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Bounce Back

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If real police work was like a television show, there would only be one case on the deck at a time and they would end when the last question was answered and an arrest was made. All the motives would be neat and make sense, and you would be left with the assumption that the perp would get exactly what they deserved.

Toni DiNozzo was very fond of the small and silver screens — too fond, according to some — but real life wasn’t television and cop work was hell and gone more complex and less precise than police procedurals made out. Even the grittiest and most hardboiled of the lot, which might capture some of the cynicism, couldn’t come close to the reality.

For one thing, they didn’t show cops spending nearly enough time doing paperwork.

Real cases didn’t end with an arrest; they ended when the reports were in, the t’s were crossed and i’s dotted to the satisfaction of the legal department, the prosecutor’s office, and the endless number of faceless bureaucrats that kept the wheels of justice grinding slowly and somewhat steadily. And that was a case with a clean arrest, a moderate amount of evidence or a confession of some kind. The paperwork for discharging a weapon, much less firing on a suspect? That was a whole new level of bureaucratic hell.

“And here, Agent DiNozzo,” Lt. Colonel Mackenzie offered a final document. Toni signed where the yellow flag indicated and set down her pen. The marine neatly tapped the pile of papers together, accepted a similar stack from Admiral Chegwidden, and slid everything into a folder. “I’ll see everything is copied and filed, sir, and that NCIS receives their own documentation.”

“Thank you, Colonel.”

Mac straightened, then glanced at Toni. “I’m sorry.”

Toni sighed and crossed her legs. A meeting in the Judge Advocate General’s office involving the Secretary of the Navy required one of her best suits: a warm grey Roccobarocco paired with a teal blouse and her favourite stiletto pumps. The skirt was classic enough to be professional and just long enough to be subtle instead of overtly sexy. Every man in the room automatically glanced at her legs as she shifted, and she might have smiled under other circumstances.

“For what, Mac? Representing a man who we had a pile of evidence against?”

“He was my client. I should have been able to get him to confide in me.” Mac frowned. “It was like Grant had already written off the whole process, assumed he’d be convicted, and —”

“Was already planning for the future,” Toni agreed. “He certainly had the groundwork laid out in advance. He told me he was innocent, and I didn’t believe him. I guess he thought you wouldn’t either.”

“It’s not your job to believe a suspect — it’s your job to gather evidence. How many people have sat in your interrogation room, sworn they were innocent, and been proven otherwise?”

“Most of ‘em,” Gibbs declared.

“No one person was at fault,” Chegwidden interjected. “Renny Grant was set up, and it was an excellent frame job. There were no breakdowns in procedure, no flaws in the investigation; Grant might have put a little more faith in the judicial system, or NCIS might have poured more man hours into a straightforward and seemingly closed case — but that kind of hindsight doesn’t help any of us moving forward.”

The admiral dismissed Mackenzie and Phillip Davenport, who’d been content to watch the entire proceedings without comment, spoke up. “Anything we can do about Grant? I don’t like him getting away with a few million Navy dollars.”

“Double jeopardy,” Chegwidden said regretfully. “He was convicted of stealing the money so we can’t touch him over it again. Not to mention that he’s already out of the country and well on his way to a place without extradition and where a few million will go a long way.”

“And the two dead bodies?”

“Co-conspirators turn on each other all the time, sir,” Tony explained. “We have the only survivor of their little embezzlement scheme in custody and we know Commander Davis killed Justin Grady, and that Sergeant Wilkins died trying to kill Davis. While we believe that Grant tricked them into turning on each other, we can’t prove it. Besides, there’s no law against using someone’s guilty conscience and greed to incite them to murder.” Offhand she could think of three movies that used it as a plot element. “And truthfully, sir? If we did arrest Grant for anything short of killing someone in front of ten witnesses, he’d never be found guilty. No court or jury would be willing to convict a man who did time under a miscarriage of justice.”

And that was the reason she’d let Renny Grant walk away despite having caught up with him before he left the country. Grant had implied she was correct about what had gone down when she’d it out — the way he’d inspired the three men who’d set him up for embezzlement to turn on each other and then claim the money — but he’d admitted nothing and she couldn’t prove a damned thing. There was no reason to detain him — in fact, it could have been construed as harassment — and no hope of proving he had anything to do with the dead men who’d set him up.

Without probable cause or a search warrant, he’d been able to walk right past her with a bag full of money. Letting him leave had nothing to do with her own sense of guilt.

And there was a bridge in Brooklyn for sale as well.

“Irritating, but if there’s nothing else to be done, we’ll leave it there. At least the media hasn’t gotten involved.”

“Fortunately, the latest scandal on the Hill has them thoroughly distracted, sir. Sex and politics trump something as boring as the rule of law and imperfections in the judicial system that affects people’s daily lives.” Wow, that wasn’t cynical at all.

SecNav apparently agreed because he snorted and glanced at Gibbs. “Make sure she takes a few days off, Gunny before she cuts someone on that tongue.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Toni glared at her boss, who shrugged. “It’s true, DiNozzo. Remember the Deputy Secretary of State?”

“She was interfering in an investigation and hindering our attempts to recover millions of dollars in stolen antiquities — not to mention a missing undercover agent,” Toni defended herself. “And she was being a pain in the ass.”

“You told her to kiss yours,” Gibbs said, making Chegwidden laugh and SecNav chortle.

