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The shivering along Tony's nerves and muscles was like an itch he couldn't scratch. Adrenaline, drugs, the residual cold of the frigid sewer tunnels – or probably some hellish combination of all three, he figured. He watched the floors light up on the NCIS elevator, wondering how he managed to avoid a mandatory trip to Ducky. Gibbs didn't usually trust a cursory check-up on site from some EMTs. Maybe the Boss was distracted, too. Worried about Atlas. Or maybe Ducky wasn't back yet from collecting poor Sacco's body. Shot in the back, poor guy.

How long had Sacco known about Vanessa? About the dead Marines? And, yes, Tony admitted to himself, his thoughts were racing, tumbling over and over each other just like his fingers were twitching, wanting to grab – scratch – get the reeking clothes off his body – rub at his dry eyes until they bled. Bleed. Bleeding off the tension – the exhaustion lurking right around the corner – bleeding off the tingling, the itch. He opened his mouth – couldn't keep it shut – had to keep talking to keep himself from ripping huge gouges in his own skin. Distraction. Heh, it should be his middle name.

"… worried about me, right? You don't have to say anything. I know. Okay, I want you to say it. You care, right?" Just a second's pause. Not too long. Can't wait. The elevator door slid open on the bullpen. "So are you saying you don't care?" Whiny. He sounded whiny as he practically stepped all over Gibbs' heels to get out of the stifling – cold - reeking air of the elevator. Metal box. Coffin.

Steel blue eyes caught his, callused hands on his cheeks stilling Tony, sending his eyebrows up into his itchy, sticky hairline. Gibbs was touching him – hadn't done that - not since - when was that?

"Tony, as far as I'm concerned you're irreplaceable."

Nice. That was nice. A little curl of warmth unwound in Tony's churning belly, taking away some of the jittery mindless rambling.

Gibbs turned away and Tony shuffled after him towards the haven of his desk. He wanted to throw himself in the chair and close his eyes. Wanted to drain off all of the rest of the dread – worry – fear – bravado – think of a plan – hurry - think of a way out - a strategy – get Atlas moving – move – move - hurry – he shook his head to knock out the flurry of thoughts.

Cropped hair, pink scalp peeking through. Wide eyes. Who – McGee?

"Forget about it McGee, he's still alive."

What? Invisible hands slapped Tony into stillness, bruising and cold. Tony watched the relieved smile spread on McGee's pale face as the young man rose from Tony's chair – Tony's desk.

Wait – did Gibbs just say – did he just tell McGee he was sorry Tony was alive? The warmth turned to ice and wrapped Tony's guts in brittle shards and the shivering ramped up its lopsided juggling of Tony's thought process. A joke. Just a joke, right? The putrid stench burned his nose, the memory of the decaying body and the bulge-eyed waitress' gun barrel pointed at his chest swept a wave of despair through him. Was it funny? Should he laugh?


McGee seemed happy to see him. That was good, right?

"You're okay!"

"Yes, I'm grrrreat!" Tony's answering grin was too big, he could feel it as his gaze jumped back and forth between Gibb's amused superiority, Kate's smug twinkle, and McGee's honest compassion. His head swam – he was usually good at this, at reading behind the eyes, adding up all the little tells and shifts and putting it together into the right puzzle. Now his special après-sewer vision swirled all the hints and clues into a reeking mess.

"You sure?" McGee shuffled closer, his almost non-existent eyebrows squinching up like he was in pain.

"Sure! If you don't mind being drugged, lying unconscious in a freezing sewer, being coated with dead guy ooze, and hauling around a whining, 190 pound sack of useless Marine while being chased by a serial killer through standing sewage and sludge," a sharp laugh escaped from between his teeth, "then I'm awesome!"

The younger agent's eyes opened even further. "Holy-" he swallowed roughly as the cloud of eau de decomp that clung to Tony's every pore finally registered. "I'm – I'm sorry," he stammered.

Tony cocked one finger like a gun. "I'm pretty sure you didn't send me out there without back-up, Probie," he winked broadly, ignoring Kate's girlish gasp behind him. "But if you're still sitting in my chair when I get back from the showers, I make no promises. Or," anger rose like a tsunami, swelling up from the depth of his spirit, gathering momentum as it raced along his nerves, "on second thought, keep it." His wave was less casual than Tony would have liked - looked to him more like a hand flailing about for a lifeline to hang onto. "I'm sure this will all work out to be my fault somehow."

