PART I

 

It wasn’t the way she walked that made people move out of CJ’s way, despite the cut-down speed with which her long legs ate up the hall. It wasn’t even the letter opener that she held in her hand like a weapon that caused them to jump aside. It was more the loud and furious, “Sam! Samuel Seaborn, when I find you, they aren’t going to have enough left to identify the body!” that was repeatedly called out as she looked through each and every room for her intended victim, that scattered people before her like so much rainfall.

Entering the main office area of the West Wing where the Communications Department and, therefore, Sam’s office was located, CJ paused to scan the interior. Ginger, Bonnie, and Donna were all at their desks, looking her way curiously after the last shout. Sam’s office was dark, but the door was open. Toby’s office door was closed, which was a dead give-away.

Jaw set, CJ stalked the remaining ten feet or so, completely ignoring Bonnie’s frantic, “CJ, you really shouldn’t…” as she opened the door with a loud, “A-ha! Cowering in here like a…”

Staring back at her in surprise was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. Toby, on the other hand, looked thunderous at the interruption. Thinking fast as his mouth opened to chew her out at the disruption, CJ finished, “I’ll rehearse that scene with you later Toby, must’ve gotten the time mixed up.”

Closing the door before either man could say anything, CJ leaned against it and thought, I am so dead.

“I did try to stop you,” Bonnie observed humorously.

CJ opened her eyes and said, “I have a bounty out on one Samuel Norman Seaborn. The first to find and turn him in gets free tickets to the Kennedy Center.”

“What event?” Donna asked with interest.

“Any.”

Ginger moved in with, “Really?”

“Yes,” CJ replied firmly.

All three women pointed at the darkened office simultaneously.

Grinning fiercely, CJ said, “Go talk to Carol. She’ll set you up,” before stalking to Sam’s office. Turning on the lights, she found Sam sitting on a chair in the corner, trying to read by a small flashlight.

He looked up at her and guessed, “You’re not here to commiserate about that thing with...”

“Commiserate?” CJ yelled. “Commiserate? Oh no, Samuel, commiseration is nowhere on the list of things that I’m here to do with you. Or, more accurately, to you.”

“Now, CJ, you know this can’t be good for your blood pressure,” Sam placated, hopping to his feet, hands up as he backed towards his desk.

CJ slammed her hand down on the desk that was now between them, stabbing the letter opener into the wood. “No, Sam. What’s not good for my blood pressure is finding out, after the fact, that you were seen chatting with Representative Gordon. What’s not good for my blood pressure is finding out, after the fact, that you and he shared a certain, shall we say, brotherly regard for one another in college. Not to mention…what!?”

Sam lowered the finger that he’d been pointing behind CJ and said, “It’s probably also not a good thing for your blood pressure to tell you that there are two secret service agents standing right behind you looking really grim.”

CJ spun around and, sure enough, found just that. Pinning the one in the front with a glare, completely not intimidated, she snapped, “What!?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt ma’am, but there’s a bit of a problem that requires your attention,” the man replied.

“What’s that?”

“I’m afraid that one of the Marine guards outside the Oval Office has just dropped dead for no apparent reason. NCIS has been notified and should already be on their way.”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, CJ muttered, “Forget blood pressure. My ulcer’s killing me.”

*  *  *  *

“DiNozzo! Get your gear and start the truck,” Jethro barked.

Tony’s head jerked up from the video game he wasn’t supposed to be playing, even as his fingers toggled to a work screen and he asked, “What’s up, Boss?”

“Dead Marine at the White House right outside the Oval Office.”

Whistling, Tony replied, “What a place to die.”

“You’re going to die right here if you don’t get a move on,” Jethro threatened.

Jumping to his feet, Tony grabbed his backpack, jacket, and hurried towards the elevator. Jethro watched him go, hiding the grin that always tried to pop out whenever he got to Tony that way, and looked at Kate. She was already getting her stuff together.

“Is this an assumption that there was foul play because of his duty assignment, or do we have a reason for the rush?” Kate questioned, falling into step.

Eyeing her, Jethro countered, “I don’t know, Kate. Do you think it’s a good idea to have a dead body two feet from the Oval Office?”

“Ah, probably not.”

“Didn’t think so.”

The elevator arrived just then, forestalling further talk until they got situated again and Kate asked, “Ducky meeting us there?”

Jethro nodded. “Yep.”

“Seriously, Gibbs. Is there a reason to assume foul play?”

Giving her marks for sheer stubbornness, if nothing else, Jethro replied, “Only the fact that he was in perfect health and dropped dead for no determinable reason. The President’s already been checked out and moved, as have the rest of the people who were around at the time.”

“In case of contact or airborne contagion?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if it was airborne, then the whole building should’ve been evacuated.”

“Do you know how many people work at the White House, Kate?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. I used to work there, remember?”

He eyed her for a moment and replied, “Then you know what a nightmare it would be to evacuate.”

“I still would’ve ordered it done,” she muttered.

Hiding a grin at the irritated tone, Jethro silently agreed with her, thinking that it was better to be safe than sorry, with such high-level people involved. The elevator doors opened and they stepped into the garage. Tony already had the SUV ready to go, so Jethro climbed in the passenger side, while Kate took the back. He might’ve ousted Tony out of the driver’s seat, but he was still a little fuzzy from lack of sleep the night before and wanted the caffeine to kick in first.

It was a short drive to the White House, taking longer to actually get through security than to arrive. Ducky’s coroner’s van was a nightmare to get through, all the photographers having a field day. Jethro was positive that he’d go blind from all the flashes before they managed to get inside.

Strangely, a lot of the people that they passed gave him shocked looks, like he had two heads. Frowning a bit, he asked Kate softly, “Do I have something on my face?”

She’d noticed it too, because she replied, “Not that I can see. Something in the water around here?”

“Must be,” Jethro agreed, moving to give Ducky a hand.

Thus it was that his back was turned when a woman said, “Excuse me, but who’s Special Agent Gibbs? I’m CJ Cregg, Senior Press Secretary, and I’ll be your liaison while you’re, well, doing whatever it is that you need to do.”

Turning around, Jethro found a tall, attractive woman with deep blue eyes scanning the room for him. She was almost a red-head, with highlights in her shoulder-length hair, which added to the attractive sight. As did the authoritative, confident way she spoke; Jethro had always liked a take-charge woman.

“That’s me,” he replied, stepping forward. “Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs at your service, Ms. Cregg. It’s good to meet you.”

To his complete shock, the woman paled when he put out his hand, staggering back from him with a cry of such pain that Jethro flinched. Kate was at her side in an instant, supporting her, as was Tony. They guided her to the nearest chair, where Ducky crouched beside her, stethoscope in hand.

“Ms. Cregg? Are you all right? Did you hurt yourself? Perhaps you feel dizzy?” Ducky questioned gently, taking her pulse as she sat like a stone in the chair and stared at Jethro.

Collecting herself with a visible effort, Ms. Cregg shook them off as she stood, holding out a hand. “I’m sorry. I just…You look like…if you’ll excuse me, my assistant will be by to help situate you. I need some air.”

Thrown by the entire thing, Jethro just watched her go.

Tony joined him, shaking his head in confusion. “Jeeze, Boss. I know you can be scary, but that’s the first time I’ve seen someone almost faint from just the sight of you.”

Jethro smacked Tony upside the back of the head.

*  *  *  *

When CJ entered his office, Toby was going to make some kind of smart remark about an acting career that he hadn’t known about. One look at her face, however, and the words dried up. On his feet in an instant, Toby walked over to her at the sofa and asked softly, “What happened?”

Clearly dazed, CJ replied, “Simon’s ghost is haunting the lobby in the form of an NCIS agent.”

Toby blinked in surprised. “Excuse me?”

“I’m just going to…lie down for a while,” CJ replied, doing just that. “Wake me when I’m sane again.”

Nonplussed, he stared at her a few more seconds before leaving his office for Sam’s, careful to close his door so that CJ wouldn’t be disturbed. Rapping sharply on Sam’s door, he walked in without waiting for an answer and motioned impatiently for the younger man to get off the phone.

“I’m sorry, Senator…yes, yes I understand. If I could just call you first thing in the morning? Thank you, I really appreciate it,” Sam said, hanging up. “What’s up?”

“CJ said that Simon Donovan’s ghost is haunting the lobby. Would you go check that out while I keep an eye on her?”

Sam blinked at him in surprise. “Excuse me?”

“That’s what I said. Go check it out?”

“Yeah. I think I should.”

Toby stepped back to let him investigate, tempted to do so himself. He wanted to be nearby in case CJ needed him, though, so he set up shop at Sam’s desk.

Bonnie poked her head inside a few moments later, asking, “Everything okay, Toby?”

Thinking about it for a second, Toby answered, “I’ll let you know when Sam gets back.”

*  *  *  *

There wasn’t anyone in the lobby except, well, security type people and visitors. Certainly no ghosts that he could see, let alone Simon Donovan. Shaking his head over the strangeness of the people that he worked with, Sam headed towards the Oval Office, morbid curiosity motivating him. He’d seen dead bodies before, but never seen the investigation that went along with it.

He found a pale Carol leaning against a wall in the corridor and frowned. “Carol? You all right?”

Dragging her gaze from somewhere else, Carol took a moment to focus on him and replied, “Yes, thank you Sam. How’s CJ?”

“Hiding in Toby’s office for some reason. Something about Simon’s ghost…?” Sam prompted, mystified.

Carol pointed and, when Sam’s eyes followed her finger, a thrill of recognition and surprise ran through him. The man he was looking at now, was a dead ringer for Simon Donovan. Well, except for the bad haircut. The voice, the frame, the movements, everything matched the dead secret service agent to a T and it took a few moments to stammer, “I-I can see where she’d want to lie down.”

Nodding, Carol asked, “Can you stick around and see if they need anything? I want to check on CJ. We’ve got the afternoon briefing in a half hour.”

“Yeah, sure, go ahead,” Sam agreed.

He watched as the investigation team did their thing: talking quietly, taking measurements, snapping pictures, picking up anything that might be construed as evidence. It was an intricate dance with steps that were clearly as familiar to them as the backs of their hands, possibly more so. They were efficient and…

“DiNozzo, if you don’t stop leering at my ass, I’m going to kick you right in the…”

“Kate! A little decorum if you please? Consider our location!”

“I’ll give him decorum.”

“Aw, Kate, now how would you know where my eyes were, if you were doing your job?”

“The two of you, shut up and get back to work before I knock both your heads together.”

“Jethro!”

…really damn snarky, now that Sam was listening as well as looking. They bickered the same way they did their job; like a well-oiled machine. It was like watching a tennis match, only a hell of a lot more entertaining.

The Simon look-alike finally took notice of him and walked over, barking, “Something I can help you with?”

“Oh, ah, no. Not me. I’m just here in case you need something, Agent…?”

“Special Agent Gibbs,” the man replied.

“Ah. Sam Seaborn.”

They were joined by the older gentleman in glasses who beamed at him and said, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Seaborn. I admire your writing in the extreme.”

Surprised, but pleased, Sam smiled. “Thank you. And it’s Sam, Mr.?”

“Dr. Donald Mallard, but everyone calls me…”

“Ducky, are you ready to transport the body yet?” Gibbs interrupted impatiently. “I think letting the President back into his office would be a good idea.”

Turning from Sam, Ducky nodded at Gibbs and ambled off, calling, “Let’s be off, Gerald. We have tests to run on our latest guest.”

The black man gave Ducky a smile as the doctor continued chattering away about what they should do when they got the body back to the morgue.

“We don’t need anything.”

Bringing his attention back to Gibbs, Sam replied, “That’s okay. I should stick around anyhow. Just in case.”

“Why are people looking at me like I’m a ghost? And why did Ms. Cregg react the way she did?”

The blunt question took Sam by surprise, but then he remembered that he was dealing with military, not politics. Hesitant, Sam finally explained, “Last year, CJ was getting death threats, real ones, not the ‘I hate everything you stand for, die a horrible death’ kind.”

Gibbs nodded his understanding of the distinction.

“The secret service agent they assigned to protect her…well…you’re his twin.”

“I don’t have a twin.”

“No, seriously. You look like him, talk like him, you even move like him. It’s…bizarre,” Sam admitted. “They were, well, involved when he was shot and killed in a robbery that he tried to stop. That’s why she, you know, freaked out on you.”

Gibbs frowned. “Well, I’m not him and I don’t need people hanging over our shoulders when we have an investigation to run. If I need anything, I’ll call you, Mr. Seaborn.”

Knowing a dismissal when he heard one, Sam just nodded and left the hall.

What a weird damn day.

*  *  *  *

Tony was locking up the last of their equipment when he heard a soft, “Well I’ll be damned.”

Looking over at the source, he found a guy about his age, maybe a few years older, with flyaway brown hair and a dumbfounded expression on his face as he looked at Gibbs. Wincing at the tell-tale tightening of Gibbs’ back muscles, Tony knew the agent was going to explode. Never one to be in the spotlight, Gibbs was more than happy to take the head off the next hapless person to bring up his resemblance to the dead Secret Service agent.

Tony wouldn’t even lay odds on Gibbs not taking off the President’s head, at this point.

Hurrying over to the bystander, Tony blocked the guy from Gibbs’ line-of-sight and smiled broadly. “Hi there. Don’t know who you are, but if you want to keep your head attached to your shoulders, I suggest you leave now without making any further comments.”

Merry hazel eyes sparked back at his as a grin surfaced on the newcomer’s face and he shrugged, observing, “Just didn’t realize they made back-up models.”

Practically feeling Gibbs’ hand about to come out and smack the guy, no matter who he was, Tony hustled him out of the area and down the hall with, “So you’re not too good with the whole survival instinct thing, are you?”

Laughing, the man said, “I know you.”

Tony stopped in surprise. “No. Don’t think so.”

“Sure, sure. It’s, it’s, wait, I know this, you’re DiNozzo, right? Ohio State basketball champs, can’t remember the year though.”