Toni smirked at them both. “Technically, I told her that she was welcome to file a complaint about my lack of cooperation but that in the meantime, she could kiss my magnificent ass.”

“Christ, no wonder Morrow laughed every time State came up in conversation,” Davenport shook his head. “Remind me not to give you any diplomatically sensitive assignments, Agent.”

“If you would pass that along, sir, I’d appreciate it. Maybe the Director will stop assigning me to protection duty.”

Mackenzie returned with a manila envelope bearing a Navy insignia which Toni rose to accept. “Thanks, Mac. That’s everything?”

“Everything NCIS needs to close the Renny Grant investigation. Thursday?”

“Officer’s Club, 7 pm. I’ll buy the first round.”

The marine smiled. “Forget rounds, we’ll run a tab.”

“Boss, I’m going to be late on Friday. I have a dentist appointment.”

“If you’re going drinking with a marine, you’ll need the whole day off, DiNozzo.”

She winked at Mac “I can have Friday off? Thanks, boss!” Mac laughed and accepted her dismissal.

SecNav shook his head. “It takes something to be a bad influence on a marine, Agent DiNozzo. Not to mention a lawyer. Well, if that’s all we can do about Grant and the money — we done here, AJ?”

“Not quite, sir.” The Admiral rose and tugged his uniform jacket straight. “Agent McGee, Officer David — what, exactly, is so damned funny?”

They both froze under the weight of Chegwidden’s temper then looked to him. Shaking his head, Gibbs said, “I warned you.”

“Well, Agent? Officer?” He glared down the gleaming conference table. “Because this is a difficult business but the two of you have spent the last half hour giggling like a pair of drunken sailors. If there’s something funny about these events, I’m sure we’d all appreciate being let in on the joke!”

McGee pressed back in his seat, trying to blend in or possibly vanish through the back of it; Ziva sat upright and met the admiral’s glare. “What about DiNozzo’s joking with the colonel? You did not task her for her poor humour.”

Gibbs shook his head even as Chegwidden seemed to swell with ire. Challenging him was about the worst tack Ziva could have taken.

“Take me to task, Ziva,” Toni interjected dryly. “And if you can’t tell the difference between inviting a group of people to share a moment of levity and sitting in a meeting, smirking at inappropriate moments — then you need a lesson in more than idioms. Lesson one: do not talk back to a two-starred admiral — especially not in his own office, in front of the Secretary of the Navy.” Ziva scowled and opened her mouth. “Ziva — shut up. Now .”

For a moment, it seemed like they might get out of here with all their hides intact. And then McGee, in his usual fashion, found exactly the wrong moment to find his backbone and for the wrong reason.

“The case is over, Toni; you aren’t in charge anymore. We don’t have to take orders from you anymore.”

“Is that so, Agent McGee?” Chegwidden’s question snapped out like a whip. McGee looked green at the gill while Ziva looked mutinous. “What a fascinating insight into the chain of command. I wasn’t aware that you’d received a field promotion to Senior Agent.”

While McGee attempted to stutter his way through an explanation, Toni looked over to him and Gibbs shook his head, knowing they were well past keeping things to inter-team disciple now. The whole case had been an insight into the flaws of their team dynamic and Gibbs had realized early on that the junior team members were overdue for an ass kicking. The glimpse into how his ‘Mexican hiatus’ must have gone for Toni made him sad and angry. Mostly angry.

But regardless of how ugly their behaviour had been over the last three days — snide remarks and laughter and questions about how many innocent men Toni had arrested — carrying that behaviour, however subtle they’d thought they were being, into an admiral’s office was a line he’d never expected to see them cross. Chegwidden was an old-school hardass, a former SEAL who went to the wall for his people, protected them from outsiders and shook the rafters when they fucked up. And smirks, eye rolls and grins at the back of the room was a level of disrespect no officer would tolerate.

“Enough!” Chegwidden cut across McGee. “Your disrespect for your superior is a separate matter — one that will be addressed.” Gibbs nodded when the admiral looked at him as he’d had no intention of letting this go by. “However, my original question stands. What the hell is so funny about the Renny Grant case?”

“DiNozzo is not our superior,” Ziva said lowly, earning a fiery stare.

“Officer David, you will speak only when spoken to and answer only the questions asked, without opinions or editorializing!”

“Sir,” McGee stammered, “there’s nothing — well, it’s not funny per say — it’s just that —”

Today, Agent!”

“Well, Toni did arrest the wrong man.” DiNozzo flinched and Gibbs nudged one of her ridiculous shoes with his toe.

“I see.” Anyone who’d ever served knew the mild tone of an officer inviting a subordinate to keep digging.  

McGee gamely picked up the shovel he’d been offered. “Exactly, sir. And considering it was during the period that Toni was acting as team lead — it’s just fitting, that’s all.”

Chegwidden studied Ziva. “Anything to add, Officer?”

“DiNozzo frequently godded her status over us during that time,” she said agreeably. “We are merely pleased that her so-called experience has proven false.”

“How long have you been an agent, Gibbs?”

“Eighteen years, Admiral.”

“So, you had about twelve years experience when you arrested Commander Rabb for a murder he didn’t commit?” Chegwidden asked dryly, staring down at the now squirming agents. “Agent DiNozzo made the final arrest, isn’t that right?”

“Yes, sir,” Toni answered, stone-faced.

“You were the Senior Field Agent at the time. Something about the case seemed wrong, so you went to your team leader and he asked you to keep working the investigation, correct?”

