Tim stuffed his hands into his pockets, then pulled them back out again. He smoothed his jacket, then carefully crossed the room, fine wool rug slick under his dress shoes, to check the large gilt mirror above the sideboard.
He didn't look any different than he had five minutes ago in the car. Maybe a bit paler, and his forehead was starting to shine. Tim dabbed at his face with his handkerchief, even though he'd probably be shiny again within two minutes.
He started to pace, but the slip-slide stride he was forced to take unsettled his nerves more than they already were. There was a pair of low-back chairs opposite the sideboard, but Tim didn't dare sit down. Not when he was pretty sure the inlaid table between them was authentic 18th century.
Apparently the escort business paid very well.
The grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs started to gong. Seven deep strikes to tell him he was now exactly on time. Tim turned to pace again--and found himself face to face with another man.
"Hey there," the guy said, flashing Tim an easy smile that matched the rest of his playboy look. Tim bet the untucked shirt and the artfully faded jeans the guy was wearing cost as much as his Wii. "First time?"
"Uh. No." Tim shoved his hands back into his pockets before he could stop himself. His fingers found the edge of his badge, and again he wondered what he'd gotten himself into. "This isn't a time at all. I'm here to meet someone."
The guy snorted. "Yeah, that's kind of the way it works."
Tim frowned. The guy had 'frat jock' written all over him, from his spiky hairdo to his pearly white teeth, the kind of guy Tim had thought he'd be done with once he was out of undergrad. Sometimes with his job, he forgot the rest of the world still had people like that.
"No, I meant that my--" Tim stopped, stumbling as the word 'girlfriend' tried to escape. Abby was great, but she'd kill him if she caught him referring to her that way. "My friend is friends with someone here. We're all going out for dinner."
"Uh-huh." The guy sauntered over to the sideboard. He unstopped the crystal decanter, then glanced back at Tim. "Sounds friendly."
"It is." Something about the guy's expression pushed Tim to go on. "More than friendly. Well, maybe."
The guy grinned at him before turning back to his drinks. He poured a couple of fingers of the brown alcohol into a pair of glasses, then handed one to Tim.
"You'll need that," the guy said. "Just don't get sloshed, or you'll never be able to keep up."
Tim started to blush. He raised the glass to cover, letting the tiniest amount of the whisky or scotch or whatever it was slip through his lips. It tasted as nasty as he remembered, and burned the soft insides of his cheeks.
"So your friend must be pretty progressive," the guy said. He took a small sip of his drink, then swirled the liquid in the glass. It was mesmerizing. "Most people don't like to share."
"She is." Abby was definitely progressive. Among other things. "But it's not like that. And I thought this was just an escort service. Or did I misunderstand?"
The guy chuckled. It was a dirty, dirty sound, one that practically screamed 'gigolo' at Tim. "Hey, what we do for fun is our own business, if you know what I mean. If you've got two ladies ready and willing, go for it. Don't turn all prudish, kid."
"I'm not a prude." Abby'd had to convince him of the legality of the whole thing, but other than that... His skin heated again, this time from the memory of her whispering in his ear, painting visions that were straight out of the best erotica.
The guy raised his eyebrows, daring Tim to go on.
"Have you ever heard of Anaís Nin?"
"Henry and June," the guy said immediately.
Tim blinked. "You've read Henry and June?"
"Saw it. How could you pass up Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros in the first NC-17 movie ever?"
"Right." For a moment, Tim had thought the guy might actually be literate. He lifted his glass without thinking and took a big swallow. He started coughing as soon as the alcohol hit his throat. The guy whacked him on the back, which didn't help at all.
"Tony! You're not supposed to break him!"
Tim watched through watery eyes as Abby descended on the guy like a tornado. Something warmer than the booze heated his stomach when she punched the guy--Tony--in the shoulder. But then Tony made a little boy whine and she threw her arms around him in a big hug.
