Actions

Work Header

A Brief History of Home Invasions: It's Not the Uninvited Guest, It's What You Do With Them That Counts

Work Text:

Tim is just back from a mission to Afghanistan when the buzzer goes and he finds himself letting Tony into his apartment. Okay, so it’s just online with a few of the usual suspects, but Tim definitely blames the post-game adrenaline spike for not immediately noticing the suitcase.

“Hey,” says Tony and Tim says, “Oh, please, come in,” when the guy is already halfway to the kitchen. Sarcasm is wasted on DiNozzo.

Out of sight, Tony mutters something into the fridge about Tim’s poor taste in alcoholic beverages interspersed with friendly greetings to Jethro and Tim just stares, puzzled, as he hears the hiss of a cap being popped. Tony comes back into view, apparently subpar beer in hand, trailed by a happy dog, whose tail is going hard enough to do some serious damage to any limbs in the way. He settles on the couch, arm stretched along the back of it and tips his head back to grin at Tim.

That’s when Tim notices the bag Tony’s dropped by the door and puzzled gets upgraded to full on discombobulation.

“Going somewhere?” he asks.

“Arrived,” Tony confirms and doesn’t even have the good grace to look the slightest bit unsure of his welcome. In point of fact, Tony appears to lose interest in the conversation at this point and flicks through the channels on Tim’s plasma, settling for something black and white that completely negates the point of HD as far as Tim can see.

“Staying long?”

“You know, it doesn’t matter if you come in in the middle of this movie. It’s gonna confuse the hell out of you anyway. Even Chandler didn’t know if Taylor jumped or was pushed. Who cares, right? You watch this one for the sizzle.”

Tim considers pressing for more information but it’s late, the buzz of pixelated action is wearing off and company is company—even when it’s Tony. He shrugs and pushes the door shut, joining Tony on the couch. “So is that Ava Gardner with Bogie?”

When he throws a blanket at Tony’s head and retires to bed, Tony’s still grumbling about kids these days, their severely limited educations and undiagnosed eye problems.

Tim sleeps soundly enough that he’s forgotten Tony’s even in the house and so the smell of bacon wafting through the apartment rousing him from sleep momentarily makes him wonder if Jethro has finally developed those opposable thumbs he’s obviously been pining for. That thought makes him panic enough to sit bolt upright and to shake the sleep loose from its unsteady handhold. He knocks against his chest with a closed fist, breathing out through pursed lips. Today is not the day the dogs take over the planet. It’s worse. It’s Tony.

"Not that I'm not grateful for this morning slice of deliciousness," says Tim through a mouthful of eggs and bacon, "But can we go back to the part where you're in my apartment with a suitcase?"

Tony's eyes don't leave the griddle. "Fumigation central over at my place. Nasty little roaches. Gotta camp out somewhere, McTwoManTent, and you scored the winning dart."

"Pulled the short straw."

"It works both ways," says Tony, snatching a strip of bacon straight from the pan and folding it whole into his mouth. Or at least attempting to, the nearly-burnt-to-a-crisp slice refusing to bend the laws of physics and, well, bend, instead snapping into little shards that skitter across the linoleum. Tony's eyes widen.

"Sure, Tony. Let's give the roaches something to come visit here for, too, shall we?" If Tim had been expecting Tony to shrug and move on, then he's in for a surprise. Chewing frantically, Tony mugs an apology and makes an unerring beeline for Tim's cleaning supplies, vanishing the proto-mess in seconds.

Tim knows his jaw is practically hitting the floor. Off his expression Tony says, "Nothing wrong with a little house pride, Timmy." He looks around. "This kitchen could stand some reorganization."

Tim squints. "House pride? Who exactly has the cockroaches here?"

Tony has the good grace to look a little ashamed at that and turns away to pick up the skillet, shoveling what's left into his face. He stands over the sink, but not another morsel is wasted.

"You are so weird," says Tim, dumping his plate in the dishwasher. "I'm gonna go shower. Wanna carpool?"

Tony nods his assent and Tim leaves him to whatever the hell it is he's doing.

Tim works to a tight schedule most mornings and the cooked breakfast has already set him back. Jethro gets his kibble in record time as Tony takes over the bathroom and Tim can see the seconds slipping away. They're going to be late and Gibbs is going to slap them and Tim's beginning to get a little concerned about the ringing in his ears. He's already rehearsing his diatribe against DiNozzo's dilatory habits as he hands over Jethro's leash to Mira, the doggy daycare lady. Tony skids down the hallway in his socks, crouching and scooping up his shoes at the end of his slide and unhooking his jacket as he straightens.

“Let’s get this show on the road, Probie. First one to the street gets to pick the station.” And he’s off, hopping down the hallway and jamming his shoes on as he goes.

Mira raises her eyebrows at Tim who raises his in return with a slight lift of his shoulders. He could feel ashamed, but it would be a waste of valuable emotional space. “That’s Tony,” he says. “I’d give you a better explanation only there isn’t one.” He bends down to scratch Jethro between the ears. “You be good, now,” he says. “Don’t let that man be a bad influence. Leave the lady dogs alone.”

“Do I need to give you the same advice?” Mira grins.

“I’ve had years of practice,” Tim says, locking the door behind them. “You develop strategies.” Like earplugs, he thinks, making his way down to the street, where he knows Tony will already have the volume turned up at least three notches louder than the time of the morning demands.

***

Tony’s monologuing about who even cares what as they step out of the elevator. Ziva lifts her chin in greeting. Her mouth opens and closes and it’s only when her expectant air takes on a mildly dangerous cast that Tim remembers he still has earplugs in. He fishes them out and pulls a case out of his pocket, stowing them quickly away. “Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t catch that.”

Ziva’s smile is wide and evil. “I asked if you two came in together,” she says. “I believe I already know the answer, thank you, McGee.”

“He’s staying at my place.”

“Why?”

There’s a loud thud from behind them and they turn towards Tony, who's unzipping his backpack with a degree of violence. “Roaches,” he says. “I have them. I don’t want them. Here’s where the story ends.”

“Oh,” says Ziva. “Fornication. Abby had that.”

Tony and Tim stare at each other, bug-eyed. “Do you wanna take this one?” asks Tony.

“Nu-uh.”

Then Ziva bursts out laughing, takes out a notepad and makes a tally mark on the page. Tony pretends not to care, but Tim steps closer, curious. “Whatcha doin’, Ziva?”

“Freaking. You. Out, apparently,” she says, tucking the notepad in her back pocket.

“I don’t get it.”

“No.” Ziva drops into her chair, leaning back and tucking her hands behind her head. “But you will, eventually.”

Tim decides it's not worth pursuing and goes through his morning routine, safe in the knowledge that if that gets screwed up it's not going to be because Gibbs has moved into his desk with no forewarning. He's about to fire this thought in Tony's direction, but the man's scowling into his monitor and Tim has developed enough self-preservation skills to know that now is not the time. He can't think what's eating him, though. Maybe one of those bacon shards got stuck on the way down and is proving difficult to shift.

"Where's Gibbs?" he asks Ziva instead.

"Meetings," she says. "Endless, boring meetings. He set us homework, though."

Tony groans. "Housekeeping?" The scowl shifts to a pout.

"Yes. Apparently this time we get to concentrate on our digital storage. I did not know he even knew what that meant."

Tim has to agree with that one. "Don't question miracles. Anyplace he wants us to start?"

"Apparently our inboxes are stuffed with, let me see," Ziva's voice deepens and turns rough around the edges, "useless crap about kittens in hats and...

"He knows about the kittens?" Tony flings himself back in his chair with a hand to his forehead for extra drama. "Abandon ship! We're all doomed!"

Tim shakes his head, but shares a smile with Ziva. Tony might be an overgrown man-child crazypants, but he's their overgrown man-child crazypants.

"First one to inbox zero is the winner?"

"Hey, Ziva had a head start. No fair."

"Do you want me to do it with one arm tied behind my back, Tony?"

"Would you?"

"No."

Tony scowls again, Ziva laughs, and Tim thinks if he had extendable arms he could hug them both without having to get up from his seat. Then again, it would probably result in at least one broken appendage, so perhaps it's best the dream remains unrealized.

"Last one to inbox zero buys lunch?" he suggests instead, secure in the knowledge that he keeps his electronic correspondence in way better order than Tony's.

Ziva nods her agreement, and Tony doesn't even reply, clicking his mouse at near supersonic speed. Tim will take that as a yes, then. He glances through his own recent emails, marking them for reply, further investigation or sending them to the trash, unopened. About twenty or so in, the subject line "your ded!!!!" pops up and Tim doesn't even give it a second glance. Spam filter might need tweaking again, he thinks as he sends it to join the other detritus. No need for a repeat of the Fleshlight email epidemic of last year. He puts it on his mental to-do list, but five minutes later Gibbs leans over the railings outside MTAC and says,

"Change of plan. We've got a dead sailor. The kittens can wait."