“Yes, sir, that’s correct,” she said evenly. SecNav was watching silently — Gibbs wondered if his two idiots even remembered that the Secretary of the Navy was in the room — and he was studying her perfect posture and composed face. Gibbs knew that if they were standing, Toni would be at parade rest and figured that Davenport could see it too.

“Were you both ill during the Grant investigation?” Ziva and McGee shook their heads. “So, your signatures on the case reports were not forged. Did Agent DiNozzo intimidate or threaten you into concealing the knowledge of Renny Grant’s innocence?”

“No, sir!”

“Intimidate? Toni ?” Chegwidden’s glare had Ziva swallowing back her incredulousness. “No, she did not.”

“So,” Chegwidden leaned back against his desk, “you closed the case, confident in your investigation, as did Agent DiNozzo. There were a dozen people involved in the investigation, arrest, and conviction of Renny Grant; you two are the only ones laughing. Why do you think that is?”

“It was not our fault —”

“It’s not about fault !” he bellowed. McGee’s chair skidded back as Ziva jerked upright. “It’s not about blame! It’s about responsibility and our duty to a system of laws and justice! It’s about the fact that a man spent two years in prison and that two men are dead and over million dollars is missing! It is not about two people so busy laughing at someone’s perceived mistake that they don’t seem to feel any remorse or responsibility themselves!”

“Admiral Chegwidden, we’ve taken enough of your time today.” Of course it was Toni, deflecting and shielding her teammates. The admiral abandoned his dressing down as Toni rose to her feet and offered her hand. “Thank you, sir.”

Chegwidden’s expression changed rapidly before settling on amused as he accepted the handshake. “And you, Agent DiNozzo. Agent Gibbs. Stay right there,” he snapped before McGee could leave his seat. “I’m not done with either of you.”

He snorted, rising to his feet and touching Toni’s elbow. She sighed, acquiescing; it had been a nice try, but Chegwidden wasn’t going to let her manage him while he was on a tear. Ziva stared at Gibbs, obviously expecting rescue, while McGee watched Toni with a hound dog expression. Unwilling to respect the mentor he’d felt he’d outgrown, McGee still looked for the benefits of that mentorship.

Toni turned to an amused Davenport. “Mr Secretary, may we walk you out?”

SecNav laughed. “I’m not surprised by your balls, DiNozzo — you’ve worked with Gibbs too long not to have brass ones.” He rose and nodded to Chegwidden. “AJ.”

“Secretary Davenport.”

The junior agents looked shocked and Gibbs wanted to smack them both. If they couldn’t see that Toni was removing their boss’ boss from witnessing their dressing down for unprofessional behaviour — and limiting embarrassment and career damage — then he would explain it to them later. At length and volume.

Davenport led the way from Chegwidden’s office and closed the door firmly. After a moment, an inaudible shout drifted through the heavy wood.

“Still shouts like he’s talking over the sound of the ocean or gunfire,” SecNav commented. “Alright, DiNozzo, since you risked your skin for a pair of idiots, we’ll leave him to it.”

“I appreciate your indulgence, sir.”

Davenport let Toni distract him with polite inquiries and chatter all the way out to his government-issued vehicle. While his driver opened the back door, SecNav eyed Toni. “If you ever decide on politics, Agent, let me know so I can get a good seat.”

“Do you flatter all the ladies, sir, or just the ones who work for you?”

“Cheeky,” he said, entering the back seat. “Good day, Agent, Gunny.”

“Sir.” Davenport gave him a look and nodded before the door closed.

Toni watched as the town car drew away. “Do you think —”


“Well, damn.”  

“They’ve earned it, Toni,” he told her, pushing aside the regret he felt. Ziva and McGee weren’t getting off the hook with just a closed door reprimand. “Their attitude the last few days was bad enough, but the way they’ve taken pleasure in it, as if this was a backfired prank and not a wrongful conviction?”

“How bad was it?”

Since DiNozzo had been lead on both investigations, most of the meeting had been between her, the admiral and SecNav; she’d sat closest to them with her back to the team and had little chance to watch their subordinates. Gibbs, on the other hand, has seen every shared smirk and hidden grin. “Bad.”

“Idiots!” Despite the ankle-breaking shoes she wore, Toni strode off at a ground-eating pace across the Naval Yard. “Never met such a pair of smart idiots! Two degrees, a Navy family, six years in NCIS and the ability to hack the goddamned CIA — and McGee still can’t navigate basic office politics with a flashlight and map! He should have taken a few psychology classes instead of bioengineering.”

She wasn’t wrong. McGee was smart but often seemed oblivious to anything outside of his computers. He was passive when he should speak up, confrontational when he should stay silent, and only seemed to respect people he was afraid of. It was wholly at odds with the moments of competence as an investigator, though he was still prone to jumping to conclusions and taking things at face value.

“And little miss Mossad!” Toni snapped, dodging a pair of Marines who turned to watch her walk away. “I don’t care how lethal you are with a paperclip — how the actual fuck can someone so utterly incapable of controlling her emotions or following orders have been a successful intelligence asset? It’s not that I doubt how effective a pretty face is in making even dangerous men stupid —”

“You’ve got experience.”

“ — but even that can only go so far. Not even Trent Kort is so arrogant as to sit in a room with SecNav and smirk during a debriefing!”