"Um, Abby," Tim said, not sure of anything at this point. In some ways, Abby was the easiest person to be around that he'd ever met, but she often left him feeling off-kilter. And coming here tonight--well, off-kilter didn't even cover it. Dizzy, maybe, the rules of his world slipping out from under him in a vertiginous whirl.
Abby let go of Tony and spun back to Tim, a wide smile on her face. "Are you ready?"
"Sure," he said, letting her momentum carry him along. "What about your friend?"
Abby spun again, her short schoolgirl skirt flaring out over her thighs as she did. When Tim looked up again, he realized two other women were standing on the opposite side of the parlor. One was slightly older, mid-forties, maybe, but still very attractive with her pale skin and pixie-cut red hair. Not to mention her generous assets that were showed off quite well by her low-buttoned white blouse.
The other woman was also very attractive. Shorter, darker, closer to Abby's age, with a sultry look that made Tim think of Bond movies. She was wearing a shimmery green halter top that swept low over her breasts and drew his eyes like a magnet. Tim jerked his eyes up in time to catch her knowing wink.
"Tim, this is Ziva," Abby said, wrapping her hand around the sultry woman's wrist. "My friend I was telling you about."
"A pleasure." Ziva eyes traveled up and down Tim's body in a way that he equated with men in a strip joint. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to preen or duck behind Abby. "I'm looking forward to dinner."
"Be careful," Tony whispered into his ear. Tim had all but forgotten about the guy. "That means she'll eat you alive."
Ziva stalked forward and wrapped her hand around Tim's elbow. "Oh, that's definitely the idea."
Tim slugged back the rest of his drink. He hardly noticed the burn this time, or Tony easing the glass out of his hand.
"Don't worry, McGee," Abby said as she took his other elbow. "We're going to have a great time tonight."
"If you say so." But the way she was smiling at him set him at ease, and Ziva's eyes had a bit of humor that softened her predatory look. Tim grinned; he had two gorgeous women on his arms who were intent on showing him a good time. He let them guide him to the front door.
"So that's Abby's geektoy," Tony murmured after the front door snicked shut. He set the pair of tumblers back on the sideboard and met Jenny's eyes in the mirror. "You sure that this is the best way to introduce him to the Stable?"
She shrugged. "If he can handle Ziva, he can handle anything he runs into here."
Tony turned to face her. "I should have played harder to get when you were trying to recruit me."
Jenny arched an eyebrow. "I thought you'd already sampled the goods, Tony."
Tony suddenly wished for his drink, even though he hated scotch. Jenny insisted that they be comfortable drinking it, though, for appearances' sake. Secretly, he'd always thought it had more to do with Gibbs' fetish for cheap bourbon, and Jenny's fetish for Gibbs.
"Or maybe I read the situation wrong." Jenny smiled at him as she glided over to the sideboard. Tony didn't mistake her meaning; there was very little that ever got past her. She picked up his abandoned tumbler and sipped. "So what do you think of him?"
"McGee?" Tony shrugged. "Nervous, but he dealt with it okay. Not as geeky as I expected."
"Not every computer expert is a momma's boy hiding out in their basement, DiNozzo," Jenny said dryly.
"Could have fooled me."
There went the eyebrow again.
"Except for Abby," he allowed. Abby was the exception to just about everything, though, so he rarely thought about her in any way but 'Abby'.
"She's convinced that McGee is perfect for the job."
Tony considered. "Well, he's not nearly as uptight as most FBI."
Jenny laughed. "Don't let Gibbs hear you say that."
"Uptight isn't the word for Gibbs." Tony knew the guy had a big military background, all sorts of Army black ops and stuff, but sometimes the attitude got a little wearying. He opened his mouth to say just that when Jenny's smile changed. "Oh, no. He can't be here. He's not supposed to check in for another two days."
"Is that so, DiNozzo?"
Tony cringed, but the smack didn't fall. He turned his head just enough to see Gibbs standing two feet behind him. "Hey, Gibbs. I just meant--"
"Save it." Gibbs' shoulder brushed Tony's as he pushed past, striding towards Jenny's office. Tony shot her a look, but she wasn't paying any attention to him anymore. She didn't wait long before following Gibbs.