Even more surprised, Tony exclaimed, “Yeah! That’s right. I’m sorry, when did we meet?”

“Oh, well, we didn’t officially. I’m Josh Lyman. Friend of mine went to school there and I saw you play a couple of games. You were outstanding!”

They shook hands as Kate came up, burdened down with equipment, and said, “And all this time we thought he was lying about the basketball stuff.”

Tony glared at her, sniping, “I think someone needs to remind Gibbs that you’re about due for range practice. Got an extra PDA handy, Kate?”

Matching his glare, Kate nonetheless held her tongue and continued down the hall.

“Ouch. And I thought Toby and Leo went at it,” Josh observed. He paused, then said, “Well, they do. But anyhow, you were great, man. How’d you end up with this gig?”

Tony shrugged. “Long story. Got injured, wound up in the police academy, badda bing, here I am, NCIS. So, what do you do?”

“Deputy Chief of Staff.”

“Oh,” Tony replied, thinking about it. And the more he thought about it, the less he liked the way he’d just treated this guy, like he wasn’t… “So that’s like…”

“His boss’ boss is the President. Get your ass in gear, DiNozzo, we have work to do,” Gibbs barked from behind.

Never more grateful for Gibbs’ interference, Tony offered a weak grin to Lyman and said, “I should, you know, get back to work. It was good meeting you. Bye!”

“Hey, DiNozzo!” Lyman called after him.

Flinching a bit, Tony nonetheless turned around and answered, “Yeah?”

“Why don’t you swing by on Saturday? We usually have a game of hoops going. You can help me whip Sam’s butt into shape.”

“Sam…”

Seaborn,” Gibbs supplied. “Deputy Communications Chief.”

Feeling way out of his league, Tony just nodded, gave a short wave and high-tailed it out of the White House. All things considered, the hard smack Gibbs landed on his head was actually pretty comforting.

*  *  *  *

“I feel like an idiot.”

Toby shrugged. “You probably didn’t look like one.”

Glaring a bit, CJ replied, “Gee thanks, Toby.”

“CJ, I’m sure he understood. I wouldn’t worry about it,” Sam added hastily. “He seemed like a nice enough guy. Short tempered and, well, slightly abusive to his staff, but hey, we’re all used to that.”

“Sam…”

Sam held up a hand and offered, “Look, Josh invited one of his people to our game on Saturday. You want me to ask him to extend the invitation to Gibbs so you can apologize?”

Thinking it over, CJ nodded. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.”

“But don’t think this gets you off the hook about Gordon.”

“Damn.”

*  *  *  *

Jethro looked down at the young man on Ducky’s table and asked, “So what’ve we got, Ducky?”

“A mystery,” Ducky replied with relish. “Though probably only until the tox screen comes back. I expect that he ingested some kind of poison or toxic substance that stopped his heart.”

“For fun?”

Ducky gave him a look that clearly said, ‘Stop being difficult,’ and stated, “Of course not. That’s your job. The autopsy revealed that he was in perfect shape, aside from the heart attack which killed him. And no, no history of any heart problems in his medical files. No problems at all, really.”

Jethro sighed a little. “Great.”

“Sorry, my boy, but there’s most likely foul play afoot here.”

Nodding, Jethro left the morgue and headed up to the office. Once there he barked, “Kate, find out who replaced Cameron in the rotation and run a background check. We’ve run into that kind of thing before. DiNozzo, report.”

Tony leaned back in his chair and answered, “Single, career military from a career military family, no outstanding debts, no outstanding anything, not even a parking ticket. Actually, he doesn’t even own a car. The guy’s clean, Boss.”

“Then dig deeper,” Jethro snapped. “Someone poisoned Cameron and I want to know if it’s a pissed off girlfriend, someone he beat up back in kindergarten, or something we need to worry about!”

“On it!”

Pinning McGee with a look caused the young agent to pale and shuffle at his desk, something that Jethro took enjoyment in, while he still could. After standing up to the Assistant Secretary of Defense, it wouldn’t be long before the newfound confidence returned and extended to dealing with other people of authority, himself included. McGee was a good agent, just perpetually shy and lacking the confidence he needed to be promoted.

Actually, Jethro was and wasn’t looking forward to that day, since it would mean he’d have to choose between his three agents for the promotion.

Shaking off the thought, Jethro asked quietly, “Status, McGee?”

The quiet tone, of course, was designed to rattle McGee even further, which it did. “I-I-I found out that the Corporal’s financials are, uh, clean, Boss.”

“Clean?”

“Yes. Um, he lives strictly within his means and his savings are what you would expect for a Marine with his expenses.”

“Which are?”

“Uh, just rent, food, and metro pass that I can tell.”

“That you can tell?”

“Ah, yes. Boss.”

“Good,” Jethro praised. “What about his family?”

“Parents still married, no outstanding debts or financial problems. He was an only son, of an only son, so there wasn’t a lot to check out,” McGee replied. “His mother actually made more than his father.”

“Private sector?”

“Yes.”

“Not surprised, then. What else?”

“That’s it.”

Jethro thought a moment, then asked, “Any computers at his place?”

“Abby’s going over it now.”

“Go on and give her a hand,” Jethro directed.

Surprised, McGee nonetheless beat a hasty retreat towards the elevator.

Jethro grinned to himself, more than happy to provide the on-again, off-again lovebirds a chance to develop into something more. One of his pet projects, like McGee’s confidence.

Turning back to his other agents, he found Tony on the phone and frowned at the bewildered expression on his face. Returning to Tony’s desk, he demanded, “Is that a personal call while we’re in the middle of a hot case, DiNozzo?”

“Thank you, I think that’s going to be fine with him, but let me just check. Can you hold on a second?” Tony said into the phone. Whoever was on the other end obviously replied in the affirmative, because Tony gingerly pressed the hold button and looked at Jethro. “Ah, Boss?”

“What?” Jethro demanded impatiently.

“What’re you doing on Saturday?”

“What?”

“That’s Josh Lyman on the phone. He was serious about shooting hoops this weekend and wants to know if you’d be interested.”

Jethro frowned. A top White House official wanted to play basketball with two NCIS agents? Something was definitely going on. “Tell him I’m busy.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Jethro growled. He wanted to see just how far this Lyman was willing to go to get him there.

Groaning, Tony picked up the phone again and took a breath before un-holding Lyman and saying, “I’m sorry, but it looks like he’s busy. Oh. Uh, okay. Sure. Hold on another second? Thanks.”

Jethro folded his arms over his chest, glaring at Tony. “Now what?”

“He really wants you there, Boss, I can tell, but he wouldn’t say why. Just something about uneven teams,” Tony replied.

“Why is he even calling you in the first place?” Kate asked, drawn in by the little drama.

Tony shrugged helplessly. “You got me. I thought he was kidding. Why the hell he’d want to play hoops with me is anyone’s guess.”

A little angry that Tony was lapsing back into that self-derision, Jethro reached over and picked up the phone. Ignoring Tony’s squawk of a protest, he stabbed the hold button and greeted, “Mr. Lyman.”

“Yeah hey, is this Gibbs?”

“I’m afraid that we’re all a little too busy trying to solve a murder to schedule a basketball game, Mr. Lyman.”

“Murder, wait. The Marine was murdered?”

Cursing his temper for letting that slip out, Jethro replied, “This is an on-going investigation, Mr. Lyman, and I’m sure you know all about confidentiality.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll let you get back to work. Offer Agent DiNozzo my apologies for the interruption and ask him to give me a call when you’re done with the investigation.”

Frowning a little at the apology, Jethro relented a little with, “I will, thank you.”

Jethro hung up and walked back to his desk, ignoring the other two, who were clearly waiting for an explanation.

“Gibbs!” Kate finally exclaimed. “What did he say?”

“To get back to work,” Jethro ordered pointedly.

Eyes rolling, Kate returned to her desk.

“And Tony?”

“Yeah, Boss?”

“Give Lyman a call when we solve this thing.”

The way Tony’s jaw dropped was almost gratifying.

*  *  *  *

Hanging up, Josh shrugged helplessly at CJ and said, “They’re busy. But Gibbs said he’d have DiNozzo call me when they wrapped it up.”

“You did just say murder, right?” CJ asked, ignoring the rest.

“Yeah. But you can’t release that.”

“Like I would?”

“Oh good, because I have the feeling that Gibbs would take my head off if that gets out,” Josh replied.

“If what gets out?” Sam asked, walking into the office.

“Nothing.”

Bemused by the emphatic and identical response from both CJ and Josh, Sam replied, “All right then. Josh, I was wondering if you had a few minutes?

CJ waved to them and headed out, closing the door behind her.

“What’s up?” Josh asked curiously.

Sitting on the edge of Josh’s desk, Sam questioned, “You don’t think CJ’s going to do something stupid like try and see this guy socially, do you?”

Josh frowned. “How did you go from an apology to them dating?”

“It’s CJ.”

“Well, yeah, but still.”

With a shrug, Sam stood and said, “How’s your day look?”

“Surprisingly light. Why?”

“Any chance you can meet with Gordon?”

“Boy, you really do have a death wish, don’t you, Sam?”

*  *  *  *

A long, hot shower was exactly what Tony needed after the insanity of the last forty-eight hours. Locked in his apartment, he was finally getting just that. He wasn’t, as he’d sniped to Kate, on any date tonight, hot or otherwise. He hadn’t been, for a good six months. Not since the Ari debacle and Gibbs’ reaction to his extended lunch with Marta, even though he hadn’t actually done anything with the assassin.

Still wincing as he thought about that day, Tony shook it off with the practice of long ease and blanked his mind out. He concentrated only on the feel of the hot water pounding into his body, the slow relaxation of his muscles under the stimuli. The music helped, focusing his thoughts only on the lyrics instead of the hamster-run in his mind, at least for a little while.

Realizing that he was approaching prune stage, Tony reluctantly stopped the water and dried off. He dressed in some boxers and padded silently to the kitchen for a bowl of fruit loops. It was really all he had the energy to make for himself. He wouldn’t have even bothered, except that he had to take some food with the pain-pills and was, actually, hungry.

Grimacing as the pulled groin and thigh muscles seriously made themselves felt, Tony limped from counter to counter getting his cereal. He didn’t even taste it, he ate so fast, and then washed the pills down with a half-glass of milk.

The phone rang and he contemplated not answering, but knew he would. If it was Gibbs and he didn’t answer, he’d be in deep shit. Hobbling over to it, he picked up with, “DiNozzo.”

“Hey. How’s the backside?”

Grinning at Abby’s question, Tony hobbled towards his bedroom and answered, “My ass is fine, Abby, thanks for asking. The front side, however, is sore as hell.”

“That’s what you get for being thrown out of a moving vehicle. Tell me again how that happened?”

Tony snorted. “We got him, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, well, Kate said that she didn’t think she’d ever seen Gibbs quite that shade of red before. Don’t scare us like that again, Tony,” Abby scolded.

Wincing, both from her words and the attempt to climb into bed, Tony replied, “It’s not like there was any other option.”

Abby sighed and stated, “Jumping onto a truck bed, fighting with a suspect, and then getting tossed out the back is not a really good option.”

“You say that like I don’t know it already. Believe me, I know that already,” Tony assured her. “Besides, Gibbs has already chewed me out for the month. You don’t need to add to his words of wisdom.”

“And what words would those be?”

“Among the less colorful were ‘idiotic,’ ‘death-wish,’ and the phrase, ‘cleaning the head for a year,’ which I really never want to hear again.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed, then paused. “He can’t really make me do that, can he?”

Abby chuckled. “I dunno, Tony, he is the Boss.”

Sighing, Tony said, “In any case, we got the bad guy and he’s behind bars and life goes on. Speaking of, congrats on the find.”

“Why thank you, Anthony,” she replied, voice rich with humor.

“None of us came up with it. Or the lead to his greedy cousin.”

“Well, that was mostly McGee.”

“Ah yes. And how is Probie? Have you killed him yet?”

“Tony. I don’t kiss and tell.”

“Since when?”

They both laughed, then Tony groaned and said, “I’m hanging up now before I pull any more muscles.”

“You’re staying home tomorrow, right?”

“Nope. I’ll be in.”

“Tony!”

“I’m fine, Abs, really. The truck was barely doing twenty,” Tony assured her. “Night, Abby.”

She heaved a loud sigh, but answered warmly, “Night, Tony.”

Hanging up, Tony grinned and set the phone on the bedside table. He’d just pulled the covers up when the phone rang again. Frowning, he glared at the phone and muttered, “Gotta get Caller ID for my landline,” before picking it up again with, “DiNozzo.”

“Hey, Tony, it’s Josh.”

Surprise ran through him as Tony recognized the White House guy’s voice. “Oh. Ah, hi Josh. What can I do for you?”

“Actually, I was calling for two reasons.”

“Okay.”

“First, congratulations on catching the killer. It’s nice to know we had absolutely nothing to do with it for a change. And the amount of time we spend here qualifies it as our primary residence.”

Tony had to grin at the dry tone. “I understand.”

“Thought you would,” Josh agreed. “Second, how’re you feeling? I heard you had to get checked out by EMTs.”

Though he shouldn’t have been surprised again, Tony was, and finally gave voice to it with, “You know, I appreciate the concern, honest, I’m just not sure why you’re checking in with me. Or why you called me in the first place. We don’t exactly…have the same social circle.”

There was a pause before Josh answered, “This probably seems really weird to you, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Tony confirmed honestly.

Josh snorted and said, “I didn’t mean to weird you out or anything. I just remembered Jack, my college friend, saying you were a great guy, and I thought you were a great player, so I figured why not hook up?”

Tony paused, wondering if Josh really meant what Tony thought he meant. Which he couldn’t possibly. Tony thought frantically back to the few minutes of conversation they’d exchanged and wondered if he’d subconsciously given off some kind of ‘I’m interested,’ vibe.