Staggering to the filing cabinet, Tony yanked out his emergency change of clothes. The anger hooked long fingers into his psyche as he turned to head back towards the elevator – or maybe the stairs. Yeah. No more enclosed spaces for a little while might be a good idea. Shower. Shower immediately. Right the hell now.

The cotton-clad monolith Tony slammed into knocked a muffled grunt from his lungs and he stumbled. What the heck was with the world today, throwing up stuff just to knock him down? Oh. He recognized that snarl. Gibbs.

"Ducky, first."

Frowning, Tony finally noticed the shocked silence of the bullpen around him. McGee was watching him, green-gilled, mouth hanging open. Across the aisle Kate was standing behind her desk, 'little mother' concern written all over her face. Gibbs – Gibbs was Gibbs. Gibraltar. Gibbs-raltar. Heh.

"Now?" Tony whined. Hot water, the smell of clean, herby soap instead of drippy flesh – he hungered for it like starving man a steak. A steak. His stomach roiled and grumbled.

"Now." Gibbs was stoic. Unmovable. Always right. Of course. "Need a blood sample and your clothes for evidence."

Tony looked down fondly at the checkered shirt and jeans. Comfy. Casual. Even if the shirt was Burberry's Classic Fit Sport Shirt and had cost him a hundred and fifty bucks. Oh, well, he shrugged, at least it wasn't one of his Zegna black pinstripe suits this time.

"Okay," he sighed, skin twitching. Hurry – hurry – hurry. His mind raced ahead again, past Ducky's careful appraisal, the shower's heat and spice, an armful of Abby if she was still here. He frowned. What time was it?

"McGee –" Gibbs jerked his chin.

"Yes, Boss – er, Gibbs."

Tony watched from a great distance as McGee stepped up beside him and took his elbow gingerly. Like Tony was about to break. He laughed and felt a surge of pleasure at Gibbs' frown. He couldn't be too fragile, could he? Managed to drag Atlas's ass to safety, to take crazy-eyes Vanessa out. Heat flushed across his cheeks. Wasn't about to be coddled by a Probie – a Probie at his desk, in his chair. His place.

"DiNozzo –"

"Gone. I'm gone," he murmured, edging around the living rock. He slid towards the stairs, always on alert for another obstacle, another unexpected zig for his zag. He dragged his 'protector' behind him, ignoring McGee's tentative lurch towards the tiny, coffin-like elevator. Tony shoved the stairway door open and jogged down the steps, rounding the corners and picking up speed.

"Tony – Tony, wait!"

"Gotta move, gotta move fast," he muttered, eyes tracking the floors as he sped downward. "If you're going to take over my desk, you're gonna have to be faster than that, Probie!"
At the bottom, Tony crashed into the metal door, pain shooting through his shoulder when it didn't move. Didn't budge. "What – what the –" He kicked at it, planting one boot just below the lock and sending a resonating crash through the narrow stairwell.

Panting, McGee arrived – finally – and pointed towards the silvery sphere bulging from the wall. "Retina scanner, Tony. You'll have to –"

"Right!" Right. Of course. They'd added the things in the stairwell after … after that terrorist. Tony's mind shuffled backwards. "I'm sending my best man…" Huh. That hadn't lasted long, had it? Gibbs was looking to replace him. Had thrown him away to chase a serial killer – or was it to be chased by one? Who was the bait here – Sacco or Tony? He blinked at the scanner, waiting … waiting … waiting –

"You have to hold still," McGee urged quietly.

Tony turned on him, teeth bared. "I am holding still. The stupid thing isn't working." Had Gibbs already changed the codes? Revoked his clearance?

McGee's eyes were kind – kind! – and Tony growled as the young man reached out to slowly cup one hand around the back of Tony's neck and nudge him towards the scanner again. "Here. Maybe if you try one more time."

Tony fumed but let him, and when the door buzzed and clacked open, he closed his eyes in relief.

"Ah, Agent McGee. Very good. I'll take it from here."

The slight Scotsman was waiting in the corridor, bouncing on his toes. Tony couldn't help but smile.

