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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.

Chapter Text

When Thomas Ackley accepted the position of security guard at NCIS headquarters he wasn't expecting the job to be exciting or even very interesting. For most people NCIS wasn't even a blip on the radar. If not for Tom's eight year stint in the Navy, four of those years as an SP, he'd have never even heard of the agency.

NCIS didn't have the glamour or notoriety of the FBI. There weren't rumors about it like NSA or CIA . It hadn't risen to prominence like Homeland Security, FAM and ATF in the wake of 9/11. So Tom was expecting the job to be just as quiet and routine as he assured his wife, Pauline, it would be. Of course, that was before he'd met Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Tom had long since concluded Gibbs was a force of nature when pissed. And the man seemed to spend an inordinate amount of his day in a snit about something. Staying on his good side was nearly impossible. It was ironic that once Tom quit trying to make nice, he and Gibbs actually got along rather well.

He'd learned to ignore any stopped elevator if he knew Gibbs was in the building. Why the man would pick an elevator to have a meeting was anyone's guess. Tom had long since figured out it was best not to question the quirks of the people who worked there. If the lab tech wanted to dress like every day was Halloween, or the ME wanted to converse with the dead, or adults squabbled like children over who got the front seat and who got to drive, it wasn't his place to ask about it.

He'd also learned that having plenty of coffee on hand at any given time, day or night, was a must. Gibbs drank it like there might never be another pot made. Tom guessed the man consumed at least a gallon a day, probably more. It was no wonder he came in so early. Gibbs was probably up and down a hundred times a night just to pee.

Over the past few months, Tom had noticed a more predictable pattern to Gibbs early arrivals. If they weren't working an open case, Gibbs was in by four am . Tuesday and Thursday. The man always strolled in with the biggest coffee cup money could by and would usually manage a grunt by way of a greeting. It always made Tom wonder what the hell happened on Monday and Wednesday nights that the man would feel the need to get to the office so soon. But the rumor mill made it sound like all the man did was work so maybe nothing happened and it was just his nature to show up before the crack of dawn.

If there wasn't a case that reeked havoc over the weekend, on Monday morning, a day when most people were less than happy about coming to work, Gibbs would show up bright eyed, willing to exchange a few pleasantries, would even smile a bit. Tom figured maybe it was just more proof that he was a workaholic, except that he was usually in later on Monday than any other day. Gibbs would often stroll through the door at six thirty . Once or twice Gibbs hadn't made it in until seven. Tom knew better than to comment directly on that unusual occurrence, but he'd made note of it just the same.

He'd also made note of Agent Anthony DiNozzo's habit of staying late. Now everyone knew Tony had a social life, a very active social life. But he was as dedicated to the job as Gibbs, if not more so. It was a mystery to Tom how Tony could go on so many dates when the younger man never seemed to leave the building much before two in the morning.

Although, early on, he hadn't always known just how late Tony stayed, or when he left to grab a bite to eat and returned. The first year he worked at NCIS, Tony had managed to slip in and out of the building with embarrassing ease. What made it all the worse was he hadn't been actively trying to elude security. Tony told him later, he did his best work at night and simply hadn't wanted to bother anyone with checking in and out. He'd actually thought he was doing them a favor by just coming and going quietly. Now, of course, after almost five years, it was more of a game between them. One Tom delighted in winning.

He wasn't sure when Gibbs found out about Tony's late nights, but he knew when Gibbs started quizzing security every morning when he arrived. 'What time did DiNozzo leave?' was more of a standard greeting from the senior agent than 'Good Morning'. And God help them if they didn't know or got it wrong.

If Tom hadn't known better he'd have sworn the two of them devised this whole thing as a way of making sure security was on their toes. And honestly, having a terrorist in the building, and a booby trapped letter with the plague inside, Tom wasn't sure being tested on their observational skills and attention to detail was a bad thing. He took it personally that two agents had been shot in his building, and one had nearly died from a disease he thought no longer existed.

He knew he wasn't alone in taking things personally. Gibbs was famous for it. He was rabid about looking after his own.

So Gibbs being wound up tighter than an eight day clock yesterday hadn't really been a huge surprise to Tom. The man got like that when there was even a hint one of his people was in trouble or hurt. The rumor mill being what it was, Tom knew what had happened fairly quickly.

A man on the scene, who later proved to be the murderer of Ensign Riley, had attacked both Jimmy Palmer and Tony. Neither was hurt, but no one would have guessed that from Gibbs' reaction. According to one of the secretaries Gibbs had actually broken a coffee mug in MTAC when McGee had called to tell him they needed to stop by the hospital. Tom was sure it was an exaggeration that the mug shattered in Gibbs' hand. It had to be, but it made for a good story.

Apparently, Tony had broken the man's wrist in the attack. Tom knew IA would clear Tony of any wrong doing soon enough. He'd seen him interrogate suspects and not once had he ever worried that Tony might go all 'old school' and beat someone down for no reason. The man just wasn't wired that way.

Now Officer Davidâ€"she was another story. Hell, a suspect had died in the elevator with her. And Tom had seen some footage from one or two of her interrogations. He wasn't sure where they drew the line between interrogation and torture with Mossad, but he was certain it wasn't the same place where NCIS drew it.

He was somewhat surprised that Gibbs hadn't waited upstairs for his team to return. The man had simply crooked his finger at Tom as he'd headed for the garage and Tom followed. A little added security as they brought in a wacko who'd attacked two people in broad daylight was probably not a bad idea.

Gibbs had paced the garage with slow, measured steps that made Tom more than a little nervous. It reminded him of watching a tiger in the zoo and knowing the only thing keeping it from making dinner out of him were the steel bars between them. He hoped the next time Gibbs wanted back up one of his team was around to give it.

Tom didn't really breathe easy until Tony, McGee and Ziva walked in, their prisoner in tow, his forearm and hand in a temporary cast. The man continued to fight against them in spite of the cuffs and ankle restraints. Tom was damn glad he didn't have to deal with the psycho, but he'd kept his hand on his gun just in case the nut job got loose. Gibbs looked ready to do some serious damage and the prisoner probably sensed that. He went as quiet as the proverbial church mouse when Gibbs fixed him with a gaze that should have left little more than ashes.

Tom had made note of the grass stains on Tony's clothing. He'd have missed the tear to Tony's jacket and sweater if Gibbs hadn't pointed them out. Blue eyes flashed when he demanded information about what had happened.

McGee had paled, and Tom sympathized. It was never pleasant to be caught in the path of those laser like eyes. David looked sheepish and more than just a little embarrassed to have been caught so off guard by an untrained lunatic. Only Tony appeared completely unfazed. He delivered the facts in a clear, concise manner that would have made Tom's old drill instructor proud.

When Gibbs asked if he was hurt, Tony just smiled. It was almost shy and full of little boy delight. "You do care, Boss."

"Of course I care, DiNozzo." Gibbs smacked the back of his head. "Paperwork for an on the job injury is a bitch."

Tom thought the slap might have been a little lighter than usual, but it was hard to know for sure. He didn't think it was really warranted, but Tony hadn't seemed to mind. If anything, it was almost as though he'd have missed not getting it. And Gibbs was smiling, warm and open. Tom never thought he'd see that. Ever.

The smile vanished when he laid a few on McGee and David. Those were definitely more painful if their expressions were anything to go by.

