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The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them…Thomas Merton  

 

Gibbs sighed softly, stretching the kinks out of his back.  He’d been working on the boat for the past few hours, determined to have it seaworthy in time to set sail by the end of June.  Gibbs eyed the completed framework and half finished hull; there was still a lot to be done before he could seriously consider putting her in the water.  But it would get done, and on time. He’d made a promise; he’d never broken one and he didn’t plan to start now.

 

Gibbs smiled, shaking his head.  Tony had tried to play it cool, but there was no denying the excitement in his voice when Gibbs told him two months ago of his plan to take the boat on her maiden voyage in the Gulf of Mexico.  Tony had suggested he do so before leaving DC for Houston the second and final time, making it an open invitation to visit, and Gibbs was determined to take him up on it.  The former Marine could admit to himself, if no one else, he was just excited by the prospect of seeing Tony.  He’d missed the younger man.

 

Although nothing had felt quite right with Tony gone, it had still taken Gibbs almost three weeks to call him after he’d left.  He’d stubbornly wanted Tony to make the first overture, unwilling to risk rejection and unsure of what to say if he were the one to call first.  It wasn’t until Ducky pointed out that Tony had already executed the opening gambit by inviting Gibbs to come to Houston that the former Marine relented and called.  That initial phone call had gone far better than Gibbs expected and they now made a regular habit of talking once a week.

 

Those conversations, as regular and as good as they’d become, were no substitute for actually being face to face.  That point had become even more painfully obvious when Abby had set up a video conference a month ago.  She’d been so delighted with having her ‘whole family in one room’ since Tony had return to Houston.  The rest of the team had been equally delighted. Gibbs patted the boat fondly before heading up stairs, still smiling as he thought about how happy everyone was during that too brief meeting.

 

Although, Gibbs mused as he grabbed a mug to pour his favorite beverage into, it wasn’t as if they hadn’t stayed in touch.  He knew Tony did something with Abby nearly every day now that she’d called IM’ing.  Gibbs wasn’t entirely sure what that entailed, initially thinking it sounded vaguely kinky before understanding it involved some form of communication via the computer. 

 

He’d overheard McGee telling Ziva he and Tony played some online game together a few times a month. They’d evidently started doing shortly before the video conference Abby set up.  From the sound of it, Tony had managed to impress McGee with his prowess.  Gibbs had been sorely tempted to tease Tony about it, wondering if he was also some sort of ‘elf lord’ as well, but he’d refrained.  If he embarrassed Tony, he might stop playing, and it didn’t seem right to deny McGee his connection to Tony no matter how silly it seemed to Gibbs.

 

Roughly twice a month, Tony actually wrote genuine letters to Ziva…or more accurately he sent her cards with brief notes inside.  The cards were often stunning pictures of famous vistas of national parks.  Until then, Gibbs had never realized Ziva had any interest in such things.  Clearly, Tony knew and Ziva obviously appreciated the gesture, displaying each one on her desk until the next would arrive.  Gibbs knew she wrote to Tony as well, having seen her drop envelopes in the outgoing office mail with his name and address.  He bit his tongue to keep from asking what she wrote to him about.  It wasn’t any of his business, any more than it was his business to know what Tony would write to her that would make her smile and sometimes even laugh outright.  He stifled his curiosity, refusing to ask, although he kept hoping to overhear McGee be brave enough or foolish enough to ask her.  So far he hadn’t had any luck.

 

Ducky, like Gibbs, got regular phone calls.  Gibbs hadn’t asked, but he assumed they’d arranged a time to talk because Tony typically called the office fifteen minutes before the start of Ducky’s normal work day.  Ordinarily, Gibbs would have frowned on a personal call at the office, but he knew calling Ducky at home likely wasn’t an option given his mother’s mental and physical health.  And he wasn’t so much of a bastard as to deny them a chance to talk if it wasn’t truly interrupting the job.  The calls were usually brief, no more than a few minutes, but they were long enough for the ME to stay abreast of what was going on in Tony’s life.  Gibbs felt a certain amount of almost juvenile satisfaction and pride over the fact that Tony’s calls to him sometimes lasted more than an hour. 

 

Tony called Gibbs on Saturday, usually late in the evening, or early Sunday morning.  Both times were when he was most likely to be home.  The conversations weren’t one-sided the way they’d so often been when Tony was on Gibbs’ team.  His desire to ensure that first phone call wasn’t the only one he’d have pushed Gibbs to actually do more than listen.  He strove to hold up his end, determined to make it worth Tony’s while to call as regularly as he did.  They talked about movies Tony suggested Gibbs watch, books Gibbs recommended Tony read, Tony’s ongoing quest for a decent place of his own to live, Gibbs progress with the boat, they even discussed open cases and how to deal with the lingering issue of Shepard and her culpability in the death of Rene Benoit.

 

Gibbs sipped his coffee, unconsciously tilting his head, listening for the trill of his cell phone.  He didn’t really expect Tony to call tonight.  Friday wasn’t when he normally did, but Gibbs was hoping for it just the same.  Last Saturday, Tony had mentioned his team would be working with vice on a drug case and that he’d be out of touch for awhile.  It wasn’t the first time Tony had talked about an ongoing case…but it was the first time he said he would be too busy to call.  It had made Gibbs uneasy.

 

It didn’t help when Tony mentioned there was federal involvement in the case.  Gibbs hadn’t worked much with agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, so he had no idea how competent they were.  That just added to his general feeling of unease.

 

Gibbs had cautioned Tony to be careful, knowing he sounded like an over anxious father but unable to stop himself.  Tony hadn’t exactly brushed off Gibbs concern, but he had told him his role would be mostly that of additional eyes and ears as they staked out several warehouses for possible shipments.  Tony didn’t think the assignment would be terribly dangerous or exciting, but it needed to be done, and his team had agreed to act as back up. 

 

“It’ll be mostly boredom and bad coffee,” Tony had assured Gibbs.  “The Feds are taking the lead. We’re just support, Gibbs.”

 

“All the more reason to stay sharp.”

 

“I’ll be careful, Gibbs.”

 

There was a weight of promise in Tony’s statement.  Gibbs had nodded in approval even though he knew Tony couldn’t see him do it.  “Good.”

 

“I’ll call as soon as I’m free.”

 

“See that you do,” Gibbs had ordered gruffly.

 

Gibbs shook his head, trying to dispel his restless feelings.  He went back downstairs, taking his mug with him.  He picked up his cell phone, checking for a missed call…just in case.  He sighed when the display remained blank.  A week wasn’t that long to work a case like Tony had described, especially not one with another agency involved.  It was unrealistic to expect a resolution so soon. 

 

Gibbs clipped the phone to his belt and moved to study the boat again.  He lightly rubbed the wood, enjoying the smooth feel of it beneath his fingers.  He sighed heavily, turning to rest his back against the boat, unable to concentrate on it any longer.  

 

Ducky hadn’t gotten his usual call, but hadn’t seemed worried.  Gibbs figured Tony had also told him about the case.  From Abby’s demeanor all week, it was obvious she hadn’t gotten any messages from Tony either.  She was disappointed, clearly missing their usual interaction, but she wasn’t overly upset.  Gibbs knew she understood the demands of the job as well as anyone.  McGee had mumbled something to Ziva about not gaming until Tony was free to play with him.  Evidently there was a score of some kind to be settled and the rematch had been postponed.  The only one of them to hear from Tony all week was Ziva.  She’d gotten a card, but the time lag that occurred with mail made it likely Tony had sent it not long after telling Gibbs he’d be out of touch for awhile.

 

This was the longest the team had gone without some sort of communication with Tony since he’d first left NCIS for Houston.  And Gibbs hated it.  He couldn’t shake the apprehensive feeling the lack of contact engendered.

 

He knew it was irrational.  Hell, Tony had been in Houston for nearly four months with none of them even knowing where he was or what he was doing, and he hadn’t gotten so much as a hangnail.  Gibbs kept reminding himself that Tony was an adult, experienced in law enforcement and capable of looking out for himself.  He had a team to watch his back---a team Gibbs had to admit he considered capable, competent and trustworthy.

 

Of course, that was all true when he was at NCIS too.  That hadn’t prevented Tony from getting several concussions, shot at, stabbed, drugged, kidnapped, and the damn plague for god’s sake.  The man could find trouble anywhere.  

 

Gibbs ran a weary hand through his short hair.  He should go to bed.  Working on the boat had left him physically tired, as it had every night of the week, but he hadn’t been able to sleep well. 

 

Gibbs’ gaze came to rest on the bottle of bourbon that sat on his work bench.  It was still full, unopened, a belated Christmas gift from Tony.  He was sorely tempted to open it and down enough to put him out for hours.  Gibbs grimaced, and looked away. 

 

He was not going to get drunk.  He wasn’t that far gone.  He was just tired.  He’d been tired before.

 

Gibbs finished his coffee.  He really hoped the low grade worry, unnecessary anxiety and restlessness were all the byproduct of an over active imagination.  Not that anyone had ever accused him of having one before---there was a first time for everything though so maybe his gut was off.

 

Gibbs set his mug down on the workbench and headed back up the stairs.  If he lay down now, he might get a few hours of sleep in before having to start the day.  Not that he had to be to work in the morning.  It was Saturday.  And they didn’t have any leads on the cold case they’d been working.  As much as it bothered him to not be making any progress, it wasn’t pressing enough to call his team into the office on a weekend to work harder on cracking it.

 

Gibbs had just finished his nightly routine in the bathroom when his cell rang.  He checked the display before answering, smiling when he saw Tony’s name and number pop up.  Given that it was nearly midnight, Gibbs thought he should give his former senior agent at least a little bit of shit over the time.  It was expected.  Then he could ask about how the case went.

 

“DiNozzo, do you have any idea—“

 

“It’s not Tony, Gibbs.  It’s Joe LaFiamma.”

 

Gibbs frowned, his gut tightening.  “Why are you calling from Tony’s phone?”

 

“Because I didn’t know the number and it’s programmed into his phone.”

 

“Damn it, LaFiamma, you know that isn’t what I’m asking.”  Gibbs snarled.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“The bust went bad.”  There was too much emotion in that one sentence for Gibbs to catch it all.  

 

“What do you mean it went bad?”  Gibbs asked quietly.  How the hell could a simple operation go bad, he wanted to scream.  It was just supposed to be boredom and bad coffee.  Tony had told him it wouldn’t be anything to worry about. 

 

“That doesn’t matter right now.”  The hoarse, sandpaper raspy quality of LaFiamma’s normally smooth baritone added to the tension in Gibbs’ gut.  What happened to make him sound like that?  If he hadn’t identified himself earlier, Gibbs wouldn’t have even recognized him.

 

“What the hell happ—“

 

“I called to tell you Tony’s been hurt.”

 

Gibbs’ grip on his phone tightened, plastic groaned in protest but didn’t give.  “How bad?”

 

LaFiamma sighed, sounding incredibly weary, shaken and unsure.  For the first time since he’d met the man, Gibbs was reminded that LaFiamma was younger than Tony.

 

“He’s in surgery right now.”

 

“Tell me how bad.”  Gibbs ordered as he fought to keep his tone level.  Surgery could mean anything he reminded himself.  It didn’t have to be life threatening.

 

“They think he’ll be okay…but they haven’t…they will know more when…shit.”  There was a pause and Gibbs could hear LaFiamma coughing harshly and then take a slow, deep breath.  When he spoke again his voice was steady, controlled. 

 

“He’s got several broken ribs.  One lacerated his liver.  They don’t think fixing that will be a problem, but they won’t know for sure until after they open him up.  What worries them the most right now is the one that punctured his right lung and the smoke he inhaled.  With his medical history, they are worried about complications.”

 

Gibbs swallowed hard, closing his eyes, appreciating the almost clinical detachment LaFiamma used to fill him in and hating it at the same time.  In his head he could hear Ducky talking about reduced lung capacity, scar tissue and susceptibility to respiratory aliments like bronchitis and pneumonia.  After Levon Lundy had mentioned Tony’s need to be more careful and not push himself too hard when he jogged, Gibbs had gone Ducky and asked for a full run down of the risks.  He almost wished he hadn’t.   Lundy had been right to be pissed at him for being so clueless about Tony’s health.

 

Thinking about LaFiamma’s partner made Gibbs open his eyes.  Lundy might be a pain in the ass at times, but he been for more accepting of Gibbs being involved in Tony’s life and Tony staying in touch with his old team than LaFiamma.  If anyone would have thought to call him to let him know what was going on, it would have been Lundy.  Lundy wouldn’t give him shit about wanting to be on the next flight to Houston either.  Hell, he might even help him get there. 

 

“Let me talk Lundy.”

 

“You can’t talk to him.”

 

Gibbs had a sinking feeling.  “What do you mean I can’t?”

 

“He’s in surgery too.”

 

“Shit.”  No wonder LaFiamma sounded so lost, almost broken.  Tony was the closest thing he had to a brother, and Lundy was not only his partner and best friend, he was also his lover.

 

“How bad is it, Joe?”

 

“He was shot in the leg.” 

 

There was a pause.   Gibbs waited, knowing LaFiamma had more to say he just needed a moment to get it out.

 

“There was so much blood…I think the bullet must have hit an artery.  I got a tourniquet on but it took me awhile to get there.  Levon…he…flatlined as the bus brought him in.  They were able to get him back, but…it was…”

 

LaFiamma’s breathing became ragged, he coughed several times, and then cleared his throat.  “I know it’s late.  And I probably should have waited to call.”

 

Gibbs rolled his eyes.  Like he cared about the time.   This was not the sort of news got any better regardless of when it was delivered. 

 

“I just wanted to let you know about Tony.  He’d want me to keep you informed.”

 

“I’m glad you did.”

 

Gibbs could hear LaFiamma wheezing.  He’d said they were worried about the smoke Tony had inhaled…Gibbs was fairly confident from the way LaFiamma sounded, Tony wasn’t the only one who had.  He wanted to know what the hell happened and was going to demand answers when he heard a voice in the background.  Whoever it was, was insisting LaFiamma should be resting and use of cell phones was not permitted in the hospital. 

 

“Are you okay, LaFiamma?” Gibbs asked instead.

 

“I’m fine.”

 

Gibbs rolled his eyes.  Like he was going to believe that. 

 

“I’ll be on the next flight to Houston.”

 

He half expected LaFiamma to protest but all the younger man said was, “Let me know the flight information, I’ll make sure someone is there to meet you.”

 

“I can rent a car.”

 

“It’ll be faster to just have someone met you.  Handling traffic in Houston and finding your way to St. Joseph’s isn’t something you should attempt without a good night’s sleep.”

 

“Not the first time I’ve gone without sleep.”  He’d handled worse things than Houston traffic.  

 

“You won’t do Tony any good if you don’t get here in one piece, Gibbs.  Just shut up and accept the offer will you?  I don’t want to fight with you.  Not tonight.”

 

Gibbs took a breath and let it out slowly.  Fighting with LaFiamma seemed like an unnecessary pissing contest.  It was petty in light of everything that happened.  He could always get a car later if need be.  And he didn’t want to waste time trying to navigate his way through Houston while he could be making sure Tony and those he cared about were going to be okay. 

 

“I’ll call.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“When I get there, I want to know—“

 

“I’ll tell you everything when you get here.”  LaFiamma coughed again.  There were more background noises. Gibbs couldn’t make out what was being said but he could guess based on what he’d heard earlier.

 

“I have to go, Gibbs.” 

 

Gibbs glared at his phone as the connection when dead.  He shook off his annoyance, focusing on what he had to do. He needed to be there yesterday. 

    

Chapter Text

Gibbs scanned the baggage claim area looking for anyone he might recognize.  Joe hadn’t said who would be picking him up; he’d only said someone would be there.  Gibbs expected it to be someone from Tony’s team, and he’d met all of them the last time he was in Houston.

 

Gibbs grimaced thinking about that last trip.  Tony’s team hadn’t exactly welcomed him with open arms.  Not that they had any real reason to—Gibbs had come bearing news the FBI thought Tony was a viable suspect in Rene Benoit’s murder.  That was hardly the sort of thing to warrant a warm and fuzzy greeting from any one, much less a bunch of cops.

 

Even if Gibbs had only been stopping by to visit, they wouldn’t have been happy to see him that first time.  The stories Tony had told LaFiamma and Lundy about his experiences with NCIS hadn’t exactly painted Gibbs, his team, or the agency as a whole, in a positive light. It still bothered Gibbs that the initial hostility he had encountered wasn’t without merit.

 

He sighed.  It was best not to dwell on that.  Nothing could be done to change the past; he and the team had made amends, and Tony had forgiven them.  They were still making amends, working toward a better future and that was what mattered.  It was a future that might not be cut short if Tony didn’t---Gibbs forcefully shut down that line of thought.  Tony would be fine.  Any other alternative was unacceptable.

 

Gibbs scanned the area again.  He hoped it wouldn’t be Tony’s partner, Roberto Mendez, who was picking him up.  Other than LaFiamma, the Hispanic cop had been the most openly hostile toward him.  Gibbs didn’t really want to deal with him.

 

All he wanted was to get to the hospital and make sure Tony was okay.  He wanted to make sure Lundy was all right too.  He was too important to Tony for Gibbs to simply ignore that he had been injured as well.  Someone had better be prepared to fill him in on what the hell happened.

 

All LaFiamma had told him was the bust went bad.  Gibbs snorted.  That was one hell of an understatement.  Bad didn’t even begin to cover it in Gibbs’ opinion.   What he wanted was details.  He wanted to know just whose ass needed kicked for Tony getting hurt.

 

A break in the mass of moving bodies revealed Carol Dewing to Gibbs’ line of sight.  The tall female detective was leaning casually against the wall.  She was watching people milling about as they gathered their luggage, scanning them the same way Gibbs had been.

 

As Gibbs approached her he couldn’t help noticing a large bruise on her cheekbone that stretched up toward her temple.  She had a butterfly bandage suturing a cut on her forehead as well.  Most women would have tried to hide such injuries, disguising them with make up or wearing their hair to hide as much as possible.  Dewing had done neither.  Her face was free of make up and her long blonde hair was swept back from her face, held securely in a single large silver barrette.

 

She gave him a polite, distant smile when she spotted him approaching.  Her blue eyes were blood shot and there were faint lines around her eyes and mouth that hadn’t been present the last time they’d met.  The button down shirt she wore was clean and tucked neatly into her jeans, but from the wrinkles in it and the small tear at the knee in her jeans it was clear she’d simply grabbed whatever happened to be handy with little thought to her appearance.  She looked, Gibbs decided, as haggard and worn as a beautiful woman could look and still look beautiful.  Gibbs knew she had gotten even less sleep than he had.

 

She held out her hand.  “Hello, Gibbs.”

 

Gibbs shook it.  “Dewing.”  He gestured to her cheek.  “You okay?”

 

“I’ve had worse.” She nodded to his carry on bag. “That all you brought?”

 

“Yes.”   It wouldn’t have mattered if he planned on staying for two days or two months, Gibbs never packed more than what would fit in a carry on.

 

Dewing nodded, accepting his answer and started walking toward the exit, silently gesturing for Gibbs to follow.  Gibbs noticed she limped slightly, but chose not to comment on it.  He had a feeling she’d just brush it off as unimportant anyway.

 

“Do you have an update on Tony and Lundy?”  Gibbs asked, striving not to sound as anxious as he felt.  He’d called the hospital several times but since he wasn’t family, and there was an ongoing investigation, no one would tell him anything.  He tried playing on his status as a federal agent, but that had only gotten him passed off to an agent with DEA.  Gibbs had hung up rather than talk to someone he was sure would just give him the run around. 

 

LaFiamma’s cell phone had been going to voice mail since three AM so calling him hadn’t been any more helpful. Gibbs suspected someone had taken it away from him based on what was being said in the background when he’d called to give LaFiamma his flight information at one that morning.   He still wasn’t clear on whether or not LaFiamma had been injured as well.  If he had been, it didn’t seem to be as serious as those injuries sustained by Tony and Lundy.

 

“They both made it through surgery.”

 

Gibbs breathed easier hearing that. It didn’t mean they were completely out of the woods; he knew better than to assume surviving surgery meant everything was just fine, but it was certainly a good sign.

 

Dewing smiled.  “Levon’s tough…like old boots.  Most of the office is already taking bets on how long it will take for him to be trying to get back on his feet.  Long shot is two weeks.  I went with three days.  I’d have gone for one day if the nurses had let Joe give Levon blood like he wanted to.  God knows that man has enough energy and determination to spare.  Pint of his blood would get anyone up and moving faster.”

 

She shook her head ruefully.  “I don’t know how they managed to get him to take no for an answer.  Pretty sure someone somewhere got an earful over that.”  She shook her head again, muttering quietly, “better them than me.  I’d have just taken a pint from the stubborn son of a bitch and shut up about it.”

 

It was on the tip of Gibbs’ tongue to ask why the nurses didn’t think LaFiamma should donate blood, but he remained silent.  He wanted to hear about Tony first.  Dewing bit her lower lip, frowning as she eyed Gibbs.  It was clear she was hesitant to talk about Tony—and that could mean only one thing, bad news.  But Gibbs needed to know. He had to hear it…no matter how bad, he had to know.

 

“And Tony?” Gibbs asked, his tone leading.

 

“He’s not quite as tough as Levon.”  She sighed softly.  “He broke half a dozen ribs.  Breaks would have been bad enough on their own but the bones cut things inside.  They didn’t know how much or how bad until they operated.”

 

She swallowed hard.  “They had to take a piece of his liver.  As long as the organ stays healthy, doctors say it will grow back in time.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  He didn’t know that was even possible.  He’d have to ask Ducky about it.

 

“They took out part of his spleen as well, but from what they said that doesn’t grow back.  He’ll have to be more careful around infections and the like since what he’s got left won’t work as well as it used to.  Not that he didn’t need to be a little more careful than most of us anyway.  You already know that, I’m sure.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He knew that.  Hadn’t fully appreciated what it meant, but he knew it.

 

“Worst of his injuries was the puncture to his lung.  They got it repaired, but they…ah …they put Tony in a coma.”

 

Gibbs nodded again, keeping his expression neutral.  He’d talked to Ducky before leaving, describing as best he could the younger man’s injuries.  Ducky had mentioned Tony the doctors might put him in a drug induced coma.  A respirator would take some of the pressure of his damaged lung, breathing for Tony, and allowing him to heal.  Ducky has also mentioned a chest tube would be left in place for a day or two to make sure the lung would stay inflated on its own.

 

“Being unconscious for that is likely a blessing, Jethro,” Ducky had said.  “A chest tube is far from a pleasant experience.”

 

In his mind, Gibbs could readily picture Tony hooked up to all sorts of machines, and he tried hard not to think about it.  He wished Ducky had been able to get on the same flight.  Not only did he know a lot about Tony’s medical history, he knew how to cut through any medical jargon and boil it down to plain English.  He wouldn’t be intimidated by all the machinery keeping Tony alive, and Ducky could confidently assure Gibbs they were necessary and nothing to worry about.

 

Unfortunately, there weren’t enough seats or time for anyone but Gibbs to make the five AM flight.  Ducky would be arriving until early evening.  By then Gibbs would have seen Tony for himself and he hoped to have good news for him. Gibbs had ordered Abby, Ziva and McGee to stay behind.  They weren’t happy about it, but someone had to take care of business.  Ducky at least had Palmer to do whatever needed done in the morgue, the others didn’t have back up to handle their cases. And Gibbs couldn’t see Shepard approving leave for his entire team to just pick up and leave…not for Tony.

 

Shepard had never said so directly but Gibbs’ gut told him there was still some animosity toward Tony on her part.  Whether it was over his quitting or something else, Gibbs didn’t know.  Regardless of why she was pissed, Gibbs had no doubt she’d use the fact that Tony wasn’t an NCIS employee or blood relative to deny a request for leave.  It was one of the reasons Gibbs hadn’t actually asked for leave.  Forgiveness would be easier to get than permission.  He wasn’t going to let her deny him the chance to be there for the one of the few people he thought of as family since Shannon and Kelly were killed. 

 

“Is there anything else about Tony’s condition I should know?” Gibbs asked, hoping the answer was no.

 

“That’s all of it,” she said softly.  “Think that’s more than enough, don’t you?”

 

“Yeah.”  It was more than enough.  Gibbs swallowed hard and reminded himself Tony was young and healthy.  He’d survived surgery.  He would be okay, eventually.  Gibbs would see to it.  He wasn’t sure how exactly but that was simply a detail yet to be worked out, not a real obstacle. 

 

Stepping out of the airport into the heat and humidity of Houston was almost a physical blow.  Gibbs winced, squinting in the glare of the bright morning sunshine.  Dewing pulled a pair of sunglasses from her shirt pocket slipping them on with the practiced ease of a long ingrained habit.  Gibbs noticed her sunglasses were the same expensive designer brand Tony favored, Ray Bans.

 

Gibbs suddenly regretted giving away Tony’s to that brat of a boy years ago.  It didn’t matter that Tony replaced them in less than a day.  He shouldn’t have had to.  And that kid hadn’t deserved them.

 

Dewing led him through the parking deck to an extended cab truck similar to the one Lundy drove.  Gibbs tossed his bag in the back seat before sliding into the passenger seat.  He was silently impressed with how easily she handled the large vehicle, navigating her way through the parking deck and merging smoothly with traffic out of the airport.  She neatly forced a smaller sedan to give way, taking ownership of the lane she wanted with little fuss or fanfare.  Ziva couldn’t have done that without swapping paint, Gibbs thought with an internal smile.  Maybe he should see if Dewing would give Ziva driving lessons.

 

Gibbs waited until traffic opened up a bit before asking, “Can you tell me what happened at the bust?”

 

He wanted to demand answers, but knew better than to push too hard.  He was still an outsider here.  He had no real authority, particularly with regards to an ongoing Houston PD case.  And he wasn’t sure if she still regarded him more as an enemy than an ally.  She’d been polite so far, helpful even, but he knew that was likely more for Tony’s sake and that of her teammates than out of any real sense of obligation to Gibbs.

 

Ducky was fond of telling him he’d get a better response from people if he were less abrasive.  “More flies with honey, Jethro,” Ducky said to him even as he was leaving for Houston.  Gibbs thought now might be good time to try it.

 

“What did Tony tell you last week?”  Dewing asked.

 

Gibbs blinked, surprised by the question.  “You knew he called me?”

 

She turned her head to give him a look.  Even with her sunglasses on, Gibbs had no trouble identifying the expression being leveled at him.  He’d gotten it enough from his three ex-wives.  It could be translated several ways.  ‘You’re an idiot’ was the most popular, followed closely by ‘Don’t be stupid’ and “Did I not just say that”. 

 

Of course, Tony mentioned talking to his old teammates.  There was no reason he wouldn’t.  Gibbs found the thought Tony wasn’t hiding his staying in touch comforting.  It wasn’t something to be ashamed of, or a secret that had to be hidden. 

 

“He said your team was supposed to be extra eyes and ears on a joint operation.  He said he’d be out of touch until it was finished, but Tony didn’t give me anything specific on what you were doing.”

 

She nodded. “About six weeks ago, a lot of better than average quality cocaine started showing up on the streets.  Word was a new dealer was making a play to take over established territory and he was going to do it by selling better smack at lower prices.”

 

Dewing checked the rear view and the passenger side mirrors, changing lanes and accelerating as she continued to fill Gibbs in.  “Vice was working with DEA to pin down who it was and where the drugs were coming in from.  They’d narrowed down the location and the players, but couldn’t pinpoint things. They asked for our help because even with things narrowed down the area was just too large to cover on their own.  They needed help to cover all the bases.”

 

She shook her head, scowling.  “Levon said the whole thing reminded him of shooting prairie dogs.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  “That some kind of good old boy term for a snipe hunt?”

 

“No.”  She chuckled.  She changed lanes again, missing a Volkswagen Beatle by a few inches.  The Beatle’s driver laid on the horn and she flipped him off without even really looking at him.

 

“Prairie dogs are rodents that live in colonies.  Mostly, you know where they are because they trim the vegetation short and have holes all over the place.  But you can’t tell which holes are active, or which one they’ll come out of.  So you just have to be patient and wait for them to pop up.” She shrugged one shoulder.  “That’s what DEA wanted us to do.  Watch and wait for the newly arrived varmints to come out of their holes.”

 

“Were you supposed to engage?”

 

She nodded. “That was the plan.”  A muscle in her jaw flexed.  “But the varmints we were expecting weren’t the ones who showed up.  We didn’t get a drug deal we were there for.”

 

Gibbs took a breath, eyes narrowing.  “What did you get?”

 

“We got guys selling military hardware.”

 

Gibbs’ jaw dropped.  “What?”

 

“Deal started going down about the way you’d expect.  Some gangbangers in the area keeping watch.  A few more that were probably runners, ready to disperse the goods as soon as they changed hands.  Had a few guys in suits, the obvious money and power players.”

 

Her fingers flexed around the steering wheel.  “We didn’t realize the deal we were watching go down wasn’t what we thought we were going to see until a cargo truck pulls into the warehouse. No one needs anything that big to move drugs unless they are moving a hell of a lot of them.  Nothing in the intell we had led us to believe they’d be getting that much stuff in.  It should have been a briefcase, a shopping bag, something small.”

 

She shook her head.  “Then Levon and Joe recognized one of the players.”  She pulled her sunglasses off to look directly at Gibbs, tired blue eyes holding his with ease.  “Someone you’d know too.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Man by the name of Trent Kort.”

 

Gibbs stared at her.  Kort?  What the hell was Kort doing in Texas?   

 

Dewing put her glasses back on and turned her attention back to the road.  “The DEA wanted us to go in anyway, take them down and sort it out later.”  Her voice had taken on a hard, flat edge.  “Levon was ramrod for our group.  He was in charge.  He said to stand fast so we did.”

 

Dewing shifted in her seat, pressing harder on the accelerator.  “We weren’t going to interfere.  This wasn’t what we were there for.  And the shit in the crates they unloaded was just more incentive to hold our positions.”

 

“What was in them?” She’d said military hardware earlier, but that covered a lot.  He wanted to know exactly what.

 

“Explosives.”  She bit her lower lip.  “I couldn’t tell you exactly what, but Tony recognized the labels on the crates and warned us.  That kind of firepower tipped the scales.  Even Joe was outgunned by that crap.”

 

“If you didn’t go in—“

 

“We weren’t going to…and then something soured the deal.  I wasn’t close enough to see and hear it all, but near as I can tell, someone there knew Kort wasn’t who or what he claimed to be.  I’m thinking he got his cover blown and they knew he wasn’t just some dirt bag death merchant in a high dollar suit.  It sounded like someone had tipped them off that he was CIA.  There was a lot of yelling, gun waving and people getting twitchy.  When they threatened Kort directly, Levon ordered us in.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  Why would Lundy care if Kort got killed?  It wasn’t like they were friends.  The man had blown up Tony’s car and ruined his chances with Jeanne Benoit by forcing him to reveal his true identity. But then Kort had also stepped up to the plate and taken responsibility for a murder he hadn’t committed, freeing Tony from any suspicion of wrong doing and making it possible for him to go back to Houston.  It was possible Lundy thought he owed Kort.   

 

All of that not withstanding, Gibbs figured Lundy wouldn’t let an undercover agent die if he could do something about it. He might not be sure about Kort’s loyalties, God only knew whose side the man was really on, but he was still a federal agent…and that would be enough for Lundy’s sense of duty to try and save him.

 

“They didn’t react well to our intrusion.”  Dewing sighed softly. 

 

Gibbs arched an eyebrow.  He forced himself not to respond sarcastically to her statement.

 

“We were holding our own, initially. Might have been okay…if that kid hadn’t panicked and broken cover.”

 

Gibbs’ eyebrows pulled together.  Was there a rookie cop involved?  He nearly growled in frustration.  “Kid?”

 

“Always got a few squatters in those warehouses.   Runaways, junkies, homeless…They are just looking for a place to hide, somewhere dry to hold up for a time.  We thought all of them had been cleared out, but we must have missed one.”  She rubbed a hand over her face. “Levon went after him.  He was trying get him back under cover when he got shot.”

 

“His leg?”

 

“Yeah.”  She nodded.  “He took one to the chest too, but his vest caught that.  Thank God.  The kid…he wasn’t so lucky.  We didn’t know that until later though.  At the time, we were just trying to get Levon and the kid out of there.”

 

Gibbs silently cursed.

 

“They had us pinned down at that point.”  She swallowed hard.  “Some of the gangbangers had assault rifles or something like them.  I don’t know anything else that could put out a steady barrage like that.  Couldn’t risk going into the open without getting killed.  It was like something out of one of Tony’s stupid action movies.” 

 

Joe had said something about not being able to get to Levon right away.  Now Gibbs knew why.

 

“With so much lead flying it was inevitable that those crates they’d unloaded to show off the goods would get peppered.”

 

Gibbs winced.  “They blew up?”

 

“Like the fourth of July.”  She grimaced.  “Knocked me on my ass.”

 

That explained the bruise, cut to her forehead and her limp.

 

“Some of the flying debris nailed Roberto.  It hit Tony too.”

 

“Is that when he broke his ribs?”

 

“Was either then or when the whole place started burning down around us and the catwalk collapsed.  Fucking thing broke Roberto’s arm and pinned Tony.” 

 

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “I couldn’t lift the damn thing.  Joe could though.  Always knew he was strong, but never would have guessed he could lift that damn girder and throw it like it weighed nothing.  Burned his hand and arm but that didn’t slow him down much.”

 

She cleared her throat.  “Good thing about how fast the fire was spreading…everyone was eager to get the hell out and stopped shooting at us.  Roberto and I got Tony out while Joe went after Levon.”

 

Gibbs cocked his head to one side.  Someone in her recitation was missing.  “What about your partner, Chavez?  He okay?” 

 

“He better be.” She smiled tightly.  “He’s on vacation, visiting family in Mexico.  I find out he got hurt down there, I’ll kick his ass.”

 

At least one of them was unscathed.  That in itself seemed like a minor miracle. 

 

Gibbs sat back, closing his eyes.  Why would Kort be selling explosives in Texas?  It had never been one of La Grenouille’s haunts.  Maybe Kort was expanding the business, sowing seeds of his own since taking over.  It would make sense.  It was the sort of thing the new top dog normally did…throw his weight around and prove he was better than his boss.

 

Where did the merchandise come from?  There hadn’t been any reports of lost or stolen hardware.  It could have been Army and not something from the Marines or Navy, but there would still have been information circulated.

 

“Has anyone questioned Kort?”  Gibbs asked, opening his eyes.

 

“Can’t get answers out of a dead man.”

 

“He’s dead?”

 

“I don’t know anyone who’s lived through a forty-five in the forehead.  Especially not when it’s fired from point blank range.”

 

“Damn.”

 

“We do have his blonde girlfriend though.”  Dewing gave him a wolfish smile.

 

Gibbs found himself smiling back. He remembered her.  He wasn’t sure what her role was in La Grenouille’s organization had been.  She could have been his lover, his girl Friday, or even another CIA agent.  Whatever she was, she’d have some answers.

 

“You question her?”  Gibbs asked impatiently. “She has to know something. Talking to her should have been--”

 

“We had other priorities.”  Her tone was dry, not nearly as biting as Gibbs’ might have been in the same place.  Taking care of the wounded was always a priority.  And given how nearly every member of their team had been injured, two of them critically, it made sense the case got put on hold.

 

Realizing he was in the wrong for implying they might not have been doing their jobs, Gibbs uncharacteristically offered an apology.  “Sorry.”

 

She snorted.  “Say something that stupid around Joe or Roberto and you will be.”

 

Gibbs had no doubt about that.  Neither man liked him overly much. In less than top form they might elect to simply shoot him rather than try and belt him one.

 

“I’ll try to remember that.”

 

“See that you do.  I’ve cleaned up enough blood to last me a lifetime.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  Even on his best behavior he was bound to piss someone off, but at least this time he wasn’t doing it deliberately.  He wasn’t in the habit of playing nice and he seemed to always be wrong footed with these people.  Ordinarily he wouldn’t give a damn, but this was far from an ordinary situation.

 

He sighed silently, and closed his eyes again.  Gibbs decided not to worry about it right now.  First order of business was to get to Tony.  He had to see him, touch him, make sure he was still alive even if he needed machinery to keep him that way.  He needed to tell Tony he was going to live, order him to do so if need be. 

 

After that, he’d check on Lundy.  The Houston cop could be a real pain in his ass, but Gibbs liked him and respected him.  And damn it, he owed the man for making it possible for him to have any sort of contact with Tony at all.  If Lundy hadn’t stepped in that first time, Gibbs would probably never have gotten a chance to even see Tony much less speak to him.

 

Then he’d talk to LaFiamma.  Knowing more about the case---Kort, the military hardware---it might be possible to bring his team into it to help out.  There was a connection there he could use to justify getting involved, but he wouldn’t do that without asking permission first.  LaFiamma and the Houston PD could effectively shut Gibbs out if they wanted to.  It wouldn’t keep him out completely, no he wouldn’t tolerate that, but it could make getting to bottom of things far more difficult than they needed to be.

 

Gibbs could hear Ducky saying again, “more flies with honey, Jethro”, and nodded to himself.  Making nice might not be his strong suit, but he could do it when he had to…and he was smart enough to realize this time it was in everyone’s best interest if he did.   

 

“How long until we get to the hospital?”

 

“Half an hour.”

 

Gibbs nodded, and tried to relax a bit more in his seat.  He’d never quite mastered ‘meditation’ the way Tony had, but it wouldn’t hurt to try and get a little rest. He knew he was going to need it.   

Chapter Text

Gibbs silently followed Dewing down the corridor, still somewhat dazed by the brief stop at the nurses’ station where she had him officially listed as ‘family’ for Tony.  The nurse didn’t ask for any sort of ID or clarification as to how he was related, she simply took Dewing at her word.

 

Gibbs shook his head, bemused.  He hadn’t expected Dewing to do more than simply escort him to Tony’s room.  He found himself wondering if she actually thought of him as part of Tony’s family, or if it was just a convenient way to add him to the list of approved visitors. Shrugging his shoulders, Gibbs decided it didn’t matter.  Being on the list meant he was clear to see Tony any time he wanted.  And he was grateful to be given ready access.

 

Walking past small waiting room alcove, Gibbs’ eyed it warily.  He unconsciously braced himself for whomever and whatever he might find there.  He breathed easier when he saw it was empty.  Waiting rooms tended to harbor frightened, forlorn people. And in Gibbs’ case they might also harbor some of Tony’s coworkers.  Gibbs wasn’t sure if they were still hostile towards him, but the hospital wasn’t the place he wanted to find out.

 

Gibbs eyed the short hallway uneasily.  The bland gray walls and shiny floor were similar to every other hospital he’d ever been in.  The smell of disinfectant and sound of humming florescent lights that were never turned off was the same too.

 

Gibbs shrugged his shoulders trying to dispel the uneasy.  He never felt comfortable in hospitals.  There was nothing he could do here to make things better, to put things right…for himself or anyone else.  He was also at the mercy of the doctors, nurses and fate.  And he hated it.

 

He hated everything about them.  Hospitals were always seemed to rife with pain, fear and desperation.  Maybe that was just ER’s and ICU’s.  Gibbs didn’t know if other areas of the hospital had better atmosphere, he’d never spent much time in other departments to find out.

 

Gibbs made note of the room numbers, looking for the room Dewing said Tony was in.  His jaw clenched when he realized he could pick Tony’s room out even without the numbers.  The uniformed officer guarding the door was a dead give away.

 

“Is he still in danger?” Gibbs asked Dewing quietly before flushing as he realized how stupid that question was.  There wouldn’t be a guard at the door for no reason.  “Did some of the arms dealers or gang members get a good look at him?”  He wanted to know what to expect, how to assess the possible threat.

 

“We don’t know.” Dewing shrugged one shoulder.  “It was too chaotic for most of us to know anything for sure about who saw what or where they went when the shit hit the fan.  We haven’t identified all the players, Gibbs, but given how things went down---”

 

She shook her head, sighing heavily.  “If most of the team weren’t walking wounded, we could take care of our own.  But as it is… Beaumont thought it was better to have a little added manpower when it came to looking out for those of us who weren’t mobile.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  “Lundy has one too then?”

 

“Yep.”

 

Dewing nodded to the uniformed officer.  She pointed to Gibbs with her thumb over her shoulder.  “Ellis, this is Gibbs.  He’s on the list.”

 

Ellis didn’t question her assertion.  He simply stared at Gibbs, dark eyes scanning his face no doubt committing it to memory.  Ellis nodded once, and stepped away from the door giving them access.

 

Gibbs was surprised when Dewing rapped lightly on the door before opening it.  With Tony in a coma that courtesy was hardly necessary. Stepping into the room behind her, Gibbs realized immediately why she’d knocked---Roberto Mendez was sitting in the chair by Tony’s bed.

 

Like Dewing, Mendez sported a few bruises on his face, but what Gibbs noticed immediately was the cast he had on his left arm. It encased his arm all the way from his hand up past his elbow.  The bright neon green color nearly made Gibbs wince.  He hadn’t known casts came in more choices than white.

 

Dewing cocked her head, eyeing his cast.  “You let LaFiamma pick the color?”

 

“Lost a bet.”  Mendez shrugged.  “Could have been worse.”

 

She raised both eyebrows.  “How?”

 

“They have hot pink too.”

 

“Yeah, that would be worse.”

 

Gibbs tuned out whatever else they were saying, his focus on the man lying so still in the narrow bed. The former Marine tried not to let the stillness worry him.  It wasn’t like Tony to be motionless.  It wasn’t like him to be so pale either.  His skin was nearly waxy in appearance reminding Gibbs of the bodies he saw on Ducky’s autopsy tables.  Tony wasn’t dead, he reminded himself.  He was in a bed, getting treatment, he wasn’t dead.

 

Gibbs hesitantly approached the bed.  The heart monitor beeped with a reassuringly consistent frequency. The respirator’s presence was less reassuring. Gibbs flinched at the sound of it breathing for Tony. The soft mechanical whoosh was unnatural as hell.  It was foreign and Gibbs hated even looking at the tube in Tony’s mouth.

 

Gibbs grimaced as he noticed it wasn’t the only tube attached to the younger man.  Ducky had explained what the chest tube was and what it was intended to do, but Gibbs hadn’t expected to see any blood.  Nor had he expected to feel his gut contract in sympathetic pain when he realized the tube actually punctured Tony’s chest, passing between his ribs.  That had to hurt and he found himself momentarily glad Tony was in a medically induced coma.  He was at least spared that pain.

 

Gibbs gaze was drawn back to Tony’s face.  Most people would think—even with the damn respirator tube in place and his pale complexion---he looked like he was just sleeping, but Gibbs knew better.  Even in repose, Tony was animated---his eyes would move under closed lids, he’d smile or frown or sometimes wince, he’d snore, his breathing would change, he’d shift position.  Gibbs had seen Tony sleep enough to know.  The lack of expression, the absence of movement, the regular and artificial breathing pattern were all…wrong.  No, Tony wasn’t asleep.

 

Gibbs reached out to touch him, but stopped short of actual contact.  There were IV’s in both arms and he was afraid of dislodging anything that might be vital for keeping Tony alive.  The need for a physical connection overrode his fear allowing Gibbs to finally curl his fingers around Tony’s hand.  Tony’s hand was warm, and Gibbs bowed his head in relief. Warm was good.  Warm was alive. 

 

“Gibbs?”

 

Something in Dewing’s tone made Gibbs aware that it probably wasn’t the first time she’d tried to get his attention.  Gibbs sighed silently, ashamed of himself.  It was embarrassing to have lost track of his surroundings that way.  He wasn’t a probie, damn it.  He wasn’t a virgin when it came to seeing people with their lives hanging in the balance…but this was Tony.  He wasn’t just anyone.

 

Gibbs raised his head to look at her.  “Yeah?”

 

“You okay?”

 

He took a breath, clearing his throat.  “I’m fine.”

 

Mendez snorted.  “Sure you are.”

 

Gibbs glared at him.  Tired brown eyes met his easily.  “Just as fine as the rest of us, aren’t you?”

 

Gibbs blinked, surprised by the lack of hostility in Mendez’s question.  He realized everything he was feeling….the helplessness of knowing there was nothing he could do, the desperate desire for all this to just be a bad dream, the anger at the situation, the fear that Tony might not make it…all of it was something Tony’s partner had already experienced.  Gibbs wasn’t alone in this, nor were his feelings any more or less than those of Tony’s friends and coworkers.

 

When Tony had the plague it had only been the team who was there to worry about him.  Gibbs was glad Tony had more people in his life who cared about him, but felt a surge of something he couldn’t name at the same time.  For as much as their relationship had improved, Tony might not want Gibbs here.  He might prefer to have Mendez, LaFiamma or Lundy at his bedside.  He might not need Gibbs in his corner; he might resent LaFiamma even calling Gibbs.

 

Gibbs unconsciously tightened his hold on Tony’s hand.  His chin came up in defiance.  Tony might not want or need him here, his teammates might not want him around, but Gibbs wasn’t leaving. 

 

“I’m staying.”

 

Mendez’s eyebrows rose.  “Didn’t hear anyone ask you to leave.”

 

Gibbs felt his face warm.  He hadn’t realized he’d even spoken until Mendez responded.  Dewing’s lips curled upward in a small smile.  When she spoke it was obvious she had no trouble figuring out what Gibbs had been thinking.

 

“Joe never would have called you or sent me to pick you up at the airport if you weren’t welcome here.”  Her smile grew to a grin.  “You might be a bastard, Gibbs, no one is arguing that, but every family has one, and I guess that makes you ours.”

 

“Besides, Tony likes you.  God only knows why, but he does.”  Mendez shook his head. “And he trusts you.  That I do understand…sort of.”

 

Dewing chuckled.  “You’ll get it eventually, Robbie.”

 

“About the time Satan learns to ice skate.” Mendez sighed.  His gaze shifted to Tony. He bit his lower lip. “I’ll need him to explain it to me again.  He’ll have time to do that when he gets better.”

 

It was more of a question than a statement.  The unspoken ‘if he gets better’ handing in the air.  The fear that Tony could still die readily apparent in the way Mendez looked at Tony.

 

Gibbs spoke firmly, “Yes, he will get better.”  Tony would recover. Gibbs would not believe any other outcome was possible.   Abby would call it the power of positive energy, but to Gibbs it was simply the only possible alternative. 

 

Mendez nodded.  He raised his hand to rub his eyes, pushing his wire rimmed glasses up on to his head as he did so.

 

Dewing crouched next to his chair.  “Robbie, go home. Get some rest.”

 

“I’m okay.”

 

“Never said you weren’t.”  Dewing patted his shoulder. “But you’ll be better with a little sleep.”

 

He rolled his eyes, repositioning his glasses again on his nose. “Hello, Pot.”

 

“You should listen to me, Kettle.” She smiled.  “I know of which I speak.”

 

Mendez looked at Tony again.  “I don’t want to leave him alone.”

 

“He won’t be alone,” Gibbs said softly.  He squeezed the hand he still held.  He knew it was foolish but he couldn’t help hoping for some sort of response.  He wanted Tony to squeeze back, to open his eyes so Gibbs would know he was still present and paying attention.

 

Mendez studied Gibbs for a long moment.  Gibbs wasn’t sure exactly what the Hispanic cop was looking for but was relieved when he apparently found it and nodded once.  Mendez shifted in the chair, levering himself out of it with help from Dewing.

 

“Getting old sucks, don’t it?”  She asked in a teasing tone, no doubt making light of whatever injuries Mendez had, other than the obvious broken arm, which made standing up more difficult than it should be.

 

“Shut up,” he said, but the command lacked any real heat.  “How many tries did it take you to get out of this damn thing last night?”

 

“Doesn’t matter.”  She grinned.  “I managed to do it on my own.”

 

Mendez flipped her off.  She gave him a dirty look.  “Play nice or next time I’ll leave you stuck in that contraption.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

She nodded.  “That’s better.”

 

Mendez moved closer to the bed.  He bent down and spoke softly to Tony.  “Amigo, you get better.  I’m not doing your paperwork this time.  Bad enough I had to do it the last time.  I still say you rigged it.  No way you could have made that shot otherwise. I’m going to make you do it again so you better be ready when you wake up.”

 

Gibbs was surprised when Mendez kissed Tony on the forehead.  “That’s from Angela.  She’s not happy about you getting hurt.  Not happy about me getting hurt either.  I already got an earful from her so you don’t get to say anything, comprende?” 

 

Mendez placed another kiss on Tony’s forehead.  “That one is from Maria.  She promised to draw you a picture with the crayons you got her.  I told her you’d like that, but she will want to hear it from you, Tony.  No one else’s opinion of her art matters as much as yours.”

 

Gibbs frowned wondering who Angela and Maria were before he remembered Tony mentioning his partner had a sister with a little girl who was almost three years old and a two month old baby boy.  According to Tony, Mendez and his sister were very close, eating dinner together at least once a week if not more.  Tony had commented on being invited to those family dinners, but he’d been so low key about it Gibbs had gotten the impression he hadn’t accepted the invitation or didn’t go very often.  Clearly, he was mistaken about that.

 

Mendez straightened, wincing as he did so.  He looked at Gibbs.  “You watch out for him, Gibbs.”

 

“I will.”

 

“You too, Dewing.”

 

She saluted him with two fingers. 

 

“I’ll check on Lundy and LaFiamma before I leave.”

 

“Tell them I’ll be by in a little while.”

 

“Will do.”  They bumped fists before Mendez headed for the door.  From the stiff way he moved, Gibbs guessed he had a few cracked or broken ribs of his own. By all rights he should probably have been in a bed of his own, but Gibbs understood why he had been sitting with Tony instead.

 

“You want to sit down?”  Dewing asked.

 

Gibbs shook his head.  She hadn’t made a big deal out of it, but Gibbs knew she had to be hurting.  He couldn’t take a seat she might need more.  And the chair was simply too far away from Tony.  He wanted to be as close as possible now that he was finally at Tony’s side.

 

Gibbs lightly stroked Tony’s knuckles with this thumb.  He continued to try ignoring the respirator.  It was there to help Tony, no matter how foreign it looked and sounded.  Ducky said it was necessary, and Gibbs trusted the older man to know what Tony had to have to stay alive.

 

He wasn’t sure how long he stood there just watching Tony’s chest rise and fall when Dewing approached the bed.  She ran her fingers through Tony’s hair.  She smiled softly.

 

“I’m going to go see how Lundy and LaFiamma are holding up.  I’ll make sure they are behaving.”  She bent down and kissed his cheek.  “You rest, Slick.  You’ll be up and around in no time.”

 

Gibbs knew he should go see Lundy and LaFiamma as well, but he didn’t want to leave.  He’d told Mendez Tony would be alone.  He could go to see them…later. 

 

She looked at Gibbs.  “You want anything while I’m out?”

 

“Coffee.”

 

She nodded.  Her blue eyes went to Tony’s face, and she ran a knuckle lightly along one cheekbone in a gentle caress.  Gibbs wondered if there was anything romantic going on between the two of them.  Dewing was certainly a beautiful woman.  She was also smart and capable.  It was a combination Tony would have trouble resisting.  But the vibe Gibbs got from her wasn’t concerned lover, if anything, it was more akin to the way Abby acted around Tony---like they were siblings. 

 

“You should talk to him.”  Dewing said as she headed for the door.  She her next statement was tossed out casually before she stepped out of the room.  “People in comas can hear even if they can’t respond.  I think he’d appreciate knowing you were here.”

 

Gibbs glared at the closing door.  Tony knew he was here.  Didn’t he?  He’d spoken to Mendez and Dewing.  It wasn’t like he’d just walked in the room silently.  Not that he’d actually said anything to Tony, but he was holding his hand after all.  Wasn’t that enough?  Gibbs frowned.  Maybe not if everyone touched him.  Dewing and Mendez had.

 

Talk to him, she said.  Like it was so easy.  Nothing to it.  Gibbs snorted.  It was the same advice Ducky or even Abby would have given him, so he really shouldn’t resent it---but he did.  Damn, DiNozzo, Gibbs thought, why is everyone you work with in Houston so pushy?  And do they have to be right all the time?

 

He looked around the room, painfully aware of how much it resembled the room Tony had spent several days in while recovering from the plague.  At least this time there was no need for blue lights or people wearing protective clothing.

 

Even knowing that the odds for recovery were better than when Tony had the plague, Gibbs still worried.  All the machinery and tubes, Tony’s stillness, his pale complexion---it all left him feeling the same fear he had then.  That Tony might not make it.

 

Gibbs suddenly knew what to say.  He leaned forward so that he could speak into Tony’s ear.  “DiNozzo, are you listening to me?  You will not die.  You hear me.  You will not die.”

 

It had worked the last time.  It would work this time as well.  Gibbs squeezed Tony’s hand again.  It had to. 

Chapter Text

Gibbs watched the nurse like a hawk, blue eyes assessing her every movement.  He’d watched the last one who’d come to check on Tony the same way.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them, not really, it was his need to make sure no more harm came to Tony that had him watching them so intently, measuring and assessing everything did.

 

It bothered Gibbs that Tony didn’t react to the nurse’s actions.  Tubes were checked, IVs bags were replaced, his temperature and blood pressure were all taken without so much as a twitch.  Intellectually, Gibbs knew Tony couldn’t move or communicate, but he still found himself looking for any signs of pain or discomfort.

 

The nurse gave Gibbs a tentative smile.  Gibbs didn’t bother trying to return the friendly overture.   He knew he should at least try to make nice with the staff, but he wasn’t the sort of person how normally did that.  Gibbs’ gaze moved to study Tony’s face again. Making nice used to be Tony’s job.  It had fallen to McGee or Ziva to be the ‘people person’ on his team since Tony left.

 

 “Your son is doing very well.”  The nurse’s smile was reassuring now.

 

Gibbs grunted in surprise.  He wasn’t old enough to be Tony’s father…not unless he had been a very precocious fourteen year old boy, but the nurse likely had no idea of his real age.  His gray hair and the lack of sleep no doubt added a few years to his appearance.  He sure as hell felt older than he had before getting the call from LaFiamma. She might know Tony was 35, his age was on his chart somewhere Gibbs was sure, but to him Tony looked a lot younger than his real age. It was possible he looked equally young to the nurse.

 

“I know all this equipment can be,” she hesitated or a moment clearly looking for the right word, “well…distressing, but it really is temporary.  If he continues doing well, we can bring him out of the coma in a few days.”

 

“I know,” Gibbs said softly.

 

Doctor Kline, Tony’s attending physician, had been in shortly after Gibbs had arrived.  Gibbs had called Ducky and made Kline talk to him.  The ME knew what questions to ask and could understand the answers.  And it saved Gibbs having to trying to remember and recount all the details to Ducky.  Ducky got the information directly and then Gibbs asked him to boil it down into something he could comprehend.

 

“Is there anything I can get you?”

 

Gibbs shook his head.  “No, thank you.”

 

She nodded and left.  Gibbs grimaced, forcing himself out of the chair he’d opted to sit in at some point.  He could understand why Mendez considered it a torture device and had needed help getting out of it.  The springs in the cushion had long since worn out, sucking anyone who sat down in deeper and further than the design of the chair originally called for or the human body was meant to withstand.  Gibbs gave the chair a dirty look.  He wouldn’t make the mistake of sitting on that piece of shit again.

 

He stretched slowly, easing the kinks for his joints and stiffness from his muscles.  He scowled at his empty coffee cup.  He should have asked the nurse for another cup.  He tossed the empty in the trash, not entirely certain when he’d finished it.   He didn’t know where to go for more either.  Dewing had brought him his first cup and the two others that followed.

 

There was a soft knock at the door. None of the medical personnel ever knocked, it had to be one of Tony’s coworkers.  There had been a steady stream of people dropping by, most staying only a few minutes.  Some Gibbs had met before…like Amos Sixkiller, the Houston ME, and Annie Hartung, their forensic scientist.  And there were some he didn’t know, like Bill McCandless, another detective on Tony’s team who’d been out on sick leave recovering from a broken ankle when Gibbs had been in Houston the last time.

 

Gibbs eyed the dark haired woman who stepped into the room.  He’d been expecting Dewing. She had left at least an hour ago.  She said something about having work to do and coming back later.

 

The woman walking in Gibbs had never met, but he knew who she was.  When Tony had decided to go back to Houston, Gibbs had researched everyone on his team as thoroughly as possible.  Joanne Beaumont, Tony’s boss, had been a good cop and by accounts was an excellent commander.

 

She was small in stature, probably not much over five foot four in Gibbs estimation, but she carried herself with a self-assurance that made her seem taller.  Her build was delicate and refined, but judging from what was in her file, she was not shrinking violet.  She’d been a beat cop, and with Lundy as her partner at one point, Gibbs was sure Beaumont had to be one tough lady.

 

She smiled at him, dipping her head.  “You must be, Gibbs.”

 

“I am.”

 

Dewing said you’d be here.”  She held out her hand.  “I’m Beaumont.”

 

Gibbs took her hand, careful not to use to much force.  The handshake was brief, but firm and confident.

 

Gibbs couldn’t help comparing Beaumont to Jenny Shepard.  Unlike Shepard, Beaumont would didn’t need flaunt her authority or even mention her position.  Gibbs immediately recognized in her the quiet dignity and understated authority of someone comfortable being in charge.  From the comments Tony made, Gibbs knew Beaumont ran a tight ship.  She only got directly involved with cases when her help was requested or when it was obvious intervention was warranted.  She trusted her people to keep her informed, and made a point of making sure they could trust her to watch out for them.  Gibbs had found it reassuring to know Tony was working for someone he respected.

 

“How’s he doing?”

 

“Better…at least that’s what the Dr. Kline said.”  Gibbs wasn’t so sure.  When Ducky got in later and saw Tony, Gibbs would feel more confident.  He trusted Ducky to tell him the truth.

 

She cocked her head, sky blue eyes studying him.  “Kline wouldn’t lie.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“Because he and I have met before.”  She smiled.  “He knows better than to blow smoke when it comes to my people.”

 

“Oh?”  Gibbs wondered if there was a story there. 

 

“I’d have his guts for garters.  And he knows it.”

 

Gibbs’ eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “He a good doctor?” 

 

“One of the best.”  She assured him.  “But he prefers to soften the blow when it comes to dealing with family and friends.  My team and I prefer brutal honesty. It’s easier to deal with in the long run.  And I’ve managed to convince him to just be straight with us, and we’ll worry about how to deal with the news.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He thought he’d detected a more candid delivery when he’d had Kline talked to Ducky than most doctors employed, but he thought that was just the man reacting to Gibbs’ brusque demeanor.  Knowing from his research that Lundy and LaFiamma had regularly needed medical attention as often Tony had, and recognizing Beaumont’s no nonsense demeanor was akin to his own, Gibbs had no trouble believing she’d spoken to Dr. Kline about cutting to the chase when it came to her people.

 

Beaumont stepped around Gibbs to get closer to Tony.  She shook her head, and sighed.  She reached out and laid a hand on Tony’s shoulder.  “You know, Tony, when I hired you, I didn’t think you’d be another one giving me gray hair.  Lundy and LaFiamma are already doing their best to make me old before my time.  You don’t need to help them.”

 

Gibbs tried not to resent the easy familiarity she clearly had with Tony. Or that talking to him clearly posed no challenges for her.

 

He cleared his throat before asking, “How is Lundy?”

 

“You could go see for yourself. He’s only two doors down the hall.”

 

Gibbs grimaced.  He’d been meaning to go check on the man and talk to LaFiamma, but hadn’t been able to bring himself to leave Tony.

 

“I’ll stay with him.”

 

Gibbs glared at her when he realized she wasn’t suggesting he leave, she was almost ordering it.  She looked back at him, expression mild.

 

“It’ll do you good to stretch your legs.”

 

“Look—“

 

“Tony would want me to watch out for you.  So I am.”  She measured him with her eyes.  “He wouldn’t want you spending all day in this room worrying about shit you can’t fix or change.”

 

Gibbs arched an eyebrow.  “You think so?”

 

“Know so.”  She nodded toward the door.  “I’d appreciate it if you brought me a cup of coffee when you come back.  Two sugars. No cream.”

 

“Anything else?”  Gibbs asked, his tone bone dry.

 

She smiled brightly.  “Oh, I think that’ll do it for now.”

 

Everyone in Houston was an asshole, he decided, rolling his eyes.  And they had a penchant for being right.  Bastards.   It would do him good to get out of the room for a bit.  He hated feeling useless.

 

“I’ll be back.”

 

“Of that, I have no doubt.”

 

Gibbs shot her a dirty look before leaning down to speak quietly to Tony.  “I’m going to get some coffee.  DiNozzo, you better be here when I get back.”

 

Beaumont gave him a waggled finger wave as he left.  Gibbs gave her the same two finger salute he’d seen everyone else on her team use. She smirked, eyes sparkling with good humor.  Gibbs shook his head.  They were all nuts.  It was the only explanation for why they weren’t properly intimidated by him the way sensible people would be.  But then, their brand of insanity seemed like a good match for Tony’s.

 

Gibbs headed down the hall to Lundy’s room.  He made eye contact with the guard at the door wondering if the man would let him pass.  He hadn’t been introduced to him, and Gibbs really didn’t want to have to track down someone to vouch for him. Hoping the guy had the same list everyone else did, Gibbs decided to introduce himself and hope for the best. 

 

“Excuse me, I’m—“

 

“Gibbs.”  He nodded.  “I know who you are, Sir.”

 

“Oh?”  Gibbs opted to over look the ‘sir’.  “How is it you know who I am?”

 

“Lieutenant Beaumont said the gray haired guy who would be coming out of DiNozzo’s room in a few minutes would be Gibbs and I should let him in to see Lundy.”

 

Gibbs bit back a sigh. Beaumont was nothing if not thorough.  He wouldn’t have put it past her to hand out his picture…if she had one.   Knowing what he did about her, he wouldn’t be surprised to find out she’d checked him out just as thoroughly as he’d checked her out.

 

The cop stepped out of the way, giving Gibbs access to the door. He shook his head when Gibbs didn’t bother to knock.  Gibbs simply walked in only to come up short when he found himself faced with a 9 mm pointed directly at his face.

 

Gibbs held up his hands slowly, palms out.  “Hello, LaFiamma.”

 

“Gibbs.”

 

“You should knock.”  LaFiamma set his gun down on the night stand.  It was then that Gibbs noticed he’d been holding it in his left hand.  His right arm was in a sling.  Gibbs pointed to it.

 

“Bad?”

 

“More annoying than anything else.  But if I wear the sling the nurses don’t bitch.”

 

Gibbs smirked.  He doubted LaFiamma was their favorite person, wearing the sling or not. “You greet them the same way you did me?”

 

“No.”  LaFiamma grinned wolfishly.  “Michaels usually knocks for them.”

 

Gibbs was betting Michaels knew exactly what sort of greeting he’d get.  The man could have warned him.  But then, he probably didn’t think he had to or he was just an asshole like everyone else in Houston.

 

Gibbs glanced toward the bed.  Lundy’s right leg was elevated, not quite in traction but definitely something similar.  Given what LaFiamma had told him about Lundy’s injuries, Gibbs wasn’t surprised by the set up.  Elevating the injured limb would reduce the pressure, and restricting mobility would give the damaged artery time heal.

 

“Joe?”

 

Lundy’s query was whisper soft, barely audible, but LaFiamma’s reaction was immediate.  He abandoned baiting Gibbs, turning toward his partner, reaching out to take Lundy’s hand.

 

“Hey, Cowboy.  You with me?”

 

Lundy turned his head to look at LaFiamma.   “Think so…Maybe.”

 

Gibbs winced at how rough the man’s voice sounded.  He wasn’t surprised when LaFiamma released Lundy’s hand to grab a small cup full of ice chips.  He gently offered several to Lundy.

 

“Better?”

 

“Yeah.”  Lundy nodded.  He blinked slowly.  “They got me on good drugs…don’t they?”

 

LaFiamma smiled.  “Yeah, they do.”

 

“S’bad?”

 

“Yeah, it was bad.”  LaFiamma brushed blonde curls off Lundy’s forehead.  “You scared me, Levon.”

 

“Sorry, Joey.”  Lundy reached for LaFiamma’s hand.  To Gibbs surprise he didn’t try to hold it, but rather pulled it to his throat.  LaFiamma seemed to understand, his fingers coming to rest on Lundy’s pulse point.

 

“Still here, Joe.” Lundy’s voice was firmer than it had been.  “I’m in for the long haul, just like I promised you.”

 

LaFiamma’s eyes closed, and Gibbs could see him taking a deep breath, releasing it slowly. He swallowed hard before leaning down to rest his forehead against Lundy’s.  Gibbs watched them trade breaths, one breathing out as the other breathed in.  He looked away feeling guilty for seeing what was clearly private.

 

“Love you,” Lundy whispered.

 

“Love you too, Cowboy.”  LaFiamma replied. 

 

“Everyone get out?”

 

The question seemed like a sign the intimate moment had passed.  Gibbs risked a glance.

 

“Yes, Levon, everyone got out.”

 

“Asked ya that ‘fore, didn’t I?”  Lundy blinked owlishly.

 

“You remember?” LaFiamma sounded genuinely surprised. 

 

“No.”  Lundy shook his head.  “But ya got that tone.”

 

“Tone?”

 

“Yeah.”  Lundy smiled, eyes closing.  “Same one ya get whenever…ya have ta repeat yourself ‘cause…I wasn’t payin’ attention.”

 

LaFiamma chuckled.  “Duly noted.”

 

“M’tired.” Lundy sighed.

 

“Go to sleep.”

 

“Jus’ woke up,” Lundy protested, eyelids fluttering but not opening.

 

“Shhh.”  LaFiamma ran his fingers through Lundy’s hair several times. “I’ll be here when you wake up again.”

 

“You better…be.”

 

LaFiamma smiled.  “I promise.”

 

“’Kay.”  Lundy’s breathing evened out in the steady cadence of restful sleep. 

 

LaFiamma placed a soft kiss on Lundy’s forehead, one on his cheek, and another on his lips.  The action seemed almost habituated, like it was something always done, and yet there was still obvious weight and significance to it---at least for LaFiamma, and probably Lundy. 

 

It reminded Gibbs of his time with Shannon. They never went to bed at home without a goodnight kiss—no matter how angry either of them might have been.  And he never left without promising her he’d come home, putting a finger to his heart and then to her lips to seal the deal.

 

LaFiamma straightened up and made eye contact with Gibbs.  The older man expected to see some hostility or even embarrassment over his being witness to what was obviously none of his business but LaFiamma simply looked tired rather than upset or angry.

 

“Let’s talk outside.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He watched as LaFiamma picked up the gun he’d left on the night stand, and slid it under Lundy’s pillow.  Why the man didn’t simply holster it was something Gibbs decided not to ask.

 

LaFiamma spoke to Michaels, telling him that he was going to stretch his legs and grab some coffee.  He offered to bring back a cup for him.  Michaels said no.

 

He smiled at Gibbs.  “Bet you knock the next time.”

 

Gibbs glared at Michaels.  The cop just smiled wider.  “Courtesy only takes a second.”

 

“Michaels, I doubt you’ll ever convince him making nice isn’t a waste of time, regardless of how little time it takes.”  LaFiamma chucked.  “We’ll be back.”

 

LaFiamma led him to the stairwell and up one flight.  He winked at Gibbs as he pointed to the door clearly labeled ‘Doctors’ Lounge’.

 

“They got the best coffee in this place.”

 

The lounge was empty but it wouldn’t have mattered if the place was packed.  Gibbs wasn’t going to drink any more crappy coffee if there was better stuff to be had.

 

LaFiamma took two paper cups, setting them on the counter before pouring coffee into them. He added a liberal dose of some flavored creamer sitting nearby.  Gibbs looked away suddenly reminded of how light and sweet Tony preferred his coffee.

 

“Dewing said you told you what happened.” LaFiamma offered him the black coffee.

 

Gibbs nodded, taking the cup and breathing the heady aroma.  He took a sip and sighed.  It was definitely better than what Dewing had brought him earlier.

 

“She said there was military ordinance involved.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I’d like to bring my team in on the case,” Gibbs stated bluntly.  He was too tired to bother with niceties and beating around the bush had never been his style.

 

LaFiamma rubbed his hand tiredly over his face.  “We don’t know if the explosives were Navy or Marine issue.  Could be jurisdictional issues if the higher ups object to you’re --”

 

“We can always say we’re simply trying to find out if NCIS needs to be involved.  We tell them you called in my team because of Tony’s contact with the agency and us in particular. We’ve got the expertise and clearance you need to narrow down who might have been Kort’s buyer and where the ordinance came from.”

 

“The brass might not see it that way.”