"Ducky! I was – I was just going to -"

"Yes, Anthony. Why don't you come with me and we'll take a little walk down to my office? Jethro called to say that you'd be paying me a visit. And not a moment too soon, I think."

"Um, okay." Tony stood still for a moment, trying to catch at his racing thoughts. Ducky. Shower. Abby. Ducky. Shower. Abby. Rinse. Repeat.

The older man took hold of the same elbow McGee had been grab-handing. Must have a tag on it, Tony figured. 'Attach leash here.' Or maybe 'press here to remove self-will.' But - Tony looked down into the concerned face – it was Ducky. And Ducky was a good man.

"You're a good man, Ducky."

The medical examiner chuckled. "Thank you my boy. I hope you'll still be saying that when the drugs have worn off. You do tend to have rather idiosyncratic reactions to pharmaceuticals, don't you? Now, let's just get you out of those nasty things and up onto the table.

/\ /\ /\ /\

Morrow narrowed his eyes as he walked down the steps, slowing to take in the scene before him. Kate Todd looked tired; the past few hours had deepened worry lines around her eyes. Her partner had been recovered, mostly whole, but the tension in her shoulders was still plain to see as she typed at her desk.

Gibbs on the other hand. Morrow stopped a few stairs from the bottom. Gibbs was the best poker player Tom knew, but his usual studied stoicism had been rougher since the terrorist. Every plane of his face looked sharper – meaner – his natural brusqueness reduced to one word demands and glares that could skin a man at fifty paces. He was focused on the terrorist with a sniper's single-minded dedication. And his team was paying for it.

As he made to step down and into the bullpen, McGee arrived, panting, from the stairwell.

"Geez, Gibbs, Tony's going to be okay, isn't he?" He fidgeted, weight shifting back and forth in front of the lead agent's desk. "He's really out of it."

"Which is why I sent him to Ducky." Gibbs' words were strained through his teeth.

"Probably whatever drugs she gave him." Kate rose from her chair, eyes fixed on Gibbs, on how he wouldn't turn to look at her. "Coupled with the adrenaline. Dehydration. Exhaustion."

"Wow," McGee murmured. "Shouldn't he be in the hospital?"


Of course not. Morrow nodded to himself as Todd stepped closer to Gibbs.

"Why not, Gibbs? Just because Tony can smile and joke and pretend he's okay for the EMTs doesn't mean he doesn't deserve real medical treatment. Not just –"

"You think Ducky would give him less than 'real medical treatment' Agent Todd?" Now Gibbs was looking, shooting cold blue knives towards the woman.

Enough. Morrow walked through the frozen tableau, nodding to each agent in turn.

"Agent Todd, I've just received word that Gunnery Sergeant Atlas is comfortable and alert at Bethesda. He's insisting on giving his full statement."

The slight woman glanced back and forth, uncertainty flashing across her face. Morrow raised one eyebrow in her direction. "Yes, sir." She grabbed her PDA and shoved it in her purse. A moment's hesitation had her turning back, a question on her lips.

"I'll notify you immediately if there are any further developments here," Morrow promised.

"Thank you, sir."

As she turned towards the elevators, Chris Pacci walked around the corner, shrugging his coat onto his shoulders. Good. Perfect timing.

"Agent McGee."


Tom managed not to smile or flinch at the young man's squeak. "I'd like you to accompany Agent Pacci and his team in searching Vanessa Shandling's apartment." He nodded towards the other senior agent. "Agent Pacci, make sure you go over proper search procedures with Agent McGee."

"Sir. Let's go, McGee."

The young man's mouth opened and shut a few times, but the orders of an agency director finally slipped into first place in the man's priorities. He fussed about with DiNozzo's desk, stuffing papers into his briefcase and tapping commands into the keyboard before following Pacci out.

That left only …

"Done ordering my team around, Director?"

"Not quite yet, Agent Gibbs. My office. Now."

/\ /\ /\ /\

The hot water ran over Tony's head, down the length of his back and spattered against the tiles of the emergency shower, taking the scum of the sewers with it. He could feel it slough off, reluctantly loosening its hold. He could see it, thick and gelid and colored with a dead man's flesh. Tony shivered and huddled closer to the spray, the rough wash cloth scraping over his skin again and again. At least the gel Ducky had given him had cut the stench. If anyone should know how to get rid of these smells, it should be the man who deals with them every day. Tony sniffed at the bubbles. Nice. Lemongrass and green tea. Soothing.