Tony followed them both.
"I assume there's a reason you're here, Agent Gibbs?" Her voice was a whipcrack in the small room that served as her office. "Or are you trying to blow our cover?"
"That's not my intention." Gibbs smiled like a tiger satisfied by cream. "Madame Director."
Jenny flushed. She hated being called that, especially by Gibbs. Tony thought it was because it was too close to the truth of what she did. "I'm waiting, Jethro," she said, the rest of her composure intact.
Gibbs tossed a manila folder onto Jenny's desk. A slick photograph slid out and fluttered to the floor; Tony picked it up. It was a black and white shot of a really hot chick. Redhead, he thought, or at least brown with auburn tones. Her eyes were especially striking. Green, or maybe a really vibrant shade of blue.
"La Grenuoille?" Jenny asked. Tony looked up, intrigued by how shocked she sounded. "I thought the Bureau had given up on him."
"The Bureau might have." Gibbs left it unsaid that he never gave up on anything. "We got word this morning that we have a potential opening."
"An opening that you need the Stable to exploit," Jenny said, and it wasn't a guess.
Tony looked back down at the picture in his hand. Sometimes he really hated his job, but today was not one of those days. "So naturally, you'll need your best man for this. Someone charming with a ton of undercover experience."
Gibbs smiled at him. "Why yeah, Tony. Think you can handle that?"
"You know I can, Gibbs."
"Good." Gibbs tugged the picture out of Tony's grip. "This is Jeanne Benoit. Daughter of your target."
"La Grenuoille is the head of one of the most tightly-knit international syndicates in operation today," Jenny started explaining. "Mostly because the core members are all part of the Benoit family."
"Helen and Pierre Benoit," Gibbs said as he pulled out a second photograph. Tony picked it up, studying the woman closely. She must have been close to fifty, but she didn't look it. "They're rarely out of each other's company. But Pierre is going in for some fancy health rejuvenation in Bern on Friday."
"I take it Madame Benoit will be left to her own devices," Tony said.
"She's coming to DC to visit her daughter." Gibbs stared, ice-blue eyes daring Tony to try to wheedle his way into Jeanne's pants.
Tony didn't push this time, though. Helen was attractive enough for him to work with, and she was a much bigger fish to fry. "I guess I'd better brush up on my French," he said. He wasn't sure how to read Gibbs' look: admiration or disappointment.
"Do that," Jenny ordered as she handed over the folder. "She'll appreciate the effort. Just don't try to pass yourself off as a native speaker."
"Would I do that?" Jenny opened her mouth. Tony held up his hand before she could bring up the Berkins case. "I meant, I'd never do that on something like this."
"See that you don't." Jenny stared at him until Tony got the picture that he was being dismissed.
"I'll just go get started on that, then," he said, turning towards the door.
"Tony," Gibbs said as Tony's hand landed on the doorknob.
Tony turned back. "Yeah?"
"Be careful. Pierre Benoit is a mean son of a bitch, and he's got a jealous streak a mile wide."
Tony hesitated. Gibbs hadn't looked at him like that since right before Tony'd gone under with the Mazottis. "I will be, Boss."
Gibbs nodded. Tony backed out of the room, wondering just what the hell he'd find in the file he held.
While Jethro stared down the back of her door, Jenny sat down at her desk, taking the opportunity to wrap the trappings of her authority around her. The show of power wouldn't fool Jethro a bit, but that didn't mean it wouldn't effect him where it counted. She waited until he squared his shoulders and started to turn to ask, "What aren't you telling me, Jethro?"
He smiled at her, the one that said "I'm in control and you know it," but even though his eyes swept over her in his usual display of machismo, Jenny wasn't fooled. Something was bothering him, and if something was bothering him, she was bothered.
"It's all in the file." He pulled a jump drive out of his pants pocket and tossed it onto her desk.