“Wait, that didn’t come out right,” Josh said hastily. “Let me start over. CJ, whom you almost met a couple of days ago, really wants to apologize to Gibbs for freaking out on him. Sam thought that since I’d already asked you to shoot some hoops with us, which was an honest invite, by the way, I figured I’d extend the invitation to Gibbs and CJ could apologize, thereby making her feel better and the lives of the rest of us here in the White House, a lot easier. Seriously. When she gets something in her head, she’s impossible to live with.”

Tony grinned a little and commented, “Sounds familiar.”

“I bet. So look. Can you do us a favor and convince Gibbs to come over on Saturday? Well, assuming you’re up to playing a couple games by then? What happened, anyhow? Are you all right?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. I got tossed out of a truck by the suspect, pulled a few muscles. I should be good to go by Saturday,” Tony replied.

There was a long pause before Josh asked, “How fast was the truck going?”

“Couldn’t have been more than twenty. Don’t worry about it.”

“Right. Okay. You know what? I think you’re going to beat the pants off us on Saturday.”

Tony laughed. “We’ll see. And don’t worry, I’ll figure out a way to drag Gibbs along.”

“He isn’t going to, like, try to kill me when he sees me for that ‘back-up model’ comment, is he?”

“Well, he was a Marine for a long time, so no promises.”

“Great.”

*  *  *  *

“So Boss.”

Jethro looked up at where Tony almost wasn’t limping into the cube area and replied, “What is it, DiNozzo?”

“You know that lady who freaked out at the White House?”

“Yeah.”

“She wants to apologize in a big way.”

Jethro’s eyebrows rose. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, she feels terrible, but I guess she doesn’t want to seem obnoxious about it or anything, hence the invite to the Bball game on Sat,” Tony explained. “So you’re coming, right?”

Hating that Tony knew him well enough to know that he’d never let a woman go on feeling bad if he could fix it, Jethro glared a little, but answered, “What time?”

“Ten sharp. Josh said we should head around to the employee parking lot, he’ll leave our names at the gate there as visitors.”

The glare grew and Jethro demanded, “When did you talk to Lyman?”

“Ah, last night. He called to check up on me, thought I got hurt,” Tony replied, frowning. “Problem, Boss?”

Just the fact that I don’t like the way he was eyeing you, even if you didn’t realize it, Jethro thought. Out loud, he said, “Just that you’re yammering away at me when there are reports to be written.”

“Oh. Right.”

Jethro watched Tony until he was sitting, then reluctantly returned his attention to his own reports. Last night had been a time of bourbon and bad country songs to calm himself down, he hadn’t been in any frame of mind to write reports.

The sight of Tony being shoved out the back of that truck was going to haunt him for a long time. That plus the fact that he’d been twenty meters away and Tony hadn’t moved until after Jethro had gotten to him. The fear that he’d broken his neck or gotten another head injury had rendered him mute only until Tony had sucked in a huge breath. He’d only had the wind knocked out of him, along with a few scrapes and bruises, some pulled muscles.

Fortunately, Kate had been stationed at the base gate and they’d stopped the suspect there. Shaking his head at Tony’s idiotic bravery, almost wishing he could beat the impulsiveness out of the other man, Jethro brought up the first report to fill out.

It was a good two hours later that he heard the one-sided conversation that had to be with Josh Lyman and Jethro’s jaw tightened in annoyance.

“Yeah, it’s fine. He’s going to be there, I promise. No, really? No, I mean, that’s great. So, okay then. I’ll, we’ll see you there. Great! Bye, Josh.”

Unfortunately, since he couldn’t put down jealousy as a legitimate reason for not talking to Lyman, Jethro bit his tongue and returned to his reports.

“Does this mean you’re both going to the White House for a game of basketball?” Kate demanded incredulously.

“Someone’s got to keep him in line, make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble or say something un-pc to the wrong person,” Jethro replied mildly.

“And that’s you?”

Jethro quirked an eyebrow at her.

Kate grinned briefly and said, “I’d be happy to volunteer for the job of keeping him in line, Gibbs. Especially seeing as how I probably already know some of the Secret Service guys there.”

Thinking it over, Jethro figured it might not be a bad idea to have her along. If she was, Tony would be too competitive with her to notice anyone else. “DiNozzo, give Lyman a call and tell him to add Kate’s name to the list. Tell him…we’ll make it NCIS against the White House. Losers buy lunch.”

Tony groaned.

*  *  *  *

Saturday dawned bright and clear, and Tony found himself strangely eager to get to the game. It wasn’t just because he got to show off for Gibbs, though that was always there. Despite Josh’s title and power, Tony got a really good vibe off the other man. It was enough to take away a little of his nervousness at where the game was taking place, anyhow.

After giving his name at the gate, Tony parked next to Kate’s Volvo, grabbed his bag with its change of clothes, and smirked, as he always did upon joining her at her car.

“Don’t even start.”

“Who, me? C’mon, Kate, what could I possibly say about a woman who carries a gun, and yet drives the safest car in the world?” Tony taunted.

The smack to the back of his head was completely unexpected, as was Gibbs,’ “That she’s a smart consumer.”

Rubbing his head, Tony offered a minor glare to Gibbs and greeted, “Morning to you too, Boss.”

Gibbs grunted as he took a sip of the coffee and they all fell into step together.

It had been really funny to see McGee trying to squirm out of the basketball game, stammering and almost begging to be let off the hook, but Tony was glad he wasn’t there. It wasn’t that he didn’t like McGee, because he did. He just had absolutely no confidence in the other agent’s bball playing abilities. Didn’t even know if McGee could dribble or pass, let alone score. And with at least one real athlete on the opposite team, CJ herself, Tony wanted to keep their chances as high as possible for winning.

Given Gibbs’ mean streak, it was entirely possible that he’d made McGee squirm just for the hell of it.

Josh met them at the entrance, dressed in sweats and a t-shirt. “You bring your game?”

“And then some,” Tony promised, echoing the grin.

“Good to see you again, Special Agent Gibbs. And it’s a pleasure to meet you, Agent Todd,” Josh greeted, holding out his hand.

Kate smiled and took the hand, replying, Good to meet you, too, Mr. Lyman.”

“I think we’re all being a little formal here for a basketball game, but that’s just me,” Sam said as he joined them. “First names all around?”

“Agreed,” Gibbs supported.

CJ came up just then and gave an embarrassed wave. “Hello. I’m CJ.”

Tony nearly cracked up laughing when Kate eyed the taller woman with something akin to suspicion, and drew herself up as tall as possible. Oh yeah. This was going to be fun.

*  *  *  *

One of the parking lots had been cleared for the game, a couple of temporary hoops set up at almost regulation distance. The game was fierce, as Jethro had figured it would be. Three young men, two women with something to prove, and an ex-Marine, did not make for a relaxing game. As well, there was some bearded guy watching and heckling, as well as egging them all on, from the sidelines. It didn’t seem to matter who he shouted at, as long as he was shouting.

Tony and CJ turned out to be, not surprisingly, the ones who squared off the most often. Jethro had read up on the woman and found out that she’d played school ball, even if it hadn’t been college championships like Tony. The two of them scored fast and played aggressively. Still irritated by Lyman on principal, though he was reserving actual judgement, Jethro guarded the Assistant Chief of Staff like a bulldog, seldom letting him get away with anything.

Kate, the poor soul, was left guarding Sam, who wasn’t too bad, but wasn’t all that good, either. After knocking him to the ground for the third time, she’d apologized profusely, but warned him it was probably better just to keep out of her way. That seemed to get Sam’s back up, but he wasn’t good enough to get the ball away from her at any point.

Jethro would have been laughing, if he’d had any breath to spare.

As it was, twenty points took over an hour of furious competition, with only three ten-minute breaks to rest, and NCIS winning was anything but a foregone conclusion. They pulled it off thanks to teamwork and two astonishingly accurate 3 point shots from Tony. An audience had gathered by the end of it, or Jethro would have just collapsed onto the pavement. Towels and water were handed out to the players and, sweaty and winded, Jethro took both without comment.

A few minutes later, Jethro straightened to attention, as did Tony and Kate. The President had, apparently, been watching the game and was now walking over to congratulate the winners, a young black man following close behind. Although almost used to how people stared at him, having the focus of one of the most powerful people in the world on you like a hawk was, Jethro wasn’t ashamed to admit, disconcerting.

As if realizing that, President Bartlett drew back and apologized, “I’m sorry, it’s just uncanny, how much you look like Agent Donovan. That’s no excuse for rudeness, though. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Special Agent Gibbs. Congratulations on whipping the butts of my staff.”

Jethro smiled briefly and accepted the hand, firmly repressing the need to salute as he replied, “Thank you, Sir. It was my pleasure.”

Bartlett chuckled. “I’m sure it was. I hear a soldier in there somewhere, trying to get out. Marine, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Sir,” Jethro confirmed.

“I also wanted to thank you for such a quick investigation. Getting justice for that young man as fast as you did…it’s no wonder that you beat my people so soundly.”

Seeing that the President meant it as a compliment, Jethro nodded and replied, “Just doing our jobs, Sir.”

“Of course, of course,” Bartlett murmured. “Still, I thank you for doing it well, and doing it speedily.”

There was nothing else to say, except, “You’re welcome, Sir.”

Bartlett moved on to Kate, whom Jethro was sure was silently cursing her appearance, and greeted, “Special Agent Todd, it’s good to see you again. I hadn’t realized that you’d moved to NCIS. When did that happen?”

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Sir,” Kate replied, also accepting the President’s hand. “Almost a year ago, now.”

“And how did we lose you?”

“Ah, it was…an opportunity that I felt I had to take at the time, Sir,” Kate answered.

Diplomacy at its best, Gibbs thought wryly.

She could hardly tell the President that she’d been canned, after all.

“I sense a story there, but I’ll let it go for now. I’m pleased things are working out for you. Thank you for your hard work during the investigation.”

“It was my pleasure, Sir, and thank you.”

Moving on to Tony next, Bartlett gave him an almost suspicious look as he observed, “Ohio State Championships two years running. You didn’t feel that you’d be taking advantage of my staff, Special Agent DiNozzo?”

“Only if Ms. Cregg hadn’t been present, Sir,” Tony replied, shaking his hand.

Bartlett actually chuckled at that and agreed, “Sadly true. The best basketball player I’ve got, is a woman. No offense, CJ.”

CJ smiled at him. “None taken, Sir.”

“You weren’t hurt too badly then, I see?”

“No, Sir, not at all.”

“Hmm. And somehow, I doubt you would admit to any sort of weakness unless completely incapacitated, isn’t that right, Special Agent Gibbs?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Well, be sure and take care of yourself, Special Agent DiNozzo. We need you on the team, watching out for our men and women in uniform,” Bartlett told him.

“Thank you, Sir, and I will,” Tony promised.

Looking at Sam and Josh, The President wagged a finger at them and said sternly, “I am vastly disappointed in the two of you. Vastly.”

Josh grinned. “Yes, Sir.”

“Yes, Sir,” Sam echoed, also grinning.

“Come back for a rematch sometime so we can regain our honor,” was said to all of the NCIS team before the smiling President made his way back off the court.

Relaxing once Bartlett was gone, Jethro turned to Josh and reminded, “You owe us lunch.”

Josh grinned. “I know the perfect place. Come on, I’ll show you where you can clean up.”

*  *  *  *

Collapsing into the chair beside Josh’s with a grin, Tony observed, “You guys are pretty damn good to hold out against us for so long.”

Josh’s eyes rolled slightly and he leaned in to say, “Wait ‘til next time. We were lulling you into a false sense of security.”

“Oh really?” Tony replied, his grin getting bigger.

“Hell yeah. Isn’t that right Sam?”

Sam looked over at them, diverted from his conversation with Kate enough to say, “Absolutely. As long as he didn’t just shut down one of the branches of the Federal Government.”

Tony wasn’t surprised that Sam was taken with Kate; she could be damn sexy and brilliant when she wanted to be. It was just as well that she and Tony hadn’t been attracted to each other from the start, because it would have ended really badly. Waving Sam back to Kate, Tony promised, “Just a local branch.”

“That’s good, then,” Sam agreed, turning back to Kate.

Josh sighed and shook his head, muttering, “And he’s off again.”

Curious, Tony asked, “What do you mean?”

“Sam has a habit of aiming for women he can’t have,” Josh explained, lowering his voice a little.

Tony nearly choked on his beer. He glanced over and took in the way Kate had her chin in her palm, leaning intently towards Sam, wide-eyed and apparently hanging on his every word. “Trust me. He can have her.”

Josh’s eyebrows climbed and he said, “So you two aren’t...you know...together?”

“No,” Tony replied emphatically. “Think brother-sister.”

Thoughtful, Josh muttered, “Huh.”

Tony shrugged. “Yeah.”

The food arrived just then and there was a general mix-up of plates and a second round of drinks ordered. It wasn’t until things settled down again that he noticed Gibbs and CJ sitting close together at the far end of the tables brought together for their party. Frowning at the way Gibbs was listening to whatever the woman softly said to him, Tony felt his stomach sink at the look on his boss’ face. He’d seen that half-grin there exactly the same number of times that mysterious redhead dropped something off at the office or dropped off Gibbs.

“Something wrong?”

Distracted by Josh’s quiet words, Tony shook his head and forced a smile. “No. Just thinking.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Josh agreed wryly, his gaze flickering to CJ and Gibbs. “Sam called it.”

“What do you mean?”

“He had her going from apologizing to dating Gibbs in short order. Not this short an order, but yeah,” Josh explained.

Tony forced back the grimace, instead shrugging and saying, “Gibbs can take care of himself.”

“You two friends outside of work?” Josh questioned.

Unfortunately, Tony didn’t even have to think about it to answer, “Not really. Spend too much time at work together, you know? Besides, he’s my boss. There’s no way, you know?”

