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Box Steps 4: Not Quite Seeing The Box

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Jimmy Palmer belatedly realized he was shaking. A lot of things had happened to him since he started working with NCIS, but none of them had ever been life threatening. Usually, he and Dr. Mallard arrived at a crime scene to pick up pieces and deal with bodies. The closest he'd come to real physical danger, other than the number of times he'd upset Special Agent Gibbs, was when a car with two dead bodies had been rigged with explosives.

"You okay, Palmer?"

Jimmy nodded jerkily, staring at Tony DiNozzo with wide eyes. "Thâ€"thâ€"thank you."

Tony studied his face. "You sure you're okay?"

He nodded again, taking a deep breath. No one had expected the killer to still be in the area hiding nearby. Ensign Riley's body had been discovered at dawn. The initial call had cleared the scene, and by midmorning Jimmy thought it safe to assume her murderer was long gone. He'd always thought it was nothing more than detective novel cliché for the killer to return to the scene of the crime.

Jimmy had been taken completely by surprise when a man had leaped out of the underbrush. The man had barreled into Jimmy when the Assistant ME started to zip up the body bag. The attack had knocked them both off their feet.

Jimmy knew the man had been screaming something at the time. All he could clearly remember was the man saying over and over 'She's mine. She's mine.' The knife he brandished had captured most of Jimmy's attention. He never would have thought such an ordinary item could scare him so badly.

It had been Tony's quick thinking and reflexes that had kept the man from doing any harm. Tony had wrestled him off and away before he could actually stab Jimmy. Unfortunately, Tony's grip on the man wasn't enough to hold him. The man wiggled free, taking a wild swing at Tony as he got to his feet, growling obscenities.

Tony stumbled back, crouching low, green eyes wary. The man lunged at him. Jimmy had held his breath when the blade seemed to catch for a moment before cutting through Tony's jacket and ripping into sweater Tony wore underneath. Tony glared at the man, clearly more angry than afraid.

Jimmy knew Tony was saying something, but the pounding of his own heart and rushing blood had made it hard for him to hear. He'd scrabbled backward, instinctively trying to put more space between him and on going combat. It shamed him to realize he hadn't made any effort to help.

Tony dodged the next wild swing of the blade, moving in close to execute a neat take down Jimmy figured he'd either learned on the force a as a cop or Gibbs had shown him. They'd hit the ground with breath stealing thud. Jimmy flinched, remembering the sound of the man's wrist breaking as Tony bent it backward, forcing the man to release the knife. The snap had registered with the Jimmy as being far louder than the following scream of pain.

The scream of pain no doubt had carried further. It brought McGee and Ziva racing back from where they'd been sketching and photographing the blood trail that had lead to Ensign Riley's body. Tony offered them a cheeky grin from where he'd pinned his attacker to the ground in a move Jimmy thought looked like a half-nelson.

Tony's hold wasn't enough to completely restrain the crazed man. In hindsight Jimmy was astounded by the fact that Tony could have handled him at all. The man was several inches shorter than Tony but he was broader and likely outweighed the agent by a good fifty pounds or more.

Jimmy had been certain the guy was frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog as he fought against all three field agents, trying to get free. It was Ziva who actually put the man down for the count in a choke hold that worked with amazing speed. Jimmy suspected she'd have never been able to execute the move if Tony and McGee hadn't combined their weight to restrain the man long enough to render him unconscious. He'd watched with stunned fascination as McGee cuffed the man before he and Ziva drug him to the car.

Jimmy was pulled sharply from his memory of the events when Tony patted his shoulder. "Guess you aren't going to want to do another job solo for a bit, ay Palmer?"

Jimmy hung his head. The senior ME had his final exam for his Master's degree tomorrow and wanted a bit more time to study; he thought the job would be simple enough for Jimmy to handle on his own. Dr. Mallard would be so disappointed in him.

"Palmer," Tony squeezed his shoulder, "don't sweat it. If this was anyone's fault, it's mine."

Jimmy looked up startled. "Yours?"

"I'm the senior field agent." Tony shrugged one shoulder. "Gibbs left me in charge."

Jimmy knew Gibbs had a meeting with the Director, one that couldn't be cancelled or missed. Having Tony lead the team temporarily--gather evidence, sketch and document the sceneâ€"was something Tony was more than capable of doing. Jimmy thought Tony had done a good job of filling in for Gibbs when the former Marine had been in a coma.

"Y-You didn't d-d-o anything wrong." Jimmy cursed mentally, hating that he stuttered. It didn't exactly make him sound quite as reassuring as he'd hoped.

"Not doing anything wrong, isn't the same as doing everything right," Tony observed with surprising candor and a wry smile. "I should have made sure the scene was secure before sending McGee and Ziva anywhere."

He wanted to protest. Just because he was in charge didn't mean Tony was responsible for Jimmy's lack of attention. Jimmy wished he was better with words. Articulating that sentiment should be so easy, yet he couldn't get himself to speak. He felt like he was doing a fish out of water impression, mouth gaping as he tried to find a way to verbalize his thoughts.