"Nine lives," says Tony, nodding as he stands up and grabs his bag. "They're wily. Especially the ones that wear hats."

***

The case keeps them busy till late. It was a sad and sordid little end for Seaman Arnie Baker, but it had looked easy enough to solve with a nicely laid out set of clues leading them straight to his Senior Chief Petty Officer. Of course, the guy denies all involvement and no amount of Gibbs and Tony playing scary cop/freaky cop manages to break him down. The forensics all works in their favor, though, so they're ready to call it even when a tall woman with red-rimmed eyes, hunched shoulders and dress uniform walks into the bullpen and tells Ziva and Tim that she wants to confess.

"Confess to what?" Ziva asks.

The woman straightens her back. "I helped Arnie set up the Brigadier Chief. I couldn't...I couldn't stop him taking his life, but I could stop that bullying bastard ever making anyone else want to. I thought I could live with it, but I can't. I can't." A tear rolls down her cheek, but she ignores it, glaring at nothing in particular.

"You'd better come with me." Ziva touches the woman's elbow with gentle fingertips and steers her away.

Tim watches them go, a little heartsick. She's not getting off this scot-free, Baker is dead and the apparently abusive officer will likely get an apology for the inconvenience and a chauffeured drive back to base. It's not right. It never is, and there's nothing he can do now except wait. Maybe he can get a head start on the whole digital cleanup thing, he thinks, and goes back to his inbox. Twenty minutes later he's still answering, compiling and deleting when new mail comes in. The subject reads, "ded man warking!!!. Tim spares a second to wonder if he's supposed to be walking or working and then marks it as spam, over-writing his mental to-do list with 'tweak filter'.

Tony chooses that second to drape himself over the cubicle divider, sending Tim's papers flapping in the breeze and looking very sorry for himself.

"Well, hello there, Droopy Dog," says Tim. "I take it you want to go home."

Tony nods.

"Gibbs give us the go ahead?"

Tony nods again.

"You know, I like this new you," says Tim. "Guess I won't need the earplugs in the car this time."

Jethro's whining behind the door as Tim turns the key in the lock, barely restraining himself from jumping up as they enter, Tony so close on Tim's heels that he has to veer out of the way to avoid a collision as Tim crouches in front of the dog. Tim scratches Jethro behind the ears in greeting. "You are such a good boy! Yes, you are, you are," he says, barely remembering to shift his tone of voice as he looks up and addresses Tony. "We can order in and I'll take Jethro out while we wait."

Tony shakes his head. "Sure, take Jethro out, but I'm gonna cook."

Tim's hand stills on Jethro's head and Jethro makes his displeasure known through the medium of melodramatic whimpering. "You want to cook? Now? After today?"

"Especially after today," says Tony. "I like it, okay? It's relaxing. What do you have in?" He doesn't wait for an answer, throwing his jacket over a hook and disappearing into the kitchen.

Tim scratches Jethro some more, looking down at his dog. "I don't know," he says. "I'm as confused as you are."

"Jeez, McGee!" Tony yells. "Did your mom never teach you about staples?"

"The store? No. I don't think she knew it was her job to teach me about stationery supplies." And in three, two, one...

Tony reappears, bang on schedule, arms folded and lips pursed. Tim grins. Messing with Tony's head is always going to be one of his favorite hobbies. It makes up for all the posturing bullshit he took back in the early days.

"We're walking Jethro to the store," says Tony. "You don't get to say no. And because of that crack, you're carrying the heaviest bags home."

"Hey, who's letting who live w-"

"And when we get back I'm making dinner. We call this division of labor."

"We call this-" starts Tim and then cuts himself off. He could argue, but finds he doesn't want to. "You know what? Never mind. Just let me go change. It'll only take a minute."

"Good plan, Timmy." Tony dives for his suitcase, wedged behind the arm of the couch and looks back at Tim all traces of Droopy Dog entirely vanished--his face smooth except for the crinkles at the corners of his eyes.

Tim finds his own energy levels rising. Tony's always been infectious and only sometimes in the way that requires antibiotics and difficult phone calls. He wonders what's for dinner.

***

The next morning there's another badly spelled email (red this or else!!!) and Tim takes the time to alter his spam filter because if there's one thing worse than unsolicited email, it's poorly formatted unsolicited email.

"McGee," says Tony, aiming a pencil at Tim's head like a dart. "What are your feelings about veal?"

"I have to have feelings about veal?"

"Everyone has feelings about veal."

"I have feelings about bacon," Ziva says. "Does that count?"

"No," they chorus and she sticks out her tongue.

"Keep your thoughts on meat to yourselves," says Gibbs, not looking up from the file he's reading. "This is not that kind of housekeeping day."

"Got it, boss." Tony salutes, and then ducks out of the way as the forgotten pencil flies out of his hand, missing him by millimeters and bouncing off several surfaces on its way to the floor.

Ziva taps her chin, musing, "I could kill you with a pencil. But it would be on purpose."

"Too much paperwork. Do it off the clock."

"Good to know you care, boss."

Tony's got that super earnest look he always gets when Gibbs is ragging on him. Tim doesn't get it, never has. The way that Tony has always jostled for rank and favor, the way he is still, after all these years, insecure about where he stands with Gibbs. It's obvious to Tim how much Gibbs respects Tony's abilities as an agent, even if he doesn't always understand his methods. How is it not obvious to Tony? Sometimes Tim wonders if the stupid kid Tony wears on the surface is just there to hide the scared kid that lurks underneath the grown man. Other times he wonders if Tony ever grew up at all or he just plays dress up, layering maturity over him with a suit and tie when he needs to and shucking it the second he can. Either way, Tim hates it when Tony looks like that. It makes him want to take the guy by the shoulders, shake him hard and tell him to get with the program already. He can't do that, of course, so he settles for sending a one-line message. "Abby will kill me if I eat veal."

Tony types back. "Point. Poor point, but point. Chicken it is. The meat, not you."

"Sounds good. And thanks," Tim returns. He looks over at Tony and sees that his face has relaxed into a quiet smile. Mission accomplished. With a sensation of something very like pride, he sits up straight and gets back to work.

***

When they get home that evening Tony tells Tim he has to step out for a little while. As surprisingly unannoying as Tony has turned out to be in his own special infestation, Tim luxuriates in the emptiness of his apartment. He has to resist the urge to run around naked just because he can. With his luck the sound of his undershorts hitting the floor would be as a Bat Signal to Tony, who'd make it back from wherever the hell he'd gone just to point and laugh and cause shriveling both external and in. Instead, he gets on with his chores. Having home-cooked meals instead of takeout has greatly increased not only the nutritional content of his food but also the number of dishes. It had never seemed worth having a dishwasher when eating out of a box was a daily lifestyle choice. Now, in the name of fairness--division of labor, he thinks ruefully--apparently the dishwasher is him.

He's down to the last pan when the buzzer goes and trails of bubbles slide down the door as he opens it. Tony gives him an appraising look. "Nice gloves," he says. "Let me revolutionize your life."

Tim blinks. This could go any of a hundred ways and only a small percentage are likely not to end up in mortal terror.

"Follow me."

Tony goes into the kitchen, setting down the bag he's carrying on the counter. He peers into it, sticking his arm in up to the elbow, and draws out a slim silver wand with bristles at the end.

"What's that?"

"This, my young friend, is a life-changing device."

Tim's eyes narrow. It's rounded at one end with a black button in the middle. He doesn't know what passes for adult entertainment these days, but with the look of those bristles? He's absolutely sure that he's okay being kept in the dark. "Um, it's not for-"

"McGee! Just because the water in the sink is filthy doesn't mean your mind needs to be. Get out of the gutter, man."

Tim feels the beginning of the old twist of anxiety he always used to get when he said something out of place, but Tony's grinning so hard that it dissolves in an instant. "Be fair, Tony. I'm an agent. I use past experience to inform future theories. You have met you, right?"

Tony shrugs and thrusts the implement into Tim's hand. "Got me there. Okay, now let me show you what this totally-not-a-sex-toy can do."

It turns out that the not-a-sex-toy is actually a soap dispensing brush and Tony has Tim working it like a pro in no time at all.

"See a cup, wash it up," chants Tony. "And before you ask, there was an incident with mold and my post-plague lungs. I prefer to draw a veil over it."

Tim also prefers to draw a veil. Firstly, there is probably phlegm involved and that's his least favorite body fluid, but secondly, the memory of Tony near death has never healed over and poking at that particular bruise always leads to Kate and that is another scar that it looks like he's keeping for life. "Veil away," he says. He holds up the mop. "But revolutionize my life? It's a mop."

"It's a soap dispensing brush, McBetty. You will never be the same. Trust me on this one."

Experience triumphing over hope, Tim does not.

The brush revolutionizes his life.

***

"Oh my god," says Abby on day four of the home invasion. "Will you stop talking about that stupid mop?"

"It's not a mop, it's a s-"

"No!" Abby flails a hand in his general direction.

