will continue looking and I’ll keep you posted on what we find.

They hadn’t found any sign of the missing explosives either. Finding Molyneux would be there best bet to securing the rest of the stolen ordinance.

Gibbs smiled when he read the last line of Tony’s message.

I’m sure we’ll figure it out, Boss. Watch your back.

Whenever Tony referred to him as ‘Boss’ Gibbs couldn’t help but smile. That he used ‘we’ also made Gibbs feel better. They were working together on this. And it felt good.

Gibbs reread the message, making sure he hadn’t missed anything. He nodded to himself. If 'Goliath' was coming to the US sometime in the next few weeks, and Tony’s team was following him, then maybe, just maybe, their collaborative effort could be done with a lot less distance between them.

That would be good, Gibbs decided. Maybe. If he didn’t fuck up and put his foot in his mouth all the way to his knee. If whatever happened to make Abby think Tony hated her wasn’t still an issue. If the rift between McGee, Ziva and Tony wasn’t something they couldn’t bridge.

I need more coffee, Gibbs thought. It wouldn’t lessen the stress, but it was a comforting ritual.

“One thing at a time, Marine,” Gibbs whispered to himself. “One thing at a time.”

Chapter 11

Gibbs eyed the arrival board and resisted the urge to sigh.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He refused to pace or fidget. Gibbs held himself still and waited with all the considerable patience he’d learned over the years. He ignored the bustling people moving around him, the PA system making the same announcement over and over, and the noise coming from the baggage claim carousels. His eyes scanned the crowd repeatedly even though he knew the person he was looking for couldn’t possibly have gotten off the plane yet.

Ziva’s Mossad contacts had confirmed the man Tony and his team had been following was the infamous Goliath. His real name was still unknown, but they suspected he’d been baptized Jakob Werlitz. If he really was Werlitz, he’d been born and raised in Israel. He’d had some military training, at least the two years the law required of all Israeli citizens, and had gotten a few years of higher education in England.

Mossad had been very interested in his whereabouts, but Gibbs had instructed Ziva not to tell them where the picture had come from or any information they had on his whereabouts. With so many unknowns on the table the last thing Gibbs wanted was for Mossad to bully their way in until he knew more about what Goliath might be acting as a broker for and who the seller was.

Other than La Grenouille, they knew of one other possible buyer. A woman from Ireland who went by the code-name ‘Black Rose’. Gibbs could almost hear Tony snickering over the abundance of ridiculous aliases. Gibbs fought down a smile thinking it was all very James Bond and that Tony was probably as amused by the whole thing as Gibbs was.

A little over a week after he’d gotten Tony’s e-mail regarding Goliath, the man in question had headed for the United States. It was sooner than anyone had expected, but it still felt like a long time to Gibbs. Knowing Tony and his team were following the man and would be arriving on the same flight made for an interminable delay.

Gibbs eyed the arrivals display again. Tony’s plane had touched down just a few minutes ago. McGee was already in position at the rental car company where Goliath had booked a rental under the name Daniel Kenton, the same name he was flying under. Ziva and the Probie were in a car ready to continue tailing Goliath once he picked up his rental.

If anyone on his team thought it odd that Gibbs wasn’t the one in the car tailing their suspect, they didn’t comment on it. Gibbs thought McGee looked more than a little relieved that he wasn’t the one pick up Tony and his team. Ziva didn’t seem to care one way or another, other than to be annoyed at being saddled with their Probie. She didn’t dislike him, but she clearly wasn’t fond of him either. Gibbs wasn’t fond of him either, but so far the guy was showing more staying power than he’d expected. One of these days, Gibbs would have to actually learn the man’s name and try to call him by it.

A new wave of people coming through the baggage claim area made Gibbs sharpen his focus. He keyed his mic when he spotted Goliath among them. He turned his head slightly, raising his phone to make it look like he was simply making a call.

“Heads up, McGee. Target is in the baggage claim area.”

Goliath looked like a businessman. His suit was a bit rumpled from the long flight, tie slack and his dark hair a bit messy. He looked tired, like everyone else who’d been on the plane. He was moving with purpose though, clearly no stranger to dealing with crowded airports. He also wasn’t waiting around to collect any luggage. Evidently everything he needed was in the carry on bag he was towing behind him and the laptop case he had slung over one shoulder. He likely wasn’t planning to stay long then. Although, he could have things stored in the area or have sufficient funds he planned to buy anything else he needed. The ticket he had booked was open ended, and didn’t give any sort of definitive return date.

“Target should be in your area in ten minutes, McGee.”

“Roger that, Boss.”

Gibbs discreetly watched Goliath as the man passed him on his way to the rental car counter. He seemed oblivious to the surveillance. That was good. They didn’t want to spook him or tip him off.

He also looked like he was alone. But Gibbs wasn’t going to assume that was the case. It was entirely possible Goliath had someone on the plane to watch his back. They didn’t have enough intel on the man to know exactly how big his operation was or how many people he typically kept around him. The fact that he traveled on a commercial flight was unusual enough. They’d been expecting a private plane. Gibbs wasn’t taking anything on face value when it came to this guy.

Gibbs started looking for Tony. He was on the same flight as Goliath. Not seeing Tony, Gibbs started looking for his team. He’d seen pictures of Tony’s team, even saw his second in command once briefly on the MTAC screen. It should be enough for him to recognize them.

He spotted Tony. Gibbs felt his breath catch for a moment. Damn, but Tony looked good.

He was wearing jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, looking like someone coming home from a good, long vacation. His tanned skin made his green eyes seem more vibrant. His hair sported blonde highlights and was tussled. He didn’t look as tired as Goliath had. Tony was smiling, looking relaxed and happy.

Tony was walking with a beautiful blonde woman. She moved closer to him, wrapping an arm around Tony’s waist when a family of four crowded around them. For just a moment Gibbs felt an irrational surge of anger. No wonder Tony was so relaxed and happy. Naturally, he would have found some woman ready and willing to hang all over him. Some bimbo who would no doubt have fallen for his good looks and charm, and probably gave him a blow job in the airplane bathroom. Then he realized the woman Tony was with was his second in command, Miri Callahan.

He also belatedly realized Tony was using a cane. Shit. He’d forgotten that five weeks ago Tony had fractured his femur. Miri had probably seen Tony stumble or thought he needed a little more support with the careless, crush of people around them.

Gibbs started walking toward them. The plan was for him to simply act as someone who’d shown up to give them a ride, a friend or family member willing to pick them up the way hundreds of people did every day. It bothered Gibbs that Tony had initially rejected the idea. He’d seemed to think Gibbs would have preferred to leave Tony and his team to make there own way to the Naval Yard while he and his team tailed Goliath.

“You sure you want to pretend to be friends?” Tony had asked when they’d used MTAC to make arrangements. The connection readily conveying the neutral expression and tone of voice that Gibbs wasn’t sure how to read.

“Won’t be pretending,” Gibbs had told him.

Tony had arched an eyebrow, lips curling into a smirk. “Rumor had it you don’t have any friends.”

Gibbs had rolled his eyes. “I have friends.”

“Hunh. I must have missed that.” Tony chuckled, shaking his head. “See you soon, Gibbs.”

He’d cut the connection before Gibbs could respond. And really, what the hell was he supposed to say to that? It wasn’t like he’d ever introduced Tony to any of his friends or even been a friend to Tony. Nothing in their relationship, at the office or out of it, would have conveyed any meaningful connection. And Gibbs had finally realized, due in large part to Ducky’s pointed comments, how little respect or appreciation he’d shown Tony in the years he’d worked for Gibbs.

Gibbs shook his head. That didn’t matter at the moment. He could hear McGee in his earwig letting him know Goliath had gotten his paperwork and keys to his car. The man hadn’t met up with anyone as yet, but McGee was keeping his eyes out, just in case. Gibbs could hear Ziva acknowledging the information and signaling her readiness.

Gibbs got closer to Tony. He smiled when Tony spotted him and smiled back. Gibbs couldn’t tell if the smile was genuine or not. He resented his lack of certainty and hated the fact that Tony thought his being here at all was nothing more than a show for other people who might be watching.

“Hey, Jethro,” Tony greeted him. It struck Gibbs as odd that this was first time he’d heard Tony use anything other than his surname or ‘boss’. But then, how else should he greet a friend?

Before Gibbs could puzzle out his feelings on the matter, Tony pulled him into a brief hug. Gibbs couldn’t help making the contrast between this hug and the one Tony had given him when he thought Gibbs had been killed. That one had been full of desperation, relief and joy, this one was almost perfunctory. Gibbs hadn’t known what to do with the first one and failed to return anything of it; this one he wanted to extend, to share some of his happiness at seeing Tony in person again after so many months, but Tony was stepping away almost before he could even acknowledge the contact.

Miri gave him a quick hug as well and a kiss on the cheek. She smiled, blue eyes dancing playfully as she winked at him. “I know, a bit forward given this is the first time we’ve met, but you do what you have to and all that.”

Her voice was low, not carrying beyond the three of them. She patted Tony on the arm. “You stay, and guard the carry on. I’ll grab the bags.”

“I’m capable of--“

“I know you are.” Miri smiled brightly at him, and then leaned into kiss Tony on the cheek too. She patted his ass with a familiarity Gibbs found annoying. “But you aren’t going to.”

She walked toward the baggage carousel, not giving Tony a chance to argue. Gibbs was glad she was no longer in arms reach of Tony. And he appreciated having a little time alone with Tony.

“How’s the leg?” Gibbs finally asked, not wanting the silence that descended between him and Tony to become uncomfortable or awkward. It was another indication of how things hand changed between them. Silence had never been an issue before, and normally it was Tony who broke it, not Gibbs.

“My leg is fine.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Don’t let Miri acting like a mother hen worry you.”

Gibbs frowned, nodding to the cane Tony was leaning on. “You sure?”

“That Miri is acting like a mother hen, yeah, I’m sure.”

Gibbs glared at him. “DiNozzo.”

“Nothing you need to worry about, Gibbs.” Tony smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m full capable of doing my job.”

Gibbs stifled a wince. It wasn’t about the job, damn it. Okay, so maybe he hadn’t shown all that much concern for Tony’s well being in the past as long as it wasn’t affecting his ability to do the job, but he wasn’t completely callous.

“Tony--“

“Everyone else in position?” Tony asked, cutting off anything Gibbs. Clearly the subject was closed. And getting into some sort of argument wouldn’t do much for the cover they planned to establish for this rendezvous.

Gibbs nodded, answering Tony’s question and letting the moment pass. He glanced around, scanning the crowd. “I haven’t seen Rivera.”

“That’s because he’s still in Spain.”

Gibbs frowned. “I thought your whole team was coming.”

“I had to leave someone in Rota to mind the store and deal with anything that might come up.” Tony smiled wryly, shrugging one shoulder. “Rota’s not like DC, Gibbs. There aren’t half a dozen teams waiting in the wings to take over.”

Gibbs smirked. “It’s not as busy there.”

“People are less apt to kill each other.” Tony grinned. “I’m thinking all the sun might have something to do with.”

“I thought it was warm water and pretty people,” Miri said, appearing next to Tony with a duffle bag slung over one shoulder. She offered another one to Gibbs. “Be a mensch, will you and carry that?”

Her pointed look made it hard for him to refuse. They might still have an audience, so it wasn’t an option to tell her he didn’t shlep other people’s luggage. Gibbs took the bag, surprised to find it rather light.

“I kept the heavy one.” She smiled innocently at him. “Wouldn’t want you to put yourself out too far.”

Tony gave her an amused glance. “Now why doesn’t that apply to me?”

“Because you don’t mind putting out.”

Tony laughed. “That’s a nasty rumor spread by people who know me.”

Their byplay made Gibbs’ clench his jaw. He found himself wondering if Tony had slept with his second. It would be a violation of Rule 12. But Rule 12 wasn’t Tony’s rule, it was Gibbs’. It’s not like it hadn’t already been violated. And if Tony and Ziva had been involved while Gibbs was in Mexico, then he was no stranger to sleeping with a subordinate on his team. That wasn’t something Gibbs wanted to think about.

“You two done playing grab ass?” Gibbs asked, his tone sharp. “We have a job to do.”

Tony’s expression morphed into a bland mask. “We know.”

Miri arched an eyebrow; eyes assessing him with a frankness that made Gibbs suddenly feel as though everything he was thinking was suddenly exposed to her gaze. It strangely reminded him of looks his mother used to give him whenever he’d said or done something to displease her. He didn’t like it.

“Just waiting on you, Special Agent Gibbs.” Miri’s voice was cool, lacking the warmth and playfulness that had been evident only a moment ago. “If you’d care to lead the way to the car we can get this show on the road.”

How the hell am I the one in the wrong, Gibbs asked himself. He wasn’t the one goofing off on the job. He wasn’t the one sleeping with his subordinate. Well he had, but he wasn’t doing it now. And he hadn’t even said anything that out of line. Not really. They had a job to do, damn it. That should be the focus.

Gibbs started to walk away, anger adding speed to his usual quick pace. He forced himself to slow down when he realized Tony and Miri were several steps behind. Tony wasn’t just sporting the cane for show; he obviously needed the assistance. His limping gait was nothing like the long-limbed easy stride Gibbs remembered.

Feeling like an ass for having forgotten so quickly Tony wasn’t 100%, but unwilling to admit it, Gibbs waited until Tony was walking next to him. He made eye contact with Tony. He tried to make amends without actually apologizing.

“You sure you’re okay?” He made sure his concern showed in his voice.

“I’m fine.” Tony waved a hand, dismissing his concern even as his more open expression indicated no anger or hostility. “Just a little stiff from the flight, Boss. It will loosen up once I move around a bit more.”

Gibbs looked at Miri. She had made sure Tony hadn’t carried anything, and had physically supported him earlier. If Tony was lying, she’d know. She stared blandly back at him, giving him nothing, not refuting Tony’s claim. She was backing Tony without saying a word.

Tony might have accepted his olive branch offering, but she clearly hadn’t. Blue eyes regarded him steadily, measuring him. He had no trouble reading the distrust and dislike in her expression. She wasn’t making any effort to hide it. Ordinarily that wouldn’t have bothered Gibbs, and he wasn’t sure why it bothered him now.

Gibbs sighed silently. There was no point in getting into a pissing contest. As long as her feelings didn’t get in the way of the case, it wasn’t a problem. Gibbs opted to let it go and continue on to the car. He expected Tony to call ‘shotgun’ like he often had in the past, beating out McGee and Ziva to the choice seat. But Miri ceded the front seat without Tony having to say a word. His estimation of Tony’s training his team went up a notch. He’d obviously trained her to accept the back seat.

Gibbs pulled out with his usual speed. He was half-heartedly hoping Miri would have an issue with his driving, childishly wanting to make her puke, but she settled in the back seat with no sign of worry or discomfort. She seemed fascinated with the view outside the window.

“Sir?”

Gibbs was ready to snap at her, thinking she was talking to him, when Tony answered. “Yeah?”

“If we get this wrapped up in good time, could we delay going back to Spain for a day or two?

“Why?”

“I’ve never been to DC. I want to see the sights.”

Tony looked over his shoulder, smiling at her. “You planning on making Mouse jealous?”

Gibbs frowned. Mouse? Who or what was Mouse?

“Naturally.” She laughed. “He’s never been here either.”

“Sure, if we get this wrapped up in good time, another day or two should be doable.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“You’re welcome, Miri.”

Gibbs wondered if Tony planned on being the one to show her the sights. His grip on the steering wheel tightened. It wasn’t any of his business. It shouldn’t matter to him. It didn’t matter to him that Tony was already making plans to spend time in DC that didn’t include Gibbs or his old teammates. It didn’t matter to him that the only reason Tony was even in DC was work related. It was fine. It wasn’t an issue.

“I’ve got a plan for speeding up the time table and making Goliath talk, ” Tony said casually. “If you’re interested.”

Gibbs glanced at him. They had no idea how long Goliath was planning on being in DC, who he was meeting or when. Speeding things along, and getting the details, was definitely something Gibbs was interested in.

“You have a plan?”

“He’s not going to be afraid of NCIS.” Tony’s smile was feral. “We don’t have anything on him to force him to cooperate. At least not directly. But he’s made a few enemies that we might just be able to threaten him with. People who would scare him enough to telling us what we want to know.”

“You got them on speed dial, DiNozzo?” Gibbs asked dryly.

“No.” Tony waggled his eyebrows. “But Goliath doesn’t know that.”

Gibbs nodded. This was the sort of out of box thinking neither McGee nor Ziva excelled at. Threatening Goliath with people he was afraid of, people who could do real damage was a good idea.

“You have a way to convince him we’re going to turn him over to his enemies?” If Goliath was as tough a nut to crack as Tony thought, the man wouldn’t believe they’d turn him over to his enemies while he was sitting in an American jail cell or an NCIS interrogation room.

Tony nodded. “Miri and I worked it out on the plane.”

“And?”

Tony grinned. “How do you feel about kidnapping?”

Gibbs blinked. “Kidnapping?”

Tony waggled his eyebrows. “Trust me, Boss, this will work.”

It was on the tip of Gibbs’ tongue to say he trusted Tony, that he always had, but he couldn’t bring himself to actually say it. He settled for simply nodding. If Tony’s plan was sound, they’d go with it.

And maybe he’d get a chance to continue repairing his relationship with Tony while they were at it.

Avoidance

In the months he’d worked with Miri, Tony never had reason to doubt she would back him up.

But when they’d met Gibbs in Dulles, he hadn’t been completely sure she would have his six. He’d seen far too many people crumble under the weight of Gibbs’ forceful personality, harsh glare and sharp tone. He should have known better. Miri was no shrinking violet, and she’d done him proud.

Despite his best efforts to hide it, Miri, Mouse and Caleb had all caught on fairly quickly that Tony was nervous about going back to DC. His old insecurities and doubts kept rearing up to haunt him. He wanted to tell his team, explain it to them, but he couldn’t seem to find the words.

To their credit, they hadn’t grilled him for information. They’d simply accepted his odd behavior and uncharacteristic reticence without comment. It wasn’t until he and Miri were on the plane that Tony managed to screw up his courage to tell her why he wasn’t entirely thrilled to be going back to DC and working with his old team.

He didn’t mention his sexual relationship with Gibbs, but other than that there wasn’t much he left out. He told her about Gibbs leaving abruptly and Tony filling in as team leader. He told her about Gibbs’ sudden return and how he’d never really been promoted. He was really just a stand in, a temporary place holder, someone good enough for a short time. His former teammates were people he’d thought of as friends, almost family, until they’d made it painfully clear they didn’t really want or need him. They had little faith in him, his skill and abilities. He mentioned how McGee had even gone so far as to tell him directly he didn’t think Tony was good enough to have his own team.

Tony had sighed deeply, ashamed of himself for not being completely honest with his team. “I probably should have told you this before.”

“Why?” Miri asked, her head cocked to one side as she looked at him. “I told you we’d read your file. Not like we weren’t aware that you being team leader in Rota was a promotion.”

“Yeah, but—“

“But nothing.” She had lightly bumped his shoulder with hers. “I don’t give a shit what some pencil dicks in DC thought or said. You are fully qualified to be our team leader. You have the knowledge, the experience and the ability.”

She’d made eye contact, forthright blue eyes holding him in place. “Or was it some clone of you who’s been working with us for damn near eight months?”

“Miri, you guys could have had better.”

They should have had better. If Shepard hadn’t felt like she owed him something, felt guilty for lying to him about not actually filing Gibbs’ retirement paperwork, or maybe she just felt sorry for him. It didn’t matter why she’d offered him the job, she had and he’d accepted. But he knew she should have picked someone else. He’d done okay, but he wasn’t the best. And now, Miri was going to meet his old team, and know just how inadequate Tony really was. She’d compare him to Gibbs and Tony would be found wanting the way he always had been. She’d understand, and explain it to Mouse and Caleb. They’d be pissed about his lying to them. They’d reject him and Tony would have to consider moving again. He cared about them too much to leave them without a leader they could trust and respect, someone qualified to lead them, look out for them, take care of them.

“Bullshit.” Miri had declared, dismissing his statement, and brusquely cutting off his negative thoughts. “That is grade A bullshit.”

Tony stared at her. That was not at all what he’d expected. “Miri—“

“You gave Mouse something to play with when he couldn’t still for another second. You never stared at Caleb like he was a freak for having his hair a color only found in nature on tropical birds. And you don’t care that I prefer women to men.”

Miri had smiled warmly at him. “You didn’t just tolerate our quirks, you accepted them, Sir. You suit us, and I think we suit you. It doesn’t hurt that you are damn good at your job. And you are an excellent investigator and one hell of a team leader. Don’t tell me we could have had someone better. We got the pick of the litter.”

Tony stared at her. “You can’t possibly---“

She gave him a look that stopped him cold. “I do not lie.”

Tony had nodded slowly. “I know.”

“Then take my word for it. I don’t care of your old supervisor could turn water into wine, and your old team walked on water. They are fucking idiots. And their loss was our gain.”

Tony had leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She took his hand in hers, interlacing their fingers. “Now pretend to be a good husband and let me use your shoulder for a pillow.”

Tony had laughed. “Like I could stop you.”

Technically, only one of them had to be on the plane to follow Goliath and confirm he was actually going to DC. Tony could have sent Miri or Mouse. But after trading a few e-mails with Abby, and a few with Gibbs, and even one or two with Ducky, Tony found himself wanting a chance to see them. He was also leery of actually being so close to them again, and the ambiguous feelings hadn’t helped settle his nerves any.

His emails to Abby were mostly fluff. He kept it lighthearted, feeling out how serious she was about trying to reform their friendship. He told her a bit about Spain. He told her a little bit about their cases. But he didn’t say much about his life or his team. He asked about her bowling team, and if she’d been to any good concerts. He never asked about McGee or Ziva. Or acknowledged any details about them Abby elected to share about them.

After he’d found about the firewall snafu, Tony had considered sending another e-mail to McGee and Ziva, but he’d decided against it. It wasn’t like either one of them had made any effort. Abby had sent repeated e-mails---albeit not all of them were exactly what Tony wanted to read, but she at least kept trying. Her efforts were there for him to find. There was nothing from Ziva or McGee.

He’d sent an email to Ducky realizing the older man had probably interpreted Tony’s lack of communication as rejection and his ingrained manners would have kept him from reaching out when contact seemed so unwelcomed. The ME had been obviously delighted to hear from Tony; his initial response was lengthy, well thought out and pleasant. He didn’t comment on the months of silence or the fact that Tony hadn’t said good-bye. Ducky had simply accepted Tony’s apology for not contacting him sooner and said in hindsight he better understood Tony’s need for new environs. Tony took that to mean he’d been forgiven and found it easy to forgive Ducky in return, especially when the older man apologized for not being as supportive of Tony as he could have been

Ducky had written ‘You would think someone of my advance years would have more wisdom and understanding, but occasionally, I too, am as short-sighted and foolish as a child. It does me no credit to admit I forgot I was not alone in feeling hurt and abandoned. It was selfish of me, and I shall endeavor to do better in the future’.

Although his communication with Abby and Ducky was still a bit stilted, they were making some progress toward reconnecting. The same could not be said for emails Tony got from Gibbs.

He’d been amazed to get any sort of response at all given how technologically illiterate Gibbs was. He wanted to read more into it---to see Gibbs making an effort as him actually caring about Tony. But his e-mails were always about the case. No personal details given or requested. Tony took that to mean Gibbs wasn’t interested in talking about anything not work related and responded accordingly. Gibbs using e-mail had nothing to do with Tony. It was just the Marine finally joining the modern age and the logistics of long distance communication.

Tony refused to act like a jilted lover or behave like some lovesick teenager. It was bad enough his temper had momentarily gotten the better of him during the first MTAC session. If Gibbs wanted to continue pretending nothing happened between them and nothing ever would again, Tony would do his best to be okay with that. It wasn’t like he hadn’t known that’s how Gibbs wanted it. Hell, it was the main reason Tony had taken the job in Rota.

In his e-mails, Tony offered no personal details. Never mentioned anything unrelated to the case---no movies, no theories, no jokes or inappropriate comments. He made sure there were none of the things Gibbs had considered ‘pointless’. He kept it strictly professional, and tried not to let it hurt that Gibbs couldn’t be bothered to ask if he was doing okay in Rota, if he was happy, if his team were good people.

Tony was glad Miri had insisted he bring his cane along, ignoring his protests. Even when perfectly healthy long flights left Tony feeling stiff and sore. It would be another week or two before his leg was 100% and he knew he’d need some assistance to get going and keep moving after being seated for so long. He hated showing any weakness in front of Gibbs, but being stupid and injuring himself wasn’t a viable option either. For one thing, Miri would kick his ass. And for another, he told himself he no longer cared what Gibbs thought of him. Hurting himself to prove something to someone who likely wouldn’t give a shit one way or another was idiotic.

Outlining the plan he and Miri had devised for finding out who Goliath was brokering for and what the guy was trying to sell Tony made sure to keep on task. He didn’t admit to being inspired by a movie plot line or mention any actors. He kept his voice even, keeping any inflection to a minimum, making sure to not seem like he was cajoling, whining or making light of the case in any way. He made sure he’d addressed every contingency, showcasing the level of thought and consideration he and Miri had put into it.

It reminded him a lot of reporting on his grades and school performance to his father. He hadn’t liked it then either, knowing nothing he said regardless of how it was said would ever be good enough for his father. He’d always come up short, be found wanting in some way that inevitably warranted getting smacked around. It was one of the reasons he’d taking to acting out in the first place. If he was going to get hit, he might as well deserve it.

And while Gibbs had never hit him as punishment the way his father had, Tony knew better than to play up being a jokester when he wanted Gibbs to take him seriously. So he stayed the course, and presented what he knew to be a good plan in a logical, straightforward fashion.

It was a good plan, one he was certain would work, if they got the chance to actually execute it. He didn’t want Gibbs to blow him off because he made the mistake of acting like he didn’t take this seriously. He didn’t want Gibbs to think he was too much of a mindless, frat boy to have a good idea or think through all the details. Enough people already thought of him like that.

When he finished, Tony fell silent. At one time, Tony would have continued talking, joking or badgering him until Gibbs gave him some sort of response; usually a head slap, or occasionally the rare ‘good job’. But Tony was tired, his leg hurt and he wasn’t interested in fighting for something that he would ultimately have little part in.

With a bum leg he wasn’t going to be part of the team sent to grab Goliath. And he doubted Gibbs would be willing to let him tag along on the plane while they circled DC and bluffed Goliath into thinking he was going to be flown to Africa to face an irate dictator who was decidedly unhappy with the last shipment of weapons he’d purchased. Gibbs wasn’t exactly known for sharing, and even though Tony was an NCIS agent, he wasn’t on Gibbs’ team and that made him an outsider. Outsiders didn’t get a place at Gibbs’ table, unless they happened to be Fornell.

His responsibility with regard to Goliath technically ended once Gibbs’ team took over tailing the man. The connection Goliath had to the missing explosives found in Spain was tenuous at best. He was a possible means to La Grenouille, but again, there was nothing concrete linking Rene Benoit to anything.

Tony wanted to see it all play out. He wanted to uncover the links and finally put together the puzzle, but he wasn’t willing to go toe to toe with Gibbs to do it. It wasn’t cowardice. He just couldn’t see the point of engaging in a fight he wasn’t going to win. He’d never come out on top when it came to Gibbs.

If Gibbs had a better idea than Tony’s, he’d go with it. Hell, he probably already had Ziva and McGee working on something. The wonder twins were certainly smart enough and capable. They no doubt found Tony being involved completely unnecessary.

Tony watched the familiar scenery pass by in a blur. Gibbs’ driving hadn’t improved any in the time Tony had been away. Nothing else seemed to have changed much except for the seasons; it was late spring now and it had been nearly autumn when he’d left.

Tony sighed silently. Gibbs hadn’t said much to him while he was outlining this plan. Not that he expected him to suddenly develop diarrhea of the mouth, but he’d hoped for a bit more from the older man than a few grunts.

Tony shook his head. He was being stupid. Hugging Gibbs had been an impulse, a desire to take advantage of the situation, and he realized almost immediately it had been a mistake. He knew Gibbs wouldn’t welcome the contact or return the gesture so he’d been quick to cut it short. It just made him hope for things not meant to be, to miss things he’d never truly had.

Miri reached over the seat and put a hand on his shoulder. She squeezed once. Tony smiled. He wasn’t surprised she knew he could do with a little reassurance.

He caught Gibbs giving them a look. Tony wasn’t sure what to make of the older man’s expression. Why would he care if Miri touched him? It wasn’t like they were goofing off, or slowing down the pace of getting the job done. Hell, they’d covered all the details related to the case before he and Miri left Spain. And Tony had already outlined their plan. It wasn’t like there was much they could do now until they got to the Navy Yard.

“You think we can get something to eat soon?” Miri asked, breaking the silence.

“The delicious meal we had on the plane didn’t satisfy you?”

“Delicious?” Miri huffed. “The cardboard container would have tasted better.”

Tony chuckled. “You’ve eaten cardboard?’

“No, but Mouse has.”

Tony looked over his shoulder at her. “I’m guessing kindergarten?”

Miri grinned. “Yep.”

“Hunh. I figured him for a paste man.”

Miri snickered. “I think that was more Caleb’s thing.”

Tony clucked his tongue. “There’s always one in every class.”

The little bit of banter between them did as much to settle Tony’s nerves and improve his mood as Miri’s hand on his shoulder had. He’d give her a raise if it were possible. As it was, he could at least get her something decent to eat. Assessment of the meal they’d gotten on the plane was accurate. Now that his nerves had settled a bit, Tony was aware of his own hunger.

“You okay with pizza?” Tony asked. “There’s a great place not far from the Navy Yard that delivers. I used to order from them a lot.”

“Sounds good. As long as it’s better than the one we got for movie night last week. That sucked. And for the record, Caleb and I agree, Mouse is never allowed to pick the restaurant ever again. He has all the standards of a starving billy goat when it comes to food.”

Tony had to agree. Mouse could and would eat almost anything. He wasn’t picky. As long as whatever it was hadn’t gone rancid, he’d take it.

Tony pulled out his phone. He frowned. He’d forgotten the number of the place he used to call to get pizza delivered to the yard. It had been programmed into his old phone.

He looked up when another phone appeared in his peripheral vision. Gibbs was holding his out. Tony frowned, not understanding why Gibbs would offer it. The last time he’d touched Gibbs’ phone, several years ago answering a call when Gibbs wasn’t around, the older man hand threatened to break his fingers if he ever did it again.

“Mario’s is number five on the speed dial.”

Tony hesitantly took the phone, careful not to let his fingers actually touch Gibbs’. “Why do you have Mario’s on speed dial?”

Gibbs only ate pizza if Tony had it delivered to the office. To Tony’s knowledge he’d never ordered it for himself. It wasn’t like it was Gibbs’ favorite food. But then, like Mouse, Gibbs would eat almost anything, provided someone else arranged for it to arrive at the office. He didn’t order in and rarely picked up take out for the team. The only thing Gibbs routinely spent money on was coffee.

Gibbs looked…hell, Tony wasn’t sure how to classify Gibbs’ expression. On anyone else he’d have labeled it ‘embarrassed’.

“Mario’s is your favorite.”

Tony blinked. He knew Gibbs was aware of what he liked on his pizza, but he didn’t think the older man paid any attention to where he ordered it from. Tony kept looking at Gibbs, silently waiting for a more detailed explanation.

“I thought you might be hungry.” Gibbs gave him an almost hesitant smile. “You’re always hungry.”

Both Tony’s brows rose. “So you programmed Mario’s number into your phone?”

Gibbs shrugged one shoulder. “I thought it would be easier than looking it up.”

It was a nice gesture. Thoughtful even. It made Tony’s heart leap a little at the thought of Gibbs doing something nice for him. His better sense took over before he made a fool of himself and he started babbling out some sort of heartfelt thank you. Gibbs didn’t do nice. There was probably some good logical reason Gibbs had thought to feed him. Something along the lines of making sure he was working to potential.

He scanned Gibbs’ list of contacts and was surprised to see his name in the number one spot. Tony thought it was just a hold over from when he was Gibbs’ second in command. It wasn’t like the man messed with is phone that much. He probably either didn’t know how to delete things or simply hadn’t bothered to do it. Then Tony noticed the contact number for his name was his new cell phone number, not his old.

That was…unexpected, and Tony wasn’t sure what to make of it. They’d only spoken over the phone once since Tony’s reassignment. It wasn’t like Gibbs had needed to use his number much. It certainly was not enough to bother with adding it to his list of contacts, or putting it in the number one position.

“Are you going to call and order something or what?” Gibbs demanded, his tone sharp, his expression a mixture of impatience and exasperation.

Tony nodded, disappointed by Gibbs’ brusque return to normal even while he found it reassuring. He wasn’t quite sure he’d know what to do with a ‘nice’ or ‘embarrassed’ Gibbs. And he had no idea what his number being programmed into Gibbs’ phone meant. He told himself it probably didn’t mean anything. Better to just ignore it.

Tony hit number five on the speed dial.

“Miri, you okay with pepperoni, sausage and extra cheese?” He asked while he waited for someone to pick up.

“Can you add bacon to half, Sir?”

Tony smiled, not surprised by her request. Miri was of the opinion nearly everything was better with bacon. Tony was finding himself agreeing with her the more times they ate together.

“Sure, no problem.” Tony looked at Gibbs. “You want anything?”

“Might as well get enough for everyone,” Gibbs told him.

Tony took that to mean no one had gotten to eat yet. It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence with Gibbs. He often didn’t allow time for his team to get something, so it had always been catch as catch can. Tony didn’t miss that, and routinely made sure his people had time to grab something more than a candy bar from the vending machine.

Tony sighed silently; he was fairly certain he was going to end up covering the tab. It annoyed him to buy lunch for people he wasn’t entirely sure he could label as friends. But he didn’t see the point in acting like a selfish asshole. It wouldn’t help the situation any. Although, he seriously doubted his providing lunch would make anything better either.

McGee and Ziva would likely see it as him sucking up or consider it their due, as if he owed them for something. He mentally snorted. He’d made damn sure he paid up whatever debt existed when Gibbs left for Mexico the first time. As team leader it wasn’t right for him to owe his team money, or to allow a monetary debt to linger. He didn’t owe them anything.

He was surprised again when Gibbs offered him his credit card. Tony looked askance at him, thinking maybe he was offering to cover his team’s share.

“Just put it all on that. My treat.”

Tony couldn’t help the pleased grin that appeared. “Really?”

Gibbs smiled back at him. “Really.”

Tony accepted the card, and once more reminded himself not to read anything into the gesture. He could keep the feelings it engendered—nothing wrong with that. It was okay to let it make him feel happy and appreciated, but anything else was just asking for trouble. Better to ignore it the same way he shoved aside the fact his phone number and favorite delivery place were on Gibbs’ speed dial. It would hurt less in the long run whenever Gibbs decided to pull the rug out from under him.

13

Gibbs was impressed with the plan Tony had laid out.

It was a well thought out plan, and one they’d be employing if tailing Goliath didn’t give them something to work with in two days or less. As much as he’d prefer to catch everyone, Gibbs was far more intent on taking out the seller and securing whatever he was trying to unload. They didn’t have confirmation it was ARES, but it was looking more and more likely. ARES could not fall into enemy hands.

Gibbs found himself feeling unaccountably disappointed by the way Tony had filled him on the plan. Tony’s recitation was flat. It lacked the younger man’s usual flair and humor. There was no color commentary, no asides, no jokes, nothing. If not for the fact that Tony was right next to him Gibbs would have been sure it was someone else outlining everything he was hearing.

It felt strange to not have Tony working hard to earn his approval, striving for any indication of a job well done. In the past, Tony would have pulled out all the stops trying to sway Gibbs with additional arguments and evidence, anything to convince him of how good the idea was. From the time they met in Baltimore, Tony worked hard to make Gibbs notice him. It had reminded Gibbs of a child trying to earn a gold star.

Now Tony’s approach was more mature, confident and contained. He stated his case and left it up to Gibbs what to do with it; like it didn’t matter if Gibbs thought his idea was a good one or not, like it didn’t matter if Gibbs used his plan or found another way. It was almost like Tony didn’t have a stake in the outcome one way or another. And Gibbs realized Tony didn’t, not really.

Once Goliath landed in DC and Gibbs’ team took over the task of tailing him, it was Gibbs’ responsibility. He expected Tony to fight him on that, to push to be included in the case, and he would have welcomed that sort of rivalry. The argument would have given them some sort of common ground, something to talk about, but Tony didn’t seem inclined to take Gibbs on.

It left Gibbs feeling lost as to what to say and how to precede. He was annoyed that Miri had no trouble getting a response from Tony. Tony interacted with her naturally and easily, not stilted and careful the way he’d been with Gibbs. When Tony spoke to her his tone softened, lightened, and took on the playful cadence Gibbs remembered.

Gibbs hated how easily Tony and Miri bantered back and forth. It made him feel like an outsider. There was a time when he wouldn’t have cared, and he tried to tell himself he didn’t care now, but it sounded hollow in his head.

His team hadn’t really engaged in banter like that since Tony left. It shouldn’t have surprised Gibbs. It wasn’t like he hadn’t known Tony was the one who typically started things by acting childish or goofing off.

And it was Tony, who would gang up on McGee often with Ziva as an ally, or he’d tease Ziva with McGee backing him up or Tony would end up acting as their target when McGee and Ziva joined forced. But without Tony around to instigate, McGee and Ziva didn’t seem inclined to joke much or talk about things not related to the job. It was almost like they weren’t truly comfortable with one another. When or how that happened, Gibbs wasn’t sure. He hadn’t noticed it until now because it didn’t affect the job, and there hadn’t been anyone’s behavior to compare it to. Listening to Miri and Tony, Gibbs was painfully aware of how far apart his team had grown.

Gibbs knew things were off when he’d come back from Mexico, but there were too many holes in his memory to be sure of what and how much wasn’t quite right. After Tony left, things just kept shifting. McGee as his second altered the team dynamics. Ziva acting more like she had when she first joined the team shifted things a little more. A new Probie joining the team skewed things even further. They all worked together well, but that was all they did…work.

When Tony mentioned food, Gibbs saw it as an opportunity to bridge the gulf between them. He’d looked up the number for Mario’s when he knew Tony was coming to DC. He’d used every cuss word he knew getting it added to his list of contacts, struggling on his own to do it because asking for help was out of the question Gibbs didn’t want to have to explain to McGee or Abby why he wanted the number programmed into his phone. It wasn’t like they wouldn’t recognize Tony’s favorite delivery place.

And he’d managed to successfully input Tony’s new phone number without help. It was a matter of pride for him to prove that hadn’t been a one off thing. That he could not only figure some technical things out for himself he could apply that knowledge more than once.

The hesitant way Tony took Gibbs’ phone surprised the older man. Did Tony think he was going to pull it back? Or hit him with it? Why else would he have offered it if not for Tony to use it?

And why had Tony given him such a wary look? He was trying to be nice. It’s why he tracked down Mario’s number in the first place. He knew long flights sucked and the food was rarely worth eating. He thought being able to offer Tony something to eat, something he knew Tony would like, was a fool proof gesture.

He was equally confused as to why Tony waited to dial once he had Gibbs’ phone and knew where the number was on the speed dial. The man had to be hungry. Tony was always hungry. And it was his favorite delivery place. His favorite food. Why didn’t he just dial and order what he wanted?

Gibbs’ confusion expressed itself more in annoyance and anger. Barking at Tony felt normal. It was familiar and comfortable, and reminded Gibbs’ strongly of when they used to work together. It was a relief to see the tension easing in Tony’s expression and his shoulders, but it felt wrong that Gibbs snapping and snarling was what made the younger man relax. Gibbs would have thought remembering Tony’s favorite delivery place and going to the trouble of entering the number on his phone would have meant more than his being short, but clearly they didn’t.

Tony handed Gibbs his phone and credit card back once he’d made the order. An all too brief moment of contact felt electric to Gibbs. He shivered, surprised by how so little skin to skin contact affected him. Unable to take his eyes off the road to look directly at Tony he couldn’t tell if it affected the younger man the same way or not.

Unsure of what it meant, or what to do, Gibbs went with what usually worked for him. He stayed silent and concentrated on driving. He expected Tony to turn the radio on, or talk to Miri more, but he didn’t.

Tony shifted in his seat, his hand dropping to rub his thigh. He grimaced and tried to stretch out but even with the seat all the way back leg room was limited. Gibbs wanted to ask if Tony was okay, but was worried doing so would recreate the tension that had only recently dissipated. And he’d already asked that twice when they’d first met up at the airport. He didn’t think asking again would get him a different answer.

Miri tapped Tony on the shoulder, getting his attention before offering him a small pill bottle. “Sir, I thought you might need—“

Tony waved off the bottle. “Miri, I’m fine.”

“Of course you are.”

Gibbs was impressed with how she managed to make that sound as though she were agreeing with Tony and yet not at the same time. It was a neat trick. It reminded Gibbs of Ducky for a moment.

She continued to offer the bottle, rattling it. “It was a long flight, Sir, and our day won’t be getting shorter any time soon.”

Gibbs wondered why she called Tony ‘Sir’. She’d addressed Tony that way before, and Gibbs had nearly growled at her not to call him ‘sir’ before he realized it wasn’t him she was talking to. Why didn’t she call Tony ‘boss’?

It wasn’t like she didn’t think Tony was in charge. She obviously supported him and his decisions. She carried the bags and voluntarily took the back seat. Sir was clearly meant as a sign of respect and not an insult. Maybe that was why Tony tolerated being sirred. But it still seemed weird to Gibbs.

Tony tried to pass the pill bottle back to Miri. “Miri, you know what that stuff does to me.”

“I know what the good stuff does.” She agreed, refusing to take the bottle back. “But this isn’t the good stuff, Sir.”

Tony chuckled. “You offering me crap, Callahan?”

“Tylenol with Codeine is not crap, DiNozzo, it just doesn’t have the same kick. It is the best I could do on short notice.”

The last sounded almost apologetic, as though she should have gotten him Vicodin or Percocet. Gibbs knew what those drugs did to Tony. It was probably a good thing Miri didn’t have them to offer. Although Gibbs was willing to bet his last dollar that Tony had gotten a prescription for something a lot stronger and simply never got it filled or threw them away.

Tony took the bottle. “Thank you, Miri.”

“You’re welcome, Tony.”

Tony shook out two pills, and then dry swallowed them. He tossed the bottle over his shoulder to the back seat. Miri caught it easily. She resumed staring out the window at the passing scenery and Tony seemed just as fascinated by the view.

Silence filled the car again. Gibbs should have found that comfortable, but instead he found himself hoping Tony would start talking again. That this time he’d get some stupid movie reference, a joke, a random thought…anything that was like the way things used to be.

Gibbs bit back a sigh. He could try starting a conversation, but that had never really been his strong point. He’d never been good at breaking the ice, and if the reaction he’d gotten to being nice was anything to go by, it was probably better if he didn’t risk doing anything else anyone who knew him would consider out of the ordinary.

Gibbs was grateful it didn’t take any longer to get to the Naval Yard than usual. He wasn’t sure he could have handled the silence for much longer.

Tony shifted, moving to lever himself out of the car, using his cane and cursing under his breath as he struggled to get out of the car. Before Gibbs could get around to help, Miri was there helping Tony to steady himself on his feet. She didn’t any more than absolutely necessary, and Gibbs realized that was probably the main reason Tony had accepted her help without a fight.