Best of all, it was working. The smell had hovered longest, surrounding him like a putrid aura. He imagined the golden images of saints that had lined the hallways of his boys' school. St. Tony wouldn't exactly fit in there, would he, with his glowing green halo that dripped clots of decay from his hair. He squeezed the last of the shower gel onto the cloth and scrubbed one more time.

Tony's mind was quieter now. The ABCs of the case had fallen back into place with resounding clunks, all beginning with his own bravado. As usual. He remembered Gibbs' clipped demands, his boss's anger, right beneath the surface on a good day, now erupting into verbal lava every time a case hit the smallest snag. And Tony had to answer – had to respond. Had to try to ease the man's frustration, to come up with the case-breaking clue, the vital insight. Or maybe he'd just wanted to get away from the soul-eating tension in the bullpen. So he'd done what he always did. He promised. Promised results. Promised he could do what everyone else had failed to do. Promised he could follow Sacco and find the evidence they needed against a serial killer.

He wished he could forget Gibbs' pointed response.

"You call in late, just once, and don't bother coming back."

"Very heartwarming, Boss," Tony whispered. Eyes closed, he lifted his face into the spray. Gibbs was a results guy. 'What have you done for me lately' might as well be tattooed on his chest. Never mind that Tony had come up with Atlas' date's identity. Or that the woman had been the one to tell them about the threat to the Marine. Tony hadn't missed the distrustful look, the borderline disgusted glare that announced Gibbs' disbelief that Tony would be liable to find a thing. And so, of course, Tony had gone out to prove him wrong. Again.

When would he learn? Tony's own father had disowned him, told him he'd end up in the gutter without the great DiNozzo fortune or name or contacts. No matter how many times Tony had tried to win the man's approval, to make him proud, DiNozzo senior had always walked away.

Leroy Jethro Gibbs had a daddy-streak a mile wide where Kate or Abby or Ducky were concerned – he couldn't forgive himself for letting that monster into autopsy to threaten his people, to shoot Gerald. But threats to Tony, well, when Gibbs wasn't making them himself they were the subject of sarcasm and humor.

Maybe he would have been genuinely concerned if Tony hadn't had to be rescued. Hadn't gotten himself Rufeed by a 110 pound waitress. Lost his weapon. Lost himself. And then led an exhausted Marine into a blind alley so a serial killer could take potshots at him. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

But, try as he might, Tony couldn't picture Gibbs telling anyone that he was sorry Kate – or Ducky or Abby – was still alive, no matter how much they'd screwed up.

Double standards. Hypocrisy. Different rules, or rules that could be bent and broken. For the right cause. For the right people. Situational ethics. All those rules that Gibbs had taught Tony, had held up like beacons of Marine integrity. Until he changed his mind, apparently. Funny, Tony always seemed to end up wearing the shit that hit the fan when the guy he was following ducked out of the way. He needed to practice his footwork.

Tony slammed one hand on the valve to shut off the water and blinked in the half-light of the subterranean locker room. Gibbs had rescued Tony from Baltimore, from a partner who knew all about double standards and hypocrisy. On the take, looking the other way while still telling himself he was a good cop. Pretending to care about the law, about Tony. He shook his head, sending out a spray of droplets from his hair like shrapnel. If Gibbs had brought him here to NCIS just to find another partner – another mentor – with the same M.O. as Danny –

Fancy footwork would only get Tony so far – you couldn't dodge bullets if you were too busy looking behind you to see if your partner was actually guarding your six or if he'd found something better to do.

God, he was tired. Tired of dancing to some other guy's tune. Tired of the music always changing.

Ducky had taken a couple vials of blood. Had taken his blood pressure and checked his heart and respiration. And then he'd taken one look at Tony's sunken eyes and given him some quiet, sincere advice.

"Anthony. It was been a very difficult few days for you. Please, do me the favor of taking some time to rest and recover your equilibrium before, well," the older man had lowered his eyes before peering worriedly up at him, "before you speak with Gibbs."