Tim can't believe he's parroting Tony now. Something is off kilter somewhere and he doesn't know how. Maybe he should get Abby to check for the little red X on the back of his neck, though, honestly? Tim wouldn't put it past DiNozzo to have crept in while he slept and drawn on him with a permanent marker. "Sorry, Abs."

Abby looks up from the microscope. "That's not a match. Different fibers. Tell Gibbs he's got some more digging to do."

"And the DNA?"

"Still cooking. I can't bend the laws of space and time, Timmy. This isn't TV."

Tim stands up, but Abby shoves him back down again.

"Hey!"

Abby half-pats, half-smoothes his shoulders. "So Tony's still at your place, huh?"

"I called the fumigators," Tim deadpans. "They can't make it to my place till next week, so I guess I'm stuck with him."

"Tony's totally a roach. Hard on the outside, squishy in the middle."

"Impossible to kill."

Abby's smile drops for an instant. "So far." She perks up again. "And that's the way I like it! So what's it like, anyway?"

"What's what like?"

Her face takes on that I'm-disappointed-in-you expression that Tim has had many years and opportunities to get to know. It used to kill him. Not so much these days.

"Living with Tony."

Tim considers. What is it like? Easier than he'd thought it would be. Sometimes annoying. But then there's the food and the brush. Tony's company that can talk back and Tim hasn't had that in a long time. He's not always sure he wants it, but it's what he's got. How do you even begin to explain it? He shrugs. "It's like having another pet, only this one flushes the toilet after himself and sheds less."

"Ha! Maybe I should lend him one of my dog collars."

"How about not?"

Abby sticks out her tongue, lab coat swirling around her as she goes to check on a beeping machine. "Spoilsport. Go find me some more evidence to work with. I hate spinning my wheels."

Obediently, Tim goes.

Upstairs, there's a small pile of post on Tim's desk. With methodical care he opens each one, scanning it and then sorting it to his own filing system that he calls efficient and Tony, in a rare burst of verbal sophistication, calls arcane. The fourth letter he picks up is a thick, cream envelope with Tim's name and the Navy Yard address written in a tightly cramped hand so small that it barely takes up any space on the smooth surface. The postmark is local. It's the kind of envelope that begs to be stuffed with five neatly typed, densely-written pages of contract law or the final instructions of that rich, yet unfriendly, great uncle that no one in the family has heard from in twenty years. Instead, despite its somewhat padded appearance, it's almost weightless. The flap is firmly stuck down and Tim has to apply a little force to open it, yanking the layers apart. For a second his heart stops as the air around him turns white. But he breathes again as he realizes that it's not powder, it's tiny shreds of paper. He tips the envelope upside down over his desk covering the surface with little heaps that look almost, but not entirely, exactly unlike snow. He stares at it.

"McGee!" Tim holds up a hand towards Ziva in a calming gesture.

"Not a problem," he says deadpan, flicking his gaze between the shredded piles on his desk and the envelope in his hand. "It's just someone's idea of a hilarious joke."

"Not hilarious," says Tony, sounding shaken.

Tim grabs his trashcan and drops the envelope in, sweeping the drifts of paper in after it. "Not funny at all," he agrees, looking over to where Tony is gripping the edge of his desk, knuckles white. "Let's presume it was a stupid coincidence, okay? What are the chances someone knew, a, what happened to you a few years back and b, that you'd be right here when I opened the envelope? The odds are not high."

"Yes," says Ziva, nodding at Tim. "Not everything is about you, Tony. A little perspective, if you will."

"Please. The only perspective Tony's interested in is an upskirt shot of Christina Hendricks."

If Tony's eyebrows could climb any higher, they'd disappear into his hairline. "How dare you?" he retorts. "That's..."-the eyebrows begin their slow descent-"...not entirely true."

Tim shrugs, noting that Tony's grip has loosened, and he shoots a glance over at Ziva who gives him a minute nod. They take care of their own.

"But seriously, do you think you should tell Gibbs?"

"Oh, sure. 'Hey, Boss, someone sent me confetti in the mail. I think we should track 'em down, lock 'em up and throw away the key. Your thoughts?'" Tim headslaps himself. "'Oh, well, sure. That's valid.'" He rolls his eyes at Tony. "No."

Tony lifts his hands in surrender. "Just asking," he says. "No skin off my nose if you want to keep your weirdo admirer to yourself. It's not like you're overrun with other options."

"Gee, thanks, Tony. You sure do know how to make a guy feel special." The thing is, Tim's lack of recent dating success has in the main ceased to bother him. Sure it might be nice to have someone to come home to, but coming home to someone righteously pissed that he'd called at the last minute to postpone plans or to apologize for another missed date? That is something he's pretty okay living without. At least for now.

Ziva comes around to perch on his desk. "Ignore him, McGee. You are a very good catch." She pats his arm. "I just happen to have met a very nice woman at my book club (do not say a word, Tony), who I think you would like very much. Shall I give her your number?"

"That's very kind of you, but no." Tim ignores Tony's snort in the background. "It's kind of a busy time, right now."

"Yes. Yes, it is," Tony adds, with the edge of a hiss. "Back off, Zi-va. McGee doesn't need a needy librarian with bad posture and poor eyesight."

"That is not what she looks like. And-"

"All librarians look like that."

"-And compatibility is not predicated on looks alone. Caveman."

"You can use 'predicated' in a sentence but not 'fumigation'? What is wrong with you?"

"What is wrong with you?"

"Ah, to answer that would take a lifetime," says Gibbs, sailing into the squadroom with his usual sense of timing. "Does anyone ever work around here? Does anyone want to keep on doing it?"

And with that, everyone's inner twelve-year-olds are safely stowed away. For the time being.

Tony bugs Tim about the potential librarian and her imaginary imperfections the entire way home. Tim is stuck on the seventeenth of an alphabetical list of murderous options (Q is for quicksand? Positives: disposal of evidence. Negatives: Rolling Tony's body in without losing his own shoes in the process) when he opens his mailbox and pulls out an identical cream envelope to the one he'd received at the Navy Yard. Tony stops his litany mid-flow.

"Open it," he says, putting a hand on Tim's elbow.

Tim does, more gently this time, but the contents still succeed in showering both them and the atrium floor.

"Now are you going to tell Gibbs?" Tony asks, pulling a shred of paper from his lower lip.

Tim shrugs him off. "It's no big deal. Leave it."

"Sure, whatever." Tony shakes his head, tiny scraps launching from his hair and resettling on his jacket giving the impression of the world's worst case of dandruff. "It's not like there's been anything else. No threats against your person. No crazy scrawls or emails."

It's like being plunged down an elevator shaft, Tim thinks. Except less messy and with fewer broken bones. "Tony..." he starts.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Tony says, and pulls out his cell.

***

Gibbs is already behind Tim's desk when they get back to the squadroom. He points at Tim's monitor. "Show me."

Tim thinks about pointing out that getting to his keyboard is more than a little problematic with Gibbs sitting in his chair, but the boss is wearing his most unreadable mask and Tim does not want his chair privileges revoked again. He sidles around the side and half leans across the desk to boot up his computer, the exposed position succeeding in adding a whole new layer to the fraying of his nerves. Part of him still thinks this is all part of some elaborate hoax, but the fact that Tony hasn't cracked a smile since Tim admitted the existence of the emails and that Gibbs's response to Tony's call had been a single, terse command to get the hell back to the Yard has him on edge.

"This is probably nothing," he says, forcing as much joviality into his voice as he can muster. "Maybe I pissed off Abby somehow and she's getting back at me. We should call her and tell her she got us good and then we can all go home."

"This sound like Abby to you?"

Tim shakes his head. Of course not. Abby's revenges are way more subtle and a hell of a lot more fun. He opens the spam folder.

"Oh."

In among the ads for penile enhancement and casinos and begging letters for disinherited Nigerian princes there are a large handful of emails with badly spelled, bolded subject lines, ranging from the oldest (your ded!!!!) to the most recent, arrived in the folder less than an hour before: im coming for u so wotch it!!. Tim drops the mouse and backs up a step.

"Whoa there, Probie," says Tony from right behind him, grabbing his upper arms. "Watch the toes."

He doesn't let go as Tim says, "I guess we should open them, huh?"

"I guess so, McGee." Gibbs leans forward and switches the mouse from the left side of the keyboard to the right, clicking on the first email. He tilts his head very slightly. "Someone needs to learn to use spellcheck. What is this? Okay. 'You will pay for your crime.'" Gibbs looks up at Tim. "Anything you need to tell me?"

Tim shakes his head, mute. Any crimes he's committed he's done on Gibbs's watch and he's long mastered the art of self-justification for those.

"Crimes against fashion, maybe."

"Shut up, DiNozzo."

"Shutting up, boss."

Gibbs opens each email in turn, reading them out loud. The message is mostly the same, but the last few, all dated with today's date, take on a darker tone. "'I know where you work,'" reads Gibbs. "'I know where you live. Does this make you feel unsafe? I hope it does. I'm coming. Enjoy your day.'"