“Mother hen,” Gibbs heard Tony accuse her, his tone teasing.

Miri smirked as she stepped away from him. “I prefer Momma Bear.”

Tony grinned. “That’s just because you have claws.”

“Fangs too.”

Miri shouldered the bag she’d carried from the airport. She grabbed the bag she’d given to Gibbs to tote earlier. He expected her to offer it to him, but she didn’t. She handed the carryon off to Tony. He pulled up the handle that made it easy to tow behind him as he walked. They both turned to look at Gibbs, clearly waiting for him to lead the way.

They went through security without any trouble. Gibbs expected Tony to chat with the guards but he simply nodded a greeting. Miri followed his example, adding a polite smile, but saying nothing. Gibbs wasn’t sure what to make of the continued silence. It felt wrong, and he didn’t like it, but he had no idea how to break it.

When they stepped off the elevator, Miri stopped and frowned. Tony stopped as well, eyeing his second in command. Gibbs looked back, wondering what the hell the problem was.

She raised both eyebrows, glancing around before looking at Tony. “Orange?”

For a second Gibbs wasn’t sure what she was asking. He barely registered the wall color any more.

Tony chuckled. “I think it’s supposed to be soothing.”

Miri gave an unladylike snort. “More like it was cheap and they had a hell of a lot of it.”

“That too.”

“Christ. It’s like being inside a pumpkin.”

Gibbs hid a smile, amused in spite of himself. He headed for his desk. It wasn’t like Tony didn’t know the way. McGee should be back soon. He only had to stay at the airport long enough to maintain his cover. He’d take a break and simply wouldn’t return to the rental counter. Ziva and the probie would be gone a bit longer. They have to wait for Goliath to settle somewhere. Once that happened they could call in a relief team. Gibbs figured the pizza Tony ordered for them would still be good even if it was cold.

“Where do you want us, Boss?” Tony asked.

Tony’s eyes flickered to his old desk before shifting away. The probie’s stuff was all over it making it obvious the desk was in use. The few personal photographs scattered around the area made it equally obvious that it wasn’t being used by Ziva or McGee. Gibbs couldn’t tell what Tony thought about a stranger having his spot. Was he upset? Disappointed? Annoyed? Gibbs felt a rush of anger. Why should he care what Tony thought or how he felt about it? It wasn’t for Tony to say where Gibbs put his people. If it bothered Tony then he should have stayed. It was just a damn desk.

“Gibbs?”

Answering Tony’s question, Gibbs nodded curtly toward the cubical to the left of his desk. The space had been vacant when Tony was on the team. It was still essentially vacant, but it now at least had a desk and a computer set up for use. Not that anyone ever used it.

Miri dropped the bags behind the desk where they’d be out of the way. Tony parked the carryon on the same area. He leaned against the desk, idly twirling his cane between his fingers as he looked over the bullpen.

Looking around, Gibbs couldn’t see where much had changed in the last few months. Hell, not much had changed in the years Gibbs had been working at NCIS. His desk was the same one Franks had.

Gibbs covertly studied Tony. He couldn’t read Tony’s expression. Was the younger man happy to be back? Was he sorry he came? Had he missed DC? Had he missed Gibbs? It was on the tip of Gibbs’ tongue to ask, but he couldn’t bring himself to give voice to his questions.

A black blur rounded the corner and came to an abrupt halt. “Tony!”

Tony jumped and nearly dropped his cane, instinctively reaching for his weapon.

Abby bounded forward, pigtails flapping madly, bright smile in place, arms out in preparation to give what would likely be a breath stealing hug. She stopped short, expression a mixture of delight and disappointment. Tony shot a confused look toward Gibbs. Gibbs shrugged. He didn’t know what to make of it either.

“I want to hug you, but we went to this harassment seminar and the instructor said my hugging people might be a red light situation.” Abby’s hands flailed as she spoke highlighting her nervousness. “I never thought anyone would be upset by a hug. I mean, it seems harmless enough, a good thing. I always feel better when I get a hug. I feel better when I give one too. But I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. Especially not since, well, since this is the first time I’ve seen you in ages.” She sighed, sounding plaintive. “I don’t want to ruin it.”

Tony smiled warmly. “Did the instructor say it would be okay if I asked for a hug?”

Abby cocked her head to one side. “You know, she didn’t cover that.”

“Well, then, we’ll just have to use our own judgment.” Tony opened his arms, and stepped forward. Abby closed the distance between them and all but melted into Tony.

Gibbs felt a stab of envy. The hug he’d gotten at the airport hadn’t been anything like that one. Of course, he’d never given one like that, but that was beside the point.

The hug lasted longer than was strictly necessary, in Gibbs’ opinion. And did they really need to touch for heads to knees? A little space wouldn’t be a bad thing. He should be able to see a little daylight between them. Gibbs cleared his throat, drawing their attention, and getting them to break it up.

Tony stepped back, still smiling. He waved Miri forward. “Abby Sciuto, I’d like you to meet my second in command and good friend, Miri Callahan. Miri, this is Abby Sciuto, forensic specialist extraordinaire and also a friend of mine.”

Gibbs was curious to see what sort of reception the two women gave each other. Miri had been warm enough when she first met Gibbs, but it was part of their cover. Still, she hadn’t given him the cold shoulder until Gibbs snapped at her and Tony. Abby was usually friendly, so long as whoever she was meeting hadn’t managed to offend her in some way.

Gibbs had expected Miri to be hesitant in her greeting. While it no longer even registered with Gibbs he knew a lot of people found Abby’s hairstyle, predominantly black clothing often decorated with macabre images, and visible tattoos a bit off putting. And if Miri was sleeping with Tony, well, that hug could have fostered all sorts of hostility. Most women didn’t like seeing someone they were with get that close to another woman.

Miri merely smiled, her expression open and pleasant. “It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Sciuto.”

“Abby, please, Agent Callahan.” Abby held out her hand.

Miri took Abby’s hand without hesitation, shaking it. “Call me Miri. Agent Callahan sounds far too formal.”

“Miri.” Abby grinned. “How do you like working with Tony?”

“I like it. A lot.” Miri brushed non-existent lint off Tony’s shoulder. “DiNozzo is the pick of the litter.”

“I’m not a puppy.” Tony rolled his eyes, but there was color in his cheeks that suggested he was decidedly pleased with her statement.

Abby laughed. “But you are as cute as one. “

“Cute?” Tony looked affronted. “I am not cute. Handsome, yes. Sexy, definitely. But cute, no, I don’t think so.”

Gibbs wisely didn’t voice his opinion on the subject. He pretended not to be listening at all.

He looked up when the ding of the elevator announced someone’s arrival. McGee appeared around the corner and came to an abrupt halt when he spotted Tony. Unlike Abby, he didn’t look happy to see Tony. He looked nervous. McGee hadn’t looked that unsure of himself since he first started working for Gibbs.

“T-T-Tony.”

McGee hadn’t stuttered in several years. Gibbs thought he’d outgrown that particular trait.

“McGee.” Tony returned his greeting, his tone and expression neutral. Tony’s posture straightened, his shoulders squaring as he faced McGee. The action wasn’t outright confrontational, but it wasn’t welcoming either. Gibbs took a certain amount of petty satisfaction in seeing someone else get the cold shoulder.

Miri moved to stand behind Tony’s left shoulder. Gibbs recognized her stance as one he’d seen adopted countless times before by seasoned soldiers---her posture loose and relaxed, ready to attack or defend. Gibbs didn’t know if she was taking her cue from Tony’s reaction or if Tony had told her things about McGee that would warrant her being wary of him.

Abby’s gaze darted back and forth between Tony and McGee. She was biting her lower lip nervously. Gibbs suddenly wondered if there was more unresolved between the two men than what happened before Tony left for Spain or if that small argument had somehow morphed into a far larger rift. It was possible that argument Gibbs had overheard had been indicative of a bigger problem he’d been unaware of, one that had never been resolved and only made worse by time and distance. Abby’s obvious unease made Gibbs think she was better informed than he was.

McGee stepped forward toward Tony. He didn’t offer his hand or try to hug him. McGee actually looked a bit lost, like he wasn’t sure what to do. Tony didn’t move, didn't do anything that would give him direction or indication of what was expected or would be allowed.

“You’re…you look…you look good.”

“You too.” Tony eyed McGee. “You lose weight?”

McGee nodded. “I joined a gym. Cut back on the carbs.” McGee cleared his throat. “I…ah…thought I should get in better shape. I needed to do something to keep up with the Boss.”

Tony smirked. “Being Gibbs’ senior agent isn’t the walk in the park you thought it would be, eh, McGee?”

McGee flushed. “I didn’t think it would be—“

“Sure you did.” Tony’s smile was bitter. “I mean if an idiot like me could do it, a smart guy like you shouldn’t have any trouble at all, right? Bet you get it all done in half the time and never even break a sweat.”

Gibbs frowned. He knew McGee thought his degree from MIT was superior to Tony’s educational background. He’d seen them go head to head at times over what was better, good old-fashioned police work or high tech solutions. And at times Gibbs had encouraged the rivalry, but he’d always thought they’d valued what the other brought to the table. Had that changed when he went to Mexico? Or had Gibbs been wrong to think they valued each other’s area of expertise?

McGee swallowed hard. “Tony, look, I should have—“

“Water under the bridge, McGee.” Tony waved a hand, cutting off whatever the younger man was going to say. Tony sighed softly. “It’s water under the bridge. And I should have let it stay that way. It’s ancient history, right? So don’t worry about it.”

McGee didn’t look entirely okay with not getting into it. Gibbs wasn’t sure he agreed that burying it was a good idea either. While he was not a fan of talking about anything, he didn’t think ignoring whatever happened between them would fix the problem. But it wasn’t Gibbs’ call. As long as their issues didn’t get in the way of getting the job done, he wasn’t going to force it. If it got in the way, Gibbs would see to it they addressed it. Letting them settle it in the ring might work. With Tony’s leg still less than 100%, McGee should be able to hold his own.

McGee looked to Abby. She shrugged, and looked helplessly back at him. She’d clearly made peace with Tony, but however she did that was likely something that wouldn’t work for McGee.

“Tony, I really think—“

“I’m sure you do, McGee.” Tony grinned brightly. “Shame about you cutting back on carbs. Pizza should be here soon.”

McGee blinked. “You got pizza?”

“No.” Tony chuckled. “Gibbs did.”

McGee’s jaw dropped. “Gibbs ordered pizza?”

“Oh, I ordered it, he paid for it.”

“Gibbs paid for it?” McGee stared wide at Tony.

“You fry that big brain, McGee?” Tony laughed softly. “You keep repeating things I say.”

“It’s just Gibbs doesn’t—“ McGee stopped suddenly, looking nervously over at Gibbs.

“I don’t what, McGee?” Gibbs asked with a glare.

“That is, Boss, you haven’t…I mean…Thank you, Boss.”

Gibbs nodded curtly. He spotted the delivery guy stepping off the elevator.

They’d eat and talk about the case. Personal shit would be shoved off to the side where it belonged for as long as humanly possible. Gibbs grimaced, knowing it wouldn’t be nearly as long as he’d like. It never was.


Chapter 14

Tony still couldn’t decide if coming back to DC was a good thing or not.

On one hand, he wanted to see the case resolved. Part of what Tony liked best about being an investigator was getting to put all the pieces together. He wanted to solve the puzzle, to see the whole picture and have all the answers. But seeing his old team wasn’t exactly an ideal situation. There was as much unresolved between them as there was with the case. Tony wasn’t sure he was prepared to deal with it. Somehow risking life and limb seemed a lot easier.

Although, to be fair, Tony had to admit meeting Abby had been essentially painless. Not exactly like he’d never left, but being able to hug her and be hugged in return had been wonderful. He’d missed her exuberant hugs. He had trouble understanding how anyone would think getting hugged by Abby would qualify as harassment. Although, she could squeeze with a bit more force than was truly comfortable for everyone, her hugs had never been something Tony regarded as a bad thing.

Seeing McGee hadn’t gone nearly as well. Tony had been surprised by how much he resentment he harbored toward the younger man. He’d thought he’d gotten past that, had learned to let it go. Finding out that McGee was actively working to step up his game as Gibbs’ senior agent but hadn’t put the same effort into being Tony’s had brought all the old bitterness, anger and disappointment to the fore. Clearly working for Tony hadn’t warranted any extra effort from McGee.

But then Tony had never demanded as much from him either. He didn’t have unrealistic expectation about McGee’s abilities or feel the need to set the bar constantly just out of reach. And Tony had been uncomfortable with the idea of turning over too much because part of him was never entirely convinced Gibbs was gone. If or when he returned from Mexico, or if Shepard opted to give the team to someone else since Tony was never more than ‘acting team leader’, Tony hadn’t wanted to be too comfortable in the big chair. He hadn’t wanted to place too many demands that would come back to bite him in he ass later.

Not that any of it really mattered to his old teammates. Every time he’d done anything the way Gibbs had, he was ridiculed for it. Any time he’d done things differently he got the same reaction. Tony hadn’t realized until leaving that there really was no way to win; he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. All that truly mattered to his former teammates was that Tony wasn’t Gibbs; he was never going to be the man they all wanted. Whether he acted like a bastard or a nice guy, whether he was brilliant or an idiot, it wouldn’t have made much difference.

McGee hadn’t been the only one to slack off. It wasn’t exactly noteworthy for Ziva to show up two hours late to the office while Gibbs was in Mexico. Hell it was more unusual for her to show up on time. She obviously hadn’t thought Tony was in charge any more than McGee had.

Lee at least was in on time and did her job to the best of her ability. But she was a probationary field agent. So while she could and did get a lot of the thankless tasks there was a lot she lacked the experience for. There were things she simply hadn’t had time to figure out.

And there were a lot of things Ziva, as an officer of Mossad and not an NCIS agent, simply wasn’t permitted to do legally. Not that Gibbs or Shepard seemed to care about that technicality, but Tony had. Time as a cop had drilled into him the importance of not just finding the guilty parties, but making sure the case would hold up in court. He wasn’t quite the stickler for rules that Lee had shown herself to be, but he understood the need to at least recognize the line before he stepped over it.

There were a lot of things Tony hadn’t been comfortable trying to order Ziva to do. Tony knew her loyalty had been to Gibbs, not the team, not to him. He was leery of pushing too hard, lest she refuse and he had no real recourse. It wasn’t like he could fire her, or banish her from the team. Shepard had wanted Ziva there, and Tony knew that was where she’d stay, regardless of how he might have felt about it.

When they started getting together to watch movies once a week, Tony had thought he and Ziva had come to an understanding. He’d thought she’d wanted to fit in by getting a better grasp of pop culture. He thought she’d had asked to spend time together as a way of establishing a stronger team bond, of maybe creating some degree of personal loyalty that went beyond Gibbs and a friendship that a product of more than them being teammates. Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to find out exactly what she’d hoped to gain by willingly spending time with him. She’d cut him off quickly when Gibbs returned. Shutting him down and shutting him out without hesitation.

Tony was relieved that they’d eaten without Ziva making an appearance. Just having McGee around had put a damper on his appetite. And it was a struggle to try and act normal, to not snap at McGee. It wasn’t McGee’s fault he hadn’t thought Tony capable of being a team leader. It hurt that he had so little faith in Tony, so little respect, but the man was entitled to his opinion.

Tony was honest enough to admit to himself that his acting like an overgrown kid certainly wouldn’t have helped formulate a good opinion of him. Hazing McGee had been fun, and mostly harmless. It might have seemed rough to McGee, but it wasn’t like the younger man hadn’t gotten his licks in on more than one occasion. He learned to fight back and hold his own. Tony had been rather proud of McGee for growing a spine. That didn’t mean he didn’t want to punch McGee in the face though.

Tony had been there for McGee when Kate died. He’d been there for him when McGee had mistakenly shot a cop. He’d been there to hold the team together when Gibbs ran off to Mexico. Shouldn’t that have counted for something?

Tony wasn’t sure what to make of the nervous glances McGee had kept sending his way while they ate. It wasn’t like he’d threatened the younger man. Hell, he made sure to stay at least arms length away from him so that if he gave into the temptation to belt McGee one it would be harder to accomplish. Compared to some of the things he’d said to McGee in the past, what had recently passed between them was nothing.

Maybe the uneasy looks were because Tony didn’t have much to say. He didn’t trust himself to not spew forth more bitterness and he found slipping on the old mask all but impossible so saying as little as possible was the only option. So he focused on eating and trying to enjoy the best pizza he’d had in months.

Abby did enough talking for all of them. Tony couldn’t tell if it was because she was nervous, excited or if he’d just forgotten what constituted normal for her. She seemed determined to fill Tony in on what happened since he’d been away---never mind that they had covered some of it via e-mails.

Unfortunately, Abby rarely approached anything in a logical fashion. So Tony couldn’t follow her well, not quite understanding what the bowling team had to do with her favorite band, Plastic Death, or why a new machine for her lab needed a name, or how her grandmother’s ability to do cartwheels without getting dizzy fit in to all of that. He was sure it would have all made sense if he’d been around to witness any of it in real time or had gotten the bits and pieces when they were relevant to some larger picture.

Making eye contact with Miri, Tony got a small smile in return. She didn’t seem to have any trouble following Abby’s stream of consciousness. It was either that or Miri was a lot better at pretending to understand. When she mouthed ‘nod your head, smile a lot’, Tony had ducked his head to hide a grin. It was something Mouse had said was a good survival tactic when confront with people and things that one simply couldn’t understand. Although, the ‘and back away slowly’ portion of Mouse’s advice wasn’t something they could truly put into practice at the moment.

Other than his repeated wary, uncertain glances McGee wouldn’t look directly at Tony. Tony found that unsettling. It wasn’t like McGee had any problem getting in his face before he left. Why the issue now?

McGee had been confident in his abilities, and rightfully so. He was damn good with computers and had proven himself invaluable on more than one occasion. Tony thought being promoted to Gibbs’ senior agent would have bolstered McGee’s confidence and inflated his ego. He should be rubbing Tony’s face in all he’d accomplished, the cases he’d cracked, the ‘atta boys’ and ‘good jobs’ he’d gotten. He should be gloating about how much better he was than Tony. He should be smug about his promotion and how it hadn’t been a consolation prize the way Tony’s going to Rota could be seen as being. So why hadn’t he?

Gibbs could have stopped Abby’s rambling monologue with a look or a few well placed words. He always had the ability to shut her down without upsetting her unduly. He could have drawn McGee out with a few leading comments. It wasn’t like Gibbs hadn’t done it before. Hell, he could have even gotten Tony to talk if he wanted, making him interact and engage the way he had before leaving. But Gibbs seemed just as lost as Tony felt.

It was damned unnerving. And it was making for the most awkward time of Tony’s life. He hadn’t been this uncomfortable meeting his first step-mother, or when the headmaster had called him in to his office three days after he’d started at boarding school.

Tony had been relieved when Shepard called him and Gibbs up to her office. He found himself hoping that by the time he got to the top of the stairs he’d have managed to find his way out of the rabbit hole, or passed through the other side of the mirror. Or maybe Rod Serling would show up and give him the ironic punch line to this Twilight episode.

Tony let Gibbs brief Shepard on the status of the case. Gibbs was the more senior agent, regardless of the fact that they were essentially the same rank now. And letting Gibbs take the lead was a bit of normalcy Tony thought might help adjusted to the shifted dynamic that now existed.

Gibbs went and ruined that when he told Shepard Tony had a plan to get Goliath to talk to them and then proceeded to tell Tony to fill her in. While it was polite for the older man to give him credit for the idea, it made Tony uneasy to be again on the receiving side of an uncharacteristically nice gesture. Or it did until Tony realized Gibbs might well think the idea was crap and he was just setting Tony up to fall flat on his face, waiting until Shepard was in the loop to point out everything he thought was wrong with Tony’s plan.

It would be a petty sort of thing to do, and one Tony wouldn’t ordinarily have attributed to Gibbs, but it still made more sent than Gibbs being nice. Hell, even when they were sleeping together, Gibbs hadn’t been polite or nice. There was no real reason for Gibbs to be nice now. Tony was just another agent, not a teammate. It they were ever friends, it wasn’t like they were good friends. They didn’t hang out together, they didn’t have common interests, hell they rarely even spent a night together. It was just sex, Tony reminded himself sternly. And whatever trust they had in each other was only in play when they were on the job or Gibbs would have mentioned his first wife and daughter and Tony might have told him how he felt.

With a silent sigh, Tony opted to play it as straight with Shepard as he had with Gibbs when he filled him in on the plan to ‘kidnap’ Goliath. If by some slim chance Gibbs was being nice, there was no reason to ruin the gesture by acting like an ass. And if Gibbs was just waiting for the right time to rip his idea apart, again there was no reason to look even more like a fool.

Regardless of why Shepard gave him a promotion, Tony was determined to prove she hadn’t made a mistake. So he maintained a professional demeanor, assessing the risks and benefits of his plan as openly and honestly as he could.

Tony tried to get a read on Shepard as he filled her in, but he’d never understood her as well as he did Gibbs. Or more accurately, as well has he thought he’d understood Gibbs. He couldn’t tell if she liked the idea or not when he was finished.

“You really think that will work?”

Tony didn’t look at Gibbs, and refused to second guess himself. “Yes, Ma’am, I do.”

“Gibbs?”

“I think DiNozzo’s plan is our best shot at finding out what Goliath is doing here and who he’s doing it for in the shortest time possible. It’s a damn good plan.”

Tony smiled. It wasn’t exactly an ‘atta boy’ but it wasn’t far off the mark either. He told himself that the warmth he felt had nothing to do with Gibbs’ comment. It shouldn’t matter what Gibbs thought.

Shepard had kept her focus on Gibbs when she asked, “What do you need to put it in motion?”

Tony knew Gibbs didn’t care to have outsiders messing around with his cases, so he thought the first thing Gibbs would say was it was time for Tony and Miri to go back to Rota. A cursory ‘thank you’ and ‘don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out’ was what he thought he’d be hearing.

Instead, Gibbs simply starting lining out the need for a van, a fast acting sedative, a plane and permission to circle the airport. Tony nearly gaped like a landed fish when Gibbs said, “I’d like to have Callahan work with David and the probie on the actual taking of Goliath. McGee and Abby can monitor and record everything electronically. DiNozzo and I will be on the plane to convince Goliath he’s going to Africa to face an angry dictator or gunrunner whichever one wants a crack at him first. ”

Shepard nodded. She looked askance at Tony. “You okay with staying around to help out?”

To see his plan play out, to solve the puzzle, to see another weapons dealer put out of business…oh yes, Tony was okay with that. Even if he wasn’t entirely sure about everything else, he was okay with that.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She snorted. “Please don’t Ma’am me any more Tony. I’m not that damned old. I told you nearly a year ago it was fine with me for you to use my first name. If you really feel the need to be formal, I think I’d prefer Director to Ma’am.”

Tony grinned, feeling more sure of himself. “Yes, Director.”

She rolled her eyes, but smiled back at him. “I’ll let you know when the plane is ready. I’m sure Ducky can recommend a drug for you to use. And I believe there is a van in the motor pool that should do nicely.”

She tipped her head to both of them, and then in an obvious dismissal she said, “Keep me posted gentlemen.”

Gibbs did a neat about face and headed for the door. Tony followed him, closing the door quietly behind him. Seeing Shepard’s secretary is away from her desk, and the area is one of the few semi-private places in the entire office, Tony reached out and put a hand on Gibbs’ shoulder to stop him.

Gibbs looked at him, both eyebrows rising. “There a problem, DiNozzo?”

“You and I both know you don’t need me here to do this. “

Tony forced himself to make eye contact. This was probably the only time he’d have to address why Gibbs would have voluntarily kept him around. He wasn’t going to pass on it or have the other man think he didn’t have stones enough to ask and be capable of handling the answer.

“While I appreciate having the opportunity to see the case through, you aren’t usually one to involve unnecessary personnel so why are you—“

“Rule thirty-four.”

“That would only apply if I actually had the lead here, Boss.” Tony shook his head. “I never had the lead on this case.”

The case was a joint effort. Both teams had worked together; they'd covered whatever aspect of the case was favored by their location and talents, but Tony never had any illusions as to who was in charge. The disgruntled group of terrorists who’d set three bombs in Spain had been addressed. That was the case Tony had been lead on. He was second chair on Goliath and La Grenouille.

“You got the best lead we’ve had.”

“Not the same as being in charge and you know it.” Tony shook his head. His gaze narrowed as he studied Gibbs. “Are you letting me stick around to see this resolved as some sort of pat on the back for doing my job?”

That was probably a farfetched idea, especially when Tony considered how few ‘good jobs’ he’d ever gotten from Gibbs. And Gibbs had always been of the belief that doing your job well was the only reward needed. Recognition and awards were redundant, so as unlikely as his question had been, Tony still had to ask.

“No.”

“Then why have me here when you don’t need—“

“Because I want you here.” Gibbs bit out.

Tony refused to read anything into that. He wasn’t going to assume Gibbs meant what he’d hoped he meant. “Why would you want me here? You’ve got your team. McGee, Ziva and your probie are fully capable of—“

“I know they can handle it, Tony.” Gibbs stepped into Tony’s space, gaze intense. “That was never an issue.”

“Then—“

“Damn it, DiNozzo, don’t you get it?” Gibbs hissed. “I missed you. Okay? I missed you a lot. And I want us to keep working together for as long as possible.”

With that the other man turned and stalked off. Tony blinked, too stunned to follow after him. Well that wasn’t what he’d been expecting.

Gibbs missed him? Really? Tony grinned, feeling suddenly lighthearted. But he quickly squashed the feeling, his expression sobering. Gibbs had told him he was irreplaceable once and then turned it into a joke. This could easily be something similar, although without an audience or the punch line.

What exactly had Gibbs missed? Him as an agent? Or him as an occasional pressure release valve? And if the man had missed him, why the hell had it taken him so long to say anything? Was it just convenient now? A byproduct of the case and had nothing to really do with Tony at all? Was it just a moment of nostalgia? Maybe he just wanted to get laid and thought keeping Tony around would help improve the odds. Not that Gibbs had admitted to even remembering they’d had sex, but Tony wasn’t going to rule it out.

Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He took another and held it for a slow count of five before releasing it. Maybe he should tell Miri everything. She’d proven herself loyal, and she wasn’t going to judge him for sleeping with his boss. Well, other than thinking it was a bonehead move on his part—which he already knew and Tony wouldn’t blame her for calling him on it. Miri was levelheaded and had been a good sounding board almost from the day he’d met her. God knows Tony wasn’t making much headway on his own so someone else, someone he trusted, to help him think it through was definitely a good idea.

He wondered if Miri had any more painkillers with her. All this shit was giving him a headache.

Chapter 15

Over the years, Gibbs had developed a number of different ways to spy on his team.

The one he liked to use best, however, wasn’t one Gibbs had discovered on his own. His own methods typically involved stealth and timing, not technology. Shortly after his return from Mexico he’d caught Tony using his phone to listen in on his teammates. It was astonishingly easy to link his cell phone to his desk phone. The desk phone’s hands- free speaker option simply transmitted nearby conversation to him. To anyone watching, he looked like he was making a call on his cell phone.

When Gibbs had caught Tony doing it, the younger man had assumed it was already a method Gibbs used. It might have been, but Gibbs didn’t remember ever doing it before. The lack of certainty had made him uneasy. He hated having holes in his memory. So Gibbs did what he’d always done whenever he felt uncertain, he’d fallen back on behaviors and patterns he knew were familiar. He’d upstaged his team a few seconds later with information they hadn’t known, just like he had hundreds of times before.

Now, he found himself using his desk phone to listen in whenever he wanted to have a clear view of his team. He could stand on the mezzanine above the bull pen and watch while he listened in via the phone. It gave him a better view than lurking around corners ever had, and sometimes seeing the gestures and expression that came with the commentary was important. It helped put everything into context, especially when the people he really wanted to watch were Tony and his senior field agent, Miri Callahan.

He bit back a curse when he realized Tony wasn’t in the area. Gibbs had gone out for coffee, coming back to the team floor via the stairs. He’d slipped up to the mezzanine unnoticed, hoping to sneak in a little quite observation. He hadn’t realized Tony wasn’t in the bull pen. Maybe Tony had simply gone to the rest room, or the break room. They’d eaten several hours ago; more than long enough for Tony to be looking for a snack.

Gibbs waited listening intently to what was going on below as he sipped his coffee and watched. He could hear Miri on the phone with someone. She was standing in front of the desk she and Tony were temporarily assigned to, leaning one hip against it as he listened to whoever she was on the phone with.

“Yeah…I know…I know that too, Mouse.” Miri laughed. “Be nice or I won’t bring you back anything….No. Definitely no. That doesn’t travel well and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get it through security…you going to pay to have it sent express?” Miri laughed again. “That’s what I thought, you cheap shit. Now quit your whining and go to bed. I’ll call you later, Mouse.”

As Miri ended the call Ziva stood up from her desk. She and the probie had gotten back to the office before Gibbs had gone for coffee. He’d been briefed on where Goliath was and what he’d done from the airport to where he was staying. Gibbs had told her the Director wanted her to work with Miri while letting McGee and the probie know their roles in the upcoming operation. Neither woman had given any indication that working together would be a problem. Of course that had been while both Gibbs and Tony were present.

Even then, they were both cool toward one another. Gibbs had seen Ziva sizing Miri up. She apparently hadn’t thought much of the beautiful blond if her expression was anything to go by.

For her part, Miri had done the same to Ziva. If she knew anything about Ziva’s background, and it was a good bet she knew some of it, Miri clearly hadn’t been intimidated or impressed. In fact she looked like she might be willing to go toe to toe with Ziva just for the fun of it. But one look from Tony was all it took for Miri to remain polite and stay focused on the case and planning the kidnapping.

Gibbs hadn’t been overly worried—well, not much. Both women were professional. They’d be able to work together without killing one another. Maybe--as long as they weren’t left alone too long.

Ziva had barely spoken to Tony other than to say hello. Gibbs had expected more. If getting dumped by Ziva was really one of the reasons Tony had taken the position in Spain, Gibbs thought there would be more hostility. But is seemed Tony had even less to say to her than he had McGee.

They were polite to one another, as if they were strangers. Tony didn’t offer his hand or try to hug her. Not that Tony had ever hugged Ziva that Gibbs could remember. He’d seen Tony ruffle her hair in the past, but he now seemed careful to stay at least arms length from her. The same way he’d been careful not to get too close to McGee when they ate. Gibbs had never seen Tony show much concern about personal space before. It was…strange.

“Why do you call your teammate Mouse?” Ziva asked Miri. It was a good question. Gibbs wouldn’t mind knowing the answer to that himself.

“Is he a coward?”

“Coward? Mouse?” Miri shook her head. “No, Rivera is one of bravest guys I’ve ever met. Or maybe the craziest. Wouldn’t catch me getting back in the water after a shark took a piece out of me. I’d have moved to Kansas or somewhere so far removed no one had ever even seen the ocean. But then he refuses to base jump with me because he says I’m nuts so the boy may not have lost all sense of self-preservation.”

Shark? Base jumping? Gibbs frowned. Is that what they did for fun? He really needed to read the personnel files on Tony’s teammates.

“Then why do you--”

“It’s probably a nickname Tony saddled him with,” McGee offered, looking up from his computer screen and sounding derisive. “I’m sure the guy hates it.”

For all McGee’s insistence that he hated being labeled ‘probie’ he hadn’t hesitated to dub their new recruit by the same name. And he seemed almost disappointed that Tony addressed the probie by his name, which Gibbs made a point to try and remember was Darien Bahl. It struck him as wrong that Tony knew the guy’s name and Gibbs hadn’t. Either Abby or Palmer had filled him in, or Tony had looked him up to see who the new guy was on Gibbs’ team.

“Actually, it was Rivera’s older brother who dubbed him Mouse.” Miri said, her expression every bit as cool as her tone when she focused her attention on McGee.

No love lost there, Gibbs thought grimly. He wasn’t sure what she knew about his team or what Tony might have told her, but clearly it was enough for Miri to take an instant dislike to McGee and Ziva. She seemed okay with Abby. And had been warm enough with Bahl.

Miri’s gaze shifted back to Ziva. “Mouse is just a nickname. Something for friends and family to use. It is not indicative of his nature or his status on the team.”

“He doesn’t mind you refer to him that way?” Ziva asked.

“Friends and family, Officer David. I fall in both categories, so no, he doesn’t mind.”

That was all Miri seemed to have to say on the subject. She turned away from them and stepped behind the desk.

Gibbs frowned. Did she mean family as in blood relative? Or was she referring to the team as ‘family’ in a broader sense? Did Tony’s team consider each other family? Abby had always thought of the team as family. And Gibbs suspected Tony had too, at least until he’d left for Spain without saying a word. Gibbs’ jaw clenched, old anger resurfacing. It still pissed him off that Tony hadn’t said good-bye. Not that he would ever admit that out loud to anyone else.

“Are you sleeping with Tony?” Ziva asked bluntly, her voice carrying easily through the phone.

Gibbs nearly banged his head on the railing, and wished passionately he could deliver a head slap from a distance. While he wouldn’t mind knowing the answer to that question, he wasn’t sure he’d have asked it quite that way, or at all. Trust Ziva not to be embarrassed or let social convention get in her way.

McGee nearly choked on whatever he’d swallowed the second Ziva asked the question. Bahl’s eyes widened comically, and he looked ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.

Miri looked more amused than offended. And there was absolutely no hesitation in her answer. “No.”

Gibbs frowned. He almost believed her. But Ziva apparently did not.

“Liar.”

Miri chuckled, a low throaty sound. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. I have. Every time he goes surfing.” Miri licked her lips. “That wet suit of his leaves damned little for my imagination to do. Rather considerate of him when I think about it. And I should probably thank him, but really, Tony’s not my type. And I’m not really his.”

McGee scoffed. “Every woman with boobs is Tony’s type.”

“No, not every woman.” Miri eyed Ziva, a small, enigmatic smile in place. She leaned forward her voice so soft when she spoke the phone nearly didn’t catch. “Not every woman, right, Officer David? Tony might have flirted, played and teased, but he was never going to do the deed with you. Ever.”

Gibbs blinked. Had Tony said something to Miri? He must have for her to sound so sure. But if Tony hadn’t had a sexual relationship with Ziva…what did that mean? If Tony hadn’t started sleeping with Ziva as soon as Gibbs left for Mexico did Tony have stronger feelings for Gibbs than he’d realized? Did it mean more to him than Gibbs thought? Did Tony still have feelings for Gibbs at all after all these months?

So far Gibbs had managed to at least let Tony know he’d been missed. But he knew better than to think admitting that was enough to square things between them. It wasn’t as if Tony had said anything back---not that Gibbs had given him the chance, but still he hadn’t made any sort of declaration. And the cold shoulder he’d given everyone but Abby, hadn’t helped matters. Gibbs couldn’t tell what Tony was thinking or how he was feeling, and it was decidedly unnerving. He’d never had trouble reading the younger man, not from the day he’d met him, but now, he was lost. It was one of the reasons he’d wanted to observe. He needed more experience watching the new Tony DiNozzo who’d stepped off the plane.

“I would not have had sex with him, no matter how much he begged.” Ziva asserted, the acerbic tenor of her voice drawing Gibbs attention back to what was happening below him.

“I doubt Tony ever begged.” Miri smirked. “And I’m equally skeptical that you were ever completely adverse to the idea of doing the horizontal hula with him.”

“I have no interest in him. I never did.”

Gibbs blinked at that. He’d always thought there was a sort of mutual attraction between Ziva and Tony. They certainly flirted enough with one another to imply they were at least interested. It was why Gibbs suspected they’d had sex while he was in Mexico. With him gone, and no reminder of rule twelve—however invalid it might have been at that point given the number of times he and Tony had broken that rule---there was nothing to keep them from sleeping together.

Miri smirked, nodding sagely to Ziva’s comment, everything in her posture screaming disbelief. “Of course not.”

“It would have gained me nothing.”

“Or conversely, it could have gotten you everything. But you’ll never know now, will you?” Miri shook her head. She clucked her tongue. “It is your loss.”

Ziva huffed indignantly. “I doubt that.”

“Then why ask the question?” Miri arched an eyebrow. “You change your mind and now want to take the pony for a ride?”

“No.” Ziva almost bit off the word it ended so sharply. She cleared her throat. “You two seem very close. I was… merely curious as to how close.”

“Close compared to who?” Miri snorted. “You and,” she waved hand to encompass the bull pen, “your team?”

There was something in her tone that made Gibbs’ hackles rise. What the hell was she implying? There was nothing wrong with his team. Ziva apparently heard the same thing. He could see her stiffen.

Miri shook her head. “The relationship you have with your teammates and what they have with you is nothing like what I have with Tony.”

“Since we are not sleeping together, I would have to agree,” Ziva said, her sneer audible even if Gibbs couldn’t see it.

Miri shrugged. “Believe what you like, but I didn’t lie. I haven’t had sex with Tony, nor am I likely to any time soon. We are close because we trust one another implicitly.”

She cocked her head to one side, studying Ziva. Her expression was almost compassionate. “And trust isn’t something I think you’ve had much experience with. At least not the kind that comes without strings.”

The last statement was delivered without malice, but it was still a direct hit. Gibbs couldn’t swear to it, but he thought he saw Ziva flinch. McGee definitely did. Bahl’s gasp was loud enough for the phone to pick it up, but went largely ignored by everyone else.

“For the record, Officer David, I don’t lie. I’m damn near pathologically incapable of it. It is a trait that makes me piss poor at undercover work, but otherwise very reliable.”

“I would have characterized you more as dependable or trustworthy,” Tony said as he strolled around the partition, cane in one hand and two sodas in the other.

“Those work too.” Miri said, not jumping at Tony’s sudden appearance the way Ziva, McGee and Bahl did.

She caught the can he lightly tossed to her, a bright and cheerful smile breaking out as she saw what he’d gotten her. “Root beer? You are a god among men, Sir.”

“We are going to talk about your unnatural obsession with that beverage some day.”

“Long as we do over ice cream, sure.”

Tony looked between the two women. “I miss anything?”

“Just Officer David’s interest in my sex life.”

Tony looked from one to the other, both eyebrows rising. “Oh?”

“She thinks we’re sleeping together.” Miri laughed.

“I’m not good enough for you now, Callahan?”

“Nothing about you comes up wanting, DiNozzo.” Miri winked at him. “But you and I both know we aren’t compatible.”

Tony laid a hand against his chest as though injured. “Miri, my love, you wound me.”

“Deeply, I’m sure.”

“Quite.” Tony snickered and then sobered. “I might never recover.”

“I like knowing I have that kind of power.”

Tony clucked his tongue. “Vicious, vicious woman.”

“But you love me anyway, right?”

Gibbs felt a wave of anger that nearly blinded him when Tony nodded. He didn’t care that Miri might be joking. He hadn’t wanted Tony agreeing with her.

“Like the sister I never had and didn’t want.”

Miri stuck her tongue out at him. “Asshole.”

“You get everything squared away with Mouse?” Tony asked, his tone less playful and more focused.

“I did, Sir.” Miri accepted the back to business demeanor easily.

“You and Ziva have everything mapped out here?”

“As much as we can.” Miri shrugged.

“We will need more intel on Goliath’s patterns here before we can move on him,” Ziva interjected. “That will take another day or two.”

Gibbs couldn’t see McGee’s face, but his posture was easy to read. The man wasn’t quite hiding behind his monitor but he wasn’t far from it. Bahl was watching it all warily, like a nervous antelope amid a pride of lions. What the hell he thought was going to happen, Gibbs wasn’t sure. Bahl was always seemed like a nervous sort so this wasn’t entirely out of character for him.

“I expected as much,” Tony said calmly. They couldn’t grab Goliath until they were sure they could get away with it. And they knew exactly where he would be that would make it possible.

Tony sighed softly. His gaze shifted around the bull pen for a moment, and Gibbs got the impression he was seeing the way things used to be. Gibbs saw those ghosts too. Kate still at her desk. Tony at his. McGee so young and uncertain. The team joking, bickering, working together. Old memories that faded but hadn’t disappeared entirely.

Tony took a breath and released it. He leaned on his cane, his weight shifting off his right leg. “We got any other loose ends?”

The question was directed at Miri. Tony once more all but ignoring Ziva.

Miri shrugged one shoulder. “Nothing we can tie fast tonight.”

“You ready to go?”

“What?” McGee popped up. “You’re leaving? Gibbs didn’t say you could leave.”

Tony’s expression hardened. Not the right thing to say, McGee, Gibbs thought as he started down the stairs, still listening in.

“I don’t need his permission to leave, McGee.”

No, he didn’t need Gibbs’ permission. He hadn’t needed it to go to Spain either.

McGee practically sputtered in response to Tony’s coolly delivered statement. “But..but…but the case—“

“Has gone as far as it’s going to tonight. And some of us started today yesterday, McGee.”

Gibbs hadn’t really given much thought to the fact that Tony had to be tired. He’d probably been tailing Goliath last night, and then gotten on a plane to fly to DC to spend several more hours working on the case. It made for a very long day.

“There is no point in staying here doing nothing until the wee hours of the morning. It’s not exactly a productive use of time.”

“And sleeping is?” Ziva sounded both incredulous and sarcastic.

“Sleeping is what?” Gibbs asked as he rounded the corner, cancelling the connection between his cell phone and his desk phone in a move that looked like nothing more than him pocketing his phone.

“Necessary for general health and well being. It’s also the most valid use of our time at the moment,” Tony said without missing a beat.

“DiNozzo’s right.”

“He is?”

“Yes, McGee he is.” Gibbs resisted the urge to sigh. Did the man have to sound so surprised? It wasn’t like Tony had never been right before for crying out loud.

“There are agents watching Goliath. Cyber crimes and Homeland Security are keeping an eye out for any uptick in chatter that might tell us what Goliath is trying to broker. You’ve arranged for all the equipment and checked it so we’ll be ready when the time comes.” Blue eyes focused on each member of his team. “Was there something else we should be doing?”

Ziva looked to McGee, and they both looked at Bahl. To Gibbs’ surprise it was the probie who actually spoke up.

“No, Boss, there isn’t anything else.”

“Then go home.”

Abby had already gone home, after saying good-bye to Tony and eliciting a promise for them to spend some time together tomorrow. Ducky had the day off, giving a guest lecture at a pathology seminar at Bethesda. But from what little Gibbs had overheard of Abby’s good-bye conversation, he would likely be joining her and Tony whenever they got together. Palmer too, if his course schedule allowed for it. With Ducky out today, Palmer had elected to get some additional study time in for his upcoming exams.

Gibbs wanted to rub tiredly at his eyes, but refused to display even so little a weakness. “Go. We’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

His team still looked uncertain but they started moving to turn off their computers and pack up their things. Miri grabbed the bags she and Tony had come with, handing Tony the carryon.

“I’ll give you two a lift to your hotel.” Gibbs tried hard to make it sound like a polite offer and not an order.

He could probably find out where Tony was staying by getting McGee to pull the credit card records, or check the phone logs, or something, but he didn’t want to involve anyone else. Especially not when it would mean admitting he wasn’t man enough to simply ask outright and that Tony hadn’t already informed him. And he was hoping that this way he might get a few minutes alone with Tony. A chance…he shuddered to even think it…to really talk.

Tony and Miri exchanged a look; one Gibbs couldn’t read. An entire conversation was happening silently. This was almost worse than when the two had commandeered a conference room for nearly half and hour after Gibbs and Tony had met with the Director. He still had no idea what they’d needed the room for, or what they’d talked about, and there hadn’t been any way to eavesdrop. He could actually see what was happening now, but still had no idea what the hell they were saying to one another. It was just one more frustrating thing to be added to a growing list.