"What was that for?" Ziva rubbed the back of her head.

"For not paying more attention."

McGee had grimaced but didn't try to defend himself. Tom had really come to like the junior agent, having watched him grow into his own since he started out as a probie. McGee had definitely grown a lot.

"Ziva. McGee. Get this guy into interrogation room one. And find out who the hell he is while you're at it." Gibbs pointed at Tony. "We're going to see Ducky."

Tony had shrugged, releasing his hold on the prisoner. "Boss, it's a little early for him to have any results. I mean Palmer probably only got back an hourâ€""

"I want him look you over, DiNozzo."

"I'm fine," Tony protested. "Reallyâ€""

"When Ducky says you are." Gibbs had countered. "Now let's go."

It was another quirk of NCIS that Tom had learned not to question. Having a coroner, a guy who specializes in dead people, examine the living. The morgue was one creepy place in Tom's opinion. He hated have to even look in there when he was on rounds at night.

Tom saw Gibbs put his hand the small of Tony's back when they headed for the elevator, and lean in to say something quietly. Tony shook his head in response to whatever was being said and leaned one shoulder against the wall. Maybe Tony wasn't quite as okay as he made out; Gibbs was probably just double checking and kept a hand on Tony to make sure he was steady on his feet. God knew Tony had more concussions than anyone else in the building. It was a good thing he had a hard head.

No longer needed in the garage, Tom had returned to his post. He wasn't entirely sure what happened with the case other than that it was closed. The rumor mill didn't seem terribly interested in discussing cases once they were closed. Tom always figured it was because there was less to gossip about when anyone could pull the file and check the facts.

The entire team, even Gibbs had left at five. Maybe they'd gone out to celebrate or something. Wasn't every day they closed a case in less than a day.

Tom thought it was nice they left at a decent hour for a change. Especially Tony, who not only left but actually stayed gone rather than sneaking back in later to work some more.

Tom had noticed that Mondays and Wednesday tended to be earlier nights for him. Early being relative...he never really left at the usual quitting time for most people, but typically didn't say much past seven thirty on those nights.

Tom had heard there might be a new love interest in Tony's life. He'd even teased him about it, thinking it was likely the reason he left a little sooner a few days out of the week and stayed later on others. Maybe his new lady worked an odd schedule or something like swing shift or graveyard. Tom had tried to tease Tony about it, but all he'd gotten in response was a wink and a grin.

He thought it was nice Tony had someone in his life, even if it wasn't necessarily a serious fling. Tony didn't seem the type to settle down just yet. It wasn't like there was any hurry for him to get married. Not with the sort of hours he worked and the kind of job he had.

A wife wanted more time and attention than just on the weekends, and wouldn't be too thrilled with him nearly getting killed every other week. Tom knew that first hand, but he wouldn't trade Pauline for anything. His job wasn't anywhere near as stressful or dangerous most days as that of the field agents, and certainly didn't require the same sort of investment of time. Still it helped to know he could go home and talk to Pauline, play with his boys, and just unwind. Made it a lot easier to come to work every day.

He hoped whoever Tony was seeing gave him that same sort of support. It was a real shame Gibbs didn't have someone waiting at home. Maybe he'd be a little less intense all the time if he did.

Then again, Tom thought as he watched Gibbs stroll through the front doors smiling slightly with coffee mug in hand, maybe he did have someone waiting at home. No way that smile was the product of anything but a good night; a very good night. And if Tom wasn't mistaken, he could just make out a bit of a hickey peeking out from under Gibbs' collar.

Tom glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost six forty-five . Gibbs was late for a Thursday.

"Morning, Tom."

"Morning, Gibbs." He was tempted, oh so tempted to ask about Gibbs' night, but Tom just didn't have that sort of courage. It wasn't until Gibbs was safely on the elevator and headed up to his floor that Tom realized he hadn't asked him what time DiNozzo left.

He wondered if that meant anything before deciding probably not. The team had left together so Gibbs already knew when Tony had called it a night. And the man had obviously had himself a good time when they split up, so Tony was likely not a chief concern for him at the moment.

Everyone in the building seemed to know Tony had a new love interested even though he hadn't actually said anything. He wondered if anyone would believe him if he said it looked like Gibbs had one too. Tom grinned to himself. Nah, they'd never believe it. Besides, he might listen to gossip, but he didn't bother to repeat it. Wasn't much truth to most of it any way.

Chapter Text

Cynthia Sumner smiled up at the tall, lean man who was gracious enough to hold the door for her. "Thank you, Agent DiNozzo."

"It is always a pleasure, Ms. Sumner, to offer any assistance I can to a lady as lovely as yourself." Both his tone and smile were just a little flirtatious as he let her precede him into the building.

She knew it annoyed the Director that Tony flirted with her, but Cynthia always found it flattering. He made her feel attractive without being creepy about it like some guys could be. It wasn't like he undressed her with his eyes or anything sordid. It was just harmless fun.

"That fiancé of yours treating you the way he should?" Tony's smile warmed as he waggled his eyebrows a little. "I mean, it's not like you are fully committed to him yet, right?"

She laughed, low and throaty. "But I am."

He sighed, hand moving to cover his heart. "Pity."

She eyed him appraisingly. The light gray suit looked good on him. But then the man knew how to dress, no doubt about that. In his case, clothes didn't make the man---no, Cynthia had long since decided, he would look good in a gunny sack.

What she noticed more than his clothes and good looks this morning, was the fact that Tony was definitely in a good mood. Green eyes sparkled with life, his stride loose and easy as he walked next to her. He didn't bounce the way Abby Sciuto was prone to doing, but Tony was just as obvious about it when he was happy. It was nice to see him so openlyâ€"joyfulâ€"there was no other word for it.

She breathed in his unique fragrance, wondering again if she should risk asking him what cologne he wore. It was a tantalizing blend of musk, spice and something earthy that reminded her vaguely of sawdust.

Instead of asking, she gave him a little flutter of her eyelashes, lightly brushing his arm with her own. "Rumor has it you've got someone special of your own."

To her surprise, he ducked his head, a delicate blush adding color to his cheeks. "Shouldn't listen to gossip, Cynthia, they get most of it wrong." He nodded to the security guard. "Isn't that right, Tom?"

"Isn't what right, Tony?" Tom asked, waving Cynthia through the metal detectors with a polite smile. Unlike the field agents she didn't carrying a gun or badge that might set it off and routinely breezed through without a problem.

"Gossip." Tony unclipped his gun, laying in one of the small plastic boxes before adding his badge and watch to the pile. "It's rarely accurate and always a waste of time."

"Well, I don't know about that." Tom grinned, waving Tony through the metal detector eyeing the x-ray as the items passed through. "They got it right when they said you were a hero yesterday."

"Hero?" Tony rolled his eyes, chuckling dryly as he picked up his things. "A tale full of daring do no doubt." He pointed his finger at Tom, wagging it. "Shame on you for listening to all that crap, Tom."

Cynthia had heard the story as well. She knew about Tony saving Jimmy Palmer from a knife wielding maniac. She'd been in the break room when the call came in from Agent McGee. She'd seen Gibbs set a coffee mug down on the counter with so much force it shattered. The man's expression had been as hard as she could ever remember seeing it. It had made her more than a little uneasy to be in the same room with him. She had been relieved when he stormed out only seconds after taking the call.