He'd agreed – hell, he'd have agreed to anything Ducky said at that point, just to get away. Now he wondered what the hell the medical examiner was talking about. Because one thing was for sure, speaking was not something Gibbs was going to want to do. Shouting. Cursing. Barking orders. Doling out head slaps. But speaking with Tony, huh, that would assume some kind of give and take, a meeting of minds; sharing this little dance. He reached for a towel.

Not damned likely.

/\ /\ /\ /\

Morrow lowered himself into his chair. "Care to explain yourself, Agent Gibbs?"

The Major Case agent didn't fidget; he didn't pace. On the contrary, Gibbs stood so still before Morrow's desk that it was likely the air around him was undisturbed by his breathing. A nice skill to have, Tom thought. The ability to appear calm and unflappable under fire, giving off the aura of eternal patience, of the tenacity and persistence to see a problem or situation to its end, no matter how long it took. He'd admired that about Gibbs in the past. Had even been envious of the man's outward composure.

The problem was, like most immovable objects, once the surface cracks showed, the fissure most likely ran all the way down to foundation.

Gibbs shrugged. "Case is closed. Killer's in custody. Not much more to say."

"No? How about reporting on your agent, Gibbs? Or, better yet, explaining how he came to be missing in the first place." Morrow tapped two fingers on the closed file on the desk in front of him. "I'm sure you were following NCIS protocol for surveillance."

The agent didn't look away, didn't twitch. No sweeping flashes of guilt crossed his face or shadowed those deep-set eyes. "Didn't have time," he answered.

Morrow cocked his head. "You 'didn't have time?'" He flipped the file open. "I understand that Agent Todd was following another lead, a paper trail." Leaning forward, Tom folded his hands. "You had every reason to believe that Major Sacco was a serial killer. A trained Marine who had been killing off other Marines for some time. Perhaps you could explain why you did not provide Agent DiNozzo with another agent as backup. Someone from another team. Or," he paused, "yourself, perhaps."

Gibbs' eyes narrowed.

"Tell me, Gibbs. Tell me what you were working on that was so much more important than providing essential backup for an agent on your team." He held up one hand when Gibbs' lips thinned and he started to open his mouth. "Wait. Let me tell you. You were busy. Busy staring at the face of a criminal who got away. Busy trying to heal your wounded pride."

The fury hidden beneath Gibbs' surface calm burst out. "Dammit, Tom! It's not my pride I'm worried about!" Gibbs lurched forward. "I screwed up! It's my job to protect my people!"
Morrow leaned back. "Except for Agent DiNozzo, apparently."

Silence settled back around Gibbs like stone, his anger and resentment carved in granite. "DiNozzo doesn't need –"

"Do you know what I see, Agent Gibbs?" Morrow cut in, holding back the urge to lash out with his own frustrated, suppressed anger. "I see an agent who is conflicted. Unfocused. Who has forgotten that his first responsibility is to those under his immediate command. An agent who believes that the weight of an entire agency is on his shoulders when the truth is, that weight rests, here." Morrow tapped his desk again. "With me." His smile was forced, unamused. "Or is it my job you're after?"

"Not for love or money," Gibbs ground out.

"Good. Then I suggest you get your act together before any casualties you take are far more costly than a bullet to the shoulder, or an injured medical assistant." Rage propelled Morrow to his feet, surprising Gibbs into taking a step backwards. "Major Sacco is dead. That rests completely on your shoulders, Agent Gibbs. And you could have easily lost DiNozzo and Atlas tonight, because of your foolish obsession with this terrorist. Not because a criminal was too clever, or too organized, or just that much better than you. No, you could have lost them because of your own stupidity."

"You think I don't know that?"

Morrow met Gibbs' stare, tension sparking between them. Anger still shone from Gibbs' eyes, still colored his tone. But it was anger spiced with self-blame, with the acknowledged cost of failure, with weariness and the shadow of fresh loss. Tom took a long breath and forcibly eased himself backwards. "Well, we agree about something, then."

"Yeah." Gibbs turned away, rubbing one hand across his face. He dropped into a chair, drained and sagging.

Morrow watched his old friend's stubborn walls crumble to dust. Prior experience told him it would only last a moment – that Gibbs would gather the remnants of his control swiftly and would have his formidable guard back up, his careful mask back in place, within moments. Striking now might seem cold and heartless, but better a few well-placed blows by a friend than he let Gibbs' obsession toss those closest to him to the wolves. A threat to Todd and Mallard had started this – Tom couldn't imagine how the permanent loss of a member of his team – especially DiNozzo – would end it.