“Thank you, Special Agent Gibbs,” Miri said. She smiled at him. “We appreciate the offer.”

Gibbs’ felt his gut twinge. He couldn’t tell yet whether this would be good or bad. Either way, he was committed. Suck it up, Marine, Gibbs told himself, you need to do this, so just suck it up.

Chapter 16

The drive to the hotel was both far too short and way too long.

Gibbs had no idea clear idea of what exactly he wanted to say to Tony. All he really knew was that he needed to talk to him. He had to clear the air a bit more, to continue making some progress, however minute, on repairing the rift between them. He wanted to confirm what he’d overheard---Tony was not sleeping with his second in command and never slept with Ziva. He wanted to know if Tony’s feelings for him had been more than Gibbs thought, more than he’d expected or deserved, to find out if any of those feelings might still exist. But the trip wasn’t long enough to give him time to figure out how to bring up any or all of that.

Conversely, the silence in the car was nearly a tangible thing, weighing on him, and it was a relief to finally arrive at the hotel and be free of the oppressive feeling. It reminded Gibbs of the tension in the air that built before a summer storm. It made his skin itch, and he didn’t like it.

Pulling into the lot for the hotel, Gibbs searched for something to say that would get him an invitation to follow Tony inside. There had to be something that would give him a few minutes alone. Something that would break the ice and give him the answers he wanted. Ordinarily, Gibbs would have fallen back on work as an excuse, but that wasn’t an option because they’d already covered everything, twice. He didn’t think simply asking would do the trick.

Miri and Tony got out of the car. Gibbs did the same. He could offer to help with the bags. Maybe that would at least get him into the hotel. He’d find out Tony’s room number.

“This place have a bar?” Miri asked, shrugging the strap of one duffle bag over her shoulder. She shot Gibbs a warning look when he reached for the other. Gibbs tried not to snarl back at her, but it was a near thing.

“Yeah.” Tony answered. He reached for the carryon, but he got the same look Miri had given Gibbs. “Miri, what are—“

“Perfect.” Miri nodded once firmly. “I’ll check us in and meet you at the bar in twenty minutes. That should give you two plenty of time.”

“Time for what?” Gibbs asked, frowning heavily and watching her warily.

“For you to both ask a few questions and get a few answers.” Miri smiled at him, unaffected by his demeanor, reminding him of Abby for a moment. She was clearly not going to take no for an answer. “God knows it’s long over due and you two definitely need to.”

Piercing blue eyes measured both of them. “And should you both find yourselves stricken mute, which I grant you is more likely than not given the nearly universal male belief that talking is somehow more painful than having a limb amputated without anesthetic, then twenty minutes is more than enough awkward silence for one evening.”

She ran a hand through her hair, blonde spikes bending and flexing to accommodate the movement but remaining otherwise in place. She sighed.

“Hell, the car ride here is more than enough as far as I’m concerned, but that’s just me. Much better to just deal with shit in my opinion. Get it out in the open, address it, label it done and file it. The elephant in the room isn’t going away just because you refuse to dance with him.”

“Miri—“

“Sir.” Miri arched an eyebrow, her back straightening. She wasn’t backing down.

Tony sighed, resigned. He closed his eyes and nodded once, clearly recognizing a losing battle. Gibbs wasn’t sure he’d fair any better. And he wasn’t sure why he’d want to—Miri had just given him exactly what he’d wanted, time alone with Tony. Not that he was entirely sure what to do with it, but he had it.

“You want me to order you a drink, Callahan?”

Miri smiled warmly. “Please.”

“Beer?”

“Fat chance, Sir.” Miri laughed. “You know better than that.”

The corners of Tony’s lips quirked upward in a small smile. “Something with a lot more age and bit more pain.”

“Definitely.” She grinned. She patted Tony lightly on the shoulder. “Twenty minutes. No more. No less. No worries, Sir. I’ve got your back.”

“You better.”

“Always, Sir.”

As she walked away, Gibbs looked at Tony. There were so many things he could say, but all that came out was, “What did you mean by something with a lot more age and a bit more pain?”

“She wants whiskey.” Tony chuckled. “Miri doesn’t drink alcohol very often. But when she does, she says a drink should bite back or it might as well be water. And she says life is to short to drink bad booze, so she always wants the good stuff. Which means she wants something that’s been around awhile.”

Tony’s smile turned wry. “No one will ever accuse Miri of being a cheap drunk.”

“She’s something else.” Gibbs was surprised to find he meant that as a compliment.

“That she is.” There was no mistaking the affection and admiration in Tony’s voice.

“So…”Gibbs hesitated, unsure of what else to say as he and Tony both headed inside the hotel. He was not going to be stricken mute, if for no other reason than to prove Miri wrong. “She does base jumping?”

“Listening in, weren’t you?” Tony rolled his eyes, sounding more amused than annoyed.

Gibbs didn’t bother answering. It was clearly a rhetorical question.

Tony clucked his tongue. “You’d think they’d be smart enough to pick up that little detail, but obviously they haven’t.”

“Who?”

“McGee and Ziva.” Tony shrugged one shoulder. “The light on the phone is only on when the phone is in use.”

Gibbs frowned. He never noticed that detail either. Of course since Tony had, then he was fully aware of what Gibbs had heard, assuming Tony had overheard it all too. And Gibbs was betting Tony had. He wondered how he’d managed to do that since Gibbs hadn’t seen him from the mezzanine. It made Gibbs feel a little proud knowing Tony had more than one trick.

They crossed the lobby and headed into the bar. Tony nodded to the bartender and pointed to a booth, getting a nod in return and a hand signal that he’d be with them in a moment. They sat down, facing each other.

Gibbs wanted to bang his head against the wall. He still had no idea of what to say. This shouldn’t be so hard. He’d never had issues talking to Tony before---of course nothing deep, meaningful or personal had ever been the topic, but still Gibbs had always managed to express himself and get his point across.

Tony lightly drummed his fingers on the table. “Miri only started jumping about two months ago. Says it’s a natural off-shoot of rock climbing, but I’m not buying that. I think she just likes heights.”

“She convince you to try it yet?” Gibbs asked, relieved that Tony had picked up the conversational ball and brought it back into play.

He remembered how excited Tony had been by the idea of getting to parachute out of a plane so many years ago. Base jumping sounded like it might be right up Tony’s alley. And while he’d only met Miri today, he couldn’t imagine her not trying to coerce Tony into trying it, not when she’d already mentioned trying to get their other teammate to give it a go.

“We’d scheduled it but,” Tony held up his cane, “had to put things on hold for a bit.”

The only time Tony had jumped from a plane, or more accurately been pushed out of the plane, he’d hurt his leg. It hadn’t been serious, a badly sprained ankle and a bruised knee, but Gibbs suddenly worried Tony do real damage to himself.

“You could break your neck.” He fought like hell to keep his voice even, to sound calm rather than panicked. Who would look out for Tony if that happened? Who was going to keep him safe? Hell his second in command was the one who talked him into it for crying out loud.

“Yeah, that’s why Mouse says he won’t do it.” Tony laughed quietly, obviously unconcerned by the possibility. It made Gibbs hands clench in frustration.

“I don’t think the possibility he could get hurt is the real reason Mouse keeps saying no. The truth is Mouse doesn’t like heights. He prefers depths.”

“Depths?”

“The man likes to dive.” Tony smiled. “Prefers surfing, but diving is definitely in the top ten. Anything with water actually. I swear the man is part fish.”

“Caleb has a thing about small spaces.” Tony shook his head. He looked bemused. “My whole team has issues.”

The last was said with real fondness. Tony clearly liked his teammates. The same way Gibbs thought he’d liked his teammates in DC. But the way he left, and the chilly reception he gave everyone but Abby, belied that fact. Of course, it wasn’t all one sided. Hell, Ziva barely looked at him and hardly spoke to him. And McGee acting like he kept expecting Tony to bite his head off. It wasn’t what Gibbs had expected. And it made him wonder all over again what had happened in the four months he’d been gone.

“Your team? They are good people?”

“Oh, yeah.” Tony nodded. “The best.”

Gibbs opened his mouth, only to close it when the bartender approached.

“What can I get you boys?”

“Do you have Guinness Stout?” Tony asked.

The bartender nodded. “We do.”

“I’ll have a glass of that.”

“And for you?” He looked at Gibbs.

“Whatever you have on tap is fine.” Gibbs considered asking for bourbon but decided against it. He still had to drive home. And he preferred to drink bourbon in his basement. It never seemed to taste as good if he drank it anywhere else.

“Stout?” Gibbs raised both eyebrows. “Didn’t think you cared for dark beer.”

“I blame Caleb.” Tony shrugged, smiling. “He likes dark beer. A lot.” Tony laughed quietly. “And he is a firm believer that everyone else should like it too. It’s made for some interesting arguments between him and Miri.”

The bartender was back with their drinks. Tony told him in fifteen minutes or so a friend would be joining them. He’d like a shot of the best Irish single malt whiskey available when she showed up.

“Whiskey girl, eh?” The bartender grinned, his rounded face creasing with lines more indicative of laughter than age.

“Definitely.”

“She a pretty one?”

“Drop dead gorgeous.”

“I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for her.”

Tony grinned. “Thanks.”

Gibbs sipped his beer. He still had no idea of where to start, but he also knew he was running out of time. Miri had said twenty minutes. He was pretty damn sure twenty was all he’d get.

Tony bit his lower lip and then muttered to himself. “One of these days, Miri is going to be wrong.”

“What?”

Tony sighed. “She said if I really wanted to know, I’d have to be the one to get the ball rolling. She said you might as well be the archetype for strong silent type, emphasis on silent. And really, how do I argue with her on that point since I’ve thought of you as a functional mute for years. So her advice was to man up and just ask. Be direct, blunt even, otherwise I will never get an answer.”

Gibbs blinked. “What are you--”

“When you said you missed me, what did you mean?” Tony asked bluntly, green eyes holding his with an uncanny directness. “I could take that any number of ways. Some good and some…not so much. Before I jump to any conclusions about what you were trying to say and ultimately how I should feel about it, I thought a little clarification might be in order.”

“What could be bad about me missing you?” Gibbs asked. He’d thought it was obvious what he’d meant.

“Well, you could have meant that you missed me because I was a damned good lay. Not to mention, I made it so easy for you. I didn’t get clingy and want to spend the night. I didn’t insist on us doing it in my bed. Never demanded you take me out, wine and dine me. Didn’t expect to get gifts or think I’d get privileged treatment. Hell, I didn’t even ask to be acknowledged as anyone you might be interested in more than simply fucking. I even let you pretend you didn’t remember any of it.”

Tony leaned forward a bit, his voice low and tight. “A lot of guys like getting fucked without having to work too hard for it and aren’t overly picky about who they fuck as long as it comes easy. I know a lot of people assume I am one of them, but a lot of people don’t really know me that well.”

Tony’s expression hardened. “You never struck me as that kind of guy, but I’ve been wrong before. So was your missing me just because you suddenly get a little lonely? Found yourself looking for a good fuck that wouldn’t ask for more than you were willing to give and realized someone like that was harder to find than you thought? You stop pretending and let yourself remember how good the sex was and decided that you wanted more of that when you saw me again? That why you missed me?”

“No.” Gibbs almost shouted his denial. “That is not what I meant. And you were never, ever, just a good fuck. I’m not that guy, Tony.”

Okay, admittedly, Gibbs could see how Tony might think that. Their sexual relationship had only ever been sexual. They hadn’t dated. Never went out together. Never did more than work up a sweat together and let off some steam. And honestly, Gibbs couldn’t point fingers at Tony for thinking he was only interested in a good lay. It wasn’t like he hadn’t thought the same thing about Tony---especially when he’d assumed Tony had immediately jumped into bed with Ziva. He had thought Tony was one of those guys just interested in getting his ashes hauled, and he should have known better, but he was smart enough not to admit that out loud.

Gibbs took a breath and let it out slowly. “I know I was…well…an ass about a lot of things when I came back from Mexico.”

Ducky and Shepard had both pointed it out to him on more than one occasion, particularly when things came up that had occurred in his absence that hadn’t been handled the way Gibbs would have preferred. Shepard had been far less diplomatic about it than Ducky. She’d told him rather pointedly that ‘things didn’t just stop around here while you were on your margarita safari. If you wanted it handled your way, you should have stayed here and taken care of it.’

“But none of that was about you, or…us. Or the team. Or…well it just wasn’t. Okay. It was more…” Gibbs hesitated. He wasn’t even sure why he did what he did then. So much of it was operating on instinct, and emotion. There wasn’t much logic behind his actions then.

“I’d lost fifteen years of my life, and four months in Mexico hadn’t really done much to put the pieces back together. I wasn’t quite sure who I was or how to get it all back and I just…wanted everything to be the way it was except I wasn’t entirely sure how things were. I just reacted to the situation. I bulled my way through it, which in hindsight, was probably not the best way to deal with it. But at the time---”

Even to himself that sounded lame, so Gibbs quit talking. He eyed Tony, waiting for him say something. Tony looked at him, anger giving way to acceptance if not outright forgiveness. Tony nodded slowly. He sat back and the tension seemed to leach out of him. Gibbs realized just how important his answer had been to Tony, and he hoped like hell Tony’s reaction meant he’d said the right thing.

“Okay.” Tony nodded again. “Okay, I get that.”

Tony looked away. He bit his lower lip nervously, and Gibbs wished he could reach out and touch him, pull him into a hug and hold him close until Tony no longer looked---Gibbs wasn’t even certain he could label what he saw in Tony’s face. But it wasn’t his place any more to offer comfort, if it ever had been. And damn it hurt to think that.

“When I said I missed you, I meant I missed you.” Gibbs sighed. He shouldn’t have to explain this, but clearly he needed to. He’d forgotten that Tony wasn’t always as confident as he pretended to be, his insecurities showing up at the strangest times. Some old issues never went away, Gibbs thought to himself. Like ghosts they lingered, appearing unexpectedly, rising up to color the present with shades of the past.

“I miss having you on my team. I know I didn’t say it often, but you are good at your job. You are probably the best agent I ever worked with, and I miss being able to rely on you to get the job done.”

That had been surprisingly easy to say. And Gibbs realized it was probably something he should have said months ago.

“When I said I missed you, I meant I missed hearing you talk about movies I couldn’t give a crap about. I didn’t think I’d miss that, but I do. I miss you teasing McGee and Ziva. I miss you joking and laughing. I miss your insights and willingness to work long hours. It’s not the same at the office without you.”

“I’m guessing you don’t mean things are better?”

Gibbs snorted. “You were there today. You think any of that was better?”

Tony winced. “Everyone did their jobs.”

Gibbs grimaced. Was that supposed to help? Of course they did their jobs. It was how they did them that got to Gibbs.

“What the hell is up with McGee?” Gibbs asked.

“Honestly, I don’t know.” Tony made a helpless gesture with one hand. “I know I wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but I’ve said worse to him. Hell, I’ve done worse and he’s never acted like he was afraid of me. Annoyed, sure. Pissed off, definitely. The four months I filled in for you, he—“

Tony stopped abruptly. Gibbs eyes narrowed. “He what?” When Tony didn’t answer immediately, Gibbs pushed harder. “Tony, what did McGee do?”

“Just let it go. It doesn’t matter.”

“The hell it doesn’t.” Gibbs resisted the urge to slap his hand on the table. “Tell me.”

“Gibbs—“

“DiNozzo.” Gibbs glared at Tony.

Tony sighed. “Let’s just say he didn’t exactly treat me with the same respect he gave you.” Tony rubbed one hand tiredly over his face. “And really why the hell would he? I’m not you.”

Tony laughed softly, the sound devoid of any real humor. “They all took great pains to point that out. Every one of them, damn near every day. Like I didn’t already know that? Like it was some sort of fucking secret I wasn’t you?”

Tony breathed out in a forceful huff. “No one stepped up their game for me. They weren’t afraid of me or what I might do. No one went above and beyond the call because I asked them to or even when I ordered them to. Hell, Ziva couldn’t even be counted on to show up on time.”

“You should have--”

“Made her? Yeah, right.” Tony smiled tightly. “How exactly was I supposed to make a Mossad assassin toe the line? She didn’t answer to me then, any more than she does now. In case you’ve forgotten, she’s not really an agent. Hell, she’s only on the damn team because Shepard put her there. You really think I was going to be allowed to fire her? That I could dock her pay? That I could figuratively if not literally take her out behind the woodshed and spank her ass? You really think that she’d stand for having me…the guy she considered just barely a step above a moron take her to task and get away with it?”

Tony chuckled darkly. “Maybe if she owed me something the way she owes you. The way she owes Jenny. That could have been an option. But she doesn’t. All I’d have gotten for my trouble was laughed at or more likely a knife in my ribs.”

Gibbs hadn’t considered that. He never thought for a moment that Ziva might not follow the chain of command because she didn’t fall within their chain. Not really. He’d gotten used to think of her as a teammate and ignored the fact that she wasn’t truly an agent.

“McGee, he did his job, nothing more. He just didn’t push, didn’t do any more than absolutely necessary, didn’t stay late, never came in early, and played by the rules. How exactly was I supposed to come down on him for being competent rather than extraordinary? And why should he go above and beyond the call? McGee didn’t even think I deserved the job. He at least was honest about that. And as much I hate him for it, I can’t fault him for stating his opinion.”

That much Gibbs had known. Well the fact that McGee hadn’t thought Tony deserved to be team leader, not the other stuff. McGee’s lack of experience with things Gibbs kept handing him made a lot more sense. If he was only doing the minimum to get by, how could Tony have relied on him to do more? Tony’s greeting McGee today no longer seemed so odd. Gibbs better understood why Tony would be angry with him. He didn’t understand McGee’s reaction though, unless the younger man felt guilty, or ashamed. In that case, he obviously felt he warranted a dressing down and kept expecting the other shoe to drop. When Tony hadn’t let it fall, it just made McGee increasingly more anxious.

Tony shook his head. “And Abby, for all her ‘you’re not Gibbs’ attitude, kept expecting me to act like you. I should ask for information like you. I should show up the second her babies had something the way you did. I should have a new caf-pow for her the moment she ran out. But clearly, I am not magic. I’m never going to be. And honestly, it’s taken me awhile, but I’m good with that.”

Tony’s hand clenched around his glass of beer hard enough to whiten his knuckles. “Ducky was always his competent self. He is and always has been very good at his job, but to have him constantly address me as Jethro made me want to scream. I know habits are hard to break, but when everyone is telling me I’m not you, how fucking hard it is to call me Tony?”

Tony took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Except for Lee and Palmer, all of them acted like I should keep the damn family together. Like it was my job to keep them all from falling apart. Never mind they were all doing their best to make sure I knew I was a piss poor stand it. That it wasn’t my family. It never had been. It was yours.”

Tony grimaced and shook his head, releasing the glass to flex his fingers. “If being a bastard is what it takes to get the best out of people, I am never going to. And frankly, I don’t want to. That’s not me.” Green eyes met blue. “That’s you.”

Gibbs didn’t know how to respond to that.

Tony sighed. “And then you come back. Hurray. Everyone is happy. Until you leave again. Then they are all devastated once more, and again it’s my job to make it okay for all of them. To make it bearable for them. Never mind how it made me feel. Clearly that wasn’t a concern for anyone else.”

Tony picked up his glass and took a sip of his beer. “So you finally come back and decided to stay. Of course, everyone is ecstatic. It is back to the regularly scheduled program, except that they have to rub my face in the fact that I’m being demoted. Like I was so awful to them they couldn’t wait to return the favor? Like I was such a bad leader they had to make sure I knew how little respect I deserved. And really, why shouldn’t they be like that?”

Tony looked at Gibbs, his expression so painfully neutral it hurt to look at him. “They followed your lead. Just like they always have. You gave me your badge and gun with such a great ringing endorsement.”

Tony sneered. “You’ll do, you said. Like I just happened to be handy and you couldn’t be bothered to look any further. I’d do in a pinch, right? I’d do since you weren’t actually leaving long enough for my being in charge to matter?”

“That wasn’t how I meant that.” Gibbs protested.

Tony ignored him. “And when you came back, you dumped everything on my desk without so much as a ‘hi, how are you?’ making it clear you have no respect for me so why should they?”

Gibbs didn’t know what to say to that. He hadn’t seen his actions in that light. Hadn’t understood how other people might perceive what he’d done. When he’d left, he was too broken by events to do more than simply leave his team in capable hands. And when he returned, he was more focused on putting his world in order, redrawing things the way he remembered them to consider how it might have seemed to anyone else.

“I get why you did it now. I get it.” Tony’s smile was hard and bitter. “But then, not so much. And nothing said I had to like it, even if I had understood it. Or that I had to stand around and take it. Especially not when you were shutting me out so firmly I might as well be on the other side of the world.”

Tony took another sip of his beer. “You made it very clear I wasn’t needed. There was no reason for me to stay.”

Gibbs leaned forward, reaching for Tony’s free hand only to have the younger man shy away. “You were needed.” Frowning at his use of the past tense, Gibbs spoke again. “You are needed.”

Tony shook his head. “The team doesn’t need me. They’ve gotten along just fine with out me.”

Fine? No, Gibbs wasn’t sure he’d call it that. Yeah, the team functioned. Yeah, they solved cases and did their jobs, but it wasn’t the same. Things were lacking. Things Gibbs had turned a blind eye to that he couldn’t ignore any longer. The team wasn’t the cohesive unit it had been. Hell even Miri noticed and she’d only just met them. They weren’t close the way Tony’s team was…not any more. But Gibbs didn’t really want to mention any of that. He didn’t want to confess how long he’d been willing to ignore what was right in front of him, or admit he didn’t honestly know how to fix it.

“What about me?” Gibbs asked instead.

“What about you?” Tony frowned. “I never even heard from you until it was about a case. If all you need me for is the job, Gibbs, there are plenty of other agents who could do it. Just ask McGee and Ziva. I’m sure they’ve got a list. And if they don’t, Shepard is bound to.”

Tony played with condensation on his glass. “I think you’re selling Bahl short though. I know he is green, but he seems solid. A little on the nervous side, but I would be too with Ziva glaring at me all the time, and McGee being more hostile than helpful, and you snarling—“

“He’s not you.” Bahl was never going to be Tony. Not in Gibbs’ eyes. He couldn’t do for the team what Tony did. He couldn’t be to Gibbs what Tony was.

Tony laughed, clearly not taking Gibbs’ statement the way he’d intended. “Yeah, well, according to some people that would be a good thing.”

Tony’s expression sobered, making eye contact. “For all you know, Boss, he might just be better.”

“I doubt that. You are the best I’ve ever worked with.”

Color warmed Tony’s cheeks. “Thanks.”

Gibbs wanted to say more, to find out more about what happened while he’d been in Mexico, and to apologize for how his actions came across. He wanted clarify that his needing Tony hadn’t been just about the job. He wanted to screw up his courage and admit that what he’d felt for Tony had been deep and meaningful and he hadn’t realized it until it was too late. He wanted to find out if Tony still had any feelings for him, but he saw Miri walking in and realized his twenty minutes were up.

Gibbs stifled the urge to curse. Tony must have seen something in his expression because he glanced over his shoulder. Tony gave Gibbs’ a rueful look.

“She’s usually got better timing.”

Gibbs found himself chucking. Evidently he wasn’t alone in thinking they had more to talk about.

Tony’s smile was hesitant. “Maybe if we make a habit of doing this in twenty minute intervals before you know it we’ll have said everything we’re supposed to say.”

“You think that would work?” Gibbs asked, returning the smile. Please say yes; please say yes, Gibbs thought with a fierceness that surprised him.

“I don’t know.” Tony chuckled. “We’ve never done it before.”

“Would you be willing to try?”

“Would you?”

“Yes.” Gibbs didn’t hesitate. “Hell, yes.”

When Tony smiled this time it was so warm Gibbs felt like he’d stepped into a sunbeam. “Okay, Boss. We’ll give it a shot. Tomorrow, we’ll do this again.”

Gibbs raised his glass of untouched beer, and Tony lightly clinked his own against it. He knew better than to assume everything could be fixed in one fell swoop. This was going to be like building a boat, time and attention was needed. Rushing it wasn’t an option, not if he was going to do it right. And Gibbs definitely wanted to do this right.

Chapter 17

Kidnapping Goliath had gone just as smoothly as Tony planned.

Tony was rather proud of how well his plan had worked. It had taken only two days to establish Goliath’s routine and find a good place to take him. Having everything go exactly right was something Tony felt more than a little smug about. He did, however, try not to show it, at least not when he was around Gibbs, Ziva or McGee.

Ziva and McGee would only see any action on his part as grandstanding, like a peacock on display vying for attention. And even if they were to acknowledge how well things worked out, it was likely they wouldn’t attribute that success to him, but to Gibbs. Gibbs had been in charge of the operation. They would no doubt see the execution of the plan as what made it work not who had come up with the idea in the first place.

Around Gibbs, Tony wanted to maintain a professional demeanor. He wanted his former boss to respect him as an agent, to see him as an equal, not as someone seeking praise or approval. He wanted to be valued for what he could contribute to getting the job done, not just for his ability to lighten the mood and help hold the team together.

He also didn’t want Gibbs to think anything that had been said had gone to his head. Being told he was the best Gibbs had ever worked with had been surprising and intoxicating. It was far more than Tony expected or hoped to hear. He didn’t want Gibbs to have reason to regret saying it. So he didn’t gloat, didn’t strut, and didn’t act as though he expected any recognition.

Tony had laughed silently at himself when he realized how easy it was to do. After leading his own team for months, he’d gotten used to the idea that it was his job to give praise, not get it. He hadn’t hesitated to let Miri know she’d done well. She’d not only done her job, she’d refrained from venting the hostility he knew she was feeling. She’d worked with Ziva without complaint and without letting her emotions affect the job.

He’d forgotten for a moment that Ziva and McGee weren’t part of his team. The ‘well done’ slipped out without him even thinking about it. Ziva had regarded him suspiciously, before casual shrugging off his comment as if he hadn’t spoken. McGee had looked momentarily surprised, then proud and then embarrassed. Tony thought McGee might have been embarrassed to have been awarded recognition, however minor. But it was for more likely he was embarrassed at getting praise from Tony, someone he had so little respect for, and finding himself pleased by it. McGee had paled, the blush fading rapidly, eyes shifting away from Tony. He’d stuttered something about getting Goliath’s computer to Abby’s lab.

Not that accessing Goliath’s computer would have needed both Abby and McGee. Hell, Gibbs could have gotten to everything on the computer because Goliath had readily given them his user ID and password. Clearly the threat of meeting up with a pissed off client was good motivation. Tony couldn’t help grinning at his having called that correctly. Really, the man should have been afraid. If they’d done what they’d threatened, Goliath would have died a slow and very painful death.

Miri and Tony had focused on what Goliath had brokered and sold in the past, looking for a more solid connections to the explosives they’d found in Spain. There were still several hundred pounds missing, and Tony preferred to find them before they were used to kill anyone.

There was no need to look to find what Goliath had come to the US to broker. Goliath had admitted that what was being sold was ARES. And the bidding on it was going to be fierce.

Losing the secret missile targeting system was not an option. Keeping ARES and any other weapon out of enemy hands was the number one priority and was the main focus of Gibbs’ team.

They’d zeroed in on the buyers and sellers in Goliath’s computer. Knowing who the players were was important, not just to stop this sale but to prevent anything in the future. Several arms dealers were known only by code names. No federal or local law enforcement agency had pictures of them, nor were their true identities known. Even Interpol lacked important details about a number of known arms dealers. Tony mused that while the code names still struck him as silly, they had certainly been effective in hiding the real identities of the people involved. The information they were getting from Goliath would certainly help fill in a number of blanks.

Charles Harrow was who they were most interested in at the moment. He was the man looking to sell ARES. Tony had been mildly disappointed to find out Harrow apparently didn’t have a code name. In a list full of names like “the frog”, “black rose”, “green dragon” and “red dawn” that all had to be cross-referenced and verified against Goliath’s other lists, Harrow was unique for simply using his name.

Unless, Harrow wasn’t really his name. It was possible the moniker was simply a less imaginative code name. It certainly made for a more normal sounding alias, one that was unlikely to raise eyebrows.

Locating Harrow and ARES was vital. Failing that, they had to ensure the auction Goliath had arranged went as scheduled so that they could capture both Harrow and the winning bidder.

It was something of a long shot but McGee had located a Charles Harrow in the DC area. He was able to match the man’s name with a photo Goliath had on his computer. Apparently since he and Harrow had never met, he wanted to be able to recognize him. Tony was surprised they hadn’t opted for some sort of code like a red carnation in their jacket lapels or something equally ridiculous. Exchanging pictures seemed almost blasé.

Goliath actually had more than a dozen photos on his computer. They had been very helpful putting faces to names for a lot of wanted men and women. If they succeeded in doing nothing else, they had positively identified more than a dozen arms dealers. That information was invaluable.

Gibbs had ordered Bahl and Ziva to check the Harrow McGee had found, sending them with a copy of the man’s picture from Goliath’s computer. If he was the guy they were looking for, it would make things a lot easier. McGee kept working, sorting through everything on Goliath’s computer, making sure they hadn’t missed any pertinent information.

“Did you identify everyone, McGee?” Gibbs asked.

“There was only one picture Goliath didn’t have a name for.” McGee said. “According to him the unknown works for La Grenouille. Goliath wasn’t sure what role the guy plays, but he seems to be acting as Benoit’s right hand man and is apparently someone Benoit trusts.”

“Put it on the plasma, McGee.”

Tony stood, curious to see who they hadn’t labeled yet. Miri followed suit, handing Tony his cane with a stern look and then tossing him a small stress ball. Tony smiled when he saw it. They bounced it back and forth between them as a picture appeared on the screen.

“Well, son of a bitch,” Miri muttered when she looked at the photo on the screen.

“You know who he is?” Tony asked, unconsciously leaning on his cane as he looked from the picture to his second in command.

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?” Gibbs’ question was curt.

“Yeah, maybe,” Miri shrugged, unfazed by Gibbs’ harsh tone. “He’s a spook, or at least that was what we were led to believe. So it’s hard to know if anything I got is accurate or just lies.”

“When?” Tony asked, tossing the stress ball to her out of habit. She caught it easily.

“Before you came to Spain.” Miri pursed her lips, eyes narrowing as she thought, one hand squeezing the ball lightly. “Would have been almost a year ago. We had a murder on base. Except the victim didn’t appear to be in the Navy or the Marines and he wasn’t a Spanish citizen. Victim had no id, fingerprints weren’t in any system, and his dental records didn’t turn up anything. We didn’t know who he was or even how he’d gotten on the base in the first place much less who wanted him dead.”

Miri pursed her lips. “The more we dug into it the more roadblocks we encountered. Naturally, we didn’t let that deter us any.”

“Naturally.” Tony grinned.

“I don’t like to be told no.” Miri grinned back him. “Mouse either.”

Now there was an understatement if Tony had ever heard one.

“Anyway, our trail, such as it was, eventually led to your mystery man,” she pointed to the plasma screen. “Some guys in dark suits showed up and we got told to drop it. It was implied that he was a CIA agent and our inquiries were endangering his life.”

“You get a name?” Gibbs asked.

“Officially, no.”

“Unofficially?” Tony asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Told you, I don’t like to be told no.” Miri shrugged. “Since the MIB’s they were good enough to point us in the right direction—“

“MIB’s?” Gibbs frowned.

“Men in Black.” Tony translated. “Not the movie with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, but the same basic idea. Guys in dark suits who work for the government and tell you not to worry because they are here to help you.”

“I think I would have liked them better if they were aliens in disguise,” Miri mused. “And if I could get line on one of that big gun Agent K used, and that little flashy thing, that would be awesome.”

Tony snorted. “You’d abuse it.”

“Just until the novelty wore off, and admittedly that might take a couple of years, but really--”

“Hey,” Gibbs barked. “Focus.”

Miri looked at Gibbs and then looked at Tony. She waited until Tony dipped his head, signaling she should continue. He could see McGee gaping in surprise at her not immediately obeying Gibbs’ command. Clearly he hadn’t gotten the message yet. Miri didn’t answer to Gibbs, and really, neither did Tony any more.

“We made few discreet phone calls. Called in some favors. The name we got was Trent Kort. No idea if that’s his real name or not.”

Miri sighed softly, her eyes reflecting sorrow and regret. “Our team lead was diagnosed with terminal cancer not long after and, well, some things took higher priority than beating our heads against a wall trying to solve a case no one really wanted us to get to the bottom of.”

Tony had never asked how the position in Rota came open. He knew the team lead had left for medical reasons, but hadn’t been aware of how serious the issue was. His predecessor’s name had never come up and Tony had been grateful his new team hadn’t felt the need to constantly compare him to their old leader.

He wrapped an arm around Miri’s shoulders. He should have guessed their silence meant more than simple acceptance. Tony never mentioned Kate either. Some things just weren’t talked about.

“I’m sorry, Miri.”

“Don’t be.” She smiled sadly, leaning into him. “It’s not your fault.”

She straightened her spine a little, and Tony dropped his arm. Miri might give comfort unconditionally, but she only accepted it in small doses, especially when there were other people around. Tony knew better than to force the issue.

She tossed him the stress ball. “So, how do we verify that his name is really Trent Kort? And if he’s really a CIA agent, what is the true nature of his relationship with Benoit?”

“McGee,” Gibbs turned to the younger man, “find out more about Kort.”

McGee hesitated. Tony didn’t blame him. He had no idea where to start looking for information on an agent who was probably undercover at best, and rogue at worst. And it wasn’t like the CIA would just offer up details. They didn’t play well with others; at least they hadn’t in Tony’s limited experience.

McGee opened his mouth and then closed it. He nodded once. “On it, Boss.”

Tony was willing to bet some hacking would be done to get Gibbs the information he’d demanded. Computers were McGee’s go to solution for a lot of problems, and admittedly the younger man was good at ferreting out a lot of information with them. Tony wondered if the CIA’s security was good enough to keep McGee out. The Pentagon’s hadn’t been.

He looked at Miri. She nodded and headed for the desk they were using. She’d make a few more phone calls and check in with Mouse. They’d gotten a name once, maybe they could get more.

McGee would likely have seen Tony ordering Miri to help as second-guessing him, doubting his ability, or as a way to show him up by finding anything before McGee did. But Tony didn’t have a need to impress Gibbs the way he once had, nor did he truly doubt McGee’s ability. A back up plan was just good sense, regardless of how McGee might see it. It was nice he didn’t have to say anything to put it in motion.

“You want to go get a cup of coffee?” Tony asked Gibbs quietly, pitching his voice low enough that it carried only to Gibbs and no further. It’s not like there was anything to be done at the moment that someone wasn’t already working on. And despite their agreement, they hadn’t really had any time alone since Miri forced them to get a drink together. It had been two long days of being focused on the case and catching Goliath, and it was shaping up to be another long day.

Tony was rewarded with a quicksilver smile that happened so fast if he hadn’t been looking for it he’d have missed it. Gibbs nodded.

They headed for the elevator, walking in step. It stuck Tony as odd when he bothered to think about how naturally they moved together even though it had been months since they’d been anywhere near one another. Their thoughts might no longer be in sync but clearly their bodies still were. Tony immediately shut off that line of thinking, not wanting to dwell on how good the sex had been because they were so in tune with one another. Just because Gibbs had clarified what he’d meant when he said he’d missed Tony didn’t mean he wanted to pick up where they’d left off.

And really, what was the point, Tony thought as they got in the elevator and Gibbs hit the button for the lobby. Gibbs may have missed him and come to value what he’d contributed to the team, he may have even cared enough to not think of Tony as just an easy lay, but that wasn’t exactly a declaration of love. It wasn’t like Gibbs had turned to Tony to deal with the rediscovered loss of his wife and daughter. Gibbs hadn’t come to Tony for comfort or understanding when the powers that be ignored his warning and let good men die. He hadn’t come back from Mexico for Tony or even considered staying for him. So whatever feelings Gibbs might have, they weren’t the forever sort.

Tony had been surprised when he’d realized he wanted forever. He’d left DC not because of his teammates and their attitudes towards him---it certainly hadn’t helped, but it wasn’t the reason he’d taken the job in Spain. Gibbs acting like he’d forgotten everything, like what they’d had meant nothing, had been the reason he’d left. Had Tony known he mattered, even a little, to Gibbs then, he would have stayed. Had Gibbs even told him once after coming back from Mexico that he’d done a good job and was a good agent, Tony would have stuck it out. But now, after months away, it was nowhere near enough.

That thought made Tony smile and shake his head. It wouldn’t have been enough then either. He just hadn’t realized it until now.

“What?”

“Hmm?” He looked over at Gibbs.

“What are you thinking?”

“Time and distance make for interesting shifts in perspective.”

Gibbs frowned. That was obviously not what he’d been expecting. “You having one of those shifts?”

“I think I already had it.” Tony chuckled ruefully. “I just didn’t realize it.”

“Good or bad?”

“Dunno.” Tony chuckled again. “Jury is still out.”

The elevator pinged announcing their arrival on the main floor, the doors opening smoothly to reveal several people waiting to get on. Tony followed Gibbs as he stepped off, knowing no one who knew him would get in his way. Tony never understood why people didn’t understand basic physics when it came to elevators. The people inside have to get off before more people can get in. It seemed fairly straightforward to him, but an astonishing number of people simply didn’t get it.

The stroll to the coffee shop didn’t take long. Tony found himself enjoying the chance to be outside. He’d gotten used to a daily dose of fresh air in Spain. The sun wasn’t as warm as it was there, but it was warm enough.

Coffee in hand, Gibbs surprised Tony by suggesting they take a seat rather than head right back to the office.

“Sure.” The walk hadn’t been far or overly fast, but Tony’s leg was sending him little messages to let him know sitting down was a good idea. He’d be glad when his leg was finally healed. He hated needing a cane and he feeling like he was less than one hundred percent.

“Do you like Spain?”

Tony blinked. He hadn’t been expecting Gibbs to try making conversation. He smiled; pleased the older man had initiated a discussion about something other than work.

“Well, it’s—” Tony hesitated for a moment. He was going to say Spain was okay but it wasn’t home, except that in some ways it was. All his things were there. His job is there. His team too. The language, food and people were still foreign but they were becoming more familiar every day. There were still innumerable things he missed about the US, and probably would for his entire tour in Spain, but it wasn’t a bad place to be.

Tony smiled. “Yeah, I like it.”

Tony found himself telling Gibbs about his life there. He told him about the museums he’d gone to, the Roman ruins and Moorish castles he’d visited. The talked about the beaches he’d been to surfing with Mouse, the cliffs he’d scaled with Miri, the nightclubs he and Caleb had stopped in at. He had, Tony reflected, a rather full life in Spain. The only think lacking was a romantic entanglement. And trust Gibbs to notice.

“No dates with hot women?” Gibbs asked, his expression impossible to read. “Heard they are beautiful there.”

“They are. Very beautiful.” Tony shrugged. He was tempted to lie and make up stories about women he’d bedded, but he’d never managed to lie to Gibbs before. And he didn’t really want to.

“I’m just not interested in one night stands any more,” Tony said, forcing himself to meet Gibbs’ eyes. The truth was, Tony hadn’t had sex since last time he and Gibbs had been together before Gibbs had run off to Mexico. His right hand was the only one he’d been with, but he wasn’t going to tell Gibbs that.

“Guess, I had to grow up sometime,” Tony said, rubbing the back of his neck “Kate would be so proud.”

Gibbs stared at him. Obviously he hadn’t expected Tony to have stopped dating or sleeping around. Of course, Gibbs didn’t know Tony’s quit dating when they started to hook up. And Tony was glad he’d never told him. Especially given how Gibbs had been when he’d returned from Mexico.

Not want to dwell on his dismal sex life, Tony decided it was time to change the subject. Since Gibbs had opened the door to a more personal Tony figured it would be okay to return the favor and ask him something that wasn’t work related.

“So, you start a new boat? You never did say how you got the old one out of the basement.”

Gibbs opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted by his cell phone ringing. He glared at it before answering with a curt, ‘Gibbs’.

Watching his expression, Tony knew it was bad news. He stood up, cane in hand, ready to move.

“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Trouble?” Tony asked when Gibbs ended the call.

“Harrow’s dead.”

“Dead? How?”

“When Ziva and the probie tried to question him, he ran.”

“What, into an oncoming bus?”

“No, DiNozzo,” Gibbs growled. “He had a heart attack.”

“Well, shit.” Tony tossed his empty coffee cup in the trash as the headed for the door and back to the office. “Did they at least get ARES?”

“No.” Gibbs ground out, sounding more than just a little pissed.

Tony sighed. He stretched his legs a little to keep up with Gibbs. It hurt, but he could handle it. He knew better than to try and get Gibbs to slow down.

They were almost back to the Yard when Gibbs turned to look at Tony. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For the coffee. And…the conversation.” Gibbs hesitated and then nodded once curtly.

Tony smiled. That was apparently all he was going to get. But it was more than he’d ever gotten before.

“You’re welcome.” Tony waved a hand toward the office. “We’ll do it again once we’ve taken care of this.” That came out as more of a question than a statement. Tony didn’t want to assume Gibbs would be interested in what felt more like a date than anything else.

Gibbs smiled. “Definitely.”

Tony smiled back.

They walked into the NCIS building as in step as they’d been when they’d left.

Chapter 18

Gibbs took a deep breath and tried to control his rising anger.

Over the years he’d found people could grow accustomed to being yelled at. Learning how to handle someone screaming in your face was an essential part of basic training for a reason. So Gibbs had made a point of not raising his voice unless he had to. He wanted his people to react to his yelling, not get used to it. He wanted raising his voice to add emphasis and get results, not become so common it lost all meaning.

He also knew the cutting power of a quiet tone. It was decidedly more intimidating to be able to lean in and force his audience to strain to hear what he had to say. Close proximity made it impossible to ignore someone all but whispering in your ear.

Ice-cold fury had an impact that a white-hot raging temper couldn’t match. Having the opposition know beyond any doubt that Gibbs was in complete control of himself added to the intimidation factor. Ranting would not convey the right message, so Gibbs refused to do it, no matter how tempting it was.

Meeting up with Ziva and Bahl, Harrow’s body still cooling on the steps where he died, Gibbs was hard pressed not to give into his desire to scream and beat them about the head and shoulders for good measure. What in the hell were they thinking? He’d told them to keep an eye on the man, confirm he was the Harrow they were looking for, and bring him in for questioning if he was. Nothing in his orders said kill the man. Nothing he’d told them to do included interrupting the first chance he’d gotten to talk to Tony alone in two days—or create a situation that might keep him from talking to Tony alone in the future for an untold number of days.

With Harrow dead, Gibbs wouldn’t have the opportunity to even consider how he might find a way to invite Tony to dinner. Hell, and given how happy Tony had sounded about being in Spain, repairing the rift between them might not make a damn bit of difference. Gibbs would have liked the chance to come to terms with that over several stiff drinks in his basement, but that was no longer an option.

Instead of dinner with Tony, or drowning his sorrows in his basement, Gibbs had to deal with a dead man, a lost weapons system, and a team that couldn’t seem to follow the simplest of orders. It made Gibbs want to break things.

“You two want to tell me what happened?” His tone was deceptively mild. He could see Ziva tensing up in response to it. Bahl looked even more nervous than usual. They knew they were on dangerous ground.