 

“I don’t give a shit how they see it,” Gibbs growled.  Even if Tony wasn’t on his team any more, he was still one of his, and his nearly dying was not going to go unanswered for. “All that matters is getting making sure whoever is responsible pays.”

 

LaFiamma studied him. Gibbs made eye contact and held it, unsure of what the other man was looking for. 

 

“I know you don’t like me, but damn it, Tony is my friend too.  And I owe Lundy one.”  He unconsciously squared his shoulders, facing off against LaFiamma.  “I need to work this case.”

 

LaFiamma shook his head.  “Dewing owes me five bucks.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  “What?”

 

LaFiamma laughed softly.  “I told her you’d have some way to justify getting involved with the case.  She agreed but thought you wouldn’t bother to even asking to assist before you tried to take over the investigation. ”

 

Gibbs smiled ruefully. “Ordinarily she’d be right, but somehow I don’t think you’d let me take over.”

 

“Damn right I wouldn’t.” 

 

“I’m not going to stand by and do nothing either.”  Gibbs had no intention of standing on the sidelines.   

 

“Didn’t expect you to.”  LaFiamma grinned.  “I talked to Beaumont..  She already agreed to bringing you and your team on board.”

 

Gibbs glared at him.  “Why the hell didn’t you just tell me that earlier?”

 

“What, and miss having you actually ask?  Hell no.”

 

“Asshole.”

 

“Guilty as charged.”  LaFiamma saluted Gibbs with his cup.  “Beaumont will have some ground rules you’ll have to agree to.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He would expect no less.  Any commander worth his or her salt wouldn’t let an outsider just run roughshod in their house. 

 

“And she wants some input on who to formally speak with about getting you and your team assigned to the case.”

 

“The Director would be the one—“

 

“I already told Beaumont talking to Shepard might not be a good idea.”

 

Gibbs eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

 

“I can’t see Shepard being all that willing to have you on the case, especially not if she knows Kort was involved.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  “What makes you say that?”

 

“His death works in her favor.”

 

Gibbs made a ‘go on’ motion with one hand.

 

“With him dead, there is no way he can recant his statement about killing Rene Benoit.”  LaFiamma smiled darkly.  “You helped convince the FBI to take his story at face value because it put Tony in the clear and saved your team a lot of grief.  But she ahs to know better than to think you’d actually leave well enough alone.  She’s closer to staying in the clear with Kort buried.  One less loose end for her to worry about.”

 

Gibbs frowned, thinking that over.  Was it possible Shepard actually thought as LaFiamma did, that she was better off with Kort dead?  And if she did, would she go so far as to leak Kort’s identity hoping to get him killed?  It was possible.  Gibbs already knew she wasn’t above murder.  What was one more if it meant she could get away with both?

 

“Dewing said it sounded like Kort’s cover had been blown.”

 

“It sounded that way, yeah.”  LaFiamma shrugged one shoulder.  “It could mean nothing that people know he’s not really an arms dealer just a few months after he supposedly killed his boss to take over his business.  It could be just one of those freak things that his identity becomes common knowledge right after he takes the fall for Shepard.  Yeah, stranger things have happened, but you and I both know there is no such thing as coincidence.”

 

Gibbs grimaced. “Shit.”

 

“Un-hunh.”  LaFiamma sighed.  “Don’t forget to bring Beaumont a cup of coffee. She’ll kick your ass if you come back empty handed.  God knows right now we need the help so don’t go getting yourself benched before you even get to play in the game.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  “I won’t.”

 

“Good.”  LaFiamma headed for the door.  “Let me know when your team is due to arrive.  I’ll make sure someone gets them at the airport.  We should be ready to bring them up to speed by then.”

 

“LaFiamma?”

 

He stopped, and looked over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

 

“About Shepard, if she was responsible---”

 

“She’s all yours, I know.”

 

“You okay with that?”

 

“As long as you make her pay for any part she played in nearly getting the two most important people in my life killed, I’m fine with it.”  LaFiamma smiled tightly.  “She gets another free pass and all bets are off.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  “I understand.”

 

“Good.”

 

Gibbs watched LaFiamma leave.  He hoped the man was wrong.  He really did, but his gut was screaming that LaFiamma was right.  Shepard was involved---somehow, some way, she had played a role in all this.

 

“God damn that woman.” 

  

Chapter Text

The connection to anything related to the Navy or Marine Corps was tentative at best.  The military ordinance being sold on the black market could have come from any branch of the service and been stolen anywhere.  Requesting aid from a federal agency usually didn’t happen until at least the origin of the weaponry had been traced.  Asking for NCIS to assist when so little was known was premature.

 

And the SecNav was several steps above the people who would normally have handled a request from a local law enforcement agency for assistance. He didn’t typically take calls from people outside government channels.  And even if he did, by all rights he should have referred the request to Shepard.  She was the Director of NCIS and in theory it was her call as to whether or not they got involved.  If LaFiamma was right, and she had a hand in Kort’s cover getting blown, Shepard would refuse to allow Gibbs and his team to get involved.  She might let another team go, but it would likely be one she had better control of, and one not as determined to find out the truth.

 

So ordinarily, Beaumont’s call to the SecNav would have yielded nothing.  But Gibbs knew better than to underestimate the people he’d met in Houston.  Lundy wasn’t the only one who had people owing him favors, and LaFiamma wasn’t the only ballsy bastard on staff.

 

Before she called the SecNav, Beaumont called the Governor of Texas.  From what Gibbs heard of her side of the conversation, the Governor never got a chance to even think of saying no to her.  All it took to get him to do as she asked were a few veiled references to something Gibbs guessed was either very embarrassing, highly incriminating, or possibly both.  Whatever she had on the Governor had to be good; he agreed, without even a token argument, to contacting two senators and an admiral about lobbying on her behalf.  It was impressive that she could make the Governor call in political favors he probably had not planned to use for years and certainly not to the benefit of someone else.  Gibbs was tempted to ask exactly what Beaumont had on him before thinking better of it.  If she wanted him to know, she’d have told him.

 

Beaumont waited an hour before calling the SecNav.  He agreed to Beaumont’s request for assistance from NCIS and Gibbs’ team in particular without batting an eye.  All he asked for was that she keep him posted, and to let him know if there was anything else she needed. She thanked him and then ended the call.

 

“Your people already have a flight booked, right?”

 

“Yes.”  Gibbs had told Abby to book them seats on Ducky’s flight even though he hadn’t been entirely certain Beaumont could pull off getting official cooperation.  It was easier to get forgiveness than permission. 

 

“I didn’t really think the SecNav say yes so quickly,” Gibbs admitted, letting some of his curiosity show without asking directly exactly what she had on the Governor to get that sort of immediate cooperation.

 

She shrugged.  “Never hurts to prime the pump.”

 

He arched an eyebrow.  “Was more like you stacked the deck.”

 

She smirked.  “Your point?”

 

“Tony said you were the sort who always plays by the rules.”   Calling in favors, while not exactly unethical or even illegal, seemed a bit out of bounds.

 

“Playing by the rules doesn’t mean you can’t play to win.”  She smiled tightly.  “I want guys dealing in explosives the hell out of my city.  And more importantly, whoever gave up Kort also got my people hurt and that miserable fucker needs to pay.  But we aren’t on a vigilante hunt.   It will be done by the book.  All the I’s will be dotted and T’s crossed.”

 

She pointed a finger at him.  “I know I can’t keep you on the sidelines.  So the next best thing was to involve you and your team in the investigation in an official capacity.  You aren’t here as free agents.  While you are in Houston, you answer to me.”

 

Sky blue eyes measured Gibbs with an implacable stare.  “I will not hesitate to put your balls in a vice if you step out of line on my turf. Are we clear, Special Agent Gibbs?”

 

The calmly delivered threat made it plain she wasn’t just blowing smoke; Beaumont meant every word.  Gibbs fought back the urge to salute, knowing she’d see the gesture not as one of genuine respect but sarcastic or insolent.  He did draw himself up to attention though.

 

“Crystal, Lieutenant Beaumont.”

 

“Good.”  She nodded.  “When your people get here, let me know if there is anything you need.”

 

“Will do.”

 

Gibbs couldn’t help smiling as he watched her walk away.  Beaumont ’s straightforward way of communicating was refreshing.  It was a shame Shepard didn’t do things the same way.  But then, Beaumont didn’t have a hidden agenda.  Nor did she likely have the same sort of history with any of her people that Gibbs had with Shepard.  The partnership between Lundy and Beaumont had obviously ended on better terms than Gibbs’ partnership with Shepard.  Rule 12 was in place for a reason.

 

Gibbs got another cup of coffee from the doctors’ lounge, swiping several homemade cookies from the tray that had appeared on the table since his last visit.  They weren’t great, but he hadn’t eaten all day and they were free so Gibbs wasn’t going to complain about them.  Certainly not where anyone might logically ask why or how he’d come by them in the first place.

 

Gibbs nodded to the cop guarding the door to Tony’s room.  He made a point of knocking this time.  LaFiamma had said something about stopping in to check on Tony, and the last thing Gibbs wanted was a gun in his face again.

 

Stepping into the room, Gibbs saw not LaFiamma, but rather Carol Dewing. She smiled and nodded when she saw him.  She held up a file, offering it to him.

 

“I thought you might want to have a look at everything we’ve got so far.”  Her lips curled upward in an indulgent smile. “I’d have brought a laptop, but since you’re more hidebound than Lundy when it comes to computers, I thought you’d prefer paper.”

 

Gibbs gave her a rueful look.  He didn’t hate technology; he just despised things he didn’t understand.  And he’d never fully understood computers.

 

“It’s not complete. We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover, but it will give you some information to work with until your team arrives.”

 

Gibbs took the file.  He wasn’t surprised they’d already be including him in the investigation.  Once it was cleared with Beaumont, it was obviously a done deal for her people that they would be working with Gibbs and his team.  He might not be sure he liked them or that they liked him, but Gibbs knew they weren’t interested in a jurisdictional pissing contest.  They wanted help to catch the bastards who’d done so much damage to them and theirs.  Jerking him around or denying him access to information would not be productive.

 

Gibbs smiled at Dewing.  It wouldn’t hurt to show a little gratitude for the way they were prepared to work with him.  “Thank you.”

 

She raised two fingers to her forehead in the casual salute that was trademark response for her team.  She bent down to speak to Tony.

 

“Roberto will stop by later.  He said to tell you Angela is cooking up a storm so that there will be plenty of real food for you to eat when you wake up. And with all she’s making there is no reason you can’t share some of her apple pie with me.”

 

Dewing sighed, her fingers carded through Tony’s hair in a gentle caress. “Shame your favorite isn’t cherry.  Angela makes a mean cherry pie.  She’d make a dozen if you asked her too.  I’m pretty sure you painting the nursery gave you favored status.  It was either that or the fact that you figured out how to put together the new stroller. All part of your dastardly plan to win friends and influence people I’m sure.”

 

She kissed his cheek.  “I’ve got a bet on how soon you’ll blow this joint and I need new shoes so I expect you to make me a winner, DiNozzo.”

 

She straightened, her attention once more on Gibbs.  “Just so you know, we haven’t questioned Kort’s girlfriend yet.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  Surely by now they’d recovered enough equilibrium to get back to work.  Letting the case get cold wouldn’t make things any easier.   He knew they understood that so they must have a good reason for not talking to her yet.

 

“What are you waiting on?”

 

“You.”

 

Gibbs blinked.  “Me?”

 

“Tony said interrogation was your specialty.”  She smiled.  “And once we knew you were going to be part of the case, we all had a feeling you’d want to talk to her yourself.  And we might as well let the best man for the job do it.  No reason to cover the same ground twice.”  Her smile took on a hard edge.  “Letting her stew for awhile longer won’t hurt her.”

 

Gibbs pursed his lips.  “She being difficult?”

 

“Not any more.”  There was a definite note of satisfaction in Dewing’s voice.

 

“Oh?”

 

“Spouted a lot off in French that I couldn’t understand but she was kind enough to repeat it all in English.  I think she’d have made a sailor blush with some of the stuff she was saying.  I was tempted to wash her mouth out with soap.”

 

Dewing shook her head.  “Then she wanted to leave and tried to hit me when I told her no.  Cuffing her to the radiator and gagging her with her the too expensive silk scarf she was wearing has made her far more manageable.”

 

Gibbs smirked.  “I don’t think that’s playing by the rules.”

 

“Depends on the game.”  Dewing chuckled, unrepentant.  “She may be a material witness, but she could also a suspect.  Keeping her safe and sound is part of the job—her agreeing with the methods we employ to do that is not a requirement.  She’s damn lucky we didn’t just put her in a cell and introduce her to some new friends.”

 

Gibbs bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling.  Kort’s girlfriend might well be feeling more cooperative when he got to talk to her.  He could play ‘good cop’ to their ‘bad’, except being the ‘good cop’ was not something he excelled at.  Maybe he could just play ‘worse cop’ to their ‘bad’.  He’d have Ziva sit in on that one, Gibbs decided.  Ziva’s French was far better than Gibbs—she could insult and threaten Kort’s girlfriend in her native tongue.  If that didn’t work, Ziva did silent intimidation very well.

 

“Anything else I should know?”

 

“Not right now.”  She shook her head. “I’m sure there will be plenty you’ll want to know after you get a chance to look through the file.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He needed a better sense of what they had so far before he started asking questions.  It would also be easier to direct his team with the background in place.

 

“Joe gave me the flight info for your team.  I’ll pick them up at the airport.”  She cocked her head.  “You want me to bring them here first or to the office?”

 

Gibbs’ gaze went to Tony.  He hadn’t moved and was still too pale, but he was alive, and if he continued to do well they’d take him off the drugs keeping him in a coma in a few days.  He could tell the others that, but hearing it wouldn’t be enough to convince them Tony was doing better than expected.  They’d want to see for themselves.  Gibbs knew they wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the case until they did. This wasn’t just a case---it was personal.

 

“Bring them here.”

 

She nodded and smiled approvingly.  Gibbs got the impression he’d just passed some sort of test and found himself feeling strangely relieved.  It was weird to find himself wanting Tony’s team to think well of him. He hadn’t made a good first impression, but they were clearly willing to give him a second chance---he didn’t want to mess that up.

 

Gibbs waited until she said good-bye to Tony and left before eyeing the chair in the room.  It didn’t look like the same one. He frowned.  Why would anyone in the hospital switch chairs? Gibbs smiled when it came to him.  No one on staff would have bothered to rearrange the furniture.  The comfort of their patients was a concern, not that of the visitors.  It had to be one of Tony’s teammates.

 

Gibbs’ money was on LaFiamma.  Spending the entire night and most of the day at his partner’s bedside had no doubt given Tony’s cousin insight into the benefits of a decent place to sit.  And since he couldn’t be in two places at once, LaFiamma probably wanted to make sure whoever stayed with Tony was comfortable enough to settle in for the long haul. 

 

He sat down, gingerly testing the new chair before nodding in satisfaction. This one was definitely better than the old one.  He kicked off his shoes before propping his feet up on Tony’s bed, stretching out his legs so that he could touch Tony.  He didn’t know if Tony was even aware of the contact, but he felt better for it.

 

Gibbs pulled out the reading glasses he habitually kept handy since Tony had left the team.  Neither McGee nor Ziva were comfortable enough with Gibbs to even mention his need for glasses much less tease him about it or keep a spare pair on hand for him to use.  Gibbs sighed.

 

“Damn it, DiNozzo,” he muttered quietly, “how could you be so necessary on so many levels and I failed to notice?”  Gibbs no longer wondered why an ex-wife took a golf club to his head.  What he now wondered was why no one else had followed her lead.

 

The past was over and done with, Gibbs reminded himself.  It was better to focus on the present.  He opened the file and began reading.  The first few pages were background on the case Vice was putting together.  Gibbs studied the timeline.  The drugs were first documented about a month after Tony had returned to Houston.  Vice had worked hard to make even to make even a tenuous connections to the new supplier in the area.

 

He raised an eyebrow when he found a map in the file.  He didn’t know if that was something normally included, or if it was something they’d added for him in deference to how little he knew about Houston, but he was glad to have it for reference.  The drugs’ distribution was outlined and he could literally trace how Vice had started narrowing down where the drugs were showing up in the city and the players involved.

 

There was also an overlay showed various gang territories, and Gibbs wasn’t surprised to find notes mentioning which gangs had been present the night the bust went down.  The names of the dead or wounded gang members didn’t mean anything to Gibbs but he memorized them any way as well as their particular gang affiliations.

 

There didn’t seem to be a clear connection between the drugs and the weapons, at least not that they had been able to establish yet.  It could have simply been a coincidence that Kort’s gun deal had gone down in the same area Vice had staked out, but that didn’t seem very likely. Besides, Gibbs didn’t believe in coincidences.  Somehow the drugs and weapons were tied together.

 

Gibbs grimaced, the cynical part of him knowing money made for an obvious connection. Drugs were a lucrative business, and that meant anyone looking to get big there would want firepower to either protect what they already had or to take what they wanted.  The gangs simply provided manpower and a network for distribution.  They also were muscle to act as shock troops or enforcers.

 

He made another mental note to have McGee work with whoever was trying to track down the players Vice had expected that night.  Why hadn’t those guys show up? And more importantly where were they now?  If they knew Kort was going to get taken out, they might well know who had broken his cover.  What role had they played in that set up, if any?

 

Identifying exactly what weapons had been there and where they’d come from would also be a priority.  At the moment all they had to go on was what Dewing said Tony had seen and told them.  Tony’s identification was too generic to track the exact origin.  Forensics was still working on the bits and pieces that survived the fire.  They’d started to narrow it down, but it was too soon for a precise identification.

 

Annie Hartung, Houston PD’s forensic specialist, seemed like a capable, level headed sort.  Gibbs didn’t think she’d object to working with Abby to speeding up the identification process.  And he hoped Abby wouldn’t object to working with her.   He wasn’t sure if the lab would have all the equipment Abby was used to, but he had no doubt she’d be able to use whatever they did have.

 

Gibbs studied the pictures of the scene in the file.  The first few showed the warehouse, probably several days before the bust. It looked like every other warehouse he’d seen---a large, rectangular building with sliding bay doors at one end and several loading docs on the other.  A to scale sketch showing the warehouse in relation to the streets and other buildings attached to one of the photos gave Gibbs a momentary pause when he recognized the precise lines and surprisingly neat labeling as Tony’s work.

 

Gibbs took a deep breath and released it slowly. No one on his team did hand drawn sketches any more.  The used a computer program to plot the information gathered at the scene. He’d forgotten how much detail Tony added to his drawings, so many little things that either Ziva or McGee didn’t pick up on or the computer program didn’t allow for.  And there were always little notes in the margins—sometimes useful things like the witness names or the time they’d gotten to the scene, and sometimes unrelated things like a movie the situation reminded Tony of.

 

This sketch was surprisingly free of any side notations. Gibbs frowned.  Maybe Tony no longer did that.  Or maybe he didn’t see the need since they were only supposed to be back up for Vice on this case.

 

Gibbs missed those little insights.  He shook his head, eyes moving from the photo to Tony.  In a few days he could talk to him directly.  Gibbs nodded to himself.  “I’m thinking positively here, DiNozzo, just like Abby told me to.”

 

Feeling a little silly talking to Tony when he knew he couldn’t talk back, Gibbs redirected his focus to the file again.  There were a few shots from the actual bust.  In spite of the low light levels, the resolution was still good. Gibbs couldn’t tell if they were stills isolated from streaming video or camera shots. Whoever took them did a good job catching licenses plates of the arriving vehicles as well as the faces of each person readily visible.

 

Someone had probably already searched the DMV database for the names and address for the owners of each car.  But it wouldn’t hurt to confirm that. If they had, then Gibbs wanted to know what they found. If they hadn’t, then he wanted someone to get on it.

 

Gibbs recognized Kort immediately. The girlfriend was only vaguely familiar.  He’d seen her once, from a distance, when they’d gone to Canada with Ducky taking the place of the British dealer who’d died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  Gibbs hadn’t really paid much attention to the woman; he’d been more focused on Benoit, Ducky and the Director.

 

Some were labeled and Gibbs quickly realized the ones with names were among the dead or wounded.  Fingerprints would have made identifying anyone in the system fairly easy.  It was putting names to the ones that managed to get away or weren’t on file that was the challenge.  Abby’s facial recognition software might be helpful in naming them.  He didn’t know if she packed it, but he’d told her to bring everything she might need that she could carry.  Hopefully the program was already on her laptop.

 

There was no name for the buyer Kort had been meeting.  He had evidently been one who’d managed to escape the chaos.  Gibbs glared at the shot of him holding a gun to Kort’s head.  The girlfriend would undoubtedly know who Kort had been meeting.  Although, what she new was more than likely an alias, it could still give them a viable starting point.

 

Did she know Kort was with the CIA?  Could she have been the one to betray him?

 

Gibbs frowned.  The girlfriend was certainly a viable suspect.  She’d known Rene Benoit. She might have even liked the man enough to feel obligated to avenge him.

 

Gibbs grimaced. Thinking about women hell bent on vengeance led him to Shepard.  If she had been the one to break Kort’s cover, who had she told?  It wasn’t like they moved in the same circles.  Getting the information to the buyer Kort had met would have taken some deft planning.

 

Had Shepard done more than simply leak his identity?  Had she set him up to die in Houston or was it just dumb luck his getting killed where Tony now worked? The city was out of La Grenouille’s usual operating area.  Maybe Kort hadn’t planned to expand into new areas but was offered a deal he couldn’t resist.

 

Gibbs didn’t know if Shepard would have the ability to make that happen, but he wouldn’t put it past her.  There were drug connections in South America NCIS regularly monitored.  She could easily have encouraged someone to expand their markets.  He’d get McGee or one of Tony’s teammates to look into that and see what turned up.

 

Shepard had been keeping an eye on weapons dealers for more than a decade.  She would know the ins and outs of the trade. It wouldn’t be impossible for her to have set up Kort.

 

Getting Kort killed was one thing.  Making sure it was done in Houston would be another.  It would mean Shepard might have seen Tony as a loose end as well.  While the clusterfuck of two nights ago couldn’t have been predicted, if Kort had simply been killed during the deal, it was likely that Tony’s team would get assigned to lead the investigation. 

 

It would be exactly the sort of thing the Major Case Squad had been set up to handle.  The weapons alone would have been enough to remove it from the Vice Squad’s purview.  It wouldn’t be hard for the mystery buyer to arrange a drive buy shooting, or some other means of dealing with the detectives working the case.  That scenario became even more likely if someone made it known that Tony and Kort knew one another, that they’d worked together at one point.  The mystery buyer might well assume Kort had shared information with Tony.  He might not believe in coincidence either.   Suddenly a guard on Tony and Lundy didn’t seem like an unnecessary precaution.

 

Gibbs took off his glasses and rubbed tiredly at his eyes.  All this was conjecture, and it seemed like a lot of effort for one person to go to.  Was Shepard really that vindictive?  Gibbs sighed, deciding that yes she could very well be that nasty.

 

She’d spent years focused on getting La Grenouille.  She could just as easily devote the same time and attention to ensuring his death continued to be ruled as a suicide.  That was her ultimate revenge---making sure his death was just as ignominious as her father’s.  Kort hadn’t killed Benoit.  And as LaFiamma had pointed out, that made him a liability to Shepard’s plan.  She also knew Tony didn’t think Kort had actually killed Rene Benoit, and he definitely didn’t think the man had shot himself in the head.

 

Gibbs didn’t think he had either. Although, he’d never come right out and accused Shepard of killing the man, she had to know he suspected her.  She knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t just drop an unsolved murder.  Did she know he and Tony had discussed it?  That they were still looking for proof? That he’d made copies of the case file?

 

Gibbs found himself checking his weapon, making sure the action moved smoothly, and the clip was fully loaded.  He didn’t like where his thoughts were taking him and he silently cursed LaFiamma for pointing him in that direction in the first place. 

 

Gibbs looked at his watch.  He was sorely tempted to call McGee and get him working now, but he knew there wasn’t much that could be done from a plane.  They’d be on the ground in another hour. 

 

Gibbs pulled his shoes back on and stood up.  He reached for Tony’s hand, holding it gently for several moments.  He didn’t want to leave, but to keep Tony safe he had to at least talk to LaFiamma again.  He needed a sounding board and someone he could trust to talk to about what he suspected.  And he needed to arrange for additional security, just in case.

 

“I’m going to go talk with LaFiamma again.  I want to pick his brain a bit about what happened during the bust.  See if he’s got any more insights to offer.  I don’t have the full picture yet, but I don’t really like the pieces I’ve put together so far are telling me.  When McGee, Ziva and Abby get here, I want them to be able to hit the ground running.”

 

Gibbs cupped Tony’s face, his thumb caressing his cheekbone.  “I’ve got your six.  All you have to worry about it getting better.”

 

He squeezed Tony’s hand, trying to reassure him that everything would be okay even though the younger man wasn’t aware of anything at all at the moment.  It might have been just his imagination but Gibbs could have sworn Tony squeezed back.  He decided to take that as a sign Tony understood and still trusted Gibbs to look out for him.

 

"I won't let you down, DiNozzo."

Chapter Text

Gibbs found himself wanting to look anywhere but at Abby’s distraught face.  She hadn’t taken her eyes off Tony since stepping into the room.  It hurt to see her upset.

 

“I don’t like him being so still.”  Abby’s breathing hitched and Gibbs knew she was close to sobbing. “It’s not natural.”

 

“Abigail, my dear, do not worry.”  Ducky wrapped an arm around her shoulders.  “As soon as the doctors feel his lung has sufficiently recovered from the trauma, they will cease administering the drugs keeping him in a coma.  He will not be so still then.”

 

“Really?”

 

“I would not lie to you, Abigail.”

 

Abby’s hands flailed for a moment, mutely expressing all the agitation she clearly felt.  “I know you wouldn’t lie Ducky, but—“

 

“I have spoken with his doctor.” Ducky neatly interrupted her before all her worry and fear could build up too much steam.  “I have reviewed Anthony’s injuries and his care in great detail.  I agree with Dr. Kline’s assessment.  He will recover from this.”

 

Ducky’s blue eyes rested on Tony. His lips curled upward in a fond, paternal smile.  “Oh he may not compete in one of those silly Ironman competitions he’s been threatening to enter, but he should be able to resume his normal activities.”

 

Abby sighed softly, leaning into the ME.  “Thanks, Ducky.”

 

Gibbs clenched his jaw, resisting the urge to thank Ducky too. He didn’t want anyone to know he’d ever been worried.  He told them Tony would be okay when they’d arrived at the hospital.  He couldn’t look like he doubted his own assurances.

 

Gibbs looked away from Abby to check on Ziva.  To anyone who didn’t know her, she seemed outwardly calm, unaffected.  Gibbs knew better.  Her eyes were overly bright, and her stance just a little too rigid.

 

Ziva’s gaze drifted from Tony to LaFiamma.  Tony’s cousin stood near the other bed in the room where Lundy now resided.  After Gibbs had talked to him, LaFiamma had arranged for Lundy and Tony to share a larger room.  It had taken surprising little effort on his part, and Gibbs strongly suspected LaFiamma had simply been biding his time, looking for a good reason to put Tony and Lundy in a room together so he could keep an eye on both of them.

 

Gibbs wasn’t sure how LaFiamma convinced the staff to go along with him.  It wasn’t exactly unusual for two patients to share a room, but it wasn’t standard procedure for those getting critical care to have roommates either.  Right now Gibbs didn’t really care how LaFiamma had pulled if off; he was just relieved he had been able to do it. Given the fact that LaFiamma was habitually, almost compulsively armed, his presence meant that much more protection for Tony.

 

LaFiamma’s blue eyes coolly met Ziva’s brown. A glint of humor was readily apparent in his expression, reminiscent of the way Tony often looked when he was challenging people without being directly confrontational.  LaFiamma wasn’t quite daring Ziva to comment on his presence, but he wasn’t far from it either.

 

She lifted her chin, glaring at him.  LaFiamma just smiled.  He knew precisely who and what she was, and it didn’t seem to bother him a bit that she’d been trained in how to kill a man a hundred ways with just a paperclip.

 

If it came down to a real fight, Gibbs wasn’t sure who he’d bet on.  Ziva might have what Abby and Tony both characterized as ‘mad, bad, crazy ninja skills’, but LaFiamma was no slouch.  There was no way to know exactly what sort of weaponry he had on his person or how free he’d feel to be able to use it.  Somehow Gibbs couldn’t picture LaFiamma refraining from fighting dirty if he thought it necessary---and when it came to defending his family, Gibbs knew it would be no holds barred. What he didn’t know was if LaFiamma viewed Ziva as a threat or an ally. 

 

Gibbs was quietly relieved when McGee cleared his throat, breaking the tension and drawing everyone’s attention to him. McGee stood just inside the doorway, almost as if he was afraid to enter further into the room.  His expression was pensive and uncertain.  It made him look as young as he did when Gibbs had first met him.

 

“You said a bust went bad.”  McGee licked his lips nervously.  “Exactly what happened, Boss?”

 

Gibbs nodded his approval of McGee’s getting them all to focus on something productive.  They couldn’t do anything directly for Tony---at least not at the moment.  Finding the bastards who did this to him was definitely a priority.  Anything else could wait.

 

Gibbs gave them the basic run down of the bust and what he knew of the case so far.  He kept his voice neutral, refusing to gloss over the details of how Tony had come to be injured, forcing himself to ignore Abby’s gasps, McGee’s flinch and the look of disapproval Ducky leveled at him for upsetting both of them.  Ziva paled, but remained otherwise stoic throughout his recitation.  They needed to know what happened, and Gibbs knew there was damn little he could do to soften the blow.  It was always better to simply rip the band-aid off rather than go slow with it. 

 

He handed off the file Dewing had given him to McGee. “Look that over.” 

 

Gibbs wanted the younger agent review what they already had and see if there was anything Gibbs might have missed.  He didn’t mention his suspicions about Shepard being involved.  Gibbs wanted him to review things independently.  It was possible he and LaFiamma were reading more into the situation than it warranted.

 

LaFiamma had agreed with Gibbs’ intent for have fresh eyes review the information without any influence from him.  Lundy had even voiced a sleepy second, surprising Gibbs with how aware he sounded given how out if it he’d seem earlier.   Dewing might well win her bet on how soon he’d be trying to get out of bed.

 

If McGee came arrived at the same theory, then what they suspected could genuine.  But Gibbs didn’t want McGee overlooking anything by accepting his theory as gospel.  He could pursue finding more concrete proof to back up what he suspected about Shepard on his own or with help from LaFiamma if necessary.   

 

Actually, he knew he’d be getting help from LaFiamma.  It wasn’t like him to sit on the sidelines.  The man was too much like Tony for that.

 

His partner wasn’t much better.  Before Lundy had fallen asleep again, shortly after being moved into the new room, he had suggested a few names for LaFiamma to contact.  LaFiamma had nodded, evidently familiar with the people Lundy referred to.  He assured Gibbs their contacts could do some discreet digging into how Kort had ended Houston.  LaFiamma would likely be on the phone as soon as Gibbs and his team left. 

 

“McGee, you’ll be working with Dewing or Mendez.  I’m not sure which.  You’ll need to find out what progress they’ve made since I got that,” he pointed to the file McGee held, “and see what more needs to be done.”

 

McGee nodded.  By now he knew what he should be looking for, what questions to ask and where to find the answers.  Gibbs had already given him some direction, rattling off a list of things he’d want McGee to look into when he’d given in and called him earlier, checking to see if their plane had landed yet and how soon they’d be arriving at the hospital. 

 

“Abby, I need you to work with Annie Hartung.”

 

“I remember her.”  Abby looked at him, her eyes still bright with unshed tears but her lower lip no longer trembled.  “She worked with us before.”

 

“Yes, she did.”  Gibbs nodded. Hartung was a good forensic scientist.  Not quite in Abby’s league, but then there weren’t many who were.  “I want you to help her identify what the explosives were made of, where they came from and how they ended up in Houston.”

 

“I can do that,” Abby’s head bobbed.  Ordinarily, she might have protested working with someone else, preferring to run her own lab, but nothing about this situation was usual for them.  Gibbs was pleased Abby seemed calmer having a direction and knowing she could help.

 

“What would you have me do, Jethro?”  Ducky asked expectantly.  “I could help out the local ME.  Dr. Sixkiller, I believe his name was, if my memory serves.  He might appreciate some assistance.  So many bodies to handle at once is no picnic.”

 

“Dr. Mallard, there’s no real mystery over how anyone died, when or why.” LaFiamma interjected quietly, surprising Gibbs not only because of the polite tone, but also because he clearly remembering Ducky’s name and specialty.  Gibbs wasn’t sure if the two of them had ever been introduced. 

 

“We got more issue with identifying who they are and which players we’re still missing.”

 

LaFiamma gave Ducky an apologetic look.  “Don’t know what other skills you bring to the party, Sir, but Sixkiller won’t need any help in the morgue.”

 

With a sudden moment of insight Gibbs realized he shouldn’t have been surprised by the polite tones or show of respect.  Tony’s friendship with Ducky had never been damaged; Tony had probably spoken of him often, and likely very highly when he did.  LaFiamma had only shown open hostility and suspicion when it came to the team members he thought had done Tony a disservice. Gibbs decided not to dwell on how many of the team that encompassed and how deserving they were of LaFiamma’s initial dislike and distrust.

 

Ducky smiled at LaFiamma. “Call me, Ducky, please.  Everyone does.”

 

“Ducky it is then.”  LaFiamma dipped his head, smiling in response.  The warm, friendly expression made him seem like someone else entirely---someone harmless, approachable, easy to like and trust.  It reminded Gibbs of Tony, and he mentally cursed, not needing the distraction. 

 

“Duck, I’d like you to stay here with Tony.”  Gibbs fought back the need to look at the injured younger man and to reach out and touch him.  He needed to focus on the case and what he could do.  It was all he could do for Tony right now.

 

“I want one of us here at all times.”   He knew LaFiamma would look out for him.  And to some extent Lundy—so much as his current condition allowed.  But it wasn’t the same as having someone from his team there.

 

“Certainly, Jethro.”

 

He knew Ducky would understand he was being entrusted with a task Gibbs wouldn’t have given to just anyone.  He wanted someone he trusted to know what was best for Tony when it came to medical stuff.  LaFiamma and the uniformed cop still outside could handle any other threat.

 

“And me, Gibbs?”  Ziva asked, arching an eyebrow.  She was obviously wondering why he hadn’t assigned her to work with McGee.

 

“You’ll be with me.”

 

She nodded.  “Doing what?”

 

Questioning him was something she’d only started to really do after Tony had left.  It used to be the only one comfortable challenging him was Tony.  It was the duty of a good second to question authority on occasion, to be the voice of reason when necessary, and the responsibility of a good investigator to constantly seek more information.  Tony’s natural curiosity, independent nature, and good instincts had made him one of the best agents Gibbs had worked with.  Gibbs didn’t know whether to be proud of Ziva or resent her for stepping in to fill aspects of what had been Tony’s place.

 

Gibbs smiled tightly, opting to ignore his ambiguous emotions and focus on answering her question.  “We’re going to question Kort’s girlfriend.”

 

The smile Ziva responded with was almost feral.  "It will be my pleasure."

 

“Good.”  Gibbs nodded.  “Let’s go.”

 

“In a moment, Jethro.”  Ducky clucked his tongue.  “I think the others might like a word with Anthony before leaving.”

                              

Gibbs could almost hear Dewing’s earlier command to talk to Tony and let him know he was there echoing in his ear.  He hadn’t been wrong in thinking Ducky would have agreed with her advice.  He was equally sure Ducky would see them speaking to Tony as being therapeutic for the team.  They’d come all this way to help him, to be there for him, they’d want him to know that.

 

Gibbs sighed silently, nodding his agreement.  He could be a bastard, but he wasn’t so much of one he’d deny his team a chance to have a moment with Tony.  It was, after all, why he’d had Dewing bring them here first.

 

Abby was already moving toward the bed, and Gibbs nearly bit his tongue to keep from admonishing her to be careful. Tony wasn’t up to Abby’s usual exuberant greeting.  He was ashamed of himself for not having more faith in her when Abby gently took Tony’s hand, bending down to whisper something in his ear.  She kissed his cheek, leaving a bit of her lipstick behind.

 

Abby smiled in evident satisfaction.  “That will give the nurses something to talk about.”

 

Ziva was next. She eyed LaFiamma warily before actually moving closer to Tony.  LaFiamma didn’t look inclined to stop her, but he watched her every movement just the same.  Gibbs wondered if LaFiamma distrusted her because she’d been an assassin or he was suspicious of her because of something Tony had told him.  It could just be that he was yanking her chain, knowing his presence made her uncomfortable. That would certainly fit the character of the man.

 

Ziva spoke to Tony in Hebrew.  Gibbs knew that while he was in Mexico Tony had made an effort to learn some of Ziva’s native language.  He didn’t know if Tony had mastered enough to understand her, but if he could actually hear her, there would be no mistaking it was Ziva speaking to him.

 

Gibbs expected her to touch him and was genuinely surprised when she didn’t.  He realized he shouldn’t have been.  She wasn’t as physical in her displays of affection as Abby.  And in all the time Tony and Ziva worked together, they rarely touched casually.  It was usually accidental or if the job required it.  Gibbs wondered if was just Ziva’s reserved nature that maintained the distance, or if it was Rule 12 that made Tony ensure there was some physical as well as emotional space between them. 

 

McGee seemed reluctant to approach Tony. He shot a helpless look at Gibbs and then Ducky.  “I don’t know what to say.”

 

“Just say hello, Timothy,” Ducky told him gently, making it see perfectly natural to speak to someone unconscious.  But then, Ducky talked to dead people, Gibbs mused, it was hardly unusual for him hold entire conversations with people who couldn’t talk back.

 

McGee nodded.  He cleared his throat.  His cheeks flushed, clearly aware everyone in the room was watching him and waiting for him to say something.  Gibbs felt a surge of pride when McGee squared his shoulders and spoke to Tony, sounding far more confident than he appeared.

 

“Tony, it’s McGee.  We’re here and Gibbs has us working on the case with your team.  We’ll get the guys who did this.  Once we get it wrapped up, I’m looking forward to kicking your ass in World of Warcraft III.” 

 

LaFiamma chuckled, a warm and surprisingly lighthearted sound.  “Ten bucks says he takes you down without breaking a sweat.”

 

McGee eyed him.  “Do you play?”

 

LaFiamma grinned.  “Who do you think showed him how?”

 

Gibbs blinked.  He’d thought LaFiamma was more like Tony when it came to technology---reasonably proficient but not enamored of it the way McGee and Abby were.  He shook his head.  At some point these people would stop surprising him, he was sure of it.

 

“Can we go now?” Gibbs asked sarcastically.

 

Ziva, Abby and McGee immediately headed for the door.  Gibbs thought he might have caught Ducky ‘tsking’ quietly and muttering something about the demise of common courtesy.  LaFiamma just gave him a look that was equal parts a challenge to find some answers and an inducement to be careful.  Gibbs had always thought the only one who could say so much with his eyes without ever speaking a word was Tony.  Evidently it was a talent that ran in the family.


He tossed off a casual two finger salute.  “I’ll call when I have something.”

 

“I’ll do the same.”

Chapter Text

Gibbs watched through the one way mirror as a uniformed officer escorted Kort’s girlfriend into the interrogation room.  Her dirty blonde hair had escaped the small jeweled clips that had once held it in place in a style that was no doubt intended to be chic and sophisticated but now looked disheveled and messy.  Her white blouse had been pristine once, Gibbs was sure, but that was some time ago.  It now sported soot stains and wrinkles.  There was a tear in the knee of her slacks and scuff marks on her designer pumps.  Obviously she’d been close to the action when the bust went down.

 

Gibbs frowned.  It was going on three days since the bust went bad.  Why was Kort’s girlfriend still in the same clothes?  Why hadn’t she at least showered, combed her hair?

 

“Is there a reason you have not allowed her the opportunity to clean herself up?” Ziva asked before Gibbs could voice his own question.

 

“Oh we offered,” Dewing’s tone was mild, not taking offence at the implied criticism in Ziva’s question, “but Ms. Sofia Loire was insulted by the choice of clothing offered and lack of expensive name brand personal hygiene products.”

 

“Not a jeans and Safeguard sort of lady,” the tech specialist manning the recording equipment offered with a smirk.

 

He and Dewing shared a smile.  Dewing’s blue eyes positively danced with humor before once more meeting Ziva’s.  “Since, she refused to make use of what was offered the first time, we haven’t seen fit to make the offer a second time.”

 

“It is rude to refuse hospitality when it is offered,” Ziva said quietly, her tone suggesting she shared in their amusement. “She should not have been so picky.”

 

Dewing dipped her head.  “Exactly.”

 

“You bet on when she’ll crack and demand a shower and a change of clothes?”

 

Dewing grinned in response to Gibbs’ question.  “Natch.”

 

Gibbs smiled in spite of himself.  It wasn’t strictly vindictive, nor was it truly petty, but there was no denying they were enjoying deliberately making Loire’s life uncomfortable.  Dewing had mentioned earlier cuffing and gagging Loire when she got mouthy and aggressive.  He wondered if that was before or after she’d been offered a chance to clean up.

 

Little things like that would probably make her crack as well as any form of torture, and it would never even leave a mark.  Gibbs had to give the Houston team credit for making the most of their options.  He was reminded of Beaumont’s earlier comment, ‘Playing by the rules doesn’t mean you can’t play to win’. Obviously her people took that to heart.

 

“Tell me about her,” Gibbs directed, sipping his coffee, pleased to find it the way he liked it.

 

“As far as we can tell she is really who she claims to be…Sofia Loire, native of France with dual citizenship in Canada.  She isn’t married.  Never has been married as far as we can tell; so no ex-husbands out there to worry about.  She has no children or siblings.  Mother is dead, father is alive but she doesn’t’ appear to be close to him.”

 

Dewing brushed her hair back, tucking it behind her ear.  “Loire graduated from college in Quebec fifteen years ago with a degree in business administration.  Two years later she went to work for Rene Benoit and worked for him until his death last year.”

 

“What exactly did she do for him?”

 

“Best way to sum it up, I’d say she was Pepper Potts to his Tony Stark.”

 

“What?’  Gibbs blinked, not understanding the reference.

 

To his surprise it was Ziva how answered. “They are characters from a movie based on a comic book hero, Gibbs.  Tony Stark was an industrialist who made weapons for the US Military before being wounded in Afghanistan and building a suit of armor that allowed him to fly becoming known as Ironman. Pepper Potts was personal assistant.  His Girl Monday.”

 

“Friday,” Gibbs corrected her.  “It’s Girl Friday.”

 

“Friday, Monday, whatever.”  Ziva waved a hand in dismissal.  “She did whatever he needed done from balancing his checkbook to setting up business meetings and reading his e-mail.”

 

“Ironman?” Gibbs asked, his tone dry, both eyebrows rising.

 

Ziva looked away, a blush staining her cheekbones. “Tony insisted I go to see it.  I am not a fan of comic books and did not think it would be worth watching.  I was surprised to find it better than I expected.  Robert Downey Jr. acted rather well in the hero role, which I suppose is not too surprising given that Tony Stark was a rich playboy with alcohol issues.  I am sure Downey’s own personal experiences served him well there.  Jeff Bridges as a villain was a bit surprising since he has never really struck me—“

 

Gibbs gave her a dark look in lieu of a head slap to stop her rambling commentary.  It had been months since he’d heard anyone use a movie to explain something.  And no one but Tony ever spouted off details about actors and characters.  Gibbs didn’t know if it was simply seeing Tony that prompted Ziva to do so, or it if it was Dewing starting it with the initial reference.  Either way, Gibbs didn’t want any more, his look making his feelings on the matter clear.  If anyone was going to drive him nuts with that sort of thing it would be Tony.

 

“You two done?” Dewing asked, lips curling upward in an amused smile. “Or should I give you more time to discuss how the movie ends?”

 

Gibbs shifted his glared to Dewing.  “Carry on.”

 

“Okay then.”  She continued, unfazed by his glare or his tone.  “For all he was suspected of, no one was ever able to pin anything on Rene Benoit.  In spite of her role within his organization or maybe because of it, no one has ever pinned anything on Ms. Loire either.”

 

“She’s never been charged with anything?”

 

“Not even so much as a parking ticket.  Doesn’t look like she’s ever been hauled in for questioning either.  At least not that we can find.”

 

Dewing took a sip from the water bottle she held.  It looked like some sort of flavored crap that Tony had mentioned a preference for.  Gibbs wondered if Dewing got him started on it, or if it was the other way around.

 

“When Benoit died,” Dewing frowned, and then waved a hand in a dismissive gesture, “was murdered, committed suicide…however you want to characterize his abrupt departure from this world, Loire went to work for his successor, your good buddy, Trent Kort.”

 

Gibbs bit back a snarl at her reference to Kort as his ‘good buddy’.  He might not have hated the man but he sure as hell didn’t like him.

 

Dewing pursed her lips thoughtfully, watching Loire through the one way mirror.  “I have a feeling that Loire was actually what you’d call key management material.  She wasn’t in charge, but she probably knows more about how things are done than anyone else in the organization.  Kort would have kept her on, doing the same job, even if they weren’t an item before Benoit died.  And if she hadn’t been useful, I can’t see how he’d have kept her one regardless of how good she was in bed.”

 

Dewing sipped her water again, her eyes tracking Loire’s movements as she tried to restore some order to her hair.  “There were some rumors that she might be the Lady Macbeth in this little drama.  She and Kort working together to kill the king, and seize the throne.”

 

She gave Gibbs a slant-eyed look.  “Of course, we know that’s a crock of shit, but the rumor has such a nice poetic ring to it.”

 

Dewing sipped her water once more.  “The real question here is if she was in on taking out Kort or just caught up in it like the rest of us.  Nothing in what we’ve found pegs her as being ambitious enough to want to run the show, but Benoit’s death might have shown her options she hadn’t considered before.  And there are other female big name players in that arena so it isn’t like she’d be the first one to make a bid at playing in with the big boys.”

 

Black Rose, Gibbs thought, was a good example of that.  She had nearly out bid La Grenouille, and was no slouch when it came to the international arms trade. She might have seen Benoit’s death as an opportunity to expand her own operation.  And she could have thought taking out Kort was one way to ensure she’d be able to.  Wouldn’t be the first time one rival offed another.  But Gibbs doubted that was the case, but it might be something else to have McGee and Ziva look into.

 

“Even if she wasn’t part of some plot to take Kort out…she no doubt has a good idea about who would want him dead.  I can’t honestly tell how she felt about him.”  Dewing sighed softly.  “Loire hasn’t seemed overly devastated by Kort’s demise, but then she could be a reserved sort not prone to dramatic displays--”

 

“Or she could be a stone cold bitch.” Gibbs finished the sentence for her.

 

“Yep.”  Dewing shrugged one shoulder.  “Can’t really tell you if she knew he was CIA or not.  All the digging we did on Kort, even knowing who and what he was, didn’t turn up that connection.  His cover should have been rock solid, and so far as we know, it was… right up until he got shot in the head.”

 

She finished her water, tossing the empty bottle into the nearby trash can with an easy hook shot Tony would have appreciated.  “Mendez has her laptop and blackberry.  Hopefully, he and McGee can get something off that which will tell us more.”

 

“Encrypted?” Ziva asked.

 

“Probably.”

 

“You don’t know?”  Gibbs frowned.  “Why haven’t you people already powered it up and started working on it?”

 

Dewing’s pointed look made it clear she wasn’t happy with his inference they’d been lazy or careless.  “Between the explosion and the fire we were lucky to recover them at all, Special Agent Gibbs.”

 

Full use of his title made him wince internally.  He seemed to be constantly putting his foot in his mouth around this woman.

 

“The armor plating in the car she and Kort arrived at the scene in protected the electronic equipment to some degree, but I’m not sure how much.  I have no idea if they even work much less what sort of security measures may be in place. Mendez has been working on it but it’s not his area of expertise.  Hell we don’t have anyone on staff who could claim to be an expert at that shit. Maybe your wunderkind will have better luck.”

 

Gibbs grimaced.  Technology was such a fickle thing.  He sighed silently, regretting his earlier question but unwilling to apologize for it.  He should be grateful Loire didn’t keep notes on paper.  Those would have been reduced to ash.

 

“If there is anything on them, McGee will find it.” 

 

“Good.”  Dewing’s tone was curt. “I’d hate to think all that bragging about his skill was nothing but hot air.”

 

Her cornflower blue eyes measured him.  “We haven’t just been sitting on our hands, Special Agent Gibbs.  In addition to looking out for our injured, finding out what I just told you about Loire, identifying the dead, collecting evidence from the crime scene and analyzing it, we’ve also been careful to keep all the details out of the papers.  Beaumont got them to run the story as a case of arson.  They think Major Crimes is involved because several bodies were found in the rubble.”

 

The muscles in Dewing’s jaw flexed as she clenched her teeth and then relaxed them.  She huffed out a breath that seemed to disperse her earlier anger.  Gibbs knew she hadn’t forgiven him for his stupidity; she’d just elected to let it go. He had a feeling she wouldn’t let another faux pas on his part pass again so easily.  He made a note to tread more carefully in the future.

 

“We’ve made sure to keep the DEA out of this.  What went down is clearly not in their purview even if they were a part of it initially.  The last thing we need is a federal agency riding roughshod over things.”

 

Gibbs had forgotten they were even involved at the outset.  He mentally slapped himself.  Those were not the sort of details he should be losing sight of.  Being worried about Tony was no excuse.

 

“I’m not sure how long we can keep the CIA out of the loop.  Kort is in the morgue as a John Doe for now. We aren’t going to put his prints in the system for an official ID until we got a few more answers as to what the hell happened and why.”

 

Putting Kort’s prints in the system would be like waving a red flag.  The CIA would know someone was running an ID search and would arrive in short order to do whatever damage control they thought the situation needed.  Having them show up would mean the case was beyond Houston PD’s control, and even NCIS.  Just digging into Loire’s past had probably already alerted them that something was ‘hinky’.

 

Dewing grimaced.  “The agency is bound to come looking for their lost lamb eventually.  And someone had to know he was coming here.  We’re running out of time to put the pieces together.”

 

“Tony said interrogation was what you do best, Gibbs.” Dewing pointed toward Loire.  “How about you get us some answers.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He swallowed the last of his coffee, tossing the empty cup as he left the observation room.  Ziva followed him, on his left and a step behind.   Even after months of her taking what had been Tony’s place Gibbs still wasn’t used to her being there and not him.

 

Gibbs took a breath before entering the interrogation room, releasing it slowly. He kept his face impassive as he opened the door abruptly, ignoring the way Sofia Loire jumped slightly at his entrance.  She recaptured her poise easily enough, looking down her nose at him in a superior manner.

 

“You aren’t my attorney.” Her accent made it clear English was not her first language.

 

“Nope.”

 

“I thought I made it clear I wouldn’t be speaking to anyone here without legal representation. Perhaps my English is not as good as I’d thought.”

 

Gibbs ignored her comments, taking the seat facing Loire.  Ziva remained standing, off to one side.  For Loire to look at her, she’d have to turn her head.  It was a standard ploy, one that would make it difficult for Loire to focus on both of them at once.

 

“Perhaps it is not my English that is the problem.  Maybe all the police officers here are deaf and stupid,” Loire sneered.

 

“I’m not a cop.”

 

She frowned, eyeing him warily.  “What are you then?”

 

“I’m a federal agent.”

 

She nervously licked her lips.  “Who are you?”

 

“I’m Special Agent Gibbs.”  He deliberately left off out what agency he worked for, waiting for her to draw her own conclusions.  He didn’t introduce Ziva either.  Not knowing who she was or her affiliation was another way of keeping Loire off balance.

 

Loire’s eyes narrowed.  “I sincerely hope you’re with the FBI.  I’ve been kidnapped.”

 

Referencing the FBI was a shot in the dark.  Gibbs could see it in her eyes.  She didn’t think he was with that agency, but she was hoping he was.  If he was FBI, then he wasn’t CIA.  Gibbs wasn’t absolutely certain she knew Kort was an agent, but he his gut was rumbling toward that conclusion.

 

“You have not been kidnapped, Sofia,” Ziva said softly, drawing Loire’s attention to her, deliberately using her first name knowing it would further throw the other woman off balance---especially when she had no idea who Ziva was.

 

Loire stiffened.  She could have been upset by Ziva contradicting her assertion.  But Gibbs had a feeling her outrage was due more to Ziva’s use of her first name---it was a familiarity Loire likely didn’t grant to strangers.

 

“I’m being held against my will.” Loire glared at Ziva, daring her to contradict her.

 

“You are a material witness.” Ziva’s statement was matter-of-fact.

 

Loire rolled her eyes.  “Oh please, I can’t tell you anything.”

 

“Can’t or won’t?”

 

Loire’s jaw tightened.  She tapped her nails against the table in obvious frustration and discomfort.  “You have no right—“

 

“Sure we do.” Gibbs’ cut her off, forcing her to face him again.  “You’re not just a witness, you’re also a suspect in multiple homicides.”

 

“I didn’t kill anyone.”  Loire vehemently declared.

 

“But you were there when they got killed.”

 

“You can’t prove that.”

 

Gibbs leveled a disbelieving look at her.  Her grasping at straws annoyed him.

 

“You were pulled from a burning building where a gun deal went bad.  You don’t honestly expect me to believe it was just some sort of freaky coincidence, do you?”

 

"It doesn't prove I saw anything." Loire lifted her chin. “I could have simply been in the area.

 

“You always spend time loitering around warehouses?”  Gibbs arched an eyebrow.  “Wouldn’t have thought you were the type.”

 

“She could be just that type,” Ziva gave Loire a suggestive look, laced with innuendo.

 

“Maybe she was slumming, Gibbs.”  Ziva’s smile was hard, nasty. “Perhaps she was looking for a good time guy for the night.   Is that right, Sofia?  You had an itch to scratch.  One Kort could not quite reach for you.  You wanted someone cheap.  A little rough and dirty might have been just what you needed.”

 

“How dare you!!” Loire moved to stand up, outrage adding color to her face. She looked ready to scratch out Ziva’s eyes.

 

“Sit down.”  Gibbs snapped out the command without raising his voice. 

 

Loire sat.  She made eye contact and then looked away.   

 

“I am not interested in playing games.”  Gibbs leaned forward, his voice even more biting for its lack of volume. “We know you worked for Rene Benoit.  After he died, you went to work for Trent Kort.  Both of them sold weapons they shouldn’t have been able to get to people who aren’t supposed to have them. You aren’t some innocent bystander, so cut the crap.”

 

Gibbs sat back.  “Tell me about what went down at the warehouse.”

 

“I will not discuss anything without my attor—“

 

“People are dead and I want answers.” Gibbs slammed his hand on the table making Loire jump. “You aren’t going to get to speak to your damn attorney until you tell me what I want to know.”

 

She spat out something in French too fast for Gibbs to catch it all.  He assumed there were some statements regarding his parentage and more than a few curse words.  Ziva put a hand on Loire’s shoulder; she squeezed none too gently if the look on Loire’s face was anything to go by.  Tony had always referred to it as ‘Ziva’s Vulcan Death Grip’.  Gibb wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but he did know it worked.  He wasn’t sure what Ziva whispered in her ear, but Loire froze reminding Gibbs of a rabbit that knew it had been spotted by a hawk.  She paled, her mouth closing with an audible snap.

 

Knowing she was close to cooperating, Gibbs leaned forward again, invading her space without really crowding her.  “You can start by telling me what Trent Kort was doing in Houston.  I need to know what got him killed.”

 

Loire made eye contact with Gibbs.  She looked tired and worn down.  She wasn’t exactly a tough nut, at least not when on her own.  Gibbs suspected that if Loire thought she had any sort of support, any back up at all, she’d hold out for as long as it took.  But she didn’t have balls enough to stand on her own for long.   Dewing had already done a fine job of whittling her down just by denying her things she’d taken for granted, restricting her movements and her choices, emphasizing how alone she was by surrounding her with hostile and indifferent strangers.  

 

“They told me he was dead.” Loire’s hands clenched into fists, knuckles white with tension and strain.  “You say he his dead, too.  Is that…is that true?”

 

It was possible in the chaos of what happened Loire might not have seen Kort get shot in the head.  No one had said exactly where she was when the deal went down, just that she was there.  She’d never even left the plane on the one deal Gibbs had witnessed with Benoit.  Loire might not normally get a front row seat for the action. 

 

For all her dealings with the sale of weapons, she might never have actually fired one or understood how lethal they truly were.  She might have thought the police had lied to her to make her cooperate, to get her to turn on him and provide incriminating information. She been holding out this long thinking Kort might still be able to get her out of this mess.

 

“Yes, he’s dead.”

 

She swallowed hard.  “He always told me not to worry.  No matter how ugly things seemed, he told me he would be fine.  He always had an escape plan.  A way out.”  Her gaze shifted, and she focused on something only she could see.  “He said he was like a cat and he had plenty of lives.”

 

Loire cleared her throat.  “It would not be the first time the CIA manufactured someone’s death to give him a new lease on life.  I had hoped that might be the case here.”

 

“Do you want to look at his body?”  Ziva asked, the question far more gentle than Gibbs would have expected.   But then Ziva knew going to see his body wouldn’t be pretty.  Getting hit at point blank range in the head tended to do a lot of damage, but if Loire needed proof Kort was dead in order to talk to them, Gibbs had no problem showing her his body.

 

Loire shook her head slowly, her expression resigned.  Evidently their willingness to show her proof was sufficient for her to believe them.  Her eyes were a bit brighter than they’d been a moment ago.  Maybe she really did care about the man.

 

“You knew he was an agent?” Gibbs asked, sure of the answer based on her earlier comment, but wanting confirmation.  It always helped the case to have things clearly stated and recorded.

 

“Yes, I knew.”

 

“He told you?”

 

“No.” She smiled sadly.  “He never trusted me enough to share a secret that big.  Rene told me shortly before…before he died.”

 

Gibbs considered her answer.  It made sense for what he knew of Kort and Benoit.  Kort would naturally protect his cover at all cost, revealing no more than absolutely necessary regardless of how he might have felt about Loire.  And Benoit, looking to retire and knowing his relationship with Kort was going to end and likely not on good terms, had probably felt some obligation to at least warn her, to give her some idea of what to expect once he left.

 

“Why was Kort in Houston?”

 

“We have been doing business for years with men in Columbia.  They were looking to force out their competition.  They wanted expand and take more direct control of the market in the United States.  They insisted the sale to take place where distribution of the product would be easier to accomplish.  Accommodating a long standing client is just good business.”

 

Gibbs bit back a snarl at her casual reference to ‘long standing client’, ‘distribution of the product’ and ‘good business’.  She made it sound like they were selling something innocuous like produce or toys.  Like there was nothing wrong with selling death wholesale.  He wanted to slap her.  Gibbs took a deep breath and shoved away his anger.

 

When he could speak evenly, Gibbs asked, “These men from Columbia, were they drug dealers?”

 

“I never asked where their money came from.”

 

Ziva snorted delicately.  “But you knew.”

 

“They were Columbians with a lot of money.” Loire’s tone wasn’t quite sarcastic but it definitely had an edge.  “It’s always drugs with them.”

 

“Who were you meeting?”  Gibbs asked.

 

“He called himself El Cato.”  Loire rolled her eyes.  “Not terribly original.”

 

Gibbs nearly snorted.  Like “La Grenoille” was a title with panache? 

 

“Do you know his real name?”

 

“Adriano Nunes.”

 

“You said you’d dealt with him for years?”

 

“Well…Rene had dealt with him for at least three years.  It would have been Trent ’s first meeting with him.”  She took a breath, letting it out slowly. “That was another reason for his agreeing to complete the transaction in Houston. He wanted to make a good impression.”

 

Kort hadn’t expanding Benoit’s operation by coming to Houston, Gibbs thought.  He was simply maintaining an existing relationship.  Probably looking to cement himself further in Benoit’s place.  And letting someone like Nunes set the tone for their first meeting might have made him seem easier to work with than his predecessor.

 

“Did Nunes seem at all reluctant to do business with Kort?”

 

“Mr. Nunes did not seem to care who supplied what he wanted, as long as he got it.”

 

“Was there anything unusual or different than when Nunes dealt with Benoit?”

 

Loire frowned. “Two hours before our scheduled rendezvous he called.  He changed the time and location.”

 

Gibbs realized that could mean someone had tipped Nunes off about Kort’s identity.  Or it could have been because DEA and Houston PD’s surveillance of the area had been spotted. Dewing said there had been several possible sites they were trying to keep an eye on.  The fact that DEA and Vice hadn’t been able to narrow it down was the reason the Major Case Squad had been called in to help out in the first place.

 

“Did Nunes say why he wanted things changed?” Gibbs asked.

 

“I did not ask.”  She shook her head.  “Many clients are paranoid.  It is best not to ask too many questions.”

 

They have good reason to be paranoid, Gibbs thought.  And her not asking wasn’t just being respectful, asking too many questions would be like painting a bull’s eye on her forehead. 

 

“Did you notice anything different about the meeting place?”

 

Loire paused, considering his question.  “There were more people present than usual.”

 

Gibbs’ eyes narrowed.  “More people?”

 

“Typically there are a handful of men around.  No more than necessary.  They check the merchandize; we get paid, and leave.  Very simple, straightforward.”

 

Loire bit her lower lip.  “After Nunes changed things, Trent requested two more men come with us.  Usually, it was just me and him.  But when I saw all the extra people Nunes had, I thought Trent had simply wanted the meeting to be more balanced.  All that grandstanding and bravado stuff men do sometimes.  I thought it was a way for them to show off their authority.  A display of force to impress one another.”

 

Gibbs’ eyes narrowed.  Had the changes tipped off Kort to something not being right?  The added men could have just been his being more cautious.  If he really thought the deal was going to go sour, why show up at all?  Maybe his CIA handler wouldn’t let him back out?  Or more likely, Kort thought he could handle the situation.  He certainly had ego enough to believe that.

 

Loire sighed.  “I should have realized something wasn’t right by the way Nunes’ men openly displayed their weapons.  Everyone is always armed, I know that, but usually they are more discreet.  Rene had his jackets tailored to hide his.  Trent did the same. Most of their clients were equally circumspect.” 

 

Dewing said the team wasn’t surprised by the number of people present.  But then they were expected a drug deal involving gangbangers.  The rules for those were clearly different than selling weapons.  Gangbangers rarely put in much effort hiding their personal arsenal, preferring to display the guns when preparing for any sort of confrontation, often coming with more people than strictly necessary as a show of force.

 

It was enough for Gibbs’ gut that the deal wasn’t ‘normal’.  There had to be a reason for Nunes changed the time and location.  Coming prepared for a fight meant it was far more likely Dewing was right that someone had tipped off Nunes to Kort’s real identity.  There was no good reason for that sort of firepower if Nunes ever intended to do the deal and let Kort leave.  If he simply wanted to double cross the man, there were better and easier ways to do it.  To be there to kill Kort himself suggested this was personal on some level for Nunes.

 

“How did Nunes contact you?”

 

“Initially we communicated via e-mail.  After the first few deals, it was over the phone.”

 

“He called you or Kort?”

 

“It was my job to handle those things.”

 

“I’ll need your contact information, and his.”  Gibbs pulled a small pad from his jacket pocket and a pen.  He offered both to Loire.

 

“I can give you mine easily enough.”  She took the pen and tablet, writing with quick, neat movements.  “I don’t have Nunes’ memorized.  It should be on my blackberry.”

 

“Is it encrypted?”

 

“No.”  She smiled wryly.  “It did not seem necessary to secure it overly much.  It has little more than a calendar and contact information.  Nothing in is truly incriminating, and all of it could be easily explained away with very little effort.”

 

Her laptop might well be another story, but since she didn’t mention it, Gibbs opted not to ask about it.  No point in telling her they’d recovered that as well.  Or that they had people capable of hacking into it.  He really wasn’t sure what they’d do with all the incriminating evidence they found on it…if they found anything at all.

 

Houston PD and NCIS weren’t truly in a position to bring down all the people Benoit and Kort had done business with.  Not that the CIA would even consider letting them.  The goal here wasn’t to stop the sale of weapons; it was to bring down the bastards who had hurt them and theirs.

 

“You will need my login ID and password to access my blackberry.”

 

“And those are?”

 

“My login ID is Fleuve.”

 

River, Gibbs translated silently.  It was hardly subtle or original.  She shared her name with a well known river in France. 

 

“My password is Vallee123.”

 

“Thank you.”  Gibbs took back the tablet, and stood up.  “You’ve been very helpful.”

 

They knew who the players were now.  If Houston PD didn’t have any contacts they could use to find out more on Nunes, Ziva just might.  Between the drugs and guns there was bound to be someone else who’d been keeping an eye on him.

 

They should be able to use Loire’s phone log to get Nunes’ number even if the blackberry was useless.  With any luck a search of both logs would give them something they could use that would indicate who tipped off Nunes to Kort’s real identity.  Knowing who would lead them to why. 

 

Gibbs needed to check in with Abby and Annie Hartung.  They might have found something by now that could help narrow the field as well.  Where the weapons came from was another clue as to who all was involved.

 

“Can I can now?”

 

Loire’s question stopped Gibbs as he was headed for the door.  He turned to look at her.  “No.”

 

“But I cooperated.  I told you what you wanted to know.”

 

“Yes, you did.  But I may have more questions.  And you are still a material witness.  Nunes was not among the dead or wounded.  He may not be satisfied with simply killing Kort if he knows you are still alive.”

 

Loire paled.  She obviously hadn’t realized until that moment that her life might be in danger. Or what her assisting the police would mean to her clients.  She’d never been a target for them, but there was never any reason for her to be before.  And she always had someone to look out for her.  It was a whole new world for Sofia Loire.

 

“If he didn’t want you dead before, he sure as hell will now that you’ve cooperated with us.  It would be best if you stayed under police protection for now.”

 

She spat a curse at him.  One Gibbs had no trouble translating.  He smiled.  Oh yes, he was a bastard.  And damn proud of it.

Chapter Text

Gibbs fought down his instinctive need to simply demand answers, to hear results of the team’s efforts for the past few hours and issue orders on what still needed to be done  He mustered his patience and waited for Beaumont.  He hated not being in complete control of the investigation but he and his team were only being included because she’d pulled strings. And it wouldn’t take much to send them packing.

 

One phone call from her to the SecNav--Gibbs and his team would be on the next plane back to DC.   He knew she wouldn’t hesitate to make that call if he pissed her off.  She’d made it clear when she lined out the terms of them working the case that she wouldn’t put up with him breaking any rules.  Even if Beaumont had been prepared to give him some leeway, no one else on her staff would tolerate him trying to take the lead or investigating on his own. He’d already put his foot in his mouth with Dewing more than once, Mendez and LaFiamma didn’t like him on general principle, Hartung and Sixkiller hadn’t commented but he suspected they would side with their teammates.  Lundy might think he was okay, but he wasn’t position to argue in favor of Gibbs or his team. 

 

Gibbs took a deep breath and let it out slowly.   The conference room Beaumont had set for a meeting place was the same one they’d used the last time he’d been in Houston. It was large enough for everyone and yet gave them privacy that the NCIS bullpen rarely offered. 

 

From what Gibbs knew of how the team in Houston worked, Beaumont calling this meeting wasn’t unusual but it wasn’t exactly the norm either. Ordinarily, she simply asked to be kept in the loop, getting updates from her people at regular intervals from the lead detective.  It was Gibbs’ understanding that she didn’t typically take such a hands on approach unless it was absolutely necessary.  Given what had happened to her people, Gibbs couldn’t really argue against her taking a more active role in this one.  They were down two detectives, Tony and Lundy, three if they counted LaFiamma staying at the hospital to guard his cousin and partner.  Mendez had only one good arm.  Dewing still sported bruises and walked with a limp.  Her partner had been informed of what happened; he was cutting his vacation short but wouldn’t be back in Houston until tomorrow.

 

Gibbs silently breathed out ‘finally’ when Beaumont strode in, the last to arrive.  She shut the door, after checking to see everyone was present and accounted for.  Gibbs couldn’t help but admire the way she took command of the room.  She had everyone’s attention without having to even say a word. 

 

“Okay, people, lets run the numbers.”  She looked at Abby.  “What have you got on the ordinance?”

 

Abby hesitated, looking to Gibbs for guidance.  Gibbs nodded, giving her permission to answer Beaumont. He caught a trace of amused understanding in Beaumont’s eyes.  No doubt her people would have looked at her first before answering to him.

 

“From the residual chemicals we were able to clearly identify the make up the explosives.”  Abby was uncharacteristically sober as she gave her report.  No extra, meaningless information.  No bubbling, happy smiles and flapping pig tails.  Gibbs wasn’t sure if he missed the babble and positive disposition or not.