"Wow. Asshole." Tony squeezes Tim's arms and lets go, shuffling behind Gibbs to peer over his shoulder at the screen.

Gibbs looks up at Tim, who really hopes that all the trembling he's doing is on the inside. "Can you trace this?"

"I don't know."

"Can you try?"

"Sure."

Gibbs stands up, brisk and business-like, catching Tony by surprise. Tony manages a flailing combination of stride and fall backwards and sits down with a thump on Tim's cupboard, grabbing at the sliding piles of papers he has managed to dislodge. So much for Tim's system. Gibbs meets Tim's eyes, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at Tony.

"Meet your protection detail," he says. "Bet you've never felt so secure."

Tim grins and then sobers abruptly. "Wait, what?"

"He's already in your apartment, McGee. I can throw another agent into the mix if you like, but I'm warning you; I think they may draw the line at sleeping in the dog bed."

"I won't let anything happen to you, Tim," says Tony. "Trust me. Did I steer you wrong on the kitchen brush?"

"You did not." Tim searches Tony's face and finds nothing but sincerity. He wants to say something else, but his chest is tight and it's like every test he's ever taken come at once, so he just looks and hopes Tony gets it.

Tony taps his closed fist to his chest twice and then twists it towards Tim. "I got your back. Now sit your ass down and do that techno voodoo you do so well."

Tim nods and drops into the chair Gibbs has vacated. If he concentrates on the data, traps it into packets, reduces it into simple patterns and algorithms, maybe he can forget that those patterns form words and those words are threats directed at him for something he doesn't even understand. He opens the command console and gets to work.

***

"Behind me," whispers Tony, taking the key from Tim's hand and sliding it noiselessly into the lock. He turns it and uses the tip of his finger to open the door the smallest crack, placing his foot against it. He unholsters his gun, holding it ready.

"T-" Tim tries, but Tony interrupts him with a finger against his lips and then shoves the door open, weapon outstretched, and stalks through the apartment, clearing the few rooms with a frightening degree of efficiency. It's like he's brought Very Special Agent DiNozzo home with him instead of Tony, and Tim can count off several reasons that he doesn't see this as an upgrade, starting with he's clearing his apartment and moving downwards from there.

Tony comes back into view, holstering his weapon. As if the action flipped some kind of internal switch, Tony's entire expression changes from deathly serious to a full stretch grin and he does a little hop skip to the door, holding it open. "Don't stand there wiping your feet all day, McWorrywart. Come on in."

"At least we made it upstairs this time," Tim points out. His apartment is exactly the same as he left it this morning. The shadows are no shadowier than usual, the furniture considerately fails to loom with menace, there is nothing threatening in the door of the hallway closet standing vaguely ajar because of its personal issues with cabling. It's all perfectly normal. And it is freaking him out.

"Do we have to go through that every single time we come back to the apartment?" he asks. "Because the neighbors are going to talk."

Tony shuts the door. "If you think that's what they're talking about..." he mutters, but fails to elaborate further. Tim can only imagine that it's an unspoken dig at Tim's failure at Real Manning by Tony's standards and shrugs.

"You think Jethro is okay?"

"It's not his first doggy sleepover. He's fine."

"He won't think we've abandoned him?"

"He won't think we've done anything, Tony. He's my dog. As far as he's concerned, you're just the new puppy in the pack."

"Ouch." Tony splays his hand across his heart and then tilts his head. "Cruel but fair." He drops his hand. "Too late for a big dinner. I'll make us some scrambled eggs. Good for a queasy stomach. You feeling queasy, Timmy?"

Tim considers toughing this one out, but hey, if he can't admit to some kind of upset when faced with significant threats from an unknown source, then he might as well dye his hair silver and call himself Gibbs. Only all of those divorces sound tiring and he's too fond of his computers to give them up. So truthful it is. "Yeah."

"Me, too." Tony's face takes on the oh-your-life-is-so-sorrowful expression Tim's seen countless times and, for a second, Tim thinks the guy might swoop in for an awkward hug. Instead, he turns on his heel and disappears into the kitchen, singing an impromptu ditty about the many virtues of spatulas, leaving Tim trying to decide between laughing and shaking his head. He goes with both.

They eat side by side on the couch, watching reruns of Hart to Hart and most definitely not mentioning the fact that Tony is still strapped in to his shoulder holster. The search for the source of the emails had led to a series of increasingly frustrating dead ends and there is no way of knowing what's coming next. Tim won't see Tony parted from his gun until this is all over, one way or another.

"Thanks," he says.

"They were great eggs."

"Not just for that."

Tony pauses for a moment before replying. "You're welcome."

There's a heaviness to the silence that follows--a weight of expectation that Tim can't parse--but Tony seems his normal self as he hands over his empty plate and tells Tim to go mop like the wind. Tim does as he's told and by the time he's done, the omnipresent holster has been resettled over an undershirt and Tony is sprawled along the length of the couch, bare feet resting on its arm.

"Try to catch some Zs, McGeez," he says. "I've got this place locked down tight."

"I'll do my best."

"And that's why you're the king of all the boy scouts." Tony skims two fingers off his forehead in salute. "'Night, Probie."

"Night."

Tim stares at himself in the bathroom mirror, tooth brushing slowing to a desultory scrub as he scours his mental Rolodex of case files yet again for clues. Who has he pissed off lately? There was the woman he'd mistaken for the mother of her own girlfriend which had...not gone well, or the marine whose entire family honor Tim had insulted through a combination of poor timing and miscommunication. But both of those he'd managed to smooth over at the time and there hadn't even been any official complaints. Neither seemed the type to skip straight to threatening emails; besides, he'd seen the marine's written statement and there was no way he spelled that badly. You didn't have to be an expert in profiling to see that the emails had been written from a place of personal pain, and Tim kind of likes to make it a mission to inflict as little of that as possible--what he sees on a daily basis provides more than enough. There has to be something he's missing. But what? What?

Tim is still worrying at the conundrum as the sky begins to lighten. His thoughts slide into each other, spinning crazier and crazier scenarios that somehow involve serried ranks of preschoolers with their little kiddie keyboards and poor dictionary skills armed with jerry-rigged popguns that are less pop, more bang. At this point, anything seems possible. Exhausted, he finally falls asleep.

***

Tim has barely stepped out of the elevator when Abby surges towards him like a stompy-booted tsunami and flings her arms around him.

"Oh my god, Timmy, Gibbs told me everything," she says. "How could anyone want to hurt you?"

"You're doing a pretty good job yourself." Tim detaches himself and takes a step back, rubbing his shoulder. "Ow. How is your chin so pointy?"

"Secret weapon." Abby reaches for Tim's elbow and escorts him to his desk. "Do you have any clues? Do you have any new emails? Do you want to check?"

Not really, thinks Tim. "No. I don't know. Sure, why not?"

Abby hovers by Tim's shoulder as he powers up his computer and he can feel the eyes of the rest of the team on him. They mean well, he knows, but it's unnerving and he wishes he could just tell them all to go the hell away. The boot time seems even more unbearably drawn out than usual. Tim feels the familiar frustration beginning to rise with the added bonus of a heart that thinks it skipped the elevator and jogged up the stairs two at a time.

"The suspenders are killing me," says Ziva.

"Then get a new pair," snaps Tony. "C'mon, Ziva, you can't possibly not-" He trails off as Ziva smirks, picks up her notebook and, with a flourish, adds another tally mark.

"Why are you doing that?" asks Tony, but his question is doomed to remain unanswered as Tim's email program chooses that second to open up.

Tim stares at the screen. "Only two." He tries to keep his tone light. "Oh, and they've finally learned how to spell 'dead', so I guess that's a step in the right direction."

He hasn't even finished his sentence before everyone is crowding around, watching his monitor as if somehow answers, or the weirdo stalker, will crawl out of it. It's more than a little claustrophobic and Tim pants under his breath as conversations go on above his head. There's a brief, gentle touch against the back of his neck but before Tim has a chance to take note Tony is shooing Ziva and Abby away, leaving Tim alone in his space.

"Abby, you wanna check the Mail Room? See if there are any unusual packages for Tim and work your forensic magic on them?"

Abby nods. "Oh, good idea! I'll get right on it."

"And Ziva, we're reviewing the past six month's cases to pull a suspect list together. But it could be that McGee pissed off some neighbor or stiffed some minimum wage slave out of a tip, so go to his building and ask around. I'll get Tim to write out any other potential leads and email them to you."

"On it, boss," says Ziva, and then winces, slapping her forehead. "On it, Tony."

Tony grins. "Right first time." Squadroom cleared, he turns to Tim.

"Okay?"

Tim presses his lips together. For what definition of okay? His heart is slowing down again, though, and it's easier to breathe. He nods. Tony opens up a filing cabinet and pulls out a folder, tossing it to Tim. He takes out another one for himself.

"Then let's get to work. I want at least four names to show Gibbs by the time he's done communing in MTAC."

"Right."