"Tell me, Jethro," he said quietly, "if I could promise to put you and that terrorist in a dark alley, alone, for twenty minutes. If I could make that happen – what would you be willing to give up?"

The face raised to him was filled with questions. "Are you – what's this about, Tom?"

"Just indulge me for a minute, Gibbs. You. The terrorist. No repercussions. No rules. No payback."

Gibbs' twisted lips told Morrow how much his old friend hated games like this. The thick sarcasm in his voice only confirmed it. "Well, I guess I'd give a hell of a lot, Director. Not to mention what Ducky would add to the pile to put in a couple of hits on Gerald's behalf."

"And if the price was the life of one of your team? Just one. Doesn't matter which one." Gibbs' face paled as if he finally saw where Morrow was going. "You choose."

Tom rose and began to wander his office slowly, his gaze roaming unhurriedly over plaques and books, citations and reminders of days long past. He felt the searing stare follow him. "In fact, let me help you decide. You've already made it plain that threats to Agent Todd or Doctor Mallard would be answered with immediate action, so we can eliminate them. Miss Scuito – she's a special case. You've taken her on as a … let's call her a younger sister." Morrow deliberately kept his eyes away from the seething man. If Gibbs thought he could get away with belting his Director in the mouth, he'd be up on his feet and throwing punches.

"McGee's been helpful. Eager to please. But he's not really a member of your team, yet, is he? He hasn't become a member of the 'family.'" Rounding his desk again, Tom placed both hands on the back of his chair and finally met Gibbs' glare. "That makes it much easier, leaving only DiNozzo."

All semblance of cold control had vanished. Gibbs was perched on the edge of his chair, hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.

Morrow shrugged. "NCIS agents know they are expected to put their lives on the line for duty, to save innocent lives, to protect the men and women who protect our country. Agent DiNozzo should know that better than most after his years of police work. Let's face it, he's the most expendable of the bunch. A shallow playboy, style over substance, with no specialized skills. And it isn't as if this would be the first time he'd been found wanting, would it?" Folding his arms, Morrow leaned over the back of his chair, relaxed, casual. He kept his voice even, commiserating. "That's what you were thinking, wasn't it, Jethro? You can be honest, it's just the two of us here. You were thinking that tossing DiNozzo out there – alone - in the path of a serial killer was a small price to pay to get a step closer to your terrorist. No great loss."

Gibbs came to his feet with all the feral energy of a wild cat, closing the distance between the two in an eye blink. And then, at the edge of Morrow's desk, he stopped.

Tom didn't have to wait long.


Feigning surprise, Morrow prompted for more. "No?"

A grim smile was there and gone on Gibbs' ashen face. "No. I wouldn't trade any life to put a bullet in the terrorist's smug face, Tom. Not Todd's. Not Abby's. Not Ducky's. And not DiNozzo's."

"You're sure?"

Gibbs' flashed a scathing glance his way before turning away. "I am now."

Tom nodded. "Now that your head's out of your ass, you mean?"

"Hard to see daylight up there," Gibbs huffed.

"I know the view all too well." Morrow felt the tension drain out of him and lowered himself into his chair. "There'll be a reprimand placed in your file for this, Jethro."

The gray-haired man shrugged. "Won't be the first one."

"Not by a long shot." Eyes narrowing, Morrow looked at the tense muscles of Gibb's neck, the forced line of his shoulders. "You're also taking two days off, let's call it the medical leave you rejected after your injury." He was ready when Gibbs spun to face him. "It's that or a two day suspension. You need to sand your boat or drink too much bourbon. Whatever will get you out of that damned head of yours and back to your job."

Gibbs acquiesced with a nod, his flared nostrils telling Morrow everything the man was too smart to say out loud.

"One final thing, Jethro. I'd suggest you speak with DiNozzo during your time off. Don't let this fester between you or you're likely to return to duty with one empty desk to fill." Morrow leaned forward to cement his point. "He's transferred before over what he perceives to be betrayal. And if I lose a damned good agent over this, you'll wish it was only a reprimand you were getting."