 

“The signatures I found in what was collected from the warehouse are used exclusively in Marine Corps issue.”

 

Beaumont nodded, trading a look with Gibbs.  It was both a relief and disappointment to have a genuine reason to be working the case.  Gibbs hated seeing any military hardware misused, especially Marine Corps.  But at least now NCIS’ involvement was legitimate and justifiable.

 

Beaumont shifted her gaze back to Abby.  “Any idea how that shit got here?”

 

Abby shook her head.  “So far, I haven’t found any reports of theft.  Nothing is listed as missing or lost.  Nothing was scheduled for disposal either that could have been sidelined.”

 

Beaumont arched an eyebrow.  “Inside job?”

 

It was a logical question.  That would explain how ordinance could disappear and no one notice.  It wouldn’t be the first time paperwork was tampered with.

 

“It’s possible.”  Abby bit her lip, her eyes moving uncertainly from Beaumont to Gibbs.  “I’m still working on it.”

 

“Fair enough.”  Beaumont clearly wasn’t the sort to make unreasonable demands.  Not that he’d ever say so, but Gibbs could see the appeal of her management style.

 

“Let me know if you need help.” 

 

Abby twisted her fingers together in a classic gesture of unease.  “I prefer to work alone.  I mean, Annie is great and I don’t mind sharing her lab.  Really.  But the last time I had an assistant he was---”

 

“Not saying you have to work with someone, Ms. Scuito.  I’m just offering assistance if you need it.”  Beaumont smiled.  “Try to remember we’re on the same side here.”

 

Abby smiled back at her, clearly relieved.  “Yes, Ma’am.”

 

Beaumont looked at Hartung.  “Annie, what have you got?”

 

“I’ve run ballistics on all the weapons and the bullets recovered at the scene.”  Annie pointed to the screen on the wall, hitting a button to bring it to life.  A picture of a large caliber slug appeared.  “Everyone, except this one, was a match to guns found at the warehouse or belongs to our people.” 

 

“Amos, who did you pull that one out of?”

 

Sixkiller answered with one word.  “Kort.”

 

“Has to be Nunes’ gun then, yes?”

 

“Yep.” 

 

“It is the only bullet of that caliber recovered at the scene,” Hartung said.  “Not sure why, but as far as I can tell, Nunes apparently fired that weapon once and only once.”

 

Beaumont cocked her head to one side.  “And the gun wasn’t at the scene?”

 

“No.” 

 

“Damn,” Beaumont cursed softly.  Gibbs knew she was hoping for more evidence to link Nunes directly to Kort’s murder.  Several cops seeing him do it didn’t hurt, but conclusive proof like a gun with his prints would seal the deal.

 

 “Any theories on why he didn’t ditch it?”

 

“You may not have found it,” McGee offered, “given how close the warehouse was to the water he could have tossed it in anywhere.”  Gibbs gave the younger man points for not making it sound like the Houston cops hadn’t been diligent in their search. 

 

“His bodyguards got him out of the building quick.”  Mendez noted.  “Maybe he didn’t have time to fire more than once, or didn’t see the need to toss it once he got away.”

 

“Or he could be like that sick fuck, Ashton.”  Dewing said.

 

“Ashton?”  Ziva asked, her brow furrowing at the new name.

 

“Maurice Ashton.  It’s a case Joe and Levon worked.  The guy kept a pearl handled .38 revolver that he used only for killing people he considered traitors to his organization.  Never fired the thing more than once at a time, and it was always a head shot when he did.  They found the gun in his safe, and pinned four murders on him.”

 

“Hopefully we can ask Nunes when we find him.  Shame that slippery bastard wasn’t among the dead.”  Beaumont grimaced.  “What do we have on him?”

 

“He is well known as a drug dealer in Columbia , but he wasn’t on the list of operators DEA and Vice had put together as possibles to show the night of the bust.”  Dewing said.  “We now know one of the guys who was on the list worked for him.” 

 

She took the remote from Hartung, hitting a button to bring up a picture of a Hispanic man in his mid to late thirties.  A scar ran down one cheek, three tear drop tattoos decorated the other.  “Alberto Rodriquez.  Not exactly new in the area.  Vice and DEA have been watching him for the last year or so.  He styled himself as the man in charge, taking over and expanding territories.  Evidently, he wasn’t the top dog he made himself out to be.  At best he’s was a lieutenant who was running the operation here for Nunes, but he clearly thought of himself as more than that.”

 

Beaumont frowned.  “Maybe DEA’s turf war was actually a civil war.”

 

Dewing shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

 

It probably won’t be the last either, Gibbs thought cynically.  Drugs rarely had static boundaries.  And the players changed frequently.

 

“Can we bring this Rodriquez in for questioning?”  Ziva asked.  “He could tell us more about Nunes.”

 

“We would if we could find him.”  Mendez shook his head.  “No one has seen him in days.”

 

Gibbs bit back a curse.  “Dead?”

 

“It is likely.”  Mendez rested his cast on the table with a sigh.  “I doubt Nunes was the sort to tolerate any of his people getting ambition to climb higher than he wanted them.”

 

“Men like that usually don’t.”  Beaumont frowned.  “Do we know when Nunes arrive in Houston?”

 

“According to Customs he arrived five days go.”  Ziva had pulled a few strings to get the Immigration Department to cooperate and give them the information more quickly than they would have otherwise.  “His private plane is still at the airport.”

 

“No one has seen hide or hair of him since the bust.” Mendez muttered.  “I hate it when they go to ground.”   

 

“McGee, did you get his phone number from Loire’s blackberry?”  Beaumont asked.

 

“I did.” McGee tapped several keys on his laptop.  “I’ve been trying to triangulate his location but he hasn’t had his cell on since we got the number.”

 

“If he had any sense, he’d have tossed it.  If we’re lucky, he’s stupid.”  Beaumont shifted her weight, the fingers of her left hand beating a soft tattoo on her thigh.  “We get his phone logs?”

 

“Yep.” Mendez took the remote Dewing hand off to him and brought up a spreadsheet on the screen.  “I talked to Vice.  They picked out the ones belonging to drug dealers they’ve been watching.”  More than a dozen numbers, all with area codes for Houston, lit up in green and flashed once. “We’ve got people monitoring their phones and keeping an eye out in case Nunes contacts any of them or shows up at their usual hang outs.”

 

“The overseas numbers we were only able to narrow down to the country of origin.  Not too surprising they are mostly Columbian.”  Another dozen numbers lit up in blue.  “Those are well out of our jurisdiction to monitor legally.  And we don’t have the manpower or technology to cover them anyway.  I wasn’t sure how you felt about asking DEA for input or help after we told them to butt out.”

 

Beaumont pursed her lips. “Can NCIS do anything with those?”

 

Gibbs nodded.  “We can.”

 

Legally they didn’t have any real grounds---except that Nunes had intended to buy military hardware which he planned to use within the US borders.  That could get him labeled as a terrorist.  Anyone he’d done business with might well fall under the same heading which could put Homeland Security in the mix. They had more authority than NCIS when it came to acting unilaterally, but Gibbs wasn’t sure he wanted to involve them.  Not to mention the CIA still waiting in the wings.  They were going to get curious about Kort’s disappearance eventually. 

 

Gibbs would run it by the SecNav.  He could decide how much they should pursue.  Gibbs wasn’t interested in a drug dealer in Columbia unless he was the one to tip off Nunes about Kort and was ultimately responsible for Tony being hurt.

 

“Annie make sure they get copies of everything.”

 

Hartung nodded, holding up a flash drive.  “Already done.”

 

“Any numbers in Nunes log that don’t seem to fit?”

 

“Two.”  Those two lit up in red and stayed lit.  “They both come up as burn phones.  The first one was bought and activated in the DC area eight months ago. There are five calls from that phone to Nunes and three from him to it.  The second one was purchased around the same time but wasn’t activated until a few days ago.  Only one call was made.  It lasted just under five minute, one day before the bust.”

 

Beaumont arched an eyebrow.  She gave Gibbs a pointed look.  “This something you’ll be wanting to look into?”

 

“Yes.”  Not just yes, Gibbs thought, hell yes.  A burn phone by itself didn’t prove anything.  Nunes was a drug dealer;any number of his customers or contacts might have felt the need to have their communication remain untraceable.   That they were purchased in the DC area likewise didn’t prove anything. Nunes was primed to expand his business in Houston; there was nothing saying Houston was the only place he was doing so.  But even as circumstantial evidence it lent credence to his and LaFiamma’s theory that Sheppard might be involved. 

 

“We get anything useful from Loire’s laptop?”

 

“No.”  McGee shot Gibbs’ an apologetic glance.  “It must have been more exposed to heat from the fire or gotten hit during the explosion.  Part of the monitor melted and the hard drive was damaged.  I’m trying to rebuild it, but that’s going to take some time, and I can’t guarantee we’ll get anything useful from it.”

 

“It’s all right, McGee.  I know you are doing your best.”  Beaumont huffed out a sigh.  “Ultimately, the laptop may not be a huge loss for us.”

 

“Why?”  Ziva asked, frowning.  “It would have everything Kort was involved in.”

 

Beaumont shook her head.  “The only thing we want to know about Kort is who revealed his true identity.  Nothing else about him really matters to us.”

 

“But—“

 

“The man was an undercover operative.”  Beaumont held Ziva’s gaze easily.  “Everything that he did was probably recorded somewhere by someone else.  Or at least it should have been.  By all rights, if the CIA had any sense, they have a copy of whatever was on that laptop before Kort came to Houston.  And Loire wouldn’t be a good Pepper Potts if she didn’t have it backed up somewhere.  She might not have mentioned it or be overly willing to give it up, but I’d bet good money she’s got copies.”

 

“Most of what is likely on it has nothing to do with this case.” Dewing pointed out with a wry smile.  “It’d be nice to have, but we aren’t chasing down international arms dealers.  We’re a little more parochial than that.”

 

McGee glared at Beaumont and then Dewing.  “Why have me—“

 

“Because what we’ve got is speculation, McGee.”  Beaumont’s tone was sharp.  “I want confirmation. The CIA won’t share willingly and getting them or Loire to cough up more will be a lot easier if they think they are only giving us what we already know.”

 

Gibbs nodded to himself.  She was right about that.  Playing politics wasn’t much different than an interrogation in some ways.  It was always easier when you weren’t guessing.  Or could at least make the suspect think you weren’t.  Not knowing enough was one of the reasons he didn’t push harder to get more out of Loire.  He didn’t want any nasty surprises or to look as though he wasn’t in complete control of the situation.  Letting her stew on the fact that her life was already at risk for talking at all, and making sure she knew they might ask for more had been a calculated tactic on his part. 

 

Beaumont smiled tightly.  “And I said it wouldn’t be much use to us.  We,” she made a motion encompassing her people, “aren’t in the business of chasing down international arms dealers.” She pointed to Gibbs and his team.  “You guys are.  Or at least your director seems to think so.”

 

Ziva’s jaw clenched at the mention of Shepard. McGee looked away, and Abby blushed.  The La Grenoille case and subsequent fall out still bothered them.  And well it should, Gibbs thought.  That cluster was one of the reasons Tony left. None of them trusted Shepard any more.

 

Beaumont took a breath and released it.  “BOLO is out on Nunes?”

 

“Yep.”  Mendez replied.

 

“I’d like to keep him as the primary focus for my people from here on out,” Beaumont said to Gibbs.  “We’ve got more local connections and contacts here to help find him if he’s still in Houston.”

 

Gibbs nodded in agreement.  They could police their own backyard far better than he and his team could.

 

“I’d like you and your people to focus on those burn phones and how exactly the Marines managed to misplace some serious fire power.”

 

Again Gibbs nodded.  Those were what he wanted to be doing anyway.

 

“The laptop can go on the back burner for now.  We’ll still want it, as leverage if nothing else, but it’s not a high priority at the moment. Whatever you manage to pull off it may prove useful in the long run even if it has no direct bearing on this case.” 

 

She looked to Gibbs.  “Let me know if those international numbers give us any direct leads we can use here.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”  The respectful ‘ma’am’ slipped out before Gibbs could stop it. 

 

Beaumont smirked. “Bet you don’t do that very often.”  She scanned the room, making eye contact with everyone.  “Questions?”  When they remained silent, she nodded. “All right then, let’s do this thing.”

 

Beaumont laid a hand on Gibbs’ arm as he started to move past her eager to get to work.  “You might want to stop by the hospital.”

 

Gibbs’ chest tightened.  “Tony--”

 

“Is fine, or not any worse at any rate.” She smiled reassuringly.  “Joe called me just before this meeting.  Said he’s got some information for you.  Thought you might be able to brief him on what we found here.”

 

“What’s his cell number—“

 

“Wouldn’t do any good to call that,” she chuckled.  “The nurses confiscated every cellphone they see him with.  It’s why he ended up calling me.  He couldn’t find your number.” 

 

Gibbs almost growled.  “How do I contact him then?“

 

“Go to the hospital.  I’ve got a uniform headed there to relieve the guard on duty.  You can catch a ride with him.” 

 

It was so tempting.  He hadn’t had a chance to talk to Ducky since leaving the hospital hours ago.  Even if he had talked to Ducky, Gibbs still wanted to check on Tony, to see for himself the younger man was no worse than he had been.  But the case took precedence. 

 

“I don’t have time—“

 

“We both know your team will be doing most of the work.  They don’t need you looking over their shoulders.  And you can’t tell me you don’t want to see for your own eyes that Tony’s doing okay.”

 

Gibbs hesitated. 

 

She sighed.  “Your people will want to know how he’s doing too, and I’m sure they trust your assessment and that of Dr. Mallard better than anyone else.”

 

Gibbs glared at her.  Guilt worked far too well, and he hated that she barely knew him and was still savvy enough to know what to use against him.  “That was low.”

 

“I know, but effective.”  She smiled.  “I told you—“

 

“Playing by the rules doesn’t mean you can’t play to win.”

 

“Exactly.” She patted his shoulder.  “Besides, I want someone to look in on Joe and Levon.  And I don’t have people to spare at the moment.”

 

More guilt he didn’t want or need. “You win.  I’ll go.”

 

“We both win.  The uniform will be waiting out front when you’re ready.”

 

“I’m ready now.”

 

“You need to tell your people where you’re going first.” 

 

Gibbs wanted to snarl at her to mind her own damn business, except that by agreeing to her terms earlier, he’d made his team her business.   And it was hard to hostile to someone who was clearly looking out for their best interest. 

 

“Let them know the next guard change will be in four hours. Anyone who wants to go along is welcome.”

 

Gibbs nodded. He knew he wasn’t the only one still worried about Tony, and he should thank Beaumont for reminding him of that fact, but he didn’t want to admit he’d forgotten.  The look she gave him made it plain she already knew.

 

Everyone in Houston was an asshole, Gibbs decided.  Or maybe not everyone, he amended thinking about his team and Tony’s…just the good ones. 

  

Chapter Text

The uniformed officer, Millard, who gave Gibbs a ride to the hospital, drove with the same aggressive style as everyone else in Houston. It wasn’t as reckless or cavalier as his style of driving, but Gibbs found himself gripping the door handle anyway.  He wasn’t afraid---he simply hated having anyone else drive.  Giving up control, of anything, wasn’t easy for him to do. 

 

Gibbs made a point of memorizing the street names, picking out landmarks along the way for future reference.  He was definitely going to be renting a car.  Not only would it give him more control, but he wouldn’t have to rely on strangers to get him around town.  He’d have to ask McGee if he could pull up some sort of map or something for alternative routes.  There had to be a short cut he could take, some way to avoid the worst of the traffic.

 

Once they got to the hospital, Gibbs ignored Millard as he headed for the elevator. He could feel the man’s eyes on him as he walked with him.  The man had been look at him off and on since picking him up.  It annoyed Gibbs and he kept waiting for Millard to say something.  To his surprise and increasing irritation, Millard stayed silent. 

 

“Something on your mind, Millard?” He asked finally, keeping his expression neutral as he turned to look at the other man.  Gibbs didn’t think the cop look old enough to shave much less be carrying a gun.  Was this kid really supposed to protect anyone?

 

Millard squared his shoulders and faced him with more confidence than Gibbs expected.  “Yes, Sir, there is.”

 

“Don’t call me Sir,” Gibbs growled, stabbing the button for the elevator again.

 

“Yes, Sir.” 

 

“What is it you want to know?”  He barked out instead of rolling his eyes the way he really wanted to.

 

“Everyone says Tony used to work for you.”  Millard fidgeted, reminding Gibbs of McGee when he first started on the team.  “I was wondering if you were thinking of offering him his old job back.”

 

That made Gibbs pause.  He eyes narrowed as he measured Millard.  “You hoping I will?”

 

“No, Sir.” The young man shook his head, a blush warming his cheeks all the way to his ears.  “I like Tony.  He’s a good guy.  I’m sure you already know that.”

 

“I do.”

 

Millard continued as if Gibbs hadn’t spoken, his expression earnest.  “Tony took time out to help me work on my aim. Improved my score by nearly forty points because of him.”  There was a definite note of pride and satisfaction in that statement. 

 

“And he showed me some hand to hand moves.  Nothing fancy.  Not like the stuff you see Jet Li do or Jackie Chan.”  Millard made a dismissive wave of his hand.  “I couldn’t do most of that anyway.  He just showed me stuff that really works.  He said he learned a lot of that from his old boss.  That must be you, I guess.”

 

The awe in his voice made it clear Tony had impressed him a lot.  It made Gibbs wonder just what moves Tony had shown him.  Gibbs couldn’t remember ever actually teaching Tony any hand to hand combat.  They sparred together regularly, but Gibbs had never stopped to explain how he’d gotten the better of Tony or even how to execute a single move.  But then most of the time, Gibbs didn’t teach, his team had to learn by example and paying attention.  Tony was one of the best at learning that way. 

 

“I thought when he got here, coming from a federal agency he might be a snob, you know?  Act all superior, like he was too good for grunt work the rest of us had to do.  But he works nights and weekends without complaining about it. He helps out with cold cases.  He’s got a great sense of humor, and it really helps to lighten the mood when things get ugly.”

 

Gibbs jaw clenched, stepping on to the elevator that had finally arrived.  He regretted ever opening his mouth and asking Millard to speak.  He did not need to know how well Tony fit in.  His teammates had already made it very clear that Tony was part of their family.  Millard was just more confirmation that Tony did for them what he used to for Gibbs and his team. 

 

“So are you going to offer him his old job back?” Millard asked. “I mean, no one has ever told me why he left the feds, but if he fucked up somehow it couldn’t have been too bad or you and your team wouldn’t have come all this way.”

 

Gibbs clenched his hands into fists fighting himself not to punch Millard.  Tony hadn’t quit because he’d ‘fucked up’.  The mistakes made had been Gibbs’, and he didn’t really appreciate being reminded of the fact.

 

“He’s been a hell of an asset to the PD here so he must have been pretty good there.  It only makes sense you’d want him b—“

 

Gibbs glared at Millard, stopping the flow of words.  When it looked like Millard might open his mouth to resume speaking, Gibbs increased the intensity of his gaze.  Millard stepped back, eyes and shoulders dropping like a kicked puppy. 

 

Gibbs wasn’t going to tell this too young cop that he knew exactly how good Tony had been working at NCIS.  He wasn’t going to mention that Tony refused to come back months ago.  He wasn’t going to spell out how there was still a spot open on his team.  That he’d resisted filling it and would continue to do so, even though he knew Tony wouldn’t be coming back.  Adding another person to the team, letting a new body sit at his desk was a final acknowledgement of Tony’s decision to go back to Houston that Gibbs was unwilling to make.  He would tolerate Ziva and McGee handling what had been Tony’s duties, but he wasn’t prepared to accept anyone else.   None of that was anything Gibbs thought this kid needed to know. 

 

A tense silence reigned for the remainder of the ride up to the ICU.  Gibbs refused to feel bad for making the kid cower.  It wouldn’t hurt Millard to think before he let his mouth run away with him.

 

Gibbs stalked off the elevator, heading for Tony’s room.  He nodded to the guard at the door, showing his ID more out of habit than necessity.  Gibbs ignored Millard speaking to the man in hushed tones as he gave the door a perfunctory knock before stepping inside.

 

“I must say I was rather put off by…oh, hello, Jethro,” Ducky greeted him, turning in the chair to address him, abruptly breaking off whatever he’d been saying to LaFiamma.  Gibbs figured it had been probably been one of the many stories Ducky was famous for telling. 

 

“Duck.”

 

LaFiamma stood near Lundy’s bed, he nodded to Gibbs.  Gibbs nodded back.  He gave the other man a quick once over, pleased to see he was looking better than he had the last time Gibbs had seen him.  He was wearing clean clothes and had shaved at some point, but the biggest difference was in his eyes.  LaFiamma didn’t look haunted or desperate any more.

 

“They doing okay?” Gibbs asked, eyes shifting between the Tony and Lundy hoping improvements in either or both was the reason LaFiamma seemed less stressed.  Tony appeared unchanged, but Lundy had more color in his cheeks and seemed to be sleeping comfortably. 

 

“They are both doing quite well.”  Ducky smiled.  “Dr. Kline has started decreasing the dosage for the drugs keeping Anthony in a coma.  He should wake late tomorrow morning or early evening.”

 

Tony would be awake tomorrow.  Gibbs felt the band that had been around his chest since getting LaFiamma’s call finally loosen. Tony would be awake soon, he repeated silently to himself just to take in that fact and savor it.

 

“They may opt to keep the respirator nearby as a precaution but Dr. Kline feels Anthony is progressing well enough less extreme measure to assist his breathing will suffice.”

 

Gibbs frowned not liking how that sounded.  “Less extreme means what exactly?“

 

“Nasal crannula or an oxygen mask.”  Ducky explained. “Supplemental oxygen that will make breathing easier but still allow him the freedom to breathe unassisted.  That should help stave off concerns of pneumonia developing.”

 

“Pneumonia?”  Gibbs chest tightened again as he keyed in on that one word.  “No one said anything about him having—“

 

“He doesn’t.”  Ducky clucked his tongue. “Honestly, Jethro, did you not hear me?  I said stave off pneumonia developing.  That is always a concern when someone with a lung injury like Anthony’s is on a respirator.  The lungs won’t clear themselves because he can’t cough or take deliberately deep breaths.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He vaguely remembered something being said about that before, but he had only focused on the most important detail when he’d arrived---Tony was alive and he was going to stay that way. 

 

“And Lundy?”

 

“Will be fine as long as he does what the doctor tells him to,” LaFiamma stated with certainty.

 

“I’ll be fine regardless of what that quack says,” Lundy retorted quietly, surprising Gibbs.  He thought the man was asleep. 

 

“Lundy—“

 

“LaFiamma, I am not going to spending a week in this damn bed, much less two.” Tired brown eyes opened to fix a level stare at his partner. 

 

“If Kline says you will, then you will.”

 

“Bullshit.”

 

“You nearly bled out, you moron.  You don’t brush that off like it was nothing.” LaFiamma practically growled.

 

“Joe—“

 

“It will take time for that artery to heal.”  LaFiamma gently poked Lundy in chest with one finger.  “You aren’t going anywhere until I know you can walk without me having to pick your ass up off the floor.” 

 

Gibbs expected him to look as angry as he sounded, but if anything LaFiamma looked pleased, turquoise eyes alight with happiness.  It struck him as odd until Gibbs realized that if Lundy was awake and aware enough to argue, he was definitely doing better.   The cop was on the mend.

 

“Don’t see what the big deal is.”  Lundy mumbled before he smiled up at his partner.  “You’ll pick me up every time no matter what.” There was no mistaking absolute confidence in his voice. 

 

“That is not the point.” LaFiamma shook his head, his expression softening.  “You know I am right.  You are just being stubborn—“

 

“Tenacious.” Lundy countered. 

 

“Pigheaded is more accurate.”

 

“Determined.”  Lundy’s eyes closed.

 

LaFiamma cupped Lundy’s cheek with one hand, his thumb lightly caressing the high cheekbone.  “Go to sleep, Cowboy.  We can argue about this some more when you wake up.”

 

Lundy yawned. “I want some crutches tomorrow.”

 

LaFiamma snorted.  “Only if I get to beat you with them.”

 

Lundy grinned, turning his head to rub his cheek against LaFiamma’s hand. “And you told me you didn’t have any kinks.”

 

LaFiamma laughed softly, bending to place a kiss on Lundy’s forehead.  “They must still be giving you the good stuff.”

 

“Don’t want…any more…of that either.”

 

“Ah-hunh.” 

 

Gibbs knew that sound was simply LaFiamma acknowledging of what Lundy said.  He wasn’t agreeing with him.    

 

Gibbs caught the look of fond amusement on Ducky’s face.  Clearly the older man had developed some sort of kinship with the Houston cops in the time he’d spent with them. Gibbs wanted to be annoyed by that, but honestly couldn’t bring himself to be.  As much as he hated the fact that LaFiamma and Lundy had a deeper relationship with Tony than he did, he couldn’t deny the fact that they were otherwise good men. 

 

LaFiamma rested his hand on Lundy’s chest, directly above his heart.  It was almost as if he needed the physical connection to be sure the other man was okay.  Gibbs could understand that.  He found himself moving closer to Tony, reaching out to touch his hand, relieved to find it warm.  The steady rise and fall of his chest was reassuring if he ignored the respirator tube and mechanical sounds it made.

 

“I’m rather surprised Levon was awake,” Ducky said when LaFiamma turned to face them again.  “The painkillers being administered should have easily kept him under for several hours.”

 

“You’d think that,” LaFiamma smiled ruefully, “but you’d be wrong.”

 

“Beaumont said you called,” Gibbs said.  He trying not to push but he wanted to know what, if anything, LaFiamma had found out.

 

“Where are you on the case?” LaFiamma asked instead of offering any information.

 

It was on the tip of Gibbs’ tongue to demand LaFiamma go first, but a kick to his shin from Ducky stopped him. His glare at the older man was returned with a mild, reproving expression.

 

“Play nice, Jethro,” Ducky murmured. “You’ll catch more flies with honey.”

 

I’ve been playing nice since I got here, Gibbs snarled mentally, and I don’t want to catch any damn flies.  Knowing he wasn’t going to win against both LaFiamma and Ducky, Gibbs opted to just go first.  He summarized what they’d found so far, watching as LaFiamma digested the information.  He had the same thoughtful look Tony got whenever they discussed a case.  Gibbs remembered times when bits and pieces came together for Tony and he half expected there to be a light bulb over his head as inspiration struck.  He missed seeing those blinding moments of insight.   He tightened his hold on Tony’s hand, wishing he was having this conversation with him instead of LaFiamma. 

                                                                                                

“Burn phones are those throw away cellphones, yes?”  Ducky asked as he stood and stretched a bit.  “Ones without a long term contract or commitment.”

 

“Yeah.” 

 

Ducky nodded, looking pleased with himself.  “I thought Anthony used that term during a campfire once.  I’d never heard it before so I needed him to explain it to me after everyone else had gone.  It’s nice to know my memory is still serving me well.”

 

Gibbs blinked at that.  He’d forgotten that for as much as Ducky contributed to their cases he wasn’t often involved in all aspects of their investigations.  Things like burn phones weren’t exactly common parlance for a medical examiner.  And they hadn’t done a ‘campfire’ since before Tony left.  Ziva and McGee had made their feelings clear on how they felt about them, but Gibbs had never thought to ask what Ducky or Abby might have thought of them.

 

“Who in DC would—“  Ducky stopped abruptly, evidently seeing something in the look that passed between Gibbs and LaFiamma.  “Perhaps now would be a good time for me see if a good cup of tea can be had. Would either of you gentlemen care for something?”

 

“Coffee,” Gibbs said.

 

“Nothing for me.  Thanks, Ducky.”

 

Ducky clucked his tongue.  “You really should get something to eat, my boy.  I haven’t seen you eat anything all day.”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

Ducky scowled.  “I’ll see if I can get you something just the same.”

 

LaFiamma waited until Ducky left to roll his eyes.  “Everyone on your team is pushy, Gibbs.”

 

Gibbs snickered.  “They fit right in around here then.”

 

LaFiamma grinned.  “Nothing but pots and kettles.”

 

“What did you find out?” Gibbs asked, focusing on the case again.  Tony was going to be awake tomorrow, and he wanted to have something positive to tell him.

 

“I called a few people who know a few people.”  LaFiamma shrugged one shoulder.  “Nothing you could really take to court but word is the CIA might have been having second thoughts about having Kort take over for Benoit.  Seems they may not be entirely sure of where his loyalties lay.  Something about a cover up on an unsanctioned hit was mentioned as one of the reasons for their lack of faith in him.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  The lack of trust might be genuine---Gibbs couldn’t vouch for Kort’s integrity---but even without a sanction, Benoit being dead wasn’t a big issue for the CIA. And regardless of what he’d told the FBI and proof he’d produced that Benoit’s murder was his doing, Gibbs would bet his life the CIA higher ups knew full well Kort hadn’t killed Benoit.

 

“That doesn’t wash.” Gibbs made eye contact with LaFiamma.  “They knew Benoit was looking to retire.  Hell, they tried to kill his daughter to get him to toe the line.  They might as well have ordered Kort to take him out and saved a lot of time and effort.  It’s probably why they agreed to make it look like it was ordered in the first place.”

 

“Rumor and gossip are rarely the whole truth, but often contain grains of it.”  LaFiamma held out his hands as though weighing something.  “The lack of trust might be genuine.  And it could be someone went looking for a reason why he wasn’t as trusted as he once was.  We aren’t the only people who get curious, you know.  And more than one person might have realized the sanction for taking out Benoit was backdated.  Even if no one went looking, someone had to know the man was dead for months before an authorization to kill him was asked for.”

 

Gibbs grimaced.  LaFiamma had a point.  Ben Franklin got it right when he said the only way three people could keep a secret was if two were already dead.  Far too many people knew or suspected things weren’t entirely on the up and up with Benoit’s death, and by association Kort’s rise to take his place. 

 

“What was more interesting was the bit of gossip that suggested the CIA may have considered Kort’s usefulness in the field at an end.”

 

Gibbs raised both eyebrows. “Why would they--”

 

“It’s one thing to keep tabs on a weapons dealer; it’s another to have an agent who actually is one.”  LaFiamma shrugged.   “No plausible deniability, plenty of autonomy which equals damn little oversight, not to mention all the power and money that might tempt him further into the dark side and turn him completely.”

 

Gibbs hadn’t thought about it from that point of view.  It would explain why the CIA had wanted to keep Benoit in position rather than just kill him when he started talking about wanting out---if nothing else, they could take him out whenever and where ever they chose.  That was the whole reason for trying to kill Jeanne; it was a show of force to scare Rene back in line.  Benoit refusing to play ball and then dying to a free agent had possibly left the CIA scrambling.  Kort taking over might have been the only option or face losing all they’d gained by having him involved with Benoit in the first place. 

 

And they may not have realized the man was dead---at least not initially.  With Rene missing in action, Kort could have been ordered to take over temporarily, at least until they could figure out a long term solution.  But when the FBI began investigating his death as murder sanctioning the hit on Rene only made sense.  As Gibbs had told Kort when he’d asked him to take responsibility for Benoit’s death…it cemented his position as the new top dog, and it fit the cover already in place.  Gibbs grimaced wondering if he’d played into the CIA’s hands, or if it was just dumb luck that had their respective objectives aligning.  Either way it explained why Kort didn’t fight harder being the fall guy for Benoit’s murder. 

 

LaFiamma pursed his lips.  “It’s possible whoever leaked Kort’s identity didn’t think the CIA would mind if he was taken out.  Whoever it was may have thought the agency would owe them one.  Or that they wouldn’t investigate too closely.  God knows they didn’t look that close at Benoit’s death.”

 

LaFiamma sighed.  “But I can’t think the CIA would have wanted him eliminated this way.”

 

“Why not?”  Dead was dead to Gibbs way of thinking.  And if Kort was a liability now, removing him fast was the best option rather than have a double agent running amok.

 

LaFiamma blinked. “Tony wasn’t kidding when he said you didn’t know anything about politics, was he?”

 

Gibbs glared at him.  “Just answer the damn question.”

 

“Because, they wouldn’t just be removing Kort, they have to find someone else to replace him with.   Kort took over for Benoit…who takes over for Kort?  From what you said about his girlfriend, it won’t be her.  She might have the know how, but not the balls.”

 

Gibbs frowned seeing LaFiamma’s point.  “A power vacuum would not be in their best interest.”

 

“Exactly.”  LaFiamma nodded, making a definitive gesture with one hand.  “They may have wanted him out of the picture… eventually.  But Kort dying now was inconvenient.  They have to figure out who the hell the new player will be rather than having one set up beforehand.  A puppet they own or can control would be ideal, and that doesn’t happen over night.  I don’t think Kort has been in charge long enough for them to put person in play.”

 

LaFiamma rubbed absently at his right arm. Gibbs remembered him wearing a sling previously and wondered when he’d gotten rid if it. 

 

“But the real reason I don’t think the CIA is directly involved is the simple fact they apparently don’t know he’s dead yet.”

 

“Covert op would be quiet.”

 

“True.  But they couldn’t have expected anyone here to know who Kort was.  Me and Levon, Tony…were barely a blip on the CIA’s radar when it came to La Grenouille.  Tony was better known, but the FBI didn’t even know he had moved to Houston, I doubt the CIA was any more informed.  So by all rights if they’d set up Kort to get killed, they’d have expected someone to run his prints and photo through the system.  Someone should be sweating bullets over the fact that the usual time for things isn’t being followed.  Which means there should be someone digging into why they haven’t gotten the expected reason to show up, take over and shut us out.”

 

LaFiamma gave Gibbs a flat look.  “When things don’t go according to plan, people get chatty trying to figure out why.  No one is talking about this…so either it was very well planned or the CIA wasn’t directly involved.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  “Doesn’t prove Shepard was though.”

 

“No, it doesn’t.”  LaFiamma agreed.  “But she has been using NCIS resources to keep tabs on Kort.”

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“I called in one of Levon’s favors.”  LaFiamma smiled tightly.  “Shepard used the same tech people who tracked and kept tabs on Benoit for her to do the same with Kort.  Not exactly the brightest crayon in the box that one.”

 

Gibbs would have liked to argue.  She’d been a good field agent once.  But something happened between then and now to change her radically from the person he’d worked with. 

 

“And she’s been talking to the CIA.”

 

That grabbed Gibbs’ attention.  “What?  Why would she talk to them if she wanted to kill Kort?”

 

“They have a dossier on her father.  Or so it seems.  All highly classified stuff from what I’ve been told.”

 

Gibbs’ jaw clenched.  Shepard was obsessed with proving her old man innocent.  With proving he hadn’t committed suicide.  She’d definitely want any information they had on him. 

 

“Could be she was negotiating to get her hands on that information.”

 

“But what does she have to bargain with?”  The CIA wasn’t exactly short on resources.  And they were likely still pissed at her interference with La Grenouille.  Would they even want to negotiate anything with her?

 

“She takes care of Kort for them.”  LaFiamma suggested.  “CIA can dump an asset that’s becoming more of a liability without having to get their hands dirty or admit they might have fucked up letting him so far off leash.  They get plausible deniability and they don’t have to worry about losing face or having one of theirs take out one of their own.  She gets a testimony that stands and won’t be recanted.  The file on her old man thrown in for good measure to either uses prove his innocence or burn it to hide his guilt.  Win/win.”

 

“Except the time table wasn’t quite what the CIA would have wanted.”  Gibbs pointed out.

 

“Using someone like Nunes to do the deed doesn’t exactly guarantee the right time frame.  Not exactly a precision weapon.  But it would have mattered who or what she used to kill him, I don’t think she’s got time to waste.”

 

Gibbs cocked his head to one side, studying LaFiamma.  “Why not?”


“She’s been seeing a specialist.”

 

“For what?”

 

“No idea.” LaFiamma shook his head.  “It’s going to take a better hacker than I could beg, borrow or steal on short notice to get into her medical file.” 

 

Gibbs nodded.  If he put McGee and Abby on it, he’d have to tell them what he suspected.  He wasn’t adverse to bringing them in the loop---except he was hoping they would find evidence to independently confirm his and LaFiamma’s theory.  If the burn phones could be linked to Shepard directly, he’d have that confirmation, but they might not be able to do that. 

 

He didn’t have to use both of them though.  Abby could hack in on her own.  Medical records weren’t like getting into the Pentagon.  And it would give her something more to do on the case while McGee and Ziva worked other angles.  It was also something she could possibly do on her laptop from the hospital.  She could stay with Tony and Gibbs knew her being happy about that would offset her being unhappy about having to keep it a secret from McGee and Ziva for awhile.

 

“I’ll put Abby to work on it.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Gibbs didn’t quite know what to make of the easy acceptance of his decision.  Not that he wanted LaFiamma to fight him over it, but he expected something more.

 

LaFiamma looked amused. “I’m too damn tired to fight with you right now.  But if it makes you feel better, I promise to fight with you later.”

 

Gibbs smiled.  “That’s okay, for once I think I’ll just take the easy answer and be happy with it.”

 

“Fair enough,” LaFiamma chuckled.  “You going to hang around or head back?”

 

He didn’t have a car, and Gibbs doubted the other officer waited around once Millard relieved him.  Unless he called a cab, Gibbs wouldn’t have a way of getting back to the office until Millard’s relief arrived.  Not that it really mattered.  Since taking Tony’s hand, Gibbs hadn’t released it, and he couldn’t seem to bring himself to let go.  There was nothing he could do here for Tony, but Gibbs found himself wanting to stay just the same.

 

“I’ll stay for a bit.”

 

LaFiamma nodded.  “I’ll get another chair.”

 

“It better not one of those damn torture devises.”

 

LaFiamma grinned at him, bearing his teeth.  He laughed as he left the room.

 

Gibbs was sure he’d come back with something destined to cripple him.  “Asshole,” Gibbs muttered, but he was smiling as he said it.

Chapter Text

The vibration of his cell phone against his hip brought Gibbs out of the light doze he’d slipped into.  Technically, his phone shouldn’t even be on, but his own rule about always being reachable made it impossible to simply turn it off.

 

He sat up, yawning and rubbed a hand over his face.  He shook his head.  He hadn’t intended to fall asleep at all, but sitting still in the quiet hospital room after not sleeping for nearly two days had gotten the better of him.  At least his neck didn’t hurt and he didn’t feel too stiff so he figured he hadn’t been sleeping that long.

 

The phone buzzed again, sounding almost impatient with his delay in responding.  Gibbs unclipped his phone, holding it out as far as he could to read the display.  He grimaced when he realized it was Shepard calling.  Damn.  He knew she’d want an update at some point.

 

“You going to answer that?” LaFiamma asked from where he lounged on Lundy’s bed, as close to his sleeping partner as the narrow space and Lundy’s injuries would allow for.  Gibbs was surprised to see LaFiamma hadn’t even opened his eyes.   He wasn’t sure if the man had actually fallen asleep or not, but he certainly sounded awake and aware.   And he had heard the phone vibrate.  It wasn’t a noise loud enough to wake most people from a sound sleep.

 

It’s Shepard,” Gibbs told him by way of an explanation rather than answer LaFiamma’s question.

 

 LaFiamma scowled, opening his eyes to glare at Gibbs’ phone.  “She’ll want an update on the case.”

 

It wasn’t like Gibbs didn’t already know that.  He resisted rolling his eyes.  Gibbs settled for giving LaFiamma a sarcastic look knowing it would convey so much more of his feelings than anything else he might say or do.

 

LaFiamma didn’t appear affect by the look, turquoise eyes meeting Gibbs’ lighter blue counterparts without flinching.  “What do you plan to tell her?”

 

Gibbs didn’t want to tell her anything, but that wasn’t really an option.  Keeping her out of the loop, if she was as involved as he and LaFiamma suspected would raise too many questions and tip their hand too soon.  Gibbs didn’t want to give Shepard any reason to think he was investigating more than what was on the surface.   And if by the grace of God she wasn’t involved, he still needed to tell her something or she’d become more involved than he felt she should be.  He didn’t want or need her looking over his shoulder.  Damn meddlesome woman, Gibbs mentally cursed.

 

“Gibbs?”

 

“I’m going to tell her we found a legitimate reason for NCIS to be involved.” 

 

Until Abby had identified the explosives as Marine Corps issue, all Beaumont had been able to offer the SecNav as justification for Gibbs and his team to be involved was Tony’s recognition of what was in the crates during the bust.   Tony’s status as a former NCIS agent had been a tenuous link at best, but Beaumont had managed to make it sound like a viable reason for getting the agency involved. Gibbs had been impressed with not only the favors Beaumont could call on, but also her ability to make such a weak connection seem more substantial than it was. Even then, the SecNav wanted confirmation that NCIS should be involved, proof that he’d made the right decision to send in Gibbs’ team.  They had that much now.

 

“I’ll tell her we’re investigating that connection.”  Gibbs smirked.  “But I’m not going to tell her anything more than that.”

 

LaFiamma arched an eyebrow.  “You think she’ll accept that?”

 

“She won’t have a choice.”  Gibbs stood up, stretching his arms over his head as he did so.  The chair hadn’t been overly uncomfortable but he was still a little stiff.  “That’s all I’m giving her.”

 

LaFiamma smirked.  “Getting the last word is so much easier with a phone.”

 

“Yes it is.”  Gibbs smiled. He’d perfected the art of doing that.

 

He reached out to touch Tony’s shoulder, patting it gently.  “I’ve got to step out and make a phone call.  I’ll be back.”

 

Gibbs decided he wasn’t going to feel embarrassed about wanting to reassure Tony even though the younger man likely wasn’t even aware he was there much less leaving.  The doctors had started reducing the drugs keeping him in a coma but it would still be several hours, maybe even another day, before Tony woke up.

 

Gibbs stepped outside the room, eyes moving up and then down the hall looking for Ducky.  The ME had said something about stretching his legs after he’d gotten food for LaFiamma and coffee for Gibbs.  He couldn’t remember how long ago that had been, but he doubt the older man would have gone too far.

 

Gibbs nodded to Millard.  The young cop nodded back but didn’t otherwise acknowledge him.  Gibbs stifled a sigh.  He shouldn’t care that this kid didn’t like him, that he might even be somewhat afraid of him, but Gibbs did care. He felt like he’d kicked a puppy, but he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it.  He shook his head, heading for the small lounge he knew was down the hall. 

 

He wasn’t entirely surprised to find Ducky sleeping on the small couch.  No one had really gotten much rest since finding out about Tony’s injuries.  Nor had there been a lot of down time since arriving in Houston.  Gibbs rubbed a hand over his face.  He wasn’t sure if the team even had hotel rooms.  He hadn’t bothered to get one for himself.  He was fine with catnapping in a chair, and could force his team to do likewise over a short haul, but this case was shaping up like it might take longer than a day or two. They would need a place to get some real rest.  Gibbs made a mental note to ask Beaumont about accommodations.  She would probably have somewhere in mind for them to stay.

 

Gibbs eyed the couch Ducky was sleeping on.  It didn’t look particularly uncomfortable, but like him, Ducky could sleep anywhere. A man his age shouldn’t be expected to sack out on something that could double as a torture device.  Gibbs pursed his lips, annoyed with himself for not looking out for his team better.

 

“I never realized before how loud guilt is,” Ducky commented quietly, startling Gibbs who hadn’t realized Ducky was even awake, much less aware of his presence. 

 

“Didn’t mean to wake you, Ducky.”

 

“Then perhaps you should stop blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault.”  Ducky sat up.  “I am an adult, you know. As are the other members of your team. We can, on occasion, be trusted look after ourselves.”

 

“It’s my responsibility to take care of my people.” 

 

“Talking to you is rather like talking to the walls some days.” 

 

Gibbs glared at him.  “I’m not—“

 

Ducky held up a hand.  “Please, let it go, my friend.  Lord knows we’ve already covered this more than once.  For now, I think we can agree to disagree.” 

 

Gibbs sighed and nodded.  Ducky was right.  They didn’t have to rehash it now. 

 

Ducky rubbed tiredly at his eyes.  “Would you hand me my glasses, please?”

 

Seeing the requested item on the near by table, Gibbs picked them up and offered them to Ducky.

 

“Thank you.”  Ducky put on his glasses, blinking owlishly at Gibbs. “Anthony is all right?”

 

“Still sleeping.”  Sleeping wasn’t quite the truth, but Gibbs preferred that to saying Tony was still in a coma.  It didn’t sound as bad.  He held up his phone. “I need to make a call.  Figure it was better to be out of the room while I did it.”

 

“Ah.” Ducky nodded.  “Did Joseph eat everything I brought for him?”

 

“Most of it.”  Gibbs shrugged.  “What he didn’t eat, he fed to Lundy.”  Evidently, Lundy was a huge fan of pineapples.  So he got all of the small fruit cup Ducky had managed to secure and the pudding.

 

Sharp blue eyes studied Gibbs closely.  “What did he eat?”

 

Gibbs shrugged.  “He ate the bagel.  And drank the orange juice.”

 

Ducky scowled.  “That is hardly sufficient to sustain a young man of Joseph’s size, especially not if he has a metabolism like Tony’s.”

 

Gibbs was pretty sure the one with the rapid fire metabolism was Lundy.  At least he seemed to eat more like Tony than LaFiamma did from what Gibbs remembered about him.   The two of them ate a hell of a lot of junk at any rate and neither seemed to gain much weight.

 

“Think it mattered more to him, Duck, that Lundy ate,” Gibbs offered as an explanation.  Not that LaFiamma couldn’t defend himself or justify his actions if he wanted, but Gibbs didn’t think the younger man would take well to Ducky grilling him about sharing his food with his lover.

 

Ducky sighed. “I know he was very concerned about how little Levon ate earlier.  I tried to tell him the antibiotic Levon is taking will affect his appetite. It is not cause for worry, but I suppose it’s part of being Italian.  They seem convinced that all ills are cured with food.  I knew a lovely Italian woman who--”

 

“I need to make that call, Duck,” Gibbs said, cutting him off.  He wouldn’t have minded letting Ducky ramble, just this once, but doing so would have been an excuse to not call Shepard.  It wasn’t really something he should put off, no matter how much he wanted to.

 

“Ah, yes, I’d forgotten.”  Ducky shook his head.  “Forgive me.”

 

“Nothing to forgive, Duck,” Gibbs patted the older man’s shoulder.  There was little between them any more that either took real offense to.  “You can go back to sleep—“

 

“Thank you, but I think I’ll sit with Anthony for a bit.”

 

Gibbs smiled, not surprised that would be Ducky’s choice.  He wasn’t the only one worried about Tony.   Glancing at his watch, Gibbs realized Abby was due to arrive soon, and he was betting Ziva and McGee would be coming with her.   He’d have to arrange for a few minutes alone with her to put Abby to work on hacking into Sheperd’s medical records, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find an excuse to get a private moment with her. 

 

“Okay, Ducky.  I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

 

“Could you bring me back a cup of tea when you do?”

 

“Sure, Duck.”  Gibbs wasn’t sure where the hell he’d find tea, but he was sure someone on staff would know.  If nothing else, he could always ask Millard if there was a place nearby. It might help smooth things over with him if Gibbs could have a conversation that didn’t make him seem like an ass.

 

Gibbs looked at his phone again.  The message screen informed him he had one missed call.  He didn’t bother checking his voice mail to see if Shepard left a message.  He took a breath, and hit the speed dial number for her office that Abby had programmed in for him. 

 

“Hello, Jethro.”

 

Gibbs grimaced.  Some days he hated caller ID.  “Jenny.”

 

“The SecNave wants a sit-rep.”

 

Really, Gibbs thought sarcastically, and you don’t?  He took a breath and forced himself to not snap at her.  

 

“We’ve confirmed the explosives were Marine Corps issue.”

 

There was a pause.  Gibbs wished he could see her face. There was little he could tell from her silence.

 

“Have you been able to trace them to the source?”

 

“Not yet. There have been no reported thefts.  Nothing listed as lost.  And nothing used at the site was scheduled for disposal.”

 

“An inside job, then?”

 

“It is the most likely scenario.”

 

“I hate thinking that.”  Shepard sighed, sounding genuinely remorseful.

 

Gibbs wasn’t fond of the idea either.  He didn’t like thinking there were men and women in uniform looking for a quick buck and not worried about how they got it.  But he’d long ago realized the uniform didn’t make people better or less inclined to be tempted.  They were human—good, bad and indifferent.

 

“There are at least half a dozen military bases where the ordinance could have come from.”  Shepard noted.

 

“Or they could have been lifted from a contracted supplier.” Gibbs countered.  The military outsourced the production of a lot of things.

 

He considered his options for a moment, debating what else to add.  He wasn’t sure what the SecNave might have told Shepard or not.  He made a calculated decision to mention Kort’s name and see if it garnered any sort of reaction from her. 

 

“And there is Kort’s connection with the CIA .  They might have secured the explosives for him through channels we wouldn’t otherwise know about.”

 

There was a moment of silence from Shepard. Gibbs couldn’t read any more from it than he had from the previous one.

 

“The SecNav mentioned his being there.”

 

Gibbs couldn’t read her voice well enough to gauge the emotion in that statement.  He frowned. He’d been hoping for more.

 

“Do you know what the hell he was doing in Houston?”

 

She didn’t sound as curious or surprised by Kort’s presence in Houston as Gibbs would have expected.  It made sense she wouldn’t be shocked.  LaFiamma said she had people keeping an eye on Kort.  So why not just admit it?  Why bother trying to sound surprised at all?  Why would she hide her interest in Kort?  More damn secrets and lies.

 

“So far, all we know is he was selling Marine Corps weapons,” Gibbs said, dryly stating the obvious. 

 

“You haven’t interrogated him?”

 

“No.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“He’s dead.”

 

Shepard sighed.  “Shame about that.  He could have cleared up some things, I’m sure.”

 

Gibbs’ jaw clenched.  She didn’t sound the least bit sorry.  If anything she sounded relieved and a little smug.

 

“In his line of work, dying in an explosion is hardly unexpect—“

 

“The explosion didn’t kill him.”

 

“Really?”

 

Gibbs could picture her fake expression of surprise.  “The buyer he was meeting with did.”

 

“Given his not so charming personality, it was inevitable Kort would upset someone bad enough they’d want to kill him.  Have you interrogated the buyer?”

 

“We haven’t been able to locate him yet.”

 

“Drug dealers are usually slippery sorts.”  There was a wry, understanding humor in her voice.

 

Gibbs stiffened.  He’d never said anything about Nunes being involved with drugs. Hell until a few hours ago, no one had known who he was or what he was involved in.  The Houston team was expecting to see a drug deal go down, but given how things went there was no good reason for her to have assumed Nunes was a drug dealer. He could have just as easily have been a terrorist, gang banger, or some cult leader bracing for Armageddon.

 

“Tracking down the buyer should not be our main focus.”  Shepard made that sound like a reasonable suggestion rather than a directive.  And it sounded all wrong to Gibbs.  She wanted him to drop it---the real question was why. 

 

“Our responsibility is to find how Kort got the explosives in the first place, not trying to halt international weapons trade.”  Shepard’s tone had grown firm, authoritative.  “You should leave that to the people better equipped to deal with him.”

 

On the surface that explanation worked, but Gibbs gut told him to ignore what she wanted him to see and look deeper.  Several months ago Shepard had been happy to send them to Canada, involving the agency in things that were well outside their prevue.  She’d misused agency personnel and resources…hell, according to LaFiamma she was still doing it.  Nunes had potential to hurt a lot of people, more than he already had. And he was a possible key to preventing more people from being hurt.  How could she in good conscience expect him to ignore that?  The only solid reason Gibbs could think of was Shepard had something to hide.

 

“Houston PD insisted on handling tracking down the buyer.  It is their turf and they feel they have a better chance of locating him,” Gibbs said making sure to sound dismissive of the local cops’ ability to track Nunes down and insulted by being excluded from the hunt. He didn’t want her to know he actually thought they were right about having a better chance of finding Nunes in their own backyard than he had or that he considered them competent.  It would be out of character for him.

 

“And you playing nice with them, I trust?”  There was a definite note of reprimand in her voice along with a hint of humor. 

 

“Absolutely.”  Gibbs made sure his tone implied otherwise.  It was expected of him.  He didn’t want her to think he was doing anything different. 

 

“Jethro, the SecNav will not appreciate it if you start an incident.  Neither will I.”

 

Gibbs could read between the lines on that one easily enough.  If he got out of line, he’d be off the case.   Of course, Beaumont had already said as much directly.  Gibbs found himself appreciating her straightforward approach anew. 

 

“I don’t plan to cause any trouble.”  At least not with anyone in Houston, Gibbs amended silently.

 

“No you never do, and yet somehow there is always a mess to clean up whenever you deal with another agency.”

 

Gibbs stiffened, not liking the criticism, regardless of how true it might be.  “I’m doing my job, Jen.” 

 

“And I would appreciate it if you would let them do theirs.  Nunes is their problem, not yours.”

 

Gibbs froze. He never said Nunes name.  There was only one way she could know it.  He closed his eyes.  He’d hoped to be wrong.

 

“I mean it Gibbs.  Let Houston PD—“

 

“I heard you, Director.”

 

“And?“

 

“I’ll let them do their jobs.  I’ll do mine.”  Gibbs tried to let some respect bleed into his voice and not give away his awareness of her mistake. 

 

He hadn’t bucked her orders directly since Tony left.  But then, she hadn’t given him an order he felt any need to defy since then either.  He was hoping she hadn’t noticed his cooperation recently was simply a matter of convenience rather than honest regard. Her curt ‘good’ made him think she accepted his seeming acquiescence at face value.  He shook his head.  Never assume was in the top ten of his rules.  She should know better.

 

Shepard cleared her throat.  “How’s Tony?”

 

Gibbs bit back a snarl.  That should have been her first question.  Even when Tony’s car had been blown up and they all thought he was dead, Shepard had been more focused on her revenge than on what had happened to him. 

 

He couldn’t help wondering if she’d wanted to hurt Tony too. He knew something had happened between them when Tony had come back to DC but he wasn’t sure exactly what.  Could it have been enough to make her want to even the score? 

 

Gibbs didn’t know how much the SecNav told her about Tony’s injuries.  Beaumont hadn’t said much to him when she’d requested Gibbs’ teem to help on the case.  She’d only told him two of her people had been critically injured, naming them but not going into great detail.  And Gibbs knew no one on his team had spoken to Shepard since arriving in Houston.

 

“He’s still in a coma.”  Gibbs didn’t have to work hard at making that sound worse than it was.

 

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

 

He couldn’t hear any genuine sympathy in her voice.  She sounded flat, disinterested.  Gibbs knew that her attitude toward Tony had been the final straw for him leaving NCIS.  He was beginning to better understand why.

 

“What are his chances?”

 

“He’s not going to die.”  Gibbs got out between clenched teeth, angry at her sounding no more concerned than if she’d asked about the weather.  He might have been a bastard about focusing on the job but he never sounded that cold when it came to asking about his people. 

 

“What does his doctor have to say?”

 

Gibbs couldn’t believe she asked him that.  “He will be fine.”  Tony had beaten the plague.  This was nothing compared to that. 

 

“Jethro, I know you care about him, but you should be prepared—“

 

“No.” Gibbs knew his protest only served to confirm what she was already thinking—that Tony was at death’s door---and while he could make that faulty assumption work in his favor, encouraging it wasn’t why Gibbs wanted to shut her down.  He would not, could not, listen to anything negative.

 

Dr. Kline and Ducky were agreement. It would take time but Tony would eventually be okay.

 

“Gibbs, everyone dies.”  There was a catch in her voice.  “It’s a question of when, not if.”

 

She could have sounded philosophical, consoling or pragmatic, but what Gibbs heard was sorrow and self-pity.  Her comment wasn’t about Tony and that’s when he knew whatever she was seeing a specialist for, it wasn’t good.  LaFiamma might have been right when he surmised she didn’t have much time and that was why she’d used someone like Nunes to take out Kort.  He should have felt something for her, they’d been lovers once, but all he could think was that her having little time meant he had even less.  He had to know and prove beyond any doubt that she killed Rene Benoit, set up Trent Kort and got Tony hurt before she was too far gone to actually pay for it.

 

“I’ll call when we’ve got something.”  Gibbs hung up.  He had work to do. 

Chapter Text

Gibbs poured himself another cup coffee, emptying the pot in the doctor’s lounge.  He had no idea if the medical staff knew he was the reason their coffee pot was in constant need of refilling or who had been making sure a fresh pot was on whenever he went searching for more caffeine.  He dropped a twenty in the small tin on the counter that bore a small sticky note labeled coffee fund. It should be more than enough to cover what he’d consumed. 

 

At three in the morning, he should be sleeping, but he couldn’t seem to do more than doze off and on while he waited for Tony to wake up.  Dr. Kline hadn’t been able to give him any sort of firm time. Ducky had agreed that there was no way to accurately predict when Tony would come to.  The drugs would take time to work their way out of his system and the injuries he had sustained could keep him from regaining consciousness quickly. 

 

Gibbs sighed, rubbing tiredly at his eyes.  He’d sent the rest of his team off to the hotel Beaumont had recommended hours ago.  They’d resisted, but Gibbs had been firm.

 

Without access to her usual daily intake of Caf-Pow, Abby had looked as tired as Gibbs could remember seeing her.  Of course, she hadn’t looked that run down until he’d put her to work using her laptop to hack into Shepard’s medical files.  He’d felt obligated to explain why; Abby always became particularly distressed whenever she had to investigate someone she knew and she wouldn’t have proceeded without asking more questions than Gibbs wanted to answer.  So he simply told her, and the others everything he suspected and everything he knew for sure.

 

It had hit Abby hard.  Not that Shepard was a close personal friend, but until the La Grenouille thing she’d been friendly, someone Abby thought she could trust.  Having worked with Shepard before, Gibbs knew she was capable of cold blooded murder; Abby hadn’t been aware of that side of Shepard. Gibbs still blamed Shepard for her part in making Tony leave and no longer trusted her.  Abby’s forgiving nature made it hard for her to hold a grudge, so while she hadn’t exactly forgiven Shepard, she didn’t regard her with the same instinctive suspicion Gibbs did.   It didn’t hurt that Gibbs had more than a day to come to terms with the idea Shepard might be involved with Tony being hurt before getting irrefutable proof.  Abby had only a few minutes. She would adjust and deal with it; it would just take some time.

 

McGee hadn’t seemed surprised.  He seemed more disappointed than anything else. It was almost disheartening to see him becoming more cynical. 

 

Gibbs had ordered him to check into Shepard’s personal and office phone records.  He had McGee looking into her financials as well.  He was hoping McGee would find a link to the burn phones, the CIA, or Nunes. Gibbs seriously doubted Shepard would be stupid enough to give them that sort of direct connection, but if it was there he knew McGee would find it.

 

Ziva hadn’t shown any outward sign of being upset over Shepard’s involvement.  Not really surprising since she rarely showed signs of emotion…good or bad.  He had her keep working on the burn phones and finding out where the ordinance had come from.  It was still important to plug any leak of weapons from a Marine Corps base.

 

Gibbs grimaced.  He couldn’t help remembering LaFiamma’s suggestion he leave Ziva out of the loop after he’d told him about Shepard’s slip up in mentioning Nunes’ name.  He grimaced remembering that conversation. 

 

He and LaFiamma had talked in the hallway, not wanting to disturb Lundy or Ducky since both mean seemed to be sleeping.  Even though the only one currently within ear shot was Millard, they’d tried to keep their voices down, not wanting what they were saying to carry.

 

 He knew LaFiamma didn’t like Ziva.  The way he’d never fully taken suspicious eyes off her when she’d been in Tony’s room had made that clear. 

 

“I know you don’t like her—“

 

“It isn’t about whether I like her or not, Gibbs.”  LaFiamma said firmly.  “I don’t trust her.”

 

“I trust her,” Gibbs had stated unequivocally, thinking that would settle things.

 

LaFiamma’s chin had come up defiantly.  “Well good for you.  But that doesn’t mean a thing to me.”

 

LaFiamma hadn’t objected to Ziva when Gibbs told him he was bringing in his whole team.  Why would he start now?  It didn’t make any sense.

 

“If this is about her killing a suspect in the elevator—“

 

“This is about her doing her duty regardless of her personal feelings.”

 

Gibbs had frowned.  “Doing your duty isn’t a bad thing, LaFiamma.”

 

“And it wouldn’t be in this case either if her sworn duty was to uphold the constitution.”  LaFiamma pointed out calmly.  “She never promised to defend and serve the people of this nation, the state of Texas or the city of Houston either.”

 

Plenty of people who took an oath and failed to fulfill it; Shepard was a prime example of that.  Just saying the words was meaningless as far as Gibbs was concerned.  People had to believe it, to actually mean it.  Zive might not have ever made the promise, but she sure a hell wasn’t a threat.

 

Gibbs glared at the younger man.  “Look, LaFiamma—“

 

“The rest of your team answer only to you.  Ziva’s got more than one master.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Her daddy and the Mossad still have strings they can pull.”

 

“I doubt they’d be interested in this.”

 

“Right.”  LaFiamma smirked.  “An international arms dealer, even one backed by the CIA, wouldn’t be something the Israelis gave a shit about.  No, of course not. Silly me.”

 

Gibbs’ face flushed remembering the justified sarcasm in LaFiamma’s tone.  The younger man was right to call him on such a bonehead statement.  Of course, Mossad would be interested…but that didn’t mean they’d do anything about it, at least not on US soil. He’d said as much getting a derisive snort in response.

 

“Like the borders have ever been sacred.”  LaFiamma rolled his eyes.  “They’ve already got one operative in this country that we know of…how many more do you think are floating around?”

 

“Ziva is not an operative.”

 

“Yeah, well she sure as hell isn’t just another agent, is she?  No other agent you’ve got is allied to a foreign power.”

 

Gibbs had glared at him.  “I trust her,” he repeated.

 

“Even if you are right, and Ziva is trustworthy, that doesn’t mean Shepard won’t call in a favor from her father if she thinks doing so might just save her ass.  She created that nifty little liaison position in the first place.  Director David might think he owes her something for that.  And you know as well as I do calling in a favor could get you more than the use of a private plane or permission to work a case.”

 

LaFiamma held up a hand when Gibbs would have spoke.  His tone was soft but intense, carrying no further than the two of them when he spoke.  “Do you really think Director David would refuse to order his daughter to fuck up the investigation if Shepard told him it was in his country’s best interest?  Why would he care if it meant one more arms dealer was out of the picture or a drug dealer went down?  Hell, maybe it would be just as simple as ordering Ziva to kill someone.  Being an assassin is what she trained for long before she started working with you as an investigator.  You can’t honestly think she’d put you over dear old dad, a man she’s obeyed her whole damn life.” 

 

Gibbs’ blood had run cold at the thought. “She wouldn’t—“

 

“She killed her own brother.”

 

“To save my life!”  Gibbs snarled, struggling to keep his voice down.  “Ari was a terrorist.  She did the right thing--“

 

“I know what Ari was.” LaFiamma hissed.  “And yeah, he needed to be put down.  I’m not arguing that.  What I’m telling you is that she did it, probably under orders, and his relationship to her didn’t slow her down one bit.  You really think her liking Tony, McGee or you would make much difference?”

 

LaFiamma’s hands clenched into fists.  “Ziva and Shepard are friends too, and she owes her a hell of a lot more than she does any of you.  You think Ziva will keep that a secret if her friend calls and asks for an update on the case?  What do you think Shepard will do once she knows we’re on to her?  You think she won’t try to use her relationship with Ziva to her advantage?”

 

Gibbs had squared his shoulders, unconsciously coming to attention as he faced LaFiamma.  “I am not excluding a member of my team.”   

 

“Why not?”  LaFiamma raised both eyebrows, voice deceptively mild.  “Not like you haven’t done it before.  Hell, you left your whole team in the dark more than once.”

 

Gibbs had come very close belting LaFiamma for that remark. Tony had made him fully aware of that particular mistake. Mike Franks, Maddie Tyler, and a few others immediately came to mind.  Gibbs was wrong to have excluded his team, and it was part of the reason Tony left.  He didn’t need LaFiamma pointing it out to him.

 

Gibbs knew the other man saw his struggle to control himself, but LaFiamma didn’t back down.   If anything he’d seemed to welcome the challenge. 

 

“I’ve never killed for god or country, Gibbs.”  LaFiamma bared his teeth in a smile that had nothing to do with humor, eyes icy with an anger that matched Gibbs’.  “So I don’t know much about being a zealot or the military mind set.  But I know where to draw the line when it comes to friends and family.  You can tell Ziva if you want because I can’t really stop you.  We both know that.  You say you trust her, fine.   But do not expect me to blindly follow when the main reason you trust her is the same reason I don’t.  As far as I’m concerned, she’s a threat until she proves otherwise.”

With that LaFiamma had turned and walked away.  Gibbs had punched the wall hard enough to leave a dent and make his knuckles sting, earning him a bemused look from Millard.  

 

LaFiamma had made valid points, points that under other circumstances Gibbs might have listened to.  But Ziva had saved his life, she’d never shown any disloyalty, she was a good investigator and a full member of the team.  LaFiamma was just being paranoid.  He’d simply have to deal with it because as he astutely pointed out, he couldn’t prevent Gibbs from telling Ziva anything and everything. 

 

Gibbs had told her when he’d brought McGee and Abby up to speed, hiding nothing and setting them on their new tasks.   LaFiamma didn’t comment, his face expressionless as he stood near Lundy’s bed.  If not for their earlier conversation, and the way he never took his eyes off Ziva, Gibbs would have thought the man was completely uninterested in his team briefing.

 

Gibbs sighed.  He could have held the briefing in the lounge, or even the hall way if need be.  He had done in Tony’s room, wanting to drive home the point with LaFiamma.  When it came to his team, he’d handle them how he saw fit.

 

Gibbs made his way to the stairwell and back to Tony’s room.  His little show didn’t seem to have made much of an impact.

 

LaFiamma kept an eye on Ziva the entire time she was in the room.  Gibbs could tell the weight of his gaze got to her.  Ziva didn’t fidget or give any outward show of nervousness, but to Gibbs it was obvious she was uneasy with his scrutiny.  She gave him the same measuring look that had always been so effective at getting Tony to back off---it was a look that said she could kill him a dozen ways with a paperclip.  All it earned her from LaFiamma was a measuring look of his own---one that blatantly dared her to try.

 

Abby and McGee seemed oblivious to the silent byplay, but Ducky had looked askance at Gibbs clearly wanting to know what was up.  Gibbs had silently signaled he’d explain later. He wanted that conversation to be private; he couldn’t see leaving while LaFiamma was still so hostile toward Ziva; telling Ducky about the younger man’s paranoia would just have to wait.

 

The team had protested when Gibbs ordered them to get some rest, but he’d made it an order.  No one challenged him after that, although Ducky had asked when and where Gibbs would be getting some rest of his own.

 

“Right here” Gibbs patted the chair that Abby had been sitting in.

 

“Jethro, that is hardly—“

 

“It’ll do, Duck,”

 

The older man had sighed heavily.  “It’s like wrestling with a pig in mud.”

 

“After awhile you realize the pig is having fun and you aren’t going to win,” Lundy said softly, once more surprising Gibbs by being awake when he was sure the man was sound asleep.

 

“I’m sorry, Levon, we didn’t mean to wake you.”  Ducky clucked his tongue, sounding remorseful.

 

“Wasn’t you.”  Lundy shifted his position, wincing as he did so.  “Was my bum leg.”

 

“Time for your pain meds.” 

 

“No it ain’t.”  


“Lundy—“

 

“I said no, LaFiamma.” 

 

“You’re in pain—“

 

“Not like I haven’t been in pain before.”

 

“No reason you have to suffer now, you stubborn bastard.”

 

“No.”

 

The muscles in LaFiamma’s jaw flexed.  He and Lundy stared at one another. At their first meeting Gibbs had pegged Lundy as the dominant personality.  He’d been able to stop his partner in mid rant with decidedly little effort and had forced him to allow Gibbs to have time with Tony when LaFiamma would obviously have preferred to just shoot Gibbs and be done with it.  But this time around it seemed as though LaFiamma was the one in charge, not backing down from anything or anyone. 

 

LaFiamma tipped the scale in his favor in a way Gibbs never would have expected. He didn’t argue his point, didn’t force Lundy to acquiesce, he never even raised his voice.  LaFiamma looked at him, eyes speaking eloquently while he simply said, “please”.

 

Lundy had sighed.  “That’s cheating.”

 

LaFiamma grinned, entwining his fingers with Lundy’s.  “All fair in love and war.”

 

“Expect you to remember that when it’s your turn.”