Josh grinned briefly and confirmed, “Totally do.”

“Yeah, well sure, of course you would,” Tony exclaimed, mentally smacking himself in the head. “I mean, I can’t imagine you and the President hang out and drink beers?”

Josh grinned again and said, “Well, not often anyhow. And usually everyone else is around too.”

“So, what’s the President like? Really?” Tony asked, feeling like a dork.

Laughing softly, Josh informed him, “You held out longer than I thought you would. I owe Toby money.”

Tony chuckled, not in the least offended.

*  *  *  *

CJ had offered her sincerest apologies the moment they were all cleaned up and heading out of the White House to the cars for lunch. Jethro had assured her that it was fine, that he understood perfectly well how disconcerting it must have been. But he hadn’t, not until she’d shown him a picture of the deceased Secret Service Agent. It was like looking into a mirror and shook Jethro all the way down to his soul. How had he and this man lived their entire lives without running into each other even once? Or run into anyone who had met them both?

“You know, I’ve been accused of having a twin before, but I thought they were exaggerating,” Jethro had said, staring at the picture as he remembered a few people over the years who’d been really insistent.

CJ had shrugged and agreed, “It’s bizarre and uncanny, but I can tell you little things that you do completely differently. You aren’t clones.”

“Well that’s good to know. Working for the government, you never know, right?” Jethro had managed to joke, making her laugh.

Now, sitting across from her, Jethro wasn’t all that sure he didn’t want to keep her laughing as often and as long as possible. She was a woman who felt things deeply and, just as clearly, did not have him in her mind as her dead boyfriend come back to life. He wasn’t sure how he could tell that, but he could. Maybe it was the glint of sadness in her eyes as she looked at him, as if reminded of the loss every time.

Which, of course, she probably was.

During their talk, which ranged from her work to his, from politics to goldfish, of all things, Jethro couldn’t help but notice how paired off the others were. It wasn’t a foursome. It was Kate and Sam, and Josh and Tony, and that was ticking him off a little. Those intelligent eyes were focused on Tony, not missing a beat of whatever it was DiNozzo was saying and the guy was leaning a little too close for Jethro’s comfort.

Not that his comfort really entered into the factor, but Jethro also didn’t want Tony getting in over his head. It was just so Tony to think that Lyman was being friendly, instead of realizing that Lyman was interested in him for more than his sense of humor, then get somewhere private with the man and discover things the hard way. Except how the hell did he tell that to DiNozzo without telling him how he knew?

Maybe he knows already and is enjoying the attention, a snide voice inside Jethro pointed out.

Stomping that voice into oblivion, grateful for his ability to listen and think independently, Jethro answered CJ, “I’d love to. Do you have to go back in to the office, or are you free the rest of today?”

Clearly surprised by his ready answer, CJ took a moment to gather her composure, then smiled brilliantly. “I am free tonight as a matter of fact. How about you pick me up at eight?”

“Sounds good,” Jethro agreed, leaning back in his chair.

“You ready to go, Boss?” Tony called, as if sensing the agreement.

Jethro looked at Tony and, for one heartbreaking moment, wished intensely that it really was jealousy coloring the younger man’s voice. “I’m going to walk CJ to her car. I’ll see the two of you on Monday. Enjoy the rest of the weekend, you earned it. Good game, Josh, Sam.”

There were nods all around and Jethro stood before offering his hand to CJ as he thought, What’s the old lyric? If you can’t love the one you want, love the one you’re with?

 

PART II

 

Tony glared at the clock as if that would make Gibbs appear where and when he was supposed to be; here at work, sitting at his desk. This was the third time the man was late in a month and he didn’t need any damned tabloids to tell him it was because of one CJ Cregg.

Jeeze Tony, clock watching a little early today, aren’t you? You don’t usually start until at least lunch,” Kate teased, returning to her desk.

Tony grimaced and pointed out, “Gibbs is late again.”

“You’re not late if you’re the boss,” Kate countered.

Irritated, Tony just turned back to his computer, ignoring her altogether. Which he should’ve known wouldn’t work.

All it did was bring Kate to his desk with a concerned, “Tony, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Tell it to someone who doesn’t know you. Spill, DiNozzo.”

Glaring at Kate, he demanded, “It doesn’t bother you that Gibbs is seeing someone who went out with his double? I mean come on, Kate, I know you can say transference, you’re a profiler.”

Kate was thoughtful as she replied, “It could be a little of that, but Tony, he’s a grown man. He knows how to handle himself. And besides, you don’t know that it’s a romantic involvement.”

Tony just looked at her.

“Well okay, but that doesn’t mean that it’s serious,” Kate amended.

The elevators opened just then and Gibbs walked over to them, whistling.

Kate blinked a couple of times and re-amended, “Then again, I’ve been wrong before,” and walked back to her desk.

“Nice night out, Boss?” Tony called cheerfully, forcing the words out.

Gibbs didn’t answer, not that Tony had really expected him to, just sat at his desk and powered up his computer. Sighing faintly, Tony returned to the reports that were the bane of his existence, futilely wishing for some kind of crime to occur that didn’t actually get anyone hurt or killed. It was as if the Fates were conspiring against him, because the last month since Gibbs had started seeing CJ, crime had decided to take a holiday, giving them plenty of time to get to know each other.

It just figured that the one time in his life that he was seriously, emotionally involved with someone, it was all one-sided. Tony had gotten the occasional glimpse that Gibbs wasn’t as straight as he appeared to be, just comments and attitude really, but there was definitely nothing to hint that he would ever look Tony’s way with anything but professional interest.

So he sucked it up and did the best he could to earn Gibbs’ respect, which wasn’t easy. Even if Tony hadn’t screwed up more than once over the last couple of years, the Marine bar of judgment was really frickin’ high. He was convinced that a pole vault was needed to get anywhere close to reaching it and he was fresh out.

“DiNozzo, are you going to finish that report or stare it into submission?”

Gibbs’ sharp question cut through his thoughts and Tony instantly started typing. Workin’ on it, Boss.”

And through it all, he could feel Kate watching them both through her profiler’s eyes, which made him really damn nervous.

*  *  *  *

Down in the lab, Abby contemplated her recreation of the ancient city of Babylon with satisfaction.

“What are you doing?”

Grinning over at Tony, she answered, “It’s Babylon!”

“Of course it is,” he agreed, coming closer and eyeing the model askance. “Any particular reason for it to occupy lab space?”

“Tony, you’re getting as stuffy as Gibbs in your old age,” Abby pouted.

He grinned and grabbed her in a mild headlock. “Say it ain’t so, Abs!”

“It is! Now leggo!”

Tony did and Abby stuck her tongue out at him before asking, “What’s up, agent-o-mine? What can I do you for?”

“Not much, I’m cheap,” Tony teased.

Crossing her arms over her chest, Abby waited.

Tony lasted at least thirty seconds before the act vanished and he heaved a sigh, sitting half-on her desk. “It’s Gibbs.”

“What about him?” she asked curiously.

“He’s driving me nuts.”

“That’s new how?”

Tony made a face. “Funny. I just can’t figure out why he’d put himself in this kind of situation, Abs!”

“You know,” Abby began slowly. “I’ve worked with you for over two years now, and with Gibbs even longer.”

“Right.”

“So, I tend to know when something’s going on with either of you.”

“Okay.”

“Well, why don’t you tell me what’s really going on with you, and maybe I can tell you if it’s the same thing that’s going on with Gibbs.”

Tony blinked at her in surprise. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Abby insisted. Why were men so clueless?

“Well, there’s nothing going on with me. I’m just concerned for  myself.”

Yeah right, she thought. “How do you figure?”

“No one likes coming in second, and Gibbs hates it. When he finds out that this woman’s only dating him because he reminds her of the dead agent, he’s really going to hate it and, of course, take it out on us. I’m just making a preemptive strike is all.

“Bullshit,” Abby stated flatly. “That’s such a crock, Tony!”

“Oh look at the time! Gotta go, Abs. Good luck with Babylon!”

Scowling at his retreating back, she called out, “This conversation isn’t over, DiNozzo!”

Time to plot. And the best plotter she knew was Kate which meant…girls’ night out!

*  *  *  *

The restaurant was quiet and private, two things that Jethro highly valued. He knew that CJ valued both those things as well, one of the surprisingly many things that they had in common. The last couple of weeks had been a discovery of a lot of common interests, even politics, though Jethro knew better than to bring that up with her. He’d done some research about her, checking to see that he wasn’t going to regret even thinking about getting involved with her. Something he was going to have to confess to, very soon, if he wanted to go any further with CJ.

And that, of course, was the $64,000 question.

“You look deep in thought,” CJ observed.

Jethro half-grinned as he replied, “I try never to be that deep in thought when a beautiful woman is having dinner with me.”

A smile surfaced on her face as CJ said, “Well, as soon as you find yourself in that situation, you be sure and let me know.”

Another thing he liked about her; the self-denigrating humor. She didn’t mean it as a put-down to herself the way that DiNozzo usually did. CJ was just as self-confident and sure of herself as she appeared to be. Jethro knew that there were things that he hadn’t yet uncovered that took away that confidence, just as CJ knew the same thing about him. They were still in the first round of negotiations, as it were.

“So how was today?” CJ asked.

Jethro snorted. “It was a day. DiNozzo decided that he needed to rewire his pc for some un-Godly reason which, somehow, shorted out the entire team. Took McGee three hours to fix, and that was with me breathing down his neck the whole time.”

“Is Tony still alive?”

“Relatively speaking.”

A soft laugh escaped CJ and she leaned in, teasing, “You’re all bark, Special Agent Gibbs.”

“Don’t spread it around,” Jethro replied, smiling as he took her hand.

CJ’s smile grew and her eyes sparkled in the dim lighting, good humor and even affection shining back at him in those blue eyes. Without thinking, Jethro brought her hand up and pressed it to his lips. Her eyes widened in surprise, but she didn’t withdraw as he cradled the elegant hand in his.

Not seeing any reason to beat around the bush, Jethro asked, “Who’re you seeing, CJ? Me, or that other guy? Because if it’s really me, I think we can get a lot more out of this than we are.”

Maintaining eye contact, CJ answered, “I’m seeing one NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, no one else.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

Jethro smiled briefly and brought the hand back up again for another kiss. “Then I should probably tell you that I investigated you after our first date.”

CJ laughed, long and merrily.

Confused by the reaction, Jethro questioned, “What?”

“I investigated you before our first date.”

Oh yeah. A lot of things in common.

*  *  *  *

It was a few nights later that she and Jethro had put all their cards on the table, and swiftly moved to the next level of their relationship, that CJ got her second taste of being involved with someone on the line of fire. Her cell rang while she was talking to Carol about the afternoon’s briefing and, looking at it, she found Jethro’s name on the Caller ID. Smiling, she motioned for Carol to hold that thought and turned away to answer, “I’m a terribly important person around here, Jethro. I think we need to make appointments if you’re going to keep calling me so often.”

“Ah, Ms. Cregg?”

The vaguely familiar voice instantly put CJ on edge and she replied sharply, “Who is this?”

“This is Special Agent Todd, I work with Agent Gibbs.”

Fear sent her stomach plummeting and CJ croaked, “What happened to Jethro? Is he...”

“He’s fine, or, he will be,” Agent Todd informed her hastily. “He was shot and is getting patched up, but it was a flesh wound. He wanted me to ask you to come down and pick him up, since he’s not going to be able to drive home?”

“Of course, I’ll, I’ll be right there. GW?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Agent Todd.”

CJ felt so shaky with relief that she wasn’t surprised Carol came over to support her with a hand under her elbow. It took several deep breaths before she could get enough nerve to say, “I have to get to GW to pick up Jethro. He was shot.”

“Oh my God, CJ, is he...”

“He’s fine. Flesh wound. Why do they always say that? No matter where you get shot, it’s in your flesh,” CJ demanded waspishly. Taking another breath, she said, “Sorry. Can you handle this afternoon’s briefing?”

“Of course.”

Nodding her thanks, CJ hurried towards her office to grab her things.

*  *  *  *

Pacing the hospital corridor, Tony waited for the doctor to come out with the all-clear that Gibbs was going to be fine. Not that the EMT hadn’t already said that the bullet had passed through without hitting anything, but it was in almost the exact same spot that Ari had shot Gibbs and that made Tony nervous. What would happen if the nerves had been damaged, or the muscle refused to grow back because of the previous trauma?

“Excuse me, I’m looking for Special Agent Gibbs?”

Tony’s head whipped around at the question asked at the nurses’ station and he found CJ Cregg standing there, looking anxiously at the nurse on duty. To his shock, and a sense of completely irrational betrayal, Tony watched Kate walk up to her and say, “Ms. Cregg? It’s good to see you again. Why don’t you come with me and I’ll fill you in?”

Kate called CJ Cregg. Kate would never do something like that unless Gibbs directed her to do it. Gibbs told Kate to call CJ Cregg. It’s serious. It really is serious, Tony thought, numbed by the gut-sure realization.

It suddenly flashed before him, what the rest of Gibbs’ life would encompass. Gibbs would slowly ease off the fieldwork, becoming a hands-off supervisor so that his life wouldn’t be in danger. He’d do it so that the new woman in his life wouldn’t worry, so that she’d be happy. Gibbs might even transfer to a unit that dealt strictly with interrogation, since that was his forte and involved little-to-no personal danger. He would propose to CJ, who would agree because not agreeing was just crazy, and they would get married.

A couple of years would go by with the occasional get-together of the ‘old team,’ while Gibbs moved on with his life and got the family that he really wanted, at heart. CJ’s boss would eventually be out of office, which would take her out of the limelight, they would move to the suburbs with the new baby and Gibbs’ life focus would shift to his family.

Tony, on the other hand, would still be alone.

Feeling the anticipated pain like a physical ache, Tony groaned softly to himself, hand to his stomach as he turned away from the sight of the two women in earnest conversation.

“Agent DiNozzo? Are you all right?”