“We spotted Harrow leaving a coffee shop. He was a match to he photo McGee gave us, so we and followed him,” Ziva said, her clipped speech sounding defensive.

“He ran, Boss,” Bahl interjected. “I’m not sure who he thought we were, but—“

Gibbs held up a hand, stopping him from saying any more. “So you chased him?”

There were twin nods from Bahl and Ziva. The nervous, jerky motions made their unease obvious to anyone looking at them.

“And he dropped dead here?” Gibbs directed his glare from one to the other. “That’s what happened?”

“Essentially,” Ziva cleared her throat, “yes. Had we known the man was ill we would not have chased him. But a man of his age and in such poor shape had to have known that running was not a good—“

“Do not make excuses,” Gibbs growled.

Bahl was a probie, he didn’t have the experience to know any better. He’d followed Ziva’s lead. But Ziva was a seasoned operative. She should never have been spotted in the first place. And chasing Harrow was a stupid thing to do. The man was sixty-five if he was a day. Just how far had they thought a man his age and in his shape was going to run? Why not just tail him at a distance, give him a chance to calm down and then approach?

Gibbs didn’t want to hear either of them try to justify their actions. Their only lead on ARES was dead. That fact was the only reason Gibbs cared at all about Harrow dying before he could talk to him. If ARES ended up in an enemy nation’s hands a lot of good soldiers would pay the ultimate price and that was simply unacceptable.

“In case you two numbskulls have forgotten,” Gibbs ground out between his teeth, “Harrow was our only lead on ARES.”

He waited a beat. “So you had better get busy finding another one.”

Bahl glanced to the body. “But what about—“

“Ducky and Palmer are fully capable of taking care of Harrow, especially since you two made it his job.” Gibbs snarled. “So get busy. Now.”

“We will go to his home and see what we can find,” Ziva offered, sounding like she was asking permission, color warming her cheeks.

“Ziva, take McGee with you. He’ll know more than Bahl what to look for.”

Bahl looked like a kicked puppy, and it just made Gibbs want to kick him for real. He hated that look. Gibbs wasn’t an ogre damn it. He hadn’t even punished either them…yet. He glared at the probationary agent, anger further inflamed by the younger agent’s wounded look over a simple statement of fact. McGee was the one most likely to recognize ARES when he saw it.

“Bahl, trace Harrow’s steps. Find out where he came from before you spotted him and ran him to death. Find out if he spoke with anyone and what he said. Find out if he left anything anywhere.”

“On it, Boss.”

Gibbs watched his team scatter. He turned and saw Tony and Miri nodding to one another before Miri headed after Bahl. Gibbs was tempted to call her back, but he already knew Miri wouldn’t respond to him. She demonstrated that more than once already.

“DiNozzo, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Bahl is too green to be on his own.” Tony told him, meeting Gibbs’ angry glare with more panache than Ziva or Bahl had. “And even if he was seasoned, he should have back up.”

Gibbs knew that, but he resented having it pointed out to him. “He’s not going to run into any trouble.” It wasn’t like Gibbs had assigned him dangerous duty.

“So the gun he’s got on his hip, the one that regulations require him to carry whenever he’s in the field, is that just because the powers that be are overly cautious? That he won’t ever run into trouble unexpectedly? He’ll never be surprised, caught off guard or be in any real danger unless it is announced in advance?” Tony huffed out a breath, looking every bit as annoyed as he sounded. “We are prepared for trouble at all times for a reason, Gibbs.”

“He’s not your concern.”

“And Miri isn’t yours.” Tony countered calmly. “No agent should ever be without back up in the field.”

Gibbs’ jaw clenched. It had been a long time since anyone had deigned to question his decisions or felt the need to point out something he’d overlooked. The only one who’d ever challenged him to any real effect was Tony. Gibbs had forgotten that some times he needed someone to do it—especially on those rare occasions when his temper or obsession with a case had gotten the better of his good sense. Gibbs had forgotten that sometimes having his six was more than just literally physically guarding his back.

Gibbs took a breath and let it out slowly. He didn’t want to argue about this. Not when he already knew he was wrong. He wasn’t going to apologize either, even if it was warranted. He did give a consolatory look to Tony, trying to convey his understanding and acceptance.

Tony smiled. “I’ll sketch and shoot so we’ll be ready when Ducky gets here.”

Gibbs nodded back, lips curling upward slightly in an answering smile. “Thanks.”

Gibbs meant that for more than being willing to work the scene. He knew Tony understood when the younger man smiled a bit wider.

“Ningún problema, Jefe.”

Gibbs frowned in confusion, the Galician accent of Tony’s Spanish throwing him for a moment before he realized what Tony had said.

Tony pulled a camera from his backpack and started to shoot the scene. Gibbs was about to help when he saw Ducky and Palmer arrive. They’d made good time, so apparently there were no detours due to faulty navigation. Palmer must have realized by now not to rely on Ducky to read a map or provide good directions.

Gibbs was less happy to see Director Shepard was with them. She didn’t normally leave the office. He knew she had an interest in this case, a personal one at that. But he hadn’t expected her to be any more involved than simply being briefed on their progress because so far she’d left it alone. He had expected it to stay that way. He should have known better than to assume.

Gibbs didn’t like it when the higher ups got involved. It didn’t bode well. It never did. Tony looked up from where he was working, making eye contact with Gibbs before his eyes cut away to look toward where Shepard was striding determinedly toward them.

“Well, shit,” Tony muttered.

“Roger that, DiNozzo,” Gibbs murmured just loud enough for Tony to hear him, a warmth blossoming in his chest over the simple fact they were in complete agreement.

Director Shepard looked pissed. Gibbs imagined it was about how he’d looked to Ziva and Bahl when he’d arrived, except Shepard didn’t intimidate him the way he knew he intimidated his team. He was glad he’d sent his team away. If anyone was going to read them the riot act it would be Gibbs. They didn’t need to take flak from the Director. That was Gibbs’ job.

“What happened?” Shepard demanded.

Gibbs went with the truth. “It appears that Harrow died of natural causes, but Ducky only just got here so the real cause of death hasn’t been officially determined.”

She glared at him. “Natural causes? That’s what you’re going with?”

“It happens, Director.”

“Not around Ziva it doesn’t,” she muttered.

Gibbs kept his expression impassive. Ziva might have been the shoot first and ask questions later type when she’d started on the team, but she was more investigator than assassin now. Or at least, Gibbs thought she was. Chasing Harrow had been a bone headed move, one she should have known better than to do, but Gibbs didn’t honestly think she or Bahl had caused the man to have a heart attack—at least not deliberately.

In some ways they were lucky. If Harrow’s heart was in bad enough shape for him to suffer a fatal attack from a few minutes of brisk exercise, the man could easily have died before they’d managed to locate him. They’d be even worse off if that had happened.

“What about ARES?” Shepard asked, blue eyes scanning the area pensively.

“We’re looking for it.”

“Looking for it?” She arched both eyebrows, the tone of her voice sharp enough to almost make Gibbs wince.

“He didn’t have it on him. And the auction hasn’t been held yet.” Gibbs forced himself to keep his tone as neutral as his expression. He didn’t really want to antagonize her.

“Gibbs, we cannot lose—“

“I know that,” Gibbs snapped, his control slipping slightly. He did not need to be reminded of how important ARES was to the United States. And her being at the scene would not help the case go any smoother.

“Our only link to ARES dead and with it our only possible way of capturing La Gren…a number of well known arms dealers has been seriously jeopardized.”

That little slipped of the tongue confirmed what Gibbs already knew. Shepard wasn’t interested in catching anyone but Benoit. She may have come to terms with her father’s suicide, but she obviously harbored a firm belief that Benoit had played a hand in her father’s decision to end his life. Gibbs was willing to concede that she might not be entirely wrong, but catching Benoit didn’t rank higher on the priority list than finding ARES. If they could have both, great, but he wasn’t going to sacrifice ARES for Benoit.

“Director, let me do my job.” Gibbs didn’t make it a request, or an order. It was a statement of fact. She should go back to the office. There wasn’t anything for her to do here.

“Jethro—“

“Jenny,” Gibbs spoke softly, “are you trying to tell me you don’t trust me to handle this?”

“Of course not,” she said indignantly. It was the answer he expected. She’d never come right out and say she had doubts in his ability, regardless of how she genuinely felt.

“Then let me do my job. I’ll brief you when we’ve got something.”

“But—“

“There isn’t anything for you to do here, Jenny. You’d be more effective keeping an eye on things at the Yard.”

“I just—“ Shepard sighed. “I’ll head back to the office.”

Gibbs nodded. He knew better than to actually say anything else. She would see words as an invitation to continue talking when there was really nothing more to say. She’d see anything he said at this point as a challenge, and a chance to fight with him. Gibbs watched her walk away, relieved, as always to have her gone.

It was odd, Gibbs suddenly realized, that Shepard was a former flame, someone he’d cared about at one point in time and had passionate sex with, but he almost couldn’t stand to be around her while he had no such trouble with Tony at all. Technically, he and Tony had parted on any better terms, but only because Tony had simply left without making a fuss or feeling the need to explain himself to Gibbs or place blame to justify his actions. The end result, though, was the same, they’d both left him. Gibbs had gone on with his life, and his former lover’s had gotten on with theirs.

Tony, unlike Shepard, hadn’t left solely to further his own career and ambitions. Admittedly, Gibbs hadn’t been entirely sure of that in the beginning. Rota was a promotion for Tony, and he’d clearly refused to accept being demoted to Senior Field Agent. He’d moved on to bigger and better things rather than stick with Gibbs and his team.

But Gibbs was honest enough with himself to get that he’d been the one to push Tony away. He’d denied what they’d had; acting like he hadn’t remembered it, making sure Tony wouldn’t bring it up or try to talk about it. Gibbs couldn’t remember if he’d consciously pushed Shepard away, but he remembered her accusing him of shutting her out. If he had, it couldn’t have been as blatant was what he’d done to Tony, but she’d gotten the message just as quickly as Tony had.

Of course, she had her own agenda, so in hindsight, Gibbs likely didn’t have to push all that hard. And she hadn’t shed any tears over them parting ways. There had been explanations, recriminations and angry gestures, but no tears.

If Tony had shed any tears, Gibbs didn’t know about it. And for the first time, not knowing bothered him. He’d angrily assumed that Tony had no trouble just walking away, hadn’t considered what or who he was leaving behind.

Meeting up with Tony again had been fairly straightforward, not like his initial encounter with Shepard after so many years apart. Tony wasn’t sex kitten one minute and claws bared the next. He hadn’t tried to make any of their interactions into anything more than Gibbs was comfortable with. He didn’t play up on what had been between them to curry favor, or demand concessions. Tony hadn’t let his tone imply intimacy, or stood too close, or flaunted his physical assets in an effort to distract Gibbs. He hadn’t tried to insinuate himself in Gibbs’ cases, or force them to interact when there was no need.

Since coming to DC, Tony been the epitome of professional, and Gibbs hated it. Not that he wanted Tony to act like Shepard, but he was so damned relieved that they weren’t acting like polite strangers any more. And they were moving toward something not yet defined, something Gibbs hoped would be more than what they’d had before. It was no wonder a dead man interrupting that steady forward progress had pissed him off so badly.

Gibbs felt like head slapping himself. All of his ex-wives had accused him of being dense, and they were probably right. It shouldn’t have taken this damn long to grasp the basic premise that Tony was simply following his lead. Gibbs had never said good-bye when ran off to Mexico. Tony hadn’t said it either. After Tony left, Gibbs hadn’t called or written, so Tony hadn’t either. When he did finally call, Gibbs had talked about work, so Tony kept he conversation focused on the case. Tony’s e-mails were always case related details, not personal, because Gibbs hadn’t asked or talked about anything else. When they met in the airport, it had been perfunctory not personal. Tony was only in town because of case; he hadn’t been invited, wasn’t on vacation, and hadn’t stopped by to visit old friends.

Looking back on it, Gibbs realized Tony had always let him set the tone. He’d only come by Gibbs’ house if Gibbs had extended some sort of invitation. It had only taken one nasty comment about Tony showing up uninvited, and a single refusal from Gibbs regarding an invitation to Tony’s place to stop the younger man from dropping by unannounced or ever extending a second invitation. Tony stopped sharing anything about movies or his dates the second Gibbs told him to shut up. He focused on cases when Gibbs ordered him too, and took on some truly thankless tasks. He worked long hours and put up with more shit from Gibbs than anyone ever had.

Christ, Gibbs thought, Tony had been in love with him. He’d never even suspected. He’d never even noticed.

Tony had accepted Gibbs leaving. He’d accepted him coming back. But he hadn’t tolerated the lack of respect or consideration. Tony had drawn a line; it had taken months, some honest soul searching and a number of lectures from Ducky for Gibbs to understand why Tony had and why it was the right thing to do. Miri forcing the issue and making Tony and Gibbs talk to one another had helped explain even more.

Gibbs realized that even thought Tony was letting him set the tone; he hadn’t been blindly following Gibbs’ lead. No more than he ever had. The case might have forced them to reconnect, but Tony had been the one to offer further communication. Miri may have made them talk to one another, but it was Tony who’d asked the first question. He’d agreed that making time to talk would be a good idea. He’d asked Gibbs out for coffee. He still stood up to Gibbs when it was warranted. Tony wasn’t passively doing anything.

They were both feeling their way—cautiously, carefully, to wary of what might go wrong to leap forward with both feet. It was like they were crawling through a minefield in the dark, unwilling to risk losing ground by backing away and too afraid of doing irreparable damage to rush forward without knowing the lay of the land.

Gibbs chuckled quietly to himself. Tony had mentioned something about shifting perspectives earlier. It looked like he wasn’t the only one experiencing them. It only made sense that they’d both have a few moments of insight. He still cared about Tony; naturally the younger man would still care about him. Neither of them would have been so cautious if the outcome wasn’t important.

“Boss?”

“Yeah, Tony?”

“You okay?”

Gibbs smiled. “Just working through my own shifting perspective.”

Tony arched an eyebrow. “Good or bad?”

“Good.”

Tony eyed him for a moment, brow furrowed, but he didn’t ask for any more details. It was a mark of how well he still understood Gibbs that Tony had immediately recognized now as not the time or place to discuss it. Instead his attention turned toward Ducky.

“So we got a cause of death, Ducky?”

“It appears, Mr. Harrow, had a heart attack.” Ducky told Tony with a warm smile Gibbs hadn’t seen in some time. “I’ll know for certain, my dear boy, when I get him back home and open him up.”

“Then lets get him loaded, Duck,” Gibbs told him. New perspective or not, there was still work to be done.

Chapter 19

Gibbs hated being wrong.

Gibbs thought Goliath brokering the sale of ARES meant selling it couldn’t happen without him. But the truth was a bit more complicated. Goliath’s actual role was to bring the buyers and seller together, to arrange a way for the auction to take place, and for contact between the seller and the highest bidder to occur when it was time to make the exchange. So when they’d found Harrow, Gibbs had told Shepard that the auction hadn’t taken place. He hadn’t known it was already set up and could occur even without Goliath or Harrow around to participate. The wheels were already in motion.

It wasn’t until McGee realized that the coffee shop where Ziva and Bahl had spotted Harrow was actually an internet café that pieces began to fall into place. Gibbs wasn’t sure how McGee got into Harrow’s email, or traced the lines of communication, and he didn’t honestly care. All Gibbs had needed to know was that the auction was definitely going on. An unknown party was hosting the online activity; they’d been unable to pin down whom, or where, and as a result couldn’t stop it or take control of the event.

Fortunately, buried in what McGee and Abby both considered a positively ancient computer, ARES had been located. Buyers might be lining up to bid, but they ultimately couldn’t get the goods. So the on going auction wasn’t much of an issue---or it wouldn’t have been if not for Shepard’s desire to capture Benoit.

How exactly they were supposed to ensure he was the highest bidder, Gibbs didn’t have a clue. He didn’t know how they were supposed to make the exchange either, because they couldn’t risk losing ARES, and there was no way Benoit wouldn’t be smart enough to test the system before paying for it. McGee was good, but even he’d need more than a day to make something that might resemble a complex system like ARES long enough to fool anyone into thinking it was the real deal.

And it as luck would have it, Shepard wasn’t the only one interested in taking this case further. There was also the not entirely unexpected involvement in the case by the CIA.

Gibbs wasn’t sure what tipped them off. It could have been their digging into Trent Kort’s past, McGee trying to hack into something or Miri asking too many questions. Or it could have been Shepard telling the SecNav they’d located ARES and were trying to bring down La Grenouille. Whatever it was didn’t really matter. Gibbs wasn’t looking to blame anyone for it. From the minute Miri mentioned that Kort might be CIA, he was pretty sure it was only a matter of time before someone from the Agency showed up.

They were monitoring the auction, trying to keep tabs on the bidders and find a way to take any or all into custody for a charge that would stick longer than a day, when two men in dark suits stepped off the elevator. Miri had been the first to notice them, nudging Tony and nodding toward the approaching men.

“MiB’s, Sir. Ten o’clock.”

Gibbs had looked up from where he’d been watching the auction over McGee’s shoulder. Men in Black was definitely an apt description. It was possibly the only way to describe them. There was nothing remarkable or otherwise memorable about the two men. They were both Caucasian, approximately six feet tall, with short brown hair and eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses making the color hard to determine. They wouldn’t stand out in a crowd or draw attention, and that was likely one of their most valuable traits.

“It’s always weird to encounter a walking cliché,” Tony murmured loud enough for anyone in range to hear it.

“I know,” Miri said, her sotto whisper clearly meant to draw attention rather than hide what she was saying. “You start thinking it’s just so much bullshit, urban legend stuff to scare small children and then poof there it is.” She gestured toward the two men and grinned. “Wanna bet dinner on the first thing they say?”

Tony chuckled. “Too easy.”

And it would be, Gibbs knew. He was certain even green as grass Bahl would be able to predict the words coming out of their mouths. Gibbs grimaced. This was one more complication he didn’t want or need.

His earlier conversation and coffee with Tony had been interrupted and that still pissed him off. He’d had a revelation of his own about his past relationships that he had yet to get a chance to act on, and that had kept his anger simmering. He wanted more time alone with Tony but that wasn’t going to happen any time soon because he still had some dressing down to do for Ziva and Bahl. And he had a dead arms dealer to deal with while the Director breathed down his neck about how to make a miracle happen. The CIA showing up was just one more thing on a long list of things that were making the longest day of his life even longer.

“We’re looking for Special Agent Gibbs,” one of the strangers said. It was hard to judge but Gibbs was pretty sure the guy was glaring at Miri from behind his sunglasses.

Miri just smirked. “That look would be more effective, Sweet pea, if you ditched the shades.”

Gibbs forced himself not to smile. He might not like her, but he was developing an appreciation for Miri. It was no wonder she and Tony worked together so well. They had a similar sense of humor and willingness to poke at anyone who caught their eye.

“I’m Gibbs.”

“We need to speak with you.” The man looked around, clearly taking in the fact that he and his partner had become the center of attention for Gibbs’ team. “Alone.”

“Damn,” Miri cursed softly. “I thought for sure we’d get the whole top secret classified hush hush bit. It’s always my favorite part. But they went with the softball route and just implied it. I think that’s cheating.”

“We still might get the hush hush bit,” Tony offered, green eyes alight with amusement. “It is early yet, Callahan, they did only just get here. Have a little patience. Let the MiB’s get a chance to settle in and warm up to it. Not everyone goes straight for the kill shot, you know.”

Speaking of kill shot, Gibbs saw Ziva fingering a weapon. He made a subtle stand down motion. They didn’t need to escalate this into something more just yet. And getting bloodstains out of the carpet would take forever.

McGee looked wary but ready, his fingers hovering over the keyboard. What exactly he could do at his computer, Gibbs didn’t know. But hell, McGee pulled rabbits out of his hat all the time where his computer was concerned, so Gibbs repeated the stand down gesture for him as well.

Bahl seemed to be taking his lead from Miri and just smiled, obviously eager to see what would happen next. Letting the two of them spend the afternoon together might have been a mistake, Gibbs thought, except he liked Bahl better when the man didn’t seem so damn nervous all the time. Maybe the probie was finally starting to grow a backbone.

“Gibbs, we need to speak with you, alone.” The man repeated himself, making it less of a request and more of an order.

Gibbs was sorely tempted to tell the two strangers that if they had something to say they can damn well say it in front of his team. But he knew better. He’d done his own share of black ops and there was stuff that simply wasn’t meant to be shared. While he might not think much of how the CIA operated, they are still technically on the same side. And whatever secrets they were protecting were probably in need of protection.

“We’ll use a conference room,” Gibbs said, moving toward the hallway. “DiNozzo, you’re with me.”

The order was habit. It was something that in all the months Tony had been gone Gibbs had never managed to break, and truthfully hadn’t tried very hard to. He’d managed to keep from verbalizing it, but he’d always thought it. Now, with Tony around, saying it seemed completely natural. So too did the immediate answer that came from the younger man.

“On your six, Boss.”

“I said alone, Special Agent Gibbs.”

“I know, I heard you,” Gibbs returned mildly, looking over his shoulder. “If you heard me agree, then you need to get your hearing checked.”

When the man looked like he was going to protest, Gibbs eyed him up and down. “We do this my way or not at all. Take your pick.”

Gibbs really wasn’t under any time constraints or pressure from the brass, the Director’s interest in the case not withstanding. No one told him he had to play nice with another agency. They had ARES. Catching an arms dealer or two would be a bonus, but had never been the main objective, at least not for Gibbs and his team. He could talk to them or not, and it wouldn’t affect Gibbs one way or the other. But he was sure these two needed something Gibbs could provide. There really wasn’t a choice for them.

Gibbs could almost feel Tony grinning behind him. It felt right to have Tony at his back again. McGee was a good second, but Gibbs had never really been able to tell what he was doing or thinking without looking at him the way he could with Tony. And right now he knew Tony was struggling to stay silent, to not be more of a wise ass than he’d already been with the two as yet unidentified agents in front of them.

The man finally nodded his acceptance like Gibbs knew he would. He headed for the conference room knowing they’d follow him and that Tony would keep an eye on them. It was a decidedly comfortable feeling knowing Tony had his back. He’d missed that, a lot.

Gibbs opened the door to the conference room. He held it open and waved a hand in careless invitation for the two strangers to enter ahead of him. They hesitated, and then simply refused to move.

“I don’t think they trust you, Boss.”

Gibbs rolled his eyes and went in first. He was both annoyed and amused by their lack of trust. Like I’d have time to booby trap the damn room, Gibbs thought with disgust. While he’d expected someone from the CIA might show up eventually, he hadn’t exactly planned on them making an appearance this soon, so rigging something painful and potentially deadly for them hadn’t been on his list of things to do. That they assumed it was, was a testament to how the Agency operated.

“You need to release Charles Harrow.”

Gibbs frowned. “Why?”

They hadn’t even started looking for the man’s next of kin yet. If there was someone out there looking to claim the body they’d just have to wait.

The man ignored Gibbs’ question. “We are here to take him into custody.”

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. Custody of him? Not custody of his body? Did they not realize Harrow was dead?

“And just who are you?” Gibbs asked dryly. They had yet to identify themselves, and while Gibbs was sure they were CIA, he wanted confirmation and names.

The man grimaced, and looked like he might refuse on general principal. He reached into his coat. Gibbs tensed instinctively. He didn’t honestly think the man was going for a weapon, but he was prepared for it just in case. He saw Tony shifting his weight and knew the younger man was doing the same.

The man held out a billfold, flipping it open for Gibbs to see. His partner silently did likewise.

“Agent Stanley Brown and Bradley Jones.” Gibbs read aloud. They were CIA. Oh hurray, Gibbs thought derisively. Some times he hated being right more than he hated being wrong.

“What do you need Harrow for?”

“All you need to know is that it is a matter of national security.”

Gibbs snorted. “I don’t see how a dead man could have much impact on national—“’

“Dead?” Brown almost snarled. “What do you mean dead?”

“Dead, as in not breathing.” Tony offered helpfully. “As in no heartbeat. No brain function. No chance of recovery. Dead as in say hello to Saint Peter or Satan depending on how good or bad you’ve been. Dead as in, he bought the farm. He’s taking one long dirt nap. Kicked the bucket---”

Gibbs lightly cuffed the back of Tony’s head. He’d missed having the opportunity to do that. And really, he couldn’t pass it up no matter how amusing he found Tony’s commentary.

“Focus, DiNozzo.”

“Focusing, Boss.”

Brown pulled off his sunglasses, dark brown eyes glaring at Gibbs. “You killed Harrow?”

“No.” Gibbs kept his tone level. “Harrow had a massive heart attack. According to our ME his diet, lack of exercise and age killed him.”

“God damn it.” Brown’s hands clenched into fists and Gibbs inanely wondered how he managed not to crush his sunglasses in the process. “This isn’t some game, Gibbs. You have no idea---”

“Oh, I’ve got a damn good idea,” Gibbs snapped back, stepping forward to get Brown’s face.

He doubted the agent had any intention of filling him in on anything. Talking alone wasn’t for them to have a nice exchange of information and establish the ground rules for working together. No, the CIA wasn’t the type to share information. If they were, NCIS would have already known about Harrow, ARES and Trent Kort. They’d have been working together from the start.

“Harrow was trying to sell ARES,” Gibbs said bluntly, his anger getting the better of him again for the second time in one day. “You think we didn’t know what he was up to when we found him? That we were just out for a fucking stroll and happened to run into a man selling what should be a secure weapons system? You aren’t the only agency out there looking out for this country’s best interest. Just because you’ve got a man on the inside you may or may not be hell bent on protecting--”

“What?!!” Brown leaned forward into Gibbs’ space. “How do you know that? It’s classified.”

“Not well enough, apparently,” Gibbs shot back.

“Where is ARES now?” Jones asked, cutting in and breaking his silence for the first time, one hand on his partner’s arm, holding him in place.

“We’ve recovered ARES.” Tony told him. “It’s safe.”

“Shit.” Brown cursed. “Safe!! It’s not supposed to be safe.”

Tony arched an eyebrow and looked at Gibbs. Gibbs frowned, and then suddenly he got it. There was a reason why there was speculation about ARES being stolen, quiet chatter that was little more than rumor, but no one else seemed to be looking for it. There was a reason why Harrow hadn’t been nearly as hard to locate and identify as La Grenouille or Black Rose. There was a reason a relatively small time guy like Goliath was involved to broker the deal, and the sale had been set up so it could take place without him if need be. There was a reason a CIA agent was working for or with an internationally known, well-established arms dealer who was looking to buy ARES.

“You want ARES sold.”

Tony cocked his head and then slowly nodded, clearly putting together the same pieces Gibbs just had.

“Is it defective, or are you using it as a Trojan horse?” Tony asked, beating Gibbs to the question.

“That’s classified.” Jones finally removed his sunglasses revealing uncompromising hazel eyes.

“Yeah, not so much a secret. Maybe you do need to get your hearing checked.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Did we not already tell you’ve we’ve got what Harrow had? How long do you think it will take us to figure out that the version of ARES he was peddling was bogus, bad or just a way for you to infiltrate whatever system the winning arms dealer has?”

“You’re not that good,” Brown asserted.

Gibbs wanted to belt him one, the cocky fucker. Tony laid a hand on Gibbs’ shoulder. The touch wasn’t restraining as much as it was calming.

“We found it, didn’t we?” Tony asked, not sounding as smug as Gibbs would have expected. He squeezed Gibbs’ shoulder and then let go. Gibbs found himself missing the contact almost immediately.

“We knew about your agent working with Benoit. We found Goliath. We found Harrow. And we’ve got eyes on the auction.” Gibbs kept his attention on Jones. Brown might have done most of the talking so far, but he suspected it was Jones who was in charge. “You really want everything you’ve got in motion to hinge on us being to slow to figure it out? Or do you want to fill us in and let us help?”

Jones sighed. Gibbs could almost feel as well as see his capitulation. Brown looked like he was going to protest, but Jones silenced him with hard look confirming Gibbs belief that he was the one in charge.

“Ideally, ARES would go to Benoit. Kort would see to it that the program got sold from there to certain powers hostile to the US. But even if Benoit wasn’t the high bidder, it was still a good bet that whoever got it would ultimately pass it on to someone else. And really, the only people who would want it aren’t friends of the US. So whiled we’d like to control who ultimately got ARES, we aren’t overly worried about where it would end up.”

Jones shifted his shoulders, obviously trying to release some tension. “As you’ve already surmised, the version Harrow had doesn’t work, or at least not like whoever ends up with it would expect it to. Instead of giving them the ability to jam or redirect US missiles, it would make anyone using it a target for those missiles.”

Gibbs could see that being useful in a lot of ways. It would be a brilliant move and one that couldn’t be traced back directly to the US. So it could potentially be used indefinitely until someone caught on that what they were using was actually putting a bulls-eye on them. Using ARES this way could save American lives.

Jones grimaced. “Goliath was just a middle man. A tool. A way to put another layer between things to obscure what this deal really was. We don’t care about him. Never did. Harrow was one of ours. He’d worked for the DOD for years. It made for a good cover that he was a disgruntled programmer, some one relatively unknown and looking to get enough to retire in comfort. He helped design ARES. It was believable that he would have access to it and be willing to sell it.”

“And all that is now shot to hell,” Brown said angrily.

“Not necessarily,” Gibbs countered, thinking it through. He didn’t particularly approve of how the CIA had planned this operation, but the end result was still something worthwhile. “The auction is going on, no reason it couldn’t still come to the conclusion you wanted.”

“Except we don’t have Harrow to deliver the goods. The buyer is going to expect him to be the one to make the transfer.”

“Do we really need Harrow?” Tony asked, green eyes meeting Gibbs’ blue. They were definitely on the same page.

Jones frowned. “What do you mean do we need him?”

“Have any of the buyers ever met him?” Gibbs asked slowly.

Jones hesitated for a moment, thinking about what he was asking and ultimately suggesting. “No, none of them have met him. This was his first sale.”

“What do they know about him?” Gibbs needed the particulars if they were going to find a passable substitute.

“We made sure to leak very little about Harrow. All anyone knows is that he’s older, a British Ex-Pat whose parents brought him to the US after world war two, and that he worked as a computer programmer for the DOD and was being forced to retire.”

“So they don’t know what he looks like?”

“No.”

Gibbs nodded. “Then all we have to do is find a stand in for him.”

Brown glared at him. “Just how many old British programmers do you think we’ve got lying around?”

“He doesn’t have to program anything, does he?” Tony asked. “I mean they aren’t going to ask him to do that, right? The buyer wouldn’t trust him to run the program. He or she would have someone they trusted examine it for them and confirm it worked, right?”

“Point.” Jones nodded slowly. He rubbed thoughtfully at his chin. “But we still need someone with an authentic accent. The European buyers would likely catch anything less than perfect. And he’ll have to be of the right age. Harrow was characterized as being forced out because of his age.”

Gibbs looked at Tony. “You think Ducky would do it?”

The ME was really the only option they had with such short notice. He fit the bill.

“Can’t hurt to ask him.” Tony looked pensive, biting his lower lip. “Do you think he can do it, Boss? Ducky’s not a field agent and this isn’t exactly going to be a tea party.”

“We’ll be there to watch his back.” Making sure to minimize the danger Ducky was in was the primary consideration.

“He’s never had to do anything like this--“

“You can coach him on how to act, and what to say.”

Tony blinked. “Me?”

“Yes, you. You’re damned good at uncover work. Hell you’re the best we’ve got.” Gibbs kept the compliment offhand, not wanting to say much in front of Brown and Jones. Even as casual as it was, Gibbs could tell Tony was pleased by it.

“If your accent was better—“

“Hey,” Tony protested, “my accent is fine.”

“You keep telling yourself that, DiNozzo.” Gibbs smiled slightly, his tone teasing. He was pleased to see Tony’s eyes twinkling.

“You’re not old enough either. No way to get around that or I’d have already suggested you do it.”

“True.”

Jones eyed them both. “Who the hell his Ducky?”

“He’s our medical examiner.” Gibbs told him. “Dr. Donald Mallard. He’s originally from England, and is close to Harrow’s age.”

“But he’s not a field agent?”

“No.” Tony shrugged. “But we don’t exactly have a lot of options here.”

“And if he can’t do it you aren’t out anything,” Gibbs pointed out. With Harrow dead, their operation was going nowhere fast. “Not like you’ve got a better plan.”

Jones and Brown looked at one another. This was the only way they’d have to salvage an operation that had likely been in motion for a long time.

“We’ll have to clear it with our superiors.”

“Yeah,” Gibbs nodded, “ so will we.”

Gibbs didn’t think getting permission to see this through as being a problem. What would be the problem is that Shepard wanted Benoit. This operation didn’t call for taking him down. It called for letting him get what he wanted and walking away. He couldn’t see her being happy about that.

Gibbs sighed. Maybe they’d get lucky and someone else would be the high bidder. Not that he’d had much good luck recently but one could hope.

“You can use the room and make the calls you need to,” Gibbs told Jones and Brown. “We’ll start putting things in motion on our end.”

He motioned for Tony to follow him out. In the hallway, Gibbs stopped, turning to face the younger man.

“I’ll talk to Shepard.”

Tony smiled wryly. “Braver man than I am, Boss.”

Gibbs smiled back. “Yeah, well, it was my idea.”

“Not like you were alone in thinking it.” Tony rubbed the back of his neck. He sighed. “Not quite what I thought I’d be doing tonight.”

“What did you think you’d be doing?” Gibbs asked, curious.

“I thought I’d be having dinner with you.”

Gibbs’ breath caught. “Dinner?”

“Yeah.”

There was definitely more color to Tony’s cheeks, and he looked sheepish.

“I mean, I know, you would probably have said no, but I thought—“

“No.” Gibbs hastily cut him off. “No, I wouldn’t have turned you down.”

Going for coffee had gone so well. He wanted more of that, a chance to pick up their conversation where it had been interrupted and take it further. And he was delighted that Tony was still willing to do more. That whatever they were moving toward was still an option, and he wasn’t alone in thinking it.

“Really?” Tony asked, looking pleased.

“Really.”

“Cool.” Tony ducked his head shyly. “Maybe after all this is—“

“Definitely.”

“I…ah…I should go talk to Ducky.”

“Take him to Abby’s lab. I’ll meet you there once I brief Shepard and the others.”

Tony tossed off a careless salute.

Gibbs watched him walk away. He took a slow, deep breath, fighting down the urge to follow. If he hadn’t had reason to hate this case before, it was definitely giving him reason to now.

Chapter 20

Tony was well versed in all aspects of ignoring people, especially when he was the one being ignored.

His mother, the eight years of his life she’d been around for, was often too drunk to be aware he was her son much less that he was in the same room. It was, he’d come to understand much later, more a byproduct of her alcohol consumption than from any desire to be deliberately cruel. She may not have loved him, but she didn’t hate him either. The same couldn’t be said of Tony’s father.

His father was dismissive, treating Tony as though he were beneath notice. It wasn’t simply that he was unaware of Tony’s presence. No, that would have been easier to handle. Ignoring Tony wouldn’t have been enough for him if Tony wasn’t made to understand why he was being ignored. His father always took great pains to ensure Tony knew he wasn’t worth paying attention to. That his father’s needs were more important, that all Tony was good for was making certain his drink should be ready and waiting exactly as he liked it. Tony should stand in a corner, quiet and unnoticed until his father had finished whatever business he was working on and deigned to hear the report on Tony’s progress at school that he’d insisted be given nightly. He often left Tony standing in silence until midnight.

When Tony was sent away to boarding school at the age of ten school breaks and holidays were the only time he and his father saw one another. Whenever Tony was summoned to his father’s den, and it was always a summons never a polite request or anything that could be mistaken as a demonstration of affection, he was to stand silently and wait for what had become an almost ritualized dressing down. His father repeatedly told him that nothing he did would ever, ever be good enough. Tony would always be considered a disappointment, a disgrace, a lost cause, a failure, and unworthy of time or attention.

It was a step up from getting smacked around, but not by much. At least when his father raised a hand to him, Tony knew he’d been noticed. But the pain that came with that attention wasn’t worth it; especially not when Tony’s father had his valet administer the punishment.

By the time he was twelve, Tony had been formally disinherited, and no longer even made it back to the DiNozzo estate. He never really thought of the large house and sprawling gardens as home. It was hard to consider it more than just a house when he had never enjoyed being there and hadn’t visited in years. The only contact he had with his father was the birthday gift he sent every year. It was really more just another opportunity to continue to underscore how little Tony mattered because the gifts his father sent were clearly meant to be insulting.

So from the time he was a child Tony’s parents had helped him to have a firm grasp on the nuances between a deliberate cold shoulder and someone simply being inattentive. As a star athlete he’d come to appreciate the benefits of having some his more outrageous behavior overlooked. Once he blew out his knee he’d come to see the down side of being valued only for what he could do and not for who he was since being sidelined meant suddenly no one seemed to know him at all. As a cop in uniform walking a beat he learned to suspect the people who avoided looking at him, trying to pretend that if they didn’t see him he couldn’t see them, and to hate those who refused to admit to seeing anything illegal happening around them. As a detective, he’d come to despise his commanding officer for turning a blind eye to the corruption going on around them. As a federal agent, he’d learned to distrust people who weren’t curious about what was going on around them. Anyone too focused on what was in front of them, rather than on being aware of what was going on around them was going to be a liability at some point in the field.

Tony adjusted his headset and stifled the urge to smirk at McGee. He knew the other man was doing his best to ignore him. He was clearly trying to behave like he was alone in the surveillance van keeping an eye on Ducky, but he was failing miserably. The set of his shoulders, the quick glances, the aborted movements to talk were all a dead give away. McGee had something to say, and he was trying to work up the courage to say it.

Ton debated whether or not he should help him out. It’s like pulling off a band-aid, Tony thought with amusement. He could do it quickly, or he could let McGee struggle for however long they were trapped in the van. Tony grimaced. He knew he’d been letting McGee struggle since he’d walk into the bullpen the first time in months. He didn’t know why this was so hard for McGee or even what the problem was, but he’d resisted doing anything to help, thinking he didn’t owe McGee anything. It wasn’t his job any more to look out for McGee, nor did he have to worry about Gibbs’ team dynamics.

But if he was going to take the bull by the horns, it was definitely better to do it without an audience. It was just the two of them in the van and now would be the best time before Benoit showed up. How Gibbs had managed to convince Shepard not to get involved was something Tony didn’t feel up to asking. He’d seen the look on both their faces after their ‘discussion’. It was better to stand clear of that potential explosion.

Gibbs had also managed to get the CIA to agree to guard the perimeter of the small private airfield where the exchange was scheduled to take place rather than play a more active role. That was another miracle. That they hadn’t taken over the entire operation was akin to Moses parting the Red Sea in Tony’s mind.

Tony sighed silently, wondering how exactly he should broach the subject with McGee. Not that he was entirely clear on just what the subject was, but still, he should do something. He didn’t honestly want to. It wasn’t his responsibility, but it had been once, and it was a hard thing to forget.

Tony sighed again. He wished he could ask Miri. She would undoubtedly have some good advice. She was good with people, her interactions with Tony’s old team notwithstanding. She’d know what to do, would know how to break the ice and fix whatever the hell it was that had gotten McGee so worked up. Unfortunately, she was posted on top of one of the nearby roofs acting as Gibbs’ spotter.

Gibbs was the logical choice to be armed with a sniper riffle. Miri hadn’t objected when asked if she was willing to help round out the roster and act as a second pair of eyes and ears. She could have said no, but Tony knew she wouldn’t. And he felt better knowing Gibbs had someone watching out for him.

To make sure all the angles were covered, Ziva was on another roof similarly armed. Bahl was acting as her spotter. Tony didn’t envy him. Although, with her focus on the job, she likely wouldn’t have time to be pissy with him. Why she was so pissy was a mystery to Tony. Bahl didn’t seem like a bad guy. A little green, but otherwise an okay agent. He didn’t have any overly annoying qualities that stood out and would warrant treating him like shit. If he had, Miri would have mentioned them.

Maybe he could get an answer to that question and put McGee out of his misery at the same time.

“What’s Ziva got against Bahl?”

“Nothing.”

Tony snorted. “I may have been born at night, McGee, but it wasn’t last night.”

“I have no idea what—“

“If you can’t see her snapping and snarling at him like some sort of junk yard dog,” Tony retorted sharply, annoyed with McGee’s denial of the obvious, “you’ve got no business being second in command of your team.”

“I am a damn good senior agent,” McGee shot back heatedly, glaring angrily at Tony, color rising at the back of his neck.

“Then you know exactly what I’m asking about,” Tony returned, softening his tone. He hadn’t expected to get such a rise so early from McGee. He wasn’t trying to make the situation worse.

“Tell me the truth. What did he do to her or fail to do that has her treating him like she’d sooner shoot him than talk to him?”

He was tempted to ask why the hell McGee hadn’t stepped in and done something about it. As the senior agent he should have. Training the probie was Gibbs’ responsibility, but looking out for him was McGee’s. McGee had looked out for Lee. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what he should be doing.

“We’re supposed to be working, DiNozzo.”

Tony hid a smile at the use of his surname. McGee had never realized how many tells he had. “I can work and talk, McGee. I can even walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. Would think someone who went to Hopkins and MIT could master those simple concepts too.”

McGee glared at him again. “Why don’t you ask her?”

“Because she’s not here. She’s out there,” Tony used his thumb to point over his shoulder. “And she’s got a guy acting as her spotter and watching her back who she clearly doesn’t like or trust. So I’m asking you if I should be worried that she thinks Bahl is a liability.”

“She won’t jeopardize this operation.”

“That’s comforting, but still not the point.” Tony made eye contact and held it. “What is her problem with him?”

“He not you, okay, he’s not you! That’s her problem.”

Tony’s jaw dropped. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“She doesn’t like him because he isn’t you.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” Tony stared at him, completely dumbfounded. That was so not what he’d been expecting to hear.

“She told me she didn’t want some probie filling your spot. She never said anything to Gibbs about it because he’s the boss and it was his decision. But she was definitely not happy about him taking your desk and trying to take your place on the team.”

“Why the hell would she care?” Tony shook his head. “It wasn’t as if she thought that much of me—“

“Are you serious?”

“Hell, yes I’m serious.” Tony bit back ‘probie’ before he could say it. Using that nickname likely wouldn’t help.

“She thought I was too juvenile, too soft, too stupid, too little of a lot of things to ever be qualified as anything more than a passable agent. She wondered how I ever got to be senior agent and definitely didn’t think I should have ever been acting lead. She may have worked with me well enough but that was only because she was sure she could handle anything whether I was there to help or not. As long as I didn’t do something stupid and get her shot, she wouldn’t have cared if I fell off the face of the earth.”

When McGee opened his mouth, Tony held up a hand stopping him cold. “When I was acting lead, she didn’t come in on time, didn’t turn in her reports on time, never once called me ‘boss’, and it wasn’t me she called when the shit hit the fan. She was gleeful, honest to God all but fucking dancing when I got demoted. So don’t try to tell me Little Miss Mossad’s problem with your probie is because the poor fucker isn’t me. If I’m her yardstick, there is no way in hell Bahl could fail to measure up.”

McGee paled, eyes almost comically wide. “That’s what you think?”

Both Tony’s eyebrows rose. Was McGee seriously asking him that? “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because—“

“It’s not like you weren’t right there with her. You came in on time and did your job but you didn’t exactly give me the same 110% you did Gibbs. I might have gotten a ‘boss’ or two from you but it was a slip of the tongue never something you’d meant to say. You were honest enough to tell me you didn’t think I deserved to have my own team, and hey, kudos to you for knowing when to use the truth to your advantage.”