 

“No promises, Cowboy.”

 

“I hate you.”

 

“No you don’t.”  LaFiamma said confidently, hitting the call button.

 

Gibbs had eyed the rest of his team.  If they saw anything amiss in the byplay, it didn’t show.  He didn’t know if they knew Lundy and LaFiamma were more than just partners or not.  Ducky probably did.  The older man was far more worldly than most would expect.  Abby might know, given her relationship to Tony it was possible he’d mentioned it.  McGee didn’t seem overly sensitive to the sort of signals and cues the Houston cops put out.  Ziva was sharp enough to catch on, but her wariness around LaFiamma might have made it hard for her to focus on anything else. 

 

The doctor’s appearance had been a signal for everyone else to leave.  Gibbs expected LaFiamma to bring up again that Ziva shouldn’t be trusted, taking the opportunity to press home the point once more, but the other man said nothing more about it.  Evidently he’d spoken his piece and that was all there was to it.  Gibbs found it to rather disconcerting. 

 

Tony would have continued to voice objections, he’d have kept looking for proof to justify or explain his stance.  LaFiamma clearly had written off arguing with Gibbs as a lost cause.  But he hadn’t given up by any means.  His reaction to Ziva made it painfully clear that LaFiamma’s opinion hadn’t been swayed by Gibbs any more than Gibbs had been swayed by him.  Unlike Tony, he had no reason to trust Gibbs’ gut or accept anything he said at face value.  He wasn’t looking for approval or seeking guidance from Gibbs. 

 

Gibbs found himself wondering if Tony would be more like LaFiamma now than the man he remembered.  Gibbs wasn’t his boss any more. Tony didn’t have to work to meet his unreasonable expectations or demands.  He didn’t have to trust Gibbs’ gut more than he did his own.  His theories could get equal weight and respect rather than being belittled or dismissed out of hand. It didn’t sound like he had to seek approval or go to great lengths to get acknowledgement.

 

LaFiamma had called him because he said Tony would want him to know he’d gotten hurt.  But that didn’t automatically mean Tony would welcome his presence in Houston. Yes, they were on much better terms, forging a genuine friendship, but that didn’t mean he’d want Gibbs in Houston in an official capacity.  Would he be pissed finding Gibbs and his old team messing around with his case?  Would Tony see it as assistance or interference?  Would he understand Gibbs wanted to help and was trying to do that the best way he knew how?  He was trying to cover Tony’s six the way he should have been doing all along. 

 

Would Tony be glad to see Gibbs when he found out Shepard had once again fucked with his life?  That their continued efforts to see Shepard answer for Rene Benoit’s death might have played a role in Tony and Lundy nearly getting killed?  He couldn’t see Tony thanking him for that bit of bad news.

 

Uncomfortable with where his thoughts were taking him, knowing it wasn’t productive, resenting LaFiamma for making him doubt himself, Gibbs had gone for coffee…again and again.

 

Gibbs took another sip of his coffee, letting the familiar heat and bitter flavor relax him.  He could try to sleep a little, but he doubted he’d have any luck. 

 

Gibbs nodded to the uniformed officer on duty.  He didn’t know this one’s name, and hadn’t asked, thinking the less he said the better.  This one didn’t regard him with suspicion or animosity, and Gibbs would like to keep it that way.

 

Gibbs tapped softly on the door, even though LaFiamma had been sleeping on Lundy’s bed when he left.  The first time Gibbs had come back from a coffee run, LaFiamma had woken in an instant reaching for his gun when Gibbs had tried to slip silently back into the room.  It had fostered a new respect for the younger man’s reflexes and awareness. 

 

Stepping into the dimly lit room, Gibbs wasn’t surprised to see LaFiamma’s eyes open.  Once he recognized Gibbs, his eyes closed, breathing evening out almost immediately in a tell tale sign of deep sleep. 

 

“Boy is part cat,” Lundy whispered, startling Gibbs.


“He’s not the only one,” Gibbs returned with a wry smile.  Lundy was as full of surprises as his partner. 

 

“You bring an extra cup?”  Brown eyes stared at the cup in Gibbs’ hand.

 

“You aren’t supposed to have any.”  Lundy had asked for a coffee several times.  Dr. Kline had vetoed the idea. 

 

“So?”

 

Gibbs chuckled.  “Don’t think LaFiamma would approve of me sneaking you some.”

 

“He doesn’t need to know.”

 

“You really think he’d sleep through me coming over there?”

 

Lundy rolled his eyes.  “Thought you were some super Marine sniper dude.”

 

“I can take out a gnat at five hundred yards,” Gibbs smiled, “but hitting a target from that distance isn’t the same as getting coffee to you past your over protective partner.” 

 

Lundy laughed quietly.  “You’re just chicken.”

 

Gibbs sat down, not rising to the bait.  Lundy sighed, a sound laced with disappointment.  Gibbs could, unfortunately, empathize.  He hated going without coffee.

 

He was half way through the cup when he noticed Tony showing signs of waking. His right leg shifted, his hands flexed, and his eyelids fluttered.  Gibbs quickly stood, dropping the unfinished beverage in the trash as he grabbed Tony’s nearest hand.  Somehow it made sense that Tony would wake up at three in the morning.  He is a night owl after all, Gibbs thought inanely. 

 

“DiNozzo,” Gibbs called softly, “can you hear me?”

 

LaFiamma was next to the bed a second later, holding Tony’s other hand.  “Lundy hit the call button,” he said over his shoulder.

 

“Already done, Joe.”

 

“Tony…time to get up now.”  LaFiamma cajoled.  “You’ve been sleeping long enough.”

 

Tony’s eyelids fluttered open briefly before closing again.  Gibbs squeezed the hand he held.  “Enough napping on the job, DiNozzo,” he murmured, letting some exasperation and annoyance leach into his tone knowing it was what Tony would expect from him.  “Wake up now.”

 

Cloudy green eyes opened to half mast.  Tony blinked again, eyes clearing as he became more awake and aware.  His brow furrowed as he looked at Gibbs.  He tried to speak, panic flaring almost immediately when he realized he couldn’t.  Gibbs knew first hand how waking up with a tube shoved down your throat, being unable to draw air around the obstruction, having a machine forcing you to inhale and exhale whether you wanted to or not, was terrifying.  Gibbs found himself not just holding Tony’s hand but actively holding it down, trying to prevent the instinctive need to pull whatever was block his throat out.  LaFiamma pinned Tony’s other arm, holding it in place.

 

Tony whimpered, and began to fight harder to escape.  Gibbs hated how helpless he felt.  He had no idea what to do or say.  Ducky should be here.  He’d know what to do. 

 

LaFiamma used his free hand to cup Tony’s chin turning his head.  “Look at me.  Look. At. Me.”  The command was sharp, forceful, and Gibbs nearly found himself complying with it even though it wasn’t directed at him. 

 

Wild green eyes met calm blue.  “Relax.  You are in the hospital.  You’re on a respirator.  You are not dying. You can breathe.  Don’t fight the machine. That’s it.  Good.  You are okay, Tony.  It’s all right.”

 

Gibbs could feel Tony trembling, but LaFiamma’s voice remained rock steady and reassuring.  “Relax, Tony.  Just relax.  The doctor is coming. We’ll get the tube out as soon as we can.  Just take it easy.”

 

LaFiamma kept up a steady stream of babbling reassurance, keeping Tony quiet.  Gibbs had expected to see Kline walk in when the door opened, and was surprised to see a petite woman in a nurse’s uniform.  He didn’t want some damn nurse who looked more like a teenage candy stripper. 

 

“Get a doctor in here.  Now.”  Gibbs snapped at her when she didn’t move fast enough to suit him.

 

She fled, returning a moment later with another, older, heavier black woman in tow.  Gibbs nearly snarled at her as well, until he remembered being introduced to her earlier as the doctor on duty for the graveyard shift, Brenda Iddings. 

 

“What seems to be the problem?” She asked.

 

“Tony’s awake.”  LaFiamma told her.

 

And he’s scared, Gibbs wanted to shout at her, do something.

 

“He’d like to have the respirator removed,” LaFiamma said, making it almost sound like a polite request. It was an impressive display of control given his eyes revealed as much angst as Gibbs was feeling.

 

Iddings approached, moving with an easy grace of someone comfortable in her own skin.  She smiled at Tony.  “Okay, Sweetie, I know waking up like this isn’t any fun, and I’m going to make you more comfortable, but I need you to hold still for me.  Can you do that?”

 

Tony’s looked to LaFiamma, green eyes wide, clearly seeking some sort of guidance.

 

“You can do it, Tony. It’ll be just a few more minutes.  You can hang tough for that long.  I know you can.”

 

Tony looked at Iddings.  He jerked his head in a sharp nod.

 

“Good man.” Iddings’ smile got warmer in obvious approval.  She patted LaFiamma on the shoulder. “Could you step back, please?”

 

LaFiamma stepped away from the bed but stayed within Tony’s line of sight.  Gibbs started to step back as well, but Tony’s grip on his hand tightened, holding him in place. 

 

Iddings must have seen it quickly offering reassurances to Tony.  “That’s fine, Baby, he can stay if you want him to.  I just need one of them to give me a little space.”  She winked at him.  “A lady of my pleasantly plump size needs room to work.”

 

She started checking on the various machines Tony was connected to.  “Now don’t worry, Sweet Pea, I’m just making sure you don’t need this thing.  Once I know you are okay without it, I’ll get rid of it.  We don’t want to take it away too soon.  Okay?”

Her decidedly motherly bedside manner was exactly what Tony needed.  Gibbs could tell her gentle touch, the causal endearments she used while explaining everything, her deliberate, careful approach made it easier for Tony to stay relaxed.  She had what Abby would have called a ‘caring, non-threatening aura’. 

 

Even though she wasn’t wasting time, Gibbs still wanted to tell her to hurry the hell up.  Tony was no longer panicking but he was still unhappy with the situation.  Gibbs couldn’t tell if that was because he was still scared or if he was in pain. 

 

“Okay, Honey, I need for you to cough as I remove the tube.  You ready?”

 

Tony nodded.  He watched her every move anxiously. 

 

Gibbs had expected more effort to be involved, but Idding’s removed the tube with one, smooth pull.  She was obviously no novice, and for that Gibbs was grateful.  Tony coughed weakly a few times. 

 

“You okay?”

 

“Yeah.”  The word was little more than a hoarse whisper. 

 

Iddings reached for a cup of ice chips on the nightstand. The cup had been refilled regularly in anticipation of Tony’s return to consciousness.  In spite of the regular attention, it was still more water than ice.  She used a nearby spoon to fish out the floating ice.

 

“How about a few ice chips?  It’ll help you throat.”

 

Tony took the small spoonful she offered.  He took three more before signaling he’d had enough. 

 

“What’s your name, Honey?”

 

“Tony.”  His voice so quiet Gibbs had to listen hard to hear him.

 

“Tony what?”

 

“DiNozzo.” 

 

“Do you know where you are?”

 

Tony nodded.  “Hospital.”

 

“Do you know where the hospital is?”

 

“Houston.”

 

“How old are you?”

 

“Thirty-eight.”

 

The routine questions and Tony’s quick answers helped Gibbs relax.  No one had said anything about a head injury but it was good to know Tony was playing with a full deck just the same.  His breathing wasn’t as steady as when he was on the respirator, but Gibbs thought it looked and sounded far more natural.

 

Tony shifted and then gasped, eyes closing as his face drained of what little color it had.  His hold on Gibbs’ hand went painfully tight.  Gibbs glared at the doctor. 

 

“He’s in pain.”

 

“I know, Mr. Gibbs, and I’m going to do something about that.”  She patted Tony’s shoulder.  “Sugar, on a scale of one to ten, how’s your pain?”

 

Tony swallowed and then opened his eyes.  “I’m fine.”

 

“That’s not the answer I asked for.”  She gave him a firm look that would have been right at home in a grade school class.  “Scale of one to ten, how is the pain?”

 

“Four.”

 

“That’s better.”  She nodded and fiddled with something on his IV stand. “I’ve increased your painkiller.”

 

Tony shook his head.  “No…Please…I don’t want—“

 

“I told them you don’t do well with painkillers, Tony.  It’s okay.”  LaFiamma gave him an understanding smile, reaching out to touch him, long fingers curling around Tony’s ankle.  “Dr. Kline made sure you’re not going to get anything that will mess you up.”

 

Tony gave his cousin a tired smile.  “Thanks.”

 

Gibbs knew about Tony’s occasional bad reactions to painkillers, but he’d never thought to ask if it were related to certain types or all of them.  He added that willful ignorance to the list of things he needed to make up for.  He’d been Tony’s medical proxy.  It was the sort of thing he should have made a point to find out.

 

“I’ll be back to check on you in a little while.”  Iddings told Tony.  She moved the cable the call button was on so it was with in easy reach of his hand.  “If you need anything you just hit the button.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome, Sweet Pea.”  She laid a hand on his forehead in a brief caress.  “You get some rest now.”

 

She hesitated by Lundy’s bedside.  “You doing okay, Sugar?”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“All right then.” She nodded.  “You get some rest too now, you hear?”

 

“I hear.” 

 

Tony turned his head, eyes seeking out his friend.  “Levon?”

 

“Right here, Tony.”

 

“You…okay, Cowboy?”

 

“Getting there, Slick.”

 

Tony’s eyes shifted to LaFiamma.  LaFiamma’s lips curled upward in wry smile.  “He’s telling the truth….for once.”

 

Tony grinned.  “First time…for everything.”

 

“So they tell me.” 

 

“The others—“

 

“Bit battered and bruised but otherwise just fine.”  LaFiamma assured him.

 

“Good.”  Tony looked at Gibbs.  He frowned.  “Gibbs?”

 

“Yeah, Tony?

 

“What are you…doing..here?”

 

“Watching your six, DiNozzo.”  Gibbs squeezed the hand he was still holding trying to convey how relieved he was Tony was awake, how grateful he was that Tony would be okay. 

 

“You came…all this way…for me?”

 

“Just for you.”  Gibbs confirmed. 

 

Gibbs had forgotten how bright and joyful Tony’s smile could be.  He realized just how much he’d missed seeing it, and being the reason for it.  Tony was happy to see him.  He might not be later, when he found out about Shepard and everything else, but for right now, Tony was happy.

 

“S’nice to know…Boss.”

 

Tony’s eyes drifted closed.  He was asleep a second later.  Gibbs flexed his fingers, preparing to let go of Tony’s hand, only to have the younger man’s grip tighten. 

 

Gibbs smiled.  He had no problem with hanging on for as long as Tony wanted him to. 

 

Chapter Text

Roberto Mendez was in Tony’s room just after sunrise.  At least Gibbs assumed the sun was up.  It should be, based on the clock, but the overcast sky and steadily falling rain made it hard to know for sure. 

 

Gibbs tried not to resent the man’s presence. As Tony’s partner he had every right to be there.  Which was the main reason Gibbs didn’t really want him around.  He could handle Mendez making no secret of the fact than he didn’t like or trust Gibbs---at least that’s what Gibbs told himself.  It was damned hard to admit to himself Mendez had good reason to regard him with suspicion, to not think of him more as an enemy than an ally.  It wasn’t any easier to accept that as his partner, Mendez now had a greater claim to Tony than Gibbs. 

 

“When did they pull the tube?”  Mendez asked quietly.  He kept his eyes on LaFiamma, ignoring Gibbs completely, his expression a mix of hope and concern.

 

“A few hours ago.”

 

“He’s doing okay, then?”

 

LaFiamma’s answering grin was bright and joyful.  It was so much like Tony’s Gibbs had to look away.

 

“You could…ask me.”  Tony’s voice was just a hoarse whisper, sleepy green eyes blinking open.  Gibbs wanted to snarl at LaFiamma and Mendez for waking him up, but he was too happy to hear Tony speaking to bother. 

 

Tony had slept soundly since waking long enough to have the breathing tube removed.  Gibbs had sat holding his hand for over an hour until the need for a bathroom break and more coffee had forced him to leave.  He hadn’t expected Tony to wake again until at least noon.

 

“Hey, Amigo,” Mendez leaned in close. He kissed Tony on the cheek.  It was little more than a quick peck before he moved to kiss Tony’s other cheek.  “Those are from Angela and Maria.  I promised I’d pass them along.”

 

Tony smiled.  Gibbs couldn’t help noticing his breathing was less steady than it had been when he was sleeping.  He couldn’t tell if that was good or bad.  It was still a lot more natural than when he’d been on the respirator. 

 

“I don’t get…one from you?”  Tony asked, teasing his partner.

 

“No.”  Mendez rolled his eyes.  “You aren’t my type.”

 

“Liar.” Tony smirked.  “I’m everyone’s type.”

 

Mendez chuckled.  “Must have you on some really good drugs to be that delusional.”

 

Tony’s laugh was cut off with a cough and a pain filled grimace.  Gibbs started to step forward, torn between wanting to smack Mendez for making Tony laugh and determined to find someway to ease Tony’s pain.  Before he could do anything both Mendez and LaFiamma were already trying to help Tony.

 

“Knock it off.”  Tony ordered, his voice raspy but otherwise strong.  He glared at both of them, stopping the babble of concerned words and apology coming from Mendez and LaFiamma’s reach for the call button.  “I’m…okay.”

 

“Tony, you were in a coma just a few hours ago with a machine breathing for you.”  LaFiamma argued.  “You’ve still got a lot of healing to do.”

 

“Joe.”  The one word was both a plea and a reprimand.

 

LaFiamma and Tony locked eyes.  Gibbs wasn’t sure exactly what passed between them, but LaFiamma nodded once giving in to Tony.  Gibbs bit back a sound of annoyance. They should call the doctor.  To hell with what Tony thought about it.  The man isn’t the best judge of his own health, Gibbs thought.  He shot a dark look at LaFiamma; he should know better than to give in. 

 

“Gibbs.”

 

Tony softly calling his name stopped his unconscious reach for the call button. 

 

“DiNozzo.”  Gibbs responded, keeping his tone even, trying not to look or sound like he’d just gotten caught doing something wrong. 

 

“Leave it alone.”  

 

Gibbs jaw clenched.  “Tony, you really should let them—“

 

“I know.”  Tony smiled tiredly. “And I will…just not yet.  You can call them later, okay?”

 

Gibbs nodded, reluctantly accepting the compromise being offered.  As long as Tony didn’t seem any more distressed calling a doctor could wait.  LaFiamma arched an eyebrow, smirking at Gibbs.  Clearly, he wasn’t any better at forcing Tony to see reason than LaFiamma.  Gibbs fought down the desire to belt him.

 

“Fill me in on what happened.”  Tony took a breath, eyes moving from Mendez to LaFiamma and then to Gibbs.  “Tell me where we stand on the case.”

 

“Tony, all you need to focus on right now is getting better.”  Mendez gave Tony a small, reassuring smile.  “The rest of it can wait until you are stronger.”

 

Tony glared at his partner.  “I’m not that fragile, Robbie.”

 

“Not exactly at your best either.”

 

“Neither are you,” Tony pointed to the cast on Mendez’s arm.

 

He didn’t almost die, you dumb ass, Gibbs wanted to shout at Tony.   A broken arm was not nearly as severe as a punctured lung, or a damaged liver and spleen.  

 

Gibbs looked to LaFiamma.  He expected the man would agree with Mendez.  Even if he hadn’t been willing to call the doctor he had to realize filling Tony in all that happened could wait until he was stronger.  He hadn’t even been off the respirator for even a day yet. 

 

And Gibbs wasn’t sure he was ready for Tony to know about Shepard’s involvement just yet.  If he’d worked harder to bring her down; if he’d never convinced Kort to take the fall for Benoit’s murder; if he’d paid more attention to what Tony was going through after Jeanne left; if he’d never run off to Mexico…none of this would have happened.  How long would it take Tony to realize it?  What would he do when he did?

 

“Tell him.”  Lundy said, cutting off his thoughts, suddenly reminding Gibbs he was also in the room. 

 

“Mendez is right,” Gibbs shook his head, surprised to find himself openly voicing agreement with Tony’s partner.  “DiNozzo has enough to deal with just getting better.  He doesn’t need to worry about the case too.”

 

“You don’t tell him, and he will worry.”  Lundy gave Gibbs a sardonic look before directing it toward LaFiamma and Mendez.  “If it were you in his place, would you settle for being shunted to the sidelines?   Be willing to tolerate being kept in the dark for your own good?”

 

Hell no, Gibbs thought, but refrained from saying so out loud.  He kept his expression neutral, determined not to give away what he was thinking even though he was sure Lundy already knew.  The man seemed to have him pegged almost from the second he’d met him; it was both annoying and oddly reassuring. 

 

“If you don’t tell him, I will.”

 

“You could be moved into a room of your own,” LaFiamma threatened, his mild tone at odds with the determined look in his eyes.  “Not like you need to be involved in this either, Cowboy.”

 

Lundy glared at his partner.  “You try shutting me out now and I will kick your ass.”

 

“You can’t even get out of bed.”

 

“You really think that will make a difference?”

 

“It should.”

 

“It won’t.”

 

“I know.”  LaFiamma growled.  He rubbed a hand over his face.  “I get you moved and you’ll be trying to sneak out of that bed and back here in a heartbeat.”

 

“Damn straight.”    

 

“Stubborn son of a bitch.”

 

“Takes one to know one.” Lundy shot back.  “You can’t look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t do the same.”

 

LaFiamma sighed, shoulders slumping in evident resignation.  “I should have had them give you a higher dose of painkillers.  Then you’d be unconscious and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

 

“Too late now.”  Lundy’s grin was positive feral. 

 

LaFiamma gave him a dark look.  “Fine.  You stay.”

 

Lundy nodded.  “Always said you were more than just a pretty face.”

 

“Asshole,” LaFiamma muttered.

 

Tony and Mendez traded amused looks.  Tony had told Gibbs verbal sparing was an integral part of Lundy and LaFiamma’s relationship.   He’d seen evidence of it earlier and still found it odd.  Fighting had never been productive in any of his marriages, leading only to more anger, hurt and resentment.  The back and forth he’d witnessed between Lundy and LaFiamma didn’t even resemble the sort of fights Gibbs had with Shannon or his ex-wives.  There were no personal attacks, no dredging up of past grievances, no insults or curses, no lingering icy silence.  Maybe that was why it worked.  

 

“If it’s any consolation,” Lundy said softly, “even if you decided to put me in a corner, with all the people trooping in and out of Tony’s room, someone is bound to let something slip.  Better he get it in one go rather than in drips and drabs.” 

 

“Point.”  LaFiamma nodded, accepting not only the logic but also the obvious olive branch. 

 

Gibbs mentally grimaced.  Lundy was right.  Putting off telling Tony would only delay the inevitable.  And as much as he might want to, he’d never been the sort to put things off. 

 

“My money would be on Sciuto being the one to spill first.”  Lundy smiled wryly.  “She might be hell on wheels when it comes forensic stuff, but that girl has a real tendency to babble.”

 

“Abby’s here?”  Tony asked.

 

“The whole team is here,” Gibbs told him, wanting the younger man to know his old team cared as much as his new one.


“Really?” Tony looked stunned and then delighted.  “Everyone came?”

 

“Everyone.” Gibbs confirmed. 

 

Tony sounded dumbfounded when he said, “I can’t believe you came all this way just for me.”


“You might not work for NCIS any more, DiNozzo, but you are still one of ours.”  One of mine, Gibbs added silently.  Gibbs and the team had failed him before, but they’d learned their lesson.  They were making up for that and had no intention of failing a second time. 

 

Color rose in Tony’s cheeks and his shy smile was something Gibbs couldn’t remember ever seeing before.  He found himself smiling back in response pleased to have said the right thing.

 

“And if Sciuto managed to stay mum on everything, I’m sure Tony could weasel details out of McGee.”  Lundy turned his head, craning his neck to look directly at Tony.  “Might be kind of fun if we tag teamed him.  You wanna?”

 

Tony grinned.  “We could play the sympathy card.”

 

“Hell, yeah.” Lundy chuckled. “God knows all this shit they’ve got tied to us makes us look pathetic enough to garner some serious sympathy.”

 

“It’s no wonder Beaumont thinks you two are giving her gray hair,” LaFiamma said, shaking his head.  He sounded exasperated but looked amused.

 

“Wasn’t those two, LaFiamma,” Mendez corrected with a quicksilver grin, “it was you three.”

 

LaFiamma drew himself up, overdone affronted dignity to the fore.  “I’m an angel.”

 

Lundy rolled his eyes.  “Me and Slick got drugs we can blame our delusions on.  What’s your excuse?”

 

LaFiamma flipped him off. 

 

Lundy’s brown eyes gave his partner a heated once over.  “You’re all talk.”

 

LaFiamma waggled his eyebrows, and blew him a kiss. 

 

Gibbs eyed Mendez, wondering if he knew about Lundy and LaFiamma as a couple or not.  They might be open with their teammates or completely in the closet---Gibbs hadn’t thought to ask Tony and the younger man had never brought it up. The blatant innuendo between them could easily have been explained away as meaningless teasing if need be.  If Gibbs hadn’t known differently he’d have dismissed their interaction as nothing more than the same sort of smack talking he’d witnessed countless times in the Corps.  He made a note to ask Tony just who was in the know when it came to Lundy and LaFiamma.  He didn’t want to assume anything that could come back to bite him in the ass. 

 

Lundy pointed toward Tony with his chin, drawing Gibbs attention back to what had started the argument in the first place.  “Tell him.”

 

“Where do you want me to start?” LaFiamma asked Tony.

 

“What’s the damage?” 

 

Gibbs winced, momentarily caught off guard by the realization Tony didn’t know the extent of his own injuries.  He’d been thinking about it for so long he’d forgotten Tony might not be aware of the exact nature of his injures. Gibbs didn’t know if Tony had been conscious when being assessed in the ER, but he knew he’d been unconscious since then.  If he even remembered anything from when they took him off the respirator he might know he’d punctured a lung and that he’d been in a coma.  But no one had said anything about his multiple broken ribs, or the loss of part of his liver and spleen.

 

LaFiamma gave Tony a brief synopsis of what Dr. Kline had said about his injuries, why he’d been in a coma and what he might have to deal with during his recovery.  Most people would have tried to soften the impact, minced words or incorporated the usual consolation platitudes, but LaFiamma didn’t.  He obviously knew Tony wouldn’t want or need that.

 

Tony’s reaction was stoic, taking in what LaFiamma had to say without interrupting or seeming overly concerned.  Given the number of injuries he’d had while working for NCIS, including having the Pneumonic Plague…this really wasn’t all that bad in comparison.  But he paled when LaFiamma gave him a similar run down on Lundy’s injuries.  Tony made eye contact with Lundy, eyes awash with fear and concern. 

 

“Your leg—“

 

“Is going to be fine.”  Lundy assured him. 

 

“Truth.”  The one word was almost a curt demand.

 

Lundy held up his right hand.  “Truth.”

 

Tony let out a breath, coughing several times as his injured lung protested.  He bit his lip and Gibbs knew he was holding in a sound of pain.  Gibbs watched LaFiamma discreetly hit a button on Tony’s IV pole.  He vaguely remembered the nurse mentioning that the pain medication in the machine could be self-administered if need be for at least one dose.  Gibbs had to give LaFiamma credit for being sneaky. 

 

He wasn’t the only one who noticed.  Lundy gave his partner a knowing glance before saying something Gibbs knew had to be a deliberate distraction for Tony.

 

“From the sounds of it, I’ll be up and running before you will.”

 

Tony scowled, attention centered on Lundy.  “Will not.”

 

“Will too.”

 

“Bullshit.”

 

“Hah.  You just wait—“

 

“Shut up.”  LaFiamma growled.  “Neither of you will be up and running anywhere before Kline says so.  I will cuff you to the bed if I have to.”

 

“And I’ll help him.” Mendez seconded.

 

Tony looked betrayed by his partner siding with his cousin.  “Robbie—“

 

“You scared the hell out of me.  Out of all of us.”  Mendez pointed a finger at Tony and then at Lundy. “Both of you.  So you are going to be coddled and catered to and babied until we’ve gotten back at you for that.  Just suck it up and take it like men.”

 

Tony huffed out a breath in a weak, silent laugh.  “Yes, Sir.”

 

Lundy seconded his agreement, giving Mendez a two finger salute.

 

“I should have a tape recorder.”

 

“Asshole.”

 

Mendez grinned. “You know it, baby.”

 

“Tell me about the case,” Tony said. 

Gibbs smiled to himself.  Tony was just as doggedly determined as ever.  He couldn’t help but see that as a good sign.

 

He let LaFiamma and Mendez bring Tony up to speed, watching to see how he handled it.   No matter what he’d agreed to earlier, if Tony had any more trouble breathing or appeared to be in more pain, Gibbs was getting a doctor.

 

LaFiamma and Mendez took turns going over what was known about Nunes, Kort’s reason for being in Houston, and Shepard’s involvement.  When they got to Shepard, Tony’s eyes sought Gibbs’. 

 

Gibbs expected to see anger, some disappointment.  He expected to see blame, and be rightfully accused of failing Tony.  Gibbs had braced himself for that.  What he hadn’t expected was guilt, remorse and sorrow.

 

“I’m sorry, Boss.”

 

What the hell?  Gibbs shook his head.  Why would Tony apologize to him?  None of this was his fault.

 

“Don’t apologize.”

 

“Sign of weakness, I know, but—“


“No.”  Gibbs growled. “You didn’t do anything you have to apologize for.  You didn’t do anything wrong.” 

 

Tony’s face flushed, not with shy pleasure this time, but obvious shame.  “I should have told her no when she asked me to go undercover.”

 

“There was no way you could have known at the outset she was obsessed with La Grenouille, or that the case wasn’t legit.”

 

Going after an international weapons dealer made sense, at least on the surface.  And Gibb was sure she’d painted a pretty picture to convince Tony to go along with her.  Even Gibbs had gone along with her, only realizing too late the case didn’t have anything to do with NCIS.    

 

“I should have been there to stop her from even asking you to go under.” 

 

Gibbs wasn’t vain enough to think his presence would have ended Shepard’s quest. She was clearly too far gone to have thwarted by him.  But if he’d been there, she’d have been forced to use someone other than Tony.

They both had regrets, but there wasn’t anything either could do about that.  Should have, could have, would have…none of that was worth a damn and didn’t change anything.  It was done, and had been for too long to do anything but deal with the consequences. 

 

“You did what you had to at the time,” Gibbs said, hoping to absolve Tony of any guilt even if he couldn’t do it for himself.  “You did what you thought was right.”

 

“So did you.”

 

Gibbs felt a rush of affection and pride.  He’d been an absolute ass leaving the way he had, and even worse when he’d come back.  Gibbs hadn’t earned Tony’s easy forgiveness or deserved his understanding, and he knew in Tony’s place he would never have given either.  For as much as Tony was like Gibbs, he was still his own man---in some ways a better man.  And Gibbs hated himself for being too slow to appreciate that fact until after Tony had left.

 

Tony sighed softly.  “Never should have made you use Plan B.”

 

“You didn’t make me use Plan B.  We came up with that together.” Gibbs glared at Tony.  He had no business taking blame for that either.  “Protecting the team was our priority.  We did what was necessary to keep them safe.” 

 

That it meant letting Shepard get away with murder was an unavoidable side affect.  One he and Tony had been trying to rectify.  But all the details of Rene Benoit’s death were dated and second hand.  They’d never even gotten to see his bodyThere simply hadn’t been enough evidence to definitively pin his death on her, no matter how many times they’d combed over it. 

 

“Take care of you and yours first.” Lundy said firmly. “Then everyone else.”  LaFiamma and Mendez nodded in agreement.  It was clearly a code they all shared.

 

“We hung Kort out to dry.”  Tony said softly, green eyes still harboring guilt and self-recrimination.

 

“No we didn’t.”  Lundy countered before Gibbs could say anything.  “Your old team was in the clear.  And Kort was able to take over for Benoit, fulfilling his mission.  Your plan was a good one. It worked.”

 

Tony nodded slowly.  Gibbs couldn’t tell if he was acknowledging what Lundy said or he actually agreed with him.

 

“Kort is still dead.”

 

“I know.”  Lundy sighed.  “But you didn’t get him killed.”

 

Tony bit his lower lip.  “If we’d—“

 

“You. Did. Not. Kill. Him.”  LaFiamma cut him off, saying each word forcefully.  “Where we went wrong was thinking the CIA would watch out for Kort.  They don’t take care of their own.” 

 

There was a wealth of condemnation in that statement.  It was understandable.  Nothing was more important to LaFiamma than friends and family.  Looking out for them was always his first priority. 

 

“We lost sight of how fucked up Shepard is.”  Lundy grimaced.  “I thought all she wanted was Benoit dead.”

 

“Maybe her illness isn’t physical but mental.” Mendez suggested.  “The lengths she went to over all this is a clear indication of just how fucked up in the head she is.”

 

“We haven’t proven she’s done anything yet,” Gibbs reminded them, earning himself a dark look from Mendez and LaFiamma.  He wasn’t trying to defend her; he was simply stating a fact. 

 

“Gibbs is right.”  Lundy shifted restlessly on his bed, a clear sign he was starting to feel more pain.  “We know she was involved.  We still have to prove it.”

 

“Hopefully we’ll get somewhere today on those burn phones.”  Mendez said.

 

Tony looked at his partner.  “In my desk…second drawer—“

 

“The one you keep locked?”

 

“Yeah.”  Tony’s eyes drifted closed before opening again.  The sleep he got was obviously not enough.  “There’s a file.”

 

“What about it?” Mendez asked.

 

“I kept my notes from…La Grenouille case.” Tony blinked, breathing slower and deeper as he struggled to stay awake.   “Shepard set up dummy accounts for…DiNardo.   I still have the…numbers. Phone I used was…a burn…phone.  She could have gotten…the others from the…same place….same way.”

 

“She was using the same people to keep track of Kort that she used to keep an eye on Benoit.”  LaFiamma said slowly. “It’s possible she used the same set up for everything else.”

 

“Makes sense,” Lundy seconded, “that she’d already use the means she had in place.  And as far as she knew no one was watching her any more.  She probably thought they were safe to use.”

 

If that were the case, Gibbs thought with quiet excitement they might just have a paper trail they could follow.  If she’d been as careless with this as she was with La Grenouille they stood a better chance of nailing her.  And so far, they had damn little evidence she’d been careful.  The slip on the phone she’d made while talking to him was proof positive she wasn’t paying attention to the details.

 

“Follow the money,” Tony mumbled as he lost the battle to stay awake. 

 

“You got a key to Tony’s desk, Robbie?” LaFiamma asked.

 

“Dewing does.  She got all his personal affects when you guys were admitted.”  Mendez’s lips quirked upward in a small smile.  “I thought all he kept in that drawer was those expensive chocolates.”

 

“Nah, he keeps a few of them in that one.” Lundy said, chuckling.  “Legs keeps most of his stash in her desk for him.”

 

 “Only way he can keep it safe from you two,” LaFiamma said with a smirk. 

 

“We’re not that bad,” Mendez muttered, looking sheepish.

 

“Well, you’re not.”  LaFiamma chuckled.  “Lundy is another story.”

 

“Shaddup.”  Lundy shifted again, hissing through is teeth. 

 

LaFiamma hit the call button.  Lundy not arguing told Gibbs just how much pain the man had to be in. 

 

Mendez headed for the door.  “I’ll keep you posted on what we find.”

 

“When McGee gets to the office bring him up to speed.” LaFiamma ordered. 

 

Mendez saluted.  “Will do.”

 

Gibbs knew LaFiamma’s not mentioning Ziva was deliberate.  And he knew the implied lack of trust was readily conveyed to Mendez.  The Houston cops would do their best to keep her out of the loop.

 

LaFiamma hadn’t given an inch where she was concerned, and Gibbs didn’t honestly expect him to until Ziva’s loyalty was proven to him.  Gibbs’ gut told him she could and would win him over; it was just going to take time.

 

Gibbs glanced at his watch.  The team should be arriving in another half hour.  Abby and Ducky could stay at the hospital while he, McGee and Ziva headed for the police station.  The sooner they put this to bed the better.   

 

Gibbs wanted to be there for every step of Tony’s recovery.  He couldn’t do that with Shepard hanging over their heads.  She’d already robbed them of far too much. He didn’t want her taking any more. 

Chapter Text

Gibbs eyed the thin file that Mendez had laid on the desk in front of him.  Printed on the tab was ‘DiNardo/La Grenouille’ in surprisingly neat penmanship.  Gibbs smiled to himself.  One of many quirks that Tony had was his signature being nearly illegible while everything else he wrote was almost textbook perfect. 

                                

Gibbs felt like head slapping himself.  He should have thought to ask Tony what he had on hand.  He knew Tony kept information on every case he worked. 

 

On his first trip to Tony’s apartment, only a few months after hiring him, Gibbs had seen two tall metal filing cabinets standing guard on either side of an antique roll top desk in Tony’s living room.  Given the state of disarray the rest of the place had been in, the spotless home office area had piqued Gibbs’ curiosity.  Opening one of the drawers he’d seen files from cases everywhere Tony had worked.  They were organized alphabetically, neatly labeled with a name, date and location. 

 

Initially, Gibbs thought they were cases Tony hadn’t been able to close. Seeing so many, Gibbs had almost begun to doubt hiring Tony, thinking what he’d seen in him that made him offer a job might have been some kind of fluke.  Opening several folders he saw notations indicated the cases were closed.  In the margins were what sentence had been handed down against the perpetrator and occasionally there was a note on when they’d be available for parole.  He couldn’t help wondering why Tony bothered keeping those files, but he’d never asked.  It wasn’t a quirk any stranger than building a boat in a basement, so Gibbs wasn’t in any position to judge. 

 

It made sense that Tony would have kept the file on DiNardo and La Grenoille in his desk at work.  The case was not closed---at least not for them.  Open cases didn’t go in Tony’s personal filing cabinets; for whatever reasons Tony only kept the closed cases at home.  He always kept anything open and unsolved where he spent the most time…the office. 

 

Gibbs opened the file. He found less than half a dozen piece of paper, and a handful of photos.  Not much to go on.  But the whole operation was never sanctioned and there was never a true ‘crime scene’ to be studied, so there weren’t other agent’s notes to include, no autopsy reports to refer to, no forensic information that might spark a new line of thought or questioning.

 

Gibbs put on his glasses and began reading the first page. He had forgotten how meticulous Tony could be when it came to his files.  The lazy, carefree attitude the younger man projected hid a prudent, highly organized approach to his personal record keeping. That attention to detail rarely made it into Tony’s final reports, a fact that never failed to baffle the older man.  It shouldn’t be that hard to duplicate his original efforts, but then maybe that was the problem.  If NCIS regulations had simply allowed Tony to copy his original effort rather than forcing him to recreate it in the official format it would have been faster and easier.  Tony, like Gibbs, saw redundant effort as wasteful and unnecessary.   He didn’t want to do the work over, so he simply did it as fast as possible providing only as much as absolutely necessary.  Even sending his reports back to him, over and over, didn’t make Tony any more inclined to go the extra mile.  It was one area he’d stubbornly and successfully resisted Gibbs. 

 

Typed in a concise bullet format was a listing of all the pertinent facts of DiNardo’s life.  His parents’ names, their respective professions and how they died, where he grew up, where he went to school, his hobbies and interests, his teaching schedule---everything that would be needed to create a good cover for the man he was pretending to be.  Scanning the information Gibbs could tell how much Tony had drawn in from his own history.  It made sense he would.  It was easier to remember that way, and definitely made it easier to be specific whenever he had to lie. 

 

On the second page were listed the social security number that had been set up for DiNardo, his driver’s license number, and his date of birth.  That ID information wasn’t anywhere Gibbs had ever seen.  Nor would it be, he realized grimly. Shepard hadn’t made the case official.  There were probably no more records than what Tony had kept... 

 

Gibbs sighed silently.  Until now, it had never even occurred to him to look into Tony’s alter ego.  He hadn’t been there when the cover was created, and with La Grenouille’s disappearance Gibbs had forgotten about DiNardo until Jeanne resurfaced accusing Tony of murder. 

 

Further down on the page was a cell phone number for DiNardo’s burn phone, where it had been purchased, when and how.  Gibbs would have expected cash to be used since that was harder to trace, but there was what had to be a credit card number listed.  Sixteen digits were unlikely to be anything else.  Gibbs handed that piece of paper off to McGee.

 

“Check all of that.”

 

McGee nodded.  “On it, Boss.”

 

Gibbs hid a smile.  There was a time when he’d have had to tell McGee what to check for.  McGee had come a long way from when he first worked with Gibbs.

 

McGee had been surprised to learn Tony kept any information from his undercover assignment, but then he didn’t know Tony kept information on every case he worked.  As far as Gibbs knew Tony had never mentioned it, and McGee had never been to Tony’s place to see for himself the way Gibbs had. 


The next page was devoted to Jeanne Benoit. Secured to it with a paperclip was a photo of her.  Gibbs frowned, wondering why Tony would have kept the picture.  With how badly things had ended between them, he thought it more likely Tony would have shredded anything related to her rather than risk being confronted by any reminder of who she was and what he’d lost.

 

Gibbs shook his head.  It was part of a case.  Tony would never destroy anything he considered evidence, regardless of how painful it might be for him.  Gibbs absently noted how much happier, younger and carefree Jeanne looked in the photo than she had the last time he’d seen her.  He was sorely tempted to shred it knowing Tony had likely made the same comparison and felt a lingering guilt about what his role in Shepard’s game had done to her.  He didn’t need that.  But Tony wouldn’t appreciate Gibbs destroying it---regardless of his motives---so Gibbs just set is aside.

 

He read through the attached paper.  It was an obvious ‘case study’, and probably something Tony had summarized from a more detailed source.  There was information on where she lived and worked, her friends and coworkers, places she frequented and when she would most likely be found there. There was even a brief profile on her character.  It was clearly everything Tony would have needed to ‘accidentally’ meet her, and then pique her interest enough to agree to saying yes to dating DiNardo. 

 

A second page was a detailed list of ‘arranged contact’ that had to be dates they’d been on.  The progress of their relationship was chronicled in a way that made it easy for Gibbs to know exactly when and where the case had become more personal than professional for Tony.  His gut tightened painfully when he realized it was after his return from Mexico.  His senior agent had been floundering, going down for the third time, and he’d never noticed. 

 

Gibbs’ fist clenched, crumpling the paper.  He forced himself to smooth it out and finish reading it. There was a footnote at the bottom about Jeanne having left DC for parts unknown.  Gibbs winced at that curt sentence; it held far more pain and loss than it should have been capable of.

 

Gibbs expected to see additional notes on her accusing Tony of murder, but there was nothing.  It seemed odd until it occurred to him that incident likely represented a separate case in Tony’s mind.  Any information about that and Rene Benoit’s murder was probably in another file somewhere.  The team in Houston had worked that case, albeit indirectly, and Gibbs knew they’d destroyed any hard copy information in their possession. The only thing he knew had been kept was on one of those computer memory sticks that McGee seemed fond of using.

 

Gibbs looked up to ask Mendez if there had been any other files in Tony’s locked drawer  or if the memory stick had been stored somewhere else.  Mendez was deep in conversation with Carol Dewing, and Gibbs hesitated to interrupt.  He wasn’t exactly on Mendez’s good side.  No point in antagonizing the man further by being rude when it didn’t have to be.  Gibbs made a note to ask him later.

 

Going back to the file in front of him, Gibbs flipped to the next page.  This one had a picture of Rene Benoit attached to it.  Looking at the man’s face, Gibbs couldn’t help thinking about the last picture he’d seen of him.  Bodies pulled from the water never looked good. Gibbs grimaced in distaste, not liking the image that came to mind and moved the photo.  There was surprising little in the way of information on Rene Benoit.  Reading through it, Gibbs realized the style was different and was likely something Shepard had given Tony.  It was little more than the name of the target, the crimes he was suspected of, listings of places he’d been or was suspected of being, and a photo for identification. 

 

Following that was clearly a list of things Tony had learned from Jeanne about her father. Some were leads Tony had obviously looked into, like various houses Jeanne had mentioned them residing in and where they’d gone for vacation and when.  There were notations in the margins about correlations between arms deals that had gone down at the same times, in the same area that could be linked to La Grenouille.  It wasn’t anything concrete but it was a good effort at establishing a pattern.

 

There was a photo of Trent Kort Gibbs recognized.  It was the same photo that had gone up on the plasma screen when they’d found out he was a CIA agent and Gibbs got his first clue as to what Tony had been involved in.  He hadn’t found out until much later Tony had actually taken the picture while keeping Rene Benoit under surveillance.  The only information with the photo identified Kort as Benoit’s right hand man.  CIA was written in block letters.

 

There was also a photo of Kort’s girlfriend. The only comment on her was that she appeared to be Rene Benoit’s personal assistant. With nothing else to go on, Gibbs assumed Tony had never gotten her name.  She’d never been arrested so there were no mug shots available to run facial recognition on, and Gibbs doubted Tony had ever gotten close enough to get her fingerprints.

 

“Boss?”


“Yeah, McGee?”

 

“I’ve got something you should see.”  McGee gestured toward his computer monitor.

 

Gibbs got up and studied the screen.  “What am I looking at?”

 

“This is the activity in the checking accounts that Tony had as Tony DiNardo.”  McGee tapped a button and the image scrolled down.  “According to this the account was opened a week after you…well, after you…” McGee cleared his throat, “after you went on extended leave.”

 

Gibbs mentally snorted. Extended leave?  More like I lost my mind, Gibbs thought, but he could appreciate the younger man’s effort to be tactful.  Shepard certainly hadn’t wasted any time getting things in place.  Had his leaving been all she was waiting for?  Or was it just bad timing on Gibbs’ part?

 

“Regular monthly automatic withdraws were set up for rent and utilities the two weeks later.”

 

Studying the date, Gibbs reached for the time line Tony had made of his relationship with Jeanne.  He hadn’t even met her until nearly three months later.  Shepard had clearly been laying the ground work.  Had she asked Tony that much in advance to take the case? 

 

Gibbs pulled out the paper with DiNardo’s history. Tony had dated it, in black ink, neatly in the upper right corner.  He wrote it, at least this final version, only two days before meeting Jeanne.  Knowing how Tony worked, he wouldn’t have written the history more than a week prior to initiating contact.  Once he’d created his alter ego, memorized the details and decided on the mannerisms, he’d want to almost immediately act on it to cement the character in place. 

 

Gibbs frowned.  Shepard had set up the account before Tony agreed to the job. It wasn’t a dummy account, something they’d created in house to work long enough to make it seem like DiNardo was real.  No, she hadn’t faked it.  This was a genuine account, with a bonifide bank.  They might never have known to even look for it if Tony hadn’t his kept notes.

 

Gibbs frowned.  To set it up, someone had to either hack into the bank’s system to create it because Shepard hadn’t secured a warrant to be able to force cooperation or someone had to physically open it.  To do the latter, proof of ID was required.  But the timing suggested it was set up before Tony DiNozzo agreed to become Tony DiNardo.

 

Had Shepard sent someone else in posing as DiNardo with forged documentation to open the account?  Had she planned to use someone other than Tony originally, and something fell through at the last minute?  Or was it just convenient to use him once Gibbs was out of the picture?  Gibbs’ thoughts were interrupted as McGee began speaking again.

 

“You can see where a paycheck was regularly deposited.  Every two weeks.”  McGee pointed to a line on the screen.  “Not quite sure how they managed to make it look like the money was coming from the university, but according to the ledger, that’s where the funds originated.”

 

That was probably the result of a good hack job.  Gibbs wondered who Shepard had used to do it. Could be the same person set up the account in the first place. 

 

“After the case was…well, not closed exactly, but shut down or whatever,” McGee shrugged, scrolling up the screen “the auto draft payments and deposits continued for several months.  I’m not sure why they would.  Not like Tony was staying at that apartment or even pretending to be DiNardo any more.”

 

Had it simply been overlooked?  It was possible. With Rene Benoit dead, Shepard might not have thought to shut everything down.  Attention to detail clearly hadn’t been a high priority for her.  Or she might have kept it open deliberately, planning to use it later. 

 

McGee pointed to another line on the screen.  “From here, the auto drafts stop, and so do the fake paychecks.  But other transactions start happening. For a lot more money.”

 

Gibbs could see where money was wired to and from the account.  The amounts were always a thousand dollars or more under federal mandated reporting requirements, and were regular enough to likely seem ‘normal’ to anyone giving the account a cursory look. There was nothing overtly suspicious to a casual observer. 

 

Doing a quick mental tally, Gibbs whistled silently at the number that came up. One hundred and seventy five thousand dollars over the course of several months had shuttled in and out of the account.  While not a huge amount of money, for say embezzlement or terrorist activity, it was still a sizeable chunk of change.

 

“Where did the money come from?  And better yet, where did it go?”

 

“I’m still working on that.” McGee grimaced.  “It bounced through several other accounts and whoever set it up did a good job of hiding the origin and final destination.  But I did find that the credit card number Tony had was actually a debt card attached to this account.”  McGee tapped a button, highlighting a transaction.  “It was used to purchase a prepaid cell phone just a few months ago from the same place where DiNardo bought his.”

 

McGee looked at Gibbs.  “We’d have to ask Tony to confirm it, but I’m sure he turned in anything related to DiNardo that he’d used undercover.”

 

Tony always made sure to return anything used while working a case.  He was positively anal about it, which Gibbs knew had annoyed the hell out of McGee until he’d realized even the equipment they used could be considered evidence.  Failure to return things might make an attorney question why an item used during an investigation couldn’t be produced.  If the equipment couldn’t be tested, how could they confirm it functioned properly?  If the agent wasn’t responsible enough to return things, or had so little integrity as to stoop to stealing then their whole testimony could, in theory, be made suspect.    

 

“If he didn’t return it, he might have reported it as destroyed when his car blew up.  He had to do that for his badge.” McGee said quietly.  “Either way, he’s been in Houston long enough that he couldn’t have used that card to buy anything in DC.”

 

“Get security footage from the store.”  Maybe they could see who actually used the card.

 

“They might not have it.”  McGee shook his head.  “Transaction took place awhile ago, and most places reuse their video tapes.”

 

McGee was probably right, but Gibbs wasn’t going to assume it was a dead end until that had been confirmed.  “Call and ask anyway.”

 

“On it, Boss.”

 

“Tell them it’s fraud related.  Identity theft.”  Those sorts of inquiries would be fairly common.  And Gibbs was hoping it would keep their interest low key enough not to cause anything to show up on Shepard’s radar.  

 

Before Gibbs could say anything else Dewing approached them.  She nodded to McGee, but her attention was on Gibbs. 

 

“We’re know where Nunes is.  We’re leaving in five to get him.”

 

Gibbs’ hand automatically moved to check his gun and badge.  “I’ll—“

 

“Stay right here and keep working,” she said mildly.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

She met Gibbs’ glare without flinching.  “Nunes is ours.” 

 

McGee stood up.  “Wait a minute, you can’t shut us out.  This is a federal case---“

 

“The issue of who is in charge as already been settled, Special Agent McGee.”  She kept her tone level, not raising her voice. 

 

“You can’t shut us out—“

 

“I can and will if need be.”  She stated with a quiet conviction that made it clear she wasn’t making a threat, she was stating a fact.  The look she gave McGee Gibbs was sure could have frozen water.  To his credit, McGee didn’t flinch, but he came close.  “And for the record you aren’t being shut out.  You never were.  You simply aren’t being included in this aspect of the operation.”

 

“That’s a fine hair you’re splitting.”  Gibbs growled. 

 

“It was our people who were hurt.  It is our turf.  And it will be Houston PD who nails his ass, not you.” 

 

In her position, Gibbs had to admit he wouldn’t let an outsider in either.  And when they’d met for a ‘campfire’ earlier, he’d agreed it was better to let Houston handle tracking down Nunes because they were likely to be more successful.  Since they’d located him, it had obviously been the right call.  He still didn’t like the idea of being left out.

 

“We stand a better chance of convicting him for murder than you have of convicting him of conspiracy or even getting nailing his ass for acts of terrorism.  You don’t have any hard evidence yet that Nunes and Shepard were working together and we can’t prove he wanted the weapons to attack any branch of the government or even the law abiding citizens of this country.”

 

“We’ll get proof.”  Gibbs declared.

 

“I’m sure you will.  But right now, we have proof Nunes was a drug dealer who killed Trent Kort while trying to buy illegal weapons.  That’s enough to arrest and hold him on.  So until you have something definitive, that will hold up in a court of law, it is worth remembering Texas not only has the death penalty, the state has a tendency to use it.”  She smiled coldly.  “And a few of Nunes’ rivals have people already in prison.  That could make being held in the general population more than a little uncomfortable, maybe even fatal, for him.”

 

Gibbs nodded, immediately seeing where she was going with her reasoning.  “You want leverage to force Nunes to roll on Shepard.  If federal agents are in on the bust he might expect to end up as a federal prisoner, not state.  He would know you aren’t going to decide his fate so he won’t cooperate.”

 

“Exactly.”  She smirked.  “Tony said you were no fool.  I’ll have to tell him he was right.”

 

Gibbs smiled, amused in spite of himself at the not quite compliment.  “It’ll just go to his head.”

 

“So?”  She turned to leave, and then looked back over her shoulder. “Once we have Nunes in custody you are welcome to watch the interrogation.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome.”  She saluted with two fingers and walked away.

 

“I don’t understand these people,” McGee muttered.  “She could have just told us that from the start.”

 

Gibbs suspected she would have---if they’d given her a chance to.  Their knee jerk reaction had her responding accordingly.  He wasn’t used to dealing with people who could and would hold their ground.  They didn’t tolerate having their authority or actions questioned any more than Gibbs did.

 

“Follow the money, McGee.  Let me know if you get any video footage from the store where the phones were bought.”  Gibbs grabbed his coffee cup. “I’m getting more coffee and then I’ll check in with Ziva to see how she’s faring on her end.”

 

They still hadn’t found out where the ordinance came from.  It was one more piece of the puzzle Gibbs wanted to be able to put into place. Going after the director of a federal agency wasn’t exactly a cake walk.  They needed to have as much information and evidence as possible. 

 

“I’ll stop by the forensics lab and see if Hartung has any more she can tell us.”  She might have the little memory stick thing they’d put information on Rene Benoit’s murder, or if she didn’t have it she might know where it was. 

 

McGee nodded, looking vaguely puzzled.  Gibbs knew the younger man’s expression was because he’d bothered to explain himself.  He’d made a concerted effort to do a better job of communicating lately, but his team still wasn’t entirely used to it.  They still tended to be wary or confused when he did more than issue orders. 

 

He could admit, at least to himself, his recent efforts were a byproduct of the regular conversations he had with Tony. Talking with Tony had given him practice verbal communication.  And he’d come to see the value of verbalizing his thoughts.

 

“Will you talk to Abby too?”

 

“Yeah.” 

 

Abby had insisted on staying at the hospital with Ducky.  She had her laptop and could work from anywhere.  She wanted to be there the next time Tony woke, refusing to leave until she had a chance to speak to him and see for herself that he was going to be okay.  Gibbs could understand her position.  He hadn’t really wanted to leave without being able to tell Tony he’d be back and he’d been heard. 

 

“I’ll let you know what she has to tell me.”  Gibbs said, seeing the next question in McGee’s eyes and answering it before he could ask.  “About the Shepard’s illness and Tony.”

 

McGee nodded, looking relieved. Gibbs knew he wasn’t the only one worried about Tony, but he did occasionally lose sight of that fact.

 

McGee sat down and focused on his computer. “I’m on it, Boss.”

 

“Keep up the good work, Tim.”  Gibbs said sincerely before he left.  He still didn’t hand out compliments very often, but he was trying to do better.  No one ever accused Gibbs of not learning from his mistakes---expect for when it came to his ex-wives. 

 

Coffee.  He needed coffee.  Hopefully, by the time he got recaffinated, Ziva and Abby would have good news for him. 

  

Chapter Text

On his way to the break room, Gibbs heard one of the cops comment that while he was sorry Lundy had been hurt, he was damn glad the man wouldn’t be making the coffee for awhile.  Gibbs smirked.  He’d forgotten that Lundy liked his coffee the way Gibbs liked his—very strong, black and bitter. 

 

The coffee he found wasn’t quite what he’d have preferred, which explained the cop’s comment, but at least it wasn’t some flavored, frou-frou crap.  It was hot and black.  That would do. 

 

Gibbs took his coffee with him to a quiet spot he’d found earlier.  He hit four on his speed dial for Abby.  Even though Tony wasn’t on the team any more, his number was still first.  Gibbs had updated Tony’s cell phone number, but he never bothered to change the order.  McGee was number two.  Ziva was three. Ducky was five. Shepard was six.  After Tony had left, Gibbs considered erasing Shepard’s number, but she was still his boss, and the demands of the job eliminated that small defiance as a viable option. 

 

He waited impatiently for Abby to answer.  Regardless of what hospital rules had to say about cell phones, she knew better than to turn hers off.  Always be reachable was a rule no one on his team was allowed to overlook.

 

“Hello?”

 

“What have you got for me, Abs?”

 

“I didn’t expect hacking into NCIS personnel medical files to be quite so difficult, Gibbs.  It’s not the Pentagon or the State Department.  Not that our stuff isn’t important, and I know we’re military, well more like military light, but medical files aren’t super secret or anything.  Not really. The security didn’t need multilevel encryptions, but I’ll admit I feel safer knowing my own file would be just as hard to—“

 

“Abby.” Gibbs ground out, cutting off her rambling.  “Did you crack it or not?”

 

“Of course, I cracked it.”  Abby huffed, sounding indignant.  “I am more than a match for some unimaginative drone in the cyber squad.”

 

“I won’t tell McGee you said that.”  Gibbs smiled. McGee might have ended up in the cyber squad if Gibbs hadn’t picked him up for his team and there were times Gibbs suspected the younger agent wished he hadn’t secured a field agent position. 

 

“Shame on you, Gibbs.  McGee isn’t drone material.  He’d be their king if he had to work in cyber crimes.  And I can personally attest to the fact he’s not unimaginative.” 

 

Her throaty chuckle was warm and told Gibbs far more than he wanted it to.  Gibbs shook his head, dispelling the images that tried to surface.  Whatever they might have done while they were dating definitely wasn’t something he wanted or needed to know.

 

“What did you find?” Gibbs asked, making her focus on the issue at hand.

 

“The Director’s annual physical turned up something hinky.  Nothing specified, at least not as an official diagnosis.  But her doctor referred her to a specialist for more tests.  From there, NCIS has no more record. Nada. Zilch.  Which is odd.  There should have been more of a paper trail for the referral, a follow up visit, something.  The Director should have submitted paperwork to get reimbursed from our insurance provider for the tests she had done if nothing else.”

 

Abby’s voice faded for a moment and Gibbs got the impression she was double checking information on her laptop or something she’d written down.  “I traced the specialist looking for more info.  That was a piece of cake, by the way.  Didn’t even have to break a sweat on that one.”

 

Gibbs smiled, mildly amused at the pride he could hear in her tone.  “And?”

 

Abby cleared her throat.  “What you said Joe guessed about Shepard…that she doesn’t have much time…well, he was right.  Depending on what stage she’s in, she’d have had two years at most from when the diagnosis was made.  Based on what I found, I’d say she has less than that.”

 

Gibbs bit back a curse. He’d hoped LaFiamma had been wrong.  As much as he hated Shepard for what he knew she’d done, he hadn’t wanted her dead. 

 

“What’s wrong with her, Abbs?”

 

“The specialist she was referred to…it was an oncologist, Gibbs.  He confirmed what her regular doctor seems to have suspected.”

 

“Which was?”  Gibbs bit out impatiently.

 

Abby rattled off something multi-syllabic that sounded like either Greek or Latin.  Gibbs rolled his eyes.  Did she really think he’d understand that?

 

“English, please.”

 

“It’s a rare form of cancer, Bossman.  It attacks the connective tissue in the joints and causes irreparable damage to several major organs, notably the pancreas, liver and kidneys.”

 

Gibbs ignored the regret and sympathy in Abby’s voice.  He was capable of feeling sympathy for Shepard too, but her having a death sentence didn’t give her carte blanche to do whatever the hell she wanted

 

“There is no treatment?”

 

“There isn’t any effective treatment.  Chemo isn’t an option, and organ transplants might work but they don’t like to do multiple transplants on one patient, especially not when the cause for the initial failure is likely to reoccur.  Liver and kidneys tend to fail first.  Once the pancreas goes, it’s game over.  The best they have is to simply delay the inevitable for as long as possible.” 

 

Abby sighed.  “There are some experimental drug options that are showing promise.  But most of them aren’t covered by insurance.”

 

Gibbs eyes narrowed. Most?  That meant there were some that did.

 

“Jenny submit a request?”

 

“No, she didn’t.”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“I checked. Twice.  She never filed anything with our insurance.” 

 

Gibbs sipped his coffee.  If Shepard had filed any sort of claim, her illness could have become, if not common knowledge, at least more widely known. With the sort of time frame Abby had mentioned, the SecNav would probably have relieved Shepard of duty, and started scoping out a replacement.  The rumor mill would have caught on that something was wrong and it would have spread like wildfire. 

 

“Is the specialist she saw even offering one of those experimental options?”  It was possible Shepard didn’t know it was available. That would also explain the lack of an insurance claim.

 

“The fact that he’s trying to secure more funding for research is one of the reasons he was recommended.”  Gibbs heard keys clicking.  “The Director agreed to participate in a drug trial, but the money available is limited.  What I found in the doctor’s files indicates she agreed to cover half the cost.  I can’t really trace the money directly back to her, but after each scheduled appointment, a sizeable amount of money was transferred from an off shore account into the doctor’s account in DC.”


“How sizeable?”

 

Abby told him the amount.  Gibbs did the math, matching the numbers with the total McGee had found for what was moving in and out of DiNardo’s account. 

 

“What’s the account number?”  Gibbs committed it to memory as Abby rattled it off.  He’d need McGee to confirm but Gibbs didn’t have any doubts that once he picked through the complex transactions executed to hide where the money had gone, the account number Abby found would be where the money went. 

 

Gibbs cursed silently. Shepard was siphoning money from somewhere to pay for her treatment—and it had to be illegal.  If it were her money, there would be no need to go through DiNardo’s account or transfer it several times to hide the origin and ultimate destination.

 

They weren’t looking at just murder, conspiracy and possibly treason, now there might be embezzlement to consider or Shepard could have accepted money from the likes of Nunes.  Gibbs sighed.  At least the money he understood.  People did a lot of things they otherwise wouldn’t when it came to survival.    Knowing her insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of an experimental treatment, and staring a death sentence in the face, Gibbs didn’t blame Shepard for being a little desperate.  But he didn’t and wouldn’t condone anything she’d done.

 

“That’s good work, Abby.”

 

“Thanks, Gibbs.”

 

He could hear her smile.  He never got tired of knowing how little it took to make her happy. 

 

“How’s Tony?”  Gibbs asked.  It was what he’d wanted to ask immediately, but the case came first.

 

“They made him do some sort of breathing exercise.  He had to blow into a tube and then inhale really hard. It made him cough.”  There was a wealth of indignation and anger in her voice.  “It hurt him to do that.”

 

Gibbs remembered watching Tony go through similar exercises when recovering from the plague. Knowing the deep breathing was necessary to ensure his recovery didn’t make seeing how much it hurt, how much it exhausted him, any easier to tolerate. 

 

“Ducky says it will help, but I don’t like seeing him in pain.  It just seems cruel.”

 

“I know, Abby.”  Gibbs didn’t like it either.  

 

“He wasn’t awake long after they made him do that, but we got to talk for a little bit.  It’s so good to be able to do that face to face.  I mean, IM is nice but it’s not the same.” 

 

Again he could hear her smiling, and was glad she sounded happy again.  He was tempted to ask what they talked about but reined it in.  If Abby wanted him to know, she’d tell him.

 

“LaFiamma treating you okay?”  Gibbs asked instead.

 

“Joe’s a good guy.” Abby asserted with more confidence and enthusiasm than Gibbs expected.  “I mean, he didn’t make a great first impression.  But I can’t really blame him for thinking the worst of us and treating us accordingly. We let Tony down.”  That admission was said so softly Gibbs nearly missed it.  Abby sighed, volume once more returning to normal.  “In hindsight, I should have expected Joe to be hostile especially since he’s really protective and Tony was being accused of murder at the time.”

 

Her easy forgiveness never failed to amaze Gibbs.

 

“I know I didn’t really make a good first impression either.  Tony explained about how the pictures of him all over the wall freaked Joe out.  I can see how it would, what with him having had a stalker of his own to contend with.”


Gibbs eyebrows rose. LaFiamma had a stalker?  Why did Tony not mention that to him?

 

“I know Tony’s told him that things are good between us, but this is the first time Joe’s had a chance to see it for himself.  Not really a big surprise he’d give us the hairy eyeball treatment at first.”

 

‘Hairy eyeball’…Gibbs didn’t know what the hell that meant, and he wasn’t about to ask.

 

“He’s been really nice to me and Ducky.  Levon’s been nice too.  He even listened to Ducky’s stories.”  There was genuine amazement in her tone.  “I mean, I know the Duckman tells good stories, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy listening to him too, but sometimes they get a little long winded.”

 

Gibbs smiled.  That was one hell of an understatement.

 

“I thought at one point Levon had fallen asleep which would have been totally understandable.  He’s got a serious injury of his own to heal from so getting plenty of rest is just what the doctor ordered.  His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving, but when Ducky stopped talking, he asked him why he stopped and what happened next.”

 

Lundy had surprised Gibbs several times the same way.  The man was more stealthy than he’d expect from a quintessential cowboy.  Given what Tony had told him about Lundy’s shooting ability, the man would have made a top notch sniper. 

 

“Do you need anything, Abby?”

 

“I could do with a Caf-Pow, but I don’t think you could get that here.”  She sighed heavily, sounding disappointed.  “Joe got me a couple of Red Bulls.  They aren’t quite as good but they’ll do in a pinch, so I’m set.”

 

“What about Ducky?”

 

“Joe found tea for him.  I’m not sure where he got it, but he managed to find the loose leaf stuff that Ducky likes.  He got him a real cup too.”

 

Ducky often made comments on the lack of truly good tea to be had.  He imported his own, and refused to drink out of Styrofoam or cardboard if there was another option available.  ‘Hot beverages are best when sipped from a proper cup’ he’d told Gibbs countless times. 

 

Gibbs never had the time or patience to bother with tea.  Abby professed not to care for it, saying she liked the ice and bubbles in her Caf-Pow better.  McGee hadn’t really bothered with caffeinated drinks until he started working for Gibbs.  The former Marine didn’t know if McGee actually liked coffee or if it had simply become a default option for him.  Gibbs knew Ziva liked tea.  She preferred the loose tea blends the same as Ducky, and had mentioned finding the ritual of making a good pot of tea comforting. 

 

Tony’s coffee was usually some flavored mix, so light and sweet as it qualified more as a dessert than a drink in Gibbs’ opinion.  He knew Tony used to visit Ducky in the morgue in the afternoon whenever possible, although, Gibbs suspected those visits likely had more to do with the shortbread cookies Ducky served than the quality of the beverage to be had. They’d become good friends as a result, so it hadn’t been as much of a waste of time as Gibbs originally considered it to be.

 

“How are things there?” Abby asked, interrupting Gibbs’ thoughts.


Back in DC Gibbs would have simply hung up.  But after arguing with LaFiamma about keeping Ziva in the dark, he wasn’t going to be a hypocrite and exclude Abby and Ducky simply because he wasn’t in the habit of explaining himself.  He’d told LaFiamma they were a team, and he meant it. 

 

“Dewing and her team have found Nunes.  They’re bringing him in.”

 

“When?”

 

“Now.”

 

“You called me from the car?”  Abby sounded confused.  “I don’t hear any road noise, which I guess would make sense if you aren’t driving.  No honking horns or squealing breaks—“

 

“I’m not in the car, Abby.  I’m at the station.”

 

“You didn’t go along to bust this asshole?  Why not?”

 

Gibbs told her, explaining Dewing’s reasoning and why he agreed with it.

 

“Tony told me she was more than just a pretty face.”  Abby sounded impressed. 

 

He’d said the same thing to Gibbs during one of their weekly phone calls, but Gibbs had attributed Tony’s admiration more to her looks than her ability.  He should have known better.  Tony might have had a roving eye and an appreciation for the female form, but he’d never rated his coworkers solely on their appearance.  And Gibbs had met her before; he knew there was more to Carol Dewing than supermodel good looks. 

 

“What are you and McGee doing besides waiting for them to get back with Nunes?”

 

Gibbs filled her in on what McGee had found.  She was quick to make the same connection Gibbs had on the money moving in and out of DiNardo’s account. 