No, but arrogance was Ziva’s greatest vice, one she shared with her father and brother. Living here only seemed to make it worse; though a rookie investigator, Ziva’s training in combat was superior to most agents and even many of the navy personnel they dealt with. It had inflated her sense of physical power despite her lack of interpersonal or investigative skills.

“You could make a case for the fact that SecNav isn’t one of her commanders.”

“To hell with that! She was raised among the political and military elite of her country — basic courtesy to people with political authority should be stamped on her bones.” Toni stopped to turn and glare at him, jabbing one finger in his direction for emphasis. “Besides, whether you’re an undercover, a spy, or a damned assassin, it’s simple operational security to not cross or draw too much attention from people with power over you. SecNav can yank Ziva’s liaison position in a heartbeat! And it doesn’t help that both the directors that Ziva has answered to have treated her so casually in public or been so willing to suck up to her Daddy!”

“Not saying anything I’m not thinking, Toni.”

Temper vanished and she just looked tired. “Damn it, Gibbs, this is partly our fault.”

“Responsibility, not fault,” he reminded her. “Yeah, a little. We let the chain of command slide with Kate and didn’t correct when McGee joined.”

“Because someone was steering the Pequod into the cliffs at the time.”

He glared at her for the Moby Dick reference, shorthand for the whole nightmare with Ari Haswari, but said nothing. Rule 6 was about apologizing; admitting your mistakes was something different. “Regardless, it was different with Kate. She was a rookie investigator, not a probie, and while she challenged orders she still followed them.”

“Yeah, bitching the whole way,” Toni laughed. “God, I miss that uptight, stiffnecked prude. “ They started walking again, this time at a slower pace.

“Not the way I was expecting today to go.”

“Yeah? I knew there’d be an ass chewing but I expected to the ass.”

“Not your fault, Toni.”

“But it is my responsibility.”

“Not the same thing.” He steered them towards a coffee cart, delaying the return to the office. “We’ve both arrested innocent men on reasonable evidence. The difference is, I had a second with experience, intuition and initiative who could keep working the angles. You didn’t.”

She was silent while they ordered — black for him, flat white with one sugar for her — and sat on a bench, drinking in silence.

“I’d have thought Rabb was your type.”

There wasn’t so much as a moment’s hesitation to give away her surprise but then, Toni was one of the best for a reason. “Commander Rabb? Good looking, arrogant, occasionally an asshole — yeah, that does seem like my type. In fact,” she hid a smirk in her takeout cup, “that’s probably exactly why I spent a few weeks testing the rumours about navy pilots and their endurance.”

He didn't sigh, though he wanted to. Toni was looking both the distract him and get a reaction. “Before or after we arrested him for murder?”  

She pouted at his lack of reaction then shrugged. “After he was released.”

“Chegwidden know that?”

“Why would he care? Rabb goes through women too fast to keep track.” Gibbs said nothing, just waited until her smirk vanished. “How? How do you always know?”

“I watch instead of talk.”

“That sounds like a dig.”

“Nope. Just a fact.” He finished his coffee, binned the cup, and sipped from the second. “Neither of you were indiscreet. I only saw it because I was looking at him while he was looking at you.” And he’d seen a man in love. “Doesn’t seem like your usual type.”

“I’d say I’ve grown as a person, but that would be a lie — he’s a good-looking, arrogant asshole too. He’s just more subtle about it.”

“Arrogant, maybe, but not an asshole.”

“I doubt Ziva and Tim will agree.” She sighed. “I’m so fucked, Boss. What the hell am I supposed to do with a good, honourable man who loves me?”

She sounded so damned shakey at the thought that Gibbs added another reason to kill Anthony DiNozzo to his list.

“You let him, Toni,” Gibbs told her gently. “And you love him back.”

She’d wanted to go straight to AJ’s house, to use the key he’d given her weeks ago, kick off her heels and curl up on the couch with him and the dog so amusingly named Damnit. Deliberately, Toni drove back to her own apartment.

As she stepped inside, she registered the sound of ESPN playing and movement in the kitchen. A uniform jacket bearing two stars on each shoulder hung neatly in the open closet.

Toni stepped out of her shoes, dropped her keys and holster on the entrance table blindly, and walked straight back towards the noise.

“Hey, I wasn’t sure you —” AJ turned from the fridge, looked at her an froze. “Oh, hell, Toni, don’t cry.”

“Shut up.” Wrapping her arms around his waist, she pressed her face against his shoulder and held on. “I’m not crying.”

“Ah, darling.” He held her tightly, rocking a little. “I’m sorry. I figured you’d come here and burrow in, so I decided to beard you in your den. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“I said I’m not crying,” she grumbled. Damp eyes did not count. “It’s allergies.” He laughed and she felt the vibrations in his chest. “I was coming here to hide because what I wanted was to go to your place. I wanted you, and here you are.”

AJ nudged her chin up, drawing her face from where it was buried against his t-shirt — worn soft, smelling of her detergent and one of several items that had its own drawer in her dresser — and studied her face. His eyes were soft and he ran his thumb along her cheekbone.

Who the fuck was she trying to kid?

Toni leaned forward to kiss him thoroughly then tipped her forehead against his. “This is your fault, you know. You should have been a brief affair, but you had to go and be kind and sweet and sarcastic.” He slid a hand into her hair while the arm around her back tightened. “Not to mention charming and arrogant and too blunt for polite company.”

“You forgot good in bed,” AJ murmured, making her grin.

“Fantastic in bed,” she corrected. “Generous and a little bossy and your cock is perfect.” He laughed, surprised. “No, really. The rest of you is amazing and I love you, but I fell in love with your dick first.”