"It was the truth, not gossip," Tom defended himself mildly. "I saw you when you came in with that whack job, remember?"

Tony grimaced. "Guy ruined a perfectly good jacket."

He smoothed out his tie with one hand, but Cynthia noticed it was more like he was checking for something underneath. Maybe he was just unconsciously making sure the man hadn't really hurt him. Cynthia knew she'd have been as shaken and twitchy as everyone claimed Jimmy Palmer had been yesterday. It made sense that Tony might still be a bit unnerved by the attack, just less obvious about it.

"Better he got the jacket than you," Tom retorted with an understanding look.

"Amen, brother." Tony high-fived Tom. "The paperwork when I had the plague was a nightmare."

Cynthia discretely rolled her eyes. Oh yes, like the paperwork would have been the biggest worry. She knew better than that. Tom probably did too.

Gibbs would have been the biggest worry; the man was just insane when it came to the welfare of his people. She'd been very grateful for that character trait when the Director was being held hostage by a drug dealer. Shepard wasn't his subordinate or even really a teammate any more, but she was NCIS, and that made her one of his by default.

Cynthia knew it was hard for a woman to take a job traditionally held by men, and that Jenny would probably make a few mistakes along the way, but she liked her. Gibbs bringing Jenny home safe and sound had justified the faith and loyalty Cynthia knew the former Marine commanded so easily. And it made his high handed approach to just strolling in unannounced a little easier to take.

Cynthia knew some sort of spark had existed at one time between Jenny and Gibbs. A blind man could see that, but she wondered if either of them really believed the other was still interested. Their interactions always seemed like a game of one-upmanship to Cynthia. They were as competitive as Tony and Officer David seemed to be.

Having used her own feminine wiles to level the playing field a time or two, Cynthia didn't fault Jenny for doing what likely had come naturally. Except that it wasn't exactly professional. She figured it was one first of the mistakes Jenny made when she took the job. She knew Jenny wasn't going to be able to play with the big boys if they thought of her as a woman first and director second. Correcting that one would take some time-- especially with a man like Gibbs who seemed to sniff out weakness without even trying.

"Would you like an escort to the lift, M'Lady?" Tony asked. His affected accent sounding more like something from a favorite film than anything she'd ever heard come from Dr. Mallard. It earned him a smile as he no doubt had intended.

She took his arm with a gracious nod of her head, willing to play along. "Thank you, Sir."

Cynthia decided whoever captured Tony's heart got themselves quite a prize. There weren't a lot of men who could balance being funny and charming with being strong and capable. No woman wanted a wuss, but she didn't want a caveman either. It wasn't an easy thing to get right.

Gibbs was clearly the strong, silent type; definitely leaning more toward the caveman in her mind. As reassuring in a crisis as he might be, Cynthia was fairly confident the man had no ability to really offer much in the way of emotional support on a daily basis. He'd been divorced three times. It was probably more him than them when it came right down to it. She had no trouble imaging him forgetting birthdays, anniversaries, and the like. Sentimental and supported he was not, at least not that she'd ever seen.

When the doors opened, Cynthia executed a neat courtesy. "Thank you, Mr. DiNozzo."

He smiled raising her hand to his lips to kiss the back of her knuckles. "Any time, Ms. Sumner."

"Be sure this new love of yours treats you right." She lightly patted his arm. "You are quite a catch."

She was rewarded with another glimpse of one of those delicate blushes before he gave her a coy look, eyes sparkling. "Not as committed to that fiancé as you claim then? Perhaps this is hope for me yet."

She laughed. As she strolled away, Cynthia made sure to give him a nice view of her swaying backside. He really was a lot of fun to play with.

She heard Gibbs bellow out 'DiNozzo, we got a case so get your ass moving and grab your gear' as she headed up the stairs. Cynthia shook her head, stopping to watch as Tony headed back to the elevator, following hard on Gibbs' heels. She was guessing the cell phone he had out was to call the rest of the team. At least she hoped so. Given what had happened yesterday, having the full team at the crime scene made a lot more sense to her now.

She didn't worry any less knowing Gibbs would be there. Oh the man certainly seemed indestructibleâ€"he'd survived being shot at and blown up--but that trait didn't carry over well to the people around him. She'd heard one team member had been killed while standing right next to him. And having read the files on his current team, prepping for her new assignment as personal assistant to the director of the agency, she knew Tony had been injured more on the job than any other agent they had.

Cynthia shook her head, as she unlocked her office door. The man didn't seem accident prone or like he had a death wish. Tony had to be tough to have made it this far. From what she'd read in Gibbs' file, no one else seemed to have the staying power Tony had when it came to working with the man. Very few made it a year, and even less made it more than two.

She'd noticed that Tony was the only one who seemed to make Gibbs smile with any frequency. She thought it a shame he didn't smile more often. The man really was easy on the eyes when he didn't look quite so stern and forbidding.

She wondered if Tony's ability to lighten Gibbs' mood was the reason he also seemed to take the brunt of abuse from the senior agent. The head smacks were definitely unorthodox. From any one else she'd label them abusive, but from Gibbs they were almost complimentary, like he wouldn't smack Tony if he didn't care.

She grimaced. Just how dysfunctional did that make NCIS' top team? But if Tony wanted to transfer any team in the agency would have taken him; she'd seen the commendations in his file and knew if he wanted he could ask for his own team and would probably get it. Or if Gibbs wanted someone else on his team, the list of eager candidates, in spite of his reputation of being a real bastard to work for, was huge. Their strange relationship clearly worked, so it wasn't really her place to judge.

They appeared to be well matched. Their styles of dealing with people were diametrically opposed---Gibbs harsh and unrelenting, Tony easy going and friendlyâ€"but it worked well. Tony made for a good second, filling in where Gibbs needed, making up for whatever the senior agent lacked.

She suspected they were a far better team than Jenny and Gibbs ever were as partners. But that could be the result of a gender bias. Gibbs was a chauvinist. Not nearly as much as his retired boss, Franks, but he still tended to think of women in terms of them needing protection or being better suited to jobs that didn't require them to get their hands dirty. He clearly thought men should lead and women follow. Cynthia snorted delicately as she sat down at her desk; one more reason the man was divorced three times.

For all his flirtation and reputation as a womanizer, Tony obviously regarded women as being more on equal terms than Gibbs saw them. Tony might want to sleep every pretty woman he met, but there was no mistaking his obvious respect for a woman's intelligence and ability. That he'd worked so well with Ziva David, Paula Cassidy and several others neatly showcased his opinion of their capabilities as fellow agents. If it wasn't for his obvious commitment issues, Tony would probably make someone a great husband.

She checked her watch. Jenny would be in soon. Shaking her head, Cynthia realized even with regards to the Director, Gibbs and Tony seemed to be at opposite ends. It wasn't as though Tony showed a lot of respect or deference, but Gibbs didn't seem inclined to give any at all.

Although, given the mixed signals Jenny had sent Gibbs, respect and deference weren't likely to be high on his list of priorities. She'd set the tone for a more familiar relationship, so it wasn't really fair to blame Gibbs for following it. It's a little too much to expect him to take the high road, she thought to herself with a small laugh. It wasn't exactly his forte.