 

“Tell him to call me if he needs help.”

 

“I will.”

 

“What about Ziva?”

 

“I’m going to see her after I’m done talking to you and find out what she’s got for me.” 

 

Gibbs was hoping she’d found something more concrete on where the explosives had come from and how they’d gotten to Houston.  The CIA had to be involved, so Ziva’s contacts were their best bet of getting anything at all to work with.  Sometimes it paid to have a former spy on the team.

 

Gibbs would like for anything Ziva found not to lead back directly to Shepard, not wanting her to have actually sunk so low as to be affiliated with selling US weapons, but he wasn’t holding out a lot of hope.  If they could prove she’d been in contact with Nunes via the burn phones, and that she had been working with the CIA to eliminate Kort as LaFiamma suggested, it was probable she’d been involved with every other step along the way---including securing the ordinance Kort was trying to sell to Nunes. 

 

Gibbs sighed.  It was days like this that made him think staying in Mexico might have been a better option.  But if he’d never gone to Mexico maybe none of this would have happened at all. 

 

“When will you be coming back here?”

 

“Just as soon as I can, Abs.”

 

“Good.  Tony will want to know what he gave you was helpful.  And I know he’d rather hear an ‘atta boy’ from you than get it second hand from me.”

 

“I know, Abby.” 

 

Gibbs hadn’t appreciated what the younger man’s efforts and ability before, but he certainly did now that he was having to do without him.  Letting him know now was a little too late, but Ducky was fond of telling him ‘better late than never’.  And Gibbs took heart from the fact that his opinion still mattered to Tony.  Maybe not as much as it once had, but if his saying ‘good job’ was enough to help their relationship continue to grow and improve, Gibbs was more than willing to give Tony a well deserved ego stroke.

 

“I’ll call you in two hours for an update if I can’t get away before then.”

 

“Roger, Boss.”

 

Gibbs ended the call with a smile, certain that Abby had just tossed off a sloppy salute with the wrong hand.  He sipped his coffee and went to find Ziva.   He was sure she’d have something to tell him he’d rather not hear. 

 

Like it or not, he was determined to see things through and do it the right way.  Shepard had gotten a pass once; it was the only option at the time if they were going to keep the team safe.  Now Gibbs needed to take her down and put a stop to her crazy shit once and for all.  He owed it to Tony…he owed it to his team…and he owed it to himself. 

Chapter Text

Gibbs watched through the one way mirror as Dewing faced off against Nunes.  His own interrogation style was cold and calculated, rarely losing control regardless of how it might look to the untrained eye.  Gibbs always assessed his opponent, looking for weaknesses and uncertainties; he measured their posture and expression, judging the truth of what they had to say by how they said it rather than what they said.  He often got more from a suspect saying as little as possible, letting his silence condemn and coerce the truth from them. 

 

Tony’s style often seemed to be the polar opposite of Gibbs’.  Tony was far less intense, more talkative, and personable than outright intimidating or hostile.  But Gibbs knew Tony was just as thorough in his approach, appraising a suspect with as much care and deliberation as Gibbs used.  Many suspects found themselves talking to Tony simply because he’d lulled them into believing he was harmless, not smart enough to actually catch them in a lie, or didn’t genuinely care about seeing them punished for their crimes. 

 

From what Gibbs was seeing, Dewing’s style was neither as disarming as Tony’s nor as directly confrontational as Gibbs’.  She seemed to be presenting herself to Nunes as every inch a lady.  The sort of old world grand dame who was unmistakably in charge regardless of her age, attire or the situation.  She seemed damn near regal in her bearing and attitude.    

 

The image was enhanced by the way Tony’s partner, Mendez, kept a respectful distance, yet obeyed every command or look without question.  He was also clearly ready to take Nunes out if the man so much as looked cross-eyed at her. 

 

At first Gibbs thought Mendez an odd choice for this.  The cop was too young, his little round glasses and quiet demeanor reminding him too much of a student for him to put the fear of God into Gibbs.  But then Gibbs wasn’t afraid of very many people.  And he couldn’t help approving of the subtle dangerous air that surrounded Mendez now.  He recognized the younger man, regardless of his age and appearance, was a force to be reckoned with.  Tony had nothing but good things to say about his partner.  He wouldn’t have stayed partners with Mendez if the man couldn’t hold his own.   And for as much as Gibbs hated the way Mendez still regarded him with some suspicion, he appreciated and respected the fact that he was doing it because he was looking out for Tony. 

 

Gibbs smiled to himself. Nunes had shifted nervously in his seat; Mendez reacted, dark eyes following every move the man made, managing to exude a quiet menace, rather like a well trained guard dog.  Mendez didn’t snap or snarl, but he made a good show of looking like he wanted to. Dewing raised on hand in a graceful gesture, a clear command to ‘stay’, making it obvious he was being kept in check by her and her alone. 

 

There were three other cops in the room that Gibbs didn’t recognize.  They aped Mendez’s behavior.  It was almost as if they were an honor guard for Dewing, a pack of wolves at her beck and call.  The way Nunes regarded them warily made it obvious he wasn’t blind to their presence or immune to their steady, hostile stares. 

 

Nunes may have risen in the ranks, becoming top dog dealing drugs, but he probably hadn’t experienced a face to face confrontation acting solely on his own in some time.  Gibbs knew a man like that was used to controlling the situation, to having the upper hand, outnumbering and outgunning his opponents. He was like a bully on a playground; he wasn’t used to being defenseless, weaponless or facing his battles alone. 

 

The Houston team was doing an admirable job keeping him off balance.  Dewing was the epitome of polite to Nunes.  She had requested he take a seat rather than ordering him to. Mendez and company were the ones to make it clear she was not to be denied.  She offered him something to drink, while Mendez made it plain the right action for Nunes was to decline the offer. She was quick to say he wasn’t being charged with anything yet, while the others made it obvious he was only present because they already knew he was guilty or something. 

 

If so much wasn’t riding on this, Gibbs would have found himself enjoying observing the byplay a lot more.  If Tony was there, he’d have made a bet with him on when and how Nunes would break.  Gibbs jaw clenched. Tony wasn’t there, and it was Nunes’ fault. 

 

Gibbs didn’t need to see Dewing’s face to know what sort of look she was giving Nunes.  From his reaction she had to be measuring him in a way an alpha male like Nunes considered himself to be couldn’t help but find insulting. He was more used to beautiful women like her falling at his feet than regarding him as something she had scraped off the bottom of her shoe. 

 

Gibbs had to admire how well she and the others were playing this.  So much ground work had already been laid and they had yet to ask a single question.  It hadn’t really taken long either.  Just a few minutes to set the stage, but Ziva didn’t see it the same way as Gibbs. 

 

“It would be faster to simply break his fingers than put on this display,” She said impatiently, her dark eyes flashing as they met Beaumont’s. 

 

“Intimidation isn’t always about force.” Beaumont smiled, holding Ziva’s gaze easily and making her own status as the one in charge with just a look.  

 

No, it was often about the threat of it more so than the actual application.  Gibbs understood that.  Logically, Nunes had to know they couldn’t legally beat or torture him.  This was America and such things were not ordinarily permitted.  But so far the show Dewing had put on was making it seem far more likely they could and would. They were making a statement that the proceedings were anything but ordinary even though they hadn’t done anything that would be considered in violation of Nunes’ civil rights or illegal. 

 

“If the goal were simply to making him confess so we could take him out back and shoot him, your way, Officer David, would be adequate.”  Beaumont said, her tone cool. “But we are after a bit more than that.”

 

On one hand, Gibbs could appreciate Beaumont’s people attention to detail and determination to do things right.  But on the other, deep down, he would have preferred Ziva’s way.  He would like to simply beat the shit out of Nunes.  Not so much for information; that would be gratis, but not the main goal.  He simply wanted to hurt the man for his part in nearly getting Tony killed.  Revenge was not justice, but in this case, it would almost be enough.

 

Gibbs’ gripped his ever present coffee cup a little tighter.  He likely wouldn’t get a chance to vent his anger on the Marines who’d sold ordinance to Kort either.  Ziva had managed to track down the source of the explosives, although she hadn’t been able actually pinned it to anyone in particular.  Gibbs had reluctantly called Shepard with the name of the base where it had been stolen from.  Not completely trusting her to act on it with the necessary speed, he made sure the SecNav knew as well. 

 

It had earned him a ‘nice work Agent Gibbs’ from the SecNav. Not that Gibbs gave a shit what the man thought.  He just wanted to make sure the job got done.  Given his intent to bring down Jenny, Gibbs doubted the SecNav would be handing out any more praise in the future.

 

Another team was already moving to investigate, interviewing troops and researching inventory records.  As much as Gibbs wanted to put a traitor’s balls in a vice, he was unwilling to leave Houston.  He’d told Shepard they were still following up on leads and couldn’t leave yet, which was the truth, just not the whole truth.  He wasn’t tipping his hand to what he knew about her involvement in all this, not until he had firm proof he could use to put her in cuffs and behind bars.

 

Gibbs had considered using what he already knew to just mete out some punishment of his own.  It wasn’t like he hadn’t done it before, but he’d renewed his commitment to be what he considered an honorable man after Tony had left.  It was a promise he found himself making a second time when Tony called him a hypocrite to his face and pointed out several times he’d acted in ways he’d have condemned anyone else for doing. Gibbs wasn’t going to hold others accountable to a standard he himself couldn’t or wouldn’t meet.  Shepard would be taken down legally and it would be with enough evidence to make the charges stick.  She would be held accountable in public, not taken out with a sniper’s bullet in some dark, back alley. 

 

Gibbs redirected his attention to what was going on in the interrogation room.  He wasn’t at all surprised that Dewing was able to get Nunes talking without having asked him any questions.  All it took was a well worded baiting comment about how he had nothing to worry about since he was clearly not the man in charge.  Looking down her nose at him and saying ‘someone like you couldn’t possibly be in charge’ had Nunes all but frothing at the mouth.  She simply wanted him to tell her about his boss and he would be free to go.

 

Gibbs smirked thinking the insults to Nunes’ manhood were clearly not well tolerated.  The man obviously thought highly of himself, of his operation and aspiration to expand.  He wanted to impress her, to put Dewing in her place.  Nunes wanted to make her aware that she was messing with a powerful, important man, to admit a mistake had been made and for her to apologize.

 

It was stupid of him, and it was also basic human nature.  All that macho posturing and need to talk was good for something, Gibbs decided with a silent snicker.  Nunes outright confessed to a number of crimes without realizing until much too late that his arrogance was going to bury him.  He remembered watching footage of Tony doing something similar with a gang banger.  Tony had managed to successfully goad the man into admitting he’d taken over running the gang, that he’d been issuing orders in the former boss’ name after having killed the man and left his body in a shallow pond.  Tony had done it while playing Tetris on his phone and barely mentioning the case. 

 

Ziva seemed genuinely surprised that Nunes had given so much so quickly.  But then, Gibbs mused, she was still more used to Mossad’s methods than those in the US. He doubted very many interrogations there happened without actual bloodshed.  And she probably didn’t run into many operators who were as stupid as Nunes. 

 

Finishing his coffee Gibbs amended his opinion of Nunes.  He wasn’t just stupid.  He was careless.  He was likely used to only dealing with law enforcement that he’d bought and paid for.  He probably hadn’t had to watch what he said or to whom in years.   He grown complacent, so used to other people being afraid of him and deferring accordingly he’d forgotten he wasn’t untouchable.   

 

Gibbs shook his head.  How the hell a man that careless thought he was going to take over anything was a mystery to Gibbs, but then dealing drugs and selling weapons didn’t require an advanced degree,  courage, or even much common sense.  Nunes only had to be bold enough to try and ruthless enough to put down any opposition. 

 

“They should all be so stupid,” Beaumont muttered, shaking her head. 

 

“Wouldn’t be much of a challenge if they were.”

 

“True.”  Beaumont chuckled. “But there are days when I’d settle for boring.”

 

Gibbs nodded, throwing away his empty cup.  He wouldn’t mind boring now and again himself.  It beat the hell out of planning to bring down a woman he’d worked with and for, a person he’d liked and respected enough at one time to actually sleep with. 

 

Suddenly aware that he might have hung himself, Nunes demanded to see his attorney.  It had taken him far longer to insist on that than Gibbs expected.  If Nunes had been smarter, he’d have demanded his lawyer from the second he was in the interrogation room.  Or have been adamant about being able to call one.

 

“I don’t think an attorney will do you much good, Senor Nunes.  You’ve already confessed to killing a man.  It was witnessed by several officers of the law, and we now have the gun you used.” 

 

Dewing sat forward slightly, her voice lacking any inflection.  It was all the more intimidating for the lack of hostility.  “Two police officers were critically injured and may not make it.”

 

Gibbs grimaced, unhappy with the reminder of how serious Tony and Lundy’s injuries were, but also very glad to know beyond a doubt she was lying about their current condition.  He couldn’t have read the lie in her voice or posture.  She was good.

 

“You are going to pay for that.”  She hesitated for a moment.  “With your life.”


Nunes panicked and started to rise. Mendez and another moved swiftly, gripping his shoulders and forcing him back into his seat.  Gibbs noticed that Mendez’s grip was tight enough to whiten his knuckles, and made Nunes wince.  They remained standing next to Nunes effectively trapping him.

 

Dewing dipped her head once, acknowledging their action and condoning it at the same time.  “Relax Senor.  You won’t die in this room.  No, that would leave us with just a few too many questions to answer.  But rest assured, you will die.” 

 

She sat back, waving a hand in a careless gesture.  “There are some people in our jail who had friends among the fallen.  And there are a few I believe you may have met before, on less than favorable terms, or so it seems.” 

 

Nunes’ dark complexion paled dramatically when Dewing started naming names.  Whoever the people Dewing named were, they clearly meant something to Nunes. Dewing had done her homework.

 

“It will not take long for news of your arrival amid the ranks of the incarcerated to spread.”  Dewing assured him.  “Especially not when we make a point of telling them.”

 

“And if they don’t get you, we will strap you down while other people watch you get a needle full of poison.”  Mendez interjected quietly, leaning down to speak directly into Nunes’ ear.  “They always say it’s painless, but it’s not.  Everyone screams. They all cry like little girls.  They wet their pants, and shit themselves.  They blubber and beg.  So will you.”

 

Nunes straightened, grasping what little composure he still had.  “This is all a misunderstanding.”

 

“I agree.”  Dewing pushed her chair back and stood.  “You clearly did not understand that here in Houston we do not tolerate your kind.  We cannot permit you to hurt two of ours and allow that to go unanswered.  It wouldn’t be right.  Surely, you can understand that?  After all, you’ve killed others for much the same reason.”

 

She clucked her tongue.  “I will be stepping out for awhile.  My men will keep you company and impress upon you the error of your ways.”

 

Nunes blanched and again tried to stand only to be forced back into his chair.  “You can’t…My attorney---“

 

“Oh a few bruises, missing teeth, broken bones…they are not so hard to explain.”  Dewing smiled coldly.  Her recitation of the injuries likely to be inflicted on him made Nunes shudder. 

 

“The elevator was out of order and we had to take the stairs.  You were clumsy and slipped.  It is rather hard to catch one’s balance with your hands cuffed behind you.”

 

“Will he be falling several floors, Ma’am?”  Mendez asked, still making it clear Dewing was in charge and that he was seeking permission to act.  He and the other cop had Nunes up and standing, cuffs in place with efficient speed Gibbs found impressive. 

 

“At least several floors. Maybe more than once.” Dewing patted Nunes’ face.  “I’ll see to it the camera’s are off for as long as you need.”

 

Mendez smiled.  “Thank you, Ma’am.”

 

Beaumont looked at Gibbs.  “You’re up.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  He’d known about this part of the plan, at least in general terms. They couldn’t really get too specific since there were too many variables. The goal was to scare Nunes enough to get him to roll on Shepard.  Dewing and company had started the process; it was Gibbs’ job to finish it.  Ziva had been decidedly disappointed to know no actual injuries would be inflicted.  Gibbs felt the same way, but he understood the need to do it right. 

 

He left the observation room and strode purposefully toward the interrogation room.  He knocked loudly on the door before entering.  He took in everything at a glance, pleased to see the few seconds it had taken him to get from one room to the other nothing had changed.

 

“What the hell is going on in here??!” Gibbs demanded, slamming the door with enough force to make Nunes jump. 

 

“Special Agent Gibbs, I believe I told that this was our case, and we would be handling it.”  Dewing’s tone was icy.  If Gibbs hadn’t known better he’d have believed her to be truly pissed. 


“And I told you that this is a federal case.” 


The argument bounced back and forth between them for several minutes. It was more than enough time for Nunes to catch on that Gibbs might well just be the man to save him from a beat down and a death sentence.  The irony of his playing a ‘good cop’ to their ‘bad’ was not lost on Gibbs.  It was a novel role for him, and one he never planned to be in again.

 

“Call off your dogs, Dewing,” Gibbs ordered curtly.  “I’ve got a warrant.  A federal case trumps local, and Nunes is mine.”

 

The four cops ringing Nunes didn’t move.  Nunes’ dark eyes shifted back and forth, desperately darting between Gibbs and Dewing. He looked close to trying to bolt when Mendez’s hand came to rest on the back of his neck.

 

“Fine.”  Dewing snapped her fingers.  Mendez and the other three stepped way from Nunes.  They didn’t remove the cuffs though.  Gibbs silently approved. The cuffs would remind Nunes of their presence even after they’d left.  Keeping him scared was part of the plan.  What the man didn’t know was that he had more to fear from Gibbs than the Houston cops. 

 

“When you find out he’s nothing but a scumbag drug dealer with lofty ambitions, and completely unrelated to your case, I expect you to return him to me and mine.”

 

Gibbs tipped his head, signaling agreement.  “If he can’t to tell me what I want to know, I’ll give him back.” 

 

Gibbs could see Nunes nearly praying he would be able to tell him whatever he wanted to know.  Nunes’ cowardly behavior pissed Gibbs off.  Someone responsible for nearly killing Tony should be a better man.  This little piss ant wasn’t good enough to even breathe the same air. 

 

Once Dewing and the others left, Nunes spoke almost immediately.  “Thank you, Sir.  I want to press charges.  Those people were about to--“


Gibbs stopped him with a look.  He was still playing the ‘good cop’, but not that damn good.  No reason for Nunes to think he’d escaped getting burned just yet.

 

“Sit,” he ordered, pointing to the chair Nunes had been in.

 

The man sat immediately.  “What do you wan to know?”

 

“Tell me about Trent Kort?”

 

Nunes nervously licked his lips.  “I am not familiar with him. I was just telling them that I don’t know—“

 

“Don’t waste my time.”  Gibbs’ gaze was flat and hard.  “You either tell me what I want to know or I give you back to them.  Your choice.”

 

Nunes swallowed hard.  “What do you want to know about him?”

 

Gibbs glared at him.  “Everything.”

 

It was like uncorking a bottle.  Nunes just spewed information.  He hadn’t really worked with Kort or even met the man before a few days ago.  He detailed how he’d been working with Rene Benoit off and on for several years and took up with Kort as a byproduct of that.  Nunes sounded so reasonable as he tried to explain needing more firepower and how getting it from a reliable source seemed like a good idea.  Gibbs wanted to throttle the man.

 

“Why’d you kill him?”

 

“He lied to me.  Betrayed me.”  Nunes said bluntly.  “He was not a businessman like Benoit.  He was a federal agent, like you.”

 

“And you know this how?”

 

“A received a call from a friend of Benoit’s.  She told me Kort was not who he claimed to be.”

 

“She?”  Gibbs’ eyes narrowed, wanting to seem surprised rather than pissed. “A woman?”

 

“Si. She said she was looking out for Benoit’s business associates.  She was making sure his customers were not being misled by the man who killed him.”

 

Gibbs raised both eyebrows.  “And you just took her word for it?”

 

“No, of course not.”  Nunes shook his head.  “I am no fool.”

 

Gibbs thought otherwise but didn’t say so aloud.

 

“I checked.”  Nunes said.  “I check everything she told me was true.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  “Everything?”

 

“Yes.”  Nunes gave him an earnest look.  “She called me several times.  Always the information she gave me was accurate.”

 

“Who was she?”

 

Nunes hesitated.

“I want a name!”  Gibbs snarled.  He didn’t think Shepard would have used her own name, but whatever name she’d given was one more piece of the puzzle and he wanted it now.

 

“You want to do her harm.  Make her pay for what happened to your fellow agent.” Nunes cocked his head to one side, giving Gibbs a calculating look ignoring the fact that his killing Kort might be reason enough for Gibbs to want to do him harm.

 

 “Perhaps we could make a deal. And exchange of favors.  You let me go and I tell you what I know about this woman.”

 

“You either tell me what I want to know, or I let the cops here in Houston take their pound of flesh out of you before they sentence you to death.  I’ll even help them.”  Gibbs fixed Nunes with a hard stare. “That’s the only deal on the table.”

 

Nunes flinched.  “But Agent Gibbs—“

 

“Take it or leave it.”  It was a risk that Nunes might just find balls enough to defy him, but Gibbs doubted he would this late in the game.

 

Nunes swallowed hard.  “She said her name was Nikita Druyiev.  She spoke with a heavy accent, one I did not recognize, but thought might be Russian from her name.”

 

Gibbs jaw clenched. He hadn’t heard that name in nearly ten years.  Nikita Druyiev was the undercover name Shepard had used when they worked in Moscow together before the case had them heading for Paris. They’d been assigned to eliminate a man and his mistress.  Gibbs had done his part, nearly getting arrested for murder when Shepard was late in following through with her end.

 

“She knew all about Benoit’s business and my dealings with him.”

 

Her knowing all that was likely what broke the ice and got Nunes to trust her, Gibbs mused.  And Shepard knew Benoit’s business better than practically anyone else. 

 

“She warned me about several other people I was dealing with as proof she could be trusted.  There were traitors in my organization.”

 

Gibbs cursed silently.  It sounded like Shepard had betrayed more than Kort.  Why the hell would she do that?

 

“What did Nikita look like?”

 

Nunes shook his head.  “Our only contact was by phone. We never met.” 

 

“You’re lying.”  Gibbs declared.  He wanted Nunes to be lying.  He wanted him to be able to pick Shepard out of a line up, to put a nail in her coffin once and for all.  But even has he made the accusation, he knew Nunes wasn’t lying. 

 

“I’m telling the truth.  I never met her.”  Nunes insisted, leaning forward to hold Gibbs gaze.  “I thought the woman who was with Kort, the pretty blonde, might have been her.  Benoit had referred to having an assistant…a woman who handled details for him. The woman who called me…she knew so much about Benoit’s business, about what I’d done with him…it made sense that it was his assistant.  I thought she wanted to make sure the man who betrayed her boss did not go unpunished for his treachery.  When I saw her there, that night, I ordered my bodyguards not to harm her.  Just in case she was Nikita.  I owed her a debt.”

 

Gibbs wanted to curse.  He had yet another tenuous tie to Shepard, but nothing concrete.  Circumstantial evidence would not be enough to put her behind bars.  It might be enough to have the SecNav force her to step down but that was hardly the sort of punishment Gibbs wanted doled out.  God. Damn. It. 

 

“Did you ever call her?”

 

Nunes nodded.  “Several times.”

 

“Give me the number.” Gibbs ordered.

 

They already had that information, but this would strengthen the connection to get the name and means of contact directly from Nunes.  Nunes surprised him by being able to recite the number from memory.   

 

Gibbs stifled a sigh, resisting the urge to belt the man on general principle.  He stood up and headed for the door.

 

“Agent Gibbs, where are you going?  I told you what you wanted to know.  You said--”

 

Gibbs ignored him as he walked out, closing the door behind him.  He nodded to Dewing and Mendez who were just outside the door.  They obviously knew he hadn’t gotten what he wanted, but they had the good sense not to comment on it.

“Can you take care of him?”

 

“We’ll sit on him for now.”  Dewing nodded.  “Beaumont said to tell you she just got word the CIA knows officially that Kort’s dead.  Sounds like we might be getting some company.”

 

Gibbs grimaced, not happy about this news, but realizing it wasn’t a huge issue.  As pissing contests went, he was sure the crew in Houston could hold their own against anyone the CIA sent out.  And if they wanted Kort dead the way LaFiamma said they did, Gibbs doubted they’d send their A game.  It was more likely a formality but still one they’d have to deal with. 

 

“Everything is backed up?”  Gibbs asked. 

 

“Yep,” Mendez smirked.  “And safely stowed.”

 

“We’ve got good claim to Nunes,” Dewing told him, shrugging one shoulder. “Can fight to hold him, but we’ll probably lose Loire.  Not sure this is much more she can tell us anyway.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  “I’m going to check in with McGee.”

 

He was hoping McGee would tell him he’d linked the phones directly to Shepard.  McGee should have the store footage by now. Hopefully there was something there they could use. 

 

The money Shepard had moved in and out of Tony DiNardo’s account was a detail that still bothered him.  Given what Abby had found she’d obviously used it to pay for medical treatment, but where had it come from?

 

There was more to Shepard’s wanting to take out Kort than just keeping her father’s name clear.  Why else would she give Nunes information on people in his organization?  She had to have been getting something from that.

 

Gibbs didn’t know what exactly Shepard had been doing, but his gut was telling him the money was part of it.   Had she been working with the CIA to get Kort killed the way LaFiamma’s contacts said she was?  Did she get paid for that bit of betrayal?  Was she working with the CIA to set up Nunes for something they needed done?  Something that meant getting him to trust her implicitly?

 

Gibbs rubbed tiredly at his eyes.  At the rate things were going, he wasn’t sure his resolve to do this the right way would last long enough to take Shepard down.  If they didn’t get what they needed soon, he was going to fly back to DC and strangle her.  

Chapter Text

McGee had struck out on getting any sort of surveillance footage from where the burn phones were purchased.  The store had cameras, more than a dozen of them in fact, but they’d only been installed three months ago after a botched break in scared the manager into taking tighter security measures.  Even if the cameras had recorded anything they reused the tapes, rarely keeping anything longer than a week.  Coming up dry wasn’t entirely unexpected but it was decidedly disappointing.

 

Gibbs’ hands clenched into fists as he fought not to lash out in anger at running into yet another dead end.  He cursed vehemently in his head, unwilling to give voice to what he was thinking lest McGee take it the wrong way.

 

“I’ll keep working.” McGee assured him earnestly, blue eyes wary.  Clearly some of what Gibbs was thinking and feeling had made itself know.

 

“There has to be something here that we can use.”  McGee cleared his throat.  “I just haven’t had enough time to find it.  I will, Boss.  I won’t give up.  I just need to--“

 

Gibbs held up a hand, halting McGee’s babbling.  “I know, McGee.”  He patted McGee on the shoulder.  It wasn’t his fault, and there was no harm in letting him know that.  He was doing his best. 

 

Gibbs took a breath and let it out slowly.  “Something else I need you to look into.”

 

Gibbs gave McGee the code name for the case he and Shepard worked ten years ago.  There should still be a file on it somewhere, although whether or not it was just hard copy or had been entered into a database Gibbs didn’t know.  He outlined what they’d been assigned to do and where. 

 

“Why do you want me to dig into all that?”  McGee frowned, head tilting to one side as he looked at Gibbs.  “I don’t see how it relates to this case.”

 

“Shepard used the same alias when talking to Nunes.  I don’t know how those things might be related–“

 

“But there are no such things as coincidences.”  McGee finished for him. 

 

“Exactly.”  Gibbs nodded.  “There had to be a reason she picked that name.”

 

McGee nodded slowly.  “If we can document she’s used it before—“

“It becomes another link back to her.” Gibbs finished for him.  “With what she told me, the activity in DiNardo’s accounts and money we can link to payments to her doctor, this alias…We may have enough to arrest her even if we can’t get definitive proof she bought the phones or made the calls to Nunes.”

 

McGee grinned.  “I’m on it, Boss.”

 

“Call Abby if you need help.”  Abby and McGee worked together well, inspiring each other to find solutions that they might not come to on their own.  “She’s gotten as far as she can on Shepard’s medical records.”

 

“Will do, Boss.” 

 

Gibbs patted his shoulder again.  “Let me know when you find something.” 

 

“Where will you be?”

 

“Hospital.”  Gibbs wanted to check on Tony.  He still needed to give him that ‘attaboy’ in person for having information they were able to use.   Abby and Ducky would be in need of a break by now too. Gibbs knew from past experience that spending time at a hospital was exhausting.  And none of them had gotten a good night’s sleep in days.

 

It would also be a good time to talk to LaFiamma too and see what else he might have uncovered.  The man was still working he case, and had managed to find out a lot earlier just by making a few phone calls.  He might know more about the CIA’s role in all this, especially now that they were sending someone to Houston.  There might be more chatter about what happened to Kort that LaFiamma had access to that he and his team hadn’t found time to look into.

 

McGee bit his lower lip before asking, “Will you be taking Ziva with you?”

 

Gibbs thought about that for a moment.  It was probably better if he took Ziva with him. Tony’s partner and coworkers weren’t going to share much with her, not when LaFiamma had made it clear he didn’t trust her.   They weren’t outright rude, but they fell silent around her, always stood arm’s length away, didn’t speak to her unless she spoke first.  It wasn’t surprising McGee had noticed.  Anyone with half a brain could tell she was being handled differently than the rest of the team.

 

It still grated that LaFiamma had questioned her loyalty, but Gibbs couldn’t fault the man’s logic.  If he didn’t know Ziva, hadn’t already been convinced of her commitment to the team, her ties to Shepard and allegiance to a foreign power would be reason enough to keep her at a distance. 

 

He sighed softly.  Ziva didn’t have the patience to play nice with others, nor did she always see the need to do so.  Leaving her with people who made no secret of their distrust if not outright dislike was just asking for trouble.  Gibbs couldn’t afford to have her coming to blows with people who’d already shown a willingness to work with most of his team.  Regardless of how they felt about Ziva or the rest of the team, Tony’s teammates were making progress on the case—maybe not as fast or as much as Gibbs would like---and he wasn’t about to interfere with that. 

 

It was one more thing about having Tony on his team Gibbs missed.  Ziva might know how to schmooze with politicians and diplomats, understanding better than anyone else the need for tact and care during those confrontations, but when it came to day to day interactions with fellow law enforcement types she didn’t always relate well.   Tony might annoy the hell out of people at times, but he always managed to make nice whenever the situation called for it. Regardless of how he felt about another agent or officer, if ordered to work with them he did.

 

“Yeah, I’ll take her with me.”  It would mean leaving McGee alone but he seemed to get along well enough with the team in Houston, and he wasn’t doing anything that should require back up. 

 

McGee’s lips curled upward in a small smile.  “Tell Abby I’m still betting on Ziva and LaFiamma coming to blows at some point.”

 

Gibbs chuckled.  He didn’t think they would, as least as long as Ziva didn’t start anything.  LaFiamma wouldn’t throw the first punch, of that Gibbs was certain, but he wouldn’t back down if she challenged him directly. 

 

“Come to the hospital in a few hours,” Gibbs ordered quietly. 

 

McGee frowned.  “Boss, I might not have anything by then—“

 

“I know.”  Gibbs headed for the door.  “I want you there whether you’ve got anything new or not.

 

“Boss?” McGee called after him obviously confused.

 

Gibbs looked over his shoulder.  “I know you want to see Tony too.”

 

McGee smiled brightly, blue eyes warm and grateful.  “Thanks, Boss.”

 

Gibbs nodded and left.  He might be a bastard, but he hadn’t forgotten the reason they’d all flown to Houston.  McGee deserved to see Tony as much as anyone else on the team.

 

He found Ziva in the hallway. “Ziva, you’re with me.”

 

He didn’t tell her where they were going, but then he rarely told his people much.  Most of the time they were quick enough to catch on without him having to explain it.  It wasn’t much of a guess as to where they’d be headed.  The hospital was the only other place any of them had gone since getting to Houston.

 

Gibbs did stop to let Dewing know he and Ziva were heading out.  She gave him a two fingered salute and went back to working with Mendez on whatever they were doing. He heard the CIA mentioned and realized they were probably strategizing for how to deal with whoever the spy agency sent.  Gibbs decided he didn’t need to know any more than that.  He smiled to himself. Plausible deniability wasn’t always such a bad thing.

 

The trip to the hospital was made in silence.  Gibbs was grateful Ziva didn’t try talking to him.  There was nothing they needed to hash out about the case, and chit-chat had never been his strong suit.

 

The only idle conversation or small talk he willingly tolerated came from Tony or Abby.  Tony’s running commentary could be interesting at times, was often amusing, and his voice made for pleasant background noise that Gibbs could tune out whenever he wanted.  Abby’s babbling was nearly incomprehensible to him at times, and the subject matter rarely seemed connected to what they were doing, but his paternal feelings made it almost second nature to indulge her. 

 

Gibbs parked as close to the door as he could get without taking a handicapped spot or one of the places reserved for staff.  In an emergency or back in DC, he would have parked anywhere not caring about petty rules, but in Houston he couldn’t guarantee the damn rental wouldn’t get towed.  Better to be safe than sorry. 

 

They made their way through the hospital and up to Tony’s room.  Gibbs scanned the area instinctively has he walked.  He didn’t think there was any true threat to Tony and Lundy from Nunes’ people, but being unable to put the case completely to bed still made him wary.

 

Gibbs relaxed when nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  Ziva gave him a look that let him know she’d done her own threat assessment.  He smiled and got a smile from her in return.  She might not be Tony, but she was a good second.

 

There was still a uniformed officer guarding the door to Tony and Lundy’s room.  Gibbs didn’t recognize the man and wasn’t entirely surprised when he blocked the door and asked for ID.  Ziva gave him a dirty look, but Gibbs simply complied.  The man was doing his job, no reason to give him shit over it.  Gibbs would have more reason to give him a hard time if he hadn’t stopped him.  Unnecessary or not, there was no excuse for a man not to perform his duty.

 

Gibbs knocked once lightly on the door.  He didn’t want LaFiamma pointing a gun at him again.  Regardless of what Abby said about him being a good guy, Gibbs couldn’t be sure that LaFiamma wouldn’t shoot him out of spite.

 

He’s effort at courtesy was wasted.  LaFiamma wasn’t in the room.  Gibbs didn’t think he’d voluntarily left since Lundy and Tony had been admitted.  He looked around, instinctively assessing the room to see if he could spot something to explain the younger man’s absence.

 

Abby was sleeping in the chair.  Gibbs winced looking at the angle of her neck knowing his own would be killing him in no time if he’d slept like that.  Ducky was also dozing.  He was doing it sitting straight up though, and Gibbs shared a quick grin with Ziva over that.  He’d heard his old friend say more than once that he could sleep any time, anywhere, but this was the first time he’d seen proof.

 

Tony also appeared to be sleeping. Gibbs found it decidedly reassuring that his breathing appeared to be regular and easy.  It wasn’t the unnatural rhythm when he was on the respirator.  His color looked better too.

 

Glancing toward Lundy’s bed, Gibbs wasn’t entirely surprised to see brown eyes measuring him.  What did startle him a bit was the pistol in Lundy’s hand.  It wasn’t pointed at him, just aimed in his and Ziva’s general vicinity.  Gibbs arched an eyebrow.  Lundy just shrugged, shoving it under the blanket.

 

“Old habits,” Lundy murmured. 

 

“I knocked.”  Gibbs felt compelled to point out.  He’d been polite, that should have meant no one would point a gun at him. 

 

“I know.”  Lundy grinned at him.  “S’what woke me up.”

 

Gibbs rolled his eyes.  “Asshole.”

 

Lundy’s grin just got bigger.  “You aren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.”

 

Gibbs shook his head.  He would never understand this man, but he was grudgingly coming to genuinely like him.

 

Ziva coolly appraised Lundy. Gibbs could tell she approved of his being prepared even is she didn’t like having a gun pointed at her any more than Gibbs had.  He knew of LaFiamma’s antipathy for her, but Gibbs had no idea how Lundy felt about Ziva.  The two seemed to disagree on a lot of things, but when it came to anything important they were lock step in their thinking.

 

“Where’s your partner?” Gibbs asked.

 

“Stretching his legs.”  Lundy yawned.  “He’s not good at sitting still.”

 

It was something else LaFiamma had in common with Tony.  Gibbs had missed his energy and exuberance.  Abby came close, but hers was often the by product of caffeine and a childlike zest for life, whereas Tony’s was an inherent part of his nature and didn’t typically involve quite so much hyper activity. 

 

Gibbs stepped closer to Tony’s bed.  Paternal instinct had him reaching out to gently lay his hand against Tony’s forehead, checking for fever, wanting a physical connection.  He was pleased to feel only the usual level of warmth. 


Tony blinked up at him, smiling when he focused sleepy green eyes on Gibbs. “Hey Boss.”

 

“How you doing, DiNozzo?”  Gibbs asked softly, his tone gentle, thumb lightly caressing Tony’s forehead.

 

Tony sighed. “M’fine.”  His voice was raspy and hoarse.  Gibbs couldn’t tell if it was because he’d been sleeping or a hold over from having been on the ventilator.

 

Gibbs smiled, shaking his head slightly.  Only Tony would consider his current condition even remotely close to ‘fine’. 

 

“They treating you all right?”

 

“S’okay.  For a hospital.”  Tony blinked slowly.  “Rather be home.”

 

Gibbs winced internally, thinking about what ‘home’ used to be to Tony.   If home was still DC and NCIS Tony might not be lying in a hospital bed.  But given Shepard’s involvement, maybe it was better he was in Houston.  Hell, at the moment, Gibbs only wanted to back to DC to kick her ass for being so damn stupid.

 

Tony’s breathing hitched, and Gibbs found himself holding his own breath hoping it wouldn’t start him coughing.  He released it once Tony was breathing easily.  He could almost see the younger man becoming more awake and aware.

 

Gibbs almost regretted disturbing him, knowing Tony needed to rest to heal, but having him alert and talking was so damn reassuring.  Gibbs couldn’t bring himself to feel bad about having another chance to talk to Tony.

 

“How are things…going with the case?” The question was a little breathy, audible proof that Tony’s punctured lung and broken ribs were still causing him some problems.  They likely would for awhile. 

 

“It’s getting there,” Gibbs hedged, not wanting Tony to worry overly much about it.  He needed to concentrate on getting better.  “The information you had gave us another lead.”

 

Tony looked hopeful.  “Yeah?”

 

“You did good, Tony.”

 

Tony smiled, color warming his cheeks.  “Thanks, Boss.”

 

Gibbs dipped his head in acknowledgement.  He was glad he’d been smart enough to know, even without Abby mentioning it, that Tony needed to hear the ‘attaboy’ from him personally, not second hand. 

 

Tony glanced around the room.  When he spotted Ziva still standing near the door, he smiled. 

 

“Sweet Cheeks.” 

 

“Hello, my little Hairy Butt.”

 

“You going to lurk…in the doorway the whole time…you’re here?”  He asked.  His eyes sparkled as he teased her, the warm tone of his voice barely concealing the effort it took him to speak as evenly as he had.  “I know you ninja types…are gung ho on escape and all—“

 

“Shut up, Tony,” Ziva said but there was no heat in her voice.  She stepped closer, reaching out to take his hand, squeezing once before quickly letting go.  “I’m sure your doctor has told you not to talk so much.”

 

“Nope.”  Tony grinned.  “He didn’t say anything…like that.”

 

“Perhaps I should have a word with him then.”  Ziva grinned back.  “He clearly does not know you like we do.”

 

Tony rolled his eyes.  He turned his head, smiling again when he spotted Abby.  “Wake her up,” Tony murmured.  “She’s going to hurt like hell…if she stays like…that any longer.”

 

Gibbs smiled wryly.  His neck hurt just looking at her.  He started to move only to stop when Ziva waved him off.

 

“I’ll wake her.”

 

Ziva stepped over to Abby and laid a hand on her shoulder.  Gibbs opened his mouth to warn her but there was no time.  Abby came awake with a start and stood up abruptly, arms swinging wildly as she fought to find her balance.  Only Ziva’s quick reflexes kept her from getting smacked in the face. 

 

“I’m awake.  I’m awake,” Abby nearly shouted.  “I was just resting my eyes.  I swear.”

 

Lundy traded a look with Tony, chuckling softly.  “She always wake up like that?”

 

“Whenever she’s anywhere but home in bed, yeah,” Gibbs answered him before Tony could.  The doctor might not have told him not to talk much but Gibbs didn’t like the amount of effort it took Tony to speak. 

 

Lundy pursed his lips thoughtfully.  “I’ll remember to use a pole if I have to wake her up.”

 

Gibbs smirked.  “Probably a good idea.”  He made a habit of calling her name once or twice before he touched her.  Sometimes it helped.  It helped more to be ready to dodge her wild movements until she was fully aware of where she was and what was going on. 

 

“Tony, you’re awake again!”  Abby almost bounced in place clearly holding herself back from trying to hug Tony.

 

Her exuberant cry woke Ducky who had somehow managed to sleep through everything else.  The older man snorted, head jerking to the side once and then back to center.  He blinked blearily, blue eyes focusing slowly on Gibbs.  “Oh dear.”  Ducky sighed. “I’m sorry, Jethro, I must have nodded off.”

 

“No problem, Ducky.”  Gibbs’ gaze flickered toward Lundy.  “Lundy had it covered.”

 

Ducky clucked his tongue.  “Levon, my boy, you should be resting.”

 

“I was.”  Lundy shrugged one shoulder.  “But don’t think anyone could sleep through the racket y’all make when you get together.”

 

“It does take some practice,” Ducky said with a soft laugh.  “Obviously, I’m better versed in it than I should be.”

 

“No worries, Ducky,” Lundy said.  “Been a long couple o’ days.”

 

That it has, Gibbs mutely agreed.  He let Abby, Ziva and Ducky visit with Tony for a bit, watching to make sure they didn’t tax him unduly.  He didn’t worry much about Ducky and Ziva as much as he did Abby. She tended to forget that most people needed to be in top form to deal with her nearly hyper nature.

 

After a few minutes, he told Ziva take Ducky and Abby to the hotel room that had been booked for them. He cut off any protests with a hard look.  They both needed more rest than could be had in hospital chairs.  Although still game, Ducky wasn’t a young man any more. Gibbs was sure McGee would be calling Abby later.  A few hours of sleep in a real bed would do wonders for her.

 

A nurse came in as they were leaving.  She was an attractive blonde with hazel eyes and a warm smile.  She was so petite, that if not for her uniform and competent demeanor he would have thought her a child.  She was carrying a breathing apparatus he recognized as one Tony had been asked to use while recovering from the plague.

 

The flirty smile that appeared on Tony’s face when he spotted her morphed into a grimace when he saw what she held.  “Do I have to…do that now?”  He asked, green eyes wary.

 

“Yes,” she said softly, expression understanding.  “I know it hurts but the doctors want you exercising that lung several times a day.  We don’t want you coming down with pneumonia.”

 

Tony nodded, reluctantly. Green eyes flicked toward Gibbs.  “You want…to go find Joe?  No reason to…hang around for this, Boss.”

 

Gibbs would have preferred to stay, but Tony obviously didn’t want him there.   He couldn’t blame him.  Gibbs never wanted any onlookers when he went through physical therapy.  He didn’t need a spectacle made of his pain---regardless of how much the observer might care about him.  And he never wanted to look weak in front of anyone.  It was one of the many ways Tony was like him.  It had probably been bad enough for Tony that Abby had witnessed him struggling through the first session.

 

Gibbs looked toward Lundy and read regret in those brown eyes that he couldn’t give Tony the privacy he deserved.   Tony might not mind having Lundy here so much, Gibbs mused.  Lundy was going to have his own therapy issues before too long that Tony would not doubt witness, so they were on more equal footing.  And Lundy’s relationship with Tony seemed to be more that of a big brother than father figure or superior. 

 

Lundy had never said so outright, but every interaction he’d had with Gibbs led the former Marine to believe they didn’t share the same views on a lot of things.  Lundy had a code he lived by, but it was a safe bet he didn’t have rules he passed on or expected other to know and maintain.  He had doubtless never placed any unrealistic expectations that Tony felt obligated to live up to.  He likely hadn’t set standards that were nearly impossible to reach.  And Lundy had probably never made Tony prove himself over and over in order to get even minimal praise or acceptance.   

 

Gibbs swallowed hard, angry with himself again for belatedly coming to understand why Tony felt compelled to leave and refused to return.  He took a breath and released it.  None that mattered at the moment.

 

“You know where I can find LaFiamma?”

 

“Try the roof.”

 

Gibbs blinked.  “The roof?”

 

“About the only place in a hospital that doesn’t reek of antiseptic.”  Lundy shrugged one shoulder.  “Gets good cell reception too.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Lundy saluted with two fingers.  “When you find him, tell he’s got half an hour before I come looking for him.”

 

Gibbs arched an eyebrow.  “You worried?”

 

“Nah.”  Lundy grinned.  “He promised to get us some real damn food for dinner.  Me and Slick already know what we want.  He isn’t going to weasel out of getting it for us.”

 

Gibbs chuckled.  He nodded to Tony and the nurse on his way out.  He was pleased when Tony smiled warmly back at him in response.

 

“If you ask Joe nice, he’ll get something for you too.”

 

Gibbs stifled a snort.  He had his doubts about that.  All he wanted from LaFiamma was to review the case and see if the man had anything new to add.  He didn’t need anything more than that. 

 

Chapter Text

Gibbs jogged up the stairs to the roof, enjoying the chance to be physically active. It helped take the edge off the exhaustion that had been weighing him down, clearing his head a bit.  He paused at the top of the stairs, taking a deep breath and exhaling forcefully.  He took another deep breath, holding it before releasing slowly.

 

LaFiamma isn’t the enemy, Gibbs reminded himself.  It would be easier if he could simply hate the man outright, but he didn’t and couldn’t.  Gibbs chuckled, suddenly thinking that his relationship with Fornell had a lot in common with how he felt about LaFiamma. 

 

He respected Fornell and understood his motives…at least most of the time.  And they often agreed on the problem if not the solution.  Gibbs didn’t genuinely like Fornell, but their shared history and similar views made it hard to hate him. 

 

Gibbs shook his head. He knew LaFiamma was only doing what he thought was right. The younger man was doing his best to keep the people he cared about safe.  Gibbs couldn’t fault him for that. But he couldn’t help wishing that they got along better given how much they both wanted the same thing. 

 

Gibbs opened the door and stepped out onto the roof.  Scattered puddles were all that was left from the earlier heavy rains of the morning.  It had stopped raining sometime after noon, leaving behind mild temperatures and less humidity that Gibbs could readily appreciate.  Gibbs smiled, taking another deep breath, realizing Lundy was right.  The roof was probably the only place at the hospital that didn’t reek of antiseptic.  The cool, damp air of early evening was as invigorating as jogging up the stairs had been.

 

Glancing around, Gibbs spotted LaFiamma at the far side of roof.  He approached silently, not sure if the younger man had heard the door open or not.  Given how close he was standing to the edge, Gibbs didn’t want to startle him. 

 

“Levon tell you where to find me, Gibbs?” LaFiamma asked when he got within a few feet.

 

“Yeah.”  Gibbs wondered how he knew it was him. 

 

LaFiamma gave him a slanted-eyed glance as he moved to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.  He smirked, clearly reading the question in Gibbs’ face that he hadn’t asked.  “Anyone from my team would have just called my name.  And no one else from your team would have come looking.”

 

“Ducky would have.”  Ducky seemed to genuinely like Tony’s teammates and honestly care about them.  He’d have gone in search of LaFiamma if Lundy asked him too.

 

LaFiamma shrugged.  “True, but he would have probably started in immediately on how dangerous it was for me to be standing so close to the edge or telling me a story about someone he’d autopsied who fell from a similar height.”

 

“He does have a story for every occasion,” Gibbs admitted, not sure even after knowing Ducky for years if he admired that trait or found it annoying.

 

LaFiamma shrugged again.  “Levon and Tony seem to like his stories.”


Gibbs nodded.  He understood that for LaFiamma that it was enough for him to tolerate whatever stories Ducky had been sharing as long as the two wounded men didn’t have reason to object.

 

LaFiamma turned to look at him. “You come up here to talk about the case?”

 

“That and to make sure you don’t forget to bring dinner.”  Gibbs eyed LaFiamma; he knew Tony and Lundy’s respective favorites.  He couldn’t see Dr. Kline approving of either pizza or barbeque and he said as much. 

 

LaFiamma laughed.  “I said I’d bring them real food.  I didn’t tell them I’d let them pick.”

 

“Doubt they heard that part,” Gibbs said with a smile.

 

“I’m sure they didn’t.” LaFiamma shook his head, blue eyes amused. 

 

“They won’t be happy.”

 

“I’m okay with them being unhappy.”

 

Both Gibbs eyebrows rose.  “Really?”

 

LaFiamma met his gaze easily.   “As long as they are alive and healthy enough to bitch, I can pretty much be okay with anything.”

 

Gibbs nodded once.  He looked away, uncomfortable, knowing he felt the same way but would never be able to verbalize the same sentiment with the ease and confidence LaFiamma had.  He never talked about how he felt if he could help it.

 

Gibbs cleared his throat.  He decided to move the conversation on to more neutral territory.  “There anything about what we found out today you don’t already know?” 

 

He was sure LaFiamma had already talked to his teammates and his boss.  Gibbs doubted there were any details the younger man wasn’t already aware of, but he wasn’t going to assume.

 

“Dewing and Mendez brought me up to speed.  So I got the details. But I wouldn’t mind hearing your take on how those fit together.”

 

Gibbs was coming to appreciate the way the Houston team reviewed things they knew and refocused on what was still missing.  It was a ‘campfire’, although they never called it that directly.  New details were added to what they knew while old information was reviewed, new theories considered or old ones revised to fit what they now knew, alternative avenues for investigation were discussed and considered.  It took surprisingly little time, and kept everyone in the loop.  Gibbs could see why Tony had started doing the same thing when he was in charge of the team. 

 

“You want to run the numbers?”  Gibbs asked, having heard others on LaFiamma’s team use that same expression enough he knew what they meant by it.

 

“Let’s do it.”

 

Going over what they had learned from before the bust and during didn’t take much time.  Neither man wanted to dwell much on what had happened.  And both were more interested in what had happened since then. 

 

Talking about what they’d learned since the bust and from Nunes took a little longer.  A quick run down of facts and the people involved made Gibbs wish for the plasma screen in the squad room.  He’d gotten used to having information presented in a visual format where it could be seen easily by everyone involved with the case. 

 

It had been Tony who actually started him using the plasma screen.  Not long after he was hired at NCIS Tony began displaying what he’d found.  He said it made more sense to just show Gibbs where he could see for himself without having to look over his shoulder.  Initially, Gibbs hated the damn thing because it was one more piece of technology he didn’t know how to operate; but as long as someone on his team could effectively wield the remote he liked what it added to the relay of information. 

 

When they got to the alias Shepard had used in her contact with Nunes, Gibbs told LaFiamma he recognized the name and from where.  He hadn’t mentioned it to Dewing because at the time he was still puzzling over how it fit, and because she was busy dealing with the impending arrival of the CIA.  Now seemed like the ideal time to bring it up.

 

“I’ve got McGee working on getting the case file. There might be something in there that tells us how it fits, if it fits at all—“

 

“Oh it fits,” LaFiamma said quietly.

 

Gibbs looked askance at him.

 

“From the second I thought Shepard might be involved in all this, I started digging.”

 

Gibbs’ eyes narrowed. “That’s how you found about her dealings with the CIA?”

 

“Yeah.”  LaFiamma nodded.  “But this wasn’t the first time she’d played ball with them.”

 

Gibbs waited a beat, letting that sink in.  “Go on.”

 

“The target on the case you worked together ten years ago…he was more than just a spy.”

 

Gibbs glared at him.  “I know that.  He funded his operation by selling weapons.”

 

“Did you know the intel you got was from the CIA?” 

 

Gibbs frowned, and shook his head.  He knew there was some cooperation at the international level but the only foreign operatives he’d met were from Interpol.  The team lead on that case was William Decker.  He took care of the arrangements, and controlled the flow of information to his team.  As a covert operation, nearly everything seemed to be ‘need to know’.  Gibbs, not long out of active duty, simply did his job and didn’t ask too many questions.

 

“The guy you were there to take out…he was doing business with La Grenouille.”

 

Gibbs cursed.  Again with the damn Frog.  “You’re sure?”

 

“Yes.”  LaFiamma’s firm answer left no room for doubt.  “He was supposed to be meeting La Grenouille in Paris.”

 

Gibbs ran a hand over his face tiredly.  The connection was too damn obvious.  “Shepard volunteered for that assignment.”

 

“I know.”

 

Gibbs stared at him.  “You know?”

 

“It’s in her file.”

 

Gibbs wondered just how LaFiamma had gotten his hands on that before deciding he didn’t want to know.  “Has she really been—“

 

“Trying to find a way to get close enough to bring Benoit down for the last decade, maybe longer? Sure looks that way.”  LaFiamma shrugged one shoulder.  “The assignment was a stepping stone…in more ways than one.”

 

“Meaning?”

 

“That case made it possible for her to make contacts in Europe.  She’d have wanted those since La Grenouille went there to roost more often than not.  It was his home turf.”

 

Gibbs considered LaFiamma’s point.  In light of what he knew now, that definitely made sense.  Shepard always seemed to care more about what was going on in Europe more than she did in the Middle East or any of the other hot spots around the world.

 

“She likely knew or found out later where the intel came from on your case.”  LaFiamma held out his hands, palms up as though weighing something.  “So while she might not have known until recently that Benoit was the CIA’s pet gun runner, she did know they were keeping tabs on him. It gave her somewhere to look whenever she wanted to know what he was up to.”

 

“Everything leaves a trail,” Gibbs murmured.  It wasn’t a rule of his, but it was something that held true throughout his entire career.  No matter how covert, every operation kept a record of some kind.  The only way three people can keep a secret is if two are dead, Gibbs thought to himself. 

 

LaFiamma folded his arms across his chest.  “Shepard knew who to talk to in the CIA, and they knew about her interest in Benoit.  So when it came time to finish off Kort, there was a ready made conduit for them to use.  She might have seen it as poetic justice to use the same alias she used during her first shot at La Grenouille to fire her last.”

 

Gibbs’ jaw clenched.  He’d felt like an ass for not seeing what she’d been doing before, but to even think she’d been scheming the entire time he’d known her was so much worse.  Had Decker known?  Had he shared details with her that he’d not told Gibbs?  Was it possible he’d been blind to her ambition, as ignorant of her reasons for being on the case as Gibbs had been?

 

The only way to know would be to ask him. The last Gibbs knew Decker had retired and moved to California.  Maybe McGee could track him down. 

 

“That case…It got her points as a field agent.”  LaFiamma said grimly. 

 

“It advanced her career, yeah, I know.”  Her desire to be more was one of the reasons their relationship didn’t work.  She was moving on to bigger and better the moment they left France.

 

“Thinking she wasn’t just looking to climb the ladder for recognition or more pay.”

 

Gibbs snorted. He figured that out for himself. 

 

LaFiamma raised hand to rub tired eyes.  “As a position for someone as ambitious as she comes across being, Director of NCIS isn’t exactly a recognizable status symbol.  It’s got nothing on the FBI or NSA or even Homeland Security.”

 

Morrow had jumped ship for Homeland Security.  Gibbs knew the man hadn’t been politically ambitious but there was no denying he could do more there than at NCIS.

 

“But in terms of resources and access, we already know she could fly under the radar and get what she wanted easily enough by being in charge of NCIS.  Probably with greater ease than if she were was in a more noticeable agency.”

 

Gibbs swallowed hard. “You really think she was that motivated by hate?”

 

LaFiamma looked at him.  “I’ve read her file, but we both know what’s on paper doesn’t mean much.  I’ve only met her once. You know her better than I do.  What do you think?”

 

Gibbs sighed.  “I think you’re right.”

 

LaFiamma gave him a sympathetic glance.  “Might not have been just hate, or even all hate.  She clearly thought the world of her father.  Might have been some love in the mix.”

 

Gibbs had killed the man who killed his family.  He wasn’t exactly in a position to point fingers at Shepard.  But at least he’d done the dirty work himself and hadn’t dragged any one else into his vendetta.  No one else had to pay the price for his actions.  Shepard didn’t seem to care who got hurt along the way, as long as she got what she wanted.

 

“Reason she did doesn’t really matter much any more does it?” Gibbs asked softly.  It was her actions he judged not her motives. 

 

“Not really, no.”  LaFiamma agreed.  He patted Gibbs’ shoulder, squeezing once in a simple gesture of understanding and support that surprised Gibbs. 

 

“C’mon.  Levon will be getting restless and we still have to get them fed or they’ll stage some sort of coup.”  LaFiamma headed for the stairwell door, yawning widely.  “There isn’t much we can do right now anyway.  Might as well relax for a bit before we get back at it.”

 

Gibbs thought about arguing for a second before realizing LaFiamma was right.  He’d been going non stop since getting that first call.  Slacking off for a few hours wouldn’t make much difference one way or another.

 

Ziva, Ducky and Abby were at the hotel, hopefully getting some much needed rest.  He’d send McGee there too after he’d had a chance to talk to Tony.  Gibbs thought about joining them, but he’d rest better in Tony’s room, if he was allowed to spend the night again.

 

“Room still has the comfy chair,” LaFiamma said, tossing the comment over his shoulder. 

 

Gibbs shot him a dirty look, annoyed that the younger man seemed to read him so easily.  LaFiamma just laughed.  “It’s not that hard to do when I know you’re thinking the same thing I am.”

 

“Asshole,” Gibbs muttered under his breath, but he was smiling. 

Chapter Text

Dinner for Lundy and Tony was delivered by a black man who towered over Gibbs by more than a foot. That impressive height was matched by a solid bulk of muscle and bone with very little fat.  Gibbs couldn’t help mentally comparing him to the front line of a major league football team, and finding them lacking. 

 

He nearly choked on his coffee when LaFiamma greeted the mountain of a man by calling him ‘Chicken’.  When Tony and Lundy greeted him the same way, Gibbs realized ‘Chicken’ was evidently a moniker the man didn’t object to.  He was sure there was a story behind the name, there had to be, but he refrained from asking. 

 

“Joe said y’all was in dire need of some good home cooking.”  The big man held up a clear plastic bag that obviously held several small containers.  The scent wafting from what he carried made Gibbs’ stomach rumble in appreciation.  He hadn’t consumed more than coffee all day. 

 

Ignoring his stomach with ease of long practice, Gibbs silently noted Chicken had made no effort to disguise what he was carrying.  Food from outside the hospital was against policy.  They had rules about things like that for a reason---or so Ducky had always insisted on telling him.  But Gibbs couldn’t see anyone having balls enough to tell Chicken to his face he couldn’t bring anything he wanted into the hospital.  Who the hell was going to take on a guy his size over some food?  It was probably why LaFiamma had him bring it in the first place.

 

“What did you bring us?” Lundy asked, sniffing appreciatively.

 

“Chicken gumbo and a little corn bread.”  Chicken smiled, bright white teeth a startling contrast to his ebony skin.  “Momma always said it was good for what ailed you.”

 

If Lundy and Tony felt slighted for not being able to actually pick what they got for dinner, they didn’t mention it.  Gibbs was undeniably grateful Chicken brought enough for him and LaFiamma as well.  The gumbo tasted every bit as good as it smelled, and Gibbs dug into it with gusto.   

 

“Not as hot as you usually make it,” Lundy commented, sounding mildly disappointed, as he ate with neat, careful movements. 

 

“Know you prefer it spicier, but I didn’t think either o’ you were up to the usual,” the big man said with a shrug of his massive shoulders.  “Specially not Slick since he hasn’t had anythin’ solid in a few days.”

 

Tony rolled his eyes.  Gibbs noticed that like Lundy, Tony was eating with more care than he usually did.  The older man wasn’t sure they were simply savoring the meal or physically incapable of eating with more speed.

 

Tony put down his spoon and small container, leaving both on the serving tray that crossed his bed.  The bowl was only half empty and Gibbs wanted to insist he finish it, but he didn’t think pushing would help.  Chicken was right.  Tony hadn’t eaten anything for several days.  It would take some time for his appetite to return to normal.

 

“Something wrong with the gumbo, Tony?”

 

“Food’s great…really.”  Tony took a breath, wincing as he did so.  “It’s good.”

 

“But you ain’t eatin’ it all.”  Chicken argued, expression pensive.  “Maybe I should have brought you something else.  I know gumbo isn’t your favorite, but you liked it a lot the last time I made it, so I thought since Joey said y’all could eat--”

 

“Chicken, it’s good.” Tony insisted, cutting him off.  “I’m just…not hungry.”

 

“Don’t think I’ve heard you ever say that before.”  Chicken’s frown deepened.  “You okay?”

 

Tony smiled.  “I’m fine.”

 

Gibbs pursed his lips, wanting to argue that Tony wasn’t ‘fine’.  The fact that Tony didn’t have enough wind to easily finish a few short sentences and didn’t inhale his meal the way he usually did already made Gibbs’ case.  Not that Tony would ever see it that way.  Gibbs couldn’t decide if he liked Tony’s optimism or wanted to smack him for not being realistic.  He just sighed and opted to let it go since there was little he could do about it.

 

Chicken smiled back at Tony, nodding toward Gibbs, Lundy and then LaFiamma.  “Thinkin’ it’s not me you gotta convince when you start spoutin’ off about being fine.”

 

Tony smirked.  “They worry too much.”

 

“Hard not to worry over the ones you care about,” Chicken said, obvious sympathy and concern in his deep basso voice. 

 

“Yeah, I know,” Tony admitted quietly, looking away as color warmed his cheeks.  “Thanks for…dinner.  I didn’t…do it…justice, but I appreciate—“

 

“Don’t fret about that now,” Chicken told him, waving a large hand in a dismissive gesture.  “That gumbo will keep, so if you get hungry later, jus’ have the nurses warm it up.  I know they have themselves a refrigerator and microwave in this joint somewhere.”

 

“Doctor’s lounge has both,” LaFiamma confirmed.

 

“Joey’s already been using their stuff.”  Lundy said with a sly grin.  “Pretty damn sure there was some fancy bottled water you had that didn’t come from a vending machine.”

 

LaFiamma shrugged, looking unrepentant.  “Gibbs is the one who ate their cookies.”

 

Gibbs blinked.  How in the hell did LaFiamma know about that?  He wasn’t there when Gibbs helped himself.

 

“You stole cookies?” Tony asked him, green eyes bright with amusement.  “Boss…I didn’t…know you were…a thief.”

 

“I didn’t steal them.”  Gibbs defended himself.  “They were free for the taking.”   Maybe not to the public at large, but they were still free. 

 

“And you didn’t bring us any?”  Lundy said, his lips forming a playful pout.  “Shame on you.”

 

Gibbs nearly retorted that Tony had been in a coma and Lundy was unconscious in another room when he’d taken the cookies, but stopped himself just in time.  Comments like that would just ruin the mood; he liked seeing Tony amused and Lundy playful, even if it was at his expense. 

 

“They weren’t that good.”  Gibbs told them.  “Not worth sharing.”

 

“No one ever shares crappy cookies.  Right.” Lundy smirked.  “Tell me another one.”

 

“Cookies tainted with guilt,” LaFiamma shook his head, blue eyes warm with good humor.  “Can’t imagine that would taste good.”

 

“Guilt?”  Gibbs snorted.  “I was doing them a favor by eating those before some innocent bystander could be taken in by them.”

 

“Taking one for the team, were you?” Lundy asked, snickering.  “If that’s the case I’m thinking I need to study up on what that means because I don’t remember ever having taking one and having it be a good thing.”

 

“Could be he’s just working his way up to taking candy from babies.” LaFiamma offered, grinning.  “It’s not as easy as Tony makes it look.”

 

Tony laughed softly.  Gibbs held his breath, worried Tony would start coughing.  He released it in a relieved sigh when Tony didn’t seem to have any trouble.  Even though he was still having some minor difficulty speaking, the earlier breathing exercises must have helped a little. 

 

“I told you I didn’t take it.”  Tony pointed a finger at LaFiamma.  “She offered.”

 

“She didn’t offer me any.”

 

“That’s because…I’m her favorite.”  Tony’s smile was smug.

 

“You’re only her favorite because you bribed her with crayons.”

 

The reference of crayons clued Gibbs into who they were talking about.  It had to be Mendez’s niece.  Tony’s partner had mentioned something about his opinion on her artwork being the only one that mattered and she’d be drawing him some sort of picture for him with crayons Tony had gotten her.

 

“Don’t worry, Joe, you’re still my favorite,” Lundy said with a wink and a smile. 

 

“Pretty sure he bribed you with something better than crayons,” Chicken said, leering and then laughing heartily when both Lundy and LaFiamma blushed. 

 

“You on the force too?” Gibbs asked, curious as to how Chicken fit since he wasn’t on their team but clearly knew Lundy and LaFiamma were a couple and was obviously a good friend to Tony.

 

“Me, a cop?”  Chicken laughed again.  “Hell, no.  I run a bar restaurant not far from the station.”

 

“Best damn barbeque in Houston,” Lundy stated proudly, his tone more than a little wistful.  The gumbo had been good, and while he hadn’t complained, it was obvious Lundy would have preferred something else.

 

“It’s where we…hang out.” Tony told Gibbs.

 

Gibbs nodded.  Tony had mentioned that he and his teammates regularly went somewhere to have a beer or two, play pool or poker, and just relax together.  Gibbs was sure Tony had told him the name of the place, but he’d forgotten focusing more on what Tony had to say about what he’d done there and with whom than on where he’d been. 

 

His nod must have been some sort of invitation for Lundy and LaFiamma to tell him all about Chicken’s place. Gibbs found himself laughing out loud at their stories.  He had no trouble picturing an impromptu karaoke night, drunken line dancing, or mildly risqué birthday parties.  It sounded like fun.

 

They didn’t go into detail, but Gibbs knew it wasn’t just for good times they went to Chicken’s.  He had a feeling the bar saw as much bad as it did good.  He was glad Tony had somewhere like that to retreat to.  He needed more than a boat in the basement and some bourbon to get through the rough times. 

 

Chicken left half an hour later needing to get back to work, promising to come return tomorrow with more food.  Gibbs was looking forward to eating whatever the man brought.  He couldn’t remember eating anything so good.  He hoped that Tony’s appetite would be as tempted by what Chicken brought as his was. 

 

A soft knock at the door came not long after Chicken left.  LaFiamma’s hand rested on his gun, but he didn’t draw it.  Lundy’s hand slipped beneath the covers and Gibbs knew he was fingering a weapon too.  He half expected Tony to be doing the same, but Tony just looked expectantly at the door.  Curiosity usually outweighed caution for Tony. 

 

Some day, when they were alone, Gibbs was going to ask Tony why Lundy and LaFiamma had such an abundance of caution. The current circumstances didn’t warrant the level of vigilance they’d displayed.  Neither struck him as the kind of men to be wary without reason. 

 

“Hey, Boss,” McGee greeted him as he stepped through the door.

 

“McGee.”  Gibbs nodded.  Seeing the younger agent made him aware of just how much time had passed.  His time on the roof with LaFiamma and then eating dinner had taken longer than he realized. 

 

He hoped McGee had made some headway on the case, but didn’t honestly expect him to have gotten very far.  He opened his mouth to ask for a status report but realized McGee’s eyes had moved beyond him to seek out Tony. McGee smiled when he saw Tony looking back at him. 

 

“Tony, hey, you’re awake.”

 

“With observational skills like that…Gibbs might make a detective out of you yet…McGee.”  Tony’s grin took any sting out of the comment.

 

McGee rolled his eyes.  “Houston hasn’t improved your sense of humor any.”

 

“Made me a better…gamer though,” Tony’s grin broadened.  “Kicked your ass…elflord.”

 

McGee shot him a dirty look.  “That doesn’t count.”

 

“Why not?”  Tony asked, still grinning.

 

“You cheated.”

 

“Hah…can’t cheat and you…know it.”

 

The rest of what they had to say didn’t make any sense to Gibbs.  He just let them fight it out, enjoying the sharp witted banter that had been absent from the squad room since Tony left.  He could wait on the status report.

 

He didn’t pay attention to what they were saying but he did keep an eye on Tony.  The raspy, wheezing quality in his voice seemed to be getting worse to Gibbs.  Judging by the looks on LaFiamma and Lundy’s faces they heard the same thing.    He didn’t want to cut McGee’s time with Tony short, but he didn’t want Tony to over do it either.  He made eye contact with LaFiamma, silently asking for his opinion.  To his surprise LaFiamma neatly signed the words ‘ten minutes, no more’.  Tony had told him LaFiamma spoke several languages but ASL wasn’t one he’d mentioned.