She could have gone on a little longer — really, it was great. The right length and just enough girth to give her the right stretch without making it too difficult to go down on — but he cut her ode to his cock short by backing her against the counter and kissing her breathless.

She’d forgotten to add gentlemanly to her list — he made sure to keep the counter from cutting into her hips by bracing her with his arm.

“I love you, even if this is a threesome between me, you, and my dick.”  

“As long as you understand your place in the pecking order.”

He laughed and kissed her with such aching tenderness that her eyes went damp again. “We’d both like to show you just how we feel,” AJ said, walking her backwards to the bedroom. “Our feelings are complicated and intense, so it will take a while.”

“Cleveland is playing — you were looking forward to it.”

“I’m in love with a woman who keeps the ESPN schedule in her head, shots like a marine, and wears designer suits like a second skin,” he said wonderingly. “I am a lucky man.”

Toni started popping the buttons on her blouse, revealing skin and black lace. “You can get luckier.”

Later, they ate overstuffed sandwiches while seated on the wrecked bed. Toni had stolen AJ’s shirt and he’d distracted her from finding pants so between them they wore enough clothing to keep one person from being arrested.

“So,” AJ said once hunger was sated, “how was your day?”

Toni laughed. “You asshole.”

“Now, is that any way to talk to someone you admit to loving?” He set their plates and glasses on the floor.

“It is when you love an asshole.” They lay down and he arranged her over his chest. “No one who knows you would even believe what a cuddler you are.”

“That’s the point of being a hardass.” He settled one hand under her shirt, stroking his thumb over her spine. Toni sighed and rested her cheek over his heart. “It wasn’t because of you.”

“Ziva and Tim?”

His hum of agreement echoed through his chest and in her ear. “Of course the way they treated you pissed me off, but today wasn’t personal. I know you can fight your own battles.”

“It might not have been personal for you, but they certainly took it that way.” The tension at the base of her skull that had vanished once again throbbed as she thought of the afternoon. Her teammates had slunk in the bullpen minutes after she and Gibbs had returned; McGee had been a stuttering wreck of resentment and self-pity while Ziva had been blank-faced and furious. The whole afternoon had been a slow boil of her temper, full of slamming drawers and baleful stares. Gibbs had kicked them both out half an hour early with the promise of a full day of PT if they didn’t stow the attitude. “What did you say to them?”

“Word for word or in general?”

“Just the highlights.”

“That laughing at any aspect of a miscarriage of justice demonstrated a lack of respect for the judicial system and their colleagues within it and they may as well be laughing in the faces of everyone involved. And that if they were in uniform, I’d have them before a disciplinary board.”

“They’ll be unbearable for weeks,” she sighed.

“Toni.” She lifted her head at his tone, finding a serious look on his face. “You have to deal with this and now. It’s not just you that they feel comfortable disrespecting, it’s anyone they feel superior to. It’s dangerous for you, them, and everyone else.”

“I know. Gibbs and I are already stocking up on coffee and aspirin in anticipation of the headaches from the bitching. We’ve worked out a strategy.” AJ raised a brow and she smirked. “For starters, Gibbs isn’t going to give them any orders or directions — everything comes from me. Arguing or complaining gets them a stern reminder of the differences in rank.”

“KP duty. I like it.”

“Yeah, but cop style — dumpster diving, paperwork, errand running and every probie duty including the things we tend to split evenly among the team.” She ran a hand along his side, fingertips finding the pucker of an old bullet scar beneath his ribs. “And strict adherence to the chain of command and professionalism. If Ziva and McGee are going to take advantage of the more casual atmosphere of the team, they get to experience what it would be like without it.”

“Going to play the hardass, darling?”

“Hey, I can be a hardass!” She pinched him lightly in retaliation for the amusement in his tone.

“No doubt, but it’s not your natural inclination. You prefer to cajole or have people think that doing what you want is their own idea. It’s how you manage Gibbs.”

Toni frowned a little, always disconcerted when someone could see through her, though it also gave her a warm and fuzzy feeling that he understood her so well. “How do you figure I manage you, then?”

“With sex.”

“I don’t hear any complaints!”

She abruptly found herself on her back with a two-star draped over her, hips cradled by her thighs. AJ smirked down at her. “Darling, if I ever complain about that you can take me straight to Bethesda to have my head examined.”

“Bully.” Thumbs hooked in the waistband of his sweatpants and pushed it down. “If you’re going to manhandle me, Admiral, I expect an orgasm out of it.”

“Bossy.” One of her legs was caught in the crook of his elbow, opening her up so he could slide his dick in her.

“You like it,” she managed on a gasp as he thrust deeply. “Don’t even deny it.”

“Toni. Shut up.”

“Why don’t you — oh! — make me?”

He caught her other knee and pushed her legs up and out, and began fucking her with long, hard thrusts. “With pleasure, darling.”

He did, and it was.

Toni opened one bleary eye, registered the hand and the coffee cup it held and shut it again. “Thanks, Boss.”

“I warned you about drinking with a marine.”

Since it seemed unlikely that her head would fall off, she lifted her head off her desk. Fishing a bottle of painkillers from a drawer, she downed four with the first sip of coffee. “It wasn’t the marine so much as the tequila shots.” Which had seemed like a great idea after two hours of drinking and talking with Sarah Mackenzie. As had confessing who she was sleeping with — a revelation that had lead to the shots.