Tim flips open the folder and starts to read. The case had been simple enough: the rape of a sailor by an ex-boyfriend. Tim had used financials to track the guy's movements and then plotted a pursuit curve, accurately intercepting him before he fled the country and leading to his arrest. But it had been local LEOs who'd taken the guy and Tim had never even set eyes on him. No one knew what he'd done except the team and Vance and the file didn't suggest anyone gave even the tiniest of hoots that the rapist was locked up out of harm's way. Still, Tim scours the AARs in case there's something he's missed. It's strange; he's spent so long training himself out of second-guessing his decisions and now he's got to second, third and fourth guess every last one. It's like he's having to shuck the carefully constructed armor of self-confidence it's taken him years to build and, right now, that's more threatening than the potential danger to his life.

"You doing okay, Tim?" Tony asks again, and Tim realizes an hour has already passed since the last time they'd spoken.

He looks over, concerned that everything is written on his face, hanging out for the world to see and poke fun at, but Tony's frowning down as he pages through his own folder, legal pad covered in his untidy scrawl set at an angle next to it. It's just a check in. Tim's soft underbelly is safe for now.

"No." He gets up to put the file away and pulls out a new one.

Tony's head jerks up and he regards Tim with a long, open stare. Tim stiffens, feeling sudden deep sympathy for Abby's microscope slides, and shuts the cabinet drawer more fiercely than necessary, ducking his head away from the keen gaze.

"We will fix this."

"I know," says Tim, and thinks, when?

"Make that list for Ziva."

"Tony, I haven't pissed anyone off."

Tony leans back in his chair, swiveling from side to side. "You sure, McScrooge? You haven't bilked or swindled or hoodwinked or double-crossed or ruined or thwarted? Not anyone?"

Tim shakes his head, lips twitching despite himself. "No, I have not bilked or swindled or hoodwinked or double-crossed or ruined or...Or?"

"Thwarted."

"Thwarted."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure."

Tony taps his pen against his open mouth. "Make the list anyway."

Tim rolls his eyes and pulls up his calendar. It's going to be a waste of his time, but why not keep Tony happy? There's an even chance if he doesn't make the list Tony's going to progress from tapping to making that weird popping noise and demanding Tim tell him what tune he's 'playing' and there's no Ziva or Gibbs to threaten Tony with some form of maiming if he doesn't shut the hell up.

And so the long day passes. Ziva comes back from Tim's building empty, except for the amused expression she's sporting, and she and Gibbs spend the afternoon chasing up leads Tony feeds them. Tim fends off visits from what seems like half the building, their genuine concern about his wellbeing only making him feel like more of a dumbass for causing a fuss. It's just...there's nothing anyone can do, and Tim can't manage their helplessness when he's stuck managing his own.

They get nothing that day. Nor the next. Or the third. The emails are still coming, but there are no new clues, no obvious leads, nothing to dig fingertips under and get a real purchase on. Tony clearing the apartment and ghosting Tim wherever he goes starts to become routine, and when a new case comes in on the fourth day Tim's glad to have something different to do. It's not as if anyone is forgetting there's an unknown person somewhere out there who could pose some kind of threat, it's just that they're going to have to make a move before anything can be done and in the meantime life goes on. And that, reflects Tim, shows it's possible to get used to more or less anything.

***

Tim already has his jacket off by the time Tony's done clearing the apartment, Jethro at his heels looking up as if waiting for instruction. They've got this down to a fine art by now. The first couple of times there'd been accidental tripping, cursing and yelping, but now they're a one-two punch. Two guard dogs for the price of one. Tony gives him the nod and Tim goes in, tossing his jacket over a hook.

"Wow," he says. "Can you remember the last time we made it home this early?"

Tony shakes his head, frowning as he fumbles reholstering his gun. "No I cannot." He looks over at Tim and grins. "You know what we should do?"

"Is it legal?"

Tony's lips twitch left and right as he pretends to consider the question. He shrugs. "Why not?"

"So?"

"So let's go out for dinner."

"Is that allowed?" Tim tugs his tie loose and wanders into the bedroom, rolling the tie around his hands with practiced ease. He opens a drawer and drops it in, shoving the drawer closed. Best not to look too close; a reorganization had been a long time waiting.

"Eh, live a little," says Tony from way closer than Tim was expecting, making him jump. Tony leans, bouncing his shoulder off the doorjamb. "You didn't even get your daily illiterate electronic message. If the stalker can take a day off, why can't we?"

It's a logic Tim is too tired dredge up any enthusiasm to argue against. "What about Jethro?"

"Feed him and bring him with us. C'mon, it's still happy hour at Rumba's. We'll sit outside, drink five dollar mojitos, pet the dog, shoot the breeze."

Tim winces. "No shooting. Of any kind."

"Okay, no shooting. I'll even let you whup my ass at chess if there's a board free."

Honestly? Tim had been sold at five dollar mojitos. "I'm in."

"That's my boy." Tony reaches out and yanks Tim's shirt out of his pants. Tim slaps his hands away. "Get going, McSlowpoke. Cheap booze waits for no man."

"Then go feed the dog or something. I'm not getting changed with you standing right there." Tim folds his arms. There will be no judging his clothing today. Or jokes about what muscles Tim does or does not have or questions on if he waxes or shaves or if he's never actually made it past puberty. There are limits to his cope and he already has one foot over the line.

Tony's grin is slow and lazy and he rolls himself off the doorpost with a backwards flip of his fingers. "I'll go feed the dog or something."

The low-level nausea Tim's been carrying all week takes this opportunity to remind him of its presence and Tim squeezes his eyes shut, swallowing hard against the sudden burning in his throat. Mojitos are probably a bad idea. Possibly a terrible one. He opens his eyes again, clenching his jaw. No random creeper is going to keep him from living his life. He's going out with his best friend--god help him--like a normal human being and they are going to have a good time. He starts to unbutton his shirt.

"You do know we're in public, right?" asks Tim as Tony makes loud moaning noises around a forkful of ceviche. "Is this some kind of performance foodgasm?"

Tony stabs another forkful and lifts it up. "You have got to try this. Seriously. It's the best thing ever."

"Three mojitos down and anything's going to be the best ever," Tim points out. "Also it's raw fish. An interesting fact about me: I'm not a big fan of death by food poisoning."

"Don't be a baby. You think this place doesn't have hygiene certificates coming out of its ass? Expand those horizons. Stretch your tiny wings. Try something different, Tim. Who knows? You might even enjoy it."

Tony jabs the fork towards Tim and he opens his mouth instinctively, only half out of self-preservation. His lips close around the cool, soft mouthful and the flavors burst across his tongue, heat and acid balancing the mild sweetness of the fish. Tony takes the fork away and watches Tim chew.

"Okay, that's really good," Tim says, wiping the corner of his mouth with a finger.

"Told you you'd like it. Sometimes you gotta step out of the box, McTimid."

Tim snorts, nearly choking in the process. "I don't know what to tell you, man," he says. "But you have set up permanent residence in the box. See hot woman, want hot woman. Bed hot woman, see new hot woman. Rinse. Repeat. Gibbs's right hand man? Check. Push-me-pull-you who even knows what it is with Ziva? Check. Trust me, I'm not the only one who needs to shake it up."

"Moved out of the box, didn't I?" mutters Tony under his breath and then, louder, "If I'd had any less alcohol I'd be offended, but as it is? Touché, Timothy. Touché."

It's long gone dark when they wander the short journey home. They'd both switched to water when common sense had kicked in and happy hour had shipped out, but Tim still has that pleasant, buzzed sensation of the lightly toasted and it's the most relaxed he's felt in days. He looks sideways at Tony and leans across, bumping their shoulders together.

"You actually had a good idea for once in your life," he says.

Tony slings an arm around Tim's shoulder. "Say it with flowers, why don't you?"

They walk the rest of the way in companionable silence and it occurs to Tim that they haven't been out to dinner together since they got Ziva back all those months ago. It had been a standing date back when the two of them were all each other had. Tim casts another sidelong glance at Tony, the weight of his draped arm heavy and warm across him, and realizes that he's missed this. He thinks about saying something to that effect, but he doesn't want to risk Tony laughing at him and spoiling the moment. Instead he locks step with Tony and tugs Jethro closer to heel.

"Do I get to clear my own apartment this time?" Tim asks, as they approach his door.

"Every time you take your socks off." Tony steps in front of him. "Hush now."

Tim rolls his eyes and leans back against the wall. Nothing is going to happen and nothing is going to take his buzz away. There's a click from the end of the hallway and he jerks his head around, putting a hand to his swooping stomach. But it's only Mrs. Radetzky's door opening and he lets his hand drop. He sees one narrowed eye peering out from small, chained crack and smiles weakly, offering a small wave. The door closes again.

"Nice to see you, too," he says.

"Clear," says Tony from inside.

By the time Tim has settled Jethro in his crate, Tony has scoured Tim's jazz collection and the first notes of Springsville fill the air.