Tony dropped his hand and as he faced the doctor with a patently false smile. “Fine. Just something at lunch coming back to haunt me. What’s the news?”

“Agent Gibbs is going to be fine. The bullet passed right through with minimal damage to the surrounding tissue,” the doctor replied. “He just needs rest and some physical therapy when the wound heals and he’ll be good as new.”

“Thank God!”

Tony stiffened at CJ’s exclamation as the woman joined them, but had to silently echo it.

“Can he come home?” she continued.

The words were like a blow to Tony’s solar plexus and he just barely managed to maintain the pleasant façade as the doctor drew her away, detailing at-home care instructions.

“Tony, you okay? You don’t look so hot,” Kate observed.

Looking over at Kate, Tony nodded and repeated, “I’m fine. Must be something I ate at lunch.”

“We didn’t have time for lunch.”

“Breakfast, then. I’m going to head back to the office and get started on the paperwork.”

“Now I know something’s wrong.”

Irritated, Tony snapped, “Gibbs is out of commission for now, I’m in charge while he’s out. Someone has to get the paperwork done.”

Kate held her hands up and said, “I’m kidding, Tony, take it easy.”

Exhaling forcefully, Tony apologized, “I’m sorry. It’s been a long day. Must be low blood sugar. Hey, why don’t you take off? I can handle the reports.”

“I do my own reports, you know that DiNozzo.”

“Yeah, but without you, Gibbs would be...”

You’d’ve figured it out in time.”

But Tony knew her quick denial was untrue and shook his head. His vaunted reflexes hadn’t been worth shit, this time around. It had been Kate’s fast thinking, and profiling experience, that had put two and two together to get the bizarre answer of seven and the correct suspect. If she hadn’t shot Lt. Willis, where Gibbs and Tony had had their guns on Lt. Ganson, Gibbs would be dead. “Just go home, Kate. Take the rest of what’s left of today off and come in fresh tomorrow, okay?”

Worried hazel eyes looked back at him as Kate replied, “I think you’re being too hard on yourself here, Tony.”

Unable to take that particular kindness, he almost pleaded, “Just...go home. Please.”

She sighed, but nodded, squeezing his arm before turning and heading down the hall towards the exit.

“Agent DiNozzo?”

Jaw clenching, Tony forced a smile as he faced his nemesis and replied, “Ms. Cregg, it’s good to see you, despite the circumstances. How can I help you?”

“You can cut the bullshit and tell me what happened.”

Feeling a remarkable sense of déjŕ vu at the steely look in her eyes, one frequently seen in Gibbs’ gaze, Tony said, “We were working on a case and Gibbs got in the line of fire.”

“That doesn’t tell me squat,” she stated.

Tony shrugged. “I can’t go into the details of an on-going investigation, Ms. Cregg, I’m sorry.”

She looked him in the eye a moment longer and the ghost of a smile surfaced before she countered, “No you’re not.”

Keeping the smile in place, Tony said, “I really need to get back to the office and fill out reports, if you’ll excuse me, Ms. Cregg.”

Not waiting for her answer, Tony inclined his head politely and turned to follow Kate out the exit. It was petty, no getting around that, but he had no doubt that Gibbs would fill her in once she was allowed to see him.

Damn him.

*  *  *  *

The pain juice made everything a little hazy, but Jethro was able to make out CJ as she came into the room. Smiling, he greeted, “Hey you.”

Though a bit fuzzy around the edges, CJ’s smile was genuine as she sat on the edge of the bed and replied, “Hey yourself. So, would all too-slow-to-duck NCIS agents please raise their hands?”

Jethro grimaced and retorted, “I was not slow. The suspect turned out to be not who we thought it was.”

“Wow. They must have you drugged to the gills if you’re giving me details of an on-going investigation,” CJ said snidely.

Feeling a lot like he’d missed something important, Jethro asked, “What happened?”

CJ sighed explosively, then answered, “Nothing, really. I’ve got it covered. How’re you feeling?”

Still not sure he should let it go, Jethro nonetheless did, not really up for any kind of deep discussion. His shoulder and back were killing him too much. “I’ve been worse.”

“That tells me nothing,” CJ pointed out.

Jethro grinned briefly and explained, “I’ve been shot before, CJ, as well as almost drowned, thrown down several flights of stairs, not all at once, blown up a couple of times, and stabbed on three memorable occasions. Oh, and there was an incident with an ex-wife and a seven iron.”

“Did you forget anything?”

“Don’t think so.”

“You sure? There’s no childhood death wish I should know about?”

“Nope. Not anymore.”

CJ flushed a little under his intent gaze, but a smile finally surfaced as she changed the subject with, “I don’t think your Agent DiNozzo likes me very much.”

“Why not?” Jethro questioned curiously through a yawn.

Combing her fingers through his short hair, she replied, “Never mind, we’ll talk about it later. For now, you need to get some sleep and then, when you wake up, I’m taking you home.”

Yawning again, Jethro complained, “I hate hospitals.”

“We all do. The sooner you sleep, the sooner you wake, and the sooner I can get you home in bed.”

“So you were collab’shon with th’suspect.”

“Absolutely.”

Shouldaknown,” Jethro mumbled, struggling to stay awake, but losing the battle. The last thing he remembered was the gentle fingers in his hair and her soft sigh.

He just hoped it wasn’t one of regret.

*  *  *  *

When she got in the next morning, Kate knew instantly that something was really wrong with Tony. For one thing, he’d really managed to finish all of their reports which meant he had to have been there all night. For another, he was quiet and withdrawn, despite the fact that she’d arrived twenty minutes late on purpose to tweak him. Gibbs wasn’t going to be in that day, so Kate had figured that she’d have free rein.

What she hadn’t figured on was Tony looking like his heart had been stomped on and she could guess by whom.

Unable to take it anymore by eleven that morning, Kate got up and walked over to his desk. Leaning against it, she demanded, “You want to tell me what’s going on?”

Startled, Tony replied, “About what?”

“About you!” Kate exclaimed. “You’ve been like a zombie all morning! You didn’t even notice that I was late.”

“I was busy.”

“Bullshit.”

“Kate, I’m really not in the mood for…”

“I don’t care,” she interrupted. Leaning closer, she rested a hand on his shoulder and said, “Tony, you know that you can talk to me. I won’t repeat anything of what you say, and I’m sure not going to judge you. No matter what, okay?”

For a long moment he just stared at her as if trying to read her very thoughts, to make sure she was on the level. Kate did her best to try and show him that she meant every word and, apparently, he believed her.

“Let’s get an early lunch.”

Happy that he’d finally decided to share, she and Abby had been trying to break him for the last three weeks, Kate nodded. Grabbing her purse, she followed him to the garage and got into his car, not disturbing the thoughts that were clearly taking up most of his concentration. He drove on auto-pilot, but even that was better than Gibbs on a short-cut tear.

They wound up at a pub that was mostly deserted, ordered pretty quickly, and talked about nothing until the food arrived. Then, once Tony started talking, it was like he couldn’t stop. All the feelings that he’d kept dammed up for the last two years came bursting out, now that someone had promised to listen. What astonished Kate wasn’t that Tony was in love with Gibbs, it was that none of them had even come close to guessing.

She felt a little ashamed that Tony hadn’t felt close enough to any of them, her especially, to broach the subject. That Tony hadn’t thought he could trust her with something this important spoke of just how much regard he thought that she held him in; which was to say, little-to-none. When he finally stopped talking, Tony shoved his hamburger into his mouth, maybe afraid that he would keep going if he didn’t.

Realizing that he was probably twisting himself in knots waiting for her response, Kate grinned at him and said, “Now I know for a fact that you’re in crazy, being in love with Gibbs. Or at least a masochist. Probably both.”

For a moment, she thought that maybe she’d taken the wrong approach, but then Tony laughed, choking on his hamburger. Even coughing on his food with Kate slapping him hard on the back, Tony looked a lot more at ease than he had in a long time.

So much for being a profiler. I didn’t even notice how truly miserable he was and Tony’s…damn…Tony’s my best friend, Kate realized.

It didn’t say much of her life so far if she’d only just discovered what constituted a best friend at the age of thirty two, but at least she was learning. And now she could give Tony the support he so desperately needed.

*  *  *  *

The West Wing was never a dull place, let alone a quiet one, but that didn’t explain why people were giving him odder than usual looks as he went from registration towards CJ’s office. Granted, it had been a few months since he’d been in-House, so to speak, but he’d been away for longer stretches of time. Reaching CJ’s office, he pushed inside with a brief knock, greeting, “I come bearing gifts...oh, sorry, didn’t know CJ was in a meeting.”

The man looking over the books in CJ’s bookshelf turned to face him and Danny wondered, briefly, when he’d died and why heaven looked a lot like CJ’s office. Though, really, the latter wasn’t a problem for him.

Amused blue eyes looked at him for a moment before the man informed him, “CJ’ll be back in a few minutes. Minor crisis with some ambassador or other.”

“That happens a lot around here.” Danny hesitated, taking in the arm in a sling. “And I’m sorry, but, aren’t you dead? Or is this some Bartlett conspiracy that I haven’t uncovered yet?”

Shaking his head, the man explained succinctly, “Different agent. I’m Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.”

“Oh, yeah, okay. Danny Concanon,” Danny replied, taking the hand that wasn’t in a sling. “Which branch?”

“NCIS,” Gibbs replied. “You work for the Times, right?”

“Freelance, but yeah.”

“Right. You do good work. I liked the piece on Sharif.”

“Thanks. Can’t say I’d expect that, you being military and all.”

The man shrugged. “Just because I’m military doesn’t mean I don’t think.”

“Really? That’s a new one.”

There was a pause with both men looking at one another, and CJ chose that moment to enter. She stopped short when Danny turned to her. Even knowing there was an incredulous expression on his face didn’t mean that he could stop from giving her one.

“Danny, this is a surprise,” she greeted warily.

“I’ll bet,” he muttered.

Ignoring the words, she continued, “You two have met?”

Danny nodded and said, “Yeah.”

“Great. Was there something you needed?”

He set the bag of Goldfish on the nearest table. “No. Just, wanted to let you know I was back in town. I brought you some goldfish.”

“Oh. Well, thanks,” CJ replied.

Feeling very much like he’d been hit by a truck and not liking it in the least, Danny nodded to her and Gibbs with, “Good to meet you. See ya, CJ.”

From there, he made a beeline straight for Josh’s office.

*  *  *  *

“And since when don’t you email me when there’s competition on the horizon, let alone taking up space in her office like a hero who’s there every day? Especially one that looks like a doppelganger for her dead, heroic agent boyfriend?”

Josh sighed to himself as Danny finished the quiet, hurt rant that was like someone shoving bamboo under his nails. He liked Danny, everyone did, and he hated to think about what this was doing to the other man, knowing how he felt about CJ, even after so many years. Josh hated how she kept Danny at arms’ length, even as he understood it. Danny was a reporter and that would keep them apart for as long as CJ let it.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I didn’t know what to say. Until yesterday, I didn’t even know it was this serious.”

“How serious?”

“She took a couple of days off to take care of him.”

Danny sat heavily in the chair beside Josh’s desk. This time, he didn’t wave aside the drink that was offered, instead downing it in one gulp. “What am I going to do, Josh? I thought we were really making progress. Emails every few days, phone calls once a week, and then last month, it peters out to almost nothing. I had to shelve the piece I was doing in order to get back here.”

“What was it on?”

“Doesn’t matter now, it’s not mine anymore.”

Sighing again, Josh reached out and gripped Danny’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, man, I really didn’t know it was serious. I should’ve called you sooner.”

It was Danny’s turn to sigh as he replied, “No, it’s not your job to play yenta. Just tell me one thing.”

Ignoring the yenta reference, Josh asked, “What?”

“Is she doing this because he looks like Donovan?”

Josh shook his head slowly. “I don’t think she is. Seems to be genuine on both their parts.”

Raising pained blue eyes to Josh, Danny asked, “So what do I do? Tell me what I can do, Josh, when the woman I love is, again, in love with someone else?”

Tightening his grip, Josh answered, “Get blind stinking drunk, Danny. And I can help definitely you with that.”

*  *  *  *

It felt a lot like someone was watching him, but Josh couldn’t make himself open his eyes to what would surely be blinding pain.

“Is he alive?”

“I think so.”

“He’s breathing, at least, that’s a good sign.”

“Brain dead, maybe?”

Ah crap. Sam and Will. Not something he needed with the way his head throbbed.

“Entirely possible.”

Shutup.”

“And he lives,” Sam’s voice observed. “What’ve you done with Danny?”

Cracking an eyelid at his soon-to-be-ex-best-friend, Josh replied, “Stuffed him in a cab sometime around two this morning.”

“You put him in a cab?” Will questioned, skeptical.

Josh tried his best to look towards Will, but the wrong eye was open and he settled for an affirmative grunt before closing the lid.

“He forgot.”

“Looks like.”

Their obvious pause gave Josh one and he wracked his pained head for what he could have forgotten. Covering, he commented, “You two could be Abbott & Costello.”

“Who?”

Josh opened his eye again to glare at Will and ignored the subtle age jab. Age. Birthday. Leo’s birthday. “Oh crap!”

Bolting upright turned out to be a very bad idea, but he used the forward momentum to aim for the bathroom before his stomach could revolt. Barely.

*  *  *  *

The party was interesting and fun for Sam in several ways. First, waking up Josh with a hangover was always worth the savage amusement factor, even if it took a few hours to get Josh to speak to him again. Second, he hadn’t seen CJ with her new, well, boyfriend didn’t quite cover Agent Gibbs, but lover seemed way too familiar.

Paramour, he decided.

That figured out, Sam set about watching them again and wondering at the changes in CJ that seeing Gibbs had wrought in her, in such a short time. Far more relaxed than usual, but still at the top of her game, CJ laughed easier and smiled a lot. It was a wonderful sight to see, but he still worried that maybe Gibbs wasn’t really the one for her. Somehow, Sam had always thought that CJ would wind up with Danny and it was a little disappointing that that hadn’t happened.