 

They never had a chance to get to the self-appointed deadline.  A nurse came into the room a moment later, a soft knock at the door announcing her a second before she entered.  Gibbs wondered if it was the guard who knocked or if she’d gotten the same reception he had for not knocking. 

 

She smiled brightly, practically skipping into the room, far more chipper than Gibbs cared for.  Curly dark hair bounced around her shoulders with every movement she made.  Her nails were pained hot pink, and her make-up was flawless.  She reminded him of a high school cheerleader.  Her high pitched voice made Gibbs wince.  Nails on a chalkboard or the squeaking of rusty hinges came to mind.

 

Her name tag indicated her name was ‘Mitzy’.  Gibbs couldn’t help thinking the name would have been more appropriate for a small yappy dog. But then given Mitzy’s overall demeanor and voice maybe the name suited her as well. 

 

“I’ve got your night time medications.”   Her tone made it sound like she was passing out candy to small children. 

 

“What are they?” LaFiamma asked, neither Lundy nor Tony moving to take what was offered until Mitzy answered him.

 

He nodded when she easily rattled off what was in the tiny plastic cups. Gibbs had no idea what the medications were or even what they were supposed to be taking, but obviously LaFiamma did. 

 

Lundy and Tony both took the cups, dry swallowing the pills easily.  Clearly neither man wanted to say anything that might encourage her to talk more or stay longer.    

 

The obvious relief in Tony’s eyes that she wasn’t carrying anything else was telling. He likely wasn’t up to another round of breathing exercises even if he wasn’t willing to admit that out loud. 

 

“I need to empty your catheter bags.”

 

Gibbs frowned wondering how she could sound so happy about that.  He shook his head.  He wanted the duty nurse from last night.   She’d been low key, quiet, gentle and obviously competent.  He liked her.

 

“After that, I’ll do a few routine checks.”  She smiled, still bright and chipper.  Gibbs could see Lundy and LaFiamma trading looks.  McGee and Tony traded similar ones. Gibbs coughed to hide the chuckle that almost escaped when he realized everyone in the room was thinking the same thing. 

 

Mitzy did her job apparently oblivious to the fact that not one had much to say to her.  She patted the blankets on Tony’s bed as she finished up.

 

“There you are.  All set for the night.  If you need anything just hit the call button.” 

 

She bounced out of the room.   Gibbs stared at the closed door.   “Please tell me she’s not on duty all night.”

 

“God, I hope not,” LaFiamma grimaced. 

 

“Might want to get that girl some WD-40 for her voice.”  Lundy stated dryly. “Either that or get her a job cutting glass.”

 

Tony’s chuckle at his comments morphed into a cough.  It didn’t turn into a fit or leave him breathless but he was grimacing in pain when he finished.  Gibbs hoped whatever painkillers Mitzy had given him worked fast. 

 

Just a few minutes later, Tony’s eyes drifted closed and he seemed on the verge of falling asleep when he opened them again. Gibbs knew he was fighting it.  He’d done the same thing when he had the plague.  Any time there was someone around, Tony struggled to stay awake.  Gibbs thought it was a by product of Tony’s gregarious nature, or simply the fear he might miss out on something that kept him from willingly nodding off with other people around.   

 

He knew if he and McGee left, Tony would probably fall asleep within minutes.  Why LaFiamma and Lundy didn’t create the same need to stay awake and alert, Gibbs really didn’t want to examine closely.

 

He nodded to LaFiamma before moving closer to Tony’s bed letting him know he would handle this.  He leaned down to whisper.  “I’m going to step outside and talk to McGee for a bit.”

 

“You can…talk here,” Tony mumbled. 

 

“Don’t want to bother Lundy.”  Gibbs said.  It was a cheap ploy to use Tony’s affection and concern for the other man, but at this point, Gibbs would use whatever worked.  “Not sure he’d agree with me, but I think he could do with a little rest.”

 

“He’s stubborn.” 

 

He’s not the only one, Gibbs thought with a smile.  He ran his fingers through Tony’s hair in a gentle caress watching as Tony’s breathing deepened and evened out.  Satisfied that Tony was finally starting to give into the demands his wounded body was making, Gibbs moved away.  He stopped when Tony grabbed his hand, sleepy green eyes struggling to open enough to meet his. 

 

“You’re..coming..back, right?”

 

Gibbs squeezed his hand. “Yeah, I’ll be back.”

 

“Okay.”  Tony let go. 

 

Gibbs looked at McGee and pointed to the door. They stepped out into the hall and walked down to the small lounge.

 

“Status report, McGee.”

 

“Didn’t get any further with the information we had.”  There was a clear apology in McGee’s tone.  “But I was able to track down the case file you asked me to research.  It was never scanned into the database, but the file clerks found the hard copy.  It’s being overnighted.  We should have it in the morning.”

 

Gibbs nodded.  “In the morning, I want you to track down a former NCIS agent.”

 

McGee arched an eyebrow.  “The other guy on the case with you and Shepard, William Decker.”

 

Gibbs smiled. It wasn’t a question.  Clearly the younger agent was learning to anticipate.   “Very good, McGee.”

 

“I already know where he is, Boss.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“I checked my e-mail before I left the police station.  William Decker died yesterday.  His funeral is scheduled for the day after tomorrow.”

 

That bit of information made Gibbs’ gut clench.  It had to be more than just coincidental.  Decker was off the radar for more than a decade and now suddenly he was dead.

 

“How did he die?”

 

“Heart attack.”

 

Gibbs’ jaw clenched.  It wasn’t hard to fake a heart attack.  There were any number of drugs and at least a dozen poisons that could mimic a natural heart attack.

 

“Get a copy of the autopsy report for Ducky to—“

 

“Already asked for it, Boss.  Should have it in the morning too.”

 

“Good.” 

 

“Something else you should know, Boss.”

 

“What?”

 

McGee licked his lips nervously.  “The Director is going to attend Decker’s funeral.”

 

Gibbs cursed.  She could have a perfectly legitimate reason for going.  They’d worked together.  He was a decorated NCIS agent.  But Gibbs’ gut was screaming at him that it was more.  It had to be.  Her use of the old alias to betray Kort, the CIA’s involvement, her own poor health…all of it made him sure nothing that happened had been simply coincidental.  LaFiamma was right---Shepard had been plotting and planning for a long time.  And he’d been an unknowing party to it. 

 

What worried Gibbs was what else she might have done along the way. Had she been involved in Decker’s death?  What other skeletons were in the closet he didn’t know about? What other time bombs were waiting to blow up in their faces?

 

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  There wasn’t much he could do tonight.  The files wouldn’t arrive until morning.  Then they’d have a chance to review the information, and make the right connections.  LaFiamma said he’d seen Shepard’s file.  There might be more they could use within it.  They needed to fill in as many of the pieces as possible before confronting Shepard, especially if they wanted any sort of formal charges to stick. 

 

“Go to the hotel, McGee.  Get some sleep. I want you and the others back here first thing in the morning.”

 

“On it, Boss.”

Chapter Text

The chair next to Tony’s bed wasn’t exactly a great place to sleep, but Gibbs couldn’t complain.  He held Tony’s hand through most of the night, reassured and comforted by the warm contact, and the sound of his steady breathing.  Having concrete proof the younger man was alive and getting better was worth a stiff neck and aching back.

 

Gibbs stood and stretched slowly, easing the aches and pains that came with being in the same position for too long.  He sighed silently as the kinks worked themselves out.  He was really too old for sleeping in chairs.

 

He looked over toward Lundy’s bed.  At some point during the night or in the wee hours of the morning, the blond had moved over far enough to make room for LaFiamma to join him. It probably wasn’t all that comfortable for either man, but neither one seemed to mind.  Had it been Shannon, Gibbs wouldn’t have minded either.

 

The night nurse had been shocked, and then made disapproving noises.  The glares from all four men, two of them barely conscious, kept her from saying much of anything.  Given the voice she had, Gibbs made a note how much intensity he needed to project in his glare to keep her quiet. It was handy information to have.

 

Seeing LaFiamma’s eyes open, Gibbs asked quietly, “You want coffee?”

 

LaFiamma nodded.  “Please.”

 

Gibbs patted Tony’s arm.  Not wanting to wake him, but unwilling to simply leave without saying something, Gibbs whispered, “I’ll be back soon.”

 

He was half way down the hall before he felt his joints starting to work smoothly.  Definitely too old to be sleeping in chairs, Gibbs thought, grimacing as he rubbed his lower back.  He hoped his stiff neck wasn’t as obvious as it felt.  He was fairly confident he could find aspirin or ibuprofen after he had at least one cup of coffee.  It was a hospital.  Stuff like that should be lying around somewhere.

 

There were two doctors in the lounge when Gibbs walked in.  They looked askance at him. Gibbs ignored them.  If they weren’t man enough to ask out loud who he was and how dare he invade their private space, they weren’t anyone he had to justify himself to.

 

He poured two cups of coffee, leaving his own black while he added cream and sugar to LaFiamma’s.  He couldn’t remember exactly how he took it, only that it was similar to the way Tony preferred his.  He wasn’t sure he got it right, but he thought he was probably pretty close.  He grabbed two extra sugar packets just in case.

 

He scanned the lounge, hoping for another plate of cookies.  The ones he’d taken before weren’t very good, but he was hungry, and hoping for a snack.  He frowned, disappointed there was nothing to be had.  Hopefully, McGee would have enough sense to bring something edible.  If he didn’t, Ducky probably would.  The ME worried about all of their diets, Gibbs’ in particular.

 

Gibbs sighed softly, leaving the lounge.   It used to be Tony who bore the brunt of Ducky’s concern.  It was one more thing Gibbs had become conscious of changing with Tony’s leaving.

 

He made it back to Tony's and Lundy’s room with the coffee still steaming.  Gibbs nodded to the uniformed cop, tapping lightly on the door before entering.  He was pleased to be greeted for a change with only wary curiosity, rather than barely veiled hostility.  At this rate, Gibbs thought, he might actually work his way up to being genuinely welcome in another week.  He wasn’t sure how that made him feel, so he opted to ignore it.

 

Gibbs handed LaFiamma his cup.  The younger man eyed it for a moment before taking a sip.  Seeing his expression, Gibbs handed him the extra sugar packets.

 

“That crap will kill you.”

 

LaFiamma smirked, neatly dumping more white powder into his coffee.  “If I live long enough for sugar in my coffee to be what does me in, I’ll consider myself a lucky man.”

 

“Can I have a sip?” Lundy asked, hopeful brown eyes barely open.

 

“You going to eat your breakfast?” 

 

“Only if you tell me honestly that you would eat it,” Lundy stated. 

 

LaFiamma cocked his head to one side, clearly thinking it over.  From what Tony had told him, LaFiamma was very picky about what he was willing to eat.  Not so much picky, Gibbs amended mentally; it’s not like the man refused to eat unfamiliar or exotic items, he simply wanted it to be the best ingredients, seasoned well and properly cooked.  He might doctor his coffee in a way that Gibbs considered almost sacrilegious, but when it came to food, LaFiamma could easily rival any of the harshest food critics.  Having sampled the man’s own cooking ability during his last visit, Gibbs figured the man knew enough about how to prepare food to be good judge of someone else’s efforts.

 

“One sip.”  LaFiamma offered  his cup to Lundy.

 

Lundy shook his head, and pointed to Gibbs’ cup.  “Want a sip of his.”

 

Remembering the two pots in their kitchen, and that Lundy preferred his coffee black, Gibbs wasn’t entirely surprised by the request.  He just shrugged and offered Lundy the cup. Since he had LaFiamma’s permission, Gibbs wasn’t about to deny the man something he would kill to have if he were in the same position.  Besides, he liked Lundy, and he still felt he owed him one.

 

Lundy took a sip much smaller than Gibbs would have expected from someone who drank as much or more coffee as he did on a daily basis.  Lundy’s eyes closed in obvious satisfaction, a blissful expression on his face. 

 

“Not as good as what I make, but it’ll do in a pinch.”

 

LaFiamma snorted.  “The stuff you make could strip paint off the walls.”

 

Lundy grinned.  “S’how I know it’s good stuff.”

 

LaFiamma rolled his eyes.  “You had your sip, now give it back.”

 

Lundy shot him a mutinous look, but gave Gibbs his cup back.  “Thanks, Gibbs.

 

“You’re welcome.” 

 

“Hey, can I have some too?” Tony asked, his voice little more than a hoarse, sleepy whisper.  Gibbs hadn’t even noticed he was awake.  He mentally smacked himself for not paying more attention.

 

“See what you started.”  LaFiamma shot Lundy a dirty look. 

 

“I didn’t start anything.”  Lundy argued back.  “Wasn’t me that went and got it.”

 

“C’mon, Joe.” Tony didn’t quite whine, but he definitely sounded a bit petulant.  “It’s just a sip. Please.”

 

“I’m blaming you, Cowboy.”  LaFiamma pointed a finger at Lundy.

 

“Yeah, yeah.  I got big shoulders, I’ll take the blame.”  Lundy waved a hand.  “Now give the kid a sip already, you know you want to.  You can’t resist that pout for more than two seconds on a good day.”

 

“Like you do any better.”  LaFiamma glared at him, but Gibbs could tell he was only doing it to keep from smiling.  He offered Tony his cup, holding it steady for him while he took a deep sip.  Tony sighed in appreciation. 

 

“Not as good as an espresso.”  Tony commented when LaFiamma pulled the cup away.

 

“Better than nothing.”  LaFiamma told him, his tone one of commiseration rather than a chastisement.

 

“True.”

 

“You’ll be eating your breakfast too.”

 

Tony grimaced. “Not if it’s oatmeal.”

 

Gibbs hid his smile behind his cup, taking a healthy swallow.  Tony would sooner starve than eat oatmeal.  He wasn’t sure why the younger man hated it so much, but he did.  What really made him smile though was how much easier talking seemed to be for Tony.  His voice was still rough, and lacked its usual force, but at least he wasn’t gasping for breath, or struggling to speak.  

 

A knock at the door announced the day shift nurse’s arrival.  Gibbs remembered her from the day before.  Tony didn’t even make a half hearted effort to flirt with the pretty, petite woman.  Seeing what she was carrying, Gibbs knew why.  The breathing apparatus looked rather innocuous---little more than some plastic tubes with rubber balls inside---but knowing how much pain it had caused Tony in the past, how much pain it would likely cause for the next few days, Gibbs understood Tony’s guarded response. 

 

Both Gibbs and LaFiamma made excuses to step out of the room.  Gibbs was sure no one believed them, but then, that wasn’t the point.  It was about letting Tony have as much privacy as possible to deal with a decidedly unpleasant experience.

 

Gibbs saw his team, Dewing and Mendez making their way up the hall.  He decided the nurse had good timing.  He made a mental note to let her supervisor know.  He wondered if commenting on the night nurse would get her transferred before shaking his head.  She wasn’t bad at her job, and it wasn’t like she could help the fact that her voice was like hearing nails on a chalkboard.

 

As his team approached, Gibbs asked brusquely, “What have you got for me, McGee?”

 

“You know, it might not hurt to tell them how Tony and Levon are doing before you start demanding things.” LaFiamma met his glare easily, expression sardonic.  “I mean, if everything was just hunky dory, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in a hospital, would we?”

 

“Quite right, Joseph,” Ducky told him with a smile.  “Have you eaten breakfast?”

 

LaFiamma shook his head.  “Not yet.”

 

“We brought food,” Abby said, cheerfully holding up several white bags. “There was this really great bagel place just down the street from the hotel.  We brought enough for Tony and Levon too.  I mean, I know their doctor probably doesn’t want them eating stuff the hospital doesn’t make, but seriously, the stuff a hospital makes just isn’t that good.  Not that I’m dissing their cafeteria or anything like that, just you know, mass produced anything isn’t as good as something individually made with attention to--”

 

“Abby!”  Gibbs growled, cutting her off.  “I’m sure the bagels will be fine.”

 

“You haven’t had a full cup of coffee yet, have you?” Abby asked, unfazed by his gruff demeanor.

 

“We brought coffee, Gibbs,” Ziva said at the same time, holding up a cup carrier tray as though making a peace offering. 

 

Gibbs was tempted to snarl at both of them; his mood wasn’t that dependant on caffeine.  He opted for silently taking the cup being offered rather than incur any more ire from Ducky or LaFiamma.  He resented the way the both could make him feel guilty without even raising their voices.  It wasn’t natural.

 

Whatever his team brought had to be better than what he’d filched from the doctor’s lounge.  They knew how he liked his coffee.  He tossed out his other cup.  Ziva smiled at him, unaffected by his display of bad temper, when he took a sip with a satisfied sigh.

 

She offered the tray to LaFiamma.  “We got one for you too.”

 

“That one is yours,” Dewing pointed to a cup with a small dent in the lid.  She gave him a teasing wink and a smile. “Got them to add as much sugar and cream as possible and still have it be considered coffee.”

 

LaFiamma grinned.  “Thanks.”

 

Gibbs was sure Dewing had gotten LaFiamma’s coffee just the way he liked it.  Tony said they’d worked together for years.  It was hard to imagine her not knowing how he preferred his coffee. 

 

“How’s Tony this morning, Boss?” McGee asked.

 

“Better.”  Gibbs sipped the hot coffee again, savoring the rich, bitter flavor.  Perfect.  Seeing a demanding look on Ducky’s face, Gibbs realized his one word answer wasn’t really enough. 

 

“He slept through the night.  Only woke up a few minutes ago.  He’s not in any more pain than yesterday, and he could talk without having to pause between words.”

 

“That’s definitely an improvement,” Ducky said, beaming.  “And how is Levon?”

 

Dewing and Mendez both looked expectantly at LaFiamma. LaFiamma smiled.  “I let him have coffee.”

 

“Hah.”  Dewing lightly slapped Mendez’s shoulder.  “Toldja he’d give in the second he thought Lundy was doing better.”

 

Mendez mournfully shook his head, handing her a dollar.  “Damn, LaFiamma, I thought for sure you could hold out for longer.”

 

LaFiamma rolled his eyes.  “No you didn’t, or you’d have bet more.” 

 

“True.”  Mendez chuckled.  “I did bet more on when he’d try to get out of bed.”

 

“He’s not getting out of that damn bed until the doctor says he can,” LaFiamma told him with a fierce glare, his tone uncompromising.

 

Dewing arched an eyebrow.  “Admire your optimism, Joey, but you and I both know better.”

 

“Maybe I should tie him fast.”

 

“Not sure there’s enough rope to hold Lundy,” Mendez said with a smirk. “And you don’t know enough knots, LaFiamma, to keep him busy for very long.”

 

LaFiamma sighed.  “Damn cowboys and their stupid rope tricks.”

 

“Better than a sailor when it comes to knots.” Dewing said with shrug.    “So, ah…why are you not in there?”  She pointed to Tony and Lundy’s room.

 

“Morning rounds, and Tony’s doing his breathing exercises.”

 

“Ah.”

 

Abby, Ziva, and McGee all winced.  Ducky simply looked sympathetic.  Dewing and Mendez just nodded their understanding, neutral expressions giving away as much as the reactions of Gibbs’ team had.

 

The nurse left a moment later.  She smiled warmly at them.  “You can go back in.  I gave Officer DiNozzo a little something for the pain so don’t be surprised if he nods off.”

 

Gibbs almost corrected her, biting his tongue to keep from saying it was “Agent DiNozzo”.  She wasn’t wrong; Tony was a cop, not an agent any more.

 

“He didn’t fight you on the drugs?” LaFiamma asked before Gibbs could.

 

“We went a little longer with this session,” she said as if that explained everything, and Gibbs realized it did.

 

“What about Lundy?” Dewing asked.  “He need anything for pain?”

 

The nurse hesitated a moment before answering.  “He wasn’t in any obvious distress, but from what I’ve seen in his medical history, Sergeant Lundy rarely shows much evidence of pain.”

 

“That’s one way of putting it,” LaFiamma muttered.  “Man could be missing a limb and still tell you he was fine.”

 

The nurse continued, either ignoring LaFiamma, or simply not hearing his quiet comment.  “I offered him something just to be on the safe side.”

 

“He take it?” LaFiamma asked.

 

She nodded.  “I thought he was going to say no, but he agreed, although he asked for a half dose.  I don’t think he was really in pain, uncomfortable maybe, but--”

 

“That’s okay,” LaFiamma told her. “I get it.” 

 

Gibbs raised both eyebrows.  Given how often he’d heard Lundy refuse just in the past two days, he was genuinely surprised by what she said.  “Why would he—“

 

“Because then Tony wouldn’t feel bad about taking his,” LaFiamma answered him.

 

“Leading by example,” Ducky murmured.

 

“More like misery loves company,” LaFiamma said with a quick grin. “And those two are good at keeping each other company.”

 

LaFiamma headed for the door.  “C’mon.  If they’re going to eat breakfast, it better be now.  Whatever she gave them will probably have both of them spaced out or sleeping in ten minutes.”

 

Gibbs let the others file into the room before him.  While they greeted each other, handed out food and made small talk, Gibbs found himself just observing everyone.  Abby’s bright and bubbly personality was a sharp counterpoint to Ziva’s quiet reserve.  Ducky’s gentle questions and respectful stance reminded him of a kindly grandfather type, and Gibbs suspected everyone in the room saw him that way.  McGee was friendly, not overly outgoing, but not hiding or stuttering. He was obviously comfortable enough with everyone in the room to behave more or less normally.

 

Dewing and Mendez seemed at ease. Gibbs hadn’t spent much time with either one, but he knew them well enough to know they didn’t have any blatant nervous gestures or habits.  They seemed content to be able to interact with their teammates and each other while everyone consumed breakfast.  They didn’t engage Gibbs’ team, or give lengthy responses to any conversational gambits made by them, but they didn’t outright ignore them either.  Not quite one big happy family, Gibbs thought, but at least they weren’t the Hatfields and McCoys, either. 

 

LaFiamma had positioned himself so he was between Lundy's and Tony’s bed.  It was a place no one challenged him for.  He and Tony were practically brothers, and his relationship with Lundy---whether everyone in the room realized they were lovers or not—was such that no one would question his need to stay close.  Gibbs noticed LaFiamma reaching out to touch Lundy several times. It might have drawn more attention if he didn’t touch Tony almost as often.

 

Gibbs realized that LaFiamma probably used touch as a way of making sure those he cared about knew he cared.    It was also a way for him to reassure himself they were okay.  Gibbs could understand that.  Abby was a hugger for the same reason.  It let her comfort and be comforted at the same time. 

 

Tony didn’t say much, which was unusual for him, and would have been worrisome if Gibbs hadn’t known about his earlier breathing exercises, and having taken pain medication.  It was better that Tony didn't overtax himself by trying to participate as he usually did.  He was doing better, but he was still recovering.  And it wasn’t really necessary for him to do more than say a few words, nod occasionally, or shake his head.   The others seemed content with whatever input he had to offer.

 

Lundy and LaFiamma bickered lightheartedly, drawing in Dewing and Mendez.  Gibbs could see some envy in McGee’s eyes, and looked away.  He wasn’t the only one who’d missed the banter and teasing that had once been a part of their team. 

 

By the time they’d finished breakfast and were ready to focus on the case, Tony had dozed off, snoring quietly, and Lundy looked to be fading.  Gibbs considered taking the discussion outside, but dismissed the idea.  He wasn’t sure the others would agree, and more importantly, sudden silence might wake Tony.  He needed the rest, and Gibbs knew he’d rest easier with people around him.  That was one thing that hadn’t changed.

 

“What have you got for us, McGee?” Gibbs asked as the remnants of their light meal were discarded.

 

“I gave the autopsy report on Decker to Ducky as soon as it came in.” 

 

Gibbs shifted his focus to the ME. “Duck?”

 

“It is hard to tell conclusively from the report, but I do think it is possible he did not die of natural causes.”  Ducky held up what had to be the autopsy folder.  “Decker was essentially a healthy man.  There was no history of heart disease, or any indication of blockage.  While it is possible for the heart to simple cease to function, in such cases it is usually a congenital abnormality that is the underlying cause. The coroner in LA didn’t make notes regarding any test to verify whether that might have been the case or not.  He did do a standard blood test, which was negative for drugs and most conventional poisons.”  Ducky frowned.  “I can’t fathom why he wouldn’t look further.”

 

“Overworked.”  Dewing suggested.

 

“Underpaid.” Mendez tossed out.

 

“Incompetent.”  Ziva offered.

 

“Lazy.”  Abby countered.

 

“Enough.”  Gibbs held up a hand.  “All we know is that we don’t know what killed him.”

 

“This Decker was retired, right?” Dewing asked, looking at McGee for confirmation.  That she wasn’t asking how any of this related to their case made Gibbs conclude LaFiamma had filled in his team at some point---probably when he’d stepped out of the room last night to stretch his legs, and get a snack from the vending machine.

 

“Left NCIS a few years ago.”  McGee said.  Gibbs hid a pleased smile when McGee rattled off the actual date and time Decker retired.   Attention to detail was never a bad thing.

 

“So why would someone want to kill him now?” she asked.   

 

“He was the lead on the case Shepard and I worked in Europe almost ten years ago,” Gibbs told her.  “The alias she used when she spoke with Nunes was the same one she used then.”

 

“You’re thinking it’s not a coincidence?”  Mendez asked.

 

“No such thing,” Gibbs told him.  He saw the others nod in agreement.

 

LaFiamma grimaced. “Question is, was he involved in our little clusterfuck, or is he just collateral damage because he had an old link to Shepard.”

 

If it was the latter, for all Gibbs knew, he might well be next. He looked at McGee.  “Did you find anything on Decker to suggest he might have been directly involved?”

 

“No.”  McGee shook his head.  “He hasn’t done anything even remotely suspicious since leaving NCIS.  Not even so much as a parking ticket.  Financial records were clean.  No unexplained deposits.  The only big expense he’s incurred in the last six months was buying some real estate out in the desert.  It was an old diner that he apparently had plans to renovate and reopen.  Friends and hobbies all checked out.  There was nothing to suggest he was doing anything but enjoying his retirement.”

 

“You get the case file I asked you to track down?”

 

“I thought I had…but it turns out the file was mislabeled.  The clerks sent the wrong one.  I found out the other doesn’t exist any more.”

 

Gibbs frowned.  “Why not?” 

 

“It was destroyed.”

 

“When?”

 

Not long after Shepard became director.”

 

“She pick that one on purpose?” Dewing asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

 

“I don’t think so,” McGee shook his head.  “There were a lot of old records destroyed around that time because there was a malfunction in the sprinkler system in the archive facility.  It flooded and no one knew about it for at least a month.”

 

“I remember that,” Abby said, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet.  “It was all old stuff they’d been warehousing for forever. I helped them out a few days trying to scan anything we could save.  Transferred as much as we could from hard copy to digital format.  But mold, mildew and water damage did a number to a lot.  Anything we couldn’t salvage we shredded and burned.”

 

That was just great.  Gibbs wanted to punch the wall.  He settled for throwing away his empty coffee cup with more force than necessary.

 

“What do you remember about that case, Gibbs?” Ziva asked.

 

He filled them in on as much as he could remember. It was a long time ago, and he wasn’t entirely sure if everything he remembered was accurate.  After things went sour between him and Shepard, there was a lot he made a point to forget.  He’d wanted the file to review, not just to refresh his memory, but to find out if there were things Decker had kept from him that he might have shared with Shepard.

 

Things hadn’t gone smooth.  They were both new to that sort of operation.  But at the time they had been sure they’d gotten away clean. Gibbs wasn’t so confident now that was the case. 

 

Lining out his doubts, he also included what LaFiamma had uncovered about the CIA involvement.  No one had to speculate on Shepard’s reason for volunteering to work the case once he finished.

 

“I’m decidedly disappointed to find La Grenouille coming to the fore yet again.” Ducky made a moue of distaste. 

 

Gibbs could relate.  He was disappointed in himself for misreading Shepard so badly, and he was seriously pissed at her for everything she’d done.   Anger he knew what to do with.  He decided to focus on that. He’d deal with his disappointment and guilt later.

 

“You said there were problems.”  Ziva looked at him.  “But you were a sniper, so you shouldn’t have had any trouble taking out your target.”

 

“I didn’t.”  Gibbs scowled.  “Problems came after.”

 

“Did Shepard eliminate her target?”  Ziva queried curiously, eyes on Gibbs.

 

Gibbs stifled a sigh.  Ziva had worked with Shepard, but the woman she knew wasn’t the same one Gibbs had worked with.  Shepard wasn’t as hard then as she was now---or he hadn’t thought so. 

 

“She said she did.”

 

LaFiamma arched an eyebrow.  “You didn’t confirm it?”

 

Gibbs glared at him. At the time, she was his partner, and they’d had to get out fast.  He hadn’t questioned any further, accepting what she told him, and letting it go.  He thought she was professional enough to get the job done.

 

“I’ll take that as a no.”  LaFiamma sighed, rubbing his forehead.

 

“Sounds like it could be pigeons coming home to roost,” Lundy said quietly.

 

“Do you ever really sleep?” Gibbs asked, annoyed to be surprised yet again by the blond being awake when Gibbs thought he was asleep. 

 

Lundy chuckled.  “I like playing possum.” 

 

“You like pretending to be a marsupial?” Ziva asked, brow furrowed in confusion. McGee nearly choked on his coffee at her question. 

 

“I’ll let Tony explain it to you when he wakes up,”  Lundy grinned, and then sobered. “Here’s how I see it….Shepard spent ten years working to bring down Benoit. We’ll probably never be able to confirm it, but the case you worked on together was likely the start of her vendetta, or close to it.” 

 

Dewing spoke quietly, interrupting him for a moment.  “That’s one determined woman.”

 

Gibbs had to agree.  Under other circumstances he might have admired her resolve and dedication.  

 

“Once she put a bullet in Benoit,” Lundy continued, “she needs to shore up the lie that will keep his death labeled suicide, and not murder.  For one thing, it keeps her ass out of jail, and for another, if she couldn’t prove her daddy’s innocence, she could at least see to it that his killer’s death goes down the same way he had.  Poetic justice, balance the scale and all that.”

 

Mendez snorted derisively.  Dewing rolled her eyes in disgust.  McGee and Abby seemed to share her opinion.  Gibbs could tell from Ducky's and LaFiamma’s expressions that they at least appreciated the sentiment, if not the act.  He couldn’t read Ziva at all.

 

“Keeping the lie in place forces her into bed with the CIA again. Doesn’t hurt that they have a carrot to offer.”

 

Abby looked puzzled.  “What carrot?”

 

“They had a file on her father,” LaFiamma told her.

 

“Any idea what’s in it?”

 

“Nope.”

 

Lundy cleared his throat, drawing everyone’s attention back to him.  “So the CIA uses her to take out Kort, keeping their hands clean in the process.  All the lies stand about how Benoit died, and she gets to keep whatever dirt they have on her daddy hidden.  Don’t know for sure without asking her, but she probably justified to herself that setting up Kort was a way of taking care of a rogue agent.  More likely it was just spite.  He helped the man she thinks killed her father, and thwarted her efforts to bring him down.  Thinking that might be reason enough for her to want him dead, even without the carrot from the CIA to entice her.”

 

Gibbs wondered if money might not have sweetened the deal.  They still hadn’t pinned down where the money Shepard paid her doctor had come from.  He preferred to think of her as motivated by hate rather than greed. Although, her using the money to pay for treatment of her terminal illness might be more accurately attributed to desperation than greed. Regardless of why she took the money or what she did with it, Gibbs still found the idea of being paid to betray another agent offensive. 

 

Lundy sighed and shifted restlessly on his bed, drawing Gibbs attention back to the matter at hand. “She resurrects an old alias to take out Kort.  Guessing it was faster and easier than coming up with something new.  Might be, the CIA even suggested it.  They know about the unfinished business from ten years ago, because they were involved when it went down.  Her using that alias means they got a way of taking out Shepard already in place.  I’m guessing there is someone waiting in the wings who has a score to settle.”

 

“And whoever that is, took out Decker?” LaFiamma posited.

 

“It’s possible,” Lundy shrugged.  “I doubt the CIA would give up Shepard directly. They wouldn’t want anything to come back and bite them on the ass.  So they’d have offered a trail for someone to follow.  It’s the way they are.  Secrets and lies are SOP for them.”

 

“True.”

 

“Decker was someone who knew the link between Shepard’s real name and her alias.”

 

“He wasn’t just a link to Shepard,” Dewing pointed out.  “He was lead on the case, so he’d have a link to Gibbs.  And it was Gibbs who got the job done, so maybe that’s what they’re pissed about.  Shepard could just be a means to an end, and not who they are really after.”  She looked pointedly at Gibbs.

 

Abby gasped, eyes widening in a telltale sign of rising panic. “Gibbs, we have to stop these people.  You could be next.  And that’s just not acceptable.  We lost Kate.  And we’ve almost lost Tony more times than I want to think about.  He’s not on the team any more now and we can’t protect him.  Not that his new team aren’t good people.  They are.  But so are we.  And you’re the best.  We need...This isn’t…Nothing is supposed to happen to you--”

 

“Abby, calm down.”  Gibbs ordered firmly, knowing he had to shut her down fast before she got worked up any more.  “You won’t lose me.”

 

“But Gibbs—“

 

“Breathe.” 

 

She took a deep breath, closing her eyes and releasing it slowly.  She opened her eyes, looking sheepishly around the room.  “Right. Sorry.  Lost my head for a minute.”

 

“It’s all right.”  Gibbs smiled gently at her when she looked at him again.   He understood.  The brutal reality of their jobs had really hit home for Abby when Kate was killed.  Her death had been devastating for all of them.  It was something he sometimes wondered if any of them had ever truly gotten over.  Her death was never discussed.  Much the same way Gibbs getting caught in an explosion and then leaving for Mexico had never been really talked about.  Or his having gotten shot by Ari.  Or his drowning with Maddie Tyler.  They never mentioned the many ways Tony had nearly been killed, or the reasons for his leaving NCIS.  Gibbs hid a grimace.  They had enough crap to keep a shrink busy for years. 

 

Silence reigned for several minutes until LaFiamma asked, “What do you want to do?”

 

“It’s all conjecture.”  Gibbs nearly ground his teeth in frustration.  “We don’t have any real proof.”

 

“Nope.”  LaFiamma agreed. 

 

“Best way to get some would be to bring Shepard in.” 

 

“Yeah.”

 

Gibbs’ jaw clenched.  He’d prefer to have more concrete evidence in hand.  He didn’t want to interrogate her. He wanted to beat her senseless.  They had enough to charge her.  Not enough to make anything stick, but enough to have the right to question her.  He couldn’t issue a warrant for her arrest.  What they had might be enough for anyone else, but she was the director of a federal agency. No judge in his right mind would sign a warrant based on what they had. 

 

Gibbs squared his shoulders.  They’d have to make do.  “McGee, you said Shepard was going to Decker’s funeral?”

 

“Yes, Boss.” McGee confirmed.  “Her flight should be landing just about now.”

 

“When is she due back?”

 

“Tomorrow night.”

 

“Better to arrest her in LA or DC?” LaFiamma asked.

 

“DC.” 

 

Gibbs knew people in the LA office, but wasn’t sure if he could trust them with something like this. They’d be putting their careers on the line.  It was better to have it out with Shepard on home turf.  He had more resources there. 

 

Worst case scenario he could call on Fornell. Benoit’s death was originally an FBI case.  He’d be pissed at Gibbs’ interference, and would no doubt make him pay for it somehow, but with FBI involvement, they stood a better chance of bringing Shepard to justice.

 

“Abby can you book flight back to DC for me, Ziva and McGee?  I want to be there at least twelve hours before Shepard is due back.”  That would give him time to brief the SecNav in person, and get everything in order. 

 

“What about me and Ducky?” 

 

“I want you to stay here with Tony.” 

 

This way Tony would know he hadn’t been abandoned, and it would also keep them out of the line of fire if things turned nasty in DC.  LaFiamma and his team would look after them.  He would prefer to leave Ziva and McGee as well, but while McGee had been accepted and was trusted on some level by Tony’s team, the same couldn’t be said for Ziva.  Leaving her behind would help no one, and Gibbs knew he’d need back up.  He trusted his people implicitly. 

 

“Your people going to be okay handling the CIA?”  Gibbs hadn’t forgotten they were due to arrive if they hadn’t already.

 

“We’ll be fine,” LaFiamma grinned. “Making other people’s lives miserable is something of a hobby for us.”

 

Gibbs fought off a smile.  “What about Nunes?”

 

“Between us and the DEA, he’s not going anywhere any time soon, no matter what.”

 

“Kort’s girlfriend?”

 

“We’ll hold her as long as we can.”

 

Gibbs nodded. “Thanks.”

 

“You’re welcome.” 

 

“Ziva, McGee, with me.”  They could pack up at the hotel while he grabbed a hot shower that would hopefully work out the remaining kinks in his back.  “Abby call me as soon as you’ve got us booked.” 

 

“Will do, Bossman.”

 

If they were lucky, there would be enough time to say a proper good-bye to Tony…or more accurately ‘see you soon’ because Gibbs planned to be back as soon as possible. He wanted to be there for Tony, the way he hadn’t been the last time Tony needed him.  He wanted to be there for Tony as long as he needed him to be. 

 

Chapter Text

Gibbs sipped his coffee, nose wrinkling in disgust when he found it was lukewarm.  He glanced at his watch and frowned.  The coffee had been on his desk for over an hour; he was lucky it had any warmth left at all.

 

Gibbs sighed, stretching tired muscles.  The first flight back from Houston Abby was able to secure for them was the red eye.  Landing in Dulles at 6:30 AM he opted to simply head for the office, telling McGee and Ziva to come in until a few hours before Shepard’s plane was due to land.  The SecNav was always in by eight, and catching him first thing in the morning seemed like his best shot.

 

As soon as he’d briefed the man on the case in Houston and their suspicions about Shepard’s involvement and actions the SecNav had called in Deputy Director Vance. Gibbs had been pissed to learn that Vance had already been assigned to look into Shepard’s record.  The SecNav had made the same connections Gibbs and LaFiamma had when he’d seen Kort’s name come up.  He didn’t believe in coincidences either, and he hadn’t been entirely convinced that Shepard was completely innocent of any wrong doing with regard to Benoit, especially since it was her gun recovered at the scene and positively identified as the weapon which fired the kill shot.  She gave a neat justification for its presence saying she’d given the gun to Benoit to defend himself, but the SecNav still had doubts.  He said it was a little too pat and he’d never been comfortable with cases that could be tied up so neatly. 

 

“And you didn’t think to tell me you were investigating her?” Gibbs had asked Vance, sarcasm and anger warring for dominance in his voice. 

 

Vance had simply looked at him, expression mild.  “After you’d worked so hard to clear her, I wasn’t sure I could trust you with that sort of information.”

 

“I wasn’t working to clear her.”  Gibbs glared at him.  “I was trying to solve the case.”

 

That wasn’t entirely the truth, but being specific when he lied had been one of Gibbs’ rules for a long time.  He’d been working to safeguard his team and protect Tony.  Ordinarily solving the case would have been the best way to do that.  Unfortunately, solving it then would have done nothing but cause trouble for his team.  Getting Shepard in the clear had been the only viable option.  Gibbs wasn’t about to admit he’d coerced Kort into anything.  At least not until he knew doing so wouldn’t implicate his team in any way. In that event, Gibbs was determined to take the brunt of whatever came down.  He would protect his people. 

 

When Vance would have argued with Gibbs, the SecNav had held up a hand stopping him.  “None of that matters right now, Leon.” 

 

Vance nodded.  “Yes, Sir.”

 

“Shepard is due back from California tonight.  I want her in a room and answering questions as soon her plane touches down.”

 

Gibbs saw a look pass between Vance and the SecNav.  His gut had been screaming at him. They weren’t interested in taking down Shepard.  They were more focused on covering the agency’s ass.  It was about damage control, not justice.   They couldn’t afford to have NCIS look bad, and nothing about any of this was going to put them in a favorable light. 

 

Gibbs’ jaw clenched as he thought about the fact that the SecNav could be planning a cover up.  That wasn’t what he wanted, but he was smart enough not to say anything.  It wouldn’t do any good.  Besides, if he let them know this early in the game that he was on to them, stopping them would be harder to do. It was better if they thought he was clueless.

 

Gibbs sighed heavily.  He couldn’t cast stones in this case.  Hell, making sure his team was safe had been what led to this in the first place.  If he’d let Fornell make his case, if he hadn’t coerced Kort into lying, none of this would have happened.  Shepard would have been in jail and Kort would still be alive.

 

Of course, had Fornell nailed Shepard, Ziva would have been on a plane back to Israel, McGee would have been shuffled off to another team, and they’d likely have forced Gibbs to retire after they’d gone through every damn case he’d ever worked on.  God only knows how they would have handled Abby and Ducky.  The only bright spot would be that Tony at least would have been relatively safe in Houston, protected from any repercussions.

 

Gibbs flipped open his cellphone.  He was tempted to call Houston and check on Tony.  He’d called once just after they landed.  LaFiamma had told him Tony had slept through the night, and was still sleeping.  Gibbs would have felt better talking to Tony directly but he knew better than to ask LaFiamma to wake him up.

 

Tony might be awake by now.  He’d probably had lunch and done his breathing exercises.  There had been some mumbling about getting out of bed, but Gibbs was sure LaFiamma wouldn’t let him do anything Dr. Kline hadn’t approved.

 

Gibbs pursed his lips, closing his phone again with a heavy sigh.  He wasn’t sure what the hell he’d say to Tony.  Tony was trusting Gibbs to take care of Shepard, to make it right, and that was what he’d come to DC to do.  As much as he wanted to, Gibbs couldn’t use Tony as a sounding board for his concerns about Vance and the SecNav or ask his help for how to deal with them.  Tony had enough to worry about. 

 

Gibbs didn’t think he could talk to Ziva and McGee either.  Faith in the chain of command was essential to morale.  They’d already lost faith in Shepard. He didn’t want them to lose faith in the entire organization the way Gibbs was rapidly doing.  Or for them to lose faith in him. 

 

He checked his watch again.  It was noon in LA.  He nodded to himself, and hit the speed dial on his phone for Shepard.  He was supposed to be keeping her updated on the case.  There was nothing wrong with checking in.  Maybe he could get her to let something slip again; something concrete he could use to arrest her or something that would make heading off Vance at the pass a viable option.  It beat the hell out of doing nothing. 

 

Gibbs frowned when his call went directly to voice mail.  He’d ingrained in her the same ‘always be reachable’ rule he had in everyone he worked with.  The funeral ended hours ago so Shepard should have been free to talk.  He didn’t bother leaving a message. 

 

Having had his own misadventures with electronics, he couldn’t rule out a technical glitch.  Not getting her directly didn’t automatically mean she was ignoring his call or had turned her phone off.  He checked to see who she’d taken with her as a security detail.  Baker and Simmons were hired to replace the agents lost when Paula’s team was killed. They were a little green, both having only achieved full status as agents a year ago.  Their team was currently off rotation while their lead was out on maternity leave so using them, despite their lack of experience, made sense. 

 

Gibbs used the office directory to look up their cellphone numbers.  He tried Baker first.

 

“Baker.”  She answered crisply, her voice was a husky contralto that suggested she was a heavy smoker at one point in her life. 

 

“Baker, this is Gibbs.”

 

He could almost hear her swallow nervously.   There was the sound of music in the background, something up beat and a lot of voices.  Baker wasn’t alone where ever she was.

 

“I need to speak with Director Shepard.”

 

“Did you try her phone?”

 

“Give her yours,” Gibbs growled not bothering to answer the obviously thoughtless question.

 

“I…I can’t.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“She’s not with me.”

 

“She with Simmons then?”  Gibbs asked thinking maybe they’d split up for a moment or two.

 

“No.  He’s here with me.”

 

“What do you mean she’s not with you or him?”  Gibbs asked, his voice tightly controlled.  “You’re her protection detail, Baker, you and Simmons are supposed to stick with her.”

 

“Yes, Sir, I know.” 

 

“Don’t call me sir.”  Gibbs barked. “If you know your job is to keep her safe why the hell aren’t you doing it?”

 

“After the funeral, she told us to take the rest of the day.”  Baker spoke in a rush.  “She wanted to spend some time just relaxing.  Alone.  And honestly, she looked like she could use a little down time without us hovering.”

 

“Where the hell is she?” Gibbs demanded.

 

“I don’t know.” 

 

“Well then you better find out.”  Gibbs ordered cutting the call before Baker could say anything more.  Baker and Simmons should have known better; being green was no excuse.  But Gibbs didn’t really blame them for following orders.  He knew scuttlebutt around the office had made damn near every agent in the building leery of bucking a direct order from Shepard.  More than one rumor had Tony getting fired for not following orders, Lee getting demoted, several others on suspension.  It didn’t matter that none of it was true or grossly exaggerated.  It still inspired people to cover their own ass rather than go out on a limb. 

 

The ding of the elevator made Gibbs look up.  Seeing McGee, Gibbs arched both eyebrows.  He wasn’t expecting the other man in for several hours yet.

 

“What are you doing here, McGee?”

 

“Tired of waiting.”  McGee shrugged.  “Thought there might be something I could do here.”

 

“There is.”  Gibbs told him about not being able to reach Shepard and her dismissing her security team after the funeral.  The look on McGee’s face told him the younger man was just as worried about what she was doing and why as he was.

 

“Can you track her phone?”

 

“On it, Boss.”

 

McGee went to his desk and started working.  Gibbs left him to it, knowing he couldn’t do much to help and hovering over his shoulder would not make him work any faster.  Gibbs took his time getting another cup of coffee from the shop down the street.  He got one for McGee too, and since he was fairly certain Ziva would be coming in early too, he got her one as well.

 

He handed Ziva’s hers when she got on the elevator with him.  She took it with a small smile.

 

She looked at the tray in his hand.  “Is McGee already in?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I would have been here sooner, Gibbs, but—“

 

“You aren’t late, Ziva.”  Gibbs shook his head.  “Neither of you are supposed to be here at all.”

 

“Yes, well, sitting at home doing nothing holds little appeal.”

 

“You were supposed to be sleeping.” 

 

“I am certain I got more sleep than you have.”

 

Gibbs ignored the concern he could hear in her statement.  He’d slept on the plane.  A few hours were all he needed.  He stepped off the elevator heading for McGee’s desk.

 

“What have you got for me, McGee?”

 

“She’s not using her phone, Boss, so I can’t pinpoint her exact location.  The best I can do is tell you where she was the last time she used it.”

 

“Where?”

 

“She was outside LA.”  McGee frowned, leaning in closer to his computer screen.  “It looks like the middle of nowhere.  What would she be doing there?”

 

Gibbs fought down the instinctive sarcastic response that first came to mind.  Instead he asked, “What’s the address, McGee?”

 

McGee opened his mouth and then paused, head cocked to one side.  “I know that address.  Why do I know that?”  He quickly typed something else in and nodded to himself.  He looked up at Gibbs.  “Boss, that’s the address for the diner Decker bought.”

 

“Why would she be there?” Ziva asked, moving to stand next to Gibbs.  “You said he only purchased it a short time ago.  I thought it was not even open for business yet.”

 

“It isn’t.”  McGee looked confused.  “Decker’s permit to begin renovations was only approved two weeks ago.”

 

“You said you tracked her down from her last call…who was it to?” Gibbs waited impatiently for McGee to answer.

 

“It was to us.”  McGee cleared his throat. “Well, not us as in me or you, but it was to Abby’s lab.”

 

“Abby is not there.  Shepard knows that.”  Ziva frowned. 

 

That didn’t mean the lab was empty.  Not sure how long she’d be in Houston, Abby had gotten a replacement to take care of things in her absence.  Shepard wouldn’t have authorized her going to Houston if she hadn’t. 

 

“Who is filling in for Abby, McGee?” 

 

“I don’t know, Boss.”

 

“Ziva, go to Abby’s lab.  Find out who’s holding down the fort and what the hell Shepard wanted when she called.”

 

“Yes, Gibbs.”  Ziva whirled and headed for the stairwell. It would be faster than the elevator. 

 

“Who else has Shepard been talking to?”


“I’ll put the log from the past few days up on the plasma.”  McGee pointed the remote at the larger screen. 

 

Gibbs studied the numbers from the last two days.  There were a number to the office and more than a dozen with the DC area code.  Most of those were likely business related.  He told McGee to confirm who the numbers belonged to and what Shepard had called them about. 

 

He continued to scan the list looking for any sort of clue as to what Shepard might be doing and why she’d have needed to talk to the tech in Abby’s lab.  He pursed his lips as one number suddenly stood out.  Late last night about the time they were getting ready to head for the Houston airport there was a call to a number Gibbs knew belonged to a bar in a small town in the Baja area of Mexico.  The only person he or Shepard knew there was Mike Franks. Why would she be calling Franks? 

 

Ziva was back before he could give voice to the question.  She was not quite breathless but definitely winded which he took as a sign she’d run up the stairs from Abby’s lab.

 

“The tech in Abby’s lab said Shepard sent a photo she’d taken and asked him to identify the man and woman in it. She called today to see if he had names.”  Ziva gestured to McGee. “He said he would e-mail it to you.”

 

McGee nodded.  He tapped a few buttons on his computer and a picture appeared on the plasma screen. 

 

“Who are they?”  Gibbs asked.

 

“The tech did not know.”  Ziva shrugged.


Gibbs squinted, staring at the picture. “McGee can you enhance that any?”

 

“I can try.”  McGee’s brows furrowed as he worked.  “It is a lousy picture.”

 

“I’ll be sure to tell Shepard she needs to work on her photography skills when we see her.”  Gibbs didn’t bother to curtail the biting sarcasm. 

 

McGee didn’t react.  There was a time when he’d have flinched or stuttered out some sort of apology or explanation.  Gibbs wasn’t sure if he considered the silence an improvement or not.

 

McGee shook his head, frown deepening.  “There is little I can do to clear this up.  She didn’t get much of their faces.  There isn’t even a reflective surface I could use.  At best I can get the basics...race, height and weight, hair color.”

 

“Not much to narrow the field,” Ziva clucked her tongue.

 

Gibbs resisted the urge to cuff the back of her head for stating the obvious.  Finding out who these people were didn’t tell them why Shepard wanted to their names.  Why had she taken their picture if she didn’t know who they were?

 

“He’s on his phone.”  McGee’s tone was reflective.

 

“I can see that.”  Gibbs looked at McGee waiting for the younger man to tell him why that was significant.

 

“I may not be able to get his face, but the photo has time it was taken.  Shepard should have been at Decker’s funeral at that time.  I can check cell towers in the area and see if I can get calls made at that time.  I might be able to get his number and use that to get a name.”

 

“Do it.” 

 

Gibbs cellphone rang.  “Gibbs.”

 

“It’s Baker, Gibbs.”

 

“You find Shepard.”

 

“No.”  She sighed heavily.  “We tracked her rental car to the Santa Monica Pier.”

 

“And?”

 

“She’s not here.”

 

“You called to tell me you still don’t know where she is?”  Gibbs almost snarled the question.

 

“No,” Baker responded her voice tight with an emotion Gibbs couldn’t name, “I called to tell you the LAPD is investigating the body of a woman found nearby.  Sasha Gordon.  Her purse was in the Director’s car.”

 

“Who is—“

 

“She was Decker’s live in girlfriend.  We saw her at the funeral.”

 

“Cause of death?”

 

“Hard to say since aren’t exactly participating in the investigation, and we weren’t sure if we should draw any attention to the Director’s possible involvement, but it looks like Gordon fell off the pier.”

 

“Fell or was pushed?”  Gibbs muttered more to himself than to Baker. 

 

“I don’t know.”  Baker sounded worried and more than a bit lost. Gibbs was reminded that she was still a newbie with very little experience.  “Do you want us to talk to the LAPD?”

 

“No. If they don’t know about Shepard and any link to Gordon, don’t bring it to their attention just yet.”  They needed to find Shepard first and the only people he had on the ground were Baker and Simms.  He couldn’t afford to have them tied up with the locals.

 

“What should we do?”  The question was almost a plea.  Baker wasn’t apologizing for not doing her job, but she was clearly seeking a way to make amends. 

 

“Go to Decker’s place.  See if you can find anything there.  We’ll keep trying to track Shepard from our end here.”

 

“Yes, Sir.” 

 

Gibbs didn’t bother to reprimand her for calling him ‘sir’.  He just hung up on her.  “Decker’s girlfriend, Sasha Gordon, is dead.”

 

Ziva arched an eyebrow.  “Another coincidence?”

 

“Yeah.”  Gibbs took a healthy swallow of his coffee. 

 “I’ve got a name,” McGee called out.  “Viggo Drantyev.” “Ziva.” “I’m on it.”  She headed for her computer.   Gibbs sat as his desk.  He had a number for Franks.  He’d gotten the man a cellphone during his last visit to the US.  He thought it was a bit more subtle than giving him an ankle bracelet for tracking Franks’ whereabouts.  He wasn’t sure if the man actually carried it or not, but with nothing else to go on, Gibbs thought it was worth a shot. 

He hit the last number on his speed dial menu.  He waited while it rang.  He grimaced when he got voice mail and the computer message told him the subscriber had not set up the mailbox.  He wasn’t surprised.  Franks was worse than he was about technology.  Hell, Tony had sent up Gibbs’ mailbox for him the first time.  He made McGee do it the last time he needed it updated.

 

Gibbs wrote the number down on a piece of paper. He handed it off to McGee.  “See if you can track that one.”

 

“Who does it belong to?”

 

“Mike Franks.”  Gibbs gave McGee a wry smile.  “According to her phone log, Shepard called him last night.”

 

McGee nodded.  He typed something on his keyboard moving with a speed Gibbs found both enviable and vaguely disturbing. 

 

“I can’t get an exact location on it, Boss.  He’s not using it right now, but he did make a call from it today.”

 

“Where?”

 

“LA.”  McGee bit his bottom lip, anxious eyes rising from his screen to meet Gibbs. 

 

Gibbs frowned.  Shepard had to have called Franks for back up, but back up for what?  And why Franks?  Why didn’t she trust her own security detail?  The only reason Gibbs could think of was Shepard wanted to cover her own ass and keep the agency out of the loop as much as possible. Dismissing Baker and Simmons gave them plausible deniability, but it still left them accountable for not being there to protect her.  That they were following orders would give them a lesser reprimand but they still wouldn’t come away unscathed. 

 

“Gibbs?”

 

“What do you have, Ziva?”

 “Viggo Drantyev did not exist until recently.  He flew to DC from Moscow three days ago on what I suspect were fake documents.”  Ziva brought up his picture on the plasma.  “The quality of the documentation reminds me of others I have seen.” “That good or bad?” Concerned dark eyes met his.  “It is very reminiscent of the Russian Mafia.” Gibbs cursed silently.  What had Lundy said…‘Pigeons coming home to roost’.  The only tie Decker and Shepard had to Russia was the case they’d worked on.  Clearly things hadn’t gone as smooth as Gibbs had thought.  He should have checked.  Damn it.  Not that checking would have done any good if Decker was withholding information. He’d have simply lied.  And it looked as though Shepard had been lying for years.  Gibbs wasn’t sure what made him more angry…that he’d been foolish enough to trust them or that they hadn’t been worthy of it. 

Gibbs phone rang.  He looked at the caller ID.  It was Simmons this time rather than Baker.  “What have you got?”

 

“Decker’s place was trashed.”  Simmons’ precise diction and inflection reminded Gibbs of Ducky without the accent. 

 

“Struggle with Gordon?”

 

“Possible, but it looks more like someone was looking for something than a struggle.” Simmons sounded calm and more assured than Baker had.  

 

“Any clue as to what they were looking for?”

 

“Negative.”  Simmons hesitated for a moment.  “What now?”

 

“Go to this address,” Gibbs gave him the address for Decker’s diner.  “That’s where Shepard last used her cellphone.  See if you can find anything.”

 

“Yes, Gibbs.”

 

“Call me when you get there.”  Gibbs hung up.  He looked at McGee.  “Book us on the next flight to LA.”

 

To his credit, McGee didn’t hesitate.  He didn’t ask why or question Gibbs on what prompted his sudden command. He just did as Gibbs ordered.

 

“You do not think Jenny will be flying back?” Ziva asked quietly.  The use of Shepard’s first name and the worried expression made Gibbs pause.  Shepard had been a friend once…to both of them.

 

“I think she’s in over her head,” Gibbs offered gently, trying not to sound as fatalistic as he felt.

 

Benoit was dead.  Kort was dead.  Decker and his girlfriend were dead.  And Shepard was dying by inches if what Abby had found out was accurate. 

 

Decker’s place had been trashed and the Russian mob was at his funeral.  Shepard had dismissed her escort and called in someone from outside the agency who she might still consider trustworthy to act as back up. But Franks was only one man, and he didn’t have much in the way of resources---certainly not as much as the agency could have brought to bear.  Gibbs didn’t know if Shepard was trying to put things right or was simply planning on making her last stand, either way it didn’t look good.

 

“She is going down for the third time,” Ziva murmured sadly. 

 

“Looks that way.”  Gibbs patted her shoulder once in sympathy. 

 

He wanted Shepard to pay for her actions, but he hadn’t wanted her to die for them. Gibbs wanted her to at least understand on some level how damn wrong she was, to comprehend how pointless and painful trying to salvage her father’s reputation had been, to acknowledge her own culpability in getting Tony and Lundy hurt, to simply admit she’d fucked up. 

 

“We might be able to get there in time.”

 

His words sounded empty and hollow to him.  They weren’t quite the reassuring platitude he’d been going for, but Gibbs had never been good at those. 

 

Ziva swallowed hard, her expression turning blank.  “No, we won’t.  It is already too late.” 

 

Gibbs winced, knowing she was right.  They were too late…a good ten years too late from the look of it.

 

Ziva’s smile was sad and bitter when she looked at him.  “Whatever was going to happen most probably already has or will soon.  We can not stop it.”    

 

Gibbs wanted her to be wrong, but he knew she wasn’t.  He took a breath and set himself to see it through.

 

“You and McGee get your gear together. I’ll brief the Deputy Director.”  He would prefer to simply ignore Vance, but he knew that wasn’t an option.  If it were just him, he wouldn’t care, but he still had his team think of. He understood enough of the political game to know when a little ass kissing was warranted.  He didn’t like it, but there wasn’t much about any of this he had liked. 

 

“Keep trying her cellphone.  Try Franks as well.”

 

“On it, Boss.”

 

Gibbs jogged up the stairs to MTAC.  He’d call LaFiamma from the plane and let him know what was going on.  They were expecting a call once he had Shepard in custody. He hated knowing that what he’d have to tell them wasn’t going to be the good news they were hoping for. 

 Gibbs wanted to hit something.  Anything.  He took a deep breath and let it out slowly instead.  The rage simply wasn’t useful.  Maybe later he’d get the chance to let it out, but for now it had to wait. 

Chapter Text

Gibbs took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.  He knew what he was facing inside the rundown diner.  Simmons had called not long after he and the others had gotten on the plane.  Ziva was right.  They were already far too late to affect the outcome.  They were left dealing with the aftermath.

 

He saw Ziva and McGee bracing themselves.  He nodded.  They were good, capable and experienced agents. But no one ever found handling a crime scene involving a colleague easily---especially not when that crime scene was a murder. 

 

Baker stood in front of the door.  Loose tendrils of her blonde hair had escaped the band securing the rest of her hair into a loose ponytail.  They fluttered wildly in the faint breeze and added to her lost, haggard appearance.  Another cigarette butt joined the others around her feet as she took one long drag and then dropped it, crushing it out with the toe of her shoe.  Gibbs wondered if she’d gone through an entire pack yet, and how long it would take her to give up the habit again, if she was even willing to try.

 

She looked in his general direction but did not make eye contact.  Gibbs sighed silently.  She and her partner had been following orders, and neither should feel guilty, but he knew she and Simmons had to be holding themselves accountable.  They didn’t know about Shepard’s past or her illness, but he doubted if that information would make much difference.  It was small consolation when Shepard was dead, and they weren’t at their post to protect her. 

 

Gibbs silently cursed Shepard for her shortsightedness.  Sending Simmons and Baker away had kept them out of immediate danger, but it still put them at risk.  There would be fall out; how much and how bad remained to be seen. 

 

Gibbs walked toward Baker. She swallowed hard, looking nervous and guilty in equal measure.  He could see her hands shaking.

 

“We secured the scene and made sure the locals knew it was our jurisdiction.”

 

“Good.” 

 

She cleared her throat.  “The only survivor is at the hospital.  He might be out of surgery by now.”

 

From the description Simmons had given, Gibbs knew the survivor was Franks.  He hadn’t had any ID on him, so for now only Gibbs and his team had any inkling as to who he was.  His identity wouldn’t remain a secret for long.  Vance would be on his way before too long, and agents from the LA office might be included in the investigation since it was their home turf.  Keeping Franks’ identity a secret wasn’t an option, nor did Gibbs really plan to, but he could at least claim ignorance of it for now.

 

Gibbs hoped to be able to ask his former boss what the hell had happened and what in God’s name had he been thinking, but it remained to be seen if Franks would make it.  He’d taken two hits, one to the upper right shoulder and another in the leg.  He’d lost a lot of blood and had been unconscious when Baker and Simmons made it to the scene.  Given his age, the fact that he smoked, and generally drank more than was good for him, he might not survive.

 

“I got another agent to guard our John Doe.”  Baker briefly made eye contact before looking away again.  “I would have gone myself but I thought it was better if Simmons and I stay to secure the scene, collect evidence.”

 

Gibbs heard what she wasn’t saying---that staying to work the scene was some way to make amends.  They might not have been able to safe Shepard but they might be able to at least help figure out why she died and who had killed her. 

 

Unfortunately, Gibbs doubted they’d be granted that satisfaction.  The SecNav had already made it clear that the few people who knew about what happened the better.  Too many people knowing too much would make it harder to hide anything the SecNav wanted to remain hidden.  And if he and Vance were already planning a cover up, Baker and Simmons would never know what really happened in this deserted diner. 

 

Gibbs patted Baker’s shoulder as he passed, trying to offer some support.  He knew it wasn’t enough, but hopefully she wouldn’t feel like he was just one more person blaming her for Shepard’s death.  It wasn’t her fault, but he didn’t bother to say so knowing she wasn’t likely to believe that.  In her place, he wouldn’t have.

 

Walking into the diner, Gibbs jaw clenched.  The rusty smell of spilled blood nearly overwhelmed him before he controlled his reaction, making a conscious effort to ignore it, breathing shallowly through his mouth. He ignored the other scents of death as well---bile, urine, and feces.  Death was never as clean as TV and movies made it out to be.

 

Gibbs thought he might be imagining the added aroma of decay, but the heat of the desert would likely have started the process.   And it wasn’t as if the diner was pristine even before the bloodbath.  God only knew what might have already been rotting, molding or otherwise slowly degrading.

 

Dust motes danced lazily in the waning daylight that peaked through dirty glass and bullet holes in the walls.  For a moment Gibbs was relieved to have his vision obscured.  But his eyes adjusted quickly revealing the carnage he’d been told about. 

 

Four men were dead. Their bodies were spread out, but it was obvious they’d been converging one point, all moving toward where Shepard’s body now lay.  She was half hidden behind the bar.  She’d clearly hunkered down behind the one solid piece of furniture in the room, making her stand where she was most protected. It gave her a clean line of sight for all aspects of the room, but left her back vulnerable to the door behind the bar.  There was no visible blood spot to indicate where Franks had fallen, but Gibbs was fairly certain it was out of sight, behind the bar.  Franks had probably been at Shepard’s back either in the doorway itself to cover their escape or very close to it. 

 

Gibbs forced himself to at least look at Shepard’s body, to acknowledge her as more than just corpse.  She was lying in a dried pool of her own blood.  Her eyes were open, staring sightlessly at a fixed point.

 

He remembered when he first met her.  She’d been so young then, so beautiful.  He’d been attracted to her from the start, succumbing to her charms, knowing it helped their cover, regretting it later when things went bad.

 

He wondered if he’d ever really known her.  Had she ever been truly honest with him? Before breathing her last, did she have any regrets?  Did she understand how unnecessary all this was?  How pointless and futile trying to resurrect her father’s reputation was?  How wrong she’d been to use Tony for her personal vendetta?  How much damage she’d done to Gibbs’ team through her actions?

 

As much as he’d have preferred to see her brought to justice, to finally grasp the full extent of the damage her personal vendetta had caused, she was dead.  There was no changing that fact.  Gibbs looked away.

 

“What have you got, Simmons?” Gibbs asked, directing his attention to Baker’s partner.  The man was taking photos, yellow number placards marking bullet holes, bodies and other important details to label his shots. 

 

Simmons lowered his camera.  Gray eyes met Gibbs’ blue ones easily.  He might be blaming himself the same way his partner was but he was clearly handling the burden a bit better.  Or hiding the impact more easily.

 

“There is a rental parked in the back.  Thinking it is either our survivor’s car or one Shepard got later since we found hers earlier.  Haven’t had a chance to check on it yet.  But our perps,” Simmons nodded to the four dead men, “parked out front.  Confirmed that car was theirs.  The engine was still warm when we got here.  Thinking we were only a few minutes behind them, ten to fifteen at the most.” 

 

Simmons grimaced, a wealth of self-recrimination in his tone and expression.  They hadn’t missed her by much, but it was more than enough time to have been too late to affect the outcome. 

 

He took a breath and continued.  “Looks like our dead John Does came in through the front door.  Director Shepard took cover by the bar.  Not sure if our surviving John Doe, who was found near the back door, was with the others or not, but I’m thinking not.”

 

“Why?”

 

“He was holding a 45 and these two,” Simmons pointed to two of the bodies, “are sporting wounds consistent with ammo of that size.  Given that they were double tapped in the chest, I think it’s safe to say they aren’t victims of friendly fire.  Those kinds of shots aren’t accidental. And all of the wounds on Director Shepard’s back appear to be exit wounds.  Her back would have been an easy target for him and he didn’t take it. ” 

 

Gibbs wondered if Simmons realized yet that if his suppositions were correct Shepard had the opportunity to flee and had chosen not to.  All the bad guys entered from the front.  She had a clear line of sight and had known where they were.  All she had to do was go out the back, get in the car and make a run for it.  It wouldn’t have been hard to fire a few parting shots into the bad guys’ car and disable a tire or two. 

 

She could have even left Franks behind to hold them off while she made good on her escape.  The man Gibbs worked for would have thought nothing of sacrificing himself for her.  As far as Gibbs knew, Franks was still like that.  He might not be a white knight but he was still enough of a chauvinist to believe woman didn’t belong in combat and should be protected. 

 

Shepard hadn’t been trapped.  She chose to stay.  What he didn’t know for sure was why.  Had she decided this was better than dying by inches?  Or was this some last ditch attempt at yet another cover up?  She had to have said something to Franks; something that would have convinced him to help her make that last stand, to risk his own life with her.  Even if it was a lie, at least that would give Gibbs something more to go on---assuming Franks lived long enough to tell him.

 “David, McGee, stay here and help Baker and Simmons.  Gather all the evidence.  Get the bodies ready for transport back to DC so Ducky can examine them.”

 

“Where will you be?” Ziva asked.

 

“Hospital.”

 

Both she and McGee nodded, signaling their understanding and acceptance.  Gibbs would have the best chance of getting anything out of Franks.  And it wasn’t as if they would be stranded at the diner.  Baker and Simmons could give them a lift, or they could always take what was likely Franks’ rental if need be.  The car their dead John Does had driven would go back to DC as evidence. 

 

Gibbs made is way to the hospital with relative ease. He’d gotten McGee to map multiple routes for him after they’d landed. He knew LA traffic moved at a snails pace and having alternatives meant he could avoid most of the congestion.

 

By the time he found a place to park and convinced the nurse on duty to tell him where the gunshot John Doe was, Franks had been out of surgery for almost three hours.  Gibbs made his way to the room Franks had been assigned.  He showed his badge to the NCIS agent on duty, a young man who introduced himself as Tom Davis showing his ID to Gibbs in return.

 

Davis flipped his ID closed and stuffed it into his pocket.  “Baker called. She said you’d be stopping by.”

 

Her foresight made Gibbs want to curse Shepard all over again.  Baker was obviously not a bad agent, and clearly showed some ability to anticipate.  But after what happened, she and Simmons might never do more than ride a desk, if they got to keep their jobs at all.

 

“How’s he doing?”  Gibbs nodded toward the door to Franks’ room.

 

 “Doctors are being what I’d call cautiously optimistic.” 

 

Gibbs arched an eyebrow.  “Which means what?”

 

“He made through surgery.  So they did their part.  The rest is up to him.”  Davis shrugged.  “He’s not a young guy.  Could be too much for him.”