Still--if she was ever in trouble, Gibbs was definitely the man she wanted to come to her rescue. Cynthia had no doubts on that score. He could be a pain in the ass, but he was damn good at what he did. He didn't get to be Agent of the Year more than any other agent in the history of the agency without good reason.

Deciding she'd wasted enough time thinking about the two men, Cynthia powered up her computer and checked her e-mail. A lot of the Director's e-mail from lead agents, other departments and government agencies funneled through her first. It made Cynthia's job as gate keeper so much easier to handle even if it meant her electronic inbox was almost always full.

Her eyebrows rose when she saw a leave request for Gibbs' team. Not one or two of them, but all of them---Gibbs, DiNozzo, McGee, and David. There was even a request for members not exclusively assigned to his team---Sciuto, Palmer and Mallard.

Ordinarily, Gibbs would approve leave for those in his chain without bothering to ask for the Director's signature. Her input wasn't typically required unless---she checked the forms again--the entire team was requesting time off. That would certainly need more than his stamp of approval.

She looked at the dates. The request covered the Friday after Thanksgiving and the following Monday. It would make for a nice long holiday weekend.

Cynthia knew last year Gibbs and Tony had both worked Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends. They were very nearly the only people in the building. The grapevine had it that Tony wasn't close to his family, and everyone knew Gibbs lived for the job, so it hadn't seemed all that odd for them to work the holidays.

It was probably just as well neither man had family to worry about since they were also working active cases at the time; Gibbs was famous for ignoring normal convention when it came to sticking with a case and seeing it through to completion. And for all Tony's goofing off and playing around, Cynthia knew he was every bit as dedicated as his boss. It was probably the only reason they could work together at all.

She wondered if maybe the team was doing something together to celebrate. Cynthia knew other teams did. Many of them did little stuff to bond overâ€"dinner, ball games, that kind of thing. She rather doubted Gibbs' team needed anything to bond them tighter. Life and death experiences cemented things pretty good, or so she'd been told.

She sighed, reminding herself it wasn't any of her business what they'd planned to do with their leave time. They'd all earned a little vacation. There were other teams, with less seniority who could and probably should work the holidays. Assuming there wasn't anything pressing, like an on going investigation, there was really no reason for Gibbs' request for time off in for approval.

Jenny wouldn't review the requests directly anyway. As long as each agent had time on the books to use and the building was staffed appropriately, she'd sign off on whatever Cynthia presented. This sort of mundane stuff was just part of a Personal Assistant's job, and freed the Director to focus on more important things like what was happening in MTAC.

Cynthia printed the forms and added them to the pile of paperwork that would need Jenny's signature. It was the least she could do for the team that brought home her friend in one piece.

Chapter Text

Gibbs closed the door with a tired sigh, securing the lock out of habit. He didn't always remember to lock his own door, but never failed to remember to secure Tony's. He smiled when he felt Tony's arms curl around him from behind, a soft kiss landing on the back of his neck.

"You okay?"

"Yeah." He entwined his fingers with Tony's, squeezing once. "Just been a real long day."

That really didn't need to be said. It wasn't like Tony hadn't been there with him for nearly every minute of it, but Gibbs felt better for just admitting to how tired the job made him. It was okay to be human with Tony. It was okay to let his guard down. It was okay to admit that the last hours without Tony around had been the worst.

Gibbs hated that they rarely left together on a Friday. They couldn't seem to work it out. There was always something--a last minute detail, a call from MTAC, the Director, the morgue, the labâ€"always something that sent them in opposite directions. It worked out well in the grand scheme of things since they'd never left together before becoming a couple and it was part of the 'normal routine', but Gibbs hated it just the same.

Tony' chin came to rest on Gibbs' shoulder as he hugged him a little tighter. "At least it's Friday."

That was enough to make Gibbs' grin. Friday. Assuming the phone didn't ring, he'd have three nights and two days with his lover. It was almost enough to make him turn off his cell phone and forget about the job. Almost. Only sixteen years of routine and dedication kept him from doing so.

Tony unwrapped himself from around Gibbs. He stifled the desire to protest, not ready to lose that close contact yet. He turned when Tony tugged at his hand.

"C'mon." Tony smiled invitingly. "I kept dinner warm for you."

Gibbs belatedly realized that Tony must have showered when he got home. His hair was damp, left in the natural messy state that came with toweling it mostly dry. Gibbs fingers itched to play with it. And Tony wasn't wearing his wrinkled suit any more but a faded green t-shirt and worn jeans that fit snuggly in all the right places. Gibbs couldn't resist running his free hand over the nicely shaped ass, enjoying the way it fit into his hand, the way muscles flexed as Tony moved.

Tony gave him an amused look over his shoulder, eyes dropping in an over done bit of playful flirting. The refined southern accent he affected when he spoke sounded astonishingly natural. "Why, Mr. Gibbs, it is highly improper for you to be so forward before dinner."

Gibbs grinned. "What about after dinner?"

"After dinner, all bets are off." Tony waggled his eyebrows. He pointed to Gibbs' usual chair. "Sit."

He wondered how sappy it made him to be pleased that he had a 'usual chair' at Tony's table. When he saw Tony had gotten steak for him, done just the way he liked it, and had a chilled beer to go with it, he couldn't help saying, "I love you."

"Yeah," Tony grinned, "I know."

Tony's pendant shifted slightly as he sat, the gold coin sliding easily against smooth cotton. Gibbs smiled, pleased to see his gift worn openly instead of hidden.

He'd protested when Tony had gotten a braided leather chord for it to hang from instead of letting Gibbs replace the broken necklace with another gold chain. His objections vanished when Tony told him the leather would be more durable when it came to every day wear, especially given the rough and tumble days they frequently had. Knowing Tony wanted to wear his gift all the time, even if most people never saw it, had kept him from arguing any more about it.

He clenched his jaw tightly against the thought of how so much more could have been lost than just a bit of gold. He let Jen know in no uncertain terms that from now on his team didn't go to the field unless he was there to go with them. This wasn't the first time they'd found out just how dangerous a crime scene could be. But it would damn sure be the last time any of his team would be in jeopardy without Gibbs even knowing about it until after the fact.

He forced himself to take a slow, deep breath and relax before Tony noticed he was upset. His lover had brushed off the incident as no harm done, and Gibbs promised himself he wasn't going to bring it up again. To harp on it would imply that he didn't trust Tony to handle himself in the field, and he knew better than to insult the younger man's ability that way.

Gibbs would, however, be doing his utmost to ensure Tony was never anywhere without adequate back upâ€"ever. Tony was very capable; one of the best field agents Gibbs had ever worked with, but everyone needed back up. No one on his team would ever be out of the office solo if Gibbs could help it.

Gibbs silently reminded himself Tony was okay. A bruise or two, nothing that even required seeing Ducky for. Gibbs promised to light a candle the next chance he got. He didn't know if God would appreciate the gesture or not, but he felt he owed the Almighty that much.

He might even light one for Palmer while he was at it. The Assistant ME was tougher than Gibbs had given him credit for. According to Tony, Palmer was shaken but had handled himself rather well. He might not have done much to help capture the knife wielding lunatic but he hadn't completely caved and ran either. That was something to be proud of given how little training Palmer had gotten when it came to dealing being physically threatened.