He could well imagine how devastated Danny was feeling just then, having had more than his fair share of broken hearts over the years.

“You’re more subtle than this, usually.”

Starting at Toby’s dry observation, Sam turned towards the other man and replied, “I can’t help it. It’s like…”

“Watching a train wreck?” Toby suggested, leaning against the wall beside him. “Walking in on your parents? Waking up naked in the middle of the street?”

Sam blinked at the last phrase and asked, “When did you…”

“I didn’t. I’m just saying…”

“Oh right. Because if you had…”

“I sure as hell wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Right.”

The familiar banter lightened Sam’s mood a little which was, he was sure, what Toby had intended by walking over.

“So what’s wrong with CJ seeing this guy?” Toby asked softly. “Is it just because of Simon?”

Sam sighed. “Not really. I mean, in part, maybe, but no.”

“Then what?”

“What about Danny?”

“Ah.”

Absolutely hating when Toby went ‘ah,’ Sam groaned to himself but asked, “What?”

“Nothing.”

“You left it very open-ended there.”

“Because it didn’t really require ending.”

“Toby.”

“Look, CJ’s a grown woman and if she wants this guy, then she should have him,” Toby said with a shrug.

That was when Sam realized that Toby wasn’t exactly in favor of the arrangement, either. “So what’s your objection?”

Toby flashed him a brief smile and answered, “I miss the free supply of goldfish.”

Which was Toby’s way of saying that he had been rooting for Danny, too. Sam sighed. Well, it wasn’t like this was a fairy tale or anything. CJ had lost what they’d all assumed to be her true love in Simon Donovan. And, of course, her job got in the way of anything that could happen between her and Danny. Maybe this was Fate’s way of making it up to her.

*  *  *  *

Even with his good arm around CJ’s waist, Jethro managed to stay mostly in the background of the party. He knew Josh, Sam, and Toby, had made the rounds with CJ and so met everyone at least once, but it wasn’t a situation in which he felt truly comfortable. Expensive parties with officials coming and going, music playing, and unidentifiable food being served by wait staff, really weren’t his thing. Never had been, never would be. He preferred small gatherings with close friends at home or in a quiet restaurant.

You’d better get used to this if you’re going to keep this up, Jethro reminded himself.

And there was a better than average chance that he was going to do just that. He liked CJ a lot. Aside from having a lot in common, she was pretty, had a great sense of humor, and was damn hot in bed. She was responsive to him in a way no one had been for a long time, not even his last wife, both in and out of bed. The only other person he could compare her to would be Tony, and he really wasn’t going to go there, as Abby liked to say.

“You’re not enjoying yourself,” CJ observed quietly into his ear.

Smiling, Jethro knew better than to deny it. “Not real fond of crowds. Too many potential suspects and protect-ees.”

CJ echoed his smile and pointed out, “Everyone here’s been screened by the Secret Service.”

“But not by my team,” Jethro replied simply.

Shaking her head in fond amusement, CJ kissed him lightly and said, “We won’t stay too much longer, don’t worry.”

Before he could make a response, his pager went off. Pulling it off, he saw that it was Tony with a ‘911.’ Knowing that Tony wouldn’t interrupt him when he was supposed to be recovering unless it was absolutely vital, he said, “I need to call in. Be right back.”

She nodded and he left her talking with someone whose name he couldn’t remember, but for some reason Jethro thought it had to do with an old song, Bill Bailey maybe? Shaking it off, he left the room via the quickest exit, pulling out his cell phone as he went. Once in a secluded corner, he dialed Tony.

“Boss, we got a problem,” Tony greeted.

Practically growling with impatience, he demanded, “I figured that, DiNozzo, what is it?”

“Kidnapping of a set of six year old twins out of Norfolk eight hours ago. All searches have come up nil and the locals have no leads.”

Jethro’s heart plummeted at the news. Kids. Well, there went the rest of his night and probably his weekend, too. “I’ll be there in twenty.”

“Sorry, Boss.”

Hanging up without answering, Jethro walked back to CJ and said, “I have to go.”

Dismayed, CJ exclaimed, “But you’re still recovering!”

“I’m fine,” Jethro promised. “I’m not even taking the pain meds anymore. I’ll catch a cab over to NCIS and I’ll call you in the morning.”

“Jethro, you can’t seriously…”

“It’s a kidnapping. Two little girls right off the base. I have to go,” he interrupted gently.

Serious now, CJ nodded and agreed, “Of course. Call me when you can.”

After a short, but intent kiss, Jethro headed for the exit, aware of too many eyes watching him leave.

*  *  *  *

It was a frantic paced thirty six hours later that the twins were recovered, mostly unharmed. It had been a crime of opportunity, which was why there hadn’t been any leads. None of the people who knew the girls had been responsible. The only reason they’d been found was because Tony had plugged into his network of locals and someone had spotted them. Fortunately, twin redheads were pretty conspicuous, especially ones that scream bloody murder. Though physically unharmed, Jethro knew that it would take a long time for them to recover from the psycho who had kidnapped them with the intent of selling them on the black market.

For what, Jethro didn’t even want to hazard a guess. He’d done a little extra on his part and made sure that the guys in lock-up knew about the kidnapping and hinted that more had been done to the girls than there had been. The bastard wouldn’t be hurting anyone else for a long time, assuming he made it out of the cell at all.

Rubbing his eyes tiredly, Jethro wondered if maybe he should call a cab. He knew there was no way that he’d make it home on his own. Then he remembered that he had to call one because he had no car.

“Need a lift, Boss?” Tony offered helpfully, as if reading his mind.

Too tired to accept anything graciously, Jethro snapped, “What’re you so cheerful about?”

“We locked up a sick, twisted animal and the girls are safe,” Tony replied, unruffled. “That’s all I care about. That and getting you back into hibernation before you take someone else’s head off.”

Jethro grimaced an apology to him before hauling himself upright. “A ride would be good.”

The walk to Tony’s car was quiet, as was the drive home. Jethro dozed on and off, which spoke both to how tired he was and how much he trusted Tony. He never fell asleep around anyone that he didn’t trust. One of the main reasons his bed had been mostly empty between marriages. It wasn’t until after they were off the highway that Jethro remembered something CJ had said at the hospital and he glanced over at Tony.

In the darkness, Tony’s profile was starkly handsome, etched by the headlights of passing cars and, momentarily, distracted him. Finally recalling himself, Jethro asked, “So why don’t you like CJ?”

Tony’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, but it was only for a second and there was no other reaction to his words. Jethro would have thought himself, and CJ, mistaken, but for DiNozzo’s carefully crafted response; one that was, most likely, rehearsed for just this question.

“I like her fine, Boss. Smart lady, good looking, puts up with you, what’s not to like?”

Jethro grunted, unconvinced, but decided to let it go, especially since they were pulling up into his driveway. “I’ll see you on Tuesday. Don’t you set foot in the office before then, DiNozzo.

“Got it, Boss,” Tony promised easily.

Which was as good as a lie. Shaking his head, Jethro warned, “Tuesday morning, Tony. If I hear from anyone that you go in tomorrow, I’ll have you cleaning the head for six months. And I will hear about it if you do, understand me?”

Eyes rolling, Tony replied, “I understand.”

The lights came on in the house just then and the front door opened on CJ, who peered anxiously outside. Smiling at the welcoming sight, Jethro was one foot out the door before he heard Tony’s harsh breathing. He turned back in time to see a flash of grief so sharp and painful that it hurt to look at. It was gone in a split second, but Jethro knew what he’d seen. “You okay to drive, DiNozzo?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, Boss. I’m just going to head home and crash. See you Tuesday,” Tony answered, smile tight enough to snap.

Letting Tony think that he’d covered himself, Jethro just nodded and got the rest of the way out of the car. As he walked slowly up the path to the front door, Jethro had to wonder what, exactly, he’d just seen.

*  *  *  *

One of these days, it really was going to stop hurting to see them together. Or to witness the look on Gibbs’ face when he caught sight of CJ waiting for him at home. Then again, Hell could freeze over.

It was an impossible night to fall asleep on his own, so Tony did something he never did: took a sleeping pill. Knowing that he needed to be fresh on Tuesday meant that he had to be sleeping at least semi-normally. If he took a pill after midnight on Monday morning, he’d sleep insanely late, then go to bed at a normal time Monday night for Tuesday morning wake up.

Hopefully.

Of course, there was the crappy, groggy, hung-over-but-I-had-no-fun-getting-there feeling on Monday, but it was worth it to know that he’d be at full strength when he got back to work. Which he was, until CJ dropped Gibbs off and then came for a tour of the office and he had to make nice with her.

He did, however, have the interesting sight of an over-protective Kate on his side, but her unable to really say why she was acting weird. It was fun to watch her make subtle digs at Gibbs who knew exactly when he was being poked and prodded, but clearly had no idea why. There was no case, unfortunately, but at least Gibbs took CJ on a trip to meet Ducky fairly quickly. Maybe she would meet Ducky and be subjected to one of his interminably long lectures. Better still, maybe she would throw up and never come back.

Shaking that thought off as too petty even for himself, Tony sighed and got back to work.

*  *  *  *

“All right, Agent Todd, spill it.”

Kate gave Gibbs her best innocent look and answered, “Spill what?”

“What the hell was that behavior about earlier when CJ was here?” Gibbs demanded.

Maintaining her expression, she replied, adding a little confusion, “What behavior?”

And, like the man he was, Gibbs began to doubt himself. There was no question that Gibbs was smarter than the average man but he was, still, a man and prey to the feminine wile. All of them.

Frowning, Gibbs growled, “Never mind. But can you tell me what the problem with DiNozzo is? He’s been like a robot all day and moody for over week.”

Wanting to shove a stapler where the sun didn’t shine, Kate instead replied, “I didn’t notice anything wrong.”

The frown increased, but Gibbs didn’t linger any longer in the break room, taking his insanely strong coffee with him.

Every bit of logic inside was telling her not to meddle, that these were two men who were perfectly capable of figuring things out on their own. Whether that wound up with Gibbs married to CJ and Tony moving on with his life, or the two of them getting together, it wasn’t any of her business. Except that it was, really, because Tony had made it her business. Kate couldn’t just stand around and let him suffer when she was positive that he was a better match for Gibbs than CJ was.

Not that CJ wasn’t a good match, she just wasn’t the best one. The woman lived in and for the spotlight, doing it for a living. Gibbs avoided the spotlight at all costs. CJ had no intention of slowing or stopping her career for a family, and Gibbs would want one if he was married to a woman. He’d possibly even want one if he was with DiNozzo, and while Tony as a parent was a little scary, Kate knew that he’d love any kids they could have in their lives.

Aside from all of that…CJ was just too damn tall for Gibbs. It offended Kate’s traditional sense of aesthetics. Tony looked much better with Gibbs than CJ did. Not that she was prejudiced in Tony’s favor or anything.

Kate snorted at herself and finished making her tea as she thought, So the question is, how to get Gibbs to see that Tony loves him, without actually interfering?

*  *  *  *

It turned out that Kate didn’t have to do much of anything, thanks to Tony getting knocked out by a suspect three days later. It wasn’t actually the punch that did it, but the blow to the head on the fall down that caused him to lose consciousness. They’d lost the suspect, who’d made a run for it into traffic where Kate wasn’t about to follow, not with Tony down, and Gibbs had met them at the hospital with all the sound and fury of a hurricane.

“What the hell happened out there!?” he snarled, looking at the still unconscious Tony on a gurney.

Frazzled and worried, in no mood to deal with Gibbs’ crap, Kate snapped back, “Tony got knocked out again, what’s it look like?”

Gibbs clearly pulled back on what he was going to say, taking a breath instead. A moment later, in a calmer voice, he asked, “What happened, Kate?”

Taking her own breath, Kate answered, “We were questioning Vega when he just flipped out on us. No warning. He sucker punched Tony and then gave him an uppercut and fled into traffic. Tony hit his head on the side of the building and has been out ever since. Well, the EMTs said he regained consciousness briefly in the ambulance. I put an APB out on Vega and called for help.”

“Vega wasn’t even the primary suspect, last I heard.”

“He wasn’t.”

“Where was McGee in all of this?”

“Back at the lab with Abby, going over computer files while she worked the evidence.”

Gibbs opened his mouth to speak when Tony groaned, garnering both their attention.

Kate shifted towards her downed partner and asked, “Tony? You okay?”

His eyes finally opened, but didn’t focus all that much as he mumbled something incoherent. Worried, Kate met Gibbs’ gaze, offering, “I’ll get the doctor.”

Gibbs nodded and moved closer to Tony, standing over him protectively, his eyes never leaving the younger man’s face. Kate hurried through the busy ER to find the doctor who’d looked Tony over, but then paused to look back. A pleased smile surfaced as she found Gibbs with his hand on Tony’s shoulder, bent down to speak softly to him amidst the bustle of the ER. Maybe Tony getting knocked on the head again was a good thing, if it brought them together.

Smiling, Kate continued her search.

*  *  *  *

“Boss?”

The pitiful attempt Tony made to sit up was easily stopped with a hand on his shoulder by Jethro, who leaned down and answered, “Yeah, it’s me Tony. How do you feel?”

“Like my head got caved in,” Tony answered, closing his eyes.

Jethro snorted. “It did. I’m going to start making you wear a helmet when you go out in the field, DiNozzo, I swear to God.”

“Gee, thanks, Boss. Didn’t know you cared.”

The pain was mixed with an edge of bitterness that stabbed right into Jethro’s heart and for a long moment, he didn’t know how to respond. He finally just said, “Of course I care, DiNozzo.”

Thankfully, Kate arrived with the doctor just then and Jethro stepped back to let the newcomer examine Tony. It only took a few minutes before he announced, “We’ll send you downstairs for a CAT scan and MRI now that you’re awake.”