The blue eyed gaze was cast into another time and place, far away from the NCIS director's office at the cusp of daybreak. A shadow of regret dimmed those sharp eyes, softened the stern voice. "Yeah. I got that." One hand swung out in a silent apology. "Won't happen again."

"No. It won't." The blame couldn't rest solely on Gibbs' shoulders any more than the responsibility could. "Next time I see you so focused on vengeance I'll step in. I should have done it this time. The buck stops here, Agent Gibbs."

"Understood, Director."

No sarcasm this time. Good. Maybe Tom could still limit the damage Gibbs and DiNozzo carried forward from this. "Dismissed. And please ask Agent DiNozzo to see me as soon as possible."

Gibbs had made it to the door before Morrow's last words reached him. He turned. "Did Ducky say –"

"The drug reaction is not life threatening. He'll be fine, Jethro," Morrow added kindly.

"Good. That's good."

Yes it was.

/\ /\ /\ /\

The warmth from Abby's hug had carried Tony back upstairs on autopilot. But now, sitting at his desk, staring at the blank open document on his monitor and its annoying blinking cursor he could feel the cold creeping back. Sacco. Murdering waitress. Atlas. Killer bees. Dead girls in a shipping container. The whole fiasco swirled together into a story that would be more believable on a Saturday night at a B movie theater than it would lay out in structured sentences in a formal report. Where was he supposed to start? With a vindictive CO back in the Philippines? Or some brainless Marines who should have known better than to ship human beings across the ocean in a metal box? Or maybe a federal agent flat on his face in a bar parking lot, downed by one too many sarsaparillas?

Marines, he muttered to himself. He'd been taught to believe that Marines had a higher calling, a sense of integrity rarely found out in the real world. And even though Tony had been in on more than a few cases where individual Marines made bad decisions, or acted with very human jealousy or anger, Gibbs had etched that belief pretty damn deep. But the unit in the Philippines had been made up of complete morons. And Sacco, their CO, the guy who should have had his men's backs, had endangered all of them through his petty change of orders because his girl had thrown him over. Backstabbing and betrayal all around, then.

Major Sacco. Atlas wanting to lie down and wait for death in sewer sludge instead of fighting. And Gibbs. Gibbs had been more interested in the slime ball that got away than in serving, protecting, or getting those answers he usually insisted on.

Well, that and putting Tony in his place.

And that's why there was another document open on his desktop. The icon winked at him from the lower tray, reminding him that, with a few keystrokes and a signature, his time on Gibbs' team would be over. Plenty of other assignments. Other teams. Other people to look up to. And maybe next time he'd find somebody with a set of rules that didn't change and stutter out of rhythm, rocking Tony off his stride, tripping him up.

Tony leaned his head into his hands, fingers threading through his hair. He'd cut his hair. Taken up boxing. Commissioned a set of belts to hold his number nine knife. Kept his phone charged and by the bed so he'd never be unreachable. Committed the military tech manuals, the layouts of different vessels, and the damned rules to memory over too many nights and weekends to remember. No, Kate was right, Tony would never be mistaken for a Marine on his best day. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it was time to stop trying.
Or maybe he just needed coffee. His stomach growled, reminding him that congealed pizza for breakfast was a long time ago. A coffee run. Yeah. And one of those double chocolate brownies. Sugar and caffeine were an overtired, over-thinking agent's best friends. He smiled and opened his drawer, reaching for his weapon.

The drawer was empty.

His hand hovered for a second while the truth made its way from his eyes to his brain. No weapon. No phone. No keys. No cuffs. No badge. He'd lost them all between the bar and the sewer. Great. More paperwork. More physical reminders of his carelessness – in triplicate. Apparently, finding McGee sitting at his desk with Gibbs' blessing was just going to be the tip of the iceberg. Then again, he cocked his head to the side, maybe it was a sign. Huh. The physical baggage of this job had just been reduced by … a lot. It was the other kind that sat on his chest and breathed failure into his face.


Shit. He must have jumped a foot, slamming back into his chair, heart pounding. Was that even more disappointment radiating from Gibbs' tense figure? "Sorry, Boss. I'll get that report done ASAP. And the damned paperwork."

Gibbs moved a step closer. He looked … something. Something different. Not angry. Not pissed. Not impatient, demanding, furious, curt, clipped, snarling, growling, seething … Tony tried to cut off his inner thesaurus before it got to disappointed, disdainful, or disgusted but didn't quite make it.