Palmer had been able to help Tony find the coin when it had gotten lost in a scuffle with their suspect. Knowing how important the gift was to Tony, Gibbs was pleased Palmer had been able to help insure it hadn't been lost forever. He considered thanking the man for his help but knew Palmer was too afraid of him to really accept any gratitude. And he'd be certain to wonder why Gibbs would bother to offer it. That would require an explanation Gibbs had no intention of giving.

The former Marine wasn't overly worried if Palmer did manage to add up the numbers at some point. For one thing, Palmer wasn't the sort to kiss and tellâ€"not if his relationship with Probationary Agent Lee was anything to go by. They kept it very quiet and he respected the level of effort they'd but into being undiscovered. It was only dumb luck that Gibbs had found out about their relationship at all. Being light on his feet and having good ears had never failed to payoff.

And secondly--a blind man could see Palmer had a little case of hero worship going on when it came to Tony. Palmer wouldn't do anything that would jeopardize Tony's career as long as he respected the senior field agent.

Gibbs suspected Palmer's feelings were the product of more than Tony having saved his life, although he wasn't sure how much more. As long as the younger man kept his attention safely in the worship from afar arena Gibbs was fine with it. He got too close and all bets were off.

He wished he could make some sort of public declaration, but it was still too early for that. Gibbs rubbed self-consciously at the small mark on his neck. It was so faint now as to be almost nonexistent. Tony was usually so careful not to leave any marks. Gibbs couldn't really bring himself to feel sorry that he'd made Tony so crazy he'd completely forgotten to be careful.

"It's a good thing I like it when you're smug."

Gibbs chuckled, not surprised Tony knew what he was thinking. He wasn't going to mention that Tom might have seen the hickey. Tony was still far too gun-shy about people finding out about them---and with good reason--for him to even consider teasing his lover about it. Besides, he liked wearing Tony's mark; any hint that someone might have seen it would likely keep Tony from ever letting go so completely again. There was no way Gibbs would miss out on that. Not if he could help it.

Tom hadn't asked about Gibbs' deviation from the normal routine. Maybe Tom hadn't even noticed his failing to ask what time Tony left the building the other day. The whole team had left together after all, a rarity in itself, so his failing to ask about Tony probably hadn't been worth remarking on. Still, Gibbs made a note not to slip up again. Security was supposed to be observant; it wouldn't do to give them something to see.

"Got notice on approval for my leave request," Tony offered quietly. He raised an eyebrow. "Heard the whole team was getting time off."

The statement was more of a question. Gibbs nodded, taking a sip from his beer. He hadn't had time to tell Tony about the others asking for the same few days he and Tony had put in for. "McGee is going with Abby down to New Orleans ."

"He's meeting her parents?" Tony blinked, mouth open slightly in surprise. "Didn't think they were that serious."

"He's not." Gibbs shook his head. "And they're not." At least Gibbs didn't think so. He wasn't sure he wanted to understand exactly what sort of relationship Abby and McGee had. "This trip is part of some Habitat for Humanity project they are working on."

"Ah." Tony nodded.

Everyone knew Abby did electrical work for the charity. Gibbs was proud of her being very capable in that area. She was a fairly good plumber too. Gibbs had helped out once or twice over the years, doing a little rough carpentry, and he might have gone this time too if he didn't already have plans to spend the holiday with Tony and Mike's family.

"They doing clean up from Katrina?"

Gibbs grimaced thinking about how devastated the area still was over a year after the hurricane hit. "She wanted to help out before now, but her group was going in shifts. Clean up crew went first. Had a guy with a couple of dozers who took down a few buildings they couldn't repair. Next phase is to rebuild."

"Makes sense." Tony nodded, cutting his steak into small, neat pieces.

Gibbs watched those long fingered, graceful hands deftly wield the blade. He had yet to stop being fascinated by his lover's manual dexterity. He might not type worth a damn but Tony was definitely good with his hands in other areas. It made Gibbs' mouth water just thinking about the things Tony could do with those very talented digits.

Tony popped a piece of meat into his mouth. "Heard Ducky say something about taking his mother on a trip back to England ."

Gibbs cleared his throat as he refocused his attention. "Still has some family there that she'd like to see."

Given her age, any year could be her last, and god only knew if she'd even still recognize the people they were going to see. So this trip was as much for Ducky as it was for his mother. The ME had a lot of friends and family on the other side of the pond he liked to stay in touch with. Going back would be good for him.

"Not as expensive to fly over there during the off season," Gibbs noted as he cut into his own steak. He made an appreciative noise as he ate. Definitely done to his taste.

"Yeah, Ducky said he got a good deal." Tony made a face as he nibbled on a green bean. He gave Gibbs a rueful look. "Promised Ducky I try to eat more green things. He was pretty clear that it had to be vegetables and green M & M's didn't count."

Gibbs got the same lecture, but he hadn't promised anything. He wasn't going to either. Although, he was glad Ducky could get Tony to make such a promise. His lover had a tendency to shed weight with alarming ease and not even Gibbs thought candy from the vending machine was part of a balanced diet.

"Where's Palmer going?" Gibbs asked. He only knew the younger man had asked for time off.

"He's meeting the parents." Tony grinned. "Guess he and Lee are that serious."

"You knew?" Gibbs was genuinely surprised. He'd have beet good money no one else but Ducky even suspected.

Tony shrugged one shoulder. "He wanted some advice."

Gibbs was sorely tempted to ask advice about what but was leery of the answer. If Palmer was going to meet Lee's parents, the kid probably was nervous as hell. The need for advice could cover a huge area. Better not to ask.

"Ziva mumbled something about going home too. She didn't sound all that happy about it though." Tony's brow furrowed. "Didn't think the Israelis celebrated Thanksgiving."

"Don't know if they do or not." Gibbs shrugged. It wasn't something he'd ever saw the need to know. "Thinks she said a cousin is getting married."

Tony snickered. "Should ask her if she needs a date or if there will be some nice yenta there looking to arrange a match for her."

Gibbs bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. It wasn't funny but Tony's comment would definitely explain the scowl on Ziva's face when she found out her request for leave had been approved. She'd likely been hoping it would be refused.

He probably could have. But it worked out for them to have the entire team off. It would raise fewer eyebrows if they were all gone than if just he and Tony took a few days. And honestly, her father could override any refusal Gibbs might have made. All he had to do was push it with the Director. It might not seem like it to most people, but Gibbs knew how to pick his battles.

Gibbs sipped his beer. "How is it that you heard the whole team got leave?" Gibbs had submitted the requests first thing in the morning, but hadn't gotten confirmation until nearly quitting time. Even the rumor mill had some lag time.

"Cynthia."

Gibbs tried to stifle the instinctive urge to snarl. He didn't like the way she looked at his lover. Hell, she all but undressed him at times. The look Tony gave him made it plain he hadn't quite succeeded in stifling his reaction. He pursed his lips in annoyance.

"Do you really have to flirt with her?"

"Do I have to? No, I don't have to." Tony cocked his head to one side, giving the question serious consideration, green eyes measuring Gibbs. "But I like flirting with her."

Gibbs' looked way, trying hard not to snap at Tony for being honest. He knew Tony liked to play with people, that he enjoyed interacting with them, and it was an essential part of his nature. Telling him to stop doing it because it made Gibbs jealous seemed unnecessarily harsh and petty. It would be like Tony telling him he had to be nice to Fornell or stop working on his boat.