“I was wrong,” McGee all but whispered, blue eyes awash with something Tony thought looked a lot like guilt.

Tony sighed. This wasn’t supposed to be about making McGee feel guilty or airing old grievances. He’d already covered this with Gibbs. Doing it with McGee wouldn’t change anything. That was the past. It was done.

“It doesn’t matter any more.”

And it didn’t. Not really. It was high time Tony got over it.

“Just do me a favor and don’t insult my intelligence, the little you think I might actually possess, and tell me Ziva thought so much of me she actually hates the guy who replaced me.”

“He’s not your replacement,” McGee stated firmly. “He’s not. If anything he’s Lee’s replacement.”

“Okay, he’s Lee’s.” Tony shrugged. It was all semantics as far as he could see. Bahl had taken over what had been Tony’s desk. He might be a probie, but he was sitting where Tony used to.

“So what is Ziva’s deal with him?”

“She didn’t want anyone else on the team.” McGee’s jaw clenched. He looked at Tony. “She…I...that is we both…we both wanted you back.”

“Why?” Tony frowned. “You had Gibbs. You didn’t need me.”

“We wanted our team back, not just Gibbs.” McGee turned to fully face Tony, his expression earnest. “We wanted things to be normal. For things to be the way they were. The way they were supposed to be. And that meant having Gibbs back. That meant having you there as Senior Agent.”

“I thought you’d be thrilled with the promotion.”

“I was.” McGee sighed. “But I didn’t want the job because you left. I wanted it because I’d earned it.”

“You did earn it.” Tony frowned again. McGee had never suffered from any lack of confidence in his ability. He may have started out unsure of his place on the team back when he was fresh out of FLETC, but he’d always been certain of his ability to do the job.

Admittedly working as Gibbs’ second wasn’t exactly a cake walk. McGee hadn’t done everything for Tony as his senior agent that he no doubt had to do for Gibbs, but it wasn’t as if he couldn’t learn. Hell, most of the stuff Tony had continued doing was just paperwork. McGee could type with both hands at a speed Tony had never come close to so none of that should have been much of an issue. He was a good field agent, and had demonstrated his ability while on the team for the last few years. He excelled with computers, tracking down leads and information easily.

Tony doubted McGee wanted to hear any of that, so he opted for what he thought the younger man might believe. “If Gibbs thought you weren’t ready for it, he’d have gotten someone else.”

Gibbs knew what McGee was capable of. He’d have never promoted him if he thought the younger man wasn’t ready.

“Who the hell do you think would have taken him up on his offer?” McGee asked incredulously. “He’s a bear to work with, you know that.”

“He’s also the best.” Tony shrugged. “That’s why you wanted to be on his team. Safe bet there are a lot of others who would take a shot at being on his team for the same reason regardless of how big a bastard the man can be.”

“He was even worse after you left,” McGee said, ignoring Tony as if he hadn’t spoken. “I didn’t think it was possible but it was; it definitely was. I didn’t know what to do…no one was laughing or talking any more. Hell, half the time we didn’t even look at each other. Gibbs was glaring and growling at everyone. He was even more demanding, and I kept wishing you’d walk in, say something stupid and childish and he’d cuff you across the back of the head and everything would be like it used to be. I wanted to wake up one morning and find it had all been a bad dream.”

McGee swallowed hard, looking away. “I must have tried calling you a dozen times, but I always quit before I even dialed your number. What was I supposed to say? Hey, Tony, I’m in over my head here, and the team is falling apart, would you be willing to, I don’t know, help me out? After I’d been such a schmuck, I didn’t think you’d even answer me anyway. E-mail wasn’t an option either. I didn’t know what to say much less what to type. And it wasn’t like you’d have to read anything I sent. You didn’t read Abby’s. She was impossible to talk to for weeks because you didn’t write back.”

McGee gestured with his hands, meaningless, nervous motions that conveyed his agitation as much as his voice. “And I didn’t want to give you the chance to laugh in my face. I mean, I knew if I did some serious groveling, you’d probably only haze me a little. Really, how much could you do from Spain? Right?”

McGee laughed a little, sounding mildly hysterical. “I didn’t want to deal with you rubbing my face in my not being able to do your job. I thought it would be easy. I knew Gibbs. I wasn’t a Probie any more. I knew what to expect. I knew what to do. But I was wrong.”

McGee’s hands flailed again. “I really didn’t want to admit I was wrong. Not to you. There I said it. I didn’t want to admit I’d been an ass. I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t do your job as well or better than you did despite my skill with computers and my education. I didn’t want you to tell me how to deal with Gibbs or how to be his senior agent when I should be able to figure it out on my own. I wasn’t going to be a failure. I was the top of my class, damn it. I could do this. I wasn’t going to--“

“Whoa, McGee, buddy, you got to breathe.”

“fall apart or let Gibbs down. But then I couldn’t do everything. I have no idea how you did so much. You never looked busy. Never looked tired. Well, except after you’d had the plague. The damn plague. Only you could get a freaking disease from the middle ages and come back after only two weeks off. I am never home, Tony. Someone could steal everything I own and I’d never know. And I have no time to work on my novel. None. Not that it matters because if I sit down for five minutes I fall asleep.”

“McGee, man, seriously, take a breath.”

“I had to start working out. Is Gibbs even human? Because I couldn’t keep up with him and I’m a hell of a lot younger than he is. It shouldn’t be possible for him to—“

“McGee,” Tony reached out and used both hands to gently cup the younger man’s face. He forced him to make eye contact. “Take a deep breath. Hold it.”

When it looked like McGee might protest, Tony barked. “Do it! Now.” Reflexively, McGee took a deep breath and held it.

“Good.” Tony nodded. “Now let it out slowly.”

McGee nodded and exhaled slowly.

“In again.” Tony waited. “Out.”

Tony patterned his own breathing on the rhythm he was setting for McGee. When McGee seemed to be in control of himself again, Tony let go of him and stopped coaching him.

“Better?”

McGee nodded. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.”

“It’s a sign of weakness, I know. In this case—“

“In this case, Probie,” Tony used the name deliberately, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder, “you momentarily lost your mind. That’s not weak, that’s understandable.”

He chuckled wryly. “And do not think for even a second that I do not know of which I speak. I got drafted to be Gibbs’ senior agent with a lot less time in on his team than you had. And for a while he and I were a two man team, so I didn’t have anyone to share the burden with. That you didn’t have a front row seat to witness my baptism of fire and subsequent meltdown doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

“But you made it look easy—“

“And let that be a lesson to you. No one makes anything look easy without a hell of a lot of practice.” Tony shook his head. That was something McGee should have already known, but then McGee had always been smart, always been diligent in his studies and applying himself. Things he was good at had come easy to him without requiring repeated effort.

“Gibbs was not born a great investigator any more than you were born knowing how to type. And for all his skills as an investigator, he can be utterly clueless to what is going on with the people around him. So, a word of advice, say something to him before you let things get to you this badly. He may be a bastard, but he’s not going to let you drown.”

“No, he’ll just replace me.”

Tony snorted. “Don’t be stupid. He’s not going to fire you for admitting there are things you didn’t know how to do or need more time to complete.”

“He doesn’t—“

“He can be remarkably tolerant, Tim, if you let him know what you need.” Tony smiled. “Trust me, I know.”

“I’ve never seen him be tolerant,” McGee said looking doubtful.

“Yes, you have.” Tony countered. “When he came back from Mexico, he took you under his wing.”

That Gibbs had taken time to start teaching McGee things had been another reason Tony had elected to go to Spain. If Gibbs was grooming McGee to be his replacement, he didn’t want to hang around and watch. Especially not when Gibbs was still acting like he barely knew Tony and didn’t particularly like him.

McGee looked thoughtful. “He stopped doing that when you left.”

“We’ve already talked about how clueless he can be at times.” Tony shrugged. “And really communication isn’t exactly his forte. You were his second in command, he expected you to know what to do because, well—“

“Because you did.”

“Yeah.” Tony nodded. “He got used to having someone take care of stuff without having to think much about how it got done. He assigned you the job and figured you’d let him know if there was anything you couldn’t handle. When you didn’t say anything, he didn’t question it.”

Tony lightly bumped McGee’s shoulder with his fist. “And he probably thought you had Ziva to help out.”

“But she’s—“

“Yeah.” Tony grimaced. “He tends to forget that she’s not actually an agent, and she’s not technically in the chain of command. There is no way you could order her to do anything.”

“I’m sorry, Tony.” McGee’s expression was sincere, his tone genuinely apologetic. “I never realized how much you did, how much you mattered to the team, to me. I never understood. And now I do, and I’m sorry I didn’t give you my all as your second. I’m sorry I was an ass when Gibbs came back. I’m sorry I didn’t have the guts to just call you and say something before now.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Tony smiled warmly. He was somewhat embarrassed by McGee’s apology. “It’s over and done.”

“I should have handled it better.”

“You will the next time.” Tony chuckled. “Good judgment is the product of bad. You learn what not to do by doing it.” He doubted McGee would make the same mistake twice.

Tony glanced toward one of the many monitors giving them full view of the airfield. A plane was landing. “Show time, McGee.”

He keyed his mic. “Ducky, we’ve got incoming. You ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be, Anthony.” Ducky’s voice was reassuringly steady, giving away only mild uncertainty.

“Remember we can hear you and you can hear us. We’ve got eyes on you as well. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You’ll be fine.”

“Thank you for that vote of confidence, my boy.”

“Gibbs, Ziva, you guys good?”

“Ready,” Ziva replied, her voice calm and confident.

“Ready,” Gibbs said, his usual abrupt nature reassuring. Tony would have liked to have been with him on the roof, but understood he’d be more useful in the van. Once this went down, he and Gibbs could spend some time together. So the sooner they took care of this the better.

“Okay then, let’s sell some secrets.”

Chapter 21

The view through a sniper scope was amazingly clear and stunningly sharp, but decidedly limited in its range of vision.

The narrow view through the scope was one of the reasons a sniper usually had a spotter. Having someone with a wider field of view to watch for things the sniper couldn’t see while focused on his target was important. It was often vital to the success of the mission and the sniper’s survival.

That narrow focus was also why when a sniper was acting as back up for a larger team, he wasn’t the one calling the shots. Snipers were never in charge on a SWAT team. Too much happened on the periphery that they simply couldn’t see or weren’t aware of for them to be in command. Someone capable of seeing the full picture needed to be the one calling the action.

Gibbs knew when he elected to handle acting as long range protection for Ducky that he couldn’t be in command of the operation. Not that the CIA would have let him take complete control anyway. They were willing to cooperate only so far, but making sure it was NCIS personnel in the van directly monitoring the action and making sure Ducky got out in one piece was Gibbs’ main priority.

Having Tony as the one to coach and monitor Ducky ultimately meant he was the one in control of the action. Ducky who was point man on this operation, but Tony was the one telling him what to say, and when to say it. If things went sideways, Tony would be the one to call the operation off.

Gibbs trusted Tony’s judgment. Not only had Tony been very good at undercover work himself, and had been an agent for a long time. He had the experience and ability to make the call. He’d done it before for himself on countless cases, and for Gibbs when a teenager was holding his class hostage.

It didn’t hurt that Tony thought on his feet better than anyone Gibbs had ever met. If things didn’t go according to plan, Gibbs knew Tony would be able to adjust and adapt. And he also knew that regardless of the outcome the CIA wanted, or what Shepard longed for, Tony and he were on the same page in thinking Ducky’s safety was the number one priority. It was a nice feeling to once more be in sync with Tony.

It was rather anti-climactic that everything went smoothly when Gibbs was so prepared for things to degenerate into a monumental cluster fuck. There were a few tense moments when Ducky forgot that he was playing a roll, and nearly neglected to take payment, but overall it was far easier than Gibbs expected. It was a relief to stand down, but it would be awhile before the adrenaline bled away and let him truly relax.

“It feels wrong to be glad the bad guy got away,” Miri murmured as Gibbs began packing up his rifle. She sighed heavily. “Working for the greater good really sucks some days.”

Gibbs wasn’t sure a response was required given how rhetorical the statement seemed, but he responded anyway, thinking he should at least make an effort at conversation.

“The CIA will be happy.”

“Someone should be.” Miri grimaced. “Although, I would not be surprised if they got their panties in a bunch over something just to have a reason to make sure we didn’t forget our place. God forbid they admit to needing us or anyone else.”

She grinned suddenly, white teeth gleaming in the darkness. “DiNozzo, can we bet on that?”

It was only then that Gibbs realized their mics were still on and Tony could hear every word. They’d been able to listen in on Tony’s directives to Ducky and hear the conversation between Ducky and Benoit. But it had been quiet long enough for Gibbs to have lost sight of the fact they were still wired.

“Sucker bet, Callahan,” Tony replied to her question, amusement easy to hear in his voice.

“I miss Mouse, Sir,” Miri said, sounding like a child whose favorite toy had gotten lost. “He’d have taken me up on that.”

“Probably.” Tony chuckled. “But he’d have worked it in his favor.”

“The little shit is good at that.” Miri’s tone was fond. “Even when he loses he wins.”

“Call him when we get in. He’ll want to know this got wrapped up and we are safe and sound.”

“It’ll be damned early there.”

“You really think that matters?”

“Nope.” Miri grinned again. “But he’s going to bitch because it’s expected and it’s how he covers up the fact that he was worried and not sleeping anyway. So I’ll tell him it’s your fault he’s not getting the full requirement of beauty sleep he prefers.”

“Yeah, yeah, make me the bad guy.”

“It’s why you get paid the big bucks, Sir. I’m just here to look pretty.”

Gibbs’ chest tightened at the sudden reminder that Tony had a team of his own. Tony had duties and responsibilities somewhere other than DC. He had people who cared about him and that he cared about.

Gibbs’ jaw clenched. He was making headway toward fixing things with Tony, but what did that mean? Repairing the rift didn’t mean things would go back to the way they were. All his earlier joy at Tony’s dinner invitation faded away with the realization Tony wasn’t going to come back to Gibbs’ team.

For one thing, there wasn’t an open spot and Gibbs couldn’t see Shepard allowing Tony to come back. He was doing well in Spain, and making NCIS look good. She wouldn’t agree to his coming back to DC without a damn good reason. Gibbs couldn’t see her accepting his saying he needed Tony as a good reason, not when he’d gotten along without him for months.

And even if Shepard was willing, why would Tony come back? Having a team of his own was clearly something Tony deserved. He’d earned that promotion. If Miri was anything to go by, his team liked and respected Tony. He’d made a place for himself. After everything Tony had said about why he’d taken the job, and left his old team, Gibbs couldn’t see him trading the new team in for what he’d left behind in the first place; especially not when McGee would barely look at him and Ziva wouldn’t talk to him.

Thinking of Tony leaving hurt. A lot. Gibbs didn’t want him to go. Having Tony back had reminded of everything he’d lost, and everything he’d wanted to hold on to. Gibbs had missed Tony fiercely, only realizing what he’d lost after Tony was gone; he didn’t want to be without him again. He didn’t want to be alone.

Something of what he was thinking and feeling must have become apparent to Miri, even with the poor lighting. She looked at him, eyes narrowed, head cocked to one side.

“Well meet you at the van, Sir.” Miri said, the comment obviously directed at Tony even as she continued to study Gibbs.

“Copy that.”

She clicked her mic off, and motioned for Gibbs to do the same.

“You are an idiot.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’d like to excuse you but honestly I can’t think of one good reason to.” Miri shook her head. She reminded Gibbs a lot of his mother at that moment. How was it possible for her to do that? She wasn’t even half his age for god’s sake.

“I get that Tony left on less than ideal terms with you and his old team. The way everyone has acted when we got here would have clued me in even if Tony hadn’t said a word. Subtle you and your team are not.”

Gibbs wanted to deny that, but it was hard to argue with the truth. A blind man could have seen there were issues that hadn’t been addressed.

“And since I made the two of you talk to one another, it’s a safe bet I’m fully aware of where things stand between you now. So please do not act as though I’m some how ignorant of what is going on.”

Miri pointed a finger at him. “Because I am aware, and I like Tony, and don’t hate you, I’m going to give you a bit of advice. Before you start looking like a kicked puppy again, talk to the man.”

Gibbs glared at her. “I did not look like a kicked puppy.”

“How would you know? You can’t see yourself.”

Gibbs didn’t have an answer for that. And suddenly she no longer reminded him of his mother but of his daughter. That was exactly the sort of argument Kelly would have made. It was the same sort of argument Abby would have made as well.

“Trust me you looked like a kicked puppy.” She clucked her tongue. “It’s not a good look for you.”

Gibbs wondered if he could get away with head smacking her. He was tempted but he was also sure she wouldn’t tolerate it. Gibbs was confident he could take her, but he didn’t think Tony would appreciate him kicking Miri’s ass.

Miri smiled, the mischief in her eyes made it clear she had a good idea of what he was thinking. She shook her head and pointed at him again. “Before you twist yourself up into a lot of unnecessary knots you should talk to Tony. I realize you can get by most of the time with a few looks and some grunts, but this is one or those cases where expressing yourself in English is actually be necessary. Not saying anything is sort of what got you to this point in the first place, remember?”

She wasn’t wrong, not really. Not talking to Tony had been the root of a lot of the problems between them, but Gibbs couldn’t see what difference talking would have in this case. It wasn’t like talking about it would change anything. Tony still had a team of his own to go back to. He still had a life that didn’t include Gibbs. None of that would change just because Gibbs had feeling for Tony, feelings he wanted to confess but hadn’t exactly figured out how to fully express.

But Gibbs was honest enough to admit the last time Miri had finagled it so he and Tony had to talk to one another it had been really beneficial. They were definitely better off if Tony had planned to ask Gibbs to dinner. Gibbs knew that would never have happened without the conversation they’d had in the hotel bar. So there might be some value in admitting to more.

He was only assuming that his feelings wouldn’t be enough to convince Tony to stay. He didn’t actually know. And he wasn’t honestly sure he wanted to be told that how he felt, that what he wanted and needed, wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. But he knew better than to assume. Miri was right. He should talk to Tony before he gave it all up as a lost cause and walked away. He’d already cut Tony out of his life once, and he’d survived, but he wasn’t sure he could do it again.

“You are a pain in the ass,” Gibbs told Miri, the statement lacking any real heat.

“I know.” Miri laughed, shouldering her pack and heading for the stairway that would get them off the rooftop. “Tony tells me the same thing. But as faults go, it’s one most people I know find they can live with.”

Gibbs shook his head, shouldering his own equipment and followed her. What the hell could he say to that? It’s not like he didn’t embrace his own tendency to be a bastard. Most people he knew and liked were tolerant of his nature.

They meet up with Ziva and Bahl at the van. Bahl looked nervous, but then it was how he usually looked so Gibbs didn’t read too much into it especially since time spent with Ziva usually compounded the younger agent’s tendency to twitch. But it was hard to ignore the fact Bahl seems a lot more comfortable with Miri than he did with Ziva or Gibbs.

Bahl barely knows her, Gibbs thought, resenting how petulant that sounded in his own head. But unlike Ziva who’d threatened Bahl with a myriad of painful tortures and death almost from the moment she met him, Miri hadn’t been anything but polite to Bahl. It was no wonder he was more comfortable with her.

Miri punched Bahl lightly in the shoulder. “Well done, Padawan.”

Bahl grinned. “Thanks.”

Ziva snorted. “He didn’t do anything.”

“Neither did you,” Miri said with a quicksilver grin. “For that matter, neither did I. And that we had nothing to do is why we should all be proud of a job well done.”

“You just want ice cream,” Tony said, opening the door to the van and stepping out, cane in hand.

“We always get a treat when the job is finished.” Miri held out her hand, palm up, as though expecting Tony to put something in it. “I would take my just desserts, Sir. As well I should. I earned them.”

Tony chuckled, twirling his cane before tapping Miri’s hand lightly with it. “You are so easy.”

“Only for you, Tony, only for you.” Miri winked at him. “I make everyone else work for it.”

Gibbs again fought down the urge to smack her. He hated how casually she and Tony tossed innuendos around, and the easy way they touched without hesitation. He was jealous of how comfortable they were with one another, of how well they seemed to know and understand each other. Miri had told Ziva she and Tony hadn’t slept together, and Gibbs believed her, but she seemed closer to Tony than Gibbs had ever been even when he was sleeping with Tony. It was decidedly frustrating.

“Congratulations Ducky on completing your first undercover assignment.” Miri smiled at the ME as he approached the van.

“Thank you, my dear.” Ducky beamed at her. “Despite this success, I do think it will likely be my only undercover assignment. As exhilarating as the experience was, keeping track of multiple identities is far harder than I expected.”

“It gets easier with practice,” Tony told him.

“As do most things, Anthony,” Ducky said with a smile. “But I think I’ll stick to the profession I’m already proficient with and leave this sort of thing to those younger and better suited to it.”

“I don’t know, Ducky, you might have missed your calling,” McGee grinned at Tony. “You could give Tony a run for his money.”

Gibbs bit the inside of his cheek to keep from showing any surprise. That was the first time McGee had said anything to Tony since he’d come back from Spain that didn’t sound even remotely hostile or uneasy. McGee didn’t look tense or uncertain either. Clearly something had happened between Tony and McGee while they were in the van together.

Gibbs was initially worried that they might end up trying to kill each other. But McGee was their go to guy for all things technical. And Tony had to be there to monitor Ducky. There had been no other choice but to have Tony and McGee in the van together.

Gibbs realized he wasn’t the only one who’d picked up on McGee being more relaxed. Miri shot Tony a speculative look. Tony just shrugged and smiled. Miri laughed softly and tapped the side of her nose with her index finger. That earned her a sharp look from Ziva. Obviously Ziva got there was something going on but wasn’t clear on what and she clearly resented that Miri seemed to know what she did not.

“We done here?” Gibbs asked, redirecting his team’s attention to the job rather than each other.

“Yes, Boss.” McGee and Ziva both answered promptly. Bahl simply nodded.

“Still seems weird to be letting the bad guys get away,” Miri grumbled.

Ducky clucked his tongue. “I have found that much can be accomplished by taking the path that does not run true.”

“As long as you aren’t running in circles,” Miri retorted with a smile.

Gibbs couldn’t help but see what Ducky had said as relating to him and Tony. Things might not be ideal, but Gibbs couldn’t honestly imagine they would have been better had Tony stayed in DC. Given what Tony had said about his experience while Gibbs was in Mexico, and what Gibbs had witnessed for himself after his return, he had a feeling things might have turned out worse if Tony had stayed. That was a sobering thought. Gibbs frowned. He really hated it when Ducky waxed philosophical.

“Let’s head for home. Ziva, McGee and Bahl bring the van. Miri and Ducky you’re in the limo. DiNozzo, you’re with me.”

If any one had objections they were wise enough not to voice them. Gibbs’ team might be a bit dysfunctional, but they still functioned and did what they were told. His team got in the van. Miri had only looked at Tony, and getting a nod, walked arm in arm with Ducky toward the limo where the ME had his meeting with Benoit. Gibbs had a feeling the older man would enjoy having a captive audience to whom all his stories were new. And Miri would likely enjoy listening to his stories. Even Gibbs would admit Ducky’s stories were entertaining when they didn’t interrupt an ongoing investigation.

“Good call on sending Miri with Ducky.” Tony smiled wryly as he slid into the passenger side of the sedan Gibbs had driven to the site, his cane tucked between his leg and the door. Gibbs noticed Tony played with his cane more than he used it. He suspected he only brought it because Miri had given him a dirty look when Tony had tried to leave it behind.

“Miri likes Bahl, and things with me and McGee are better so she’d be less inclined to hurt him, but putting her and Ziva in a small space together for any length of time would be…well, maybe not a total disaster, but not far from it.”

“You think she could take Ziva?” Gibbs was genuinely curious.

“I don’t honestly know.” Tony chuckled. He held up his hands as though weighing something. “Miri doesn’t have Ziva’s training, but she’s no slouch. She might not win outright, but not all the blood on the floor would be Miri’s.”

Gibbs turned on the car and headed for the Naval Yard. It would take more than a few hours to get there. Still it was a lot less than if the exchange had taken place in Canada as had been originally planned. He was damned glad that they’d managed to convince Benoit to change the meeting place to a remote airfield in West Virginia. Citing Harrows poor health as the reason he could not to fly had been a brilliant idea. He made a note to remember to tell Ducky that.

Letting it be known his health was failing would help in the long run. Harrow’s death wouldn’t need to be a secret and if someone realized the version of ARES that Harrow sold was a Trojan horse, Harrow wouldn’t be around to explain it or have to answer for it. If someone else was looking to buy ARES, they would have to find a new avenue to acquire it. Harrow would become a literal dead end.

Settling into the driver’s set and getting comfortable for the ride back to DC, Gibbs quietly asked Tony, “You find out what was bothering McGee?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“It’s settled.”

Gibbs really wanted to ask more, to interrogate Tony for details, but he held back. He’d never gotten involved before, unless disputes among the team threatened their ability to work together. But Tony didn’t work for him any longer. And it wasn’t really about work. At least not just about work. Gibbs really wanted to know what had been settled and how to make sure the hope that had arisen when he’d realized Tony and McGee could work together wasn’t misplaced. If they could work together that was one less obstacle in the way of Tony coming back.

“So what was the problem?” Gibbs kept his tone mild. He didn’t want Tony to think he was grilling him. Tony wasn’t a suspect in a case. And all three of Gibbs’ ex-wives had drilled into him that loved ones didn’t appreciate being given the third degree.

Tony sighed. “Mostly a lot of misunderstandings that were mainly a byproduct of confusion, fear and a little jealousy. Maybe it was envy. I was never quite clear on the difference between those two.”

Gibbs rolled his eyes. He was not going to be sidetracked by that small misdirection. “What didn’t McGee understand?”

“The main thing was that being your second in command was not as easy as I made it look.” Tony laughed softly. “He missed out on the early years.”

“It’s not supposed to be an easy job.”

“No it isn’t. But he thought he was ready for it.”

“He was ready.”

“Ready or not, he could probably have done with a bit more guidance.” Tony turned to look at him. “The sort of guidance you were giving before I left. From what McGee said, I got the impression you stopped doing that.”

Gibbs felt his face warm. “I don’t coddle my agents.”

“There’s a difference between coddling and not letting them drown, Gibbs.”

“He could have said something. Let me know it was getting to be too much.” Gibbs looked over and made eye contact. “You did.”

“He’s not me.”

Gibbs sighed. He knew that. Admittedly, he kept thinking McGee should be as capable as Tony had been. But he’d forgotten how long it had taken Tony to learn everything involved with being Gibbs’ senior agent. Explaining the why’s and how’s of and investigation wasn’t Gibbs’ forte. He didn’t explain himself; Gibbs led by example and gave orders not reasons for what he wanted done. He’d made an effort with McGee while Tony was there in part because he was doing his best to put space between himself and Tony. And he knew McGee was a probie from comments Tony made, but he’d forgotten how long McGee had been on his team. So he’d felt obligated to spend more time with him to gauge his knowledge and skill level.

Gibbs had wanted Tony for his team almost from the moment he’d met him in part because Tony had good instincts. He was well versus in the art of investigation, and was quick to pick up on what Gibbs needed. What Tony hadn’t understood when he’d started at NCIS were the guidelines and regulations for the agency. Those were things Gibbs had thought McGee would have no issue with. But McGee’s logical mind set got in the way of efficient processing of the paperwork.

Tony huffed out a breath interrupting Gibbs’ thoughts. “You know, for awhile, when you were in Mexico, I almost hated you.”

Gibbs’ grip on the wheel tightened. That didn’t sound promising.

“Or more accurately, I hated that no one thought I lived up to your example. You’re a tough act to follow.” Tony reached across the car, his hand coming to rest lightly on Gibbs’ thigh.

Gibbs tried not to read too much into that touch, but it was hard not to see it as a positive sign. Tony wouldn’t do that if he hated Gibbs or even ‘almost’ hated him.

“It sucked major ass to be constantly compared to you. And while no one said anything to McGee about filling my shoes, he was saying it to himself. He saw himself as coming up short and the more he did, the worse it got. My being here just intensified things because he kept waiting for someone to actually say out loud what he’d been saying to himself.”

Tony sighed. “He thought I would point out the mistakes he’d made and it made him defensive. He thought I’d expose all those imaginary short-comings he was struggling so hard to keep hidden and that made him nervous. He was hostile because he thought I was back to take my old job and he’d be demoted. And he says he missed me. So you’ve got all those ‘I want to be happy you are back and everything will be like it was’ feelings that clash with the reality of what going back to the way things were might mean. I could relate to what he was feeling. Been there, done that.”

Gibbs laid a hand on Tony’s, holding it lightly. Tony turned his hand over and laced their fingers together.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel—“

“I know. Well, I know it now. I didn’t then.” Tony squeezed his hand. “Not blaming you, I’m just trying to explain it.”

Gibbs nodded, squeezing Tony’s hand back. They’d cleared up a lot of things. There were still things they had to cover, but Gibbs was no longer leery of having another conversation. He wasn’t sure if that was progress or not, but it sure felt like it.

“You still want to get dinner?”

“Yeah,” Tony grinned. “I still want dinner.”

“What are you in the mood for?”

“I’m thinking steaks done cowboy style.”

Gibbs grinned, immediately grasping what that meant. “Dinner at my house it is.”

Chapter 22

When they’d gotten within the city limits, Gibbs had called McGee to tell him that he and the team could head home after returning the van. Their reports on the operation could wait until tomorrow. He didn’t bother to tell them to avoid the Director. They should know better than to let her corner them. Not that she needed to talk to them; she was as aware of what happened as they were. She’d been watching from MTAC and listening in on their radio communication. But knowing Shepard, Gibbs was sure she’d want a full briefing as soon as possible.

While Gibbs was talking to McGee, Tony called Miri. He told her to head for the hotel, and he’d see her tomorrow. Something she said made Tony laugh, but it wasn’t loud enough for Gibbs to hear. He was tempted to ask, but wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.

Gibbs opted not to head for the office, going directly to his home instead. He’d taken government vehicles home before; it wasn’t a violation of regulations, although it wasn’t regularly permitted. Gibbs didn’t want to be cornered by Shepard either. The mission was a success. There was no follow up required, at least not by NCIS. The CIA might need to keep track of Benoit, ARES and their agent, but NCIS’ roll in all this was finished. A full briefing could wait until tomorrow.

Gibbs was decidedly pleased when their respective phone calls were completed Tony took his hand again. They’d never held hands before, but it felt right to do it now.

Gibbs didn’t know what to say, so he let silence fill the car. Tony rubbed his thumb over Gibbs’ knuckles. There was nothing erotic about the caress but it made Gibbs’ spine tingle just the same. It had been a long time since anyone other than Abby had touched him with anything approaching affection.

“You sure we should be pissing Shepard off by not going back to the office?” Tony asked quietly.

“She’s been pissed about La Grenouille for years.” Gibbs shook his head. “I don’t think she’d be any less pissed if we went back to the office.”

“Point.” Tony squeezed Gibbs’ hand. “You think the CIA will keep her informed from now on?”

Gibbs snorted. “Not just no, hell no.”

The CIA never shared willingly, and they would see no reason to start now. NCIS’ involvement in their affairs would be terminated as soon as possible. And Gibbs wasn’t honestly sorry about that. He’d been involved in one covert operation since joining the agency and one was plenty.

Tony sighed softly. He settled back in his seat, eyes closing.

“Tired?” Gibbs asked.

“Been a long day, Boss.”

That was as close to a yes as Gibbs expected to get. He smiled. Tony never admitted to being tired. Just like he never admitted to sleeping at his desk, even when caught red handed.

Silence filled the car again. Gibbs thought he’d hear Tony start to snore at any moment, but he didn’t. He couldn’t tell if that meant Tony wasn’t really that tired or if he no longer trusted Gibbs enough to fall asleep in the car. Tony had worked with Gibbs for over a year before he felt safe enough to doze. It was possible he no longer felt sufficiently at ease to nod off. But the way Tony’s thumb continued to brush across Gibbs’ knuckles made him think it wasn’t a lack of trust that kept Tony awake and aware.

Traffic was light enough that getting to Gibbs’ home didn’t take long. He pulled into the drive and parked the car, blue eyes studying his house searching for anything amiss. Even after more than fifteen years, it still felt strange to pull up to his home and not have Shannon turn on the porch light, open the door and welcome him home.

Tony sighed, straightening in his seat. Gibbs expected him to say something like ‘home sweet home’ or ‘looks just like I remembered it’, but Tony just looked at the house. His expression was wistful, green eyes displaying a longing Gibbs had never seen before morphing into something politely neutral when Tony realized Gibbs was looking at him.

“You got steak?”

“Yep.” There were two marinating in his refrigerator. He’d bought them when he’d found out Tony was coming to DC. They’d been marinating since he and Tony had gotten a drink together and Gibbs began to believe Tony didn’t hate him, and they might actually have a meal together. A six-pack of Tony’s favorite beer was keeping the steaks company.

Walking into the house, Gibbs turned on the hall light. The soft overhead lighting illuminated the foyer without blinding them. He hung up his coat and motioned for Tony to do the same.

“Steaks are in the fridge. Can you get them while I get the fire going?”

“Sure.”

Gibbs had the chimney and flue cleaned just a few months ago. He always kept wood in the fireplace ready for use from fall through late spring. He found the dry heat helped ease the aches and pains damp, chilly weather now fostered. And some part of him had hoped he and Tony would end up here, so just like having steaks in the fridge, he kept the fireplace ready, just in case.

The firelight danced, casting shadows on the wall. Tony came into the living room carrying the pan the steaks had been marinating in, two plates with eating utensils, and two beers. He put everything but the beers on the coffee table, and turned on the lamp on the end table, muting the shadows.

Gibbs took the beer Tony offered him. “Thanks.”

“No, thank you.” Tony smiled, before taking a sip of his beer and sighing in satisfaction. “Been a long time since I had this. Dark beer is okay, but still nothing better than an old friend.”

Tony sat on the couch, or more accurately lounged on it, taking up more than half the available space. Gibbs didn’t mind. He wouldn’t be sitting until the steaks were done, and he rather liked the way Tony made himself at home. Very few people ever did that in Gibbs’ house.

“You want anything other than steak?” Gibbs asked as he positioned the small grill frame in the fireplace so he could put the meat on to cook.

Tony held up his beer. “Already got it.”

“Not green or leafy,” Gibbs observed dryly.

“No,” Tony agreed, “it’s not, but Ducky isn’t here to complain and what Miri doesn’t know won’t hurt me.”

“She give you shit about your diet?”

“Not really. At least not about what I eat. It’s more about how much.” Tony sipped his beer. “But when I first got to Spain…I…ah…well, I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to what I ate, when or how much. I’d lost a bit of weight. Miri got worried and started watching out for me.”

Tony chuckled. “Actually it was more like nagging, but with more threats than pleas.”

Gibbs’ eyes narrowed. “How much weight?”

“Not that much.” Tony shrugged. “No big deal. Not like I couldn’t stand to lose it, but Miri is like a mother hen with one chick some days. ”

Gibbs knew Tony hadn’t actually weighed himself in years, and never paid attention to what his doctor had to say during his annual exam as long as it meant he was cleared for duty. The younger man had told Kate once that his weight hadn’t changed since he was in college. He hadn’t been aware of any weight gain until Kate pointed it out. He likely hadn’t been aware of any loss until Miri pointed it out. And for her to notice, when she hadn’t known Tony all that well, it had to be more than a little.

Obviously the transition hadn’t been easy for Tony. That thought gave Gibbs a pause. It hadn’t occurred to him that leaving might have been hard for Tony to do, or that he’d had any difficulty adjusting to his new position in Spain. He’d always thought the decision had been an easy one. He thought Tony had left and not looked back, hadn’t missed them or regretted his choice.

Gibbs sighed. He knew better than to assume. Every time he did, at least where Tony was concerned, he was wrong.

Gibbs eyed the steaks. “You still like it medium rare?”

“Yep.” Tony settled into the couch a little more. He looked around the room. “I like that you haven’t changed anything.”

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. “I thought you said my couch sucked.”

“I did, and it does.” Tony grinned. He gestured with his beer to encompass the entire room. “But it is also you. Just like everything else about this place. And I like that.”

Gibbs felt his face warm. “Thanks, I think.”

Tony chuckled. “You’re welcome, Boss.”

Gibbs put one of the steaks on a plate and handed it to Tony. He put the other on his plate and joined Tony on the couch. He sat close enough that their knees could easily brush against one another.

“You take all your stuff to Spain?” Gibbs asked, suddenly curious about Tony’s place. He’d been in Tony’s apartment a few times but rarely gave much thought to whether or not the space defined him the way Tony seemed to think Gibbs’ house did him. He found himself wondering what Tony’s place looked like now.

“Most of it.” Tony smiled as he cut into his steak. “My car is still here in the states. It would have cost a fortune to ship my baby, and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t fit down some of the streets in Rota.”

Gibbs found it encouraging to know Tony’s car was still in the area. He’d come back for it. Tony loved his cars. He’d been devastated when the corvette was totaled. Not that Gibbs had been particularly sympathetic then, but he’d at least known Tony had lost something important to him.

“Where’d you leave the Mustang?” Gibbs asked, before taking a bit of his steak.

“One of my frat brothers has her.”

“You could have left it with me.”

Tony looked at him, green eyes apprising him with a disturbing frankness. “I’ve seen how you treat cars, Boss.”

“I’m not that bad.”

Tony chuckled. “Yes, you are.”

“I am not.”

Tony grinned. “Any minute you’re going to stick out your tongue at me.”

Feeling silly, Gibbs did just that. Tony to threw back his head and laughed loudly. Gibbs found himself laughing with him. He’d forgotten how much he loved it when Tony laughed like that, free and easy. He’d also forgotten how he enjoyed playing with Tony.

They continued to tease each other, joking and laughing, talking easily throughout their meal. It was the best evening Gibbs had had in months.

Watching Tony looking so relaxed and happy, Gibbs leaned toward him, unable to resist the temptation the younger man represented. He kissed him, slow, soft and sweet. Tony’s mouth opened readily under Gibbs’. Gibbs took advantage of that, his tongue meeting Tony’s---playing, teasing, tasting.

Gibbs moaned. He could taste beer and steak on Tony’s tongue, and something uniquely Tony. He chased the flavor, exploring as much of Tony’s mouth as possible. The need to breathe forced him to pull away.

Tony reached out and cupped Gibbs’ face, fingers caressing his cheek as green eyes searched blue.

“You offering me dessert?”

“And breakfast,” Gibbs replied, his voice hoarse and breathless.

“Best offer I’ve had in a long time.” Tony smiled softly, something like regret coloring his tone. He was clearly having second thoughts.

Don’t say no, Gibbs silently pleaded, don’t. I need this, I need you, Gibbs thought. It had been so long since he’d been with anyone. So long since he’d been with Tony. He turned his head to kiss Tony’s palm.

“Please,” Gibbs whispered, “Tony. Stay.”

Tony sighed. “This is probably not a good idea.”

“I know, but—“

“Yeah, me too.” Tony kissed him, his lips barely brushing against Gibbs’. “I’m not having sex on this poor excuse of a couch. And I sure as hell am not sleeping on it.”

Gibbs’ heart rate accelerated. Tony wasn’t saying no. He wasn’t leaving.

“I’ve got a bed upstairs that’s top of the line.”

“Well, let’s go try that puppy out.”

Chapter 23

Tony woke slowly, unconsciously cataloging his surroundings even before he was even truly awake. He’d woken up in enough strange beds, usually in a hospital somewhere, to know it was best if he had some idea of where he was before he opened his eyes.

He was on his side and he could feel soft cotton against his skin. He could feel it the entire length of his frame from his shoulder to his toes. Definitely not in a hospital then, because regardless of how many times he’d woken up there, Tony had never woken up naked and never on his side. The cheap, frequently laundered in harsh detergent, sheets used in most hospitals never felt as good as what he was lying on. And the pillows were never as supportive or comfortable as the one he was currently using. The blanket covering him was far too light and warm to be anything but someone’s personal choice.

There was no antiseptic scent. Tony was grateful for that. He hated the way hospitals smelled.

There was no floral fragrance or perfumes either, so probably not a woman’s bed. Not that he actually expected to wake up in a woman’s bed. He hadn’t slept with a woman in well over a year. He hadn’t actually slept in anyone’s bed but his own since before Gibbs’ abrupt departure for Mexico.

He could feel warmth along his back. There was the heavy weight of an arm over his middle. It felt comforting rather than confining.

The solid feel of the arm, the lack of softness in the body curled around hiw own, and the toes Tony could brush with his told him his bedmate was likely a man. Very few women were tall enough to equal his height, and no matter how ift they were, women simply didn’t have the same defined musculature that the men Tony found attractive enough to have sex with typically sported.

Warm air ghosted over Tony’s shoulder at regular intervals. Whoever was wrapped around him was obviously still sleeping. The even breathing was slow, deep and reassuring in its unwavering rhythm.

Tony took a deep breath. He’d already noticed the scents he hadn’t found, now he was looking for what he could smell. He picked up traces of coffee, sawdust, something vaguely minty and musk. He’d know that blended aroma anywhere. Gibbs.

Well, hell, Tony thought with wryly. He silently laughed at himself. Last night was definitely not a dream then.

Tony’s body tensed as memories of what they’d done came to the fore. He could feel his face warm just thinking about it. God. He’d been so hungry for contact, so needy, so utterly lost to the experience he couldn’t have walked away if his life depended on it, no matter how much the rational part of his mind screamed at him about what a bad idea this was.

It had been months since anyone touched him, and far too long since he’d touched someone else. It had been so damn intoxicating to have free rein, to feel skin on skin. Hell, the first kiss had been more than he could resist even though he’d tried. He’d tried to be logical, rational, to do the right thing. But even with Gibbs agreeing it wasn’t a good idea, he couldn’t refuse the offer of more.

Tony wasn’t clear on how they made it up the stairs when neither he nor Gibbs was willing to let go of one another. It was like a dam burst, and they were caught up in a flood tide, clinging to one another for survival.

Somehow he managed to shed his clothes before they got to the bedroom. Tony remembered being naked by that time, at least he thought he was from what he could vaguely recall, but he had no clear memory of exactly what happened to his clothing. Tony remembered a moment of lost contact when Gibbs had stepped back to remove his pants. He remembered feeling like he was free falling when Gibbs let go of him, suddenly bereft of an anchor, and terrified Gibbs had changed his mind. He remembered making some embarrassing whimpering noises that immediately brought Gibbs back to him, gloriously naked, his entire body pressed up against Tony.

The first go around they were more like desperate animals than grown men. It wasn’t enough and way too much at the same time. It was just mindless touching and humping, with bruising kisses and breath coming in harsh pants. Tony had come without Gibbs even touching his cock. He’d have been embarrassed by that if Gibbs hadn’t come a second later.

Eventually their breathing evened out, and with the edge taken off their desperation shifted to deliberate action. Kisses became languid caresses with less teeth and more tongue, less fierce and more loving. Hands no longer roamed restless and frantic, but with more focus as fingers teased, tantalized and explored. Whispered endearments replaced dirty words, demands and pleas. Mindless grinding against one another became coordinated rhythm, reaction leading to the next moment, drawing soft sighs and pleasure filled moans.