Jenny didn't bother to pick it up. "Not all of it. Why are you so worried about Tony?"
Jethro scratched the point of his ear. "Couldn't say."
He shrugged one shoulder, chin tilting to the side in a move that said he was being straight with her. "Maybe. I meant what I said to DiNozzo. Benoit is a special brand of evil, Jen."
Jenny frowned. She picked up the jump drive, willing it to give over secrets she knew it didn't hold in the bites inside. "Should I cancel the op?"
"That's your call, Director."
"I get that you don't like what we do, Jethro." She flung the drive back onto her desk. "But you could at least act like you're on our side."
"So what, you want me to pretend I like being responsible for turning good agents into whores?" Jethro stared at her like she was the one who'd put the stamp on the orders, not Morrow. But he hated that Morrow had twisted Jethro's words into the Stable, and he hated that she'd taken the position.
Jenny understood that, and she understood why.
"You're going to have to let go of Kate eventually," she dared quietly. "You couldn't have predicted what happened with Ari."
"Couldn't I?" Jethro closed his eyes. Jenny wondered if he was seeing Kate's body again. She'd only seen the pictures herself, and that was enough. But Jethro had been the first on the scene. "I should have known that son of a bitch would test her like that."
"And Kate should have faced up to her limits before she went undercover," Jenny said patiently, even though she felt anything but patience. Two years was long enough to keep justifying her existence. "But you can't change the past. If this agency is what it takes to keep what happened to Kate from happening again, then by God, I'm not sorry that we do what we do!"
Jethro sighed and sank down into the chair opposite of her. Jenny eased out a breath and relaxed into the support of her high-backed chair, letting the stiff cushion take the pressure between her shoulder blades.
"Tony can handle it," Jethro said at last. "As long as he doesn't get stupid."
"He can handle it," she repeated much more firmly. "He's grown a lot since you worked with him in New York. In fact, he kind of reminds me of you when I first met you."
Jethro's glare was ruined by the twinkle in his eyes. Jenny smiled, remembering the way he'd looked at her like that in Paris. It was a good memory. She shook it off before the bad ones could follow.
"Are you really going through with Tim McGee?" Jethro asked.
Jenny was used to Jethro's whiplash methods, but he still managed to catch her off guard. "Is there a reason I shouldn't?"
He didn't answer immediately. He stared up at the wall clock behind her head, drawing her attention to the slow click, click, click of the gears.
"You just missed him," she said. "Of course, I imagine you know that. I'm surprised you didn't take it on yourself to ruin our show."
Jethro grinned. "Now would I do that?"
"In a heartbeat."
"He's a good kid, Jen. I don't want to see him get hurt."
She sat forward, folding her hands in front of her. "He's not going to do anything different for us than he does in those little cubicles at the Bureau. He'll just have better company doing it."
Jethro shook his head. "He's not going to be happy sitting on his ass forever. You leave him alone, I'll have a chance to turn him into a good field agent."
She raised an eyebrow. That salvo was little more than marshmallow fluff flung at a stone fortress. "And when exactly are you going to manage that? You're not even in D.C. enough to keep an apartment anymore."
Jethro frowned, but he didn't argue. Jenny'd always liked that about him. Hardass Ranger, legend of the FBI, the man who never apologized; those things Jethro Gibbs might be, but he knew when to accept that he was wrong.
Most of the time.
He stood up, brushing at his knees like he'd gotten dirt on his pants just from sitting in her office. Jenny didn't move from her chair.
"Tell Abby hi," he said. "And don't let McGee distract her."
"I won't," she growled back at him. He smiled, and she smiled back. "Now get out of here."
"Whatever you say, Madame Director." He winked before he strode to the door. Jenny never took her eyes off of him, but he didn't look back. Not even a little.
She didn't sigh. She simply turned on her computer and picked up the jump drive.
"He's cute," Ziva purred into Abby's ear. Abby glanced over; sure enough, Ziva's eyes were glued to Tim's ass as he walked away.