Gibbs felt a foot lightly stroke side of his calf, drawing his eyes back to Tony. "It is harmless, Jethro." Tony's smile was warm, reassuring. "I'm not interested in her. She knows it. And you definitely know that."

Tony reached across the table to cover one of Gibbs' hands with his own. "She's not interested in me either. It's what makes our flirting safe and harmless. It doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of going anywhere."

Tony sighed softly, _expression apologetic. "She'd think there was something wrong if I didn't flirt. So would everyone else."

When Tony moved to withdraw his hand, Gibbs caught it, holding it gently. Tony shouldn't have to apologize for being himself. Or for trying to live up to what other people expected. And it wasn't like Tony hadn't toned down the flirting considerably, even before they'd gotten together. His flirting with Cynthia didn't really bother Gibbsâ€"much.

"I didn't meanâ€""

"I know." Tony smiled, stopping him before he could even come close to apologizing. "If it's any consolation I think I'll be able to cut out more of that sort of thing soon."

"Oh?" Gibbs raised both eyebrows, yielding to Tony's mute request to release his hand. Tony had a tendency to punctuate his speech with hand gestures. Gibbs knew freeing his hands made it easier for him to talk.

"I get asked indirectly at least once a day about the special someone in my life." Tony laughed ruefully, eyes alit with wry amusement. "Even the mail boy thinks I'm seeing someone." He shook his head. "I really have got to work on my undercover skills."

"What do you tell them when they ask?"

Gibbs was honestly curious. The only people he'd heard asking Tony if he was seeing someone were McGee and Ziva. But those were the people Tony was around most at the office and their conversations were the ones he was most likely to over hear. And they didn't really ask outright. It was more like comments made in passing to goad Tony into talking. Things like how Tony must have spent the night alone since he hadn't mentioned a hot date or how his new romance must be very boring since he had nothing to say.

"If they ever asked me directly who I was seeing, I don't know what I'd tell them." Tony shrugged one shoulder, holding his hands palm up in a classing gesture of confusion. Tony was good at undercover work, at becoming someone else, but he was a lousy liar. He could dissemble and equivocate with the best of them, could get away with half truths and omissions, but he rarely outright lied.

"Fortunately, everyone has danced around the issue." He grinned brightly. "For all their interest, I think most people are afraid I might actually tell them." He chuckled. "Might just ruin the image they have built up in their heads about my mystery love."

"You don't think I'd measure up?" Gibbs wasn't exactly sure how he felt about that.

Tony rolled his eyes. "First of all, they're probably expecting you to be female."

"Point."

"Thank you." Tony dipped his head, accepting Gibbs acknowledgement of his logic before he continued. "McGee and Ziva are no doubt expecting her", Tony made quotation marks in the air around the gender specific pronoun, "to be like every other woman I've mentioned dating: large chest, in her early twenties, who would have trouble mastering basic math."

Gibbs smirked. "I'm good at math."

"Yes, yes you are." Tony grinned. "Since my mystery lover has lasted a bit longer than anyone else and the lack of detail I've provided, you'd think they'd be smart enough to catch on this one has to be different from the others."

"Most people only see what they want to."

"Makes working undercover a lot easier, that's for sure." Tony cocked his head to one side. "Kind of funny now that I think about it."

"What is?"

"Neither McGee nor Ziva have ever actually met anyone I've dated." He laughed softly. "They only think they know my type. And that's based on the stories I've told and who I flirt with."

Tony's eyes glowed with amusement. "I flirt with damn near everyone so it's funny they would assume only a certain type of woman would appeal. And the stories are meant to entertain or just bragging. Not likely to discuss anyone meaningful for that any more than they would."

McGee tended to be closed mouth about his girlfriends which implied all were serious. Gibbs knew that wasn't true since the younger man had started to follow the example Tony had set and 'play the field'. Or try to at any rate. At his age, it was only natural...according to Abby.

And Ziva had never mentioned anyone that Gibbs could remember. She'd made remarks that were clearly intended to titillate but weren't overly specific. While Gibbs didn't doubt she was sexually active, he could see her being more inclined to engage in one night stands rather than form any sort of lingering attachments. Working as spy and an assassin had no doubt made her feel she couldn't afford those until recently.

"So to answer your question--Do I think you'd measure up..." Tony hesitated for a moment, green eyes holding blue easily. "All I can really tell you is that you exceed my expectations. And that's all that really matters."

Gibbs could feel his face warm. Some day he was going to figure out just how Tony could say such stereotypical mushy stuff and not have it sound like a cliché.

"Now finish your dinner. You'll need to keep your strength up."

"Oh?" Gibbs arched an eyebrow, hearing the playful tone in Tony's voice.

Tony smiled, eyes giving Gibbs a slow once over. He slipped into that refined southern drawl once more, voice dropping an octave as he did so. "If I remember correctly, we have something highly improper planned for after we've eaten."

Gibbs shivered in anticipation. "Oh yeah, that we do."

Chapter Text

Agatha Kjeelgaard, Aggie to her friends, took a walk every morning and again in the early evening. It didn't matter what the weather was doing; nothing kept her from getting outside to breathe in some fresh air and force her arthritic joints to loosen up. She had firmly believed in the benefits of exercise long before that young whelp of a doctor her granddaughter insisted she see had thought to give her advice on the subject.

Aggie snorted derisively. That little doughboy of a doctor was so damn patronizing. Being eighty-six didn't make her an idiot. She knew how to take care of herself. And she had done a damn find job of it so far, thank you very much. His having spent eight years in college didn't mean he knew everything. Aggie was sure she could work the little know it all under the table.

She leaned a little more into her cane, wincing as her left knee protested having to support her weight. Her orthopedist wanted her to consider a joint replacement. But she'd put him off for now. Joint replacements were for old people.

Aggie eased herself down on a bench, both hands resting on the silver head of her cane. It was a lovely spot to watch people coming and going from her apartment building. She knew all her neighbors on sight and most of them by name.

Now that nice young Italian boy who moved in 3B a few years ago knew the benefits of exercise. He kept himself lean and fit. Definitely a good looking boy, no doubt about that.

Her granddaughters would be so shocked if they knew Aggie still liked to look. Aggie chuckled. She was not dead yet for crying out loud. She could look all she wanted. And that young man was certainly worth a second look. Such lovely eyes he had and when he smiled---Aggie grinned to herself. Oh yes, he was very easy on the eyes.

He was a nice, polite boy too. Anthony DiNozzo, Tony to his friends, had helped her with her groceries, held the door for her, made sure the sidewalk was shoveled in the winter time, he would even run errands for her is she needed anything. But what she liked best was that he flirted gently with her. Aggie knew he was just playing, flattering without intent to do more. But it made her feel a good thirty years younger to have such a handsome man treat her like a lady, to offer his arm and escort her to her door, maybe give her a wink and a kiss her cheek.

That busybody, Mrs. Evans---Aggie rolled her eyes. She'd never been one to insist on formality. Marrying a Norwegian pretty much guaranteed the majority of people would slaughter her surname. Better to just be 'Aggie' than waste her time correcting people.