Tony had come a second time with Gibbs’ hand wrapped around his cock. The older man’s touch was deft and sure, wringing a second orgasm from him that was more intense than the first. He’d clung to Gibbs as pleasure rolled over him leaving Tony uncoordinated and shaking like a leaf in a strong wind.

Tony wasn’t sure if Gibbs had staved off his own orgasm or if their difference in ages had made for a longer recovery time, but the older man had no trouble staying hard long enough to give Tony a third climax. He’d opened Tony up gently, fucking him slow with long, sure thrusts, bliss building with each movement like the crest of a growing wave.

Tony had literally seen stars when his third orgasm of the night broke over him. He might have even passed out because he was sure he lost some time. Somehow Gibbs had gotten them cleaned up and under the covers without Tony knowing how he managed to do it.

They’d settled in together, exhausted and sated. Gibbs had curled around Tony, pulling him in close, placing soft kisses on his shoulder until both of them had fallen asleep.

Tony sighed softly, and stretched, eyes still closed to better enjoy the moment, reveling in the memories of the night before. Muscles twitched and burned with a pleasant ache that made him feel like his whole body was singing with an ‘I got mine’ sensation. It felt amazingly good.

Gibbs arm tightened around him. He mumbled something Tony couldn’t make out, and rubbed his face against Tony’s shoulder. Tony smiled. He’d never really gotten to experience a sleepy Gibbs before. Really, he’d never gotten to spend the night before either. Their previous encounters had usually focused on getting each other off and not much else. They’d never really slept together, never cuddled or spent any time in bed that didn’t involve sex.

Tony opened his eyes and was surprised to see sunlight streaming through the windows. His gaze shifted to the clock on the nightstand. He blinked and looked again. It was just after eight in the morning.

He hadn’t sleep that late in years. And he’d bet anything Gibbs hadn’t either. Tony frowned trying to remember what time they were supposed to be at the office.

Technically, Tony didn’t have to be at the office. The case, well at least, the portion relating to Benoit was done. The missing explosives that had led them to Benoit in the first place were still a dead end otherwise. They had no leads on where the explosives had gone or who’d purchased them, and it was looking more and more like that one was going to end up in the cold case file.

The reports for the operation last night still needed to be done, and Shepard was waiting for a briefing. Tony’s brow furrowed as he tried to remember what time Gibbs had told his team to be at the office. He couldn’t remember Gibbs mentioning a time which meant Ziva and McGee would likely already be at the Yard. Since Gibbs was never late, but made a habit of not always being at his desk when his team arrived, they might not notice he was late---at least not until possibly nine. Even if he was in MTAC or with the Director, Gibbs always put in an appearance by then, or he had when Tony was still on the team. Of course, with Shepard chomping at the bit, and likely demanding to know where Gibbs was, Ziva and McGee would no doubt be aware of his absence sooner rather than later.

Miri had told Tony to feel free to sleep late when he’d told her he was having dinner with Gibbs. She’d wished him luck and then suggested he stay for breakfast, teasing him about finally breaking his dry spell. She wouldn’t be expecting him to show on time, and she wouldn’t worry until she didn’t hear from him until ten.

Tony bit his lower lip. They were already late. Why not go for broke and be really late? Tony grinned. He owed Gibbs one. Tony had come three times last night; Gibbs had only come twice. Tony thought he might as well take care of that debt right now.

He carefully shifted, working to get enough room to move without waking Gibbs. He pushed Gibbs a little, trying to get him to roll onto his back. Gibbs made a sleepy protest, but ultimately moved without waking.

Tony slid down beneath the comforter. He found Gibbs’ cock easily enough and sucked lightly on the head, encouraging his morning woody into full hardness. Tony nibbled his way down the length of it, nuzzling Gibbs’ scrotum before sucking on his balls. He smiled when the older man instinctively spread his legs wider, giving Tony greater access.

Tony ran his hands up Gibbs’ torso as he licked his way back up to the head of Gibbs’ cock. He couldn’t so much hear Gibbs moan as feel the vibrations rumble through his chest as Tony’s fingers found their way to Gibbs’ nipples, playing with them. He pinched the pert little nubs, tugging on them as he increased the suction of his mouth, taking as much of Gibbs’ cock into his mouth as he could handle. He’d never really mastered deep throating someone, but no one had ever complained about that before; he didn’t think Gibbs would start now.

Tony used his weight to hold Gibbs down when the older man began to thrust with his hips. No one might complain about Tony not being able to take the full length of a cock, but gagging and puking would most definitely be a turn off. It was better to control things than have the moment completely ruined.

Tony ran his tongue over the head of Gibbs’ dick, teasing him, playing with him, tasting him. Tony moaned, enjoying what he was doing, his hips rocking against the bed. He sucked harder, bobbing his head to take as much in as he could before withdrawing. He stopped tormenting Gibbs’ nipples so he could use his right hand to stroke the full length while his left played with Gibbs’ balls.

“Tony…God…just like that…please…yes, fuck, god, yes… please don’t stop… just don’t…oh…jesus...so damn good…so long since anyone…Jesus…Tony…yes…fuck, yes.”

He felt Gibbs’ muscles tense even further, his balls drawing up into his body. Gibbs was definitely close, very close. Tony braced himself, sucking harder, taking in everything as Gibbs’ came and swallowing it easily.

Tony moved his left hand to stroke himself. His grip wasn’t as sure, nor was his stroke as smooth but it felt so damn good, Tony didn’t care. He brought himself to completion a second later with a muffled shout of satisfaction.

Once he caught his breath, Tony slithered up Gibbs’ body, head popping out from under the covers. He grinned brightly at Gibbs.

“Good morning.”

“Oh yeah, very good.” Gibbs grinned back and then kissed him. It was a slow, deep kiss that warmed Tony all the way to his toes. No one had ever kissed him like Gibbs did.

When the finally stopped kissing, Gibbs sighed deeply in obvious satisfaction. He smiled gently, hands moving to cup Tony’s face.

“Thank you.”

Tony got that this thank you was about more than the blowjob. He smiled back. “You’re welcome.”

Gibbs glanced over at the clock. “Christ! Is it really that late?”

“Yep.” Tony shrugged one shoulder. He waggled his eyebrows. “You want to call in sick?”

Gibbs laughed softly. “As much as I’d love to—“

“The Director is probably wearing a hole in the carpet as we speak.”

Gibbs rubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah.” He frowned. “I’d have thought she’d call by now.”

“She probably did.”

Tony looked away, not sure if he felt guilty or not. It wasn’t like he wanted them to get in trouble, but he wasn’t overly worried about it. They’d been yelled at before and survived. It wasn’t his fault they were late, at least not exclusively his fault. They’d have still been late if he’d opted to wake Gibbs up by shaking his shoulder rather than a blowjob. The fact that the blowjob was good for both of them was not the point, or not exactly a point germane to the issue now at hand.

“I think…I can’t be sure, mind you, because at the time I wasn’t paying attention, but I think our cell phones are downstairs somewhere. Maybe. They could be on the stairs or down the hall. It’s hard to say for sure when I’m not entirely positive where my clothes are either. I turned the ringer off on my phone last night during the op so I wouldn’t be interrupted and I don’t think I turned it back on. I wouldn’t have heard mine ring regardless of whether or not anyone called. I can’t say I heard yours, but until about twenty minutes ago I was busy checking my eyelids for leaks, and recovering from the best sex I’ve had in a year, so your phone might have rung and I simply didn’t hear it. But then you didn’t hear it either, so I’m thinking it didn’t ring. At least not in this room.”

Gibbs lightly cuffed the back of his head. “That bit of babbling was Abby worthy.”

“I’d like to be able to say it won’t happen again, but I’m smart enough to know better.”

Gibbs cocked his head to one side, a sly grin forming. “Best sex you’ve had in a year?”

Tony wondered if being honest about that should worry him before deciding it didn’t matter.

“Definitely the best sex I’ve had in a year.” The truth of that statement was better than admitting it was the most sex he’d had with anyone at all in a year. That was definitely more pathetic, and far less complimentary.

“Was the best for me too, “ Gibbs said quietly, kissing Tony, his lips lightly meeting Tony’s. “Not a surprise really. Everything was better with you.”

Tony felt his cheeks warm, and ducked his head to hide his face against Gibbs’ chest. He didn’t know if Gibbs honestly meant that, but he hoped he did. Tony sighed silently. He didn’t want to ruin the good mood he’d woken up with by being besieged with doubts and insecurities.

“We should probably get cleaned up.” Tony mumbled against Gibbs’ chest.

He didn’t regret this; he didn’t, he just wished it meant as much as he’d like for it to. He and Gibbs had made a lot of progress in getting back to where they’d been before the explosion wiped Gibbs’ memories, but what they’d had before wasn’t exactly what Tony wanted now. He had no idea if Gibbs really wanted more, or if he was content to simply have them be friends again, friends with benefits. He knew better than to think sex was a panacea, no matter how amazing it had been.

“Tony?” Gibbs put a finger under Tony’s chin and forced his head up. Blue eyes met green. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Tony was quick to assure Gibbs. Nothing was wrong. At least nothing that hadn’t been wrong before. And he wasn’t going to admit to something that was little more than his own insecurities turning mole hills into mountains.

He kissed Gibbs’ cheek, feeling the early morning stubble rasp against his lips. “We need to get cleaned up and get to the office before Shepard melts down.”

Gibbs’ eyes narrowed. “She can wait.”

“She already has,” Tony pointed out, “and any longer and she might fire us both.”

Gibbs grimaced. He nodded. “Yeah, okay.”

When Tony moved to get up, Gibbs grabbed his wrist. “I might not be able to get away for lunch, but can we have dinner together again?”

Tony smiled, doubts easily pushed back by that invitation. “I’d like that.”

“Me too.” Gibbs’ boyish grin made Tony’s heart beat faster. “Would like showering with you too.”

Tony laughed. “You are insatiable.”

“Only for you,” Gibbs murmured softly, kissing Tony’s cheek, hands caressing his sides. “So, what do you say?”

Like he could say no to that? After a year, Tony was still hungry for more.

“I’d love to.”

Chapter 24

Gibbs could see Shepard’s lips moving, but he wasn’t really paying attention to what she was saying.

He hadn’t heard a word she said after she’d gone from asking for a briefing on the case to ranting about Benoit, the CIA and everything else about the case that had pissed her off. None of that really mattered. And the speed with which she was speaking insured no input or participation from Gibbs was required.

Gibbs sighed silently, and tried to at least look like he was listening. He was more interested in thinking about last night, and this morning, than paying attention to anything Shepard had to say. He clenched his jaw and did is best not to smile as he remembered just how damn good last night had been.

Two orgasms in one night hadn’t happened in a long time. Hell, having two the following morning was just as rare. Gibbs felt like he should be glowing he felt so damn good. It had been so tempting to strut into the office smiling and whistling. But that was definitely aberrant behavior for him, and while Miri might have some idea of why he and Tony were late coming in, Gibbs wasn’t sure he wanted anyone else to know. At least not yet. Not until he’d gotten a firm handle on where this thing between them was going.

Gibbs frowned, as he remembered the shift in Tony’s mood after he’d given Gibbs an incredible blowjob and before they’d gotten in the shower together. Something had been off, but he hadn’t been able to pin down what it was exactly. He wasn’t sure what caused it either.

Gibbs hadn’t been overly silent, which used to set off his ex-wives. Hell, he hadn’t said too much either. And nothing he’d said or done seemed to be the cause of that momentary melancholy. At least he didn’t think so.

He consoled himself with the thought that whatever it was, it hadn’t lasted long. And Tony had said yes to having dinner again. That thought made Gibbs smile.

“Jethro, are you even listening to me?”

“No.” Gibbs knew answering honestly was the wrong thing to say, but he was done indulging her whims. If all Shepard wanted an audience, she could pick someone else.

She glared at him. “Damn it, Gibbs, this is important. You, of all people, should know that.“

Gibbs glared at her. “What I know is my team did a damn good job last night. Mission accomplished. And I know you are pissed about how it went down, but there isn’t anything I can do about that. Not unless you want to take on the CIA, which is an option but one I know won’t end well. They aren’t going to let go of their pet weapons dealer without a fight, not when everyone involved seems to think keeping him on their leash is for the greater good.”

“Benoit should be rotting in jail not flying off in his private plane!”

“I agree with you, but I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.”

Gibbs understood her wanting justice for her father. He did. Probably better than most. But unless she was going to go rogue and put a bullet in the man’s brain herself, there wasn’t much Gibbs could do to help her. They weren’t going to get approval for an operation to take Benoit down. Not while he was considered an asset to the CIA. And when he was no longer useful to them, it was likely Trent Kort or someone equally close to Benoit who would be tasked with the job of putting him down.

Shepard looked thoughtful. “The CIA isn’t all powerful, Jethro. NCIS has resources too. We need to find a way to get close to Benoit. A way to bring him back to DC and get him away from the CIA.”

She nodded slowly. She looked at Gibbs. “Benoit has a daughter. Her name is Jeanne.”

Shepard smiled as she’d said that. It made Gibbs uneasy. He had a feeling he wasn’t going to like where she was going with this.

“She is a medical resident here in DC. By all accounts, she and her father are close.”

Gibbs’ jaw tightened. He couldn’t help feeling sick at the idea of using a man’s daughter against him. If Benoit loved his daughter, he would have kept her away from his business. Gibbs had done is best to keep Kelly innocent of the things he’d done as an active duty Marine, and there were things he’d done as an agent he would never have wanted her to know.

It worried him that Shepard knew about Benoit’s daughter. Why hadn’t that little bit of information come up before? When exactly had she learned about Jeanne? How long had she been thinking of using his daughter to bring down La Grenouille?

Oblivious to what Gibbs was thinking, Shepard continued speaking. “If we got someone undercover, someone who could keep an eye on her and---“

“Don’t think we’ve got anyone qualified to work at a hospital.”

Shepard arched an eyebrow. “Agreed. We don’t have anyone with medical expertise, with the possible exception of Dr. Mallard and his assistant. And I doubt sending someone in as support staff would work if they couldn’t actually get close to her. Doctors rarely mingle with the cleaning staff or the aides.”

She clucked her tongue. “We need someone to build a rapport with her, establish a level of trust that would get us the information we need. That’s why I was thinking more along the lines of a romantic liaison.”

Shepard’s smile grew. Gibbs’ unease grew along with it.

“She’s not going to tell a mere coworker about her father’s operation, but she would open up to a boyfriend. La Grenouille might not come back to the US to visit her often, but to assess a new love interest, a future son in law, he likely would stop by. He’d probably even shake his CIA handlers so he could have time alone with his little girl.”

Gibbs’ gut clenched. He didn’t like what she was proposing. Putting a bullet in Benoit’s head was one thing, seducing his daughter was another. Gibbs would kill someone for using his daughter that way, and he couldn’t see Benoit reacting any differently if he cared about her at all. Gibbs couldn’t see how such an operation would end well for anyone involved.

“Is there any evidence the daughter is mixed up in his operation?”

Shepard snorted. “She’s his daughter. She’s not exactly an innocent.”

“Do you have any evidence she’s involved?” Gibbs asked again, his tone clipped and hard.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not I have hard evidence.” Shepard glared at him. “She’s a way in.”

Gibbs began to realize that Shepard’s interest in La Grenouille might be more of an obsession than he’d thought. Her cooperating with the CIA had been coerced by the circumstances, but she clearly wasn’t giving up entirely on bringing Rene Benoit down.

“It matters, Jenny,” Gibbs said softly. “You know it does.”

“No, it doesn’t,” she argued back, her tone fierce and defiant. “I had a chance to get him, Gibbs. For the first time in years, I was this close,” she held up her thumb and forefinger, the digits less than an inch a part, “to having the bastard in jail and getting him to pay for what he’s done.”

“You are prepared to make this woman nothing more than collateral damage? Is that what you are telling me?”

“She wouldn’t be any more damaged than I was when—” Shepard abruptly stopped.

Gibbs knew what she’d left unsaid. She was collateral damage when her father killed himself because of Benoit. But whatever Rene Benoit had done, it was ultimately her father who’d pulled the trigger. He’d been the one to pick suicide over facing the consequences of his actions. And even if Benoit had been the one to pull the trigger, he at least had taken out Jasper Shepard without involving Jenny directly. What she was proposing would deliberately put Jeanne Benoit in the line of fire.

“I think DiNozzo might be an excellent choice to woo her. If his reputation here is anything to go by he won’t be averse to creating an intimate relationship with a beautiful woman. Not to mention his skill at undercover work. He’d be perfect for the assignment.”

“No.” Not just no, hell no, Gibbs thought fiercely. “You are not pimping out my agent—“

“He’s not your agent, Gibbs, he’s mine.” She smirked, blue eyes cold. “He’s not even on your team any more so it’s not like you’d even be affected, Jethro.”

Gibbs’ stiffened. She wasn’t wrong about Tony not being on his team, but she was dead wrong about Gibbs not being affected by her wanting to use Tony as some sort of whore. And she was most definitely wrong about Tony not being his. He’d been blind and stupid before, but Gibbs knew better now. He and Tony might not have talked about it in specific terms, but Gibbs was sure of his own feelings on the matter. Tony was most definitely his.

Even has he thought that, Gibbs knew if Shepard went to Tony, the decision would be Tony’s to make, not Gibbs’. Undercover assignments were usually voluntary, but Tony would follow orders if he thought one was being given. Tony respected the chain of command, but had always deferred to Gibbs when on his team, considering the older man the only link in the chain he had to listen too.

But he wasn’t on Gibbs team any more. He was a leader of his own team. A team he obviously cared a great deal about. Gibbs didn’t think he’d abandon them, and for the first time since Tony had come back to DC, Gibbs thought that might be the best option.

He didn’t want Tony to leave, but Rota was far enough from Shepard for Tony to avoid her machinations. At least Gibbs hoped it was.

If Shepard was as obsessed as Gibbs suspected, there wasn’t much that would stop her. What she was thinking of doing wasn’t even a sanctioned operation; Shepard didn’t have the authority to order something like that and she was already planning how it could be done.

She wouldn’t go to the SecNav with this. Gibbs didn’t think for a moment that he would approve…especially not with the CIA’s claim on Benoit. But Gibbs knew Shepard well enough to know the lack of authorization probably wouldn’t slow her down. She’d missed a chance to get Benoit; she wouldn’t miss another.

Gibbs also knew she wouldn’t tell Tony the truth about the operation if she had the chance to approach him with it. She couldn’t lie to Gibbs, but Shepard could probably pull off lying to Tony. If for no other reason than he’d never expect her to be so underhanded, or unethical.

Shepard had been good to Tony when Gibbs was in Mexico. She’d had faith in his abilities, and supported him when his teammates were more hostile than helpful; she’d given him a promotion and a plum assignment. He might have some doubts about her, but not enough to think she’d lie to him or make him party to something illegal.

Gibbs would have to get to Tony first.

“This is wrong,” Gibbs told Shepard, wanting to give her at least one more chance to see reason.

“Why?” Shepard rolled her eyes. “Because some pampered little princess might get her feelings hurt? Please.”

“Revenge isn’t justice.”

“Don’t pretend to have the moral high ground.” She glared at him. “We both know you don’t own it.”

“Never claimed to be a saint.” Gibbs raised his chin defiantly. “But when it came to doing the dirty work, I never involved anyone who didn’t know exactly what they were getting into. That’s a hell of a lot more than you can say here.”

Shepard’s cheeks flushed with color. He couldn’t tell if it was anger or embarrassment but figured he’d made his point. Gibbs nodded curtly before turning neatly on his heel and walking out.

Gibbs moved quickly. He knew Shepard would call Tony, and he needed to get to him before she recovered from his last verbal hit.

Gibbs scanned the bullpen as he jogged down the stairs. He spotted Tony at the desk he’d assigned him and Miri. Tony was leaning over Miri’s shoulder as she pointed out something on her computer screen.

Gibbs was only a few feet away when Tony’s cellphone rang. Gibbs bit back a curse and barked out an order.

“DiNozzo, you’re with me. Now!”

Tony blinked, looking up in surprise. He wasn’t the only one. McGee, Ziva and Bahl looked equally startled to suddenly have Gibbs in their midst and yelling for Tony.

Tony looked down at his phone and then back up, green eyes meeting blue. Gibbs eyes cut to the phone in Tony’s hand and he shook his head. Tony arched an eyebrow, but didn’t question. He handed his still ringing phone to Miri.

“Do me a favor, Callahan, answer that if it rings again.”

Miri frowned, looking from Tony to Gibbs and then back. “Will do, Sir.”

“Thanks.”

McGee stood up. He cast uneasy glances between Gibbs and Tony. “Boss, is there something we should know?“

Gibbs almost responded with a curt ‘no’, before thinking better of it. Tony might have been Shepard’s first and best option, but he wasn’t her only choice. It would be better to buff some of the naďveté off all his team members than leave them in the dark thinking Shepard was entirely on the up and up. But he wanted to warn Tony first.

“I’ll tell you later, McGee. Just hold down the fort until Tony and I get back.”

“Back from where?” Ziva asked.

Gibbs didn’t answer her. He wasn’t entirely sure where they were going, or how long they’d be gone. And really, it was better not to say anything. The less they knew, the less they could tell Shepard.

“DiNozzo.” Gibbs made a follow me motion with one hand.

“On your six, Boss.”

Chapter 25

Gibbs didn’t say anything to Tony until they arrived at his favorite home away from home, the coffee shop he frequently visited which was just down the street from the office.

He’d half expected Tony to say something, to ask a question and demand answers, but he didn’t. It was better that way since Gibbs would have to put him off until they were somewhere out of the building. Not that the elevator wasn’t a good place for a private chat. Gibbs had used it enough in the past, but his paranoia had him wanting to put as much distance between Tony and Shepard as possible before he started talking.

And he needed time to find the right words. Probably more time than he could get in the elevator since someone was bound to start bitching if he kept it stopped between floors for more than a few minutes. There was no easy way to explain this latest development, and Gibbs wanted them to have as much time as necessary to deal with any fall out.

How exactly was he supposed to tell Tony, his current lover and former senior agent, that his former lover and current boss had what was starting to look like an unhealthy obsession? And that she wanted to use Tony to bring down an international weapons dealer by getting Tony to sleep with Benoit’s daughter? It might take more than a moment or two to figure out how to phrase things better than ‘Shepard wants to pimp you out’. And some fortification in the form of caffeine certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Not only did he need time to find the right words, Gibbs needed Tony to trust him. And he wasn’t sure the level of trust they’d managed to restore so recently would be up to the task. Would Tony take Gibbs’ word for it that Shepard wanted to launch an unsanctioned operation? Until now, she hadn’t acted like she was crazy. She hadn’t seemed unreasonable, obsessed or likely to do something to jeopardize the position of authority she’d worked so long to achieve. It wouldn’t actually be hard for Shepard to concoct a fairly reasonable cover story to refute everything Gibbs planned to tell Tony. She’d probably had something ready even before Gibbs had left her office.

Shepard had always been quick on her feet when it came to protecting herself. It was a shame that ability didn’t extend to the people around her. It was one of the reasons their partnership had failed. Gibbs couldn’t trust her to watch his back as well as she watched her own.

Would Tony believe Gibbs wanted to protect him? It wasn’t as though Gibbs’ track record was exactly stellar when it came to making Tony’s well being his first priority. It might be hard for Tony to believe Gibbs had seen the error of his ways, and was no longer put getting the job done ahead of the people he cared about.

He was making progress in that regard, but having to test Tony’s belief in his new attitude so soon wasn’t something Gibbs had expected would be necessary. He’d thought he’d have a few weeks at least.

Would Tony scoff at the need to be kept safe? He was a grown man. He’d proven himself to be capable of making his own decisions and taking care of himself. Would he resent Gibbs for thinking he might need him to intervene? Would he see Gibbs’ actions as a lack of faith in his ability?

There was a time when such things wouldn’t have even been an issue. There was a time when Tony would not have questioned Gibbs’ honesty, his integrity or his motives. He’d have taken Gibbs’ word for it, relied on his judgment, and put his faith in Gibbs’ to handle the problem. God, but Gibbs missed that. He’d been such a damn fool to throw away such abiding loyalty.

Gibbs was both relieved and worried when Tony hadn’t say a word. Silence from Tony in the past hadn’t always been a good thing. Gibbs had kept shooting glances at him the whole way to the coffee shop, but he’d simply followed quietly where Gibbs led, taking his cues from Gibbs’ demeanor.

Ultimately, Gibbs deiced he grateful that Tony could and would still follow his lead, accepting the need for time and distance without batting an eye. It was something McGee had yet to learn. He was getting there, but he almost always opened his mouth to ask a question before thinking better of it.

Every time Tony did something to show he hadn’t forgotten how to read Gibbs’, that he still understood his moods, mannerisms, actions and looks without the need for clarification, it had made the lingering pain in Gibbs’ chest ease a little more. He was reminded that he wasn’t building a relationship from scratch. They had a foundation, one that had been strong and was still strong. But now knowing that Tony would be safer in Rota, that it would be best if Gibbs abandon any real thought of Tony staying in DC made Gibbs’ whole body ache with regret, denial and rage.

Damn you, Jenny, Gibbs thought viciously. She was fucking him over again, just like she had in Paris. At least this time he was aware of it while it was happening, and not finding out after the fact.

This wasn’t what he wanted. This wasn’t how he’d fantasized things would work out. Hell this wasn’t even what he’d hoped would work out. Not that he’d had a good image of the ultimate end game, and Tony going back to Rota had always been an option, but Gibbs had hoped he might be able to at least make a good argument for Tony staying.

Gibbs strode into the coffee shop, ignoring the other patrons as he walked up to the counter. He ordered a large, black coffee. He ordered a coffee for Tony too. He got him a smaller cup with hazelnut cream and sugar.

Tony smiled when he took his cup; he was clearly pleased Gibbs remembered what he liked. It was reassuring to have Tony smile at him. Gibbs had missed his smile most of all.

Tony headed for a table in the back. Gibbs once again was grateful for Tony’s understanding of the things he hadn’t said. The table Tony had picked was isolated enough to give them privacy, and was still public enough for them to see everyone coming and going.

Tony sat down. One hand idly rubbed his thigh, and Gibbs felt momentarily guilty for not making sure Tony had his cane. Tony must have seen something in his expression, and rolled his eyes.

“Knock it off. If I needed the damn thing I’d have made sure to grab it.” Tony sipped his coffee. “So you want to tell me what happened while you were upstairs with the Director?”

Gibbs sighed. Beating around the bush wasn’t something he’d ever seen the need for. He wasn’t good at trying to mince words. Blunt worked for him. And acting out of character now would only foster the distrust and disbelief Gibbs was trying to avoid.

“Shepard wants to involve you in an unsanctioned operation,” Gibbs said brusquely, not giving himself a chance to procrastinate any longer than he already had.

He softened a few things, trying not to make Shepard’s plan sound quite so sordid as he lined out for Tony everything she’d said. He added his own take on her reasoning, expressing his belief that she might be so obsessed with bringing down Benoit she was no longer rational. He didn’t say he thought she was crazy, but he implied it. He didn’t downplay the danger he felt her plan posed to Tony. It was an unsanctioned op that could only end badly. If there was the weight of the SecNav behind it, or if the CIA had already written Benoit off, it wouldn’t be so risky to bring Benoit down. But as it stood, any involvement could just as easy get someone killed by another agent as the enemy. And that someone was most definitely not going to be Tony. Not if Gibbs had anything to say about it.

Both Tony’s eyebrows rose as he stared at Gibbs. Gibbs tried not to read his expression as skeptical. Everything Gibbs had said sounded far-fetched, but it was also the truth. He waited, bracing himself for Tony’s reaction.

“You think she’s just dipping her toes in or has she already leaped into the deep end of the insanity pool?”

Gibbs felt the tension drain out of his shoulders. Tony believed him.

“I don’t know.” Gibbs rubbed a hand over his face. “She was looking for help to put this together. And she might have been looking for approval, to have someone else back her crazy plan.”

“Well, I can’t fault her for thinking you might be the right guy to go to for that.”

“Meaning what?” Gibbs glared at Tony, not liking what he thought Tony was implying.

“Hey, it’s common knowledge you are an eye for an eye kind of guy. And it’s not as if you haven’t bent the rules once or twice in pursuit of justice.”

“I’ve never made someone else do my dirty work.” Gibbs snarled, unable to stop himself from leaning forward, getting into Tony’s face.

“No, you never have,” Tony agreed mildly, not intimidated by Gibbs’ actions or his tone. “And that’s likely another reason she came to you.”

Gibbs frowned, not understanding. “What?”

“If you agreed with her that Benoit needed to be taken down, she wouldn’t have to do anything. You’d do the heavy lifting.”

“It was you she wanted doing the heavy lifting here, Tony.”

“I know. I heard you.” Tony smiled sadly. “And she knows if you’d told me to, I would.”

Gibbs swallowed hard. “Even after—“

“I like her. As my superior officer, I followed her orders. She took a chance on me, saw that I could be a good team leader and gave me the opportunity to prove it, but I was never her lap dog. I never followed her orders without question.”

Tony reached across the table to lightly brush his fingertips against Gibbs’ knuckles. “She knows I might not have liked you much for awhile, Boss, but after years as your second, I am still more your agent than hers. I never questioned your judgment on the job. Your methods maybe, but never your motives.”

Tony smiled warmly. “You might be clueless when it comes to almost everything else, but your gut has rarely been wrong about anything work related.”

Gibbs felt his cheeks flush.

“And I never stopped respecting your commitment to doing what you thought was right, even if I didn’t always agree with you. I’d still follow your orders. I trust you to have my back, and to tell me the truth.”

Tony tapped Gibbs hand once. “I’m not just saying this because of last night either.”

“Didn’t think you were,” Gibbs said thickly, stunned by the faith Tony had in him even after everything that had happened and before he’d managed to fix much of anything.

Tony nodded. “Good.”

Gibbs curled both hands around his coffee cup, resisting the urge to grab Tony’s hand when he pulled back. He wanted to maintain contact but they were in public. And even though no one in the place seemed to care about them or even notice what they were doing, Gibbs still felt the need to be discreet.

“So what do we do now?” Tony asked.

“You are going back to Spain.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Gibbs, if she’s hell bent on bring Benoit down, my leaving won’t make much difference. She’s just going to find another way.”

“But you won’t be involved,” Gibbs insisted stubbornly. “You won’t get hurt.”

Tony’s green eyes warmed, sparkling with a fond affection that made Gibbs wish he could kiss him and to hell with anyone who might see it.

Tony cleared his throat. “While I appreciate you having my best interest at heart, and I do appreciate that, believe me, I’m not so focused on my own well being I’m willing to throw someone else under the bus.”

Gibbs sighed. “You should.”

Tony chuckled. He held out his hand. “Hello Pot, I’m Kettle.”

Gibbs snorted, amused in spite of himself. He shook Tony’s hand, holding it longer than strictly necessary. “Asshole.”

Tony grinned. “So, what do we do about the Red Queen?”

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. “Red Queen?”

“She was nuts and more than a little vindictive. Alice in Wonderland, Boss. You have to know that story.”

“You read the book?”

“Hell, no, I saw the movie.” Tony laughed.

Gibbs shook his head. He should have known.

Gibbs sipped his coffee, his light-hearted feeling fading as he seriously considered Tony’s earlier question. “She hasn’t actually done anything yet.”

“That we know of,” Tony responded, shrugging one shoulder. “For all we really know, she’s been plotting since the day her daddy put a bullet through his brain.”

Tony grimaced. “I am increasingly glad that my father was never the sort of man to prompt true devotion. I shudder to think of how many people he might have wronged over the years I’d have to defend him from. Not to mention the number of people I might have to take on who would have gladly killed him if they thought they could have gotten away with it.”

Gibbs wasn’t sure if he’d have been hell bent on vengeance for his own father if the man had been the victim of a horrible crime or had lost his reputation to the manipulations of an evil man. There actually weren’t many people Gibbs would break the law for. It was a short list, and at the moment, Tony was at the top. For him, Gibbs suddenly realized, there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do.

Tony sipped his coffee. “Thinking it would be best to start looking into what Jenny has been up to. See if we can find anything to give us a better idea of just how far into the deep end she’s gone. Maybe she hadn’t gone totally around the bend.”

Gibbs was fairly confident the more they looked into what Shepard was up to the more they’d find she had an unhealthy fixation on Benoit. She’d been weird about him ever since he’d come up. And the gleam in her eye while she was telling Gibbs her plan was anything but sane.

Getting hard evidence was a good idea. Tony was right when he said his going back to Spain likely wouldn’t stop Shepard. Gibbs was simply hoping to keep him out of her line of fire. The best way to keep anyone from getting hurt would be to get Shepard removed from a position where she could easily act on her obsession. And getting the director of a federal agency removed would take more than hearsay.

Gibbs played with is coffee cup for a moment. Getting any proof of wrongdoing would mean telling McGee. He was the right person to go to when it came to computer searches. Shepard’s digging into Benoit’s history, his current activities and his family was bound to have left some trail. There was likely a record of her activities somewhere. Whether or not they would incriminate her was another matter.

Gibbs wasn’t certain McGee would be willing to hack into Shepard’s computer records and phone log. He’d probably do it if Gibbs told him to. He’d done things like that before, but hacking into the CIA for a case was one thing, spying on their own Director was something else. While both actions could easily be career suicide if he got caught, not to mention possible jail time, McGee wouldn’t have the protection of the agency to cover his unauthorized, highly illegal activities this time.

“We could ask Mouse if you don’t want to involve McGee,” Tony offered, clearly getting was thinking without him having to say a word.

“You think Mouse would do it?”

“In a heartbeat. He’d enjoy the challenge.” Tony smiled wryly. “And Mouse doesn’t always see the consequences the same way McGee does.”

Tony’s expression sobered. “But I do think McGee would be game, if you asked him.”

Asked, not ordered, Gibbs noted. And there was a difference, one that truly mattered, especially in this case. “It’s a lot to ask.”

“Never worried you before.”

“I know.” Gibbs nodded. He made eye contact and held it. “But it does now.”

The way Tony shyly looked away, Gibbs knew he understood he wasn’t just talking about McGee, or even just this case.

“What about the others?” Tony asked.

“Abby would be in.” Whether he wanted her to help or not, Abby wouldn’t be one to be left out. Besides, McGee might need help, and Abby was the only one who was adept enough at the geek stuff to do that.

“Ducky and Palmer too,” Tony added with a quicksilver smile.

Gibbs knew Palmer had been willing to help Tony when he’d wanted to help Ziva deal with trouble from her countrymen. She’d already called Gibbs in Mexico by that time, but that didn’t change the fact that Palmer had been willing. And he was Tony’s friend. The young ME was definitely loyal, providing support Tony hadn’t gotten from his teammates or Gibbs.

Ducky would no doubt be delighted to be included. He liked being involved in whatever the team was doing, and had claimed them as family on more than one occasion.

“Miri?” Gibbs asked.

“Couldn’t keep her away.” Tony chuckled. “She’s fearless.”

Gibbs suspected a lack of fear wouldn’t be Miri’s motivation, any more than it would be for Mouse. She’d already proven herself to be a damn good second; she was fierce in both her loyalty and determination to protect those she considered friends and family. She wouldn’t appreciate what Shepard had proposed having Tony do.

“What about Ziva and Bahl?”

Gibbs frowned. Bahl was so green he practically glowed. He was a young agent, with a promising future. He’d only been on the team for a few months, and during that time his teammates hadn’t exactly gone out of their way to make him feel welcome. He might not be interested in putting his neck on the line for people who hadn’t been all that friendly or helpful. It would be asking a lot to involve him in this.

Ziva had a history with Shepard. Gibbs didn’t know all the details but he did know Ziva had saved Shepard’s life once. She might not be too keen on investigating her friend. Or risking her own position at NCIS. She was only there because of Shepard. While Ziva was first and foremost Mossad, Gibbs got the distinct impression she was happier in the US. She might not be willing to risk rocking the boat if it meant going home.

“What if they don’t want to help?” Gibbs asked finally, reluctantly voicing his concerns.

“It won’t change anything.” Tony shrugged. “If they say no, we still have plenty of resources.”

“And if they talk to Shepard?”

Tony shrugged again. “Not like she doesn’t already know you don’t approve of her plan. She has to be thinking you might do something to stop her, especially given how quickly she tried to call me. Having them confirm you are up to something won’t really change anything.”

“Except for what she’ll do next.”

“We’re not going to be investigating what she might do, Gibbs. We’re looking into what she’s already done. The SecNav isn’t going to remove her for planning to do something. No judge or jury would convict her for it either.”

“Good point.”

Tony grinned. “Thanks.”

Tony’s grin faded quickly. He bit his lower lip. Gibbs waited, wondering why Tony suddenly seemed nervous.

“I think it’s best if we tell everyone on the team because they are on the team, regardless of whether or not they help or hinder us in this. I get that some stuff needs to be kept secret, but I also know that keeping secrets from my team is a very bad idea. I trust my people, and I need them to trust me. If I can’t be honest with them, that isn’t going to happen.”

Gibbs couldn’t help but hear the slight chastisement in what Tony had said. He’d kept information from his team on more than one occasion. It had always worked out for the best---in terms of closing the case---but Gibbs now wondered how much of that contributed to Tony’s decision to leave.

Gibbs reached across the table to capture Tony’s hand. To hell with what anyone might think about it, he need the connection, knowing the touch would convey far more than words.

He laced their fingers together, smiling gently. “You’re right.”

Tony smiled back at him. “That hurt to say?”

“No.”

Gibbs squeezed Tony’s hand again, and reluctantly let go. “Let’s get back to the office.”

“On your six, Boss.”

Chapter 26

Until recently, being in Gibbs’ home never failed to be a strange experience for Tony.

Strange because the place had always managed to make him feel safe and yet vaguely uneasy at the same time. The simple and sturdy craftsman style framework looked solid, immutable. It was as if the house had always been there and always would be. The dated décor and utilitarian layout added to the timeless quality. The house would have been perfect for a movie prop---it looked like the sort of place where nothing bad happened.

That ‘nothing bad could happen here’ appearance was further enhanced by Tony’s faith in Gibbs. When he was on Gibbs’ team, Tony had genuinely believed the man was, if not outright invincible and infallible, pretty damn close to it. He was protective of his people and it made Tony feel secure to know the older man would look out for him.

The paradox of the house, and the man himself, was that even though he didn’t lock his door, he made it clear that most were not welcome in his home. Tony had never hung out with Gibbs. He’d never actually been invited inside---at least not directly. With Gibbs’ it was always subtle, something open to interpretation. A comment that could be taken any number of ways, but was never a clear direction of expectation or action.

Before they’d started sleeping together, if Tony stopped by Gibbs’ place, it was usually work related. They talked about the case in the basement while Gibbs worked on his boat. Gibbs didn’t offer him a seat, a beer, or even a smile. Tony wasn’t exactly unwelcome, but he wasn’t encouraged to linger or make himself at home. Gibbs would occasionally make dinner, but it wasn’t usual for them to eat together, and the meal was never something they lingered over. And while Tony loved having ‘cowboy style steak’, he would have liked for the meals they shared to seem less accidental and more deliberate. But his hints that he’d be willing to cook, that maybe they could eat in the kitchen for a change, or could they have more than eat a hasty meal and get back to work, had always been ignored.

When his apartment had been unlivable not long after he’d started at NCIS, Tony had stayed briefly at Gibbs’ place. But he’d been quick to realize the older man hadn’t wanted him there. He was a disruption to the quiet routine, a new element to an environment that hadn’t changed in years, an added presence that was tolerated but not encouraged to stay. He disturbed ghosts Tony hadn’t known existed then.

When they started sleeping together, Tony knew better than to think he would be asked to stay. They’d never had sex in the master bedroom but always used the guest room down the hall, the living room or the basement. That made it pretty clear how Gibbs thought of their relationship. And he never stayed at Tony’s place on the rare occasions when they met there. There was no reveling in the afterglow, no cuddling, no waking up together. It was a blatant signal they were simply fuck buddies, too obvious for Tony to miss, even as he did his best to ignore it.

That Gibbs had left Tony without so much as a backward glance had been equally telling. Gibbs had run off to Mexico, not once, but twice. He hadn’t bothered to say good-bye or even act like he gave a damn about Tony. The message had been hammered home when Gibbs came back and behaved as though there had never been anything between them.

But now things were different. He and Gibbs had talked more in the last week than they had in years. Really talked. It was more than just discussing a case or Gibbs letting Tony run off on a monologue about whatever stray thought occurred to him before head slapping him back on track.

It was more like they were friends. And it wasn’t something Tony expected to ever have with Gibbs. He liked it, a lot. But was afraid of getting to comfortable for fear it would all be taken away. It wouldn’t take much for Gibbs to simply shut him out again. The man had done it before.

Last night had not been like any other time Tony had been to Gibbs’ house. They’d had an enjoyable meal where the focus was less on eating and more on each other. They’d talked like equals, not supervisor to subordinate, or even elder to younger.

Tony had spent the night in Gibbs’ bed. They’d made love, not just rutted like animals in heat. Not once had Tony felt unwanted or unwelcomed. And waking up together had been every bit as nice as Tony had always imagined it would be.

Tony wanted more of that. He was pretty sure he could do it every day of his life and not grow tired of it. He thought Gibbs felt the same way, but he wasn’t sure. And he hated not knowing but was too leery of the answer to ask outright how Gibbs felt.

Agreeing to meet at Gibbs’ house to talk about Shepard with everyone else had seemed like a good idea when Gibbs had proposed it. It was neutral territory, well away from the Yard. Everyone knew how to get there, and the team being there could be easily explained away—provided no one thought to question why someone as asocial as Gibbs would invite his entire team plus a few more to his home when he never had before.

But now Tony found himself feeling apprehensive about stepping inside. Was he reading too much into the last few days? Would he still feel that sense of wrongness when he entered Gibbs’ home? Like his presence was requested only for business and nothing more? Would the others be more at home, comfortable and at ease?

Maybe not everyone had been treated the way Tony had been in the past. Surely Abby had been more welcomed, felt less like she was violating memories Gibbs never spoke of or disturbing ghosts unknowingly. And Ziva had been allowed to kill her brother in Gibbs’ home, and had hidden there when on the run. Surely an old friend like Ducky wouldn’t feel out of place or awkward. McGee was Gibbs’ senior agent now, maybe he was actually invited over for dinner to talk about work. Palmer and Miri were probably the only people who hadn’t been in the house before.

“I can hear you thinking.”

Tony gave his second a sidelong glance. “You can not.”

Miri shrugged, shifting in the front seat to look at him directly. “Okay, maybe I can’t hear you thinking, but I can definitely read your mind.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah, so what am I thinking?”

“That the last few days are a fluke. That you are scared to walk in there, and have the shithead you’re in love with confirm all your doubts and fears. You are almost as afraid to walk away just in case the last few days weren’t a fluke. Because hope springs for eternal and everyone is stupidly hopeful when it comes to love. You can’t risk walking away from the brass ring, not when you can almost touch it. “

She was actually pretty damn close. But there was no reason to tell her that. Tony rolled his eyes. “We are here about a case, Miri.”

“That’s not all we are here for.” Miri lightly slapped his arm. “You might have the likes of McGee and David fooled, but I know better than to think you are only one dimensional. You can multi-task with the best of them. And it’s natural to have your personal stuff crop up.“

Tony grimaced. So much for redirecting her. “I hadn’t planned to.”

“Most of us don’t,” Miri smiled at him. She reached out and cupped his chin, holding his face so he had to make eye contact. “Believe in yourself.”