Tony grinned at him, happy and lighthearted. "But we did find us a suspect and a possible murder weapon. That has to count for something."

Jimmy found himself smiling back. It wasn't the first time he'd encountered Tony's way of putting a positive spin on things. He suspected the ability to see the glass as half full was where the senior agent's often cocky confidence came from. It was a character trait Jimmy envied.

He looked away, chagrined. He spotted the knife on the ground and swallowed hard. He'd come so close to having the dried blood that decorated the blade be his. Jimmy told himself he would not be sick. He wouldn't.

"C'mon...you got a body to deal with and I got some evidence to collect." Tony's tone was nicely matter of fact and Jimmy found that comforting. The senior agent made it sound like nothing out of the ordinary had happened, which in turn made Jimmy feel like he could deal with the situation.

Tony offered him a hand, pulling Jimmy easily to his feet. Jimmy reached out, fingering the tear in Tony's clothing.

"Did he hurt you?"

Tony looked down, blinking in surprise. He'd clearly forgotten how close the man had come doing serious damage. Tony grimaced as he eyed the rip in his clothing. "I liked this jacket," he muttered.

Tony patted his chest, evidently checking for any other possible damage. His actions quickly took on a searching, almost frantic nature. Jimmy felt a sudden stab of fear. Had Tony been hurt and was only just realizing it? Jimmy wasn't sure he'd even be able to tell. There was no blood or apparent sign of weakness. Tony's exploration of his chest seemed more like he was looking for something rather than checking for injury, but Jimmy couldn't be sure. He understood the dead, actions of the living tended to confuse him more often than not.

"Damn," Tony cursed softly but vehemently. He started scanning the spot where he'd fought with the knife wielding maniac.

"Tony?" Jimmy questioned hesitantly. "Are you all riâ€""

"I'm fine." Tony didn't look up, but kept searching the ground, crouching low to examine things closer. "Just lost something."

"Would you like me to help you find it?" he asked tentatively, wanting to assist but unsure of how it would be received. He and Tony weren't exactly friends. He knew Tony referred to him as the 'autopsy gremlin', which didn't really bother him much. It was better than being called 'probie'. And the man had just saved his life so a little thing like an annoying nickname hardly seemed terribly important at the moment.

"What?" Tony was clearly distracted and not paying attention to Jimmy. He'd gotten out his flashlight and had started slowly sweeping the area with the beam.

Jimmy cleared his throat. "I said...Can I help?"

Tony looked up at him, brow wrinkling for a moment almost as though he'd forgotten Jimmy was even there. He nodded once.

"What did you lose?" Jimmy eyed the area around him, wanting to know what he should be looking for.

"My pendant."

Jimmy blinked. Several of the team wore some sort of jewelry--Abby usually had a dog collar or necklace, sometimes both, and several rings; Ziva normally wore her Star of David and a pair of delicate, tasteful earrings; Gibbs had a bracelet. But Jimmy had never seen Tony wear anything more than his watch.

"It's a gold coin, about so big," Tony held up one hand, index finger and thumb indicating the size.

The taller man's tone was even, controlled, but Jimmy could sense an underlying chord of something else--desperation or worry or maybe even fear. It seemed out of character for Tony to be so concerned about this coin when only a moment ago his life was in jeopardy, and what had to be a very expensive jacket had just been ruined. But then, Tony was probably more used to dangerous situations than Jimmy would ever be, and he could replace the garment.

Maybe the coin was a good luck token or something of sentimental value. Jimmy had his own lucky rabbit's foot. Not that it had ever brought him much luck, but he liked to think it did a good job of keeping bad luck at bay. And he had the watch his great uncle had left him. It never really kept good time but he wouldn't willingly part with it either.

Jimmy got down on his hands and knees, keeping an eye out for anything that glinted or sparkled. He took the same systematic approach to looking over the area of trampled grass and torn soil that he did to doing an autopsy. He grinned as he spotted a fine gold chain dangling from a bit of vegetation, the coin lying nearby.

"Tony, I think I foundâ€""

Tony reached out with one long arm, pulling the item to him before Jimmy could even finish speaking. The nearly incandescent smile Tony gave him as he held up his prize kept Jimmy from feeling annoyed by the interruption.

"Thanks, man." Tony lightly tapped Jimmy's arm with his flashlight. It was a gesture of brotherly camaraderie that the assistant ME never expected to ever receive.

Jimmy ducked his head shyly, feeling his face warm. "You're welcome."

He envied the way Tony rose gracefully to his feet. Jimmy felt clumsy by comparison as he fumbled his way up from his hands and knees. He brushed his pants, grimacing when he realized he had grass stains on his knees. Tony did too so Jimmy figured that it was okay.

Tony tucked his flashlight back into the back pocket of his pants, eyes on his pendant the entire time. Jimmy winced as he noticed the chain was broken. Should have expected that, he thought with a sigh, it wouldn't have been on the ground otherwise.