"There," says Tony, stepping back and taking a seat on the couch. "I knew it couldn't all be death by dinner jazz with you. Miles Davis, the Prince of Darkness himself. No one blows a horn better."

"Oh, I don't know. You toot your own pretty good." Tim frowns as Tony flips the album cover around and around between his fingertips. "You better not have gotten your greasy fingerprints on the vinyl, DiNozzo. That's an original pressing. You can tell by the-"

"By the hot chick on the sailboat. I know my jazz history, McGee. Relax. No fingerprints, I promise." Tony tosses the cover lightly onto the coffee table and wiggles his fingers at Tim. He pats the cushion next to him. "Now come sit down and listen to the epic musical stylings of the king of jazz."

Tim sits, stretching out his legs, tipping back his head and closing his eyes. He lets the music flow through him, the different instruments playing off and supporting each other like the heat-acid-sweetness of the ceviche Tony'd fed him earlier. It's interesting, he thinks, sometimes it's the dissonances that set up the most intriguing arrangements. Like a minor second or olive oil with ice cream. It's all in the resolution.

They're well into Blues for Pablo when the alarms start, shattering the quiet calm with devastating efficiency. Tony leaps to his feet and is at the window in a flash, shoving Tim back down with a hand as he passes.

"Cars," he says. "Yours, I think. Maybe mine."

Tim shivers, suddenly cold. "Do you think it's-" He can't bring himself to finish the sentence.

Tony looks past him at the door and then back out of the window. "Don't know. Maybe. Get your keys."

At the building door Tony grabs Tim's arm and pulls him in tight behind him. "Stay close."

The street is a symphony of noise and Tim winces against it, resisting the urge to stick his hands over his ears. Every last car on their side of the street is flashing orange in a syncopated rhythm of which Miles Davis would be proud. People are pouring out of every building in various states of undress, wielding car remotes like weapons. One by one the alarms drop away and the lights stop flashing, the irritated murmur of residents returning to their homes a quiet coda to Adams Morgan's mechanical flash mob. Tony isn't done yet, though, keeping his weapon down low and scouring the street from end to end, Tim at his elbow.

There's nothing to see. Tony holsters the gun with a shrug. "Kids, probably," he says. "I don't know about you, but I think I drained my adrenal glands dry, there. No more excitement for me until the tank's refilled."

Tim nods his agreement. Consider the buzz well and truly buzzed off. They trudge back upstairs and into the apartment. Jethro keens and scrabbles in his crate and Tim goes into the kitchen to soothe him.

"Hey, fella," he says, stroking the top of Jethro's head through the cage. "If that was bad enough for us, I can't imagine what it did to your doggy ears. It's all good now, okay? Go to sleep."

Tim closes the kitchen door behind him, muffling Jethro's continued whining.

"Not a happy camper," says Tony.

"He'll settle down eventually. You going to be okay with the noise?"

"If I can sleep through Ziva's driving I can sleep through anything."

"Point." Tim turns to go to the bathroom.

"Tim?"

He turns back. "Yeah?"

"I had a good time tonight."

"Me, too." Tim smiles. "Well, apart from the sheer terror. That was not my favorite thing." He shudders, Tony echoing the movement. They pause. Tony's eyes are warm and, for no reason, Tim feels himself begin to flush. "So, goodnight then," he says, backing up a step and turning away.

"Sleep good, Tim."

"You, too."

It must be the after effects of the scare, Tim thinks, because he lies awake for a long time thinking about nothing much and listening for the sounds that remind him he's not alone.

When Tim does sleep, he sleeps hard, and it's not the dip of the mattress that wakes him, nor the heavy weight of someone straddling his thighs. But the soft click of a catch and the cold press of metal against his throat tear right through his blanket of dreaming and he is wide awake, staring up at the shadow of his worst nightmare, and when he swallows hard in horror, he can feel the barrel of the gun ride against his skin.

His first instinct is to yell for Tony, his mouth half open before he's even formed a conscious thought, but he'll be dead before the man's even off the couch and he lets it fall closed again.

"Good choice," says the intruder.

Tim knows that he's supposed to establish a connection with the guy, find out what makes him tick, give him more reasons to keep Tim alive, but it's pretty hard to think straight when there's a gun to your neck and all you can see is a thick, black shadow. He can tell the man is paler than his clothes and that he must be pure muscle given how much he weighs compared to the shadowy outline, but that's more or less it. He licks his lips but his mouth is dry as the desert they found Ziva in. He clenches his fists, the pulses in his fingertips hammering at his palms. Everything has to start somewhere.

"The alarms were a distraction, huh?" he says in a low voice. "That's pretty clever." Flattery: Strategy one.

The shadow shrugs. "I watch movies. Create a diversion. It's one oh one." There's a slight tremor under the arrogant tone of his words and Tim hopes maybe there's something to work with.

"Well, I applaud the ingenuity. But look, man- I can't call you man. What's your name?"

The man shifts his weight and the gun slides a couple of millimeters to the left. The metal is warm now, reflecting Tim's heat back at him. They're in this together.

"Mike."

"Hi, Mike," Use their name to create an association: Strategy two. "I'm Tim." But you knew that already, you crazy lunatic, he does not say. "Look, Mike, what have I done to make you so angry? I'll fix it if I can, but you have to talk to me." He hopes the, 'I can't fix it if I'm dead,' is implicit.

To Tim's surprise--and concern--the gun begins to tremble as Mike's whole body shakes. Tim realizes the guy is crying.

"Mike. Hey, Mike, I'm sorry, okay?" The part of Tim's brain that can't stand it when people are hurting wants him to uncurl his fingers and at least pat the guy's arm. The part of Tim's brain that is screaming red alert punches the first in the face and tells it not to move one solitary inch.

Mike raises one arm and wipes his sleeve across his nose. Tim hears the familiar childhood sound of wet snot being sniffed up with abandon and realizes that whoever Mike is, he can't be much more than a kid. And suddenly, it's not about getting out of here alive any more. It's about saving them both.

"Mike," he prompts, trying not to let his voice crack.

Mike sniffs again and then brings his hand down, doubling his grip on the gun. Tim tries to remember what his yoga instructor had told them about breathing when he took that class a year back. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Keep calm and count. Keep calm.

"You took him," Mike says.

"Took who?"

"Pat."

"I'm sorry, Mike. You're gonna need to be more specific. I work a lot of cases. I don't remember everything."

Mike's laugh is hollow and without even an ounce of humor. "Yeah, you ruin my life and you don't even remember. Stands to reason. I'm just some worthless piece of shit and no one gives a damn. Except Pat." The gun shakes again. In through the nose, out through the mouth, Tim chants in his head. "Pat cared about me."

"Tell me about him."

"Captain Patrick Morgan, Port Operations, stationed at Norfolk. Remember him now, Agent?" The gun presses a little harder into his Adam's apple and Tim coughs, unable to help himself, his whole body convulsing. Mike bends forward, shoving a hand over Tim's mouth, his thighs tensing around Tim in a vice-like grip. Tim's eyes water and he blinks back the tears, nodding to let Mike know it's safe to take his hand away.

"I'm sorry," he gasps. "Just. Maybe don't press so hard." He pauses to catch his breath. "I remember. I liked him. But, see, Mike, here's the thing. Morgan defrauded the government and he went to jail. That's how the law works. I'm sorry I arrested your friend, I really am. But you can still go see him in prison and he'll be out in a few years. You don't need to do this. Don't ruin your life for his."

"It's already ruined, and it's your fault." Mike jerks his arms back and pushes his gun into Tim's chest, hard. Tim clenches his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut. Fuck. It's going to bruise, but Tim will take that a million times over the worse case scenario.

"You've got to help me understand," he says. "Please."

"He's the only one who knew. The only one." Mike punctuates the last sentence with another shove of the gun in Tim's ribs. "You don't know--you can't know--what it's like. When the worst of them is the one you'd get down on your knees for, the one whose face you see when you close your eyes and he hates you. He don't know it yet but he does because we don't want none of them pansy boys in our division, Mike, let me tell you what I'd do to a faggot if I caught him looking at me, Mike. Bastard wouldn't sit down for a month. You're with me, right, Mike?"

Tim's eyes widen with horrified understanding. He doesn't need to ask because Mike's done with not telling.

"And Captain Morgan--Pat--he didn't have to ask, he just knew. He knew because he was just like me and he said...he said as long as we stuck together we'd be okay and we were. I'd get messed up in my head and he always knew what to say to straighten it out. He made everything clear again. He said no one chooses who they fall in love with. He said no one chooses how they get made. He said I was...he said I was good. He saved me. He saved me." Mike rocks forward, thighs pressing into Tim's hip bones and smashes the gun down sideways on Tim's sternum. The impact startles a yelp out of Tim and Mike hisses, hand again over Tim's mouth, stilling them both.