“I’m trying.”

“There is no try.” Miri quoted solemnly. “There is only do or do not.”

Tony laughed. “I’m not a freaking Jedi.”

“Me neither, but I know good counsel when I hear it.” She squeezed his chin once and let go. “You two may not have gotten it right the first time, but you got a chance to get it right this time. So don’t start throwing roadblocks in your way.” She grinned at him. “It’s a bit early to bow out just yet, Sir.”

“I’m not bowing out.”

“But you’re worried he might.”

Tony sighed. “Yeah.”

It wasn’t like Gibbs hadn’t shut them down before. And no matter what he said this time, there was still the possibility that he’d change his mind. That Gibbs would realize it was just too much trouble. That there was another redhead in the offing who would strike Gibbs’ fancy. Or that he wouldn’t want to maintain their new connection once Tony went back to Spain.

Tony knew distance made it hard for most couples to stay together. And he’d briefly considered staying in DC, unwilling to test the bonds of this new relationship, before he realized that as much as he loved Gibbs, he couldn’t give up career, his life or his team without losing so much of himself as to be gone forever. Turning his back on all of that would leave him with only Gibbs to rely on, and Tony was still to unsure of where he stood to willingly put himself in such a vulnerable position.

Besides, Miri, Mouse and Caleb were his family. They were the people he trusted. They wanted him and needed him, and against all his expectations, respected him. They knew his faults and foibles and accepted him because of them, not in spite of them. He couldn’t abandon them. And he wouldn’t. They deserved better than ‘you’ll do’.

He hadn’t told Gibbs his thoughts or feelings when the older man suggested he go back to Spain and leave him to deal with Shepard. Even though Tony had planned to go back, but some part of him was hurt that Gibbs hadn’t seemed inclined to even ask him to stay. Tony had hoped they’d at least discuss it, maybe talk about how to continue their new relationship with an ocean between them or how he could ultimately arrange to transfer back to the States. He had no idea how to bring it up and, as Miri pointed out, he was afraid Gibbs would tell him he had no intention of continuing anything with Tony. He was afraid that Gibbs would be relieved Tony was leaving and wouldn’t be a distracting him from more important things.

Admittedly, it made Tony feel warm and fuzzy that Gibbs’ first thought had been for his safety. He definitely appreciated how valued he felt to have Gibbs be concerned for his health and well being, and not exclusively focused on bringing down Shepard. It had done a lot to sooth his fears and insecurities. It made him feel wanted and cared for, but a life-time of being told he wasn’t good enough didn’t exactly go away overnight. Too many lessons from the past affected his view of the present, cropping up when Tony least expected them.

“Deep breath, Sir.” Miri told him. “Let it out slow.”

Tony shot her a dirty look but did as she instructed.

“No matter what happens, me, Mouse and Caleb, we got your back. Remember that.”

Tony smiled. It wasn’t like he hadn’t known that, but it was still nice to hear it.

“Thanks, Miri.”

“You’re welcome.” She nodded once. “Okay, let’s go do this thing.”

Tony got out of the rental car and headed up the steps to Gibb’s front door. The only vehicle in the driveway was Gibbs’ truck and Ducky’s Bentley, but that didn’t mean the others hadn’t already arrived. Ziva was familiar enough with clandestine meetings to think it was better to park where her car wouldn’t be seen. And McGee would probably follow her lead, bringing Abby with him rather than letting her drive the distinctive hearse. Although, if they wanted to pass for innocent, not bothering to hide was probably a better ploy, but Tony wasn’t going to tell either of them that.

He tried to simply open the front door, stopping in surprise when the knob refused to turn. Gibbs never locked his door, at least not that Tony was aware of. He had suspected for awhile that the door didn’t even have a lock. It hadn’t seemed safe, and yet it had never felt dangerous either. It was something Tony had rarely thought about when he used to visit. It was just one more oddity about being at Gibbs’ home he’d grown accustomed too.

Shrugging, Tony raised his hand to knock. He wasn’t sure he trusted the doorbell to work. Gibbs opened the door before his knuckles could even connect with the door.

“Expecting us, were you?” Miri asked, a teasing smile appearing.

Gibbs ignored her and just opened the door wider. “Come in.”

“Everyone else here?” Tony asked as he let Miri enter first.

“Yeah.”

Tony didn’t react when he felt Gibbs’ hand on the small of his back. It felt natural and it was nice to have the older man make contact. He didn’t want to draw attention to the touch, not when it might be taken away if Gibbs was made aware he’d done it. And if left unacknowledged it could be explained away as something innocent, especially when everyone was in the living room waiting for them.

Tony had expected them to meet in the basement. It seemed like the most substantive conversations Gibbs’ had occurred there. But it wasn’t exactly spacious, even without the boat. And the living room had seating for everyone.

Ducky was seated in the wooden rocker Tony had always admired. Palmer sat on the nearby ottoman. Ziva had elected to lean against the fireplace, back to the stone and eyes shifting from the windows and doors to assess the rest of the room. Bahl stood against the wall opposite Ziva, clearly trying to keep as much space tween himself and her as possible. Abby and McGee were on the loveseat.

There was a time when Tony wouldn’t have hesitated to give them a suggestive look, to tease them a bit about whether or not they were bumping boots, but now it didn’t matter. If they got together again, and were happy, Tony was okay with that. If they were never anything more than good friends, Tony was okay with that too. It wasn’t his place to say anything, not when they were still filling the cracks in their friendship.

And he didn’t want to call attention to the fact that he and Gibbs were every bit as close to one another as Abby and McGee, with far less reason. It wasn’t like they had to stand close to one another. Or had to take a seat together on the couch. By all rights it would have been far more natural for Gibbs to remain standing, taking command of the room. Tony found himself breathing easier with Gibbs sitting next to him, their shoulders touching.

Miri perched on the arm of the couch. She waited patiently for someone to start.
Tony admired that about her. She could just settle in and wait, make herself comfortable and let things unfold around her.

“Well, Jethro, shall you tell us all why we’re here?” Ducky asked.

Tony hid a smile. He’d have bet money on Ducky being the first to speak. Abby would have been a close second.

Gibbs filled them in on what he’d already told Tony. Tony paid more attention to the others, gauging their reactions and repressions, than he did to what Gibbs was saying.

Abby was indignant about Shepard’s plan. Her eyes flashing and hands waving as she tried to express how wrong she found the idea of using Benoit’s daughter to get to him. And using Tony to do it. It had taken Gibbs two tries to get her to stop her rambling and get her to focus enough to let him finish.

McGee looked thoughtful. His eyes darted to Tony several times, but Tony couldn’t quite read his expression. He didn’t know if the other man was in agreement with Abby or wondering why Tony hadn’t simply taken the job. It wasn’t like Benoit wasn’t a bad guy, or that Tony’s ‘ladies man’ reputation implied he’d be unwilling to use a pretty woman.

Bahl seemed lost. Like he wasn’t entirely certain how he ended up involved. But he wasn’t making a break for the door or looking at Gibbs like he was crazy, so Tony figured it would be okay.

Ziva he couldn’t read at all, but he got the distinct impression she was unhappy with what she was hearing. She was no stranger to covert affairs. Her father was heavily involved in those, and his obsession had ultimately cost Ziva’s brother his life. What Shepard had proposed wasn’t nearly as complicated as the roll Director David had set up for his son, but it was just as likely to end badly with innocent blood being shed and betrayals abounding.

Palmer looked appalled. He looked like he wanted to say something but closed his mouth before he uttered a word. He made eye contact with Tony and it wasn’t hard to tell he was glad Gibbs had intervened to keep Tony from talking to Shepard. Tony couldn’t help smiling at Palmer. He really was a good guy. A little bit of a nerd, but he’d become a damn good friend, probably better than Tony deserved.

Ducky clucked his tongue, his expression one of sympathy and concern. The older man sighed heavily.

“I may be able to shed some light on her reasoning,” Ducky said after Gibbs finished speaking.

“Duck?” Gibbs leaned forward. “She spoke to you about this?”

“This, no.” Ducky shook his head. “But I have spoken to her about another matter I thought unrelated, but now believe may have some bearing on it. I would not normally consider breaching the dictates of patient privilege, but technically I am not a physician. At least not one formally bound by such dictates as my patients are normally in no position to need my silence. My usual patients need me to speak for them as they are no longer able to speak for themselves.”

Ducky sighed heavily. He looked tired and Tony realized for the first time just how much older Ducky was. He always knew Ducky wasn’t young, but until now he never gave his true age much thought.

Ducky grimaced, one hand rubbing against the other in an uncharacteristic show of distress. “And in this case, there is a clear indication of an intent to harm others and possibly herself so I believe I am ethically bound to speak up.”

“Duck,” Gibbs growled, his impatience getting the better of him the way it often did when Ducky started to ramble. Tony laid a hand on his shoulder, pleased to feel him relax a bit.

“Yes, I know, Jethro.” Ducky shot him a reproving look. “Always it is get to the point with you.” He clucked his tongue again. “Two weeks ago, Director Shepard asked me for a second opinion. She’d gone in for her annual physical a few months ago. She’d been experiencing headaches for some time, and assumed they were simply the byproduct of stress. But they were getting worse, becoming more debilitating as time went on and she felt it prudent to an exam.”

“They weren’t just stress, were they?”

“No, Jethro they weren’t. Her doctor found some anomalies and ordered a few tests. She then referred Jenny to a specialist. Jenny wanted some help interpreting the test results and clarification on what the special told her.”

“What was she told, Ducky?” McGee asked.

Ducky smiled sadly. “It appears Jenny has cancer.”

“Cancer?” Bahl bit lower lip, eyes wide.

“Brain cancer to be precise.”

Ziva’s posture stiffened. Evidently, Shepard hadn’t mentioned it to her. Maybe their friendship was not as deep as Tony thought. Or possibly she’d known Shepard was ill, but had been unaware of how serious it was.

“Can it be treated?” Miri asked quietly.

Ducky hesitated. “There is treatment.”

“She’s refused it. Right?” Tony knew Shepard well enough to know she would not want to lose any time she had left to a stay in a hospital or drugged to the point of being unable to function at all. And while brain cancer might not be a death sentence, everything in Ducky’s tone and demeanor implied it was in this case.

“You are correct, Anthony.”

“How long does she have?” Gibbs expression was painfully neutral.

Ducky took a breath. “With treatment she might add a few years. Without it, I can’t really say for certain, as I have not seen her full medical file, but she likely has less than a year.”

Ducky shook his head. “She may feel she needs to clear her father’s name before it’s too late. There is no one else to carry the torch after she dies.”

“Doesn’t excuse her trying to start an unsanctioned op,” Gibbs stated firmly. “Or trying to use Tony to do it.”

“No, it doesn’t, but as I said, it may explain her motives.”

“Perhaps, having spoken to Gibbs, Jenny is no longer inclined to follow this course of action,” Ziva suggested. She looked hopeful that might actually be the case.

Tony held up his phone. “I’ve got four missed calls from her and just as many messages. I’ve been dodging her since I left the Yard. I don’t think she’s giving up on this just yet.”

After his talk with Gibbs, Tony hadn’t returned to the office. It seemed like a good idea to just lay low. He’d called Miri and had her meet him at the coffee shop. They’d gone back to the hotel together and gotten in touch with Mouse. As far as anyone knew they were still investigating the missing explosives that had been the impetus for Tony and Miri’s trip DC in the first place.

“What do we do, Boss?” McGee looked pensive, uncertain.

“We investigate this like any other case.”

“Only a little less obvious about it,” Tony added. “Right now we don’t know what sort of groundwork Shepard may have done. Or what else she might plan to do now that Gibbs made it clear he wouldn’t back her play, or if I blatantly tell her no. If her time is as limited as Ducky thinks, she may be more desperate to get this done than we thought.”

“If you don’t want in on this, you just have to say the word,” Gibbs stated calmly. “No judgments, no questions asked. All you have to do is say so and you can leave.”

“I’m in.” Abby didn’t hesitate.

McGee nodded. “Me too.”

“Not sure how much help I’ll be but I’m willing to do whatever you need,” Palmer said, looking at Tony, not Gibbs. It was clear he was offering his assistance to Tony rather than the older man. He looked worried and scared but resolute.

“Thanks, Jimmy.” Palmer was definitely a better friend than Tony deserved.

“I would prefer it hadn’t come to this, but I understand the need.” Ducky shared a look with Gibbs. “I’m in, Jethro.”

Bahl nodded his head. He didn’t look as nervous as he usually did. Miri smiled at him, approvingly, and Bahl straightened a little more.

Ziva hesitated. She looked away from them and then back. “I would not see her hurt.”

“Not trying to hurt her,” Gibbs told her. “I don’t want her hurting anyone else either.”

Ziva nodded. “Very well.”

“Good.” Gibbs eyes touched on everyone in the room. “Let’s get started.”

Chapter 27

Finding proof Shepard had been digging into Benoit’s past and his current associates wasn’t hard.

Gibbs wasn’t sure if it was simply that she was careless, thought she didn’t need to hide her activities, or if her illness was to blame. Part of him hoped it was the latter. At least then her failure to make any effort to cover her activities would be excused. He didn’t want to believe that anyone he’d trained, that anyone he’d worked closely with, was that inept or arrogant.

Although, easily tracking her activities might not have anything to do with Shepard at all. McGee was definitely the best NCIS had when it come to computers. And Mouse had proven he was no slouch either. Between the two of them, in less than a day, they’d located all Shepard’s information searches on Renee Benoit. It hadn’t been hard for them to find out how she knew about his daughter. Or the many ways she’d been keeping tabs on Jeanne Benoit. Or how invested she was in finding a way, any way, to bring down La Grenouille.

Ziva’s contacts had been helpful in filling in more information on Shepard’s father. Why the information hadn’t come to light before now was a question Gibbs didn’t feel up to asking. He really didn’t want to know that a member of his team could be keeping secrets from him.

Jasper Shepard’s death, although ruled a suicide, was commonly believed by several in the intelligence community to have been murder. There was no clear evidence, but there rarely was when it came to covert operations. Those who suspected murder thought Benoit was probably not the one who’d initiated Jasper Shepard’s death. His demise was more likely to have been called for and carried about the CIA.

Given the nature of the charges that Jasper Shepard had been facing, Gibbs wasn’t actually sorry to hear the man might have been murdered. If he was selling secrets that would cost American soldiers their lives, he deserved to be put down. But that was never proven. And Gibbs wouldn’t put it past the CIA to have been using Jasper Shepard as a fall guy. With his death the investigation into the possible espionage dried up and that had likely been the goal all along.

Calling in several favors to get access to the information on a case closed more than a decade ago, Ducky and Palmer had been able to review the original autopsy. There was little to support the idea that Jasper Shepard had been murdered, but there were some things that certainly suggested his death was not the straight up suicide it had been officially labeled.

Jenny might well have grounds to seek revenge, and there was no doubt in Gibbs’ mind she’d been in contact with at least some of the people Ziva had spoken to. Why she wouldn’t turn her attention to the CIA was a mystery. Although, since Benoit was on their payroll, technically she was taking on the CIA. And Benoit was the person Jasper Shepard was supposed to have been selling weapons to. He was as good a choice as any for her obsession. It was possible, remotely possible that she was not be planning to kill the man; she might want to simply get him into an interrogation room and find out what he knew about her father. If he wasn’t protected by the CIA he’d have been a good choice for her to bring down. It’s not like Benoit was some innocent bystander.

Unfortunately, even with everything they found there was nothing they could use to prove Shepard was doing anything illegal. Benoit’s position as an arms dealer made all her research legitimate, at least on the surface. That fact that her research went back years and was in no way tied to their recent case wasn’t truly damning.

She was overstepping the authority of the agency, since nothing in the agency’s mandate addressed investigating the international trade of weapons. But nothing they’d turned up showed any clear violation of the law. Investigating a suspected criminal, even one outside the agency purview, wasn’t incriminating in and of itself.

Her motivations, while helpful in proving intent, didn’t actually show proof of any wrongdoing. Not yet at any rate. Given the plan she outlined for Gibbs, she wasn’t far from doing something illegal.

Gibbs knew it frustrated Abby that there was no real evidence for her to examine. Gibbs had put her on lookout duty and had her monitoring Shepard’s movements to give her something to do to help. Leaving a frustrated Abby with nothing to focus on was asking for trouble.

Other than the morgue, Abby’s lab was the safest place for them all to meet at the office. And while Gibbs wasn’t squeamish, he didn’t really want to meet in a place where locking the doors meant turning on biohazard warnings. It was far from subtle and drawing attention to their meeting would defeat the whole point of doing it quietly.

Tony and Miri traded glances after they’d gone over everything they’d found. Gibbs wasn’t sure what was being said between them but it obvious something was going on.

“Best way to get what we need is for me to talk to her,” Tony said.

He’d been ducking the Director for the past two days, but even Gibbs knew Tony couldn’t do it forever. That didn’t mean he had to agree with Tony’s assessment.

“No.”

“Gibbs, we both know it’s the only way we’re going to get anything incriminating.”

“It’s too danger—“

“No, it isn’t.” Tony shook his head. “She’s not going to shoot me, Boss. She’s just going to proposition me. Maybe. We don’t actually know and the only way to know for sure is if I talk to her.”

Green eyes met blue. “It’s the only way.”

“No it isn’t.” Gibbs stubbornly refused to agree.

“Okay, then it’s the best way.”

Gibbs wanted to argue more but he knew Tony was right. He didn’t like the idea. Hated it in fact. He wanted Tony safe, and well away from anything Shepard had in mind. He did not want Tony in the line of fire.

“We can wire him,” Miri said, filling the silence that had deepened as Gibbs had glared at Tony. “It’s the only way to have more than the hearsay we’ve got now. It would be like any other undercover op.”

“I don’t think this is like any other undercover operation,” Bahl said with a nervous laugh. He shifted restlessly from his position near the door when Gibbs turned his glare on the younger agent. He hadn’t been a lot of help so far, but he hadn’t been a hindrance either.

Miri grinned at Bahl. “Not exactly like any other undercover gig, no, because I don’t think any of us have been involved in an operation to bring down the Director of a federal agency but really, not vastly different. The goal is to get information without the target knowing what they are saying will be used against them. We need proof. ”

“We don’t know if she will even tell Tony what she told Gibbs,” McGee pointed out.

“We don’t know she won’t either,” Miri countered.

“Jenny isn’t stupid.” Ziva interjected quietly. “She will know by now Gibbs has spoken to Tony.”

“She may not be stupid, but she’s desperate.” Miri sighed quietly. “She’s running out of time. And she has to be feeling pressured to get this done and done soon. I’ve seen how people react to a terminal diagnosis, and there is no way she’s thinking about anything but making sure everything is taken care of before she dies.”

Gibbs had forgotten that the former team lead in Rota died from cancer as well. Miri had mentioned it before when she’d said the team had lost interest in trying to track down Trent Kort.

Tony put his hand on Miri’s shoulder. She smiled wanly at him and nodded once.

Ducky cleared his throat, discretely interrupting the moment. “But if Jenny knows Jethro spoke to Tony, surely she would change her plans?”

Miri shook her head. “Her knowing Gibbs has spoken to Tony could work in our favor.”

Gibbs frowned. “How?”

“You left her thinking you were pissed about what she planned because she was proposing to use Benoit’s daughter. But she doesn’t have to know you gave that justification to Tony.”

“What—“

“We can spin this as you telling Tony not to talk to her because she was trying to use your agent. That you telling him wasn’t ratting her out as much as it was letting him know not to get involved because he’s your agent and what you say goes. We can add that you didn’t want Tony to take the job because you didn’t think he could do it not because you thought Shepard was off her rocker.”

She glanced at Tony again and then back to Gibbs. “ We can make it about Tony proving you wrong. That he’s not on your team and doesn’t take orders from you any more. That he’s pissed you would have the audacity to speak for him, to refuse an assignment for him without consulting him about it first. Or it could easily be a knee jerk reaction to being told he wasn’t capable of handling the assignment. “

“It would work, Gibbs.” Tony’s expression was apologetic.

It wasn’t like Shepard wasn’t aware of why Tony left Gibbs’ team. And she’d seen them interact in MTAC. So she knew Tony had been pissed at Gibbs. She might not know he wasn’t still pissed because, for most of his time in DC, Tony had been publicly cool to everyone on his old team, Gibbs in particular. And as much as it shamed Gibbs to admit it, he’d been high handed in his behavior in the past, running roughshod over his people before, limiting the information he provided and directing their actions with little explanation.

It wasn’t unbelievable that he’d have done it again because he had actually done it in Shepard’s office. Admittedly this time had been out of concern for Tony, but he’d still spoken for the younger man as though it was his place to do so. He’d called Tony ‘his agent’ and refused to let Shepard use him as a whore.

“What about you ducking her for two days?” Palmer asked. “How are you going to explain that?”

“My phone wasn’t working.” Tony waved a dismissive hand. “Or I could go with I had what I thought was a lead on our missing explosives and was unavoidably out of contact. It happens.”

“Or he simply forgot it. That happens too.” Miri added.

“Never be unreachable,” Gibbs quoted rule three without thinking. Tony had never forgotten his phone.

Miri rolled her eyes. “Right. Whatever. The point is it won’t be hard to explain the lack of contact. “

“It will be my job to convince her anything I say is reasonable,” Tony offered quietly. “Just like any other undercover gig.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“I know, Boss.” Tony looked at him. “If you got a better idea, let’s hear it.”

Gibbs’ jaw clenched. He didn’t have a better option. They hadn’t found anything truly incriminating. And they likely wouldn’t without finding some way to make Shepard incriminate herself.

“DiNozzo. You’re with me.” Gibbs ordered heading for the door. He held up a hand to forestall Abby at her post outside the door as he headed for the elevator, Tony a step behind.

Inside the elevator, Gibbs only waited long enough for the doors to close before hitting the stop button.

“You’re going to break this thing some day.” Tony’s tone was amused.

Gibbs rounded on him, angry that Tony didn’t seem to be taking this seriously. He invaded Tony’s space forcing him to take a step back. “This isn’t a damn game, DiNozzo.”

“I know that, Boss.” Tony’s chin came up. “I know exactly how serious this is.”

“Confronting her is risky.”

“Letting her operate on her own until we find something, if we ever do find something, isn’t any safer.”

“I know that.” Gibbs snarled.

Tony reached out and cupped Gibbs’ face. “I’ll be okay, Jethro.”

Gibbs sighed. He closed his eyes. “You don’t know that,” he whispered.

This was why he shouldn’t get involved with coworkers. It was too damn painful to care this much. And he worried too much about what could go wrong instead of focusing on the case. His perspective here was shot to hell. It would affect things, he’d lose focus and something bad would happen. This was just asking for trouble. If Tony got hurt because he wasn’t doing his job properly, Gibbs would never forgive himself.

“I’ll have you watching out for me.” Tony assured him, cutting of his wayward, not quite panicked thoughts. “I’ll have Miri. And Ziva and McGee. There’s Abby, Ducky and Palmer too. Relax, Jethro. You don’t have to worry. I’ll be fine.”

“You better be,” Gibbs growled, opening his eyes to glare at Tony.

“Hey, I didn’t die when you told me not to.”

Gibbs had never told Tony how grateful he was that Tony had listened to him. He should have realized then how much power he had over Tony. Really, who else would live simply because he’d told them to?

It seemed too late to voice that sentiment now. And he didn’t want to admit he’d been so clueless. So Gibbs opted to turn his head enough to place a kiss in Tony’s palm.

“You sure about this?”

“I’m sure it needs to be done.” Tony leaned in and kissed him gently. “And I’m sure I can do it.”

Gibbs sighed. He’d known what Tony would say. He’d known it when they left Abby’s lab. He just needed to come to terms with it. And to hear Tony say he was truly okay with it. It would be Gibbs’ job to make sure he was backing Tony’s play.

“All right then. Let’s get it set up.”

Chapter 28

There was one area where having Shepard know Tony was less than ideal.

Getting Tony wired for sound was easy. Micro transmitters were plentiful and not hard to conceal. But visual wasn’t really an option. All the miniature cameras they had on hand were incorporated into glasses frames. Shepard knew Tony didn’t need corrective lenses so there was no way he could wear a pair when he met with her and not have her question it.

Button cameras were an option, except that there weren’t any readily available. And they didn’t have time to track one down.

Sneaking a camera into Shepard’s office wasn’t possible either. There was no guarantee she’d want to meet Tony there. And the existing security cameras would no doubt catch them trying to place something. No one wanted to give up the game too soon, and illegally placing surveillance equipment would weaken their case. They needed anything they found on Shepard to stick if they were going to succeed.

Admittedly the computer searches by McGee and Mouse hadn’t been entirely above board, but enough of what Shepard had accessed was so easily traceable it wasn’t an issue. She’d done a lot of it at the office, which made anything done or kept on her work computer technically property of NCIS. No warrant would be needed to examine her log history or files.

And the same security cameras that would thwart placement of surveillance in Shepard’s office would give them eyes. Abby had already hacked into the office security cameras on more than one occasion, usually to spy on an interrogation, but she could access Shepard’s office just as easily.

They were as prepared as they could be. Everyone was ready to move at a moments notice. Gibbs fought down the desire to abort the mission. He didn’t like it, hated the idea of knowingly putting Tony in danger, but he couldn’t call it off.

When Tony’s cell rang, he looked at the number and nodded to Gibbs and then McGee. Even though they knew who was calling, McGee would trace the call and tape it. They’d tapped Tony’s phone as a precaution, just in case Shepard said anything incriminating over the phone. Since Tony had given his permission, it was quasi-legal; Shepard not knowing she was being taped kept it from being completely above board, but they agreed that if anyone asked it had been done simply to test the equipment, no one expected to record anything incriminating.

Gibbs wasn’t entirely surprised Shepard wanted to meet Tony somewhere other than the office. She no doubt wanted to have their conversation away from prying eyes and potential witnesses. And it wouldn’t hurt to isolate Tony.

If she’d offered this assignment while Gibbs was in Mexico or shortly after his return, Shepard would probably have succeeded. Without someone to watch his six, and no reason to question Shepard’s motives, Tony would have probably accepted the assignment. Gibbs was suddenly very grateful Shepard hadn’t taken advantage of his absence, and that Tony had said yes to Rota.

Although, it really only delayed the inevitable. Because Shepard was still fixated on Benoit, and was going to make the offer, Gibbs’ gut was sure of that. She wasn’t going to give up her plan to take down Benoit, not when she had a year at most to see it through. She might modify things because of her conversation with Gibbs and the three days it had taken for her to get to talk to Tony but she was definitely still planning something.

Tony ended the call. “I’m meeting her in the park.”

It wasn’t really necessary that he say anything since Gibbs had been listening in, but Gibbs appreciated getting a verbal report. The park was a small green space down the street from the Naval Yard. A lot of personnel used it when they wanted a breath of fresh air. Mid afternoon wasn’t a busy time of day and it should be essentially deserted.

Gibbs wasn’t entirely thrilled with the location. It would be a hard place to keep Tony in sight without giving away their surveillance. There was no way they could be close and avoid being seen. The park wasn’t that big, and the area too open to conceal much. They’d have to stay at further away than Gibbs wanted, but there was no way to change it.

They just have to make it work, Gibbs thought grimly. Fortunately, a contingency plan was already in place in case Shepard wanted to meet outside the office.

Miri and Bahl went downstairs to wait. They would head out after Tony and make their way toward the coffee shop. That would take them past the park, and give them a reasonable excuse to be in the area. If Shepard had picked a further destination, they would have taken the new rental car Miri picked up the day before. It was less likely to be known to Shepard than one of the agency vehicles.

McGee would stay with Abby to monitor the equipment. He hadn’t looked happy about it, but hadn’t fought Gibbs on the assignment. He was their best when it came to the electronic equipment. Ideally they’d have monitored things from the van, but there was no way to conceal one, so Abby’s lab would have to do.

Ziva would go with Gibbs. They would try for stealthy observation, aiming for the backside of the park where they would be less likely to be seen.

If spotted, Gibbs decided their cover story would be that he needed a private place to dress Ziva down. He hadn’t taken her to task yet for Harrow’s death. If for some reason that wasn’t believable, he could always bring up her treatment of Bahl if more justification was needed for why they were out of the office.

He and Ziva moved at a brisk pace, wanting to be where they could see without being seen as much as possible before Shepard and Tony arrived. There wasn’t much cover, but there were a few places they would be at least mostly out of sight.

“Leaving through the front door.”

Tony’s voice carried easily through the mic. Gibbs scanned the area wanting a visual. He spotted Tony entering the park. He took a seat near the fountain. The flow of water was a quite murmur in the background that Gibbs heard through one ear and through the receiver in his other. For a moment he feared the water might drown out any conversation, but he could still hear all the other ambient noise so he dismissed the fountain as an issue.

He spotted Shepard entering the park a moment later. Her red hair glinted in the sunlight. It had been a beacon once that attracted Gibbs like a moth to a flame, but now it just made him long for a sniper rifle. She was such an easy target.

Tony stood to greet her. “Hello, Ma’am.”

“Tony, I’ve told you before about that.”

“Yes, Director.”

Gibbs didn’t have to see Tony’s smile to hear it. Nice and easy. Exactly the way he would have greeted anyone he wanted to see.

“I thought maybe you were avoiding me."

Not exactly cold but definitely not the same level of warmth Shepard’s voice that Tony had greeted her with. Gibbs bit back a curse hoping the plan wasn’t dead before it was even truly ago.

“I’m sorry about being unreachable. I know, I owe you an update on the case, but I forgot to recharge my phone and well, to be honest, Jenny, I was sort of avoiding the office for a bit.”

“But not me?”

“No, not you.”

Shepard sat down. “Who then?”

Tony sat with a frustrated huff. “Gibbs.”

Even though he knew it was part of the plan, Gibbs still flinched listening to Tony make several biting comments about him. Nothing overly harsh or entirely unprofessional, but enough to ensure that the distance between them Shepard had witnessed in MTAC and since Tony’s return to DC was still in effect.

“I know I worked as his senior agent for years. Believe me, it’s not something I could have forgotten, but I’ve got a team of my own now. He’s not my boss and I’m not his agent any more. And really, he ran off to Mexico without worrying about whether or not I could handle the job and now suddenly he’s sure I couldn’t tie my own shoes without help. Jesus.”

“And this whole Benoit thing wasn’t even my case. Not really. I expected to be sent back to Spain once Miri and I did our part. Don’t get me wrong, Director, I like seeing things through, and coming up with a plan to get Goliath was fun. I was happy to help, but Gibbs isn’t the sort to share, so I figured I’d be on the next flight out. You know what I mean?”

Shepard laughed softly. “Oh believe me, Tony, I know.”

“And it’s not like I was truly needed. You could just as easily have coached Ducky. He just needed an experienced agent on hand to guide him and you are more than qualified.”

Gibbs could read enough of her body language to know she was pleased Tony thought she should have been in the van running point. She’d fought Gibbs on that, but no one actually heard them fight about it. Tony mentioning it now, so very casually, sounding so sincere, was a nice gesture to get further into her good graces.

“You are an excellent undercover agent, Tony. I’m sure Ducky was very pleased to have you along.”

“Thank you. I’m glad someone thinks so. God knows Gibbs will never give me that much credit.”

“Gibbs has always been a little…spare with praise.”

“Yeah, I know.” Tony sighed. “Not that I expected anything else. I just didn’t want to have to deal with him for a little while. Thought focusing on my own case might be a better use of my time. Especially when the CIA hijacked the Benoit case. Miri’s still pissed that we had to actually let him go.”

“And how do you feel about that, Tony?”

Shepard’s question was just a bit too sharp to be truly casual. She was more invested in the answer than she wanted to let on. Gibbs grimaced. She had never been as good at hiding her emotions as she thought she was.

“Mixed.”

Gibbs could see Tony shifting to lean forward, elbows resting on his knees. The curt answer and his posture had the desired effect. Shepard definitely wanted more.

“I mean, on one hand, job well done. We did exactly what we were supposed to. ARES is well on its way to being the Trojan horse the CIA wanted. But on the other, we let an arms dealer go free, and it is supposed to be my job to keep stuff like that from happening.”

The slight emphasis on ‘my’ was a good subtle addition. It made the whole thing personal without going overboard.

“To me, Benoit isn’t exactly much above a terrorist. He’s not strapping a bomb to his chest or blowing up a building but he is making it easier for someone else to do it.” Tony rubbed his thigh. “Got first hand knowledge of what it feels like to be caught by some whack jobs little homemade vengeance.”

Another little personal touch. It was definitely a good move. That hadn’t been part of the plan, but it would make Tony wanting in on Shepard’s personal vendetta a little more believable.

Gibbs watched Tony shift, turning so he faced Shepard more directly. It made it harder for Gibbs to see his face, but it was easier to see hers.

“Gibbs told me you didn’t want to leave things lie they way the CIA wanted. He said you might want to talk to me about it, but that I wasn’t supposed to listen.” Tony snorted. “Like it’s his call to make.”

Tony shook his head, his shoulders slumping a little. “Although, I’m sure by now he convinced you there were better agents to help you out than me. Someone more experienced, more driven, or capable or something.”

Those insecurities were no secret. She had to know about them. Gibbs grimaced. There was really no need to make it easy for her to use them.

“He wasn’t keen on having you involved.”

Shepard managed to make that sound as though Gibbs had agreed with Tony’s assessment, that Gibbs had found Tony lacking. Gibbs jaw clenched. He wanted to smack her one. It galled him that Miri had been so right about how they could play this.

“But his opinion on the matter isn’t the one that counts here. Mine does. And I know better than Gibbs what sort of agent you are. I wouldn’t have offered you Rota otherwise.”

“I know.”

Tony’s response lacked conviction. It was an opening they’d agreed she’d take. Tony needed a chance to proof himself, an opportunity to prove Gibbs wrong and Shepard needing someone to seduce Jeanne Benoit.

Gibbs restlessly scanned the park. He didn’t want anything to interrupt now that they were getting close.

“What did Jethro tell you about what he and I’d discussed?”

“He didn’t give me details, because really when has he ever, but he made it clear he did not approve of your plan.”

Shepard sighed. “I’m beginning to think I should have filed his retirement paperwork. The man is going soft.”

“Soft? Gibbs?” Tony laughed. “You might not want to mention that to Bahl any time soon. Not sure he could handle a harder Gibbs.”

Shepard shook her head. “I should have reassigned that poor kid.”

“Nah. He’s getting the hang of it.”

“After six months. It’s a wonder he didn’t quit.”

“With a little guidance--“

“That’s not something he’s going to get from Gibbs. Seriously, Tony, the team functioned better under you. The others won’t ever admit that, but it is the truth.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re the only one who thinks so.”

“You rated your own performance a solid B.”

Gibbs frowned. Tony gave himself a B? Why?

Gibbs shook his head, filing the questions away for later contemplation. He needed to focus on what was happening now.

He listened closely as Shepard made her pitch. She told Tony that he was perfect for her plan to bring Benoit down. Gibbs had to admit, she was good. She played it exactly the way she should, not too overt or too subtle. She didn’t come on too strong or leave any obvious gaps that would have raised logical questions.

Under other circumstances Gibbs could see Tony falling for Shepard’s efforts to portray herself as someone with an earnest desire to see an arms dealer brought down. Without the background information Tony already had, there was nothing that would have led him to suspect Shepard had ulterior motives.

Tony asked a few probing questions, letting Shepard dig the hole even deeper as she revealed more and more of her plan. Atta boy, Tony, Gibbs thought proudly.

“Tell me you are getting all this, McGee.”

“Getting it all, Boss.”

“Good.”

Even watching closely and listening to every word, Gibbs missed the exact moment it all went sideways. He wasn’t sure what Tony did or said that made Shepard suddenly aware something wasn’t quite right. It was possible Tony hadn’t done anything to blow his cover; Ducky had privately warned Gibbs that paranoia might well be a side effect of her growing obsession.

Ducky also thought it possible that her grip on reality might be slipping because the narcotics proscribed to combat her growing pain could easily affect her cognitive ability. The impact would be minimal, little more than momentary confusion and loss of concentration, if she were following the recommended dosage, but Ducky didn’t think she was following the drug regimen as directed. He had no way of knowing for certain and had only voiced his worries to Gibbs rather than the entire group not wanting to raise undo concern.

Shepard stood abruptly, her head turning back and forth as her eyes scanned the area. Gibbs hadn’t seen Miri or Bahl so odds were good Shepard wouldn’t spot them either. Ziva was effectively hidden from view by a shrub hedge. Unfortunately, the tree Gibbs was using wasn’t nearly as good at concealing him from someone actively looking for him.

The second she spotted him, Gibbs knew he wouldn’t get a chance to employ the excuse they’d come up with for his being there. Shepard would never buy it. She knew him too well to believe it was a coincidence he was there. He expected her storm over to him and give him a piece of her mind. He was ready for that.

He wasn’t ready for her to round on Tony. He expected her to lash out verbally. It was more her style than getting physical, but she’d been a capable field agent once; she had skills. And while Shepard wasn’t in Ziva’s class or even Gibbs’ she was still capable of inflicting damage.

Gibbs shouted a warning, moving without conscious thought to intercede even though he knew he was too far away to stop Shepard from doing anything. Tony dodged her first strike, his hands up in a placating gesture, non-threatening. Gibbs could hear him trying to calm her down, his tone soothing and reasonable.

“Traitor.” She screamed at him. “I gave you a chance. I promoted you. And this is how you repay me??!!”

She lunged at Tony. He dodged again, and Gibbs saw sunlight flash on the knife that was suddenly in Shepard’s hand. Gibbs cursed. Of all the rules he’d tried to teach her rule nine would be the one she actually learned.

He was surprised when Tony lashed out. Gibbs thought Tony would keep backing away, dodging her while looking for a way to subdue her without hitting back. Tony, like Gibbs, had always been bit old school about hitting a woman. Tony would spar with Kate and Ziva but he’d never really gone all out with them, always pulling his strikes a little, letting openings pass rather than hitting back. Kate had never noticed, but Ziva had. She thought it made him weak. She’d refused to spar with him any more.

There was nothing weak about the punch Tony landed on Shepard. Tony hit her hard with a solid left jab to the chin, following it up with a left backhand to her cheekbone. It was a combination that knocked her on her ass.

Gibbs was moving to cuff her before Shepard could fully recover. Miri was there a second later when Shepard started to struggle, helping to hold her in place. How she got there before Ziva, Gibbs wasn’t sure but he’s glad she’s there. Tony’s second had no qualms about putting a knee into Shepard’s back and holding her face against the concrete. There was nothing old school about Miri Callahan, Gibbs thought with a mental smile. And she had no issue with hurting Shepard if the situation called for it.

“Director, I’d recommend you remain still.” Miri’s voice was even, almost conversational, but far from friendly. “I will not hesitate to fuck you up if you keep struggling, comprende?”

Shepard stopped moving, correctly understanding Miri meant every word. “I’ll have your badge.”

Miri snorted. “Whatever.” She looked up at Tony. “You okay, Sir?”

Tony’s left hand was gripping his right bicep. There was blood on his fingers. Gibbs hadn’t realized Shepard had scored a hit. Shit.

He abandoned Shepard to Miri, Ziva and the now arriving Bahl. “Tony?”

“I’m good.” Tony smiled, warm and reassuring. “Just a scratch.”

“Let me see.” Gibbs demanded.

Tony grimaced but didn’t argue. He moved his hand. The fine wool of his jacket and the silk of the shirt he was wearing hadn’t done much to stop the Shepard’s blade. The bloody furrow underneath wasn’t overly deep, but it could do with a few stitches. Gibbs breathed a bit easier knowing the injury wasn’t too bad.

“Bahl, be sure to bag that knife.”

“On it, Boss.”

Tony grinned. “Told you he was getting the hang of it.”

Gibbs rolled his eyes. “Ziva, Miri, put her in a holding cell.”

“Gibbs! You bastard! You are not putting me--“

Miri leaned harder on Shepard, driving the air from her lungs. “You have the right to remain silent, Director. Now would be a good time to exercise that right.”

Gibbs shook his head. He’d deal with her later. There were more important things to be dealt with first.

“C’mon, Tony. Let’s get Ducky to take a look at that.”

“I don’t need--“

“Now, DiNozzo.”

“Yes, Boss.”

Chapter 29

For a man who worked mostly on people who couldn’t feel anything at all, Ducky was remarkably gentle.

Tony never minded being tended to by Ducky. The care the man took never failed to impress him. It was a far cry from the doctor who made house calls when Tony was a child. Tony couldn’t remember the man’s name, or maybe he never knew it, all he remembered about him was the rough and impatient way he dealt with whatever injury Tony had at the time. That and the way he smelled of alcohol, it was a scent his mother’s drinking had made him more than familiar with.

“Don’t suppose I could get away with staples, Ducky?” Tony asked after Ducky had cleaned the cut on his arm.

He had a thing about needles ever since his bout with the plague. They’d drawn blood so frequently and had given him so much medication that is arms were badly bruised from the countless punctures. Tony was well on his way to acquiring a phobia about needles, but he’d so far been able to control his fear and keep it from becoming irrational.

“While staples are often an acceptable alternative to stitches, I’m afraid I don’t have any on hand, my boy. I don’t have much call for them in my normal work. Silk, on the other hand, is something I usually have readily available.” Ducky smiled gently up at Tony, patting his shoulder. He focused his attention once more on the slice on Tony’s bicep.

Tony looked away from the needle Ducky had in his hand. It didn’t look that big, but he still didn’t want to watch it pierce his flesh.

“Did you know the Romans used staples?” Ducky’s voice was as soft as his touch. Tony could almost pretend the ME wasn’t doing anything with a needle at all. He was just doing a very thorough examination of Tony’s arm.

“Not nearly as small or as delicate as what we have today, of course, but still a rather forward thinking approach to treating injuries. Galan was the foremost—“

“Doubt DiNozzo cares much about that, Duck.” Gibbs interrupted casually. “Just stitch him up.”

Tony rolled his eyes. He wised the man would just let Ducky talk. It didn’t matter that Tony didn’t care about what medical advances the Romans might have had; it was a nice distraction from what Ducky was actually doing. It gave Tony something else to focus on.

Gibbs probably never needed a distraction, Tony thought wryly. He doubted the older man had ever been afraid of anything. Gibbs would probably have been content to just get a band-aid and go. Tony would have preferred that option too, if he’d had a choice in the matter.

Ducky shot Gibbs a dirty look. “Honestly, Jethro, the boy is wounded. Not severely, mind you, but injured just the same and you brought him here--”

“Forced me is more like it,” Tony muttered.

“for me to attend to his arm. Now please allow me to do what needs to be done in my own way. I do not tell you how to do your job.”

Gibbs looked away. Tony figured it was a trick of the lighting that made it look like he was blushing. Tony smiled. Blue eyes met green. Gibbs smiled a little sheepishly back.

“He going to be all right, Duck?”

“He will be fine, Jethro.” Ducky assured him, giving Gibbs a quick understanding smile. “Now, as I was saying, Galen was the foremost physician of his day. He got most of his training treating gladiators before being hired to serve as a military surgeon--”

Tony tuned out the rest of what Ducky was saying. The tone was soothing; the words weren’t really important. Tony opted to let his eyes follow Gibbs as the man paced back and forth, measured strides carrying him to and fro. It reminded Tony of a metronome, and it was almost meditative to watch.

It was no hardship to watch Gibbs. The man had a neat, economy of motion. He wasn’t graceful in the traditional sense, but he was fluid in his movements, powerful and contained, every action precise and directed. Not for the first time did Tony wonder if Gibbs ever danced. For the first time he wondered if he’d be able to convince Gibbs to dance with him.