“You’ve got twenty minutes to get your game face on,” he warned.

“No showing vulnerability to the junior agents,” Toni agreed. Since this was day four of the unified attitude adjustment that she and Gibbs were laying down, Toni wasn’t about to risk undercutting her own authority by giving McGee or Ziva something to target. And, based on the last few days — and years — they would.

True to their plan, Gibs hadn’t given McGee or Ziva a single order, leaving Toni to run the team while he dealt with outsiders. Moreover, Gibbs hadn’t given her any orders within their hearing, so they were aware that she was the one in charge. They’d had one new case — a missing Pentagon official who had died of natural causes — and she and Gibbs had run the investigation as partners while using the team as probies. Then Toni had managed the team in the office while Gibbs disappeared into MTAC for an afternoon.

Toni wanted to say it was working and that two smart people could catch a clue, but she tried not to lie to herself. McGee hesitated at every order, looking around as if expecting someone to appear and overrule Toni; Ziva had asked, twice, when things would return to normal. Abby was little help, offering commiseration to the duo and repeatedly advising them to play along until everything blew over — treating the changes like a temporary aberration instead of a lesson.

So far, there had been no blowback from SecNav though the director seemed to be lingering on the mezzanine more than usual. McGee hadn’t noticed and if Ziva had she didn’t care, but Toni was painfully aware of each disrespectful comment and passive-aggressive question that Vance witnessed.

“Cold case review today?” Toni asked after her coffee was gone and maximum humanity was achieved.

“Yeah, but there will be a few extra bodies.” Toni frowned because that was the first she’d heard of it and because Gibbs looked amused, which never boded well for someone. “A couple of probies from Norfolk are in for cross training. You get them today for case reviews, procedural review and field reports.”

“Because I’ve done so well training McGee and Ziva on those things that I get an audience to watch as I try to get experienced investigators to do their jobs without acting like petulant teenagers.”

“Nope. McGee and Ziva are the audience — they get to see you teaching people who want to learn instead of question.”

“And you’ll be watching the show, I presume,” she sighed.

“Firearm and fitness assessment this afternoon. McGee will help.” She choked on a laugh. Gibbs’ smirk said everything about the roll McGee would play in hand-to-hand training. “Ziva has an appointment with Legal for a review of her liaison status, so she’ll miss out.”

“Oh, that’s cold, boss. I like it.”

“You don’t stop smiling so much, and you’ll be next,” Gibbs said with a glower.

She gave him a bright grin. “What’s wrong with my smile?”

“You’re doing it too much.”

“Don’t you want me to be happy?”

“Be happy in private.” Toni laughed and he glared at her. “Not what I meant.”

“Oh, I know.” Amused, she toned down the smile. It was something she’d done a lot of lately, despite the difficulties in the team, hence Gibbs’ complaint. “Sorry, boss. Won’t do it again, boss.”

“Uh huh.” Despite his disbelieving tone, he smiled. “Save it for someone who appreciates it.”

The elevator chimed; Ziva and McGee arrived, cutting it close. Any softness in Gibbs vanished as he glared. “You two have one minute to be at your desks!”

“We are not late,” Ziva argued, walking faster.

“You’re late if I say you are.”

McGee slunk past Toni’s desk as Ziva slammed dropped her weapon in a drawer with a clatter and slammed the drawer. The sound cut through Toni’s head and she decided there wasn’t enough coffee or aspirin in the world.

Ten minutes before the close of day, Toni’s desk phone rang. By the third ring, she had finished cursing in her head and regained enough control to answer with a calm “Agent DiNozzo.”

“Toni, it’s Cynthia. Director Vance would like your team in his office.”

Son-of-a— “I understand. Right away?”

“At your earliest convenience. I know it’s nearly time to leave; the director doesn’t think this will take too long.”

She hung up after thanking the director’s secretary. It didn’t escape her that the call had come to her rather than Gibbs and she wondered if that was Cynthia’s decision or Vance’s direction. The whole building was ripe with gossip on the goings-on of the MCRT lately and either was possible.


“The director wants us,” she told Gibbs. “All of us,” she emphasised to a nervous McGee and sour-looking Ziva.

“It’s nearly close on a Friday and we aren’t on call this weekend,” McGee complained.

“If that’s your primary concern, McGeek,” Toni began, rising and straightening her jacket.

“Should have picked a different line of work,” Gibbs cut in.

“That’s not —”

“Enough chatter,” Toni said. “Let’s move.” A sharp look at Ziva had the liaison rising from her chair reluctantly. “It’s rude to keep him waiting.”

Cynthia waved them through the open door and continued to work away on her computer. Vance was bent over a stack of papers and working on it as industriously as he was his habitual toothpick.

“Get the door, Agent DiNozzo.”

“Yes, sir,” Toni said and closed the office door.

Vance ignored them for another minute while he finished, leaving them to wait. McGee began fidgeting while Ziva and Gibbs stood at ease. Toni watched the Navy Yard pass by the director’s window, using the distraction to keep herself still.

Finally, the director sat back and studied them all, discarding his toothpick and retrieving a fresh one from the container on his desk. “Agent DiNozzo, how would you say that the attitude adjustment is going?”

McGee inhaled shakily, finally realizing that recent events were not a secret from anyone. Ziva stiffened then immediately relaxed into a loose stance.

“Slowly, sir, but I have hope.”


“Gonna take a while, and possibly a few hard knocks.”