They stay unmoving for long moments, Mike's head slightly tilted to one side, listening, the only sound in the room Tim's rapid breathing through his nose. But there's nothing outside the room, no movement, no nothing. Tony must be sleeping like the dead, Tim thinks, and then wishes he hadn't because what if Mike has already dealt with Tony? Suddenly he can't breathe. Tim scrabbles at Mike's hand, for a second forgetting the position he's in. Mike lets him pull it away, though, and Tim gasps in great, ragged breaths.

"Did you?" he starts and then stops because he's not done with the hyperventilating yet. "You haven't hurt anyone yet, have you?"

Mike shakes his head and tugs his hand away from Tim's grasp. "Who else is there?" he asks. "You made the arrest. I saw it. I don't care about nobody else."

Tim nods, slowing his breathing with long exhales. "I get it," he says. "I'm so sorry. I really am. But, Mike, how could I know? You said yourself Captain Morgan was the only one you talked to about your...your situation. I get how screwed up everything is for you right now, but killing me isn't going to bring him back. You won't even get sent to the same jail. You'll be stuck out in Leavenworth and he's where? Miramar? Charleston? Just stop and think for a second. Don't do something you'll regret for the rest of your life. Let me help you."

Mike shakes his head, but Tim feels the muscles in his legs relax and the gun weighs heavier on his chest as Mike's grip lessens. They're getting somewhere.

"How? I'm so fucked. Everything's so fucked up. How?"

Tim tries the voice he uses to talk Abby down from her semi-regular panic attacks over the continued health and wellbeing of one team member or another. "For a start, I won't report you. You just walk on out of here and we'll pretend this whole thing never happened. No one will ask you any awkward questions you don't want to--you can't--answer. And I know people; I can pull strings. I can get you a new assignment and, okay, it's not going to miraculously solve all your problems, but at least you won't have to look that asshole in the eye any more. That's got to be better than life imprisonment, right?"

"It's...I guess." Mike's hand relaxes further and if he eases off just a little more Tim knows he can get his hand on the gun and it'll be all over bar the cleanup. All he needs is the right closing argument.

And that's when Tony bursts through the door, harsh light breaking across them like a wave. Mike is off Tim immediately, Tim's thighs screaming in pain as they're released. Mike stands in the shaft of light, weapon trained on Tony. He's not shaking any more, but now Tim can see his face and he is just a kid. A frightened kid with wide, pale eyes and freckles that stand out clear against blood-drained, sallow skin. Tony is looking straight at Mike, his own gun steady as a rock. He glances quickly sideways.

"You okay, Tim?"

Tim struggles to his elbows. He would get up, but he can't move his legs, the pins and needles shooting through his feet and calves making him forget the bruising to his chest. "You keep asking me that," he says. "Pick a new question."

"You're okay," Tony says. He tips his head at Mike. "Put the gun down, kid. There's only one way this ends."

"Actually, there's not." Tim turns his attention to the kid. "Nothing has changed," he says. "Trust me, Mike. I'm not going to let this end badly for you."

"Tim."

"Put your gun down, Tony."

"McGee."

"Put it down. He's not going to hurt me and he isn't remotely interested in you. Try not to let that damage your ego, okay? Just put the gun down."

"Are you sure?"

Tim looks at Mike and wonders what would have happened if his dad had had his way and sent Tim into the Navy. There but for the grace of God, etcetera, etcetera, he thinks. He licks his lips and this time it works. "Sure I'm sure."

Tony throws Tim another quick look and then holds up his hands, letting the gun swing loose from a finger. "I'm putting down my weapon. See?" He bends down and places it on the floor, then stands back up, hands in the air. "How about you put down yours?"

Mike twists his head between Tony and Tim, eyes impossibly wide. "What do I do?" he asks Tim.

"You put your gun down and we go with the deal as agreed. Okay, Mike?"

"What's the deal?" asks Tony.

Mike casts an anguished look at Tim and he nods, understanding. "I have to tell Tony. He's part of this now whether we like it or not. But I won't make you go through it again--I think we've both had enough tonight, right?"

Mike nods and his arms begin to lose their tension, gun slowly pointing towards the floor. Tim squeezes his calves, wincing against the sharp needles of pain.

"Leave the gun. You're not going to need it."

Mike nods again, more firmly this time like he's made up his mind. He clicks on the safety and turns the gun around, offering the grip to Tony. Grim-faced, Tony takes it from him.

"Go," says Tim.

"Are you insane?" Tony reaches out and grabs Mike's upper arm. "You want him to just walk out of here? He threatened your life, Tim. He could have killed you. Have you lost your mind?"

Mike looks more terrified than ever and as much as Tim wants to say, yes, yes I probably have lost my mind and can you take this all away and make it so I never have to deal with it again, he can't. He can't. "I've got this, Tony. You've both got to trust me here. Let go."

Tony scowls, but does what he's told.

"Mike, go home. Go now. I think we all know you have my email address, so use it properly this time. You kept your end of the deal by, you know, not killing me when you had the chance, so let me keep mine. Go home."

Mike's bottom lip quivers as he offers one final nod before he runs past Tony and out of the room. The front door opens and shuts in rapid succession. Tony stares at Tim in a mix of total incomprehension and relief and Tim stares back, hardly able to believe it's over. He considers pinching himself to check he's really awake, but the million tiny pinpricks in his legs are proof enough so instead he throws himself back against his pillows and says, "Well, fuck a duck."

And Tony says, "Not today."

Tim laughs. First because it's funny, second because of the relief and then third because he can't stop. Tony comes around the bed, sitting down at the edge.

"Am I going to have to slap you?" he asks, and for some reason that's the funniest thing Tim has ever heard and he turns onto his side curling up and folding his arms against the pain in his ribs that comes with every rise and fall of his chest.

Tony stares at him in perplexed wonderment and Tim keeps right on laughing. "Oh god," he pants, as his eyesight starts to fizz around the corners from lack of oxygen. "Tony, stop me. I think I'm going to die."

"Not on my watch," says Tony. He shoves Tim's arms out of the way and tweaks one of his nipples. Hard. Tim stops laughing.

"Thank you," he pants.

"You're welcome."

"Tony?"

"Uhuh?"

Tim flaps an arm out, fingertips grazing Tony's knee. "Will you just...stay here? I'm kinda freaked out if you hadn't noticed."

"Little freaked out myself. Just give me a second." Tony gets up and goes to pick up his gun, wandering out of the room. Tim hears the chain scrape in its track and then Tony goes past the doorway again, heading towards the bathroom, unclipping his shoulder holster. It's like all the residual fight, all the pent-up energy, goes out of Tim's body at once and he is barely able to keep his eyes open.

"You still alive there?" Tony asks as he slides into bed next to Tim.

"Mmm."

"Do you want to tell me what happened?"

"Unhhh."

"I'm sorry, I don't communicate in your language. Speak in human, please, alien person."

Tim opens his eyes to find Tony leaning on his elbow, looking down at him. He has left the door ajar, and the light spills across the bed, highlighting Tony's green eyes that glitter with concern.

"Can I tell you tomorrow? It's been a bit of a day."

"Move over Gibbs, we have a new king of understatement in town." Tony's hand stutters towards Tim, not quite reaching him before dropping to the bed. "Tomorrow is fine. Tell me over eggs."

"Sounds good."

Tony's hand is on the move again, only this time it wraps around Tim's arm, warm and solid. He squeezes. "Don't tell anyone I said this, but I'm pretty glad you're not dead, Timothy No Middle Name McGee."

"No need to tell if nobody asks," says Tim and then something catches in his chest and he freezes, Tony's eyes on his as steady as his aim had been earlier. His heart starts to race.

And then Tony's stomach lets out a long, loud squeak like he's swallowed a mouse and the moment is gone.

"What the hell was that?"

Tony stares down at his belly. "Tapas? Terror? The terror of tapas?"

"Are you carrying a food baby? Because no way am I feeling that thing move. Delivery room is down the hall."

Tony's stomach growls again. "Steady contractions, I think we're safe for sleep."

"At least your bag is permanently packed."

Tony stills and then looks up, his smile as tired as Tim feels. "True." He lets go of Tim's arm and turns onto his back.

"Sleep tight," Tim says.

"Don't go biting b-" Tony replies, but Tim is asleep before he gets to the end of the sentence.

***

"Well, hey there, sleepyhead," says Tony as Tim staggers, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen. He hands over a cup of coffee. "Drink up. You look like you need ten of these."

Tim sips, letting the bitter richness of the coffee wash away the bad taste left by the night before. "Are we late? Where's Jethro?"

"Mira came by already. Don't worry, he was just fine. Trotted off without a backward glance, the ungrateful mutt. I called Gibbs and gave him a sit rep. Let him know you might not be in today."

Tim shakes his head. "No. I promised Mike. I have to check my email. I can't keep him hanging."

Tony smashes an egg into the frying pan with fervor, swearing under his breath as he fishes out bits of shell. "I'm having trouble with the concept of, oh, you know, everything," he says. "Let's start with how I messed up and a guy got in here and tried to kill you and move alllll the way to how you seem to be best buddies with the guy who, let's see, tried to kill you."