 

Gibbs kept his expression neutral. “They say when he’ll wake up?”

 

“No.  All I was told was that it takes awhile for the anesthesia to wear off and that time varies depending on the individual.”

 

“You take his prints?”

 

“Just as soon as he was out of the OR.” 

 

Franks was in the system.  His name should pop up fairly quickly.  Regardless of how long it took, once Gibbs saw Franks someone was going to ask why he didn’t offer up his name.  That someone would probably be Vance. 

 

Knowing he’d have to deal with Vance when the time came, Gibbs headed into Franks’ room.  He almost knocked on the door before entering.  He’d gotten used to having to announce his presence before walking into Tony’s room.  Thinking about that reminded him of just how not happy LaFiamma had been when Gibbs briefed him on what he suspected was happening in California.  If it weren’t for the fact that both Tony and Lundy were still confined to the hospital, Gibbs was sure LaFiamma would have been on the next plane out of Houston. 

 

Looking at his former boss, Gibbs couldn’t help noticing how much he’d aged since he’d first met him.  He wondered if Tony noticed that about him. There wasn’t as much time between them as there was between him and Franks, but it was long enough to notice some differences. 

 

Gibbs spotted a handcuff circling one of Franks’ wrists, the other end secured to the bed frame.  Give the man was fresh out of surgery is seemed more like overkill than necessity, but Gibbs couldn’t fault Davis for being thorough.  As far as he knew, Franks might well be someone dangerous and could have been part of the group that killed Shepard.  Making sure the man couldn’t escape, regardless of his condition, was just good sense.

 

Gibbs sighed and sat down in the only chair in the room.  It was stiff and uncomfortable and about what he’d expected.  Hospitals likely got some sort of discount buying crappy furniture no one else would want.  His respect for LaFiamma being able to locate one for Tony’s room that was reasonably comfortable went up another notch.

 

“Damn, Mike,” Gibbs said quietly, “you got yourself into one hell of a mess.”

 

Gibbs wished he’d gotten himself a cup of coffee.  He sighed, and resigned himself to waiting patiently.  He kept his eyes on Franks hoping for some sign of his returning to awareness. 

 

It was almost two hours later that Franks began to stir.  Gibbs watched his eyelids flicker, heard him moan softly.  He reached out to touch the older man’s arm.

 

“Franks?” Gibbs called softly. “Mike, you with me here?”

 

Cloudy blue eyes opened to met his.  Franks blinked several times.  “Probie?”

 

Gibbs smiled in spite of himself.  He’d never be anything else to Franks.  “Yeah, it’s me.”

 

Franks swallowed hard.  His tongue flicked out to moisten cracked lips.  Gibbs reached for a small cup with a straw that set next to the bed on a metal table.  He offered it to Franks.

 

“Sip it slowly,” Gibbs cautioned.  He didn’t know for sure if Franks was even supposed to have water, but he figured the medical staff wouldn’t have left it if he wasn’t. 

 

When it seemed like Franks was more inclined to gulp the water, Gibbs pulled the cup away.  It earned him a glare, but Gibbs wasn’t going to let the man get sick because he was too out of it follow basic instructions, or too damn stubborn to obey. 

 

“Sip it,” Gibbs reiterated when he offered the straw again.  He let Franks have two sips before removing the cup.

 

“You can have more in a bit. Okay?”

 

Franks nodded.  “What are you…doing here, Probie?”

 

“What’s it look like I’m doing here?”  Gibbs rolled his eyes.  “I’m waiting on your sorry ass to wake up and tell me what the hell happened.”

 

“Jenny?”

 

Gibbs shook his head.  Franks closed his eyes, his expression a blend of defeat and disappointment. 


“What happened, Boss?” 

 

Franks opened his eyes.  “She called me.”


Gibbs nodded.  He knew that already.

“Said you were in danger.”

 

“Me?” Gibbs frowned. He wasn’t in any danger…or at least he hadn’t been. 

 

“She said it was an old case.” Franks took a breath.  “Said you didn’t know. She…needed back up.  Needed someone…outside the agency.  Someone she could…trust.”  Franks looked him in the eye.  “Couldn’t let you down, Probie.”

 

Gibbs nodded, understanding the leverage Shepard had wielded. He’d have come to the rescue of any of his people too. It wasn’t stated as one of his many rules, at least not directly, but it was definitely implied…You looked out for your own, even when they weren’t yours any more.  It was why he’d come back from Mexico for Ziva.  It was why he’d gone to Houston. 

 

“She should have called me.”  Gibbs muttered darkly. 

 

“Said she couldn’t.  Said it was too dangerous..for you.  Didn’t want…to drag you into it.”

 

Gibbs snorted.  Like he couldn’t handle himself?  Like he hadn’t handled worse?  No, not calling him wasn’t about protecting him, it was about her.  She was covering her own ass….again.

 

“Tell me.”

 

Gibbs listened patiently while Franks haltingly told him about his coming to LA after Shepard’s call.  He’d met up with her after the funeral and they’d gone to Decker’s house.  They’d met up with Decker’s girlfriend, Sasha Gordon.  She’d been scared, hiding when they’d arrived. 

 

She had good reason to be scared, Gibbs thought darkly.  She was dead.  He didn’t tell Franks that.  It was like the man needed to know; there was nothing he could do about it and Gibbs didn’t want to interrupt him.  Talking was an obvious effort and he was struggling to stay awake.

 

“Sasha said Decker told her if anything…happened to him…she was supposed to…give Jenny a message.”

 

“What sort of message?”

 

“Key to that diner in the desert.”  Franks coughed, grimacing in pain.  “Decker had some sort of insurance policy.”

 

“Insurance?”

 

“Yeah.”  Franks’ eyes drifted closed.  He was clearly tired, but Gibbs wasn’t prepared to let him rest yet. 

 

He shook Franks’ arm.  “What insurance, Mike?”

 

“Dates on photos.  Jenny said it was how you’d left messages.”  Franks sighed, eyes closing again.  “Wrote ‘em down.  Should be in my jacket pocket.”

 

Franks effects were bagged and sitting in a neat pile near the door.  Davis likely hadn’t had time to send them for processing or he was waiting on Baker or Simmons to call and give him orders to send them to DC with the rest of what was being collected.  Gibbs got up and rifled through his pockets.  He found a small slip of paper with a 13 digit number written in Franks’ scrawled handwriting.

 

“What do they mean?”

 

“Dunno.”  Franks swallowed.  Gibbs offered him more water.  He let him have another sip before pulling the cup away.

 

“We got company…’fore we could figure it out.”  Franks’ eyelids fluttered.  “She wouldn’t leave, Probie.  I…tried to…get her to go.”

 

“I figured that,” Gibbs said softly, patting Franks’ arm. 

 

“Wanted her to…run,” Franks muttered as his eyes closed.  “Tried…Probie…I tried.”

 

“I know, Boss, I know,” Gibbs offered what absolution he could. “Not your fault.”

 

“Not yours…either,” Franks mumbled, barely coherent.

 

“Know that too,” Gibbs said quietly, although he wasn’t entirely convinced.  If he’d asked more questions all those years ago, if he’d confirmed she’d done her job, things might have gone differently.  But then, if Shepard hadn’t been so focused on La Grenouille, what happened or didn’t happen ten years ago might never have been an issue. 

 

It was her contact with the CIA that seemed to have brought it all back into the open.  Kort was dead.  Decker was dead. Sasha Gordon was dead, an innocent bystander, collateral damage the same way Lundy and Tony were.  And now there was this mysterious ‘insurance policy’ that Gibbs would need to decipher. 

 

Had Decker known that case would come back to bite him in the ass or had gotten a heads up?  Was the insurance policy something Gibbs could use?  Or was it already too late?  Was he really in any danger?  

 

Gibbs rubbed his hand over his face.  He sighed tiredly.  Franks was eyeing him, barely conscious but still aware enough to be concerned.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Better than you.”  Gibbs smiled.  “Get some rest.”

 

“Where you…going?” 

 

“To do what I can to finish this shit,” Gibbs said as he headed for the door.  Enough people had already been hurt and killed.  Whatever the hell was still left open from all those years ago needed to be put to bed. 

Chapter Text

"Shepard is dead." Gibbs stated bluntly the moment LaFiamma answered the phone. He called from the airport. In half an hour he, McGee and Ziva would be headed back to DC.

"You kill her?" The question was not the least bit judgmental. If anything, Gibbs would have classified it as hopeful.

Gibbs grimaced. It would certainly have been neater if he had been the one to shoot her. At least then he could say it was finished.

"Wasn't me." Gibbs admitted quietly.

"Who?" LaFiamma's tone was sharper now. It wasn't anger, at least not yet, but Gibbs could tell the younger man was making an effort to hold on to his temper.

"We don't know yet."

There was a drawn out moment of silence. Clearly that wasn't what he'd been expecting Gibbs to say. "I think you should run the numbers for me. Please."

Gibbs blinked, mildly surprised by the polite please. He recapped quickly what he'd already told LaFiamma what he, McGee and Ziva had found before heading for LA. He gave him a rundown on what they'd discovered at the diner. He didn't gloss over the details but didn't expound on them either. Whatever happened in the diner, they knew for sure now that their suspicions about it being linked to the case Gibbs, Shepard and Decker worked together were confirmed. He told him about Franks and the insurance policy Decker had.

"Any idea what those numbers mean?"

Gibbs sighed. "No."

"I'll see what I can dig up on my end."

Gibbs bit down on the instinctive knee jerk reaction to tell LaFiamma to stay out of it. This was an NCIS case, his case, and he hated having other people interfere. But it hadn't started out as strictly an NCIS case; it was too late now to tell LaFiamma to steer clear when he already knew as much as Gibbs did. It wasn't like the younger man would listen to him anyway, not when he still had a vested interest in the outcome. And LaFiamma's contacts had turned up useful information before. He might just find something Gibbs and his team wouldn't.

"You going back to DC?"

"Bodies and evidence are being shipped there." Gibbs took a breath. "I'm going to need Abby and Ducky to head back."

"Pretty sure they aren't going to be happy to hear that."

"Tell me something I don't know." Gibbs ground out between clenched teeth. He wanted someone from the team to be there with Tony, and knew they'd prefer to stay until Tony was released from the hospital, but he needed Abby and Ducky's expertise. He didn't know who Abby had gotten to fill in for her, and he had no intention of trusting this to a stranger. He needed Ducky as well--not that Palmer wasn't competent, but this was the death of the Director of NCIS they were looking into; politically it wasn't something you could pass off to anything less than the best.

"You want me to tell them?"

Gibbs hesitated, tempted to let LaFiamma take the brunt of bearing bad news. It wouldn't be fair and he'd never shirked his duty before, no matter how unpleasant. He shook his head. "I'll do it."

"You want to talk to Tony before you take them on?"

"He's awake?"

"No, I offered to let you speak to him because he's asleep."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. He should have known better than to ask that. "Put him on."

"Hey, Boss."

Gibbs smiled, pleased by how strong Tony's voice sounded. "You doing okay, DiNozzo?"

"I'll be doing better once I can get out of here. How much green jello is a guy supposed to take? Why the hell anyone would even want that stuff is a mystery. It's just gross."

Gibbs stifled a chuckle. He knew full well LaFiamma was probably still sneaking in meals for Tony and Lundy. He doubted Tony had been forced to consume any jello, much less the lime flavor he detested.

"You aren't leaving until the doctor clears you," Gibbs said firmly.

"Like Joe would let me." Tony snorted. "He wouldn't even let me go the bathroom by myself yesterday."

Gibbs' jaw clenched. "What the hell were you doing out of bed?"

"Dr. Kline said I could." Tony sounded defensive and just a little smug. "And Ducky agreed. He said it would be good for me to be upright. That it would help keep my lungs clear." Tony muttered quietly, "Would rather do that than those damn breathing exercises."

"He let Lundy up too?" Gibbs asked, wondering if the other man was improving at the same rate as Tony.

"Not yet, but Levon tried to made a break for it." Gibbs could picture Tony grinning. "Got to the sitting upright stage and one foot on the floor before Joe caught him."

Gibbs was betting there were some fireworks over that. He was almost sorry he'd missed it. He sighed silently. He should be there.

"So how are things in California?" Tony asked quietly, all sign of good humor and teasing gone.

"Shepard is dead." Gibbs wondered if he said that often enough it would eventually less the impact. If, after awhile, it wouldn't sting to know she'd called Franks rather than him. He hoped it would eventually not bother him that she'd gotten away with murder. Maybe some day it wouldn't piss him off know she died before ever grasping the full extent of the damage she'd caused or really understood how misguided and dangerous her actions had been.

"Yeah, I heard that." Tony's voice grew soft. "Sorry, Boss."

Shepard had been selfish, thoughtless, and stupidly focused, but she'd been someone Gibbs had cared about once. She'd been a friend. A partner. A good agent. His supervisor. Regardless of how things had played out, nothing changed those facts. Gibbs appreciated Tony understanding that and being sorry for what he'd lost when Shepard died.

"Yeah, me too." Gibbs cleared his throat. "We're heading back to DC. I'll need the full team on this."

"I figured that." Tony sighed. "Abby is going to be upset."

"I know." Gibbs wished there was something he could do about that. He wished there was a lot he could have done about a great many things. If wishes were horses, every beggar would ride, he thought, unconsciously remembering what his father often said about such things.

"You said something to Joe about Decker having an insurance policy?" Tony asked.

"That's what he'd told his girlfriend to tell Shepard." Gibbs repeated the numbers he'd gotten from Franks.

There was a paused followed by a thoughtful, "Hunh."

Gibbs gaze narrowed. "What?"

"Sounds almost like a case number."

"Case number?" Gibbs frowned.

"I know we code them differently now but when I was looking for that case Franks worked on, operation something ...fire...flame...explosion...Got it." There was the sound of snapping fingers and satisfaction in Tony's voice. "Operation Sunburst. It had a similar code. It was thirteen digits too."

Tony paused, and Gibbs could hear him taking a breath then release it. It sounded like he was stifling a cough at the same time. Gibbs waited, unsure if Tony had more to add, but willing to give him the time he needed to get his breath back if he did.

"I thought the number was weird. Must be why I remembered it at all." There was another brief pause before Tony continued. "Our cases got labeled by year, month, day and then case number. That one was like the number was assigned separate from anything related to the case. Kind of like they do bank accounts. They must have changed the whole process but I don't know when they did."

Gibbs nodded slowly. Back when he'd started at NCIS, cases were referred to by a name while actively being investigated. They weren't assigned a number until they were closed. That number was more for the filing clerks who would later record and store the evidence. It was supposed to make things easier to file sequentially rather than alphabetically and eliminate errors related to cases having the same or similar names.

"I'll have McGee look into it."

Tony's guess was the only guess they had; there was no harm in checking. A case number and corresponding file would make sense. Whatever Decker had would, in theory, have been kept indefinitely in a secure facility.

"You think they might be after you too?" The question was hesitant, cautious. Gibbs got the impression Tony wasn't leery of the answer as much as he was Gibbs possible reaction to his having asked.

"Only reason I ask...Abby seems pretty convinced they might be after you."

Damn. Gibbs thought she'd calmed down about that. She didn't need to be getting Tony wound up. "It's nothing you need to worry about, DiNozzo. You know Abby can get a little excited." It was a monumental understatement; one Gibbs hoped Tony wouldn't call him on.

"Levon and Joe agreed with her."

Double damn. Those two should have known better than to even bring it up, but then they tended to share information openly. They didn't seem inclined to keep secrets from each other---which ordinarily he'd have considered a good thing, but in this case, Gibbs wished they'd been a little more circumspect.

"I can handle it," he assured Tony.

"Never said you couldn't. Just don't...don't go all lone ranger, okay? McGee and Ziva don't swim as well as I do."

Gibbs winced recognizing what Tony was referring to. It was stupid to have left his team out of the loop then. It nearly cost Maddie Tyler her life. His being a moron, and failing to show some gratitude over having his own life saved, had been one of the reasons Tony left the team.

"I'll be careful. I'll make sure I have backup." Gibbs made it sound like the promise it was. He'd worked hard to regain a level of trust with Tony; he wasn't going to mess it up now. He wasn't going to mess up with his team again either. He'd learned his lesson. Going out on his own was riskier than keeping them in the loop.

"Thanks, Boss."

Not something you should thank me for, Tony, Gibbs thought. "I'll call as soon as we have something."

"We'll be here."

Gibbs ended the call. He wouldn't have minded talking a bit longer, but he knew Tony would think something was wrong if he drug it out too long. It was stupidly sappy to think, let alone say aloud, that he was just glad to finally be able to have a real conversation with Tony.

He called Ducky next rather than Abby. He knew avoiding her wouldn't work indefinitely but he also knew the ME would be more understanding and less apt to get overly upset about the need to return to DC. And he didn't want the news of Shepard's death to be something Abby heard over the phone. They might not have been great friends, but Shepard was still someone Abby knew. She took the death of anyone she knew personally hard. The news wouldn't be any less painful to get from Ducky, but at least with someone there she'd have more consolation and comfort than Gibbs could provide long distance.

When Gibbs told Ducky about Shepard, the older man responded quietly, "I'm sorry, Jethro."

"Could you tell Abby?" Gibbs asked.

"Certainly." Ducky clucked his tongue. "It is definitely the sort of news better delivered in person, particularly to someone of Abby's sensitive nature."

"Thanks, Duck."

"You'll be wanting us to head back to DC, yes?"

Gibbs really wanted to say no. "I need you there."

"Anthony will be fine, Jethro," Ducky assured him. "He is recovering. Joseph will look out for him. Not to mention his partner and teammates. He is in good hands."

"I know." Gibbs sighed. "I'd just prefer-"

"To have one of your own doing the looking after." Gibbs could hear Ducky's smile. "It is quite understandable, and even commendable, my friend. But in this case, not practical." There was a small pause. "You do trust Joseph and Levon, don't you?"

"When it comes to looking out for Tony, yeah." It was impossible not to.

"Good. It is obvious they care for him a great deal."

"They aren't the only ones, Duck."

"I know." He could hear Ducky smiling. "And I think Anthony is well aware of that by now, don't you?"

He damn well better, Gibbs thought fiercely, but refrained from saying it out loud. He knew Ducky meant the question to be rhetorical.

"Now then, I need to get packed if I'm to be ready when the time comes. I'll have Abby call you with our flight information."

Gibbs scowled when Ducky terminated the call. He shook his head and smiled ruefully. Ducky certainly knew how to get the last word in.

The boarding call announcement sounded. Gibbs nodded to Ziva and McGee. They got on and found their seats with little fuss or fanfare. He'd have liked for them to fly on a military transport but there were several commercial flights going out sooner. Regular flights between LAX and DC meant there was one going every few hours.

Once they were airborne and it was safe to use electronic equipment Gibbs told McGee to get out his laptop and work on Tony's hunch the insurance policy was a case number. If it was, hopefully, McGee could find it. Although, given what had happened to the last old case file he'd had McGee track down, Gibbs wasn't holding out a lot of hope they'd be able to find it even if Tony was right.

He had Ziva double check everything they new about the money trail. Shepard had to be getting it from somewhere. Maybe another look would reveal where it came from and give them a lead on who else might have been involved.

While they worked on that, Gibbs went over what details Baker and Simmons had pulled together on the crime scene. He didn't know what he expected to find, but there had to be something. Looking at the photos, Gibbs frowned. One of the men was the right height, build and coloring to the man Shepard had taken a picture of at Decker's funeral.

"Ziva, do you have a picture of Viggo Drantyev?"

"I have his passport photo." She turned her PDA so he could see the picture.

Gibbs held up the crime scene photo. Ziva studied it for a moment. "They appear to be one in the same."

"When Shepard took the picture of him he was with a woman. We have any idea who she was?"

Ziva shook her head. "I'll check the flight information and see who if they have a record of who he was travelling with. Although that may not be very helpful since we know Viggo Drantyev was not his real name, whoever he was traveling with would also have been using an alias."

Gibbs nodded. There was always the possibility of dead ends, but they had to follow whatever leads they had just the same.

"Check the security tapes from Dulles and LAX as well. Maybe we'll get lucky and get a better shot him and her together."

"On it, Boss."

Gibbs sighed softly. No matter how many times that was said, he couldn't help wishing it was Tony who was saying it. McGee and Ziva were good, no doubt about it, but Gibbs worked with Tony longer than he had anyone else, and he missed the easy connection he'd had with him. He'd missed the younger man's eagerness, his willingness to do whatever Gibbs asked of him, the banter and stupid movie references, the practical jokes and outrageous stories, the odd moments of insight and bright smile. Gibbs sighed again. He just missed Tony.

He rubbed his forehead, trying to ease the headache forming. Too little sleep, too much coffee, too many unanswered questions were getting to him. He was starting to think a long vacation was in order. A real long vacation.

Chapter Text

Gibbs rapped loudly on the door to Abby's lab demanding entrance. They'd opted to make her lab the meeting place because it was far more private than the bull pen. While the case wasn't exactly top secret, Vance and the SecNav were treating Shepard's death as -need to know'. All five bodies in the morgue were currently listed as John Does. And nothing had been said to anyone about Shepard's death. As far as most of the agency was concerned Shepard had come home for LA as scheduled and was taking a few days off.

 

 

Gibbs didn't really care about the higher ups' political machinations, but he readily appreciated the value of keeping what his team was up to quiet. He didn't want or need Vance or the SecNav looking over their shoulders--especially not when their objectives didn't mesh. He wanted to know what happened, see justice done as much as he was able to; Vance and the SecNav were simply looking to cover the agency's ass.

 

 

"Who is it?" Abby called out in a sing song voice, responding to his knock.

 

 

"Who do you think it is?" Gibbs growled. "Open the damn door."

 

 

"Right away, my silver fox." She opened the door with a flourish.

 

 

He handed her a supersized Caf-Pow. She grinned at him, accepting the offering as both a gift and her due.

 

 

"What have you got for me, McGee?" Gibbs asked, striding further into the room knowing Abby was locking the door behind him. He took a healthy sip of his not quite hot enough to scald coffee.

 

 

"I was able to find a case that matched the number Franks gave you. It was a case Decker worked in 1985."

 

 

"What was it?"

 

 

"I don't know, Boss." McGee shook his head. "Files of that age were in long term storage."

 

 

Gibbs eyed McGee. "Same one that got flooded?"

 

 

"Yeah." McGee winced. "I went to the records facility hoping to find something, but there was nothing to be found. The file was damaged beyond saving and got shredded along with anything else in that condition. Whatever Decker thought would keep him safe won't be of any help to us."

 

 

Gibbs bit back a curse. He had hoped to catch a break, but it was clearly not in the cards. He looked to Ziva. "You got any better news?"

 

 

"Depends on your point of view." She pointed to the plasma screen that hung on Abby's wall. Gibbs walked closer, studying the image closely.

 

 

"I was able to trace several transactions further than we'd gotten before by double checking any and all funds Shepard had access to. There was nothing unusual in her personal records, but not everything is so above wood with the NCIS accounts she had access to."

 

 

"Above board, Ziva. Not wood."

 

 

Ziva glared at McGee for his correction, but otherwise ignoring him as she continued speaking. "While there is no definitive proof that she actually embezzled any money, according to the NCIS budget and accounting department," Ziva hit a button on the remote, highlighting several lines of the financial spreadsheet being displayed, "those funds were spent on equipment to upgrade Abby's lab."

 

 

"But I never got any new machines," Abby pointed out. She looked both triumphant and disappointed.

 

 

"It appears Shepard diverted those funds." Ziva keyed the remote again. "There were at least three other similar budget discrepancies. I cannot track of them directly to Tony DiNardo's account or Shepard's doctor, but the numbers match the amounts we saw there."

 

 

Gibbs grimaced. It was small consolation that she wasn't accepting payment from the CIA to betray Kort. While it wasn't exactly blood money, stealing from NCIS wasn't really any better.

 

 

"And our dead guys, Duck?"

 

 

"COD for all were gun shot wounds. Not really informative, I'm afraid." Ducky sighed. "With Abby's help I was able to identify three of the four."

 

 

"Viggo you already know," Abby put his picture up on the plasma screen. "Bad guy number two is Alexi Krashnikova." She brought up another picture. "That's not the name on his passport, by the way, but the name Interpol said matched his fingerprints. He's been arrested a number of times on drug and weapon charges." A third picture appeared. "Bad guy number three is Dimitri Romanski. He's been arrested several times for assault, and held on murder charges but was never convicted. Apparently the only eye witness died before the case went to trial." She displayed a fourth picture. "We don't know who he is for sure. His passport gave him the name Peter Kaminski, but since none of the others are actually who their passports say they are, his is likely an alias as well. His prints weren't in the system. Doesn't mean he isn't guilty of something, just that he has no record."

 

 

"Muscle for the mob," Gibbs murmured, more to himself than his team. He looked at Abby. "Any idea who they were working for?"

 

 

She shook her head. "There was nothing in their affects that would point a finger at who their boss might have been." She played nervously with her fingers. "I've asked Interpol for more information on them but I haven't heard from them yet."

 

 

"We did get the footage from the airport," McGee offered quickly as though trying to cover for what they didn't have. "We got a look at the woman Viggo was traveling with."

 

 

Gibbs nodded and pointed to the screen. "Show me."

 

 

McGee tapped a few buttons on Abby's keyboard. Gibbs stared at the blonde woman who was clearly getting in the same cab as Viggo. She looked familiar. He frowned trying to place her.

 

 

"I ran the facial recognition software on her to see what would turn up." McGee told him.

 

 

"And I checked the passenger list, using the flight we knew Viggo was on," Ziva offered a second later. "It helped narrow things down considerably."

 

 

"The name we got was Natasha Lencov." McGee interjected.

 

 

Gibbs hid a smile. He knew it was petty but he enjoyed their on going competitions to be first with information.

 

 

"There is no record of Natasha Lencov before 1999. She just appeared and runs what is apparently a very successful import export business."

 

 

"Her sudden appearance is clearly questionable," Ziva said. "Obviously it is an alias, but we have not yet been able to find out who she really is."

 

 

"Her name isn't Natasha, it's Svetlana." Gibbs shook his head, disappointed in himself that it took him so long to remember her. He turned to look at his team. He caught McGee and Ziva trading surprised looks.

 

 

"Boss, how do you--"

 

 

"Because ten years ago, Shepard was supposed to kill her."

 

 

"She was Jenny's target?" Ziva cocked her head to one side, eyes narrowing as she studied the Svetlana's picture more closely.

 

 

"Yeah." Gibbs sipped his coffee. "Svetlana and her lover were involved in selling weapons, drugs, classified information. They were willing to procure just about anything for the highest bidder."

 

 

"Your target was--"

 

 

"Her lover."

 

 

"And now she's out for revenge?" Abby blinked, sounding more than just a little incredulous. "After waiting ten years?"

 

 

"To be fair, my dear," Ducky offered quietly, "I doubt her desire for revenge is a recent occurrence. Jenny spent the same amount of time, if not more, attempting to bring down La Grenouille." He nodded to Svetlana's picture. "She may have lacked the necessary connections and resources to find the people involved in her lover's demise. If I remember correctly what Jethro told us that case was a top-secret affair. There were aliases on both sides. Neither Jethro nor Jenny had any occasion to be in Europe again for years once the mission was completed. And NCIS has hardly been a large player in the world of espionage. Certainly not in the same league as the CIA, KGB, OSI or even Mossad. I doubt Svetlana even knew who to look for much less where to look for quite some time."

 

 

Gibbs was sure the CIA had been more than willing to help her out on that score. They likely saw it as an ideal way to rid themselves of a problem. Either Svetlana killed Shepard, thereby ensuring no more interference from her, or Shepard killed Svetlana, taking out another arms dealer. If a few people got caught in the crossfire that wasn't anything they'd concern themselves with. It would be just more collateral damage to be ignored. Fuckers.

 

 

"Do you think she knows her guys are dead?" Abby asked hesitantly.

 

 

"They've been out of contact for at least a day, if not more." McGee pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Unless she's just trusting they'll get the job done and not confirm it, which I can't see happening, she's got to suspect things didn't go the way she planned. I mean, after ten years, I'd think she'd wants proof of some kind--"

 

 

"Abby, do you have their cell phones?" Gibbs cut into McGee's babbling.

 

 

"I do." Abby nodded, looking apologetic. "I haven't had a chance to do much with them yet."

 

 

"Get me Viggo's. She flew with him, so odds are good he was her contact not one of the others."

 

 

"Gotcha, Boss."

 

 

Abby stepped over to the table where five evidence bins sat lined up in a neat row. There was one bin for each of their bad guys and one for Shepard. Gibbs looked away from hers. He didn't need to see her bloody clothing. He'd already seen it. And he was sure she hadn't been carrying anything that would help them. Shepard was far too focused on covering her tracks to have slipped up by bringing anything to that diner that would incriminate her.

 

 

Abby plucked a bag from Viggo's box. She handed it to Gibbs. He set his coffee down on the table before pulling on a plastic glove and then removing the blood stained phone. He flipped it open. There was only one number in the history.

 

 

"McGee, trace this number."

 

 

"On it, Boss."

 

 

Gibbs hit redial, and waited. He wasn't surprised when a woman answered, speaking in Russian.

 

 

"Where have you been? I was expecting you to call hours ago."

 

 

Gibbs responded in the same language knowing the only other person in the room who would likely understand was Ziva. "It's hard for a dead man to make a call."

 

 

There was a moment of silence. "Who are you?"

 

 

"I'm the one you've been looking for, Svetlana."

 

 

"What is your name?" She demanded.

 

 

"That's not important. What is important is that your men tried to kill Jenny Shepard." There was no point in telling her that they'd succeeded if she didn't already know that.

 

 

"You are a dead man." Svetlana snarled.

 

 

"Funny, I'm feeling pretty good at the moment."

 

 

"I will dance on your grave."

 

 

"I'm sure you'll be in good company." Gibbs knew of several people who would probably join her in such a celebration.

 

 

McGee whispered. "No fix on where in DC yet, but she is in the city."

 

 

"We should meet." Gibbs waited a beat to see what her reaction would be. "No reason for any more of your men to die needlessly."

 

 

"You are suddenly a brave man now?" She asked, disbelief and distain rife in her tone. "You killed my Yuri from a distance, not man enough to face him. You snuck away like a dog with his tail between his legs, hiding from me for years. And now I should believe you would meet me when you know I wish to put a bullet in your brain?"

 

 

"Maybe I'm just tired of running," Gibbs told her, keeping his tone dry and mocking. He didn't feel any guilt or shame over how he'd killed Yuri. The kill had been quick and clean. It had been sanction. And it wasn't as if Yuri was some innocent. He'd killed dozens of people, trafficked in weapons, drugs, information and even people from time to time. He was hardly an alter boy.

 

 

"And you'll meet me alone?" She snorted delicately. "I was not born yesterday."

 

 

"I'm not the one who brought in others into this." Gibbs softened his tone. "Let's put an end to this, once and for all."

 

 

"Where?"

 

 

Gibbs gave her the address for Shepard's house. She already knew who Shepard was. Gibbs was sure Svetlana knew where she lived. Odds were good she'd already cased the house at some point.

 

 

"How do I know you are not already there, laying a trap for me?"

 

 

"You don't, but it's not like you have a lot of choices, do you?" Gibbs smirked. "You're henchmen are dead. If you wait to get more, I'll be gone tomorrow. This is a one-time offer. Take or leave it."

 

 

"I'll be there," she ground out harshly, cutting the connection.

 

 

Gibbs closed the phone and put it back in the bag. He thought about handing it back to Abby, before thinking better of it. Svetlana had this number. And her number was programmed on it. Better to just keep it. He slipped the bag in his pocket.

 

 

Abby looked askance at him. McGee and Ducky were looking equally curious, clearly waiting to be filled in on what had been said.

 

 

Gibbs was sorely tempted to leave them in the dark. If he kept them out of it he could keep them safe--except that Tony hadn't been in it at all and still got hurt. Tony's team in Houston was just doing their jobs and became targets without even knowing it. And keeping his team out of the loop had proven to be a mistake in the past, one Gibbs had promised himself he wasn't going to make again. And he'd promised Tony he wouldn't go without back up. Besides, Ziva clearly heard and understood his side of the conversation. She could, and likely would, fill in the others on as much as she knew.

 

 

"I'm going to meet her."

 

 

"Gibbs??!! Are you crazy?" Abby demanded.

 

 

"Are you sure that's wise, Jethro?" Ducky asked at the same moment.

 

 

"I didn't say I was meeting her alone," Gibbs snapped at them, halting any more questions. "Ziva, McGee you're with me."

 

 

"On your six, Boss."

 

 

Gibbs nodded. "Abby, Ducky, keep working here on the case. We'll be back."

 

 

"You better be," Abby said, her expression an odd mix of fear and fierceness.

 

 

Gibbs kissed her cheek. "It will be okay, Abby. I promise."

 

 

He nodded to Ducky, looked at McGee and Ziva, gathering them with his eyes before turning and heading out of Abby's lab. Svetlana was their only connection, the last viable lead they had for putting all the pieces together. Gibbs knew he could get her to talk. He had to.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Gibbs put Viggo's cell phone on the antique desk that had belonged to Shepard's father. He turned on the desk lamp, highlighting the phone while leaving the rest of the room in shadows. McGee was hiding behind the door, silently waiting for Svetlana to arrive. Gibbs couldn't see Ziva, but he knew she was checking the rest of the house.


He poured himself a shot of bourbon from Shepard's liquor cabinet. He didn't intend to actually drink it; the drink was little more than a prop. It added to the illusion he had gotten careless.


He took a deep breath and released it slowly, remembering the last time he was in this same room. Shepard had stood not far from where he was standing. Rene Benoit had been asking for help, for sanctuary, for a chance to escape from his life of crime. She'd denied him, sent him on his way knowing full well he wouldn't survive without help. It was ironic that she'd felt the need to kill him herself. If she'd been a little more patient one of his enemies or someone from the CIA wood likely have done the deed for her.


Gibbs sat down in the desk chair. He debated for a moment whether or not he should pull his weapon before deciding not to. He wanted Svetlana to think she was in control. It would be up to McGee and Ziva to take her out if it came down to that. Gibbs wasn't worried. He'd trusted Ziva to watch his back before, and she hadn't let him down even when it meant killing her own brother. McGee was a competent agent, and had grown up a lot since taking over for Tony as Gibbs' second. Gibbs was confident his life was in good hands.


"So, you really did wish to meet." Svetlana's English was heavily accented but understandable. She stood in the doorway, a gun trained on him.


"I told you I did." Gibbs ignored the weapon, trying to appear relaxed as he waited for her to come closer.


Ice blue eyes studied him. "I have looked for you for a long time."


"I know." Gibbs arched an eyebrow. "After ten years, I thought you'd have given up."


"I loved Yuri." She almost snarled at him. "It could have taken me a hundred years. I would never stop looking for his killer."


"How did you finally put together the pieces?"


"Oh, you covered your tracks well. But not everyone was so circumspect." She smirked, stepping further into the room. Her gun was still leveled at Gibbs. "An old name reappeared. One I had not heard in years."


"Nikita Druyiev," Gibbs said, knowing Shepard's alias had to be what she was referring to. He wasn't really surprised to find that had been the catalyst.


"Da." Svetlana nodded. "She was meddling in my business again. Although, since she was helping to take out a rival, I did not care so much about that."


Gibbs' jaw clenched. It wasn't much but what she said certainly confirmed what Nunes' story. Shepard was working to eliminate Kort and using old names and contacts to do it.


"I knew Nikita Druyiev was not a real person. I had looked too long for her to not understand she was only a phantom. Smoke and mirrors. But it wasn't until a little birdie told me about Decker that I found out just who she might really be.


Both Gibbs eyebrows rose. "Little birdie?"


Svetlana shrugged. "I suspect he was an agent of the CIA, but for all I know he could have been KGB. I did not care. He had information I wanted."


"And what happened to him?" Gibbs was hoping for a name, another lead.


She gave him a cold look. "The same thing that happens to anything that is no longer of use."


Gibbs cursed mentally. Another person was dead. He wondered if the CIA cared at all about the operatives they employed.


He stood up. Svetlana tightened her grip on her gun. She eyed him warily but did not step back.


"You kill him?"


"Not me, no." She smiled. "Although, I did pay to have him killed. The same way I had Decker killed once he told me what I needed."


The confession wasn't something admissible in court but Gibbs liked knowing the truth just the same. He eyed the gun she still held. "You planning to kill me?"


She raised her chin, meeting his challenge. "That is what I came here for."


"You're not a killer," Gibbs argued. "At least not when it comes to doing it yourself. Jenny couldn't kill you. She wasn't a killer either."


"She might have been weak then, but not so any more." Svetlana's expression was hard and confident. "As Nikita she was soft, but as your Jenny Shepard she learned how to do what needed doing. She is no longer so hesitant to get her hands dirty."


Svetlana sneered. "I know Trent Kort did not kill La Grenouille. He does not have the balls for that. And he's too smart to be so stupid."


Gibbs noted her use of present tense when referring to Kort. She clearly didn't know he was dead. "You know who did kill The Frog?"


"No one knows, do they?" Svetlana snorted derisively. "But everyone in my circle knew Shepard was after him. She was not subtle in her pursuit. She was not nearly as careful as you."


There was almost a note of respect in her voice as she eyed Gibbs. "When you took out my Yuri, no one knew anything about you. Not your name, where you came from, where you went or why you killed him. A ghost you were. You left not tracks to follow."


"But Shepard," Svetlana clucked her tongue, "her chasing the Frog was like trying to swat a fly with a tank. She had people everywhere looking for him, chasing his shadow and making noise. Always she was pushing, drawing attention to people and places better left alone. No one was happy with all this attention. It was bad for business. I do not know if she was unaware of this or simply did not care."


She shook her head. "Everyone knew she wanted him dead. And most were happy she finally got what she wanted and left the rest of us alone. We could get back to doing what we do best without so much attention."


"What you do is illegal."


Svetlana shrugged. "It is a living."


It was the usual pragmatic approach he expected from a Russian, but Gibbs felt compelled to point out, "It's wrong."


"It is not your concern, any more than it was hers." Her pale blue eyes met his. "Besides, you will be dead soon and none of this will matter."


"You aren't going to kill me."


"Oh, but I am."


"NICS," McGee said quietly from behind her. "Put it down."


She looked over her shoulder at him. There was no surprise in her expression, and there was no hesitation as she responded to his order with a firm, "No."


"Put down the gun," McGee repeated. Gibbs silently took a step and then another away from Svetlana, shifting his weight so that he presented a narrower target.


She looked away from the younger man and back to Gibbs. The smile she gave him was resolute, cold and bitter. In Russian she said to him, "I should have died with Yuri, but taking you with me will simply have to do."


The sound of two guns firing within seconds of one another in the room was surprisingly loud. Gibbs had ducked reflexively, instinctively trying to dodge her shot, realizing after the fact that it was unnecessary. McGee had aimed for Svetlana's head, taking a kill shot, and effectively spoiling her aim. She'd pulled the trigger as a reflex action, the bullet imbedding harmlessly in the wall to Gibbs' right.


Ziva stepped through the doorway as Svetlana's body crumpled to the floor. She nodded to Gibbs. "The rest of the house is clear. She did not bring anyone with her."


Dark eyes went to McGee. "Well done, McGee."


McGee swallowed reflexively, slowly lowering his gun. It was only then that Gibbs realized McGee had never had to make a calculated shot like that before. He'd responded to being shot at by returning fire, had even killed once or twice in reaction, but deliberately shooting someone who was not actually threatening him was definitely a new situation for the younger man.


"You did good, McGee," Gibbs assured him quietly. He briefly wished he'd thought to put Ziva in the study and assigned McGee the task of checking the rest of the house.


"She was going to kill you."


"Yes, she was." Gibbs knew the confirmation would help assure McGee he'd done the right thing.


McGee nodded slowly. He holstered his weapon. He squared his shoulders. "Should I call for back up?"


"And how do we explain what happened here?" Ziva asked, a frown furrowing her brow. "The rest of the office thinks Shepard is on leave. Only two other agents besides us and Acting Director Vance know she died in California. Not to mention..." she waved a hand in an elegant gesture of frustration, "everything else she was involved in. How do we explain this?"


"You let me handle that, Officer David." Vance said, surprising all of them with his presence.


Gibbs had been reaching for his gun when he heard movement beyond the door, but stopped the motion when Vance spoke and he recognized him. Ziva had never holstered her gun, and pointed at Vance for a moment. Her gazed narrowed as she studied him, but she lowered the weapon after a moment. McGee had jumped, whirling to face the new threat, mouth open in surprise and then closing with an audible snap.


"What are you doing here?" Gibbs didn't so much ask as demand.


"I had Ms. Sciuto run a trace on Viggo's phone when I realized it was missing from evidence." Vance gave him a pointed look. "I thought you were going to keep me in the loop, Gibbs."


Gibbs kept his face impassive. He knew Vance wasn't expecting an answer. He didn't have one to give the man anyway.


Vance looked to the body on the floor. "This is the woman that hired the men who killed Director Shepard?"


"Yes." Gibbs grimaced. "Shepard was supposed to kill her ten years ago, but obviously she didn't."


"So we have a woman who's death was sanction ten years ago." Vance nodded slowly. "A little late, but better than never I suppose."


Gibbs' jaw clenched at the cavalier attitude, but didn't argue. Vance wasn't wrong. Svetlana should have died a long time ago. And it wasn't as if she was a complete innocent. She was an arms dealer who was in the country under an assumed name and had hired four men they knew of to commit at least two murders and possibly more.


Vance looked at Gibbs, then Ziva and McGee. "You can go. I'll handle this."


"Handle it how?" Gibbs asked.


"That is not something you need to be concerned with, Special Agent Gibbs." Vance told him, his tone firm and uncompromising.


Gibbs instinctively bristled. That was twice in less than ten minutes two people told him things were not his concern. He took a breath and held it for a moment. He wanted to belt Vance one, but the man was now the one in charge. He'd been Acting Director with Shepard in LA, and with her death, he was now in command until the SecNav said otherwise.


But the real deciding factor for Gibbs though was that there were no other leads to follow. Shepard had gotten away with murder, and there was nothing he could do to prove it. With Kort dead they couldn't refute his official statement that he'd killed Benoit. All the physical evidence was circumstantial at best. And none of the investigating agencies involved were looking to reopen the case.


They tracked the money as far as they were able to. All they could prove was that Shepard had misappropriated funds. They couldn't definitively say what she'd used them for. And with her death, they couldn't really prosecute her for that crime.


Decker's insurance policy had been destroyed. There was no way to know for certain what it had contained or if it would have been useful. And with Decker dead, they couldn't find out what he'd kept hidden for so long.


Kort and another unnamed CIA agent were dead. Short of tackling the CIA, which Gibbs knew wouldn't end well, there was little more they could do on that front. Even Kort's girlfriend wouldn't give them much leverage. She might know about Kort and Benoit's business, but Gibbs doubted she would have information on anything they could use.


Nunes was a drug dealer who was looking to expand his operation. He hadn't known Shepard's real name or how she fit into the scheme of things. There was nothing to tie him directly to her. And the team in Houston would see to it he was going down for Kort's murder.


Gibbs nodded to Ziva and McGee. "Let's go."


McGee hesitated, looking uncertain. "Boss, are you sure--"

"I'm sure." Gibbs wasn't happy about any of this, but there wasn't much he could do about it. He felt the same way he had when he watched helplessly as a ship exploded on the MTAC screen.


"I'll expect all of you to be at the office tomorrow at the usual time," Vance said as they headed for the door.


Gibbs stiffened, but didn't say a word as he followed McGee and Ziva out of Shepard's house. He told Ziva and McGee to head back to the office. He wanted them to check in with Ducky and Abby, make sure they were okay.


"Thinking you don't want us to write up a report on any of this." McGee said tiredly, blue eyes reflecting a jaded cynicism that hadn't been present a year ago.


Gibbs patted his shoulder. "From the sounds of it, Vance is going to make it seem like none of this happened. There won't be anything to report on"


McGee glared. "It's not right."


"No, it isn't." Gibbs agreed. He sighed softly. He felt every one of his years. "If you got any idea how to make it right, sing out McGee. I'm all ears."


The younger man swallowed hard, and looked away. Gibbs nodded. No help there, but he wasn't really expecting there to be. McGee was smart. He could weigh the options and evidence just as quickly and accurately as Gibbs had.


"What will you tell Tony," Ziva asked.


"The truth." As much as Gibbs hated having to admit he couldn't achieve what he'd set out to do, couldn't accomplish the mission, he wasn't going to lie to Tony. Hopefully Tony would forgive him for failing.


"It would be best, I think, to have that conversation in person," Ziva offered diffidently.


"Vance wants us at the office tomorrow," McGee pointed out.


"So what?" Ziva snapped at him. "Tony told me people in hell want ice water but they are not getting it either."


Gibbs chuckled wryly. He had no trouble picturing Tony saying that.


"What will Vance do to me if I'm not there?" Gibbs asked, lips curling upward in a smile. The worst he could threaten was to fire Gibbs. And he couldn't really justify doing that unless he was prepared to explain why a senior agent with plenty of leave time on the books taking a few days was grounds for dismissal.


"What will he do if you aren't there?" Gibbs looked at both of them, letting them make their own choice.


McGee looked at Ziva. They shared a smile before turning back to Gibbs. McGee cleared his throat. "I think I feel a cold coming on."


Ziva grinned, and then coughed dramatically. "I must have come down with it as well."


Gibbs cocked his head. "You well enough to book a few seats to Houston, McGee?"


"I can handle that, Boss."


"Good. Get it done."

Chapter Text

Gibbs wasn't sure what sort of reaction to expect from Tony when he told him that Shepard would never be charged with the murder of Rene Benoit, that she would never be accused of anything at all. Her embezzlement of funds would be swept under the rug. Her part in arranging for Kort's death would never going to be brought to light. The injuries Tony and his teammates suffered would be written off as nothing more than the byproduct of an illegal drug deal gone bad. Hell, even Shepard's death would be officially labeled an accident to save face for the agency. Gibbs and his team had been in the airport when the news of Shepard -dying' in her home during a fire was made public knowledge.

He didn't know if Tony and his team in Houston were aware of that cover up or not. If he were lucky, Gibbs would get to break that bit of news too. Although, he wasn't sure if getting the privilege to share that bit of bullshit would be good luck or bad.

Not entirely certain of what to expect, Gibbs opted to brace himself for what he believed would be the most normal reaction. He thought there would be a display of anger, and he expected it to be vented with as much force and volume as Tony's damaged lung and broken ribs would allow. He was prepared to deal with being maligned, ridiculed, insulted; Gibbs felt he deserved it. He'd told Tony that he would take care of things, make it right, that justice would be served and he hadn't been able to do that. Circumstances were beyond his control, but Gibbs didn't see that as necessarily absolving him from blame. It was his duty, regardless of how events played themselves out, and he'd failed to do it.

He was prepared for Tony to act out, to punch him or the wall, to throw things, to kick and scream out his rage and frustration. Gibbs didn't plan to fight back. He only planned to do his best to make sure Tony didn't hurt himself along the way.

He'd practiced in his head for most of the flight to Houston how to apologize. Gibbs hadn't had much experience admitting to failure, and he didn't want to fuck it up with Tony. The younger man could have died because of what Shepard did, he deserved better than a half assed apology.

When they arrived at the hospital, Gibbs was pleased to find that Tony had healed enough he was being allowed to walk short distances. Dr. Kline actually prescribed several short walks a day which usually entailed Tony going from his room to the visitor's lounge and back again. At his current rate of progress he'd be allowed to leave the hospital in another day or two provided someone was around to look after him.

While all that was definitely good news, to Gibbs what mattered the most was it meant he could tell Tony what he had to say without having an audience. He'd gotten Ziva and McGee, Ducky and Abby to stay behind without saying a word. Lundy and LaFiamma must have readily grasped the meaning in his expression as well since neither objected to his walking solo with Tony. LaFiamma had given him a warning look; he let Gibbs know to tread lightly or suffer the consequences. Gibbs responded with a two-finger salute, signaling he understood.

He was sure his team could fill LaFiamma and Lundy in on what had transpired. And he tried not to feel like he was deserting them. It wasn't like Ziva and McGee couldn't hold their own; Abby and Ducky weren't incapable either, but from what he'd seen of LaFiamma's temper, the man could easily do real damage if he wanted. It felt wrong to leave his team to face that alone, but he also felt duty bound to be the one to explain what had gone on in DC to Tony, and make sure he could react how ever he wanted without worrying what anyone else might think, say or do.

When they made it to the lounge, Tony sat in one of the chairs. His breathing was a little rough, and he was a little pale but seemed otherwise fine. Tony's his expression was painfully neutral as he regarded Gibbs. "Okay, Boss, lay it on me."

Gibbs faced him, squaring his shoulders, unconsciously standing at attention. He gave Tony the facts and details, leaving out nothing, pleased that Tony was willing to let him get it out without interruption. He wasn't sure he'd have been able to start again if Tony hadn't let him get it out in one go.

Gibbs waited for Tony's reaction sure he was ready, confident he had considered all the possible options. But Tony didn't yell. He didn't lash out. He didn't look angry or disappointed. He didn't do any of the things Gibbs had prepared himself for. He just sat silently, green eyes staring at Gibbs steadily for long enough to make him feel uncomfortable. He wasn't prone to fidgeting, but Gibbs found himself wanting to, anything to break the moment.

Finally Tony spoke. "You shouldn't apologize."

"Sign of weakness, I know." Gibbs resisted rolling his eyes. It was his rule; he didn't need to be reminded. "Tony, it isn't--"

"No, it isn't about weakness." Tony's lips curled upward in a small smile. "You don't need to apologize because you didn't do anything wrong."

Gibbs grimaced. "Doesn't mean I did everything right."

"You want to tell me what you'd have done differently?" Tony asked quietly, eyebrows climbing upward. "You said it yourself, Shepard is dead and everyone but those directly involved have been lead to think it was an accident. There aren't any more leads to follow. And even if taking on the SecNav wasn't career suicide, what is there to be gained from airing all this dirty laundry without someone to prosecute?"

"It's not right." Gibbs' jaw clenched, unable to not mentally compare himself to McGee who'd made the same observation. He hated the resignation he could hear in Tony's voice and wondered if he'd sounded like that to McGee.

"No, it isn't right." Tony agreed. He sighed heavily. "But I'm fresh out of ideas on how to make it right."

Gibbs could relate to that feeling all too well. No one else knew what to do either. They were at an impasse and he hated it. Gibbs took a deep breath and finally sat down. He waited to see what else Tony might have to say.

"We were still working the case before all this shit happened. Even if it wasn't full time, we were still working it, Gibbs. And we weren't exactly making a lot of headway toward proving she killed Benoit."

Gibbs nodded. They'd never totally let go of it. It just hadn't been their main focus. Maybe if it had been, Gibbs thought, things would have been different. But there were other cases, active and pressing with lives on the line. Rene Benoit was dead and the case was technically solved. They couldn't drop everything to work it without raising suspicions. And no one knew Shepard was still obsessed with it. There hadn't been any obvious signs of her working with the CIA to clue them in. There hadn't been an active trail to follow.

Tony sighed again. He shook his head. "Given how sick Shepard was, it's not like she'd have made it to trial anyway. And even if she was in good health, we knew bringing her down was going to be one hell of a long shot."

"She still should have been punished." Gibbs clenched his hands into fists. "She got away with murder, damn it."

"The time to take her down was when Jeanne brought it up, but we let it go then to protect the team." Tony bit is lower lip, his eyes mirroring the guilt Gibbs knew was in his own.

"We had to look out for the team," Gibbs said. Protecting them was necessary. Letting Shepard get away with killing Benoit had been the only way to do that.

Tony nodded. "That's always been my own rule number one, you know? Look out for your partner, take care of your team."

Gibbs nodded. He knew that was why Tony hadn't taken the job in Rota. He was looking out for Gibbs, taking care of the team. He knew the fact that they didn't look out for him was a big part of why Tony had left. Trust was a two way street. That they were able to rebuild a measure of that trust was not something Gibbs took for granted.

"It's a good rule," Gibbs told him with a smile.

Tony smiled back, looking less troubled. "Thanks." His expression shifted, turning pensive again. "Taking on the SecNav will put everyone else in danger again."

"There was never a guarantee any of us are safe," Gibbs murmured.

"No, there isn't, but that's no reason to step into the line of fire if we don't have to either." Tony rubbed tiredly at his eyes. Gibbs didn't like the small tremors he could see in the younger man's hands but decided not to comment on them.

"I don't know Vance well, at least not well enough to predict how he'd respond to things, but I can't see him wanting to rock the boat." There was a lot of cynicism in his tone as Tony continued speaking. "He wouldn't want to make waves when he's taking over for Shepard."

"Agreed." Gibbs didn't know Leon Vance well either, but he knew enough to be certain that if it had been about bringing her down while Shepard was alive, making a name for himself to show he deserved her position, Vance would have been all for it. With it looking like Vance would be taking her place, he wouldn't want anything that might discredit the agency to come to light in any way.

"As much as it bothers me, we can't do much without support from higher up the ladder."

"I know." Gibbs hated that too. They could go public; it was always an option to make what had happened headline news. But all that would do was throw mud. He wasn't interested in a smear campaign that would damage everyone associated with the agency. And he wasn't interested in calling down more oversight from hypocritical politians likely more corrupt and self-serving than Shepard had been. That wouldn't help him or any other NCIS agent do their jobs better nor would it keep future Directors from abusing their authority.

Letting it go was really their only option at this point. Coming to terms with that fact was what Gibbs was having trouble with. He appreciated Tony's effort to make it easier for him...and knew he was making it easier for himself too. Working through his thoughts out loud was something else Gibbs had missed about Tony. Discussing details, evidence and theories had always been easier with him than with anyone else on his team.

"The death toll on this has already been too damn high." Tony grimaced. "No point in adding your career or the team to the tally. Not when it won't change anything."

"Not sure I'd mind killing my career all that much," Gibbs admitted quietly.

Tony frowned. "Boss?"

Gibbs rubbed a hand over his face. He hadn't had more than a few hours of sleep at a time since getting LaFiamma's call about Tony being hurt and he knew his exhaustion had to be showing. There was no shame in admitting the obvious, Gibbs told himself.

"I'm tired, Tony." Gibbs sighed. It wasn't that long ago Tony had told him the reason he quit NCIS was because he was tired. Gibbs now better understood exactly what he meant.

"I'm tired of politics." When he'd started with the agency things seemed so much clearer, cleaner. There didn't seem to be much interference from the Hill or anyone outside the agency back then.

"I'm tired of lies." He understood the need for secrets. Could see the value in keeping them, but lately all the lies he'd encountered weren't really justifiable. They didn't serve a greater good; those lies didn't keep anyone safe or secure the country, they were just a means to an end.

"I'm tired of not being able to trust the people above me." He'd trusted Franks, probably for far longer than he should have. He'd been able to trust Morrow. But Jenny wasn't cut of the same cloth. And the SecNav and Vance definitely weren't trustworthy.

"Hell, I'm tired of always seeing the worst people have to offer."

"You thinking of making another run for Mexico?"

There was no censure in the question, but it made Gibbs flinch just the same. He shook his head. "Nothing in Mexico for me."

"Just your goddaughter."

Gibbs blinked, startled. He'd never mentioned that. "How do you know about--"

"Never ask how the trick was done." Tony grinned impishly at him. "It ruins the magic."

Gibbs chuckled. "Yeah, it does." He sobered, and made eye contact with Tony, giving him the -don't lie to me' expression the younger man had never been able to counter. "Are you okay with this?"

"Not really." Tony shrugged one shoulder. "But it's not exactly a big surprise. You did teach me to anticipate after all, and it's not like this wasn't an option. I knew going into this that it would be a struggle, even more so after Shepard got herself killed. Only saving grace there was that she did try to protect you in the end."

Gibbs wasn't so sure he'd consider her sacrifice a saving grace. She may have been trying to protect him, but she was also hell bent on going out on her own terms. He wouldn't have needed protecting if she hadn't been so obsessed with her father and his reputation. It was her efforts to get Kort and dealing with the CIA that brought a ten year old operation back to light. Never mind her initial failure to do her job that kept Svetlana in the game long after she should have been pushing up daisies. But Gibbs didn't think it worth arguing about. Not now.

Tony took a breath and released it slowly. "So while I'm not okay with it at the moment, I'll be okay with it eventually."

Tony cocked his head, green eyes searching blue. "What about you? You okay with this?"

"Getting there," Gibbs admitted. "I am thinking a long vacation might be in order, though. I wasn't kidding when I said I was tired."

"Yeah, I can see that." Tony smiled. "Levon would say you look like nine miles of bad road."

"And what would you say?"

"I'd say you look like hell."

"Shut up." Gibbs lightly cuffed the back of his head.

Tony chuckled. He stood up. "C'mon, we better go check on the others."

"You think LaFiamma will have blown up?" Gibbs asked as he moved to offer support if Tony needed it.

"Oh we'd have heard that if he had." Tony laughed softly, making his way carefully down the hall. He was steady on his feet, Gibbs noted, just not moving as quickly as he usually did. H

"Joey can be quiet when he's pissed, but usually he's pretty damn loud about it."

I know, Gibbs thought. He'd witnessed LaFiamma's quiet anger over Ziva's involvement. And he's seen him a lot less quiet in expressing his anger over Gibbs' treatment of Tony.

Tony rapped his knuckles against the door before entering his room. Gibbs ducked his head, hiding a bemused smile over Tony's polite request for entry. Clearly the fact that it was also his room didn't negate the need for announcing himself.

Gibbs was quick to note that none of his team was sporting any bruises and there was no blood on the floor. At least no one had sustained any physical injuries. Although, they did look a bit shell shocked.

"Where's Joey?" Tony asked.

"He went to beat the hell out of something." Lundy said. "He'll be back when he gets it out of his system."

Tony nodded. He gave his former teammates a speculative glance as he moved to sit on his bed. "Joe vent before he left?"

Lundy gave him a rueful smile. "A bit."

"A bit?" Abby gaped. "It was like he was speaking in tongues."

"Given the number of languages he was cursing in, tongues is a most apt description, my dear," Ducky offered sounding equal parts appalled and impressed. "I recognized Italian, Spanish and French."

"There was also Thai and Mandarin," Ziva offered.

"Is that what that was?" McGee asked. "I wasn't sure."

"There were some ugly words in Russian and Polish too." Lundy grinned at Tony. "That boy has got real talent when it comes to creative cussing."'

"He going to be okay?" Tony looked ready to get up and chase after his cousin.

"Will take a little time, Slick, but he'll get there." Lundy assured him, looking pointedly at Tony's bed clearly suggesting he should be lying down. "You know how he hates to lose."

Tony snorted softly as he settled in on his bed. "No one likes to lose."

"It's the whole reason we keep score in the first place." A look of understanding passed between them.

"I don't get it." McGee said, frowning as he looked from Tony to Lundy.

"Hell, McGee, if we was all good sports there would be no need to keep score."

"But since we're not," Tony interjected, "we do."

"Still got us more wins than losses," Lundy observed. For a moment he looked as unsettled and dissatisfied as Gibbs felt. Lundy muttered quietly, clearly more to himself than to the room at large. "I keep hoping that counts for something."

"It does, my boy, it does," Ducky reassured him with a smile. "Fighting the good fight is always a worthy endeavor regardless of the outcome."

Had they fought a good fight, Gibbs asked himself. He'd like to think so. But it was getting harder and harder to believe it.

"I think a little down time is in order," Ducky offered quietly. "We're all a bit done in at the moment. The last few days have been rather taxing. Things will look better after some rest and a good meal or two."

"Always liked that about my mother's side of the family," Tony said, giving Ducky a fond look, "everything from a skinned knee to Armageddon was handled with aplomb and a cup of tea."

"Sensible people the British," Ducky told him, blue eyes twinkling.

"Not like the Italians," Lundy quipped. "They tend to be more on the high strung side."

"Not all of us," Tony told him with a laugh.

"Right." Lundy rolled his eyes. "You keep telling yourself that, Slick."

Whatever Tony was going to say was cut off when he yawned widely. Walking down the hall had taken more out of him than Gibbs realized, or maybe it was just dealing with everything else. He belatedly spotted the breathing exercise devise on the nightstand and realized Tony had probably gone a few rounds with it before they'd arrived. Combined with the walk and the news he'd shared, it was no wonder Tony was tired.

Seeing Tony yawn again, Ducky spoke up. "Right then, say your good-byes and it'll be off we go," Ducky started shooing the team toward the door after each one said a quick good bye to Tony. When it looked like Abby might linger, he told her firmly, "We can come back later after everyone has had a chance to rest and recover a bit. Even you have to be a bit tired, Abigail."

"Okay, Ducky." She gave Tony a quick kiss on the cheek, and pulled his blankets up higher. "I'll see you later."

"I'll be here," Tony said.

Gibbs was the only one left in the room when Lundy spoke up. "Got rooms at the hotel for you," he said. "Same place you stayed before. Got you four this time so you won't have to share, -less of course you want to. Reservation is good through the end of the week."

Gibbs stared at him. They hadn't called to say they were coming, much less how long they might be staying. There was no way Lundy could have known. "How did you--"

"Don't be asking how the trick is done, it ruins the magic." Lundy grinned at him. Gibbs knew he couldn't possibly have overheard him and Tony talking. The expression must have been something Tony picked up from Lundy or Lundy picked up from Tony.

"Just say thank you like the polite boy I'm sure your momma raised you to be and get the hell out of here. You look like--"

"Nine miles of bad road." Gibbs finished for him. "Yeah, I've already been told."

"Pretty accurate assessment then."

Gibbs flipped him off.

"Hah. Joe would kick your ass if you tried."

Gibbs' answering grin was wild and feral. "Like to see him try."

"Not today you wouldn't." Lundy shook his head. "Not unless you got a death wish."

"He really that mad?"

"More like not in complete control. Not a good idea to take him on when he's like that."

"And you would know," Tony mumbled, eyes closed more asleep than awake. "You guys nearly killed each other the day you met."

"We worked it out." Lundy shrugged dismissively. "Eventually."

Gibbs said a quick good bye to Tony, running his fingers through his hair in a gentle caress before leaving. He was sorely tempted to stay, but the adrenaline of the last few days was wearing thin, and he knew laying down would be far better for him than trying to sleep in a chair. Once he was down, he'd probably be down for hours.

"Bring something good for dinner when you come back."

Gibbs nodded. He'd have to see if he could get decent pizza somewhere. Houston was bound to have at least one place that made a deep dish with extra cheese, sausage and pepperoni. He was sure Tony would appreciate it.

Chapter Text

Four days after arriving in Houston, Gibbs found himself sipping a cup of hot, dark coffee while watching Lundy's horses graze peacefully in the nearby pasture. Tony had been released from the hospital three days ago. To Gibbs' surprise it had been LaFiamma who'd suggested he stay with Tony. Whatever animosity the younger man harbored toward Gibbs seemed to have faded. He wasn't naïve enough to think that meant he was trusted completely, or considered a friend, but he took it as a positive sign that he was allowed to stay in their home and was considered trustworthy enough to look out for Tony.

Gibbs smiled ruefully. Not that he was flying solo in taking care of Tony. Dewing had stopped by every morning. The blonde always brought some little treat for Tony--dark chocolate truffles, one of Tony's favorite kinds of jelly filled doughnuts, chocolate chip cookies. Ordinarily Gibbs would have objected to the junk food knowing Tony needed something more substantial and healthier to regain his strength and usual energy, but the younger man's appetite hadn't fully recovered making Gibbs reluctant to deny him anything he showed a real interest in. Besides, he'd reasoned, it wasn't as if Dewing went overboard with it. It was only one doughnut, a handful of candy, never anything excessive. He figured as long as Ducky and LaFiamma didn't find out about it, it would be okay.

Mendez had visited every evening after work. He'd even brought his sister and her children to see for themselves that Tony was getting better. Even though he'd known about Tony's relationship with Mendez's three-year old niece, he was still stunned by Tony's easy rapport with her. Gibbs had seen Tony make connections with a few teenagers, but never younger children. Tony had been comfortable handling Angela's infant baby boy as well. They obviously meant a great deal to Tony, and he was clearly just as important to them.

Gibbs had tried to fade into the background when they stopped by. He told himself it was because he hadn't wanted to intrude. But it would have been closer to the truth to say he felt like an outsider and had no idea how to fit in. Tony's closeness with his partner and the man's family just made Gibbs realize anew how settled into Houston Tony had become.

Gibbs sipped his coffee slowly. His team stopped by every day for a few hours as well. Abby and McGee kept Tony entertained with DVD's Gibbs hadn't even known they'd packed. More often than not Tony would doze off during the movies, but he clearly appreciated the gesture. No one minded, understanding that he still recovering, and it gave Ducky time to perform a few unobtrusive check ups on Tony while never stopping a steady flow of words that worked well to keep Tony sleeping soundly.

Ziva spent most of her time in the kitchen cooking. It was a sure sign she was both nervous and anxious to please that she made enough for a small army. No one called her on it though. Leftovers would have spilled out of the fridge if Gibbs hadn't taken the initiative and sent some of them off with Dewing and Mendez. He was fairly certain some of it made its way to Lundy and LaFiamma in the hospital, and the rest was likely consumed by other police officers they worked with. The remainder Gibb was sure would last long enough to be consumed when Lundy and LaFiamma finally made it home tomorrow and until Tony's appetite was once more back to normal.

Gibbs sighed softly. His team wouldn't be coming by today. He'd sent them home yesterday. Three days was the maximum time they could be on sick leave without providing medical documentation for needing more time. And while Ducky was technically a doctor, Gibbs doubted Vance would accept any diagnosis he might give. He would miss having them around. They hadn't been around 24/7, but they were still there enough to act as a buffer and make Gibbs feel more at ease.

Gibbs was in Houston on a leave of absence request that as far as anyone knew Shepard had approved before her death. She had approved it; he just wasn't supposed to be taking the time until later in the year. Gibbs had gotten McGee to hack into the official duty roster calendar and change the dates. Making it official gave him more time than unapproved sick leave would have. Even with the months he'd been in Mexico, Gibbs still had plenty of leave time on the books. More than fifteen years in government service had given him time to accrue a lot of vacation.

His plane ticket was open ended but he knew he'd have to give Vance some sort of answer about when he was coming back--if he was going back at all. The jury was still out on that issue. He wasn't at the mandatory retirement age, but he was old enough he could retire without penalty. He had enough in his savings and 401K to live on if he was frugal, and having been frugal his entire life, Gibbs didn't think that would be a problem. But he didn't want to end up doing what he did the last time. He hadn't been ready to let go when he'd run off to Mexico; returning would have held no appeal at all if he had been, nor would coming back have been so easy to do. He was good at what he did, one of the best, but the doubts he had about who he was doing it for hadn't faded since leaving DC.

Shepard's funeral would be in another two days. He should go to it; his attendance was expected, if not outright required, but he really didn't want to. He was sorry for how she died, disappointed that he hadn't been able to see justice done, but he wasn't overly upset by her death. Their relationship over the past few months was more confrontational than cordial, and in light of what he'd learned about the years she'd devoted to her obsession with Benoit Gibbs found himself wondering if he'd ever really knew her at all.

Gibbs sipped his coffee again. He was going to have to make a decision about attending the funeral soon. He wanted to have his mind made up on staying at NCIS when he did. It just made sense to have his ducks in a row when he went back. It would save a lot of time, money and aggravation.

Gibbs glanced over his shoulder when he heard the door slide open. He wasn't surprised when Tony stepped out. Since his release, the back porch had been Tony's preferred spot in the afternoon. Gibbs could understand the appeal. The fresh air and sunshine were a definite improvement over the hospital.

Tony made his way to the padded lounge chair, tucking his stocking feet under the fleece blanket that had been left lying on it. It wasn't cold out, but Gibbs knew Tony would feel any chill more until he was fully recovered. He was tempted to go inside and get a jacket or sweatshirt for Tony, the light t-shirt and sweatpants he was wearing didn't seem like enough to Gibbs.

"I'm okay, Boss," Tony said quietly, giving him a knowing look. "This is Houston for crying out loud, it doesn't get cold here."

Gibbs snorted. "Bet you the locals say different."

Tony rolled his eyes. "It's almost seventy."

"You just got out of the hospital--"

"And I don't want to spend any more time staring at walls," Tony all but snarled at him, frustration, anger and determination all present in his voice.

Gibbs held up one hand in a classic surrender position. "I'm not saying you have to go back inside, just let me know if you need a jacket or another blanket."

Tony blushed, looking away. "Didn't mean to snap."

"Yeah, I know," Gibbs said, his lips curling upward in a smile at the not quiet apology Tony had made.