“There you are, Anthony, all done.” Ducky beamed at him proudly.

Tony glanced down at his arm, surprised to find a neat white bandage wrapped around it.

“No heavy lifting with that arm for a day or two.”

Tony grinned. “I’ve got Miri for that.”

Ducky chuckled. “Of course.”

Tony reached for his shirt and grimaced. Getting back into bloody clothing wasn’t ideal, but he no longer kept a change of clothes at the Yard. And running around half naked wasn’t really an option.

Ducky caught his hand. “I’ve got a scrub top you could wear, Anthony.”

“Thanks, Ducky.”

While Ducky’s coveralls would never be a good fit, given that Tony was so much taller than Ducky, the scrub top should at least be okay. It would be good enough until Tony could get something of his own to wear.

Tony pulled the scrub top on, wincing when the movement tugged uncomfortably at the new stitches. Gibbs gave him a sharp, measuring look. He’d obviously noticed the wince.

“It’s okay, Boss.”

Gibbs nodded but didn’t look convinced.

“I’m fine.”

Gibbs looked even more skeptical. Tony sighed. It was really just a scratch. Nothing to worry about. And it was his own damn fault. He should have been paying more attention. He still wasn’t sure what set Shepard off. He must have done or said something wrong. Maybe he’d get a chance to review the tape later and see if he could spot what he’d missed.

“He good to go, Duck?”

Tony resisted the urge to tell Gibbs to ask him. He was perfectly capable of judging his own health.

“Yes, Jethro.” Ducky frowned. “But please refrain from making Anthony do anything too strenuous.”

“Copy that.”

Tony shook his head. Like it was up to Gibbs? He didn’t need a keeper.

“Thanks, Ducky.”

“Any time, my boy.”

Tony followed Gibbs out of the morgue. He hadn’t really expected Gibbs to stay with him while Ducky took care of his injury. He thought the lead agent would be eager to make sure the case against Shepard was sound enough for the SecNav to do something about her. It wasn’t as if Tony’s injury were serious. He’d had worse on the job.

He followed Gibbs on to the elevator. He was surprised when Gibbs flicked the emergency stop button.

“Boss? Something wrong—“

Tony didn’t have the chance to say any more before Gibbs enveloped him in a breath-stealing hug. He instinctively wrapped his arms around Gibbs, returning the hug. He rested his head on Gibbs’ shoulder and breathed in the scent of him. It was amazing how safe he felt like this.

“God, Tony—“ Gibbs choked and held him tighter.

“Shhh….it’s okay.” Tony whispered. “It’s okay.”

“She could have—“

“I’m all right, Boss. ”

Gibbs turned his head and kissed Tony’s temple. “You damn sure better be.”

Tony laughed softly. “On it, Boss.”

Gibbs pulled back enough to make eye contact. “You sure you’re all right?”

“I’m sure.” Tony kissed him, soft and sweet, touched by Gibbs’ concern.

“I should have gotten to you sooner.”

“You got to me in plenty of time.”

“I should have seen—“

“Yeah, me too.” Tony sighed.

Gibbs pulled him back into another tight embrace. “Not your fault.”

“Not yours either.”

Tony was sure they both meant what they were saying, and he was equally certain they didn’t believe each other. But it didn’t really matter. They’d gotten what they needed from Shepard, and everyone involved was more or less okay. Mission accomplished.

“We’re still on for dinner?” Tony asked when Gibbs released him.

Gibbs smiled. “Definitely.”

He cupped Tony’s face with one hand, thumb caressing Tony’s cheek. Tony leaned into the touch for a moment before reluctantly pulling away. They were at work he reminded himself. It was better not to get too carried away.

Gibbs restarted the elevator. Tony couldn’t help smiling when Gibbs reached out and entwined their fingers together. He gave Gibbs’ fingers a quick squeeze before releasing him when the elevator dinged, announcing their arrival.

“I’m going to head up to MTAC. I should be able to get in touch with the SecNav from there.”

“I’ll get started on my report.” Even with the tape Tony would have to document his part. He’d need to explain why he was wearing a wire in the first place.

Technically, Jenny hadn’t done anything illegal. But what she’d proposed was most definitely not on the up and up. She likely wouldn’t go to jail, but she definitely wouldn’t be keeping her job as Director. She would up getting a psych evaluation as well. None too soon in Tony’s opinion.

“I’ll be back soon.”

Tony smiled. He hadn’t needed the reassurance, but liked getting it just the same. He was sorely tempted to blow an air kiss but decided against it. It wouldn’t be very professional, and even if it didn’t look like anyone was watching that didn’t mean someone wasn’t.

Tony headed for the desk he and Miri had been using. Miri looked up when he approached. She gave him a searching look.

“Just needed a couple of stitches.”

She nodded. “You’ll be the one to tell Mouse.”

Tony shot her a dirty look. Mouse could get pissy once he found out Tony had gotten hurt, however minor. Mouse in a mood was no fun at all.

“That’s not fair.”

“Better you than me.” She smiled brightly.

“It’s not like I got hurt on purpose.”

“So not the point, Sir. Mouse isn’t going to care that you didn’t mean to get hurt. He’s going to be upset you got hurt at all and he wasn’t there to watch your back. And he’ll be mad because I failed to do my job and keep you safe.”

“You didn’t fail.”

“You are sporting stitches.” Miri declared flatly. “I failed.”

“Miri—“

“Tony.”

Tony sighed. He was never going to convince her that his getting hurt wasn’t her fault. He held his arms open and Miri quickly moved to hug him.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” she whispered.

“Me too.”

Tony didn’t try to hold her for too long. He knew she wouldn’t accept comfort for more than a moment or two. She didn’t mind physical contact, provided she was the one to initiate it. Miri was always touching whenever she felt like it, and knew the other person wouldn’t mind, but Miri had a thing about receiving any sort of physical display of comfort. It made Tony wonder what happened during her childhood that made her reluctant to accept a hug. He patted her back and let go. It wasn’t a mystery he’d solve today.

“Take your laptop and write up your report somewhere else. I get the desk.”

Miri laughed. “Pulling rank?”

“Yes.”

Miri started gathering up her stuff. “I’ll be in the conference room if you need me.”

“Copy that.”

Tony sat down and set to work on his report. He glanced over at McGee’s desk. He was probably still down in the lab with Abby. They would transcribe the tape as well as the phone call Tony had gotten from Shepard.

He idly wondered where Bahl and Ziva were but didn’t think much about it. They hadn’t been injured during the case, and they really weren’t his team so they weren’t his problem.

Shepard had to be safely in a holding cell or Miri wouldn’t have been at the desk. She would not have left anyone she considered dangerous in a position to do more harm. Since Shepard managed to wound Tony, and was displaying some signs of mental instability, Miri would definitely consider her dangerous. She’d have made very certain Shepard was safely contained. Hopefully she hadn’t left Shepard in shackles, but knowing Miri it was possible.

Tony sighed. He made a mental note to check on Shepard. But before he did anything else, he wanted his report finished.

Tony sighed again and started typing. He was never a quick typist. He had learned to do more than hunt and peck, but he was nowhere near as fast as someone like Abby or McGee. His typing speed had improved a bit since Mouse had found him a typing tutor game he could play online. It was rather like playing space invaders. He was never going to have the high score, but he was improving.

Tony was deeply engrossed in writing his report when someone stopped in front of his desk. Tony glanced up from his computer surprised to see Ziva staring at him. He cocked his head to one side. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of her expression.

“Can I help you with something, Officer David?”

She frowned. “You do not need to be so formal, Tony.”

Tony wasn’t so sure he agreed with her. They hadn’t said much to one another since Tony’s arrival. He honestly didn’t know what to say to her. And she hadn’t exactly given him much of an opening. To be fair, Tony couldn’t say he’d given her much of one either. The cold shoulder they’d been giving each other was enough to cause frostbite.

“Okay.” Tony smiled. He and Tim had worked out their differences, maybe he and Ziva could as well. “What can I do for you, Ziva?”

Her eyes narrowed. “I need to speak with you.”

“About the case?” Tony asked, thinking that it was possible she had not actually wanted to discuss anything else. He preferred to err on the side of caution. Better not to read too much into anything; less trouble in the long run. “It’s probably better to talk to Gibbs—“

“Not about the case, Tony!” She huffed, and then looked around when she realized she’d raised her voice.

Tony was mildly amused. There was a time when such little lose of control wouldn’t have bothered her. He sighed. Whatever headway that had been made in her becoming less like a Mossad agent seemed to have been lost.

“What could you need to talk to me about that isn’t work related?”

“Do not be obtuse. It doesn’t suit you.”

“Really?” Tony arched an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure you thought I was an idiot. Seems to me you even said so several times. In that case, I’d say obtuse is--”

“Tony, please.”

He sat back, green eyes regarding her steadily. “Okay.”

“Okay?” She narrowed her eyes. “Okay, what?”

“You have something you wanted to say.” Tony kept his tone reasonable. “I’m listening.”

She glanced around again. “Perhaps somewhere more private.”

He wasn’t interested in tracking down somewhere else to have this conversation. She’d approached him; she could damn well deal with the location. And frankly he didn’t trust her enough to want to be anywhere secluded with her. Not that he thought she’d actually hurt him, but he wasn’t naively going to give her a golden opportunity to either. Miri would kill him.

“I’m not in the mood to indulge you’re desire for unnecessary clandestine meetings.” Tony pointedly looked around the practically empty bullpen. There was no one but the two of them in the immediate vicinity. “You want to talk, here is fine with me.”

She scowled. “Why must you always be so difficult?”

“Just part of my charm,” Tony said dryly. From his perspective she was the one being difficult. He had a report to finish before he could leave and have dinner with Gibbs. She was getting in the way of that.

“So what did you want to talk about?”

“I want to talk about why you left.”

Tony blinked and nearly gaped open mouthed in surprise. He had thought she was content to continue ignoring the subject of his leaving the team, and him. He hadn’t expected her to broach the subject quite so bluntly, but then Ziva wasn’t one to beat around the bush.

“I thought it would be best if we dusted the air before you came back to the team.”

“Cleared the air,” Tony corrected automatically.

Ziva smiled. She’d always acted as if she hated it when Tony corrected her mistakes with American idioms, but he also knew she wanted to know what mistakes she’d made so she didn’t make them again. He wondered if everyone had bothered to say anything once he left. Bahl was likely to afraid to do it more than once given Ziva’s normal response to anything he said or did. Gibbs wouldn’t have cared, and McGee would have simply ignored it.

“Yes, cleared the air.” She shifted nervously, looking away and then back again. It was an uncharacteristic display of unease.

“I want for us to be able to work together again. And I know things cannot return to the way they were if we do not address what it was that made you leave.”

“Ziva,” Tony said gently, “I’m not coming back to the team.”

She frowned. “You are here. Working with us. We can be a team again.”

“This is only temporary. There is no place for me here”

“Of course there is.” She pointed toward his old desk.

“That’s Bahl’s.”

“Bahl can be reassigned.”

On one hand he was flattered that retaking his old place was what she wanted, and on the other he was a bit dismayed with easily she saw removing a fellow teammate could be. Admittedly Bahl hadn’t been with them all that long, but it still seemed callous to be so cavalier about reassigning him. She dismissed Bahl as if he didn’t matter at all.

Of course, she hadn’t protested Tony’s own demotion. Nor had she quibbled about Lee’s reassignment; neither had Tony, at the time. Something he’d later apologized for. He should have stood up for her, done more to make sure Lee was treated right and a true member of the team. He’d set a piss poor example.

Tony had at least learned something about himself and how to be a better teammate. It was a lesson that Ziva apparently hadn’t learned.

He could always chalk it up to her training. Mossad agents were taught to come to terms with the idea of sudden changes within their teams, be they the result of reassignment or death. And most assassins worked alone. So it wasn’t like Ziva had much familiarity with working on a stable team. It was possible the longest stint she’d had with any one group of people was the two years she’d been at NCIS.

“Why do you want me to come back?” Tony asked.

Ziva stared at him. “What do you mean why?”

“When we worked together, you made no secret of what a poor agent you thought I was in comparison to those you’d worked with in Mossad. And when I was in charge of the team, you made it clear you thought I failed to measure up.” Tony regarded her steadily. “I didn’t magically become more capable or morph into someone smarter in the time I was gone, so I think why you would want me back on the team is a valid question.”

Tony’s lips quirked upward in a small smile. “I’ve still got the same juvenile sense of humor. The same fascination with movies. I still talk too much, eat disgusting food, and pry into things that aren’t really any of my business.”

Tony leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. “All that shit you hated about me, all those things about me that drove you nuts…it’s all still right where it was.”

Admittedly, Tony had grown a lot while in Rota, but he was essentially the same person. That Ziva might have come to see him in a different light was nice, but it hardly mattered. If it took him leaving for her to value him, how long would it take for her to once again disregard him if he came back? Gibbs hadn’t been back from Mexico one day before Ziva had started in on him. He didn’t think he’d be on the team again for a week before she was once again insulting him.

“I was wrong.” Ziva cleared her throat. “You are a better agent than I realized.”

“In comparison to the probies you’ve been working with, I would hope I’d be considered better, but –“

“Damn it, Tony, I already admitted I was wrong.” She glared at him. “I am not putting conditions on that, okay? You have good experience that neither McGee nor I have. And you think outside the carton—“

“Box. It’s outside the box.”

“Whatever.” She waved a hand in dismissal. “The point is, you are a good agent.”

“And now that you know that, you think I should rejoin Gibbs’ team?”

“Yes.”

“And what about my team?”

Ziva blushed and looked away. Tony knew she hadn’t given them a thought.

“I’m not going to abandon them, Ziva.”

“Why not? You could so easily abandon me!”

“I didn’t abandon you,” Tony stood, bracing himself on his hands as he leaned forward into her space, forcing her to step back even though there was a desk between them.

“You made it perfectly clear who you preferred, Officer David. And it wasn’t me.” Tony all but snarled at her. “Gibbs was back. You had McGee and whomever they would assign to take my place. You had Ducky and Palmer and Abby. You were far from alone.”

Tony shook his head. “When the shit hit the fan, is sure as hell wasn’t me you wanted or needed. So don’t act like my accepting another position was similar to me leaving you alone on a doorstep somewhere.”

“You never said a word,” Ziva spat back at him. “You just left.”

“And that’s what’s got you upset? That I didn’t say good-bye? Neither did Gibbs.”

“You aren’t Gibbs.”

“Like that’s supposed to be some sort of revelation.” Tony snorted. “You only told me that every god damn day, Ziva, for at least four months.”

“I expected better from you.” She whispered.

“What?” Tony shook his head, completely lost.

“Not as an agent or a team leader, but…as a friend.” She swallowed hard. “I thought you would be better about talking to us…to me, than Gibbs was.”

Ziva bit her lower lip. “When you and I had dinner and watched movies together…I hadn’t expected to enjoy it. And I thought you would want something more than just the pleasure of my company. I was prepared to rebuff you. To make it clear we could be coworkers and nothing more. It did not matter that I might have wanted more. But you never even—“

Ziva huffed out a frustrated breath. “The men in my life have always wanted something from me. It did not matter what…it was always something. But you, you seemed content to simply be with me. It was new and different and I liked it. I wanted it to continue. And I didn’t want to do anything to ruin that.”

Ziva sighed. “Then people from my past became part of my present. And I needed someone I could trust. Someone who had the skills and ability to help extricate myself from the trap they’d set.”

“And that wasn’t me.”

“No, it couldn’t be you, Tony.” She shook her head, expression earnest. “You are a good man. A good agent. You play by the rules. I needed someone who would not be so limited in his approach. Someone who no longer had a career that would be endangered. Someone who didn’t have a team and friends to protect. And I thought it would help if I had someone in my corner who owed me.”

Well that explained why she’d called Gibbs. And he couldn’t exactly fault her logic with regards to Gibbs having a more flexible moral view at times. Tony made a similar observation not all that long ago when he and Gibbs had discussed Shepard’s plans and why she’d told him anything at all. Tony didn’t know exactly what Gibbs owed Ziva, but he could guess. No matter what the case file said, he knew it wasn’t Gibbs who’d shot Ari.

“When Gibbs came back, I knew he wanted things to go back to the way they were. Why else would he have put all your things on your desk? Why else would he have forced Lee off the team? Why else would he have felt the need to stake his claim to everything so blatantly?”

Ziva sighed. “I knew we could no longer watch movies, and that we could no longer have dinner together.”

“Why?”

“Because Gibbs would not have liked it.”

Tony blinked at that. “Excuse me?”

“He has never been subtle about you being the favorite, Tony.”

Tony wondered if they’d done something that hinted at the sexual side of their relationship, but he didn’t think so. Nothing obvious at any rate. And he definitely wasn’t going to admit to anything she might not already know.

“Abby is his favorite.”

Ziva rolled her eyes. “She is a surrogate daughter, and that gets her more obvious displays of affection and a lot of leeway, but she is not his favorite.”

Ziva raised a hand to fiddle with her necklace. “He has a rule about teammates dating. I couldn’t risk him thinking we had broken his rules.”

“We never dated.”

“We ate dinner together and watched movies, Tony. To anyone else it would have looked like we were on a date. Multiple times.” She glared at him. “Everyone knew we’d been getting closer. It was hay for the gossip grinder.”

“I think you mean fodder for the rumor mill.”

She kept talking as if he hadn’t spoken. “And if Gibbs thought we’d broken his rules, who do you think he’d have sent away? It wasn’t going to be you. Your place on the team was secure. You were his senior agent. His favorite.”

She swallowed hard. “But he no longer owed me anything. He isn’t in my debt any longer. I am not even an agent. I have less time on the team than you or McGee. I am not fully trained to act as an investigator. I do not even have citizenship in the country and there are basic tasks which I simply cannot perform because I lack that fundamental qualification. I continue to make mistakes with the most basic of expressions.”

Her fingers curled around her pendant tightly. “Why would Gibbs keep me around if I screwed up something more serious??!”

“And that’s why you were always running me down when Gibbs’ came back? So he’d know you were happy to have him back in charge and that he’d think you were a better agent than me?” It made sense, in a way, given the competitive nature Gibbs always tried to instill in his team. There was a constant game of one-upmanship going on; one Tony had made a conscious decision not to instill in his own team.

“No!” She answered with a forceful denial. “That was not why.”

Tony could believe her, to at least some degree. Many of the put downs she made had been done when out of Gibbs’ hearing. There was usually someone around, but rarely was it Gibbs. So if it wasn’t for Gibbs’ benefit, then why do it at all?

“Okay, if you weren’t trying to make Gibbs think I was incompetent then why bother saying anything at all?” It wasn’t like she needed to re-enforce how little she thought of him. Tony already knew that.

Ziva blushed. “I didn’t want anyone to think we were an object, not that we ever were, but I wanted them to think it was over.”

“Item. That we were an item, not object.”

“Item. Object. It does not matter.” She grimaced. “The point is, if everyone thought we were together, my behavior after Gibbs’ return would have made it clear there was nothing between us any longer.”

Ziva smiled sadly “And it worked to ensure you kept your distance. You didn’t stop by any more. You did not make any more overtures. It was like when I first arrived.”

“Ziva,” Tony spoke gently, “Gibbs would have known you and I didn’t sleep together.” The man knew everything. Or seemed to then. Tony knew better now.

“Our spending some time together wouldn’t have been any different than my going bowling with Abby. Or taking McGee clubbing. Or getting coffee with Palmer. Gibbs wouldn’t have read anything into it.”

“But Gibbs never does any of those things. Surely he would have seen it as--”

“As exactly what it was, two people who enjoy each others company getting together.” Tony sighed softly. “Or simply team building. Camaraderie. Nothing more to it than that.”

Admittedly, it was something of a foreign concept to Gibbs. Ziva was right. He didn’t spend much time with his team that didn’t involve work. But he never begrudged Abby and Kate spending time together. Nor had he likely worried that Tony and Abby going to dinner occasionally would be a problem. He hadn’t even warned McGee off dating Abby---before McGee was on the team full time, of course.

Doing things with his team outside of work was another conscious change Tony had made when he went to Rota and become a team leader. He didn’t see the point in being as secretive about his life or as standoffish as Gibbs tended to be. He tried not to become too heavily involved in their lives, not wanting his team to feel obligated to spend time with him or to resent him for including himself in their pastimes. But the time they’d spent playing together had become every bit as important as the time they spent working.

Tony shook his head. None of that mattered at the moment. “Even if Gibbs thought we were dating, all he would have to do is ask me. I can’t lie to the man. I never could. You should know that. He does know that. I’d have told him the truth.”

Tony made eye contact and held it. “Your position on the team, your place here, was never in any jeopardy.”

Ziva bit her lip looking more uncertain than Tony could ever remember her being. He didn’t totally excuse her behavior that contributed to his leaving DC for Rota, but he at least better understood the reasons for it.

“If my position was never in jeopardy, neither was yours.”

Tony shrugged. “I could have stayed on the team.” He hadn’t been forced to leave; he’d chosen to go when Shepard made the offer.

“They why didn’t you? Why did you leave?” She sounded plaintive rather than demanding.

“It was time.”

That wasn’t the whole answer. But it was an honest one. Given how much he’d grown in Rota, how much his team had come to mean to him, Tony was certain he’d made the right decision. It was something he needed both personally and professionally, even if he hadn’t totally appreciated that fact at the time.

“You were happy here.”

“I was.” Tony agreed. “But not for months before I agreed to take the position in Rota.”

“And that was my fault.”

“It wasn’t just you, Ziva.” Tony reached out to ruffle her hair, pleased to see her smile. “You are good, my little ninja assassin, but don’t take more credit than is due. A lot of factors contributed to my being ready to leave.”

He smiled gently. “And a lot of factors are contributing to the fact that I won’t be staying.”

She frowned. “But surely—“

“Ziva, I appreciate you wanting me back on the team. And believe me when I tell you it does my ego good to hear how poorly you have gotten along without me—“

Ziva rolled her eyes at that.

“But I have responsibilities and commitments elsewhere.” Unless Shepard being fired made his promotion null and void, his job was in Spain. His team was there. His life was there…all but one significant piece of it.

“Go get your report written. Gibbs will be down from MTAC soon. He’ll want all the I’s dotted—“

“And T’s crossed.” Ziva smiled. “Yes, I know that one.”

“So you do.” Tony smiled.

Tony sat down and tried to focus on his report again. Sooner it was finished, the sooner he could focus on more important things…like how to keep his burgeoning relationship with Gibbs intact and alive once he went back to Spain.

Chapter 30

Tony blinked, frowning at the darkness as he groggily tried to figure out why he was awake.

He reached instinctively for the warm body he’d gone to bed with. The sheets were still warm, but beginning to cool. Gibbs was no longer in bed with him. Tony cocked his head, listening. There were no sounds coming from the in suite bathroom, and no light leaked from under the door. Wherever Gibbs was, he wasn’t nearby.

Tony sighed, and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. He’d thought the delicious meal they’d eaten and the round of gentle lovemaking that had followed would be enough to make it easy for both of them to sleep the night through.

“Clearly, I was wrong about that,” Tony muttered.

He slid out from under the covers, shivering as the cool air hit his bare skin. He turned on the bedside lamp, unwilling to stumble around in the dark. He squinted and winced in the face of the sudden illumination, regretting turning it on but grateful for the ability to see clearly. Tony cursed quietly as he rifled through Gibbs’ dresser looking for something to wear. While he and Gibbs were roughly the same height, they did not have quite the same build.

Tony rolled his eyes, annoyed with himself for not wanting to wear the dirty clothes he’d discard earlier and being vain enough to care about how Gibbs’ clothes would fit at three in the morning. Like anyone other than Gibbs would see him? And really… would Gibbs care that the sweatpants he found were a little too short or the t-shirt was too snug across his shoulders? No, no he wouldn’t.

Tony’s bare feet made little noise as he padded quietly down the stairs. He thought Gibbs had headed for the basement. It had been the man’s refuge for years so it made sense he’d have headed there to work through whatever was keeping him from sleeping.

Tony stopped at the bottom of the stairs, his attention caught by the flicking light coming from the living room. Gibbs had banked the fire when they’d headed upstairs earlier. By now it should have been little more than embers.

Tony made his way across the hall and into the living room. Gibbs was on the couch, sipping what was likely bourbon and staring into the fire. He was wearing an old pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. It was his usual wood working attire.

Tony frowned. So why wasn’t he in the basement? Was this more serious than sanding wood could fix? Hell, Tony’s own tried and true method of old movies and junk food failed from time to time, but he’d never known Gibbs’ choice to let him down.

Gibbs looked up when Tony hesitantly crossed the threshold. He didn’t look startled by Tony’s presence, merely curious. “What are you doing up?”

“Could ask you the same thing.”

Gibbs shrugged one shoulder, blue eyes once more on the fire. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Tony moved to sit on the couch, opting for the opposite end from Gibbs. He was tempted to snuggle in to the warmth and comfort the older man represented, but hesitated, not sure if Gibbs wanted him that close. The man had left him alone in bed. Maybe he wanted some distance. Maybe he didn’t want Tony here.

Gibbs looked at him. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t.” Tony smiled, pleased by the conciliatory tone. Not an apology exactly, but definitely not a rejection either. At least Gibbs wasn’t ignoring him or shutting him out completely.

Tony sighed silently. He hadn’t felt Gibbs leave the bed, heard him get dressed or even sensed Gibbs had left the room. He’d always been a sound sleeper, but that was ridiculous even by Tony’s standards. He must have been more tired than he realized.

“Why are you up then?” Gibbs asked, sipping his drink again.

“Bed got cold.”

Gibbs gave him a sharp glance. “You warm enough?’

“I’m fine.” Tony said, unconsciously folding his arms across his chest to hold in body heat.

“C’mere.” Gibbs waved him closer.

Tony scooted closer, not quite sitting in Gibbs’ lap, but close to it. He rested his head on Gibbs’ shoulder with a sigh, relaxing into him. Gibbs offered him his glass. Tony took a sip before handing it back.

“Why couldn’t you sleep, Jethro?”

Gibbs wrapped his arm more tightly around Tony’s shoulders. “Too much on my mind.”

“Shepard?” It was natural for Gibbs to be thinking about her. Hell, Tony might have lain awake thinking about her too if not for the fact that sex with Gibbs had put everything else out of his mind.

“Among other things.” Gibbs rubbed his hand up and down Tony’s arm, deftly avoiding the bandage wrapped around his bicep.

“Like?” Tony asked quietly. He wasn’t sure if he should keep pushing or not, but he figured Gibbs would tell him to shut up if he went pushed too hard.

“SecNav mentioned who he’d be looking at to replace her.”

Tony frowned. “He want you to take the job?”

Gibbs chuckled and then placed a kiss in Tony’s hair. “Not just no, hell no. The man knows me too well to even consider putting me in the big chair.”

“Well, other than the political aspect, I think you’d make a good director.”

Gibbs snorted. “Tony the job is more politics than not.”

“True.” Tony grinned. “But you’d kick ass at the rest of it.”

Gibbs gave his shoulders a squeeze. “Thank you for the endorsement, but I don’t want the job.”

“So who does SecNav want to fill the big chair?” And more importantly why is that keeping Gibbs’ awake?

“Assistant Director from the west coast.”

Tony frowned, trying to remember who that was. He’s never had much dealing with the West Coast when he was in DC. He had even less now that he was in Spain.

“Lance?”

“Close.” Gibbs rubbed his cheek against the top of Tony’s head. “Leon Vance.”

Tony was fairly certain he’d never me the man, but Gibbs had a lot more time in with the agency. And he’d met a lot of people.

“You know him?”

“Yeah.”

Tony pulled away enough to make eye contact. “He that bad?”

“Not bad, just a stickler for the rules.”

Tony smiled. “So are you.”

“My rules.” Gibbs’ eyes narrowed in a mild glare. “I’m a stickler for my rules.”

“Right.” Tony nodded. “And Vance is a stickler for the agency’s rules?”

“Yeah.”

Tony cocked his head to one side. “I know you don’t always toe the letter of regulations, but you aren’t usually so far outside the line—“

“There is a mandatory age limit for field agents.”

“There is?” Tony blinked. “Hunh. I didn’t know that.”

It wasn’t all that surprising he wouldn’t know that. Tony had never actually read the NCIS regulations from cover to cover. He knew the parts he needed to and pretty much ignored everything else. Which is why he had no idea the agency recommended using comp time rather than having to pay agents for it at year-end until one of the HR clerks mentioned it when she’d reviewed Tony’s time sheets. He’d been working for NCIS almost four years by then.

Gibbs grimaced, took another sip of his drink and then set it aside. “I’ll be too old to be an active field agent in six months.”

Tony had never given the difference in their ages much thought. Gibbs didn’t seem old. Older, sure, but not old. Tony could personally attest to how fit Gibbs was. The man was still strong, lean, stomach still flat. Sure he had a bad knee, but so did Tony. It hadn’t slowed either of them down…much. And yeah, Gibbs needed reading glasses, but his vision was still keen, his aim still spot on. His mind was razor sharp and his instinct still good.

“You really think Vance would bench you?” Tony sighed and rested his head on Gibbs’ shoulder again. That didn’t seem likely to Tony. “Your still the best team lead NCIS has.” Probably the best they’d ever have in Tony’s opinion.

“Not so sure about that.” Gibbs tightened his hold on Tony, pulling him closer. “I missed a lot of shit that was going on with my team. Shit I would have noticed and dealt with before it got out of hand.”

“My leaving—“

“Not just you leaving, Tony.” Gibbs sighed heavily and rested his cheek on Tony’s head again. “Shepard didn’t get sick over night. I should have noticed. Seen something. Bahl was on my team for months and I never cared enough to notice how badly Ziva and McGee were treating him. Hell, I didn’t even know his first name.”

“You didn’t know Burley’s either.”

“I knew it, I just never used it.” Gibbs cleared his throat. “I didn’t see how far apart my team had drifted. I never noticed McGee struggling. I never checked to see if he was doing okay as my senior agent.”

“He should have come to you. Bahl too.”

“You saw it.” Gibbs countered. “They didn’t need to come to you.”

“No I didn’t. Well, Bahl yeah, that I noticed. But that’s the sort of thing I usually do pick up on.”

The treatment Bahl was getting was too blatant for Tony to miss, but he could see Gibbs not noticing. It wasn’t something the older man typically paid much attention to. Team dynamics had never bee of interested unless it got in the way, and regardless of how badly Bahl was being treated, it hadn’t affected the team’s job performance. A certain amount of hazing of the new guy was a given. And it was McGee’s job, as senior agent to step up to the plate and take care of Bahl, to see to it that the hazing didn’t get out of hand or go too far.

“McGee… he had to say something.” McGee had a lot he’d needed to say and it was good they’d cleared the air. “I wasn’t clued in there any more than you were.”

Tony rubbed his cheek against Gibbs’ chest. “I didn’t see anything more wrong with Shepard than you did.” Tony was fairly certain the only one who saw anything wrong with her was Ducky. And Ducky had the inside track. He knew her health was failing.

“I never realized Ziva’s got abandonment issues big enough to fill a stadium.” In hindsight he should have. It made a lot of sense that her daddy issues and desire to keep something good in her life for herself would affect her attitude and actions. Hell Tony had his own daddy issues and knew they still colored his perceptions even as he tried hard not to let them.

“I missed shit too, Boss. Everyone does.”

Tony raised his head to make eye contact. “And you see it now. You can do something about it.”

“For how long?” Gibbs countered. “Vance could bench me in a few months.”

Tony understood Gibbs concern. Hell, he’d had similar fears every time he screwed up, but Gibbs hadn’t done anything to warrant being sidelined. The man hadn’t done anything unpardonable except get older. Surely the new Director would see that. Even if he didn’t there was no point in borrowing trouble yet.

Gibbs was the best NCIS had. Everyone knew that. Even Vance had to know that. No matter how big a stickler he was for following the rules, Tony was sure an exception could be made. Exceptions had been made before.

“Vance might bench you, but that doesn’t mean he will. You shouldn’t worry about that until he’s actually in the big chair and starts laying down the law.”

Gibbs sighed. “Even if he doesn’t take the job or push the retirement issue, I’m not sure I want to do this any more.”

Tony stared at him. Had this case gotten to Gibbs’ more than Tony realized? It isn’t every day you work to take down your former partner, someone you’d cared a lot about, but this case hadn’t been nearly as intense as some they’d worked together. It wasn’t nearly as hard as working Pacci’s murder, or going after Ari. There were no children involved, no devastated spouses to be consoled, no traumatized victims to comfort and protect. There wasn’t anything that pushed obvious buttons.

“Might not seem like it right now, but there are a lot of positives that come with the job,” Tony reminded him. The job might not be so appealing at the moment, but once the sun came up and Gibbs remembered there was more too it than betrayal and madness, he’d stop worrying about whether or not he wanted to do it.

“You help a lot of people,” Tony offered. “You do a lot of good.”

“I know.”

That didn’t sound convincing to Tony. He tried again. “You love being an agent.”

“Yeah, well, I love you too.”

Tony’s jaw dropped. He had to have misheard that. “You what?”

“I love you.” Gibbs smiled hesitantly, intense gaze locked on Tony. “I know I should have found a better way to say it. Maybe picked a better time. Waited and done something romantic, like from one of your movies, but I was never good at that kind of thing. Ever. “

Gibbs bit his lower lip. “And I’ve already wasted a lot of time. Seems stupid to waste any more.”

Tony took a moment to absorb what Gibbs had said. Gibbs didn’t say things he didn’t mean. He loved him. That was…wow…it was just so much to take in. It wasn’t something he’d expected to hear. Hoped for, yes, most definitely but he hadn’t thought Gibbs would actually say the words…or mean them when he did. Tony felt oddly light and grounded at the same time. Gibbs was still talking, but Tony had stopped listening, too lost in the earlier declaration and what it meant.

Gibbs shook him. “Tony…hey…you with me here?”

Tony smiled. He leaned in and kissed him. “Love you too.”

“Yeah, I know. I finally figured that out.” Gibbs smiled back at him, warm and content. Tony couldn’t remember ever seeing him look that way before.

“I should have caught on a lot sooner. A hell of a lot sooner.” There was a lot of regret in Gibbs’ voice.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Tony grinned. “You got it now.”

“Yeah, and now that I have you, I don’t want you to go. Ever.” Gibbs raised a hand to cup Tony’s face, thumb gently caressing his cheek. “I’ve done the long distance romance thing before. It sucks.”

Tony tilted his face into Gibbs’ touch. He didn’t have any experience in long distance relationship. Truth be told, he didn’t have any real experience in long-term relationships, but Tony was confident Gibbs was right. Being thousands of miles apart was not any fun. He’d been dreading going back to Spain and leaving Gibbs behind ever since they’d managed to have their first real conversation.

“There isn’t a position for me in DC.” Tony winced. It was a stupid thing to say. The man had just said he loved him, and now he was saying the job was more important. Stupid, so stupid, Tony mentally berated himself.

“No, there isn’t a position for you in DC. And there is no way to know when there would be an opening. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t come to Spain.”

Tony blinked. “You’d come to Spain?”

“Yeah. I would.”

“But what about—“

“My career as a field agent might not be for much longer, and I don’t want to ride a desk. Franks was my age when he retired. They were going to bench him, and I understand why he didn’t fight it.”

Gibbs smiled sadly. “I didn’t at the time but I do now. Looking back on it, a lot of things make more sense than they did.”

Gibbs curled his hand around the back of Tony’s skull and gently guided his head back onto his shoulder. “Other than the job, there isn’t much holding me here.”

“But what about Abby, McGee, Ducky---“

“They are all adults. Functional, capable people. And I haven’t been there for any of them much in the past year. Not in any real sense. I’ve gone through the motions and so have they. I think maybe my leaving would be good for all of us. If I do it right this time.”

“A proper good-bye would probably help.”

“Probably.” Gibbs laughed softly.

The last time Gibbs left, the team had been devastated. They’d all been so reliant on him it had been hard to imagine life at NCIS without him around. They’d all seen him as invincible, infallible, strong and unbending. It had been a shock to discover he was human and breakable. And it was just as much a shock for Gibbs as it had been for his team, Tony thought wryly.

But this time his leaving wouldn’t be the result of an injury, it wouldn’t be a decision made out of pain and anger. Tony thought that might make all the difference. If everyone knew Gibbs was formally stepping down this time because he’d thought it out, weighed the options and chose to do so.

And they all knew how to survive without him; they might not like it, but this time they knew Gibbs’ leaving wasn’t the end of the world. The team wasn’t the cohesive unit had once been, but Gibbs leaving might just be the impetus they needed to recapture what they’d had. It might be the push they all needed to value what they’d had and recreate it. Hell, it had worked for Tony, no reason it couldn’t work for Ziva, McGee, Bahl, Abby, Ducky and Palmer.

“I won’t be abandoning them this time either.” Gibbs looked determined. “It’s not like I can’t learn how to stay in touch.”

Tony smirked. “You have never been good at that.”

“It will do me good to pick up a new skill.”

Yes, yes it would, Tony silently agreed. It would help to reassure the others that Gibbs hadn’t left them high and dry this time. They could keep the ties they’d formed and make them stronger.

“What about your house?”

“I can rent out the house or sell it. There are a lot of good memories here, some great ones even, but I think it might be time for me to let go of the past a bit.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Tony protested. He knew how much this house meant to Gibbs. He knew how much Shannon and Kelly meant to him.

“No, I don’t have to Tony. I want to.”

“Are you sure?”

“You saying you don’t want me to come to Spain?”

“Of course I want you with me. Don’t be stupid.” Tony lightly smacked Gibbs’ chest. “I just don’t want you to…regret it.”

A lot of people in Tony’s life had found reason to walk away. And while he knew it wasn’t his fault, at least not entirely his fault, some part of him felt like it was. He couldn’t help thinking he was deficient in some fashion; something was fundamentally wrong with him that people eventually always saw.

Gibbs put a finger under Tony’s chin and gently tilted his face upward. “Hey…I’m not going to regret this.” He smiled. “Nothing has been right since you left. If retiring and following you to Spain means I’m going to get the life I want to have, the life we both deserve, I’m all for it.”

Tony searched blue eyes for confirmation. He didn’t see any doubt, no hesitation. “You really mean it.”

“I really mean it,” Gibbs confirmed. “I was stupid to ever let you go at all, and I’m not making the same mistake twice.”

Tony laughed, unable to contain the happiness bubbling up inside of him. “I love you, Leroy Jethro Gibbs.”

“I love you, Anthony David DiNozzo.”

Gibbs kissed him soundly.

“So you think we’ve settled enough you can come back to bed?”

Gibbs grinned. “We going to go to sleep?”

Tony grinned back, waggling his eyebrows. “Eventually.”
****************** ************** ***************** **************
Epilogue:

Gibbs sighed contentedly, sipping his coffee. It had taken him just a day to find a place in Rota that made coffee the way he liked it. It was a definite bonus that it was only a short walk from the apartment he shared with Tony. The proprietor, Antonio, knew his name and liked to make small talk when Gibbs stopped in. Not that Gibbs ever needed to say much; Antonio, much like Tony, could talk enough for both of them. Listening to him over the four months he’d been in Spain had improved Gibbs’ grasp of the local dialect and made it easier to understand what was being said.

Not that it mattered much. Most of the time Gibbs went places with Tony or his team, so there was always someone who could readily communicate with the locals if Gibbs failed to figure out how to do it for himself.

The sun was bright, the sky an intense blue with no clouds in sight. Gibbs took a deep breath, enjoying the smell of the ocean. It was going to be hot today.

Gibbs made his way down the street to a small furniture shop he’d found one day while exploring the neighborhood. The owner had been delighted when he discovered Gibbs knew enough about woodworking to offer capable assistance. Gibbs now spent a few days a week refinishing old furniture, restoring various pieces to their once pristine condition.

Days he didn’t spend working at the shop, he spent working as a consultant primarily helping out Tony’s team. It helped keep his mind sharp and he liked being involved, even if only indirectly. Tony’s team seemed to accept him, and had no objections to letting Gibbs have input. Gibbs was proud that his insights and instincts were still useful.

He knew Tony didn’t mind having him participate, but he limited his time at the office. Gibbs didn’t want to step on Tony’s toes, even accidentally. And in all honesty, he found himself enjoying having the freedom to spend his days doing other things. He liked coming home at night and having Tony talk about his day, letting his lover share the details and events as he saw them unfold. He liked being able to tell Tony about his day as well. It was a novel concept, one that hadn’t yet lost its appeal, and Gibbs doubted it ever would.

Being at the office at least once a week made it easier to stay in touch with his old teammates and keep tabs on how they were doing. The satellite feed was better there than anything they could rig up at home. So Gibbs could ‘see’ them all, and they could see him. It was satisfying in a way he’d never expected to see them settling in and succeeding without him there every day. He suspected it was what he might have felt if Kelly had made it to adulthood, gone off to college and then started her own life.

He went to the beach several times with Tony and Mouse, but neither had been able to convince him to try surfing. He preferred to watch them rather than join in. Miri had been correct when she said the wet suit Tony wore left little to the imagination. It was not much less revealing than the board shorts Tony opted to wear now that summer had arrived.

Just seeing so much skin had made Gibbs’ heart beat faster. It had taken more than one pointed glare to keep several female beach goers from approaching Tony. And Gibbs had come close to punching at least one guy for trying to flirt with Tony.

He hadn’t tried rock climbing yet, but Miri was persistent in her efforts to convince him to give it a try. Gibbs had so far dissuaded Tony from base-jumping with her, but he was pretty sure it was a lost cause. It didn’t seem particularly safe to Gibbs, but then surfing wasn’t exactly safe either. The shark bite scars on Mouse’s leg readily attested to that.

Gibbs had opted to keep his house in Virginia. McGee and Palmer checked on the place, made sure it was safe and secure. It would still be there for them when Tony finished his stint in Rota, and would offer them a place to stay whenever they went back to DC. They already had plans to return for the Christmas holiday. For the first time in years, Gibbs was looking forward to Christmas.

Gibbs stepped into the small shop, waving casually in acknowledgement when the owner’s son greeted him. The young man would be going off to college soon.

Gibbs was working on a wedding chest from the sixteenth century. The rosewood had held up amazingly well, but several of the carved details needed to be replaced. Recreating the intricate work had kept Gibbs busy for some time.

He lost track of time as he worked, his focus on the task at hand. He sipped his coffee occasionally, consuming the dark, bitter brew slowly over the course of several hours.

The sound of someone clearing his throat made Gibbs look up. Tony grinned at him. Gibbs hadn’t even heard him come in.

“You free for lunch, Boss?”

Gibbs made a show of looking at his work before grinning back. “I think I can squeeze you in.”

“Excellent.”

Gibbs shrugged out of the leather apron he wore to protect his clothing. He’d taken to wearing it when Tony had started surprising him by showing up looking for a lunch date.

Tony leaned in and gave Gibbs a quick kiss. Gibbs returned in.

As they stepped out into the warm, afternoon sunshine, Tony brushed his shoulder against Gibbs’. “Good day.”

Gibbs smiled and bumped him back. “Yes, yes it is.”

Every day with Tony was a good day.

It wasn’t where he expected his life to be, or where he’d thought he’d end up, but Gibbs had decided that this was so much better. His old life had been stagnant, mired in the past. This life, the one he was making with Tony was fresh, focused on here and now as well as the future. They were moving forward, together.


The end

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MTAC - NCIS Fic