Mrs. Evans had the apartment next door to Tony. She was always talking about how loud he could be. Aggie rolled her eyes. He wouldn't be so loud to if she didn't have a glass pressed against the wall. Noisy Nora that one. No doubt about it.

Aggie would admit, to herself, to being just a wee bit envious. Not that she'd ever pry into someone else's private lifeâ€"she didn't peek in keyholes or eavesdrop, but she'd love to be a fly on the wall whenever that silver haired fox spent the night. Lord, but he was a handsome man.

She didn't need Mrs. Evans to tell her the older man was former military. Anyone could see that just looking at him. Her own Erik had the same no-nonsense hair cut and solid, good posture. Twenty years in the Navy made sure her husband didn't slouch. Carried himself with pride and purpose. Same way Tony's fox did.

And the fox definitely belonged to Tony no matter what Mrs. Evans said. Aggie rolled her eyes. Mrs. Evans might have called it right when she said he was Tony's boss, but that wasn't all he was. Aggie was sure of that. Oh they weren't obvious. Not like some of the young men she'd seen in the gay pride march her great nephew had insisted on taking her to see. No they weren'tâ€"what was the term Dale used....Ah yes, 'flamers'. Tony and his fox weren't flamers, but they were most definitely a couple.

She'd seen some of the heated looks that passed between them. Lord but the blue eyes on the older man could spark hot flashes like she hadn't had in years. And there was no way all those touches between them could be accidental, no matter how it might look. She could tell Tony's smile always held a promise of making good on his flirting when he gave it to his fox, something it lacked whenever he flirted with anyone else. They made an attractive couple.

Aggie assumed they'd learned to be discreet because they worked in law enforcement. She wasn't entirely clear on what government agency they worked for, but she'd seen Tony's badge and gun. And he had that look about him from time to time. Erik had it too. Aggie figured it was the result of seeing ugly things. Things she never wanted to see. Things she only ever wanted to better understand so she could banish the shadows the created in her husband's eyes.

It didn't have to be because of their job, she mused to herself. It could just be they were not inclined to do a lot of public displays. She wished more of the younger generation were that way. Aggie didn't mind a little hand holding, a kiss or two, a hug---those weren't anything to really object to. But so many young people these days were all but having sex in public. It was disgraceful.

And she couldn't really understand this new trend in teenagers to show off their underwear every chance they got. Her youngest granddaughter had shown up just the other day wearing 'hip huggers' and a thong. Aggie snorted. Sexy wasn't about what you wore; it was about how you wore it. Tony and his fox were enough to set a house a fire just in jeans and t-shirts. Didn't need to show off a lot of skin for them to look good enough to eat. No sir.

She waved politely to Mrs. Evans when she saw her making her way out of the building. Aggie breathed a sigh of relief when Mrs. Evans headed for her car rather than coming over to talk to her. The old battleaxe usually just wanted to gossip about her neighbors, Tony in particular.

Mrs. Evans wasn't shy about expressing her opinion, blabbering to anyone would listen about what a gigolo Tony was with all his women in and out. Aggie gave an unlady like snort. She knew nothing was going on with most of those women. Oh probably a few to be sure. Tony was a healthy young man after all. But she knew a lot of them were just friends. One he jogged with, another was paramedic he met on the job, and another was on the same softball team Tony played with in the summer.

If Mrs. Evens bothered to actually pay attention, she'd have noticed the same thing Aggie had. The parade of women tended to be the same ones over and over and it had essentially stopped months ago. About the same time the silver haired fox started showing up regularly. That was no coincidence.

The only reason Mrs. Evans thought he was some sort of gigolo was because she was a narrow-minded old fuddy-duddy who was to vain to wear her glasses. Aggie had made sure Tony knew about his nosy neighbor who was always pressing an ear against walls looking for dirt to spread around. That had gotten her one of those bright smiles and a wink. She'd laughed when he told her his surround sound system was good for more than just movies. Bless that boy.

Aggie sighed, closing her eyes and leaning back a bit to stretch out her leg a bit. Damn thing. It always bothered her more when it started getting colder. She didn't need the weatherman to tell her it was going to snow soon. Her children had suggested she move further south to escape the bad weather, but Aggie liked being close to her family. She wasn't interested in becoming a cliché, chasing the sun like some sort of migratory bird. And she wasn't moving into some old folks home where people were forgotten like dusty relics in a museum.

"You okay, Aggie?"

She jumped, startled by the question coming from so close. She glared up at Tony. "Honestly, young man, it isn't nice to sneak up on people."

"Sorry, Aggie." He gave her a contrite look. "Didn't think I was being all that quiet."

Judging by his attire, sneakers, shorts and a sweat shirt, he had likely left the building before her this morning to go jogging. No, she corrected herself, seeing the basketball he had resting on hip, it was a game. The court was only a few blocks away.

"Playing with the local gangsters again?" She arched an eyebrow.

He grinned. "They aren't gangsters, Aggie. And you know it."

Oh she knew they were nice children for the most part. A little loud and rambunctious from time to time, but otherwise harmless. They all dressed like they wanted to be considered armed and dangerous though; part of the foolish bravado of youth. Except in this area, if the local cops and drug dealers ever took them seriously, they'd find themselves wishing they'd been mistaken for choirboys instead.

"Did you have fun?" She patted the bench next to her in a clear invitation for him to join her.

"Always have fun, Aggie. Only reason to play." Tony sat down next to her. Concern was obvious in his clear green eyes as he assessed her. "You didn't answer me."

"I'm fine." She waved a hand in dismissal. "Just giving my knee a rest."

His brow furrowed. "The doctor said you should have it replaced."

She rolled her eyes. Like he had the right to lecture her about following a doctor's orders. "And the doctor told you to take several weeks off when you nearly died from the plague."

He gave her a cheeky grin and wagged his finger at her. "A real friend wouldn't point that out."

Fool boy. He'd nearly died. She'd seen how awful he looked when he'd come home from the hospital. He needed a keeper. "A better friend would have tied you to the bed."

He fluttered his eyelashes at her. "Was that an offer?"

She laughed, lightly smacking his arm. "I was never into that sort of thing."

He leered at her playfully. "What were you into then?"

She snickered, struggling to arrange her face into something prim and severe. "A lady doesn't talk about such things."

"Mrs. Evans doesn't seem to have that problem."

Aggie rolled her eyes. "Which only proves my point, Tony."

"True." He chuckled, passing the basketball back and forth between his hands. "You need anything from the store today?"

He always asked if she needed anything when he saw her. But she didn't like to abuse his good nature. It felt like she was taking advantage of him if she accepted too often. It had been a few weeks since he'd been good enough to pick up a quart of milk and a bag of cat food for her.

She pursed her lips. "The refill on my blood pressure medicine is ready for pick up." Aggie was proud of not needing to take more than one pill. A lot of people her age popped a dozen pills a day. "Bob left a message yesterday but he wouldn't give it to my daughter, Missy."

Missy's job required a lot of travel so she only came into visit every few months; Bob had never met her. The local pharmacist took his job too seriously to just hand out pills to anyone. He'd give them to Tony because he knew him and Tony had been in for Aggie before. It didn't hurt that Tony had a badge too. If you couldn't trust a cop, who could you trust?

"I can pick it up for you. No problem." Tony nodded. "Gotta stop in there anyway."