“I do not understand why —”

“I didn’t ask you, Officer David,” Vance cut in, not even looking at Ziva. “Your opinion is irrelevant.”

“Director —”

“Stand down,” Toni said sharply.

Ziva turned and glared. “I do not take orders from you and I am entitled to speak my mind, am I not? That is the first amendment, yes?”

“No, it means that you can’t be punished by the government for expressing your ideas and beliefs — it does not entitle you to an audience or require anyone to respect your opinion. All of which is irrelevant,” Toni added, “seeing as you aren’t an American. Now, be quiet. You can be dismissed, Officer,” she added when Ziva tried to speak again.

“Make that more than a few knocks,” Gibbs told Vance, ignoring Ziva entirely.


“Are you ignoring an order from a superior?”

Apparently, some of the last few days had managed to sink into that stubborn hide because Ziva finally fell silent, staring at the wall behind Vance sullenly.

“Anything to add, Agent McGee,” Vance asked mildly, his face tight.

Not even McGee could miss the danger there and he stammered out a response. “I — sir — no — n-no, sir.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” He leaned back in his seat again. “Gibbs, you’ll have Agents Langer and Lee assigned to your team for the interim. Langer is due for a promotion to Senior Field Agent and the experience on the MCRT will be valuable, and Lee did quite well under DiNozzo’s training.”

“How long?” Gibbs asked as Ziva frowned and McGee looked confused.

“Six to eight weeks.” Moving his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, Vance turned a sharp look on the junior agents. “That’s the duration of their punishment.”


“Wh—? W-w-why?”

“Be grateful,” Vance said dangerously. “I had to talk SecNav down from full, formal reprimands and temporary suspensions.” Toni closed her eyes and sighed. “Surprised, DiNozzo?”

“Sir, I was hopeful that SecNav would consider the matter addressed and be willing to let it go,” Toni answered. “Under the circumstances.”

“I never took you for an optimist, DiNozzo. The circumstances are the only reason he isn’t here himself to deliver a dress-down that would make the one Chegwidden gave you two look like a light scold. Yes,” he told them, “I’m aware of that as well.”

“I do not understand. We have been reprimanded and we are being punished by having to listen to Toni — why are we to be given a further punishment?” Ziva demanded.

“Because your behaviour was inappropriate, insulting, and embarrassing for this agency!” Vance was on his feet, hands supporting him as he leaned over the desk. “Because you acted like a pair of teenagers in front of a two-star admiral and the Secretary of the Navy! And because your current team circumstances aren’t a punishment — they’re a permanent change in tone and a perfectly reasonable way to manage a team. As for your actual punishment — it’s not only to teach you both a damned lesson, it’s to make examples of you to the entire agency.”

Straightening and tugging his jacket, Vance glared. “I do not appreciate being called to Secretary Davenport’s office over the sophomoric behaviour of a pair of professionals who should know better.”

“What’s going to happen?” McGee managed to stammer out.

“Rather than send you both home for a week to sit on your asses and learn nothing, you will be given an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and be of benefit to the agency. Agent McGee,” Vance picked up a slim file and held it out. “The agency is undergoing a network and system upgrade, starting here at the Yard. You will be assigned to Tech Services to assist in the upgrades at this office and Norfolk. I’m sure it will instructive and useful to your job.”

“Tech Services?” McGee swallowed and flipped open the file.

It was a smart use of McGee’s skills, while also ensuring someone with an agent’s perspective was involved in any changes that occurred with the computer system. Far better than to send him to Cyber Crimes amongst people who treated McGee like some kind of geek god.

Meanwhile, Vance handed Ziva a similar file. She opened it and frowned. “FLETC? Why am I to be sent there?”

“It’s time to address an oversight in your liaison position. Since you have no previous experience in law enforcement or an American agency, you should have been sent to FLETC to do a short course before you were given your current post. That was waved in favour of on-the-job training but, since there has clearly been a failure in that department, you will now attend that course.”

“So I am to be sent to school? For how long?” Ziva demanded.

Vance glared at her for a moment, until she eased back. “As is stated in your documentation, six weeks.” When Ziva went to argue, Vance spoke over her. “Failure to complete the course with satisfactory marks will result in a suspension of your liaison status until it can be corrected.”

“What about Toni’s punishment?” Ziva asked. “She arrested the wrong man.”

“First of all, if I was to reprimand or punish Agent DiNozzo — which I am not,” he added coolly, “I would not do so in front of junior agents. Have you ever seen me reprimand Gibbs?”

“Why would Gibbs get a reprimand?” McGee asked naively.

The man in question snorted; Toni pinched the bridge of her nose, torn between laughing and banging her head against something hard. “Everyone gets a reprimand at some point in their career, McGee, even if it’s just for pissing off the people in charge. Also, we are talking about Gibbs.”


“Do you want a list of every policy, rule and guideline that Gibbs has bent or broken, Agent McGee?” Vance asked drily. “Or every base commander, politician, lawyer or lobbyist he’s infuriated by doing his job with all the finesse of a brick tossed through a window? The marine commandant has called to complain about his lack of tact four times in the last year. I’ve reprimanded or called out Gibbs more than the rest of the agents in this office combined. It’s just usually informally because the results speak for themselves.”

“Oh,” McGee said meekly.

“Indeed,” Vance said. “And I don’t do it in front of anyone who answers to him or beneath him in rank — which is everyone assigned to this office currently — because that undermines the chain of command. Which is why if I was ever to need to reprimand DiNozzo, you two would never witnesses it, or even hear about it.