If he stirs the eggs any more vigorously, the wall is going to be wearing most of them, Tim thinks. "Wait, what? You messed up?"

"Who's the one who didn't clear the apartment when we came back from the ruckus outside? It was a ruse, Tim. A ruse. I should've seen that, but no. Too busy hanging on to our evening. So I let the guy in and then? Then?" He waves the spatula in the air. "Then I sleep through the whole part where he's threatening you. Oh, yeah, I'm the best protection detail in the business. Expecting the call from the President any day now." He slaps the spatula down in the pan and egg flies up in every direction, well and truly scrambled.

"Tony, no."

"Timmy, yes."

Tim's stomach flips somersaults. Probably hungry, Tim guesses. "Look, I didn't think about checking the place either. And Jethro knew and I didn't pick that up. He's my dog, I should know better. So, okay, if you messed up, I messed up, so we're even."

Tony shakes his head, but the set of his shoulders relaxes and it looks like the eggs might live to see the plate. Tim takes another sip of his coffee and leans on the counter. He's too caffeine-deprived to be able to figure out the perfect thing to say, but he knows from experience that guilt is a destructive emotion so he has to at least give it his best shot. "I slept good, didn't I?" he says. "I slept really good."

The smile is blink-and-you'll-miss-it, but it's genuine. If the message has gotten through, then great. If Tony heard the unspoken essay that couches Tim's few words then so much the better.

Tim says, "Give me some eggs and I'll tell you a story."

***

"What time do you call this?" asks Ziva when they finally make it into work.

"Telling the time is a basic skill, Ziva," says Tony, flinging his coat over his divider. "Shouldn't you have learned by now?"

"Tim," says Gibbs, ignoring the back and forth going on behind him. There's a world in his economy of words and Tim doesn't need to hear any more to know everything is status quo at Team Gibbs.

"Boss."

He boots up his computer, listening to Tony and Ziva bicker, and it's all so automatic, so normal, it's like nothing has ever happened. And then his cursor is hovering over his email icon and the bile is rising to his throat. He swallows, trying to control the burgeoning panic, and looks across at Tony. Tony, still locked in battle with Ziva, stops mid sentence and crosses to Tim in swift strides. He puts a hand on Tim's shoulder.

"What? Scared of computers now, McLuddite? What are you, some kind of technophobe? Have you been taking lessons from Gibbs. Sorry, boss."

Tim squares his shoulders and clicks. The subject lines drop into his inbox one by one. The thousandth internal memo on breakroom policy, the exciting secondment opportunity for systems operators, the ubiquitous globally addressed 'Sorry if this does not concern you' email about some bake sale somewhere scanned and deleted in quick succession. But no bolded, badly spelled subject line from an email account with an unmemorable name. Instead, an email entitled simply, 'sorry', from a mike.porter@navy.mil.

The nausea washes away. Everything is going to be okay now, Tim knows it like he knows Ziva steals his comics to read and that Tony's 'secret' ingredient in his spaghetti sauce is chocolate. He reaches up and pats Tony's hand. "Thanks."

Tony doesn't respond, just turns away and demands Ziva demonstrate her time-telling skills on analog clocks as well as digital. "Any fool can read out two numbers," he says. "But quarters? That's complicated stuff."

Tim smiles to himself as he opens the email. Most days it's difficult to tell if Tony is a crack agent or a cracked one. A little from column A and a little from column B, most likely. Tim wouldn't have it any other way.

The email is short and to the point. It reads:

i am so sorry for last nite and all the other crap. i was hurting bad and i didnt think. i wont do nothing so dum again. please help me like u said u wood. i no i dont deserve it but i dont have no one else.

mike

Tim takes a deep breath and hits reply. He writes:

I'm making a phone call now. I'm going to get this moving for you as quick as I can. In the meantime, hang on in there, Mike. You can talk to me if you need to, okay? Just do what you promised and don't do anything stupid.

Tim McGee

He clicks send and then reaches out for the phone.

***

Three days later and all the wheels are in motion, Mike's transfer is due to come through any day now and Tim no longer feels sick dread when he checks his inbox. He's even allowed to walk into his apartment first. Tony is in the kitchen fixing supper as usual and everything in Tim's world is back to normal.

Wait. How is Tony in the apartment normal?

Tim bounces to his feet and is in the kitchen before he can think. "Tony," he says. "One day roaches are going to take over the earth, but that day is not now. How are you still in my apartment? They could have fumigated the whole of DC in the time you've been here."

Tony stirs something delicious smelling and doesn't look up. "You know, sleeping tight and not letting the bedbugs bite is something I'm deeply committed to," he mumbles.

"Someone needs to be deeply committed."

"I'm just saying that surely you'd be behind my continued mental and physical health. After all I've done for you, Timmy. You know life wasn't worth living before you got the kitchen brush."

Tim pulls a face, about to retort, and Tony spins around with a spoonful of something a deep orangey-red and says, "Whatever. Shut up and taste this sauce."

He advances on Tim, proffering the spoon, and Tim obediently opens his mouth. He closes around it and then it hits him like a fist in the gut. Tony's expression is open, so proud of his culinary skills, so excited and happy to share it with Tim, and everything is suddenly overwhelming in its simplicity. Tim staggers back, hitting the refrigerator door and sliding to the floor, Tony letting go of the spoon just in time to keep Tim's teeth where they belong.

"Too much garlic?" asks Tony. "I thought so."

But Tim can't answer. Can't move, can barely breathe. He's so in love with this man that if he even twitches he's afraid he'll come completely apart. How has this come as such a surprise? How is he supposed to get through his life knowing this? Or the next hour? Or the next second?

"Tim?" Tony crouches down in front of him. "Tim? Is this delayed shock? Are you okay? What can I do? Do you want me to pinch your nipple again? Or maim any other body part? Tim?" Tim can't respond, and Tony shakes his head, reaching out to gently tug the spoon out of Tim's mouth.

"Fuck," says Tim.

"Your hands are trembling."

Tim looks down at his hands. They are trembling. And so is the rest of him. It's delayed shock, all right, just not the kind that Tony is assuming.

"Something sweet," Tony is saying. "That's supposed to be good for shock. Sweet tea. We have tea, right?"

And Tim thinks, screw this, life is way too short to shillyshally, dipping your toe in the water when you've long since learned how to swim. He lurches forward, mouth colliding with Tony's in a clumsy kiss. He doesn't know what he's expecting, but when Tony kisses him back, arms coming around Tim to clutch him in a tight embrace, he realizes that this is how it's been meant to be all along. The spoon clatters unnoticed to the floor. The kiss--sweeter than any tea--transmutes into a hug, cheeks mashed together, as close as the awkwardness of their positions will allow.

"God, finally," mutters Tony against Tim's ear. "You are so slow. I thought I'd have to get you down the courthouse before you'd notice."

Tim's laugh is shaky but his grip is sure and he hugs harder, hanging on for dear life. "Don't judge," he says. "The tortoise always wins the race."

"Not this time," says Tony and kisses him again.

Later, after the sauce has been rescued from burning, and their old knees have been rescued from the floor, Tony says, from his position in Tim's lap. "I let my lease go."

Tim's fingers still in Tony's hair. "You did what now?"

"I let it go. There was no fumigation." Tony looks up. "I didn't want to be on my own any more." His shoulder blades shift against Tim's leg as he shrugs. "More specifically, I didn't want to be on my own without you."

Tim's heart squeezes and he bends down, placing a soft kiss on Tony's forehead. "Idiot." He doesn't ask what would have happened if Tim hadn't been struck with the revelation to end all revelations. Tony is obviously a master at playing the long game. Instead he asks, "Where's all your stuff?"

"Storage."

"Wanna go pick some of it up this weekend?"

Tony twists in Tim's lap, giving him a sharp look. "Are you sure?"

It's Tim's turn to shrug. "My bank balance is healthier these days what with all the takeout I'm not buying. Probably my arteries are healthier too. And then there's the kitchen brush. You know, if you left, who'd get custody? I'm not sure I can live without it, now."

Tony grins. "It is a good brush. Could be a long, drawn out legal battle. Kramer versus Kramer eat your heart out."

"So we'll go by the lockup this weekend?"

"Absolutely."

"We should clear you some drawer space."

"I would appreciate that."

For long moments they simply grin at each other. Tim's whole body fizzes with the joy of discovery and he can't help but feel like he's won a lottery he hadn't even known he entered. Tony is still Tony, but wholly new, like a much-loved masterpiece restored to bright color--you might never have known something was missing until it was there, shining in front of your face.

Tony says, "You know, I think we should check the quality of your mattress. It's possible I felt a spring the other night."

"Hmm, that does sound wise." Tim bucks his knees up, shifting Tony off his lap. They stumble to the bedroom, kissing and fumbling at each others clothes, Jethro yipping his disapproval from a safe distance.

"Let's give Jethro something to really whine about," says Tony.

And Tim, laughing, closes the door.