Gibbs sat in one of the chairs, elbows resting on his knees, hands cradling his coffee mug. "I'd have started snapping days ago."

Tony chuckled. "I seem to remember you didn't wear a sling as long as Ducky said you should after Ari shot you."

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. "You came back to work early after having the plague."

"Okay, so we're both idiots," Tony said with a grin. "That make you feel better?"

Gibbs laughed softly. Having things in common with Tony, even stupid macho things did make him feel better, but admitting that out loud wasn't something he thought he should do. Tony's expression made his failure to answer moot; clearly the younger man already know what he was thinking.

Tony took a breath, holding it for a moment before releasing it with a sigh of satisfaction. Gibbs felt a similar sense of satisfaction at how much easier Tony was breathing. A week ago a deep breath like the one he'd just taken would have made him cough harshly, and then struggle to get his breath back. While still pale, his color was much better and every day Tony seemed to regain more of his usual energy and zest for life.

"You need anything?" Gibbs asked.

"Nah." Tony shook his head. "I'm good."

Gibbs nodded, sitting back and stretching his legs out in front of him. He sipped his coffee.

"I didn't get a chance to ask...did you make any progress on the boat?" Tony asked quietly, an eager childlike expression on his face.

Gibbs hid his smile behind his cup. "A little."

"You got any new pictures?"

Gibbs had gotten McGee to show him how to make the camera feature on his phone work so that he could send Tony pictures of the progress being made. He'd sent them the first time as proof he was still working on it, that he was going to finish it so Tony would have no doubts as to his determination to actually come visit. Those photos had prompted a number of questions from Tony on the actual construction process, everything from why Gibbs was using a certain type of wood to how the mortise and tenon with wooden peg system used on the ribs could hold together. Initially Gibbs answers had been short and to the point until he realized the subject gave him something to actually talk to Tony about, and he'd come to appreciate the younger man's willingness to show an interest in something that he was interested in until they could branch out to other topics.

During their regular phone calls questions about the boat were always included even though finding -common ground' was no longer a problem. Being able to involve Tony, even remotely, made it feel less like he was building it alone and more like Tony was part of the process. Hearing Tony sound so eager to hear more about it made it obvious the boat meant as much to him now as it did to Gibbs.

Gibbs dug out his phone. He offered it to Tony knowing he'd be able to scan through the memory faster than he could. According to McGee he'd be better off using a digital camera, but Gibbs didn't own one and had no intention of buying one.

"You still planning to sail her to the Gulf?"

Gibbs nodded. That was never in doubt, but he knew Tony wanted reassurance that things hadn't changed because of his being injured. "Yep."

"How long will it take you to finish her?"

Gibbs shrugged. "I should be able to put her in the water by June." Progress on the boat had been slowed by recent events, but he'd put in a lot of extra time trying to meet the original deadline. June was still doable.

"You still haven't told me how you are going to get her out of the basement."

"No, I haven't." Gibbs agreed with a smirk. He had no intention of telling anyone how he was getting it out.

Tony rolled his eyes. "I should have Abby bug the basement."

Gibbs arched an eyebrow. "You think she'd risk it?"

"She wants to know just as badly as everyone else, Boss."

Gibbs had to admit Tony had a point. He glared at the younger man. "Don't go putting ideas in her head."

"How do you know I didn't already suggest it?"

"DiNozzo." Gibbs put as much warning into that one word as he could.

Tony held up a hand in surrender. "Okay, okay. If she doesn't think of it herself, I won't bring it up."

"Good."

Tony grinned. He settled in on the lounge. When he shivered, Gibbs shot him a dirty look and reached for the blanket, spreading it over him.

Tony rolled his eyes. "If I wanted that I'd have gotten it myself."

"Shut up, DiNozzo." Gibbs' tone was far too warm to be considered much of a reprimand. Tony smiled back at him.

Gibbs took a deep breath enjoying the companionable silence and fresh air. It was already getting green this far south; the subtle scent of growing plants warmed by the sun perfumed the air. Gibbs closed his eyes and titled his face upward. He'd forgotten how nice it was to be outside and just be able to enjoy being outside.

"How long are you staying?" Tony asked quietly.

Gibbs opened his eyes and looked at Tony. "Shoving me out the door, are you?"

Tony snorted. "You know better than that. But I don't expect you to stay here indefinitely."

Gibbs pursed his lips. "I've been trying to decide if I should go back for Shepard's funeral."

Tony frowned, his head cocking to one side as he stared at Gibbs. "I thought they'd held that already."

"Her death had to be investigated first." Gibbs made air quotes around investigated. "The date for her funeral wasn't set until her death was deemed accidental."

"More shit done for show." Tony snorted. "Although, I do have to give Vance credit for follow through on the details."

"Probably why he gets to sit in the big chair." Gibbs sipped his now not quite hot as he'd preferred coffee. "If you're going to plan a cover up, you want someone with an eye for details." He sighed. "Would have been easier for them to just tell the truth."

"You know that. And I know that. But I don't think anyone that high up the ladder does." Tony raised one shoulder in an abbreviated shrug. Gibbs knew that his still healing broken ribs kept him from fully executing the move.

Tony grinned at him. "It's probably why neither one of us will ever get to be the guy in charge."

Gibbs shook his head, fighting down the urge to grin back at him. He'd never wanted to sit in the director's chair. But at one time he thought Tony might be a good candidate for the job--until he realized just how much like him Tony was. He was more of a people person, better able to schmooze and make nice, but when it came to where he stood on important things Tony was every bit as stubborn as Gibbs. To play politics effectively one had to be willing to bend more than stand fast.

Gibbs was suddenly glad Tony had left NCIS when he did. The La Grenouille case and things that had happened afterward had come close to breaking him. Pulling up stakes before anyone at NCIS, himself included, could do irreparable damage really had been in Tony's best interest. The question he had now was if leaving NICS would be the right choice for himself.

The last time Gibbs had left, he hadn't talked about it, he'd just gone. In hindsight he realized what a mistake that had been. If he'd taken the time to really think about what he was doing, to talk to someone, he would have stayed rather than run off to Mexico. A lot of things would have been different if he had. Oh Shepard's obsession with Benoit would have continued unabated of that Gibbs was sure, but at least if he'd been around Tony likely wouldn't have been drawn into i--not without decent backup at any rate.

Blue eyes met green. "I'm thinking of retiring."

Tony didn't look surprised. He clearly remembered Gibbs earlier admission when they'd talked in the hospital. "Still tired?"

Gibbs hesitated for a second before nodding. No Marine ever wanted to admit he was beaten, but knowing Tony had been there himself, had said enough was enough, he felt comfortable admitting to being near the end of his rope.

"I'm not sure I can work for Vance when I don't know if I can trust him."

"Can understand that." Tony played with the edge of the blanket, his gaze shifting away from Gibbs to the horses. "You got plans for what to do if you leave NCIS?"

Gibbs chuckled, dark amusement bubbling forth. "Hell, Tony, I never thought I'd live long enough to have to worry about retiring."

Tony laughed, eyes once more on Gibbs. "Guns, bombs, and terrorist, oh my."

Gibbs appreciated Tony making light of it, knowing he understood. Hell, there were times when it didn't seem like Tony would make it to 35 much less have to worry about retirement when he was working at NCIS.

"Don't compare me to Dorothy again, DiNozzo, or I'll smack you one."

Tony smirked. "I'll tell Joe."

Gibbs waved a hand dismissively. He wasn't afraid of LaFiamma-not really. He did respect what he was sure the other man was capable of though. There was no doubt he'd kick Gibbs' ass if he thought he'd hurt Tony in any way while he was still healing. But it wouldn't do for Tony to know that his threat carried any real weight.

"Hiding behind your cousin?" Gibbs clucked his tongue. "What are you, a little girl?"

Tony just smiled, not rising to the bait. "What's the point of having a guard dog if you can't sic him on people?"

"You think he'd appreciate being compared to a dog?"

"You already called him that before and he didn't mind." Tony grinned. "He's kind of like having a Rottweiler. Better actually since he doesn't shed on the furniture, drool or make a mess in the yard."

Gibbs snickered. He had missed Tony's humor. Very few people ever made him feel so much honest amusement. The rest of his team came close, or at least they had when Tony was there to egg them on but on their own not nearly as much. McGee didn't banter with Ziva the same way he had with Tony, and he was still too wary around Gibbs to really let loose. Ziva wasn't exactly the sort to be silly or childlike without someone to goad her into it, and she didn't really know how to laugh at herself. Abby inspired more paternal feelings from him, bittersweet since she tended to remind him a lot of the daughter he'd lost. Ducky sometimes drove him to distraction, but as a long time friend, he was too fond of him to ever be amused at his expense.

Thinking about the rest of his team was sobering. Would they be okay without him there? He had left them in Tony's capable hands the last time, but who would take care of them if he retired?

"Probie has grown up a lot," Tony murmured, following Gibbs' thoughts with uncanny accuracy. "He can take care of himself."

Gibbs thought Tony might be right about that. McGee had come a long way from when he'd first joined the team. He wasn't ready to be a team leader yet, at least not a field team, but he was definitely capable and competent being a senior field agent.

"Ziva's taken care of herself for years, Boss." Tony looked sad for a moment. "Don't think she ever had anyone she trusted, really trusted to watch her back until working with you so being on her own again or having to rely on McGee for most things won't faze her much."

"She trusted you," Gibbs pointed out. "She still does."

"Not enough," Tony made another abbreviated shrug. "It was you she went to when she was in trouble, not me. I don't blame her for thinking you'd do a better job. You did do a better job."

"Bullshit." Gibbs glared at him. "You were a good team lead and she should have come to you. You would have done as well as I did if she'd have given you half a chance."

Tony smiled shyly. "Thanks."

"You don't have to thank me for telling you the truth."

"Still nice to hear it just the same."

"I should have said it then."

"Hey, we've already covered this ground," Tony admonished him. "It's done. You don't need to beat yourself up over it any more." Tony grinned brightly. "Besides, better late than never, right?"

"Right," Gibbs agreed, willing to agree for now rather than argue about it.

"Abby and Ducky will be okay without you." Tony assured him. "They might not like it, but they could handle you retiring if they knew it was what you wanted. Especially if you explain why, and don't just disappear on them. Call once in a while. Send a postcard. Figure out how to answer an e-mail. You know, communicate now and again and let them know you aren't dead in a ditch somewhere."

Gibbs nodded. Talking with Tony weekly had made him appreciate the simple act of staying in touch. Tony was still part of his life even though he was no longer on the team or even in DC. It was a novel experience for him. Usually when people left, Gibbs rarely encountered them again or made any effort to stay in touch.

"So just a few postcards?"

"Not like anyone expects you to write long letters." Tony snickered. "Hell, you are practically a functional mute, Gibbs, they'd be happy with smoke signals as long as they knew they were from you."

Gibbs reached out and cuffed him lightly. "Shaddup."

"Like that ever works." Tony snorted.

"It used to."

"Once upon a time I was short too. Things change."

Gibbs smiled fondly at him. "Yeah they do." And sometimes it was for the better.

"You know, if you decide to stay at NCIS, it won't be the worst thing ever either." Tony offered quietly. "I mean, Vance might grow on you...evenutally. He's not an idiot even if he does play politics. You could work with that. And you'll still have your team on your six. You can trust them even if you can't trust him."

Gibbs had already considered those things. He didn't mind hearing Tony voice them though.

"You would still be doing something worthwhile, fighting the good fight."

That was really the heart of his issue when it came right down to it. Gibbs took the responsibility of looking out for servicemen and women seriously. Taking care of them and their families was important. Regardless of who sat in the director's chair, the people putting their lives on the line for their country deserved the very best.

Gibbs sighed. He wished the decision was an easy one. But it wasn't.

He nodded to himself. "I'm going to go back for Shepard's funeral."

"Okay." Tony gave him an expectant look, waiting for more.

"I need to talk to the others, let them know what I'm thinking and see where they stand." Gibbs gave Tony a rueful look. "Don't want to leave them in the dark like I did the last time."

Tony nodded. "I'd say that's a good start."

"My father used to tell me you should start out the way you intend to continue." Gibbs hadn't thought about that in years, but his old man was right. If you wanted the end product to be worth keeping you had to start out right otherwise it wouldn't be worth having.

"Sound advice that." Tony yawned, rubbing at his eyes. "Damn, you'd think I never got any sleep at all."

"It's all this fresh air and sunshine." Gibbs told him, voice as deadpan as he could make it. "Wears a body out."

Tony flipped him off, eyes drifting closed as he shifted on the lounge to find a more comfortable position. Gibbs closed his eyes and tilted his head back to face the sun again. He'd wait until LaFiamma and Lundy were home before he'd look into flights back to DC. There was no way he'd leave Tony completely on his own.

Once he knew what flight he was on, he'd call his team and see if they'd meet him at his house. Talking with Tony made him wonder what sort of input they'd have to offer. Would they understand his reasons for thinking about retiring? Would they think themselves capable of doing the job without him?

He took a deep breath and released it slowly. In a few days he'd know and he wouldn't have to wonder any more. No point in worrying about it now. Better to just enjoy the moment. It wouldn't be anywhere near this nice outside in DC.

Chapter Text

Gibbs kept his face impassive as stared at Shepard's flower draped coffin. He'd initially been surprised that the upper portion of the coffin was open to reveal her head and shoulders. Gibbs had expected a closed casket until the cynic in him realized an open casket was just another way to help cover up how she really died. Her official cause of death was smoke inhalation. Leaving the lid open made it seem as though there was nothing to hide; leaving it open would help put to rest any lingering questions by putting her unblemished face on display for all to see.

It was a good thing she hadn't taken a round to the head, Gibbs thought with disgust. That would have complicated things a bit, but he was sure Vance would have found some way around it. Tony was right when he said the man was smart. Working for an idiot held no appeal whatsoever, but working for someone so well versed in the art of covering up the truth wasn't much better.

Gibbs stifled a sigh. He'd talked to his team and they'd all thought he should stay--at least until they could figure out where they stood with Vance. McGee didn't have enough time or experience to warrant being given the slot as team leader, and Ziva wasn't even officially an NCIS agent, which meant Vance would either replace Gibbs with a stranger or break up the team entirely.

A new team lead would be hard for them to adjust to, but it was doable. It would probably be someone from the DC office. Not a complete stranger, but someone they'd at least recognize and could get information on quickly.

Splitting up the team was something else entirely. It was one thing for a single member to leave. They'd survived Kate's death. Had handled Tony's leaving. But to be summarily reassigned en masse wasn't anything they really wanted to contemplate. Gibbs couldn't leave his people to face that possibility until he was sure they could handle it.

He couldn't, in good conscious, abandon his people to the unknown. When he'd left the last time he hadn't been himself, but he'd known Shepard would leave the team intact. He'd known Tony would be there to look out for them. Tony had kept them safe and sane, even though no one, Gibbs included, had fully appreciated it at the time.

His team were capable people; he knew that. McGee had grown a lot; he'd come a long way as an agent since first being assigned to the team. Ziva knew how to look out for herself; but he dreaded the thought of her returning to the way she'd been when she first arrived. Being with the team had helped her open up more, to relax and enjoy life. Abby and Ducky weren't any slouches either; they looked out for each other and knew how to avoid undo attention when need be. But Gibbs had been responsible for his people for too long to simply walk away and leave them in the care of someone he didn't trust to look out for them. Vance was too much of a wild card for Gibbs to walk away immediately and feel like he'd done right by his people.

Not comfortable with having no real decision or staying indefinitely when he no longer felt as driven to do the job as he once did, Gibbs set a deadline. It would be another three months before the boat was finished. By then everyone involved should have a better sense of what Vance would be like to work for and whether or not they were willing to stick it out even if it meant being reassigned. Three months would give everyone time to adjust to future changes.

And if Vance was too much of a prick, Gibbs would likely not be the only one leaving. Gibbs hadn't considered that the rest of his team might have been just as soured by recent events as he was and might be thinking of leaving the agency as well. They too had felt betrayed by Shepard. She hadn't trusted any of them, and by pursuing her own personal vendetta she failed to uphold the duties of her office and called every order they'd carried out into question. And none of them overlooked the fact it could just have easy been one of them as it was Tony that she screwed over. Her hand in Benoit and Kort's deaths and the embezzlement of funds only made things worse.

That Vance hadn't elected to see her posthumously pay for any of her actions but choose to cover it up didn't bode well for the future. They'd already dealt with one director who wasn't completely honest with them; no one was particularly keen to deal with another.

Gibbs had been worried about their futures, but was assured he need not be. His team was quick to point out to him that they had other options.

Ducky could retire if he wanted. He was certainly old enough, and had more than enough saved to cover his cost of living. The older man had kept working because he enjoyed the challenge his job presented, and teaching what he knew to his assistants. Palmer was well on his way to becoming a competent ME, and Ducky would no doubt see him through the final phase of his education. But staying at NCIS was not a requirement. He could just as easily mentor Palmer on a case-by-case basis or work on as a consultant if need be. Leaving would give him more time to spend with his mother whose health had been declining rapidly for the past year. It would also allow him the freedom to explore publishing articles in various professional journals and participating in more conferences.

Abby had numerous job offers. If she quit, she could go to work for someone else and make double or even triple her current pay. The money didn't matter to Abby, it never had. The team was her family and she loved working at NCIS. But with Tony gone, and if Gibbs and Ducky were to leave, she might reconsider her stance with regard to working in the private sector. She'd already researched a few companies with home operations along the Gulf of Mexico.

Ziva could go back to Israel and Mossad. She hadn't come right out and said that she did not want to, but Gibbs got that impression just the same. Regardless of how she felt about Mossad, Gibbs was sure she'd be welcomed back there. He hadn't met her father, but Gibbs doubted her status as his daughter would be the reason Eli David would be glad to have Ziva back. She was too good an operative to be allowed free rein indefinitely. As someone responsible for the well being of his people, Gibbs could understand wanting to have such an asset readily available. But as a father, he couldn't fathom ever encouraging his child to enter into a profession so fraught with danger, to value her more for what she could do than for who she was. Gibbs would prefer she stay in the US to going back to work for her father, but it wasn't his call.

Like Abby, McGee had skills he could put to use elsewhere. Someone with his computer savvy should not have much trouble finding work in the private sector, or he could switch to the cyber crimes division if he didn't want to risk being in the field with people he didn't trust. And he had his writing career to tide him over if necessary. He was working on another novel and given the success of his first two, getting a third published wouldn't be hard.

The fact that they'd all considered alternatives to working for NCIS was eye opening for Gibbs. He'd never thought of doing anything else. He'd mustered out of the Corps into working as an agent. His whole life had been devoted to service of his country in one fashion or another. It felt odd to even consider doing anything else.

Four months in Mexico hadn't been about moving forward or even establishing a life. At the time, he hadn't given any thought to the future, Gibbs was too busy trying to recapture the fifteen years of memories he'd lost. It was enough then to simply take each day as it came, to have no bigger plan than to finish whatever improvements to Franks' cabin he'd started the day before. Working with his hands helped him focus and it beat the hell out of just sitting in the sun brooding while drinking himself stupid.

Gibbs forced himself to focus on the funeral service. He was glad no one asked him to give the eulogy. Not that I expected anyone to, Gibbs thought wryly. He wasn't known for his public speaking skills.

Finally the service was coming to a close. He was grateful Shepard hadn't opted for a Catholic funeral. The symbolism and ritual of a funeral mass were far too familiar to Gibbs, comforting because of that, but he didn't want anything that would drag this out any longer than it already had. He knew it was disrespectful but all Gibbs really wanted was for Shepard to be in the ground and buried.

The pallbearers were all NCIS agents. Gibbs recognized them and knew their names but not much more than that. All of them were young, and Gibbs was sure they were picked for the job by Vance. Fresh faced and naïve enough to think being assigned the duty of carrying Shepard was an honor. It would be an honor, Gibbs mused, if Shepard really had been a credit to the agency, if her death had been an accident and not the byproduct of her own actions.

Gibbs waited for her coffin to pass by, unconsciously bowing his head in an ingrained habit of respect for the dead. He closed his eyes and said a quick prayer. She'd been someone he'd trusted once, someone he respected. Who she'd been warranted that much from him if not who she ultimately had become.

Once the coffin passed, Gibbs waited patiently for the other attendees to file out. The grave side service was for close friends and family. Gibbs was relieved he and his team didn't fall into either category. Although, given that Vance wanted to see him and his team immediately after the funeral having the delay would have almost been welcomed.

Gibbs collected his team with his eyes and they headed for the door. It was time to go face the music and see what the hell Vance had to say. Gibbs sighed silently, suddenly missing Lundy and LaFiamma's back porch, the Texas sunshine and Tony as his back.

The trip to the office was made in silence. Gibbs expected the others to talk to each other if not to him. He realized he'd telegraphed his mood and they were reacting to it. Ziva and McGee were sober, focused, like they were going into a dangerous situation. Abby was chewing nervously on her thumbnail, eyes darting seeking either reassurance or escape Gibbs wasn't sure. Ducky looked composed, but then he rarely looked ruffled so Gibbs didn't read too much into that.

Gibbs stifled a shiver when he got out of the car. Houston had been down right balmy compared to DC. After his stint in the Gulf, Gibbs had grown accustomed to the heat and no longer cared for winter weather. He routinely wore layers for most of the year to offset the chilled feeling that set in whenever the thermometer dipped below sixty degrees.

Tony would have noticed the shiver and teased him about getting old. Gibbs had missed having someone around who noticed those little details. McGee and Ziva might watch him, spend time trying to gauge his mood and anticipate what he wanted done, but they never saw him the same way Tony did.

Walking through the office, he could feel the subdued mood handing heavy in the air. Nearly everyone he saw was wearing black. Gibbs had chosen a black suit for the funeral that he knew looked good but he didn't particularly like. One of his exes had bought it for him, and he figured if he felt like burning it later, he wouldn't be out anything. He knew Abby hadn't worn the same dress she wore to Kate's funeral nor was it one she routinely wore to church, and he suspected the dress she was currently wearing might join his suit in the fire. The others didn't invest much thought or emotion in their wardrobe, but Gibbs knew none of them were wearing anything they'd considered a favorite item. Subtle displays of disrespect regardless of how respectful they may have acted were telling to anyone willing to look.

Gibbs didn't bother stopping by his desk, he just headed up the stairs. His team followed in his wake. He nodded politely to the new secretary sitting at what used to be Cynthia's desk. Abby said the office gossip was rife with why Vance had Cynthia reassigned to Norfolk. Gibbs doubted there was any truth to the most outlandish rumor which claimed Cynthia was an old flame of Vance's that he'd gotten rid of her before his wife could find out and get jealous. It was far more likely Vance had her reassigned to prevent her from discussing anything about Shepard's recent activities--not that the office gossip would ever guess that since most of them were blithely unaware of what Shepard had been doing and how she died. Given how secretive Shepard had been, Cynthia was likely equally oblivious, but Gibbs knew Vance wouldn't be the sort not to take any chances.

Vance had reassigned the two agents on Shepard's security detail, Baker and Simmons, as well. Baker was headed for the Seahawk as the Agent Afloat. On paper it looked like a promotion, but Gibbs knew it was just a way to keep her isolated. There were no other agents for her to talk to at sea and as the only cop on board a ship with a crew of 5,000 she'd be too busy to say much of anything about Shepard's death. Gibbs hoped like hell her guilt didn't lead to her jumping overboard.

Simmons had been shipped overseas to the Persian Gulf. He'd be working with other agents in the field tracking terrorist and whatever else the Director thought needed someone to keep an eye on. Gibbs hoped Simmons knew enough to keep his head down and could trust his new team. The desert was no place to be without good back up.

"We're here to see the Director," Gibbs told the petite secretary when she looked up at him. She had the quintessential delicate features, straight dark hair, and flawless skin beautiful Asian women were renowned for. Gibbs made a mental note to mention a lost opportunity to flirt to Tony. He'd always enjoyed flirting with Cynthia; Tony would probably have enjoyed flirting with the new secretary too.

Not knowing who she was, Gibbs thought it best to identify himself just in case she didn't know him either. "Special Agent Gibbs," he gestured to the people behind him, "and my team."

"Director Vance mentioned you'd be stopping by," she said as she picked up the phone. She punched what had to be the intercom connecting her to Vance's office with a manicured nail. "Sir, Special Agent Gibbs and his team are here to see you."

She nodded to whatever was being said and then hung up. She smiled at Gibbs and gestured toward the door. "You can go right in."

Gibbs opened the door and stepped inside. It was odd to see Vance behind Shepard's desk. But then, Gibbs thought ruefully, it had been odd to see her behind that desk when I thought of it as Morrow's.

Vance stood, dark eyes sweeping over all of them. "Thank you for coming."

"Didn't think we had a choice, Director," Gibbs responded dryly. He'd been sorely tempted to use the man's first name rather than his title, but he didn't want to appear too confrontational just yet. Better to wait and hear what he had to say first.

"I've spent some time reviewing the personnel files, and I've decided that a few changes were needed."

Gibbs didn't like the sound of that, but he kept his face impassive. He waited for the man to tell them just what changes he felt were warranted. He could feel the tension coming from his team, but they'd followed his lead and stayed quiet.

Vance looked at Ziva. She stood at Gibbs right, just a half step behind his shoulder. Gibbs didn't have to look at her to know she was meeting Vance's eyes and holding his gaze easily.

"Officer David, your position here at NCIS is decidedly unorthodox. While we have benefited greatly from your presence and appreciate the good work you've done here, it is not something I can allow to continue. An agent of another government should be acting as a liaison, something done with a less hands on approach than you've been doing, not as field agent."

"I understand, Director." Her voice was soft, controlled, revealing nothing about how she might be feeling about his decision.

"I thought you might." Vance nodded. "I've already spoken with Director David. He is expecting you to call about arranging travel back to Israel when we are done here."

Gibbs wanted to protest, but he knew now wasn't the time or the place. LaFiamma had already pointed out Ziva's position meant she was serving two masters. Divided loyalties were never a good thing. And without support from someone like Shepard, there was no way to realistically justify Ziva's continued presence and working essentially as an agent. Vance was wiping the slate clean.

Vance shifted his attention to McGee who stood a step behind Gibbs and a little to his left. Under Vance's gaze, Gibbs noted McGee not quite coming to attention, but he definitely straightened up.

"You make a very fine field agent, McGee, but I think your talents would be better utilized in our cyber crimes division. They could use someone with your ability to lead the way."

That sounded vaguely like a promotion and it had been on McGee's list of career options. Gibbs' jaw clenched. If you younger man wanted it, he wasn't going to tell him no. He waited for some sort of response from McGee, but the man remained silent.

"Miss Sciuto, your work has always been exemplary. NCIS is lucky to have you." Vance smiled, and seemed disappointed when Abby didn't smile back. "However, it isn't good for you or the agency to have you working alone. I know you have objection to working with an assistant, and given what happened with the last one you were assigned, I can fully under stand that. So, I'm not going to be assigning you a one. The budget has room for us to hire another forensic specialist and I'd like you to give them full access to your lab as needed as well as showing them the ropes. He or she will not be working cases with you, but rather focusing on their own cases. This will give us the extra manpower to meet future demands and ensure you aren't working an excessive number of hours."

Gibbs cursed silently. Abby didn't share her lab with anyone, ever. He waited for Abby to protest, but she remained uncharacteristically silent. That didn't bode well. A quiet Abby could be dangerous.

"Dr. Mallard-"

"Yes, Director," Ducky responded. He stepped forward.

"Like Miss Scuito your work has always been excellent, and your reputation above reproach."

"But?" Ducky looked at him, a tight smile forming.

Vance smiled back at him. "According to our personnel department, you will be reaching the mandatory retirement age next year. I've given some thought as to who would replace you, and I would like your input on subject."

Ducky's spine stiffened. "Jimmy Palmer is already working toward that end."

"Mr. Palmer is a good assistant," Vance tipped his head acknowledging that fact. "However, he still has several years of school to complete and would not be fully qualified to take over for you until then. We cannot run your department without a fully qualified medical examiner. And I'd prefer one with a bit more experience."

"With all due respect, Director, I was not as experienced when I took the job as I am now. With a little tim--"

"I'm not prepared to run any department with someone green as grass at the helm, Doctor."

"I see." Ducky's tone was formal, just as stiff as his posture. Gibbs wondered if Vance even realized how big a mistake he'd just made. Ducky cultivated friends the way his mother once had flowers. He knew a lot of people in his profession and it was a safe bet none of them would be willing to work for NCIS once Ducky got done speaking with them. Vance might well be forced to hire someone with no more experience than Palmer.

"What about me?" Gibbs asked, drawing Vance's attention to himself, and hopefully allowing Ducky to retain control of his temper before he belted the man one. Not that Vance wouldn't deserve it, but Gibbs would prefer to be the one to do it.

Vance picked up three folders off his desk and offered them to Gibbs. "You'll be training a new team."

Gibbs eyed the folders but didn't take them. He took a breath and let it out slowly, weighing his options carefully before saying anything.

If he'd been given some hope, however vague, that he could eventually put his team back together, Gibbs would not object to training new people. He'd done it before, and he could do it again, but he'd gotten used to working with people he trusted. He'd grown accustomed to knowing those under him could get the job done--even without him around. He wanted his team, his surrogate family. Three new agents weren't going to cut it.

Tony was in Houston. His coming back was as likely as seeing pigs fly. Ducky was being told in no uncertain terms he was expected to retire and leave his protégé twisting in the wind. There was no way the ME would allow that. He'd find Palmer a position worthy of him and leave Vance twisting in the wind. Abby would not tolerate sharing her lab nor would she likely be willing to deal with new agents in lieu of the ones she'd come to think of as family. She'd walk, talk one of the many job offers she'd been contemplating; with Ducky and Tony gone she wouldn't come back. Ziva being sent to Israel meant they'd probably never see her again or at the very least she wouldn't be the person she'd become working with them. She'd revert to the hard ass assassin they'd been leery of. Gibb wasn't sure if that was a lesser tragedy in this clusterfuck or one all on it's own. McGee might actually enjoy being promoted, and once in cybercrimes, Gibbs didn't hold out a lot of hope he'd want to return. Computers were where McGee felt the most confident and capable. With cybercrimes he likely would never have to draw his gun again or be responsible for a life and death decision. Why would he give that up to go back to work for Gibbs when Abby, Ducky, and Ziva were already gone?

Gibbs made eye contact with Vance, blue eyes challenging brown. "I'll need to think about taking on a new team."

"Nothing to think about." Vance countered, tone firm.

Gibbs' eyes narrowed as he studied Vance. "That's what I thought you'd say." He smirked. "You'll have the paperwork for my retirement on your desk by oh eight hundred tomorrow."

"You're going to quit?" Vance asked, eyebrows rising.

Gibbs just did an about face and started for the door. His team moved quickly to follow suit. Gibbs held the door, letting them leave before him.

"Gibbs," Vance called out.

He stopped to look over his shoulder. "Yeah?"

"You turn in that paperwork and I won't misplace it."

That was clearly intended to be a warning, an effort to call his bluff. Gibbs just laughed. "Hell, Leon, if I thought you were going to lose track of it, I wouldn't have offered to give it to you in the first place."


Chapter Text

True to his word, Gibbs had taken care of his retirement paperwork and it was submitted the day after Shepard’s funeral.  Gibbs couldn’t help but finding it amusing how much his decision to leave had in common with Tony’s departure several months ago.  If Shepard had given Tony the time he’d asked for, he’d have stayed; If Vance had left his team intact or even given him some hope of putting them back together, Gibbs would have stayed.  As it was, both of them had considered leaving before speaking with either Director; it was that last conversation that was the final straw for both of them.

 

When Gibbs turned in the paperwork, Vance had baulked at accepting it.  Gibbs didn’t care if he took it or not. He’d already given a copy to the Personnel Department and the SecNav.  He wasn’t making the same mistake he made with Shepard and assuming all the paperwork was taken care of just by turning it into the Director.  Vance signing off on his retirement was little more than a formality.  Personnel were the ones who made sure things like that got taken care of.  He had more than twenty years in counting his active duty time in the Corps, and he exceeded the minimum age requirement to retire by a few years---no one is Personnel was going to bat an eye at his request.  

 

Gibbs had enough sick leave and vacation time on the books that he didn’t have to actually be in the office to give Personnel the two months they needed to process everything correctly.  Apparently retiring properly took time.  He came in to the office two days a week simply to make sure all the I’s were dotted and T’s crossed on each and every single case he’d worked on.  Nothing would be left undone.  There would be no calling him back this time.

 

Gibbs made sure his bi-weekly checks would continue to be direct deposited and could be accessed easily enough from wherever he ultimately ended up.  His health benefits could be handled through the VA and he could access them at any veteran’s hospital.  He had a copy of his medical records to take with him.  And the few investments he’d made over the years were handled by a broker he trusted would provide him with additional money to see him through his ‘golden years’. 

 

He still wasn’t entirely sure what he was going to do with himself in the long run, and it didn’t really worry him.  The short term had been ironed out; it was enough for the time being.  He would finish the boat, and he’d sail it to the Gulf.  He’d spend some time with Tony, like they’d planned to do before everything went to shit.  After that he’d go see how Mike Franks was settling in.  His old boss had gone back to Mexico and was healing from his injuries. It wouldn’t hurt to check up on him and make sure he was doing okay.

 

Abby turned in her two week notice a week after Gibbs filed for retirement.  She accepted a position with a company that had a home base in New Orleans.   They specialized in providing forensic expertise to law enforcement departments and agencies that could not process evidence on their own, either due to the sheer volume or the expense of maintaining an adequate laboratory facility. 

 

Abby had been very excited about her new position.  Not only could she continue to help put criminals behind bars, she would be closer to her biological family.  She’d also be a lot closer to Tony, something that had her bouncing excitedly on her toes as she told Gibbs all about her plans to have him come for Mardi Gras next year and her plans to visit him for the Fourth of July. 

 

She’d also made plans for when Gibbs would come to visit her.  It was apparently a foregone conclusion he would, and Gibbs wondered briefly why it was he even thought he should have any say in the matter.  It was rather like being caught in a riptide.  He could fight it, but in the end he knew he’d lose.  Stopping to see her on his way to visit Tony or after wouldn’t be hard to do; it would give him the opportunity to check on her and make sure Abby had settled into her new job okay.  It would also give him that much more time before he had to figure out what he should do with the rest of his life. 

 

Ziva had caught the next plane to Israel two days after Vance’s summary dismissal.  Saying good-bye had been painful.  Gibbs had managed to avoid saying any good-byes when he left knowing they were always distressing, but he felt he owed it to Ziva to be there for her. 

 

She’d been stoic, expression giving away nothing.  Her dark eyes were bright with unshed tears though.  Tony had commented once that Ziva’s eyes were often very speaking, saying more than she ever could or would.  Looking at her then, Gibbs understood exactly what the younger man meant.

 

“Say in touch,” he’d ordered softly when he’d pulled her in for a tight hug.  “Post card, letter, e-mail, whatever you can manage.”

 

“I will.”

 

He hoped she could keep that promise, but wouldn’t be surprised if she couldn’t.  Being back among Mossad wouldn’t be a cake walk. Odds were good she’d be working as a spy or assassin again within hours of her plane landing.  Neither option had a schedule that lent itself well to keeping in contact with people not directly related to the operation.

 

McGee opted to stay in cyber crimes.  He was nearly stuttering when he told Gibbs, clearly worried his decision would be viewed as being disloyal or unfaithful.  Gibbs patted him on the cheek and told him if he was doing what he thought was right then he had no reason to be nervous.  That had McGee squaring his shoulders and telling Gibbs staying was the right thing for him. 

 

Gibbs nodded.  He patted McGee on the shoulder.  “Fight the good fight, McGee.”

 

“I will, Boss.”

 

Ducky would be staying at least until he could see Palmer through the end of the semester.  He intended to help his protégé find another job, one worthy of his talent and dedication.  He also thought staying would be give McGee added support.


“It wouldn’t due for Timothy to think everyone had abandoned the cause he still believes in.”

 

“Believe in the cause, Duck, just not the guy steering the ship.”

 

“Yes, well, I am trying to respect the office if not the man for the remainder of my tenure.”

 

“If anyone can do that it would be you, Duck.” 

 

“Try to stay in touch, Jethro,” Ducky had smiled sadly.  “I will miss you.”

 

“I’ll stay in touch, Ducky.  I promise.”

 

He and Ducky had been friends for so long it was hard to remember a time when he didn’t know the man.  Gibbs promised himself he’d make an effort to stay in contact.  He’d valued the older man’s steady presence in his life too much to simply let him slip away.  Ducky wasn’t getting any younger, he might find himself in need of looking after in the future, and Gibbs wanted to be available should his friend need help.

 

With so much free time, Gibbs made short work of finishing the boat.  His original estimate of three months had factored in working his usual schedule, but not spending 10 to 12 hours a day, five to six days a week, at the office gave him plenty of time to complete the Kelly.  She was an elegantly simple, sturdy craft that he knew would be a joy to sail. 

 

Getting her out of the basement had been a bit tricky but he managed it.  The Kelly wasn’t the first boat he’d built, so he’d had practice getting others out.  None of the others ever made it to the water.  The Kelly would be the first boat he actually sailed rather than destroyed. 

 

He hadn’t ever planned to keep her.  But until he had the Kelly on the water, Gibbs wasn’t sure what he was going to do with her.  Maintaining a boat was as big a commitment as building her.  And he wasn’t sure he wanted to be that tied down to something he wasn’t actively making.

 

Smiling to himself over his decision, Gibbs elected to give her to his goddaughter.  Franks would have room for the boat, and it would give him something to bond with his granddaughter over.  Lord knew the man had next to nothing in common with a small child, and his usual pastimes of smoking and drinking until he fell asleep on the beach were hardly appropriate for him to do with her.  Upkeep of the Kelly and sailing her would give them something to do together for years.

 

Ducky, McGee and Palmer came to see Gibbs off the day he set sail.  Abby was already in New Orleans or she’d have been there as well.  She called him on the new satellite phone she’d given to him before she left to wish him ‘bon voyage’ and to remind him not to forget to stop by. 

 

Sailing conditions had been perfect that day.  The wind was light but steady.  The sun was shining and the cool temperatures felt refreshing rather than being bitter or painful.

 

Gibbs made good time down the coast.  He checked in with the Coast Guard regularly, making sure they knew his sail plan and call sign.  Sailing alone could be dangerous, especially if the weather turned, and letting his only source of salvation know where he was and planned to be, was just good sense.  He also made sure to send a text message to McGee every other day knowing he’d forward it on to Abby, Tony and Ducky so they wouldn’t worry unduly about how he was doing or where he was. 

 

He was off the coast of Florida when a storm hit.  Gibbs was able to ride it out without too much trouble.  He did have to dock briefly near Miami for some minor repairs.  It gave him a chance to stock up on supplies while he was at it.  And he welcomed the chance to eat something other than his own cooking. 

 

He stayed in port two days longer than he’d planned waiting out another storm system.  Gibbs was confident of his own abilities, but he wasn’t going to stupidly risk life and limb if he didn’t have to.  He used the time to do a little shopping, wanting to send some sort of souvenir to his former team.  Getting gifts for friends and family was the kind of thing other people did when on vacation, and it seemed like something he should do.  It would let them know he was thinking of them without him having to say anything that would seem overly sappy.  And it would be honoring his promise to stay in touch.  Gibbs considered that reason enough to brave the onerous task of shopping.

 

He found a black t-shirt that sported a silver Jolly Roger skull and cross bones on it for Abby.  It seemed like the sort of thing she’d appreciate. 

 

For Ducky, Gibbs was lucky to find several small tins of loose tea.  English Breakfast was a blend he recognized as the one the older man preferred and he hoped what he bought was the same brand as what Ducky habitually drank.  Just in case he got it wrong, Gibbs included a book on the finding and recovery of the treasures of the wreck of the Spanish galleon The Atocha. 

 

For McGee, Gibbs struggled to find something he thought the younger man might like.  Spotting an old ivory pipe with delicate carvings of ships encircling the bowl, Gibbs had grinned, knowing McGee liked to chew on a pipe when he worked on his novel.  He couldn’t quite understand why.  Gibbs had his own idiosyncrasies that made thinking and working easier for him, so he wasn’t going to question McGee’s.  He thought the younger man might appreciate having a nicer prop to work with.

 

Feeling generous, Gibbs even got a t-shirt for Palmer too.  It was a generic tourist type item, but he thought Palmer would like being remembered even if he didn’t receive something as personal as the others.  Gibbs didn’t want to leave anyone out.

 

He would have liked to get something for Ziva, but not knowing where she was, he didn’t see the point.  There was no way to contact her.  It would be up to her to find him.  He did stop at a church to light a candle for her.  He didn’t think God would object to Catholic prayers being said for a Jewish woman. 

He searched for a gift for Tony, wanting to have something for him as well.  Not finding anything suitable, Gibbs gave up and headed back to the Kelly.  Along the way he spotted a stand selling what looked like a variation on a snow globe.  They were small glass container shaped like pyramids.  Inside each one was water, white sand, drift wood, miniature sea creatures like starfish, sand dollars, bits of coral, clams, a few pebbles and a tiny treasure chest.  The chest was open to reveal crystals shaped to look like precious gems.   The items would rearrange themselves each time it was shaken or shifted to sit on another side.  The unique shape and beveled glass kept them from looking cheap or tacky.  Knowing Tony liked keeping things he could play with at his desk, Gibbs bought one of the larger ones for him. 

 

Gibbs shipped all but Tony’s gift before leaving port.  Tony’s he intended to give to him in person.  Gibbs included a brief note written on the back of a post card with each gift he mailed.  He was rather pleased with himself for making the effort to maintain ties to people he cared about.  It was something he hadn’t put any genuine thought or energy into since Shannon and Kelly. 

 

Sailing through the Keys, Gibbs headed for New Orleans.  He took his time, enjoying the sun and warmth of the Gulf.  There was no reason to rush. 

 

Before getting close to New Orleans several days later, he called Abby.  Knowing how busy she was with her new job and how little vacation time she’d had built up, he opted to stay only long enough to meet her for dinner that night. 

 

He found a place to grab a hot shower and clean himself up before meeting Abby.  It felt wonderful to linger under the hot water.  The Kelly was a great boat but she didn’t have a lot of amenities.  He’d missed being able to linger for as long as he liked in a steaming hot shower.  Shaving was another pleasure.  The beard was beginning to itch so he was glad to be rid of it.  Staring at himself in the mirror he surprised to see lighter silver strands in his hair courtesy of the sun, how brown skin had become, and how relaxed he looked.   He looked and felt a lot better than he had in years.

 

It was something Abby commented on the moment she saw him.  “Bossman, you look fantastic.”

 

She enveloped him in a breath-stealing hug.  He hugged her back just has hard.  He’d missed her. 

 

Grabbing a table at a small outdoor café just down the street from her apartment, he let her ramble for hours about her new job, new coworkers, the old haunts she’d had a chance to revisit and the ones she was still planning to get to.  Gibbs didn’t have to do much more than nod at the right moments and ask a few questions now and again. 

 

She seemed happy with her new job and was making friends.  He didn’t expect any different.  Abby might not be what most people considered ‘normal’ but she was too outgoing, upbeat and friendly to not fit in where ever she went.

 

“When will you be in Galveston?”  She asked him. 

 

“Should be there in a few days.”

 

Galveston was where Gibbs intended to dock.  When he talked to Tony, outlining his sail plans, Tony said it would be easy to meet him there.  It wasn’t that far from Houston, and with out a motor on the Kelly it would be hard to make his way up the river.  He could always have her towed if need be, but Tony had insisted it wasn’t necessary.

 

In the two months since Tony and Levon had been injured they had both been recovering well.  They were both back to work, albeit only desk duty.  Neither would be allowed to be back in the field for another month.  Gibbs knew Tony was going a little stir crazy not being able to be as active as he preferred.  His arrival would give the younger man something else to focus on, at least for a little while.  And the chance to get out was probably the reason he’d insisted on driving to Galveston to pick up Gibbs.

 

The plan was for Gibbs to arrive on Friday.  They’d have the weekend to spend together in Houston.  Gibbs would head back to Galveston the following Monday, and spend the week on the boat until Tony could join him for the weekend, hopefully on the water.   Originally Tony had intended to spend two weeks with Gibbs, but having been off work for a month, he didn’t feel like he could take that much time.  And he hadn’t sailed in years; so getting his sea legs on a small craft was something Tony was decidedly hesitant about.   He’d done okay on larger ships, but Kelly was definitely a lot smaller than an aircraft carrier or even a destroyer.  Gibbs was hoping he could convince Tony he wouldn’t spend days feeling like he was going to puke.  He was sure the younger man would adjust easily enough to the motion and he’d enjoy spending time on the water. 

 

Gibbs understood if he didn’t.  And while he’d prefer to have more time, it wasn’t like he had a schedule to keep or anything pressing he had to do.  He was coming to appreciate being retired and the freedom it afforded him.

 

Gibbs was hoping their schedules would work out for them to get more than two weekends together.  He didn’t mind hanging out on the Gulf, doing a little fishing and seeing the sites.  He was pretty sure if he played his cards right Lundy and LaFiamma might even invite him to stay in Houston at their place during the week. 

 

Lundy obviously didn’t hate him, and LaFiamma had warmed up to him a lot in the last few months. They weren’t best friends, and Gibbs didn’t expect them to be, it was just nice to know he wasn’t going to be greeted with open hostility and suspicion. 

 

Walking Abby back to her apartment, Gibbs got another hug and a kiss.  He returned both, promising to stop again on his way back to DC.  He wasn’t entirely certain how he was getting back yet, or even when, but he had the satellite phone so he could call and let her know.  The Kelly was going to be staying with Mike, but Gibbs figured he could always rent a car. It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford it, and a road trip would be a nice counterpoint to traveling by water.   

 

The next day dawned bright and beautiful.  Gibbs sipped his first cup of coffee as he watched the sun come up over the water.  He headed out with tide.


Once underway, his course set, Gibbs dialed Tony’s cellphone.  The crisp ‘DiNozzo’ Gibbs heard made him smile.

 

“It’s me.”

 

“Well, hello you.”  He could hear Tony’s smile.  “How’s life on the open sea?”

 

“Beats riding a desk.”

 

Tony snorted.  “Asshole.”

 

Gibbs laughed.  “Takes one to know one.”

 

“Guess that means you’ll fit right in around here.”

 

“Just wanted you to know I’m leaving New Orleans.”

 

Gibbs could hear office sounds in the background---voices, phones, a fax machine beeping, a squawk that could only come from a police radio.  He could easily picture Tony with his feet up on his desk, leaning back as far as his chair would go. 

 

“And how was the happiest Goth on the planet?”

 

Gibbs filled Tony in on his time with Abby even though he knew they talked every day via the computer and he would probably hear it all a second time from her.  It was nice just to talk to him.  Gibbs missed their weekly conversations and felt a need to make up for them. 

 

He heard someone call Tony’s name in the background.  Whoever it was had a demanding bark that rivaled Gibbs’ own.

 

“Boss, I gotta go.  I’ll try to call you back tonight.  Levon’s got steaks waiting for dinner whenever you get in.  Be careful out there. I hear retirement can be hazardous.”

 

With that Gibbs found himself listening to a dial tone.  He shook his head in bemusement.  Of all his bad habits that was one he wished Tony hadn’t adopted as one of his own.

 

Gibbs got himself another cup of coffee and checked the sail.  If he worked it right, he might just get to Galveston before Friday. 

 

He grinned.  He knew his way around Houston now---at least well enough to get where he wanted to go.  Surprising Tony by showing up early would be fun. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Gibbs sipped his beer, sighing softly in satisfaction as he stretched his legs out in front of him.  The sun was warm enough to make hanging out on the back porch of Lundy and LaFiamma’s house a comfortable way to spend the late afternoon. 

He’d been right to think Lundy and LaFiamma would invite him to stay. He couldn’t be sure but he suspected furniture in the home office that doubled as a guest room had been rearranged just to accommodate him so he would be comfortable for as long as he chose to stay.

Gibbs smiled to himself.   He knew Lundy liked him…or at least didn’t hate him, but he still wasn’t sure exactly what LaFiamma thought of him.  He was fairly certain the younger man didn’t see him as a threat, at least not any more, but Gibbs doubted he’d been deemed completely trustworthy yet.  With enough time, he hoped that would change.

He took another sip of his beer, settling even deeper into his seat.  He pushed lightly with his toes, setting the swing in motion.  He might have to look into getting one for himself when he got back to DC.  It would be a nice thing to have on his back porch.  Not that he’d ever spent much time on his, but with a swing he might.

 “Told you that thing was more comfortable than it looked,” Tony said, his tone smug.  He was stretched out on the lounge chair he claimed as his own. 

Tony hadn’t regained the few pounds he’d lost while in the hospital and during his subsequent recovery, but he didn’t look washed out or gaunt.  The pallor from his time in the hospital was gone, replaced with light tan.  He seemed to be moving easily and if how he’d packed away the lasagna they had for dinner last night was anything to go by his appetite was back in full swing.

Gibbs shook off his thoughts and focused on Tony’s self-satisfied expression about the swing.  He arched an eyebrow. “You pick it out?”

 “No, I just helped haul it home.”  Tony grinned.  “Joe’s wanted a swing out here forever, and Levon got it for him for his birthday.  He must have been to every place for a hundred miles before he found one he considered worth spending money on.” 

Tony shook his head, chuckling.  “So while they are out having dinner and enjoying themselves, Robbie and I are hauling that heavy ass swing home from some middle of nowhere place Levon said had the only one he’d even consider owning.  I couldn’t figure out why any old swing wouldn’t work, one that didn’t require going to hell and back, until I saw it.  Sitting on it sealed the deal.”

Gibbs frowned.  “You test drove Joe’s swing?”

“Well, yeah.”  Tony shrugged.  “Had to figure out what would make it worth Levon spending so damn much money on it.”

Gibbs knew Lundy wasn’t exactly a spendthrift but the man was far from careless with his money.  He didn’t know what the swing cost, but Gibbs was guessing it hadn’t come cheap.  Custom work of such obvious quality always cost more.

“Hard to believe anything without a single cushion or soft edge could be so damn comfortable.”  Tony laughed softly.  “Joe’s fallen asleep on it a few times already.”

Gibbs ran a hand over the wood, enjoying the smooth satin finish of what had to be reclaimed hardwood.  He was sure it was chestnut and that wood hadn’t been available in any size or quantity since the Chestnut Blight decimated the species decades ago.  Gibbs sighed softly, envying the guy who got the chance to work with it.

He couldn’t help admiring the craftsmanship that went into making the swing.  There were no nails. It was held together with wooden pegs where additional support was needed to keep the tongue and groove construction in place.  It looked almost seamless, more like the swing had been carved rather than constructed.

Thinking about it, Gibbs wasn’t really surprised that it had been something Lundy had selected.  The man shared Gibbs’ appreciation for handcrafted things, wood in particular.  Gibbs had noticed several refinished antiques in the house that he was sure had been done by Lundy. 

There was a workshop adjacent to the stable that Gibbs thought was where Lundy probably dabbled with wood working.  He hadn’t been invited to take a look and good manners dictated he didn’t go snooping.  No matter how much he wanted to.

Gibbs checked his watch.  Lundy and LaFiamma had left a few hours ago.  Lundy wanted to look at another horse.  LaFiamma didn’t seem to be the sort to have much of interest in livestock, but he was definitely the sort to be willing to humor his lover. 

That he was willing to leave Gibbs alone with Tony the older man saw as proof LaFiamma didn’t hate or distrust him completely.  It shouldn’t matter, Gibbs had never cared what other people thought of him, but he wanted Tony’s cousin to stop measuring him, turquoise eyes assessing Gibbs against some unknown yardstick before even saying hello.  It was disconcerting, and Gibbs found himself wondering if he’d made other people feel the same way.  His often brusque, sarcastic demeanor certainly wasn’t the type to put people at ease or make them feel welcome. 

 “You think Lundy will buy the horse?”

Tony shrugged.  “Fooler is getting on in years, but not sure the one he’s going to look at is a good replacement. As picky as he was about that swing, I’m thinking it will be months before he finds a horse he’d consider owning.”

Gibbs knew Fooler was the chestnut mare Lundy had gotten when she was a two year old.  Nearing nineteen, she was definitely approaching an age where riding her regularly was likely not going to be an option in the future.  The blue roan gelding, Mason, was a good horse, but he didn’t belong to Lundy.  Lundy was only working with him for a friend, gentling and training the gelding as a suitable mount for the man’s teenaged daughter.  Mason would be a gift for her 16th birthday in the fall.

Lundy had offered Gibbs the chance to go riding yesterday.  It had been years since Gibbs had been on a horse, but he accepted the offer.  Although, he’d really only said yes to be polite, it had been a surprisingly pleasant way to spend several hours. Gibbs had forgotten how much he enjoyed riding. Fooler still had plenty of energy, responding willingly to anything and everything Gibbs asked of her.   

Gibbs was also surprised to learn Lundy had been teaching Tony to ride.  He hadn’t thought Tony would care to be anywhere near such large animals, but approaching them on his own and having guided instruction from a man Tony obviously trusted was another matter.  Lundy said Tony had a good seat, he just needed a bit more confidence and that would come with experience. 

When they were brushing the horses and putting away the tack after their ride, Gibbs had asked if Lundy had taught LaFiamma to ride as well.  Lundy just laughed.  “Horses aren’t Joe’s thing.”

“Wouldn’t have thought they were Tony’s either,” Gibbs had admitted.

“They aren’t something he’s passionate about, but Tony is always up for a challenge.”  Lundy had grinned, brown eyes bright with amusement.  “Especially when there was a pretty young thing he wanted to impress.”

Gibbs’ curiosity was immediately piqued.  In all the time Tony had been in Houston he hadn’t mentioned dating or even being interested in anyone.  Gibbs was sure Tony hadn’t become a monk, but he did know even before Tony had left DC he hadn’t been dating much. Jeanne Benoit had done a number on the younger man and it was taking him some time to recover his balance. 

From his weekly conversations with Tony, Gibbs knew he no longer felt the need to hide behind the face of a clown.  His team in Houston welcomed his light-hearted demeanor, enjoyed his humor and movie quotes, but they didn’t expect him to play the fool.  They didn’t challenge his place on the team the way Ziva and McGee had back at NCIS.  But then, Joanne Beaumont didn’t play her people off one another the way Gibbs had either.

The acceptance and support of his teammates had given Tony the freedom to abandon the more extreme aspects of the frat boy persona he’d donned while at NCIS.  His confidence in his place and abilities had allowed Tony to grow into the man Gibbs had always known he could be.  And that man was definitely ready for a relationship which was more than a one-night stand.  

Even Gibbs’ best interrogation techniques couldn’t get any more information out of Lundy on whoever it was that had caught Tony’s eye.  Gibbs was still trying to figure out how to casually bring it up to Tony.  It wasn’t any of his business.  Not really.  And when they were at NCIS Gibbs would never have cared, much less asked, but now he wanted to know.  He and Tony were friends, not just boss and subordinate.  They were equals, not lead and second. 

His friendship with Tony being relatively new, at least in terms of its current level of equality, was the main reason Gibbs hesitated to grill Tony on any possible love interest.  He didn’t want to piss Tony off by asking something that might be considered off limits.  If Tony wanted him to know, Gibbs was hoping Tony trusted him enough to share.

Another reason he was hesitant to ask was if Tony were serious about some one, Gibbs didn’t want him to think he was making light of his feelings or being as dismissive of what this person might mean to Tony as he’d been about Jeanne.  It had taken him some time, but the older man had come to terms with Tony making a life for himself away from NCIS.  He didn’t want Tony to think he was still pushing him to return to his old life.  He wanted Tony to realize Gibbs fully accepted how much more at home, how settled he was in Houston.  He wanted Tony to be happy---to find that special someone who would make him happy the way Shannon had made Gibbs happy.  And if Tony was ever that much in love, ready to commit to forever with someone, Gibbs hoped their relationship was sound enough he’d get invited to the wedding, commitment ceremony or whatever Tony opted for.

Tony’s soft sigh drew Gibbs’ attention back to the moment.  He watched as Tony stood up, arching an eyebrow in askance.

“Need another beer.  You want one?”

“Sure.” 

Tony stretched lazily, his t-shirt riding up to reveal newly healed, pink, surgical scars.  Gibbs was pleased to see there was no hesitance in his movement.  Tony’s ribs had healed well.  The damage to his lung and other internal organs had been fully repaired.  The scar tissue would fade in time, eventually becoming less noticeable..  He’d be off desk duty in another week and back in the field.  Gibbs tried not to let that worry him.

He handed his empty bottle to Tony.  He didn’t really need another beer, but it wasn’t like he planned on driving anywhere, or that two would put him over any sort of limit.  He’d nurse it through until dinner.

Gibbs pushed the swing again, enjoying the gentle rocking motion.  He was definitely going to have to get one of these for himself when he went home.  Cocking his head, he heard Lundy’s truck pull up.  He got up and wandered inside, curious to see how they’d made out.

Gibbs couldn’t quite hear what they were talking about as they entered the house, but there was no heat in their voices so for once they weren’t fighting.  He was slowly getting used to the fact that arguing for Lundy and LaFiamma was as natural as breathing.  Sometimes he was sure Lundy only said half the things he did just to wind his partner up.  And he suspected LaFiamma of doing the same thing.  They seemed to enjoy pushing each other’s buttons. 

For as heated as Lundy and LaFiamma’s discussions seemed to be at times, Gibbs had to admit he’d never seen them come close to completely losing it.  They never looked like they might take it too far or actually hit one another.  According to Tony they had one hell of a knock down drag out fight shortly after they started working together.  They had beaten each other to a standstill.  Apparently once it was over neither one felt it necessary to get violent after that, but they both still clearly enjoyed verbally sparring.

From what he’d seen and experienced, Tony’s entire team was made up of button pushers.  His partner certainly liked to tease Tony, and Tony was no slouch when it came to giving it back to him.  Dewing gave as good as she got as well, holding her own with more grace and style than most women Gibbs knew would have been able to do. 

Unlike his team at NCIS, they didn’t seem prone to making digs that were intended to hurt or do any real damage.  How they knew where to draw the line or managed to hold it was something Gibbs would love to know.  He suspected it had a lot to do with the connections they made with one another outside the work place.  They weren’t just teammates, they really were a family. 

Gibbs envied them that.  He hadn’t come to appreciate his team and its dynamics until after Tony had left.  At least he’d learned something through all of it.  His relationship with everyone was better than it had been, especially Tony.

“Hey Slick,” Lundy greeted Tony, accepting the beer being offered as he strolled into the kitchen.  He casually nodded to Gibbs in greeting.  Gibbs nodded back, not feeling a need to say anything. 

LaFiamma nodded to him as well, taking a bottle of water Tony held up.  “Thanks.”

Gibbs had learned that LaFiamma didn’t particularly care for beer.  The man liked a good wine now and again, and enjoyed a cocktail or two, but he wasn’t much of a drinker.  He didn’t object to others indulging as long as they didn’t get out of hand.  Tony had told him that LaFiamma was often the designated driver for the group when they went out. 

Tony offered a beer to Gibbs.  He twisted the top of the one he’d held on to before asking Lundy, “You buy him?” 

Lundy shook his head.  “Wasn’t worth what they were asking for him.  Blood lines didn’t show true.  Had a blue roan filly I would have liked to have instead, but Mr. Jenson and I couldn’t agree on a price.”

LaFiamma rolled his eyes.  “If you’d been willing to offer a little more--“

“Awfully free with money, Joey, ain’t you?”

LaFiamma snorted.  “I know you, Cowboy.  When you make up your mind you want something the asking price isn’t going to put you off.”

“Well there you go.  Clearly I didn’t want her that bad.”

“You were practically drooling over that horse, Cowboy.”

Lundy shot him a dirty look.  “I was not.”

“You should have just agreed to pay what he wanted.”

Tony laughed.  “I can not believe he just said that.”

Lundy grinned.  “I know.  How weird is that?”

“Look, I’m just saying--“

“I know what you are saying.  I heard you the first five times.” 

Lundy shook his head. Amused brown eyes met Tony’s green. Gibbs wasn’t sure what was so funny.  His lack of understanding must have relayed itself to Lundy somehow because the blond looked at him when he spoke again giving Gibbs the piece he was missing. 

“Can you believe he’s the same guy who sorts through every damn vegetable in at the farmer’s market looking for the best stuff and then argues the poor guy managing the place down to half of what he was asking?”   

“That’s different,” LaFiamma insisted.

“Right.”  Lundy snickered.  “You just keep telling yourself that, boy.”

“You wanted that horse.”  LaFiamma frowned heavily. He obviously couldn’t understand why his partner would deny himself something he so clearly wanted.  “You said she had great lines and an outstanding gait.   Even I could tell she was perfect and I don’t know shit about horses.  What he said he wanted for it was close to the price range you’d set before we left.”

“Price I set was for a horse ready to be ridden.  That little filly is going to take some work.  A lot of work.  She’s not even green broke.  That I can train her is beside the point.  I’m not paying him for work I’d have to do myself.”

“Why hell didn’t you just say so before?”

“You never gave me a chance.”  Lundy shrugged innocently. 

Gibbs could see a twinkle in his eyes though so he knew Lundy wasn’t nearly as innocent as he was trying to make out.  It was far more likely he could have filled LaFiamma in at any time…he’d simply opted not to, enjoying the other man’s confusion, annoyance and rising temper. 

“Besides, I’m thinking Jenson will be calling in a week or so to see if I’m still interested.  He wants her to go to someone who’ll treat her right, and he got to know me well enough to know I would take care of that pretty lady.”

LaFiamma blinked.  “That’s why you made sure he had your number.”

“Uh-hunh.”  Lundy shrugged again.  “Besides, he expects me to dicker.  I can’t just agree immediately to the price he set or he’ll think he didn’t ask for enough.  Or worse, he’ll think I’m an idiot for paying too much for a horse that doesn’t have any training.”

Gibbs hid a smile behind his beer. The euphemism ‘horse-trading’ no doubt arose from situations just like the one Lundy had described.  

“Just glad you had enough sense not to say too much in front of Jenson or you’d have given the game away,” Lundy said with a smile, giving LaFiamma a quick kiss on the cheek. 

LaFiamma smirked.  “I might not understand your play, Lundy, but I will always back you up.”

“I know.”  Lundy gave him another quick kiss.

And just that quick, Gibbs knew all was forgiven.  Whatever anger LaFiamma might have harbored, whatever desire to wind him up Lundy might have indulged, it vanished in the face of that sentiment.  Gibbs couldn’t help being impressed by that.  Had any of his ex-wives been even half as accommodating, Gibbs would probably still be married---but then maybe not since it would have had to go both ways and he’d never been good at expressing himself or letting things go. 

“You guys ready for dinner?”  LaFiamma asked.

“Always.” Tony smiled sheepishly when his comment was seconded by his stomach growling.

“I guess I should get busy and feed the beast,” LaFiamma said with a laugh.

Gibbs found himself pressed into helping chop vegetables for the salad, while Tony set the table.  He smiled wryly when he saw the dinnerware the younger man was using.  His first meal with them so many months ago the table had been set with paper plates. Gibbs now understood it had been a subtle insult, one he hadn’t understood at the time, but did now.  Although it hadn’t meant anything to him then, he was gratified that there had never been a repeat, especially now that he got the message LaFiamma had been sending.

Dinner was a comfortable affair.  Gibbs had forgotten how nice it could be to have a home cooked meal, to listen to conversations about every day things and actually want to chime in now and again.  He made a note to invite Ducky, McGee and Palmer over for dinner at his house when he got back to DC.  He wasn’t quite the cook LaFiamma was, but he could make an acceptable meal. 

“You guys still want to go sailing with me and Tony this weekend?” Gibbs asked once they’d finished eating and were linger over drinks at the table.  It would be his last time on the Kelly.  He’d be heading down the coast on Monday to meet up with Mike and put her in his care.  

“As long as nothing comes up at work.” 

Gibbs had hoped for a definite yes, but he knew better than to expect it.  He also knew that Tony having scheduled the weekend off would mean nothing if they got a case.  Even though he wasn’t completely cleared for field duty yet, Gibbs knew Tony would stay to help.  He was beginning to understand why his ex-wives hated his job so much, or more accurately his dedication to it.

 “You’re going to stop by on your way back through to DC, yeah?” Lundy asked.

 “That’s the plan.”  Gibbs had a rental car reserved in Tijuana.  It was the closest border town to Mike’s place.  Shannon had always wanted for them to take a trip across the country. It was something they’d talked about when they’d daydreamed about life together after he retired from the Marine Corps.  For the past twenty years, he’d deliberately repressed memories of those conversations finding it too painful to think about a future that could never be. But he now found the thought of doing things he and Shannon had dreamed of made him feel closer to her and Kelly.

Once the table was cleared and the dishes done, Tony and Gibbs headed back outside to spend a bit more time on the porch before heading for bed.  Television held no appeal to Gibbs.  And he was grateful Tony would forgo his favorite pastime to just spend time with him enjoying the warm evening air, quiet sounds of the country and a little conversation. 

Lundy and LaFiamma said good night not long after they’d headed outside.  It was a bit early for them to be turning in, but Tony’s leer made it apparent that sleeping wasn’t what Lundy and LaFiamma were going inside for.

 “Have fun kids.”

 “Oh we will,” LaFiamma assured him with a wink and a smile. 

 Gibbs felt his cheeks warm in embarrassment. He didn’t object to their relationship but he always felt a bit like he was intruding on something private whenever it was mentioned. 

 Seeing his blush, Tony laughed softly.  “You are such a prude.”

 Gibbs cuffed him.  “Shaddup.”

 Tony snickered, not cowed by either the light hit or the command.  Gibbs found himself fighting a smile.  He missed Tony’s irrepressible nature. 

 “So what sites are you going to stop and see along the way back?” Tony asked.

 Gibbs hadn’t really given it a lot of thought.  He named a few places he’d considered and asked for suggestions.  It was fun to have Tony toss out things, his child like excitement reminding Gibbs a lot of Kelly.  He’d have to send postcards from everywhere he stopped.  It would make it feel less like he was traveling alone. 

“I’m sure Abby is looking forward to having you stop by too.”  Tony grinned when Gibbs mentioned being sure his route home went through New Orleans.  “Bet she has a spare coffin you could sleep in.”

Gibbs lightly cuffed the back of Tony’s head again, getting an unrepentant grin in response.  He didn’t care how comfortable Abby claimed her coffin was, he’d sooner sleep in a dumpster than spend any time in something meant for the dead.  And Tony knew that.

“If you feel like coming, I’m sure Abby wouldn’t mind if you joined us for Mardi Gras next year.” 

Gibbs smiled. “I could manage that.”

Although he was making the invite on Abby’s behalf, Tony clearly wouldn’t mind if Gibbs joined them.  It was nice to know he’d be welcome.  And that even if he hadn’t figured out what to do with the rest of his life, he had people he could count on to help him figure it out.

“Should see if McGee would be free,” Gibbs offered casually, gauging Tony’s reaction, not wanting to force something he wouldn’t be interested in doing.  He needn’t have worried. 

“Ducky and Palmer too.”   Tony grinned, eyes bright with excitement, obviously liking the idea. 

It would be a team reunion.  The only one missing would be Ziva.  But he might be able to get word to her…somehow.  See if she couldn’t join them.  He had a more than a few months to figure it out.  It would give him something concrete to work on. 

When Tony shivered, Gibbs decided it was time to head back inside.  Tony rolled his eyes, amused by Gibbs concern, but he didn’t argue. 

“See you in the morning, Boss.”

Gibbs had elected to jog with Tony and LaFiamma in the mornings.  The runs were far less strenuous than what Tony did before being injured but he was working back up to their usual speed and distance.  Gibbs could easily keep up with the younger men for now, but he was sure once they were back up to their norm he wouldn’t.  His knees wouldn’t tolerate that sort of abuse. 

“Sleep well, Tony.” 

“On it, Boss.” 

Gibbs smiled at the traditional response.  He was damn lucky, and he knew it. He’d lost a lot over the years, but not everything.  He’d recovered his sense of balance, gaining a new direction for his life.  He’d regained his honor, rededicating himself to the values he’d held sacred. He’d found out he could do more with his life than be an agent for NCIS, things that were just rewarding and meaningful.   He’d learned that enjoying himself and coming to see Tony as the son he’d never had was not a betrayal of Shannon and Kelly’s memory. And he’d accepted that his family had always been more than blood relatives, welcoming his team into his heart and treating the way he should have from the beginning.

He’d always thought it was a stupid cliche, but for only the second time in his life, Gibbs actually believed it.  Life was good.  And he fully intended to make the most of it.