“As for the arrest of Renny Grant and the recent case, what you still seem to fail to realize is that this is not about a wrongful arrest. It happens — as do wrongful convictions. The system is by no means perfect. Everyone in this room has, at some point in their career, arrested an innocent person. The reason you two are being singled out is because of your reaction and behaviour.” Vance gave them one more glare before continuing. “Agent McGee, you will report to Tech Services on Monday. Officer David, your course begins a week Monday and you will have three days next week to make arrangements. NCIS will, of course, put you up for the duration of your training.”


“Your course is in South Carolina. You two are dismissed,” Vance added before Ziva could explode.

As the door closed — with far too much force — Vance sat down and told Gibbs, “This is your damned fault, Gibbs.”

“Sir, I can —”

“Stay, DiNozzo.”

“So much for not reprimanding me in front of my subordinates,” Gibbs said, clearly amused.

“She’s the only one in the agency you listen to with any frequency,” Vance growled, “and if she doesn’t know your faults by now, she’s not half the investigator you say she is. If you didn’t run around DC and the surrounding states — not to mention every base and ship in the navy — disregarding every rule and rank that you find inconvenient, Gibbs, I wouldn’t have a junior agent and a liaison who think they can get away with bad behaviour in front of SecNav and back talking me in my own office! They’ve learned their bad habits from you, Gibbs, and I want them fixed before the agency loses their skills. If I have to cut them loose, I’ll take it out of your hide .” He huffed and discarded his toothpick. “Now go away. And don’t let your close rate drop while you have Langer and Lee! It drives the FBI director crazy that none of his people can beat it and I don’t intend to deal with his gloating over poker.”

“Good talk, Leon.”

AJ was waiting for Toni when Secretary Davenport sat down across from him. “Fancy seeing you here, Chegwidden.”

It wasn’t a surprise to find Davenport in an elegant restaurant in one of the city’s best hotels. Washington DC was a city of hotels and more business was done in the private conference rooms and dining rooms than in actual offices. Davenport was carrying a drink and had wandered over from the direction of the bar. AJ had chosen to wait at the table rather than belly up there for a drink. “Sir.”

“Business or pleasure?”


“Oh?” Davenport raised a brow. “Not a first date, I take it. Not in this place.”

Resigned, AJ nodded. “No, sir.”

He huffed. “Cut out the ‘sir’, AJ, we aren’t at work. Even if you are still in uniform. Does this mean I can tell Barbara to stop introducing you to every suitable woman in her acquaintance?” he asked, referring to his wife.

Thinking of the woman’s attempts to set him up, AJ’s response was more heartfelt than polite. “That would be appreciated, Phillip. Though it would have been nicer if you’d done it five years ago.”

“You might be a friend, AJ, but I have to live with Barb.” Davenport sipped his drink, leaning back in the chair. “Of course, you’ll make her year if you’ve actually made a go at it with someone she put in your way. Do I know her?”

“You know her, but Barbara doesn’t.”

“Oh? Navy, then?”

“Civilian, technically.” Seeing the look on Davenport’s face, AJ knew he wasn’t ducking out of the details. “She’s with NCIS, Phillip.”

“Really? Norfolk or the Navy Yard, I assume.” He raised his glass again and then paused. “Wait a minute . . . damn, AJ.”

“Phillip,” he sighed.

“DiNozzo? Gibbs’ girl?”

“I think she prefers to be known as Gibbs’ senior agent,” AJ corrected, well aware of how often Toni was referred to in just that way and with more innuendo.

His correction was waved away by Davenport, who was still looking at AJ with surprise. “Well, that puts a recent meeting in perspective.”

“I would have responded the same way, regardless of any personal connection, sir.”

“Of course,” Davenport agreed, the return to formality signalling AJ’s irritation with the implication. “But I did notice that you weren’t just irritated or angry, but truly pissed off.”

“For several reasons.”

“No doubt. DiNozzo, huh?” He shook his head. “I don’t know whether I should congratulate you or be shocked. You must have twenty years on her. Not that I blame you, the woman is a knockout.”    

“Sixteen years.” Over Davenport’s shoulder, AJ caught sight of a familiar face. “And yes, she is beautiful.”

“Damn, AJ, you ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Davenport chuckled.

“I can assure you, sir, that he has nothing to be ashamed of.”

AJ rose to his feet as Toni spoke and Davenport, turning to catch sight of her, followed his lead. Her long-sleeved dress covered her from collar to below the knees and would have been demure if not for the rich wine colour, the sleek fit, and the slit that rose high on her thigh.

“Sorry I’m late, AJ,” she added, stepping up to him and accepting a chaste kiss. “Should we ask for a third chair?”

“Not at all,” Davenport said, stepping back. “I’ll leave you to your evening AJ, Agent.” Behind her back, Davenport waggled his eyebrows. AJ was torn between laughing and telling him off.

“Mr Secretary.” When he wandered out of sight, Toni sighed. “The epitome of the old boy’s club in human form.”

“You aren’t wrong,” AJ agreed. “If we’d been in private, he would have congratulated me for snagging you.”

“Shows what he knows.” She took her seat and a waiter appeared immediately, menus and wine list in hand. “I snagged you.”

“Going to keep me, darling?”

Opening her menu, she looked at him over the top of it. “Yes, I think I am.”