“Do I have to?” Tony sighed.

“Definitely. That was a hard blow to the head, Agent DiNozzo and, coupled with the other trauma in recent months, there could be serious damage,” the doctor replied seriously. “We’ll be keeping you here for a couple of days, so make yourself comfortable.”

Tony sighed again, but didn’t make any further protest.

When Kate wandered off with the doctor, a speculative gleam in her eye that made Jethro shake his head fondly, Jethro returned to his spot beside Tony. Looking down at the injured man, Jethro asked, “Anything you need from your apartment, DiNozzo?”

“Just a change of shorts.”

“All right. I’ll get them for you and be back tomorrow to check on you.”

Tony half-waved an acceptance, eyes remaining closed, and Jethro took a long moment just to look at him. Turning away, feet and heart heavy with newfound knowledge, Jethro headed for the elevator.

It just figured that when he finally found love again, it was with two different people.

 

PART III

 

Ducky looked up at the knock on his door and frowned, glancing at his watch. Who on earth would be coming by unannounced at almost midnight? Getting to his feet, he walked over to the entryway and peered out the peep-hole to discover Jethro on his front step. Surprised, he immediately unlocked and opened the door, asking, “Jethro? What’s wrong?”

Flashing him a bitter smile, Jethro countered, “What isn’t?”

Oh dear, Ducky thought. This can’t be good.

Out loud, he said, “Sit down. Would you like something to drink? I haven’t any bourbon, I’m afraid, but perhaps some cognac?” 

Jethro waved the offer aside as he sat on the sofa, noting Ducky’s choice of reading material with a wry, “Trying to put yourself to sleep, Duck?”

Laughing a bit, Ducky sat on the chair kitty-cornered from the sofa and replied, “I happen to enjoy reading about birds, thank you very much.”

“Yeah, I know,” Jethro agreed, smiling a bit easier this time.

“So. What brings you to my doorstep at this hour?”

“I’ve got a problem.”

“I gathered that.”

“Right, well, this time, no matter what I choose, someone gets hurt.”

So it is about young Anthony, Ducky thought with a sigh. “You’re talking about Ms. Cregg and Anthony.”

“Why am I not surprised that you know about Tony?” Jethro questioned, dry.

Ducky’s lips lifted into a brief smile as he answered, “Because you know how observant I am.”

“Yeah, true. So you got any advice for me?”

Distinctly remembering the last time he’d tried to give Jethro love advice and how spectacularly he’d failed, Ducky was more than a little hesitant on doing it again.

As if sensing his thoughts, Jethro said, “Don’t worry, I won’t hold you to it. I guess I just need to know how much of a shot that I’ve got with DiNozzo. If he’s really serious about me.”

As circumspect as he could be, Ducky replied, “I believe that Tony loves you, though the depth of that love I couldn’t gauge. We haven’t, after all, discussed the matter. I’ve merely picked up on how he feels from certain actions and things that he’s let slip verbally over the last couple of years.”

“Right. And on the other hand, I’ve got CJ, who’s pretty much perfect for me, as well as socially acceptable,” Jethro said.

Ducky had to nod. “Not that you really care about the latter.”

“No, not really,” Jethro confirmed.

“If it helps any, I think that he’d be very good for you, Jethro,” Ducky commented. “I think his vivacious and enthusiastic world-view is a countermeasure to your more…”

“Cynical?”

“Wary, is what I would say,” Ducky finished.

Jethro half-grinned at the diplomatic word and said, “I suppose that’s something, then.”

A bit helpless, Ducky replied, “I wish I could offer more.”

Getting to his feet, Jethro shook it off with, “Nah, that’s okay, Duck. At least I know that I’m not hallucinating about how DiNozzo feels.”

Ducky walked him to the door, watching as Jethro moved slowly to his car, as if it hurt to even move. He waited until the car was gone before closing his door and heading back to his book. There was no real chance that he’d be sleeping any time soon, not any more.

*  *  *  *

“CJ.”

CJ didn’t look up from the report she was reading, instead just waving Sam in with, “Shoot.”

The door closed, which got her attention, and she looked up to find an unusually serious Sam standing in front of her desk.

“I’ve got to ask you something.”

Setting the report aside, she asked, “What is it?”

“How serious are you with Gibbs?”

She’d actually been expecting this question for a couple of weeks now. Her friends were not known for their self-restraint when it came to her love life. Which, normally, was nice. In this particular instance, however, she stiffened and asked defensively, “Why?”

“Because if you aren’t serious, then you need to let him know,” Sam replied. “He’s not someone to be taken lightly.”

“And I am?”

“No, CJ, you know that’s not what I meant.”

And she did, damn him. Glowering, she said, “If he didn’t look like Simon, this wouldn’t even be an issue.”

“Yes it would. I respect this guy, CJ, and I know his type.”

“And what type is that?”

“A patriot who would give his life for any one of us, or a stranger on the street. Someone who would walk into gunfire without a second thought to protect an innocent. Just like Simon did. He’s a long-term kind of man, and if you don’t want to give him everything you’ve got, then you need to break it off now, before he falls for you any harder,” Sam answered softly.

Sighing, CJ questioned, “What makes you think that I’m not serious about him, Sam? He’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”

Stepping forward, hand out, Sam exclaimed, “I know! I do, but…it’s different this time. He might look the same as Simon, but he’s not. I mean, it took you, what, two years to get to the kissing stage with Danny? And so far as I know, you guys never…”

“Samuel!”

Though he flushed, Sam continued, “Anyhow. I just wanted to say that. And if you are serious about him, then, congratulations, because I think he’s a great choice.”

He left before she could throw something at him, which was probably a good idea. She was suddenly furious, without really knowing why. Getting to her feet, she hurried out the office and headed over to Toby’s. His door was open, fortunately, and she burst in with, “Do you think I move too slow?”

Toby peered up at her and blinked a few times before replying, “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Do you think I move too slow? Because I’m gonna say that I can move just as fast as anyone else. I had a one-night stand with an old boyfriend at my high school reunion, you know,” CJ exclaimed.

Then realized from the silence behind her that the door was still open. Turning, she glared at everyone within glaring distance and shut the door.

Still looking really nonplussed, Toby said, “I’m not sure what you want to hear.”

“Just tell me the truth.”

“You move too slow.”

“I…” CJ broke off what she’d been going to say, stunned by Toby’s blunt declaration. His dark eyes peered back at her, calm, and she exclaimed, “What?”

Shrugging, Toby repeated, “You move too slow. A guy could grow old before you decide it’s safe to make a move. And sometimes, moves are made, but you still keep them at a distance.”

Arms across her chest, CJ snapped, “I’m cautious when it comes to these things.”

“And I’m not? CJ. I’ve been trying to re-marry my ex-wife for over a year now,” Toby pointed out.

Knowing somehow that he was also referring to Danny, CJ asked, “But, don’t you think, my position could be compromised, if, you know, Danny and I…”

“The fact that you’re talking about Danny and not Gibbs, tells me a lot. I hope it tells you just as much.”

Sobered by the words, CJ sighed and dropped onto the sofa. “I don’t know what to do, Toby. I like Jethro. I like him a lot, and not because he reminds me of Simon.”

Toby’s hands went up. “No one’s accusing you of that. We just want to make sure you’re happy, CJ.”

“I know.”

“Danny could do that.”

“So could Jethro.”

But Toby shook his head and said, “You’re too different. He’s not used to the kind of world you live in, and I doubt he could adapt. Marines aren’t known for their flexibility, even ex-Marines. Danny already knows this world. He moves fluidly in it. And no, I don’t think getting involved with him would compromise your position.”

“How could it not?” CJ exclaimed, frustrated.

“Is he going to use what you say in confidence, in an article?”

“Well, no.”

“Would he dig around your office for a story?”

“Of course not!”

“Then what’s the problem?”

CJ sighed. “I don’t know.”

Standing and walking over, Toby sat beside her and said, “I do. You’re scared. I think you know, deep down, that Gibbs isn’t going to work out, no matter how much you care about him. Danny, though, could get you into serious trouble that you might never get out of. You could truly fall in love with him and that terrifies you.”

Which it did, and for all the reasons that Toby didn’t have to expound upon. Mostly because Toby was a lot like her and moved almost as slow.

He gripped her hand and said softly, “You need to do what’s right for you, CJ. Don’t lead Gibbs on if you’re just afraid to make a change. He doesn’t need that, and neither do you.”

Offering a watery smile, CJ asked, “How’d you get so smart, anyhow?”

“Didn’t you know? I read fortune cookies.”

*  *  *  *

There had been something odd in CJ’s voice when she’d called him at work, but Jethro hadn’t been able to get anything out of her about why she wanted to meet for lunch. It had been a tacit agreement that their relationship wouldn’t interfere with either of their work lives, not even to meet halfway for lunch, since it would take too long for Gibbs to get back to the office.

The whole morning he’d been keeping a discrete eye on Tony, noting the slight slump to his shoulders and the way he did his work silently, as if something had gone out of him. It was about a week after Tony’s head injury and physically, he was perfectly fine to come back to work. Emotionally, there was definitely something bothering him and Jethro suspected himself to be the cause. Kate did, too, if the mute fury in the looks she sent his way were anything to go by. McGee was cheerfully oblivious, thankfully, doing his work and going back and forth to the lab on various, made-up excuses.

For the first time in a long time, the team wasn’t a cohesive whole and that bothered Jethro a lot. This was exactly what he’d been trying to avoid by not getting involved with his coworkers since Stan. That had ended badly, too, and left Jethro more than a little…wary…about starting up any other romantic involvement with coworkers. Still, it wasn’t like it could get much worse than this.

As he stood to leave for lunch, Jethro noticed Tony open his mouth to say something and deliberately looked around for his glasses, before pulling them out of his top drawer. There was nothing, though; no snide remarks about getting old, and nothing about what was going on with the other agent. Sighing to himself, Jethro grabbed his coat and headed out to meet CJ.

The drive didn’t take long and she was already waiting for him when he got to the small, quiet restaurant. Bending down to kiss her cheek, Jethro smiled and said honestly, “This is a nice surprise.”

CJ smiled in return, but it looked a little strained as she replied, “Maybe not.”

Pausing on his way into the booth, Jethro took a good look at her and noticed the pinched expression. He suddenly knew exactly what she was going to do and almost laughed at the timing. Here he’d been agonizing over who to pick, when the choice was taken from him. She looked absolutely miserable and he knew instinctively that she was blaming herself for everything. Not wanting her to do that at all, let alone as much as she clearly was, Jethro took her hand and said, “Let me go first.”

A little surprised, CJ nonetheless nodded.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about us, and as much as I like you, as much as I care about you, I don’t think this is going to work,” Jethro told her.

Blue eyes widened in further surprise as she repeated, “You don’t?”

“No,” Jethro confirmed. Taking the easy out, which was sometimes there for a reason, even if he rarely took it, he continued, “I don’t think I could ever really be comfortable in your world. I have the constant urge to salute most of the people in your office, which puts a strain on dinner conversation or a poker game.”

She smiled faintly and agreed, “I could see where it would, yeah.”

Bringing her hand up to kiss, Jethro said, “I’ll always be here for you, CJ. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call me.”

CJ turned their hands and brought his to her lips, then rested her cheek against it. “You’re a good man, Jethro.”

“No I’m not. Didn’t I tell you the second B stands for Bastard?”

She laughed, and it was a relieved sound that lightened his own heart.

*  *  *  *

           

Dear Special Agent Gibbs:

I regret to inform you that I am giving my two weeks notice due to

 

And that was as far as Tony had managed to get on his letter of resignation. Mostly because he didn’t want to resign. He wanted to stay here and have things go back to the way they were, but knew that was impossible. He was pretty sure that Gibbs knew how he felt, maybe he’d said or done something stupid at the hospital, he couldn’t remember. Whatever the case, he’d been given the silent treatment the last days that he’d been at work and that wasn’t something that Tony could take.

“What’re you working on?” Kate asked from across the way.

Tony shrugged. “Not much. You?”

“About the same. I think I’m going to go visit Abby. See if she needs help with something. You want to come?”

“Nah. Have fun for me.”

By then, Kate had reached his desk, giving him a worried look. “Tony, you can’t keep acting like this. Gibbs is going to…”

“Gibbs knows,” he interrupted.

“He does? How?”

Tony shrugged and answered, “Who knows? But he does, I can tell.”

“So, what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nope. I think he’s just going to wait and see how long it takes me to quit.”

“Tony…”

Tony waved her off with, “It’s okay, Kate, honest. Say hi to Abby for me and remind McGee that he’s got to spend some time at his desk if he doesn’t want a Gibbs-sized chunk taken out of his ass.”

Sighing, Kate shook her head and made for the elevator only to meet Gibbs getting off. Tony groaned at the glare she gave Gibbs and turned to his work before any comments could be made.

Gibbs stopped at his desk and said, “You got plans tonight, DiNozzo?”

Tony looked up with a frown. “Why?”

Yes, or no?”

“Maybe.”

“DiNozzo…”

“Just tell me what you want, Gibbs. Because what I don’t want, is to get my ass beat by you once we’re off government property.”

For several seconds, Gibbs just looked at him, unfathomable. Then he leaned forward on the desk and said, “If you think that little of me, then we’ve got nothing to talk about.”

Gibbs had only gone a couple of feet when, silently kicking himself for being a masochist, Tony called, “Where and when?”

Pausing, Gibbs said, “My house. Seven,” then kept walking towards the steps that led upstairs to Morrow’s office.

Tony watched him go, not sure if he was about to face to firing squad, or maybe something completely unexpected; a Gibbs willing to talk about his feelings.

Either way, it was going to be an interesting night.