"That's okay, DiNozzo. It'll keep."

Tony's eyebrows tried to free-climb up his head. It will? "Since when?" Oh, had he said that out loud?

"Director wants to see you," Gibbs added, not really answering the question. Like that was unusual.

"Well, that's just –" Tony couldn't figure out which way to finish that sentence. Dandy? Horrific? Par for the course? Convenient as I've got this Transfer Request right here? He rose, closing his empty drawer. "Time to face the music, I guess," he muttered.

Gibbs edged sideways, apparently waiting for Tony to move towards him. Tony stiffened for the expected head slap. Nothing.

"You okay, Boss?"

Gibbs grunted. "No. Haven't been okay for a while now." His gaze flicked towards that extra monitor on his desk that ran facial recognition nonstop. "Gonna take a few days off. Work on the boat. Maybe take a drive up the coast."

"You – you are?" Tony's mind spun uselessly, dizzyingly. Gibbs was taking time off when he wasn't unconscious or dying. "You're not dying, are you?"

"No, Tony, I'm not dying."

He hadn't seen that smile in a while – the one that was honest and kind of self-effacing, not smug and superior. The older man's laugh was barely audible under the firm declaration.

"Then, why? I don't -"

"Hey." Gibbs stepped into Tony's personal space, one finger pointed, and Tony stilled. Waiting. The hand opened and Gibbs' reached up to grip Tony's shoulder right at his neck, squeezing once. "Should have had your back out there, Tony. Let you down. Won't happen again." Pure. Solid. Honest.

Tony felt the weight of the unexpected – unbelievable – statement. "It won't." Not a question this time. He felt it unwind deep in his gut, the demand for reassurance, for an oath, a promise, one partner to another. If he couldn't trust Gibbs, if he was going to be dismissed as unimportant, as just another name on a desk, utterly replaceable with any other warm body when Gibbs was too busy or too preoccupied to care, then, well, the request for transfer was waiting.

"Nope." The hand squeezed again.

His Boss didn't offer anything more.

Yesterday, that might have been enough. Yesterday, Tony might have grinned and accepted the unspoken promise, shot a "got it, Boss," back at him and gone on his way. But not today.

"Found out something about the rules tonight Gibbs. About Marines." Tony crossed his arms over his chest and raised his chin. "Tell me why I should take your word this time. Tried that earlier, but found out it was a set up." He looked around deliberately. "McGee waiting in the wings again?"

A fleeting flicker of pain snapped behind Gibbs' eyes. "No, Tony. No one's waiting. Just me." His half-shrug was almost apologetic. "Not much more I can offer but my word. Hope it's good enough for another chance."

They stood there, connected in a weird dance of apologies and demands, rants and ravings, accusations and blame all unsaid but loud in the pre-dawn bullpen. Gibbs didn't move his hand. Tony didn't drop his guard. The next step was all Tony's.

"Okay then."

Tony spoke his acceptance right into Gibbs' face. Challenge. Trust. But frayed a bit. Not as strong. Eyes wide open - not as likely to follow blindly.

Gibbs nodded. "Good." His eyes might have said 'thank you.' The strong hand on Tony's shoulder might have gripped him in relief.

It was Tony who moved first, glancing upwards. "So, the Director, huh?"

Stepping backwards towards his desk, Gibbs pointed up the stairs. "He'll take your report orally. Tape it. Have it transcribed so you won't have to worry about it."
"He will?"

A half-smile jerked across Gibbs' face. "He will. And he'll tell you you did a damn fine job out there. Because you did."

The warmth from those few words would carry Tony a lot farther than even Abby's hug. He smiled. "Thanks, Boss."

Gibbs shrugged. "Mean what I say, DiNozzo."

Huh. Maybe he did at that. Tony carefully did not say the 'we'll see' that was on the tip of his tongue. He turned and started jogging up the steps. He was pulled up short by Gibbs' voice.

"You feel like a drive, come on by tomorrow."

By the time Tony had realized what Gibbs' had said, the figure in the long black coat had disappeared behind closing elevator doors. "I might just do that, Boss." He continued up the stairs, his steps lighter, his mind quieting. Tony meant what he said, too. That transfer could wait. For now.