"You like him, then?" She wasn't sure why she was so nervous. It wasn't like they were serious or anything. But she was the one who'd put Tim forward for the job, and she wanted it to go well. So badly.
"He needs a little more self-confidence. But that can be taught."
Abby bobbed her eyebrows. "Maybe he can take some of Tony's."
"Do you think it would make a bent?"
"A dent," Abby corrected automatically. "That's a scary thought, though. Maybe it'd be some weird cosmic distortion thing, and their egos would only multiply."
"There would be two of them." Ziva faked horror well. Then again, considering the idea of Tony's ego doubled, maybe it wasn't fake. "Not a good idea at all."
"I'm sure it won't happen." Abby nodded, reminding the cosmos of the proper scientific order of things. "Tony probably won't give him the time of day once Tim comes on board, anyway."
"Unless he figures out McGee can hack any porn site he wants," Ziva mused.
Abby laughed. She was glad she'd finally taken a chance on Ziva. Ziva wasn't Kate; no one could ever fill that hole in her heart. But Ziva was fun, even if she did enjoy ragging on Tony a little too much, and Abby enjoyed having someone to girltalk with once again.
And maybe do a little bit more than just girltalk.
"Are you sure you want to do it this way?" Ziva asked quietly. Seriously. "There's no reason to keep up the ruse."
"It's not a ruse," Abby said immediately. "Not really."
"A seduction, then." Ziva plucked an ice cube from her water glass, sucking it and her fingers into her mouth before pulling it out again. "But this isn't the way you do things, Abby."
"I want to do this." Abby smiled at Ziva, feeling shy all of a sudden. They hadn't been together yet, but there had been plenty of moments between them that zinged in her memory. "Oh! Unless you don't want to. Did I get it wrong? Do you not want Tim? He's a real tiger in bed, really. This one time–-"
"Abby!" Ziva laid her hand across Abby's forearm. Abby swallowed. That hand was quite possibly the deadliest hand that had ever touched her. Even counting Gibbs. "I find Tim to be very attractive. And even if I didn't, I could still be with him."
"Right." Abby looked towards the back of the restaurant. Tim was in the corridor near the restrooms, walking back to their table. He smiled when he noticed her watching him. "Except... Only if you want to, okay? He'd be heartbroken if he found out you were faking."
"I promise I want to." Ziva squeezed Abby's wrist. "Don't worry, it won't be an issue."
Tim pinked as he sat down. Abby guessed that he'd caught Ziva's hungry tone, if not her words.
"So, ah, Ziva," he said as he reached for his iced tea, "how did you get into the, uh, this business?"
"I got tired of assassinating people."
"Ziva!" Abby handed over her napkin.
"I'm fine, Abby." He dabbed at his tie, then shot a smile at Ziva. "You've got a great sense of humor."
Ziva chuckled. It was a scary sound.
Tim looked over at her. "What?"
"We can't really talk about it here," she said, biting her lip. "Maybe we should go back to the office."
"Abby, what's going on?" Tim dropped his hand under the table, and Ziva struck like a snake, snatching his wrist in a grip that looked painful if Tim's face was anything to go by.
"Relax, Ziva!" Abby leaned forward, hiding her mouth behind her hand. "He doesn't carry, okay?"
Ziva snorted. "What kind of C-man are you?"
"G-man," they said in unison. Tim looked over at Abby like she'd kicked his puppy. "You told her?"
"It's a long story," she started. Tim didn't look mollified. "But I can explain! Just trust me, okay? It'll all make sense in a few minutes."
He stared at her like he'd suddenly channeled Gibbs. She started to fidget in her chair, but Ziva clamped a hand on her thigh.
"Okay," Tim said. Abby pumped the air with her fists. "But! If you get me killed, I swear I will come back as an OS virus you'll never be able to get rid of."
"Cross my heart," she swore. Tim shook his head, but she knew things were going to turn out just fine.
As long as he didn't wind up hating her for lying this whole time.TBC--some day. *g*