*  *  *  *

Jethro stopped moving once he was upstairs and out of Tony’s sight. Leaning against the wall, still feeling Tony’s words like a punch to the gut, he took a few minutes to get himself together. Had he really acted like such an asshole that Tony would assume the worst of him? Jethro knew he could be a hard man, but he’d always considered himself a fair one. When had he shown anything else to Tony?

Knowing that he would start to gather attention if he stayed where he was, Jethro walked to the stairwell and walked down to the garage. There was no way that he could go back to his desk right away. Not, and keep any semblance of his reputation intact.

*  *  *  *

“You know it occurred to me that I owe you lunch.”

Danny looked up in surprise at CJ’s voice and found her leaning against the doorframe, watching him. “You do?”

“Yeah,” CJ confirmed, walking in to sit beside him. “At the very least.”

Frowning at the intent look in the blue eyes that had always fascinated him so, Danny asked, “Why’s that?”

“Because with all the times I grabbed and kissed you, you really could’ve pressed a sexual harassment suit against me, and you didn’t. I figure that deserves at least a lunch, but probably dinner.”

Danny knew when he was in over his head and right then, he was drowning. “CJ, not that I’m complaining, but, what’s going on? Aren’t you and Special Agent Whatshisname a thing?”

Shaking her head, CJ answered, “Not as of three hours ago. I would’ve been here sooner, but Leo dragged me into a meeting.”

“Okay,” Danny said, not sure what else to say.

Then he didn’t have to say anything, because CJ grabbed his shirt and yanked him forward into a deep kiss, sweeter than any he’d had since their last, much too long ago.

*  *  *  *

By the time he pulled up in Gibbs’ driveway, Tony was a walking bundle of nerves. He’d had time to replay that last conversation a million times and felt lower than scum the more he did so. Gibbs was a lot of things, but he’d never stoop to luring someone out of sight to beat them up. That was a completely dishonorable thing to do and Gibbs would never do it.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! he thought angrily.

Taking a deep breath, Tony climbed out of his car and walked up to the front door, ringing the doorbell. It opened a moment later on a serious, but casually dressed Gibbs, jeans and t-shirt. It was a great look on him and fortunately, Tony was too worked up over what he’d said, for his body to react as it normally would have.

Inside, he followed Gibbs to the living room and the moment the other man turned towards him, Tony blurted out, “I’m sorry for what I said! It was wrong and I know you’d never do anything like that ever and I can’t believe those words came out of my mouth. There’s no excuse, except I’ve been walking on eggshells for three days now waiting for the ax to fall and umph…”

Tony blinked in surprise at Gibbs, who was smiling at him, hand covering Tony’s mouth to stop the flow of words.

“Don’t worry about it,” Gibbs said, taking his hand away. “I probably could’ve put my own request better.”

Awkward now, Tony asked, “So, what’s going on?”

“CJ and I broke up.”

Of all the words to hear, Tony definitely hadn’t expected those. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“Yeah, okay, just checking…um…why?”

Gibbs looked thoughtful as he answered, “Because I realized that I had stronger feelings for you, than for her.”

So it was going to be a night of talking about feelings. Tony felt a little faint at the prospect and sat down on the sofa which, fortunately, was directly behind him. “And, when did you realize this?”

Sitting on the coffee table in front of Tony, Gibbs said, “I’ve always felt this way, just didn’t have a clue you might, too.”

“You’re kinda freaking me out right now,” Tony admitted. “I came here figuring that you were going to tell me one of us had to leave the team, and now you’re saying…what are you saying? That you care for me? Like me?”

Gibbs looked away for only a moment, but Tony saw the other man brace himself as he replied, “I love you.”

Numbness overcame the faintness, and Tony honestly had no idea how to react. For so long, he’d told himself that there wasn’t a chance with Gibbs and now there was, if he took it.

“Tony?”

Even knowing that Gibbs was waiting for a response couldn’t make Tony’s tongue move any faster. Finally shaking it off, he managed, “You love me? How? How is it possible, that you love me?”

Putting his hands on Tony’s knees, Gibbs answered, “I don’t know how, DiNozzo, I just know that I do. If you want this, me, I’m yours.”

Almost suspicious, Tony demanded, “Did you get hit on the head or something?”

Gibbs grinned briefly and answered, “It surprises the hell out of me too, DiNozzo, believe me. What’s the verdict? Or, do you need more time to figure it out?”

Tony stared at him a few more seconds before a mischievous grin surfaced. He grabbed Gibbs by the shirt and yanked him forward, kissing him slow and deep. Sighing happily into the way Gibbs took it over and started plundering his mouth with a very agile tongue, Tony had the vague thought that the night had turned out to be more than just interesting...it was perfect.

He fast lost the capacity for thought as Gibbs pushed him down on the sofa, kneeling between his legs as if he owned the spot and pinned Tony to the cushions with his body. Moaning with pleasure into the nonstop kiss, Tony rubbed his hands over the strong back, scratching his nails down and enjoying the shudder it provoked.

And then the phone rang.

Cursing when Gibbs stopped kissing him to answer the phone with an extra short, “Gibbs.” Tony panted and struggled to get himself under control. It was difficult, considering that Gibbs’ ass was now in contact with Tony’s cock, even through fabric, but he managed it in time to hear Gibbs demand, “Now?”

*  *  *  *

“Yes, now,” Kate snapped, irritated. Like she wanted to give up her night off? “I got the call ten minutes ago. And I called Tony, but his phone’s off again.”

There was a brief pause before Gibbs said, “Tony’s here with me.”

Kate blinked in surprise then put together the strangely breathless quality to Gibbs’ voice, like he was trying not to breathe conspicuously heavily, with the fact that Tony was with Gibbs, and managed to say, “Oh. Ah, good.”

Gibbs replied, “We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Gibbs.”

“What?”

“Don’t hurt him like that again or you’ll have two resignations on your desk instead of just one,” Kate stated simply.

The silence returned for a slightly longer stretch before Gibbs replied curtly, “I won’t.” and hung up.

Thoroughly pleased at the turn things had taken, even if she didn’t have details, Kate picked up the phone to call Abby and give her the good news.

*  *  *  *

Jethro looked down at a debauched Tony and had to smile at the sight, even as he remained sobered by what Kate had just let slip. “You were resigning?”

Tony flinched and shifted into a sitting position. “That was Kate, huh?”

“Yeah. We have a murdered Navy Lieutenant. You were going to resign?”

Sighing, Tony ran a hand through his hair and said, “Well, you weren’t giving me much option, Boss. I mean, I was pretty much just waiting for the ax to fall, you know? I thought I’d maybe come on to you at the hospital or something when I was drugged, but couldn’t remember. Can’t remember anything, really, from when I got my head bashed in to waking up the next day. I don’t even remember the CAT scan or MRI and those are pretty unforgettable.”

Jethro took Tony’s hand, refusing to let go when the younger man tried to pull away. “No matter what you think is going on between us, I will never let emotion get the better of our professional relationship. You will never have to resign, Tony, I swear it.”

“That’s the problem,” Tony muttered.

Frowning, Jethro prompted, “What’s the problem?”

Earnest hazel eyes stared up at him as Tony explained, “You don’t let emotion affect anything, Gibbs, not that I can tell anyhow. You never show anything. You could be dying inside, and all I’d see was your game-face. I don’t know where I stand with you at any given moment, because I just can’t tell!”

This time, Jethro allowed Tony to take his hand back, giving him room to get up and pace. It was a familiar complaint, one that he’d heard time and again from each of his ex-wives and girlfriends. Even knowing they didn’t have time for this, Jethro stood and walked right into Tony’s path, forcing him to stop.

Once he had Tony’s attention, Jethro said simply, “I can’t change, Tony, not anymore. Or, not well anyhow. Just ask me, okay? If you need to know how I feel or what I’m thinking, ask. I can’t promise to be, well, immediately forthcoming, but just keep hammering away at me. I’ll try.”

Tony stared back at him as if trying to gauge his truthfulness, then nodded abruptly. “Okay. Can I smack you upside the head too?”

“Not a chance,” Jethro replied, echoing Tony’s sudden grin with one of his own. “Now come on. We have a job to do.”

Relieved that they’d come to some sort of agreement, and that Tony was no longer thinking of going anywhere professionally and personally, Jethro ushered him outside.

*  *  *  *

No one got injured this time, thankfully, and the case was wrapped up a scant twenty-four hours later. Tony watched the young Lieutenant’s wife walked away in cuffs by the local PD and sighed. Jealous over her husband’s constant flirting and presumed affairs, the wife had been pretty easy to route as a suspect and then get a confession from. Gibbs had been remarkably easy on her, maybe empathizing from his ex-wives infidelities. A subject that Tony didn’t dare broach with the man, knowing how sensitive Gibbs was about it, even as he couldn’t figure out how they’d cheated on Gibbs.

Shaking his head in private disbelief that anyone would want to cheat on Gibbs, Tony was about to head for the elevator when Kate called out his name. Pausing, he groaned on catching sight of her evilly gleeful expression.

“You dog,” she greeted, smirking.

At least Abby was nowhere in sight, both women at once would be hard to handle.

Tony replied, “Nothing happened.”

“Thanks to the murder case.”

“Well, yeah, but still. Nothing happened.”

They shared a grin and Kate continued, “I want details, Tony, and I want them now.”

It was Tony’s turn to smirk as he answered, “Sorry, Kate. I don’t kiss and tell.”

“Excuse me? Since when?” Kate demanded, pinching his shoulder.

Ow!” Tony exclaimed, rubbing his shoulder and stepping out of reach. “Since it’s Gibbs I’d be telling on.”

Kate snorted, but only said, “You better tell me if he treats you bad, DiNozzo, or you’ll really feel my wrath.”

“Oh is that what I’ll feel?”

“Tony...”

Holding up a hand in surrender, Tony pulled her in for an impulsive hug and whispered, “Thanks,” before letting her go and hurrying into the elevator, which had just opened. He grinned at her stunned expression and hit the garage button. It was time to catch up to Gibbs and finish what they’d started.

*  *  *  *

“For two days now, rumor has had you coming out of Danny’s apartment in the wee hours of the morning.”

CJ groaned silently at Leo’s greeting, but gave him a bright smile. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, Leo.”

“So the surveillance photos are wrong?”

“You had someone take pictures!?” she shrieked. Leo’s broad grin told her that she’d just been had, and CJ glowered at her boss. “You’re the devil incarnate, Leo McGarry.”

“And don’t I know it,” he replied easily.

Huffing in irritation, CJ demanded querulously, “Was there something you wanted, Leo?”

“Just to wish you happiness and congratulations.”

That diffused some of her anger, and she squinted at him warily. “That’s it? No lectures on conflicts of interest or diatribes about what the press will do when they get wind of it?”

Leo shrugged. “Danny’s one of theirs and they know how uncompromising you are. I doubt there’ll be a fuss, one way or the other. Not if they want to be invited to the wedding, anyhow. I assume there will be a wedding?”

CJ flushed a little, but didn’t deny it. Not that Danny had asked yet, but CJ could read him really well and knew it was only a matter of time. A very short time, if his besotted expression was anything to go by. She smiled, unable not to when thinking about Danny.

Chuckling kindly, Leo said, “Congratulations, CJ, honest. I hope you’ll be happy. And if he makes you unhappy, don’t forget that the Leader of the Free World can make him disappear.”

CJ laughed outright at that, even as she appreciated the sentiment, and replied, “Thanks, Leo.”

*  *  *  *

Curled up in bed, relaxed and content as he always was on a lazy Saturday morning when there was no work, Tony yawned for no reason and stretched this way and that.

“Now that’s a beautiful sight,” Gibbs’ amused voice announced.

Tony rolled over to see Gibbs in the bedroom door holding an envelope. Grinning, Tony lured, “The bed’s still warm.”

Gibbs licked his lips and answered, “We got a wedding invitation this morning.”

Surprised, Tony sat up and gave him a curious look. “From who?”

“Whom,” Gibbs corrected absently before continuing, “CJ.”

Tony laughed. “She’s sending her ex-boyfriend an invitation to her wedding? Who’s she marrying, anyhow?”

“Danny Concanon,” Gibbs answered, sitting on the bed.

“That reporter who broke the Sharif story?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow. I bet those arguments are spectacular.”

Gibbs grinned. “About as spectacular as ours, I’d bet. The invitation is Plus One and I want you to go with me.”

Shocked, Tony just stared at him. Going to what would, essentially, be a White House wedding covered in Press would be their coming out. They’d idly discussed the idea over the last couple of months, but mostly just agreed to let things happen as they did. The team knew they were together and were happy, which was all that mattered to Tony. Morrow had been told about a week after Tony had moved in with Gibbs and he’d said that as long as work wasn’t affected, he didn’t care.

Going public with the relationship, let alone in such a fashion, was a step that he hadn’t anticipated. He had no idea what sort of repercussions it would have at work because even though they weren’t military, they dealt with the military day in, day out.

“We don’t have to, if you don’t want to,” Gibbs said softly, cupping his cheek.

Frowning, Tony asked, “Why do you? All of your old Marine buddies will find out and then, well, who knows?”

Gibbs shrugged and answered, “I don’t care what anyone thinks, Tony, except for you. CJ knows about us and I’d like to be there for her on what’s going to be a stressful day.”

Even knowing they were just friends, and that CJ Cregg was now getting married, Tony couldn’t suppress the tiny bit of jealousy that stirred.

“But we don’t have to go if it’s going to make you uncomfortable.”

Somehow, Tony knew that this was a subtle test from Gibbs. He could see that it was important to the other man, despite his supposed lack of caring what others thought. Maybe he was trying to see just how committed to the relationship Tony really was; what Tony would go through to stay with him. Not that Gibbs would look at it like that, Tony knew. He would just be disappointed that Tony didn’t want others to know about them.

Not wanting anything to come between them, no matter how small, Tony finally offered a faint smile and said, “If anything, at least I’ll finally know the competition’s officially out of the way.”

When Gibbs opened his mouth to protest, Tony grinned and beat him to it by kissing him soundly.