"Can get another chain," Tony muttered quietly to himself, fingers curling around the coin and holding it against his chest.

Jimmy was proud of himself for playing some small part in the Tony's evident relief and happiness. It wasn't really enough to pay him back for saving Jimmy from serious harm, but it was a nice start. He was fairly confident Tony wouldn't see himself as being owed anything, but Jimmy still felt the debt was there. He silently directed himself to keep an eye out for opportunities in the future to even the score.

As though suddenly conscious of being watched, Tony looked at him. He gave Jimmy a half smile. "Back to work, Palmer."

Jimmy smiled; the directive had almost been more of an invitation rather than an order. "Sure thing, Agent DiNozzo."

He watched from the corner of his eye as Tony very carefully put the pendant and broken chain in the small front pocket of his jeans. He knew better than to comment on the number of times he saw Tony pat the same pocket over and over, unconsciously checking to make sure the treasured item hadn't gotten lost again while gathering the remaining evidence. It really must be important to him, Jimmy thought.

They were nearly finished when Tony offered quietly, "It was a gift."

"A gift?" Jimmy managed to keep his mouth from dropping open in surprise not really expecting to get an explanation. "From someone special?"

He knew he was blushing as he asked that; he sounded more than just a little skeptical. Tony went on more dates in one week than Jimmy had in a year; if all his bragging was anything to go by, and having seen the way women reacted to Tony, Jimmy knew it wasn't all just bragging. Yet none of the women seemed to have left any sort of lasting impression on the agentâ€"at least not that Jimmy saw.

Tony smirked, green eyes giving him a knowing glace, clearly more amused than insulted. "Yes, Jimmy, it was from someone special. Very special."

He too was startled to hear Tony use his first name to dare asking who the special person might be. Jimmy's hands fluttered nervously for a moment as he tried to figure out what to say. He cleared his throat again. "Glad I...er...that is you...found it then."

"We found it," Tony corrected with a wide grin, obviously still delighted with having the item back in his possession. "And I'm glad to."

Jimmy knew he wasn't getting any more details when Tony's _expression shifted to something neutral and profession. Tony cocked his head, gaze focusing to the body on the stretcher. "You need help with that?"

"Yes, please." Jimmy was grateful for the unexpected offer. He had no idea how he'd have managed to get ensign's body to the morgue van without assistance.

With the body loaded, Jimmy opened his mouth to say 'thank you' but was cut off by the ringing of Tony's cell. The senior agent unclipped it, flipping it open without bothering to even check the display to see who was calling.

"Yeah, Boss, we're just finishing up now--"

Tony drifted out of earshot as he headed to where McGee and Ziva were waiting by the sedan. Jimmy vaguely recalled Tony telling them to say with their suspect while they took care of the scene, but until seeing them had forgotten all about it. He stifled the urge to wave not wanting to look like any more of a dork than they probably already thought he was.

Jimmy sighed, adjusting his glasses as he got into the van. Dr. Mallard would be waiting for the body. Special Agent Gibbs wasn't known for his patience, and he would no doubt be demanding information from Dr. Mallard with an hour of Jimmy's return.

As he drove back to the office, Jimmy pondered just who Tony's 'very special' someone could be. He'd overheard Ziva and McGee commenting recently on Tony being unusually unforthcoming about whoever he was currently dating.

Being involved in a clandestine affair of his own with a probationary agent in the legal department, Jimmy could empathize with Tony's desire keep his love interest private. There was something so invigorating about a secret love. The effort to maintain the secret made every stolen moment that much more precious; the risk of discovery with each covert meeting was exhilarating. It was likely as close as Jimmy would ever come to being undercover or espionage.

If the relationship was as important as Tony's reaction to the temporary loss of his pendant made it seem, then it made even more sense for him to stay quiet about it. Jimmy knew Ziva liked to tease Tony and she would no doubt enjoy having more fodder to play with. The same could be said of McGee. Jimmy wouldn't want them to do that to him and Agent Lee, even if it was all in good fun, so he could understand Tony's reticence to share this new relationship with them.

Abby would likely be thrilled, demanding all sorts of details. It made Jimmy blush just thinking about the sort of questions she might ask. She was definitely not shy when it came to personal things. Her curiosity knew no bounds, especially not the ones polite society considered the norm.

And Special Agent Gibbs...Jimmy shivered just trying to imagine what is response might be. That man didn't seem to understand that other people had more than just work to fill their lives. Jimmy couldn't see him reacting well if Tony ever put this romance ahead of the job.

He smiled to himself. It wasn't like any of them would ask him about Tony's new love interest. He snorted derisively. Hell, they barely knew he had a pulse most of the time. What little Jimmy knew of Tony's romance would be a secret was safe with him. It was the least he could do.

Jimmy added this small act to the mental scale he had, incrementally pushing it closer to evening out what he felt owed Tony. It would take awhile but eventually he was confident he'd pay him back. Slow and steady, his mother told him. It worked so far, no reason to think it wouldn't keep on doing so.