She eyed him critically. "You're not sick, are you?"

"No, Aggie." A bit of color rose in his cheeks. "Need to get something else."

It wasn't hard to guess what he might be in need of. The silver fox had spent the night. His car had been in the spot right next to Tony's racy little mustang when Aggie got up. It was gone now, but she was pretty sure he'd be back.

Aggie wasn't one to embarrass a friend by mentioning things better left unsaid. So she just patted his arm, opting to ignore the endearing blush. "As long as it's no trouble. I don't want you to have to out of your way--"

"It is never out of my way for a lovely lady." Tony captured her hand, bowing enough to put a light kiss on her knuckles.

"Would you like me to escort you home?" Tony rose still holding her hand. "The neighborhood is rife with gangsters you know."

She laughed lightly, brandishing her cane. "I think I can handle them."

She tipped her head graciously, letting him help her to her feet when he mutely offered. "I will accept your offer of an escort. Not for my safety, mind you, but having such a handsome young man walk me home will give Mrs. Evans something more to talk about."

Tony chuckled. "She left earlier. We'll have to do this again later if you want her to see it."

Aggie had no idea how he knew Mrs. Evans had left. Maybe he noticed her car was gone or had seen her driving past the park. No matter.

She smiled up at him. "I'd love to have you accompany me when I take my walk again later."

He gave her a wink and a smile before placing a quick kiss on her cheek. "It's a date."

She was tempted to ask if his fox might not object. If Tony forgot, Aggie decided she wouldn't hold it against him. If she had someone at home waiting for her, she wouldn't be eager to leave either. Certainly not just to give that old busy body Mrs. Evans something to talk about. Lord knows that woman could make up enough gossip for ten people. She didn't need any help finding things to say.

They were nearly to the front door of the building when a car pulled into the parking lot with a screech of tires. She looked to see who would be so stupid as to enter the lot at such a breakneck speed, but Tony just sighed and hung his head.

"It's no wonder his insurance premium is so high," she heard Tony mutter. It was only then that she realized the car belonged to Tony's fox.

"Does he always drive like that?"

"No." Tony grimaced. "Sometimes he's worse."

Aggie clucked her tongue. "I should give him a piece of my mind."

Tony looked amused by the prospect. "I think I'd pay good money to see that."

She huffed out a breath. She'd taken on teamsters and coal miners in her youth. "You don't think I'd win?"

His expression turned thoughtful. "Frankly, Aggie, it could go either way."

She nodded approvingly. This fox might be reckless when he drove but Tony needed someone tough to stand by him. Tony needed looking after, and that wasn't a job for some shrinking violet.

She watched as Tony's fox got out of the car, moving easily. He was definitely in good shape. He'd have to be to keep up with Tony. Aggie guessed there was ten or fifteen years difference between them. Nothing wrong with that. She and Erik had been twelve years apart and their marriage lasted thirty years.

Tony's fox smiled as he approached, blue eyes focused exclusively Tony. Aggie's lips curled up wryly wondering if he even noticed her standing there.

"Good game, Tony?" he asked, his smile warming as he got closer. He was balancing what looked like some sort of bakery box in one hand.

He'd probably gone out for breakfast or something. God only knew what sort of food Tony actually kept in his apartment. Aggie had lost track of the number of delivery places she'd seen stopping by.

"Very good game." Tony smiled back, green eyes nearly glowing.

Aggie would bet good money they'd have kissed if they weren't outside where anyone could see. Shame they couldn't just greet each other like a regular couple might, but she silently approved of their restraint. It should good judgment. Not everyone was as opened minded as she was.

She cleared her throat, reminding them she was there. Just in case.

"Gibbs, I'd like you to meet one of my neighbors and a friend, Aggie Kjeelgaard." Tony wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "Aggie, this is my very good friend, and boss, Leroy Jethro Gibbs."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Aggie held out her hand. She hadn't missed the way he seemed to puff up a little at being labeled 'a very good friend'. It wasn't the same as calling him 'lover' or 'life partner', but it was certainly more acceptable in polite company. And it clearly mattered more to him than being Tony's boss. As well it should, Aggie thought.

He took her hand gently, obviously knowing better than to squeeze too hard. "Nice to meet you too, Ma'am."

"Ma'am?" Aggie shook her head. Lord didn't that make a body sound ancient. "Please, call me Aggie, Mr. Gibbs."

"Call me Jethro then, Aggie."

He wasn't the first person she'd encountered who preferred their middle name to their first. She nodded, accepting his preference. "Jethro." It was a good, solid, old-fashioned name. It suited him, she decided.

"I just need to see Aggie home and get cleaned up, and I'll be ready to go." Tony told Jethro.

They likely had errands and whatnot to do today. No reason they should have to wait on her.

"I can see myself home." She rolled her eyes before giving Jethro a smile and stepping away from Tony. "He makes it sound like I live in the boonies instead of just down the hall." Living on the first floor had been a requirement when she started looking for an apartment after Erik died. Navigating stairs as she got older was just too difficult and she hated elevators.

"I'll drop off your prescription when we get back," Tony promised.

"I'll be waiting."

She chuckled. "See if you can time it for when Mrs. Evans is around."

He laughed, a full rich sound of amusement that Aggie loved to hear. "I'll do my best."

She couldn't resist giving him a little pat on the butt. She didn't miss the way Jethro's eyes narrowed a fraction. Aggie was amused that he would even consider her a threat. Definitely a jealous type.

She wondered if Tony had noticed. The look he gave Jethro made it clear he'd seen that minute warning display and was telling his lover to tread lightly. Silly boys both of them. She already knew they were a couple, so nothing was being given away---not that they knew that. And it she hardly needed to be warned to keep her hands to herself. But it was fun to play with them.

"I'll see you later, Aggie." Tony gave her another quick kiss on the cheek.

Such a nice, polite boy. She smiled. "It was nice meeting you, Jethro."

"You too, Aggie."

Aggie watched Tony and Jethro jog upstairs together. She didn't miss the supportive, almost possessive way Jethro put his hand on the small of Tony's back. She remembered Erik doing the same thing to her. She shook head slightly, somewhat bemused that she still missed him even after so many years.

Aggie sighed. Enough moping around. She needed to make some cookies for her grandchildren. Maybe she'd make an extra batch for Tony. It would be a nice way to thank him for picking up her medication. And he could do with a little more meat on his bones. Not like that fat fart of a doctor who had the audacity to suggest she consider losing a few pounds. The little hypocrite should follow his own advice.

She grinned thinking she could tell Mrs. Evans she'd exchanged the cookies for a favor. It made her laugh out loud just to imagine the old woman's face. It was hardly her fault if Mrs. Evans jumped to the wrong conclusion.

How any one could miss the fact Tony and Jethro were a couple was beyond her. They were clearly committed to one another. But so many people were blind to the obvious. They couldn't see the forest for the trees.

Aggie shook her head as she entered her apartment. The world was full of near-sighted people who saw only what they expected to see. It was probably a good thing. The Mrs. Evans of the world didn't need to know any more about their neighbors and coworkers than they already did.

She was sure Jethro and Tony would share their relationship with people they trusted when they were ready---if they hadn't already done so. Either way, it should be their choice. Anyone not smart enough to figure it out on their own, clearly didn't need to know.